Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Brief Introduction to Early WDW Music

This post is intended to be exactly what the title states: a brief overview. Those who have downloaded and read my expanded notes to A Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World will already be well ahead on this topic, but for the rest of my readers some preliminaries are in order.

Starting shortly on this blog I'm going to begin an ongoing series about the music which constituted the very earliest in-park background music, or BGM, at the Magic Kingdom as well as topics relating to it.

It's generally my goal to allow others to disprove me, if necessary, in future research, so consider this the start of a paper trail in which I'm going to reveal some very specific and obscure information. Please remember: myself, and my friends who helped me gather, compile and post this information, are human too, and can and possibly have made mistakes. Some of the conclusions you'll see me coming to could probably not be defended in a court of law and are based on interpretation of certain known factors. As you'll shortly be seeing, even sometimes obvious conclusions can turn out to be very, very wrong in the strange, murky world of early theme park background music.

So what is early background music and how do we know about it? It's time to...

Meet Jack Wagner
If you spent any time going to Walt Disney World or Disneyland in the 70s, 80s, or 90s you know that Jack Wagner's voice was ubiquitous. You heard this man's voice everywhere. Inside monorails, Peoplemovers, at ticket booths, during ride breakdowns, for parade announcements, and more. His voice is the one which, having been run through a synthesizer, provides the opening announcement for the Main Street Electrical Parade. Jack Wagner also voices the two most famous bilingual safety announcements of all time: "Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor manténganse alejado de las puertas" and "Remain seated please; permanecer sentados por favor."

Wagner had been an actor, a radio player, and a disc jockey. Of interest to Disneyland fans is his long-running “Silver Platter Service” pre-recorded radio broadcasts of performances and interviews with Capitol Records performing artists, which are very much like the well-rounded audio experiences he would craft for Disney. Wagner’s experience in radio, voice over, music rights and clearances and compilations made him uniquely suited to what Disney was asking him to do. In fact, his one-man operation was completely unique in the industry.
"But there is more to Wagner's unusual occupation than discoursing for Disney. His voice has proven so distinctive that a growing number of corporations, police departments, airports and schools are paying to use it for their own purposes.

Wagner also is a versatile sound engineer with a knack for shortcuts and money-saving recording techniques that have made him popular among producers in the growing field of taped musical productions and video marketing presentations.

The same voice that tells the Tinkerbell story each night also hawks everything from weapons systems to pharmaceutical equipment.

For example, it was Wagner's voice, recorded against a backdrop of James Bond music, that pitched to Pentagon officials a proposal to purchase dune buggies loaded with rocket launchers and machine guns for desert warfare. The armored vehicles are made by International Ordnance Systems, a Los Angeles defense contractor. Hardly the stuff of bedtime fairy-tales." Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1988
 Walt Disney Productions outfitted Jack’s Anaheim ranch house fully with sophisticated audio and video recording apparatus wired directly to Disneyland. If Disneyland was to close early that day due to rain or fog, Wagner could create a new recording to be played in the park in his on-site recording studio and it could be playing inside Disneyland within minutes. He recorded announcements about ticket prices, special programming, events, and attraction spiels. His voice was the voice of Disneyland, and it would soon become the voice of Walt Disney World, too.

But Jack's influence stretched even further than that. Although Disney hired Wagner in 1970 as a contractor to act as their in-house announcer, his tasks also came to include overseeing practically all musical components of the Disney outdoor entertainment empire.

Working from his house, Jack Wagner essentially invented the idea of theme park background music as we know it today and set many of the stylistic conventions. There almost certainly was music that played at Disneyland in Walt's era, such as the Tiki Room "Lanai music", "When You Wish Upon a Star" inside Sleeping Beauty Castle, and the dozens of unique soundtracks and sound effects for the attractions. Still, there were then and remain areas of Disneyland with no formal continuously running musical underscore, such as Tomorrowland and New Orleans Square, but the Magic Kingdom in Florida was intended from the start to have continual orchestral accompaniment in every area. This was Wagner's task, and very possibly why he was hired in the first place.

Record from the Disneyland Sound Archive shows Wagner's notations for Tokyo Disneyland selections

Wagner's job was to work directly with record companies on behalf of Disney to clear specific pieces of music for broadcast inside a theme park - and he must have gotten them for good terms, because some of those pieces he cleared back in the 70s still play on today. Checking off tracks on the back of record sleeves, Jack obtained the clearances for his desired pieces of music - sometimes entire albums, sometimes just a single song. From there he would compile these pieces of music onto reels of magnetic tape, each following a specific theme... "Marches", "Polynesian", "Ragtime", etc. When Disney asked for a new piece of music to play at a specific shop, venue or even special event, all Jack had to do was work off his reels of cleared music and put together a new piece of BGM, or "music loop".

The masters were delivered directly to the Disneyland Sound Department in the Carousel of Progress building, who then would either send the magnetic tape off to Florida or start transferring the music themselves. Masters would wear out over time, requiring Wagner to compile new masters based on his notes or to come up with new pieces of BGM. As these magnetic tapes were retired or thrown out, they would circulate into the hands of collectors, which is how some of the early BGM tracks reach us today.

The broadcast standard for music had shifted throughout the 50s - as the complexity of radio broadcasts increased, it became impractical to have a half dozen turntables simply to play radio spots and station ads, and by the 60s the broadcast standard had become magnetic tape audio carts, like the Fidelipac one seen at the right. These could be custom cut to any length, would repeat endlessly, and were cue able by means of electronic tones which could either stop the tape, start it back up, or cue a second audio cart to start playing. This media format provided the recorded narration for monorails, ferry boats, show breakdowns, and more.

According to a 1969 press release, RCA contributed all of the speakers and playback devices used in the construction of Walt Disney World. Whether or not this is true (it was RCA themselves making the announcement, after all), and you can be sure that at least some of those devices were built to Disney's exact specifications. Below is a bank of custom machines based on the Fidelipac model below ground at the Magic Kingdom. These machines, each processing a single reel of magnetic tape capable of housing many channels of sound, could be synchronized to control the audio of a single complex attraction like Pirates of the Caribbean. They're something like extremely fancy variants of  familiar 8-track tape decks.

Custom audio cart playback machines in Magic Kingdom's DACs Central, mid 70s

Music that did not need to be kept synchronized was treated differently. Disneyland and Walt Disney World used the more familiar one-inch reel-to-reel tapes for in-park music. BGM has always been (and remains) mono sound, because Disney liked to use each stereo channel of a magnetic tape for different pieces of background music - the Main Street USA and Main Entrance music, for example, emanated from the left and right channels of a single reel of magnetic tape stored beneath the train station at Disneyland. The "banjo music" and "haunted caverns music" in Pirates of the Caribbean played from the same tape, and this remained the case even during the CD conversion of the 90s and the data chips which play theme park music today.

(Thanks to ColanderCombo, in the comments below, for helping clarify this section)


Interpreting Data
It's important to have this information handy because otherwise one could incorrectly interpret the extremely mystifying sets of data offered by some of these early background music loops. For example, because Wagner liked to create hour-long pieces of music for most of this career, one could conclude that some of the early loops are fraudulent or incomplete because they're also not an hour long.

In reality, because the in-park magnetic tapes were custom cut for each piece, they could be and often were any old length. The one-hour convention - still adhered to today - seems to have developed for two reasons. The first is that Wagner liked to use Scotch magnetic tapes to deliver his audio masters to Disneyland, no doubt because of the machine he had at his disposal back home. These tapes could house thirty minutes of music playing forwards and another thirty minutes playing backwards. The more songs he licensed, the more he could charge Disney for his services - so Jack had good incentive to fill the whole tape.

Reel from Jack's archive - WaltsMusic.Com

The one-hour convention isn't necessarily a technological limitation on Disney's part. As technology has changed, the way these BGM loops are constructed has changed. Many hotels at Walt Disney World use CD changers loaded with six CDs set to "random", resulting in six to eight hour background loops of no particular "order". Other hotels seem to have licensed many many hours of music tracks, arranged them alphabetically by title in iTunes, and called it a day.

Wagner was at least extremely scrupulous in his selections and often eclectic in his tastes. Once one has had enough experience retracing Wagner's steps, you start to be able to suss out what his methods were. As a result, I can offer these general principles I try to follow when looking at Wagner's early-era background loops:

- No choice is too obscure. If Wagner liked the sound of a piece of music, he would license it, and sometimes only it. Some of his choices are extremely surprising, such as playing "Theme From Minnie's Boys" from the album Appearing Nightly at the Piano by Merv Griffith on Main Street, USA. Jack seems to have loved that one, dropping it into his Main Street loops for Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland. It fits very well. Who knew?

- Reuse, Reuse, Reuse. Once Wagner had completed a loop to his satisfaction, he rarely saw need to change it. Of all the areas in the Magic Kingdom, Tomorrowland's music changed the most between 1971 and 1993 - three times. In the mid-70s as Wagner increased the length and ambition of several pieces of music, even then he went out of his way to expand out the existing loops to a full hour. Some pieces of music repeated several times across the two parks and hotels. Pieces of music which appeared in the 1971 Sunshine Pavilion BGM track pop up again in the Disneyland Tiki Room Lanai loop for 1976. Pieces of music already recorded and owned by Disney were always used, such as the Main Entrance loop which pulled heavily from titles in the Disneyland Records portfolio. In many ways Wagner was extremely economical in his choices.

- Expand, not contract. Similar to the point above, but still worth noting: Wagner generally reused as much of his early work as possible. it's therefore possible to find traces of earlier loops in more recent ones, such as the bones of the 1973 Frontierland loop in the 1976 one. His 1989/1990 "New Age" Tomorrowland track supplied music still used today at Epcot - and which had its roots in music licensed and compiled for Tokyo Disneyland in 1983.

- No BGM was too obscure. This is a dangerous game to play, but it seems that Wagner created more loops than are strictly necessary, simply because Disney paid him as a contractor per work done. As a result he put together BGM loops for almost every shop and every restaurant at Disneyland and Walt Disney World - unique ones. As the BGM playback system modernized in the late 80s, many of these loops were removed and replaced with the general area music. This may help explain why we sometimes run into hints of things like two Adventureland Veranda loops - he made more than was needed.

It's a ludicrously complex maze, and one I'm still navigating. In the best situations, we have consistent loops from multiple sources and eras and dated live recordings. Tokyo Disneyland, which has changed their music the least of all the Disney parks and still uses many Wagner compilations from 1983, is also a useful source and one which is very well documented. Home videos on YouTube are invaluable clues. In the worst, you'll see me doing some "informed speculation". We may never know all the answers, but I do hope to dispel some longstanding rumors and provide an interesting glimpse at the sound of early Walt Disney World.

Hope to hear you soon!

Where it all happened... Jack Wagner's Anaheim "Studio". Set on Imagur

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Long Look at Tom Sawyer Island


Tom Sawyer Island is one of the very best attractions at Magic Kingdom.

Yes, you read that correctly. At Magic Kingdom, the park that contains the highest number of attractions per square acre that represent why people go to that crazy Walt Disney World anyway, in a park featuring such brilliant and hauntingly beautiful creations as the Haunted Mansion and 1971 Jungle Cruise, a low-tech oddity like Tom Sawyer Island can still go up against timeless classics and the newest of the new.

I sometimes hear scoffs about that, but it's always from people who haven't seen Tom Sawyer Island, which is not the same as saying they haven't been - because to see Tom Sawyer Island means it has to seep into you, you have to let it into dark spaces where your mind doesn't often travel. One can raft across to the island, disembark, walk around for twenty minutes and leave without actually seeing a darn thing - without looking past the tip of her nose.

Tom Sawyer Island is essentially a collection of low-tech gags that build to an imaginative space of astonishing richness. Many of the gags could've been thought up and installed by almost any theme park - but they weren't. Like the best Disney special effects, the disarming transparent simplicity of the Island gags encourage our imaginations to fill in the blanks - and that's how it gets to us.

Tom Sawyer Island is one of the very last flowerings of a primal mode of themed design representation which most closely resembles a magic trick - rather, misdirection. A speaker and light in the right place can populate a cave with Pirates, or a staircase rising to a sealed door creates an imaginary room. These simple images engage our conscious imagination and create highly pleasurable illusions. This is, to me, what themed design is all about at its best - the scribble in the margin that so enriched rides like Horizons and If You Had Wings. The Island is rich with texture and detail, from the uneven "earth" pathways to the rock-edged waterfalls and babbling brooks.

Tom Sawyer Island is a fantastic place to observe one of the major structural concepts which underlines every Disneyland-style theme park: the dynamic of control versus chaos. Disney creates real-feeling environments where, unlike our unordered cities or uncivilized countrysides, everything has been placed for specific aesthetic effect - from the tiniest white rock to the color of the water in the fake lakes. This effect is especially pervasive at Walt Disney World, where everything as far as the eye can see both inside and outside the theme parks has been placed there by Disney. But while this is pleasing and reassuring, it's also unnatural, and part of our mind draws back. To contrast this  uncanny effect, Disney creates spaces inside their attractions where their orderly world appears to break down and Things Go Horribly Wrong.

Of course, just as it's a carefully controlled illusion of perfection in the theme park, it's a carefully controlled illusion of peril - Brer Fox is an animated chunk of metal and fiberglass and nobody has yet perished from riding a log down Chikapin Hill. Just as we suspend our disbelief in admiration as we walk down Main Street, we suspend our disbelief in gratitude as we pretend to think we're in danger on Big Thunder Mountain.

There are few attractions where the sense of rules having been suspended is as pervasive or effective as it is on Tom Sawyer Island, especially in those caves, where we almost think that we won't make it out again. The Magnetic Mystery Mine, where physics become disturbingly unhinged, or the Escape Tunnel, which is narrow enough to give many adults momentary panic attacks. We run, saunter, shput, tremble, snooze, or daydream on Tom Sawyer Island - we tromp through the flowerbeds, get wet, step off the pathways, shoot fake guns, and generally get away with things. And there are few places where we feel as genuinely unchaperoned- and alone.

Why does Tom Sawyer Island feel so uninhibited? Part of it, I suspect, is symbolic - we take a raft to get there, and therefore experience a physical transition to another place - we feel as though we're outside the theme park, and no longer governed by its rules. Thus the (highly engineered, it's worth noting) adventures we experience take on an ominous undercurrent - not because they are dangerous, but they could be. Just as Mark Twain wrote a fantasy version of his childhood from the perspective of an adult, Tom Sawyer Island zips us right back to the "once upon a time" of a dimly remembered childhood afternoon when we went exploring - an ingrained cultural memory that maybe very few of us ever actually did. But it's a evergreen myth - from Tom Sawyer to Little Nemo to Stand By Me and The Goonies.

No other attraction makes exclusive use of daylight in quite the same way, which is probably why Tom Sawyer Island closes at dusk - although at Magic Kingdom, in particular, a very large number of lights and lanterns have been positioned on the island to illuminate it at night so that it appears to be real place, or at least enough of a real place to have a continued existence after we leave it. But maybe Tom Sawyer Island is most impressive for being basically unlit - scenes like Harper's Mill ask us to step into dim rooms and strain to make out the details - just as in life. Even the caverns mostly refrain from theatrical lighting - if we see a light, it's from a lantern or a torch. The rest is allowed to fall off into obscurity.There is also a remarkably simplistic sound design - next to no music, and the bulk of the sound effects are motivated by a source that can be seen. If we hear birds, they probably are real birds. This contributes to the feeling of being unrehearsed and overall quite different than the carefully crafted, lit, and scored world of the rest of the theme park in general.

These reasons alone are enough to argue for the continued preservation of this remarkable attraction, but, as always, there are more.

Although it probably seemed a lot less special in 1973, today Old Scratch's Mystery Mine is notable for being a very well preserved example of a homespun American original - an attraction which once proliferated across the country and made good use of simple perspective tricks - the Mystery Hill or Mystery Spot. The most famous one still operating today is in Santa Cruz, California, although Old Scratch's Mystery Mine is more likely inspired by the Haunted Shack at Knott's Berry Farm.

The Mine is a creative interpretation of this traditional roadside attraction, as well. Since the attraction has no host or guide which is required for the various scale and perspective illusions of something like the Knott's Haunted Shack, the Disney version uses visual and sensory grammar to make sense of its illusions. An entry tunnel gradually increases in pitch although its walls appear to remain upright, making the audience feel as if they are being pulled to the left, while an ominous humming, the sound of the mystery magnets, can be heard. Inside the main room, a sluice placed under a trickle of water seems to run uphill into a barrel, and a small indoor waterfall becomes a river running upstream towards a formation of jewels which juts out of the wall, shaped like the profile of a man. The entire room is tilted, making travel unsteady and forcing viewers to lean towards the magnetic jewels. The final room is a variation on a traditional scene in classic dark rides such as those by Bill Tracy - the diminishing mine shaft, where visitors appear to grow larger as they reach the end.

Aunt Polly's in better days, Photo by Al Huffman
Old Scratch's Mystery Mine is, as far as I know, the only "mystery spot" ever built by Disney, and that alone makes it worthy of preservation. Tokyo Disneyland got a version of the Disneyland Island in 1983, after which the attraction stopped being built. Disney literally does not make them like this anymore.

But the entire attraction overall is remarkably unchanged since June 1973, and that itself is a wonder. We can pretty much account for the changes on one hand:
 - The "Explorer's Maps" are no longer handed out at the entrance, although a number of metal versions have been placed around the island to aid navigation.

- After years of spotty service, in 2001 the sign was finally removed from Aunt Polly's Refreshments, meaning the closure of this simple snack stand. In the early days it sold cold sandwiches and soda, and later expanded to include things like potato salad and cold fried chicken.

 - The Cantina in the Fort is no longer the place to go for frozen lemonade. I personally have no memory of this ever being open, so its demise may have been far earlier than Aunt Polly's.

 - The extremely cool "spinning rocks" playground was removed and an off-the-shelf playground designed to look like a "salvage fort" was added a few years earlier. Thankfully, we can still see it being enjoyed by children in pyjamas in the late 80's souvenir video "A Day at the Magic Kingdom".
Left: the merry go round, Right: the teeter-totter / Photos by Al Huffman, 1999

This places Tom Sawyer Island in extremely select company at Magic Kingdom, alongside the Riverboat and Peter Pan's Flight and It's a Small World and the Peoplemover as attractions which substantively have never changed. Who in 1973 would've guessed that Tom Sawyer Island would outlast Country Bear Jamboree or the Tiki Room in their original forms? In June of this year, it will have gone forty blessed years without so much as a Pirate intervention.

Which means it's no time like the present to start documenting it. I recently spent several days on the Island trying to document those things likely to be overlooked when and if the time comes to close it - the winding paths and trails and picnics areas on the hills over Injun Joe's Cave and the two ponds which open into slow moving waterfalls, the Hangman's Steps and Gallows Getaway and Hickory Switch Hill and textures and tones and impressions of a few hours exploring.

It's not intended to be a fast-moving overview, but rather an opportunity to explore and contemplate an attraction rich in fascinations. In other words it's meant to document some of the pleasures I find in this attraction and perhaps preserve something of the atmosphere if the time ever does come to close it.

Why do I think Tom Sawyer Island stands high among WED Enterprises' finest creations? Because it both requires and supplies imagination - a little bit goes a long way. It's the retreat inside the retreat - the ritualistic crossing on the raft, the swaying of rocking chairs, the dapple light through the trees becomes a space which perhaps supplies little if we are not willing to stop, look, and listen, but becomes tremendously real and hauntingly deep. Harper's Mill and Potter's Windmill and Fort Langhorn feel as ancient and real today as anything at Walt Disney World, and the effect can be spooky as well as transcendent - like the rest of the Magic Kingdom was just built around it, and there it remains as it has for perhaps a hundred and fifty years.

That's a convincing illusion. And Tom Sawyer Island, untouched these forty years, still has the power to circulate wild and indomitable energies and rich imaginative constructs, a graceful and lingering prose poem that draws its energy from the lapping of the river which surrounds it - the Magic Kingdom's most successful and beautiful lament for the spirit of a bygone time.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Snapshot: The Plaza Ice Cream Boat Shuffle

What do you do with a mystery that isn't?

The Magic Kingdom is full of dozens of mysterious events, especially in her earliest years. I've been attending the park for decades and studying it seriously for almost ten years now and I'm convinced that we'll never quite know about the dead guy outside the Burning Cabin, or the full story behind the Jungle Cruise queue, or why the rest of Liberty Square wasn't built, or just exactly when Western River Expedition was cancelled.

But those things are different in that those articles detail things that came close to happening, or supposed to have happened, or apparently briefly did happen, then vanished, leaving only circumstantial evidence. Today we have a different kind of puzzle: something that's very well documented, but the reasons behind it happening at all are impossible to guess at. And what's funny is that these events in no way involved a Vacation Kingdom obscurity: they hint towards a secret history of one of the most famous of early Walt Disney World phenomena. It's time to meet the star of our show today:

Courtesy of Nomeus

....a dock.

The date is mid 1971, and the above picture was snapped by a Florida Construction Dad standing on the roof of the still-under-construction Circle-Vision 360 in Tomorrowland. The object of interest is the dock under construction in the foreground; given the date and the general state of readiness evident in all of the other areas of the park, it looks like this spot in particular was rather an afterthought.

What is it? It's the Swan Boat Dock.

This is where, if you know Walt Disney World history, you are free to imagine a loud, zany record scratch. Say What?!? Everyone knows where the real Swan Boat landing is - why, there's whole blogs about what it is! Did you know you can rent it for weddings? Everyone knows that the Swan Boat landing is located just north of the Tomorrowland bridge.

Tom Bricker on Flickr

That's part of the story, yes. And, at the same time, no, it isn't the only Swan Boat Landing. Let's dig into the mystery.

Before we begin, I'd like to cover some basics so we are all on the same page. The Plaza Swan Boats were a slow-moving attraction which plied the waters of the Magic Kingdom's moat from 1973 (maybe) to 1983, at which point Disney retired them permanently. They only ran during the busy summer months, and traveled clockwise around the hub, with a detour into Adventureland to pass the Jungle Cruise and zip around Swiss Family Island. The layout, and loading dock, is pretty clear in this 1974 Magic Kingdom map:


Near the southernmost bank of the loop around the Treehouse, the Swan Boats had a spur line which backed into a shaded structure, shared with the Jungle Cruise, where the boats could be lifted out of the channel and onto dry land to be repaired. Although at this point the Hub moat (ie, Swan Boat ride path) and Jungle Cruise river are only three feet away from each other, the waters never intermingle - they meet at a dam hidden underneath a backstage path to the east of the Jungle Cruise unload point.

Here's a modern satellite photo showing the dual maintenance channels for the Swan Boats (top) and Jungle Cruise (bottom). The brown square sitting out on the Swan Boat channel is actually a break room for the Jungle Cruise, put up in the early 90s.


The Swan Boat Maintenance Bay has always been there. In fact, the Swan Boats appear to have been intended as an opening day attraction. The idea seems to have begun with this 1970 Herb Ryman piece:

via Progress City, USA
Paul Hartley included it in his 1971 "Fun Map" of the Vacation Kingdom, a courtesy he pointedly did not extend to a dozen other things that were planned but didn't make it to opening day, such as all of Tomorrowland. The detail is easy to miss, but it's there:


Again notice the boat's placement and direction of travel. As I've pointed out before, Hartley's illustrations are extremely conservative in terms of visual interpretation, and in most cases he seems to be working directly off elevation blueprints.

In short, the Plaza Swan Boats seemed to be on track to open on October 1971. But they did not.

Let's take a quick look at that dock we saw being built at the top of the post; let's see how it looks today. Here are two aerial views obtained from Bing:


Notice the large, smooth ramp leading from directly off Main Street? If you think it looks like an attraction entrance, you would be right, and in 1971 Disney planted a Swan topiary on either side of that entrance to pave the way for the imminent arrival of the boats:


You can also see the finished yellow and white striped canopy intended to house the queue behind the topiary. Enjoy this view; it's probably the clearest photo of this original arrangement that exists. Also notice that the moat itself is not filled in, which is a giveaway that this is a pre-opening publicity shot.

We can see the dock again in The Magic of Walt Disney World, shot in late 1971:


It's blurry, but notice that Disney seems to have simply thrown a bench right in the middle of the attraction entrance and called it a day. Notice also that the canopy is now surrounded by a wall.

As the camera flies over the hub, we can see what appears to be a Maintenance boat tied up alongside the dock:


Did you notice the area to the left leading away from the Swan Boat dock towards Tomorrowland? This simple curved path and monstrous gap between the Tomorrowland and Main Street buildings would soon be filled in by the Plaza Pavilion restaurant in 1973, but originally it was little but a short wall and some grass. This 1972 photo of the Grand Prix Raceway....


...Affords us a very rare view of this wall as well as the original curved exit path from the Swan Boat Landing leading towards Tomorrowland:


It's hard to tell exactly what's going on at the dock, but the walls appear to be down by now. This short stretch between the two lands, which lasted less than 24 short months, is one of the most difficult areas of the original Magic Kingdom to find photographic evidence of.

So the Boat Dock was put in in 1971 and sat there unused. And this is where our story takes a bizarre and apparently unprovoked detour towards the realm of... ice cream. Because we can't tell this story without telling the story of everything that occurred around it.

Daveland.Com
Above we can see the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor in 1972, looking almost exactly as it does today. And you would be right to think that, except when this photo was taken its interior was almost twice the size it is today. Because strangely enough, we can't tell the story of the Swan Boats without also telling the story of the ice cream parlor across the way.

When it opened in 1971, the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor looked like this on the first year map:



It's sort of hard to tell in this map, but if we go to the Summer 1972 GAF guide, we can see that the Ice Cream Parlor clearly filled the entire block of facades directly to the south of the conspicously absent Swan Boat Dock. It's Number 11 on this map:



A 1976 issue of Walt Disney World Vacationland gives us this rare interior view, although it only hints at what was different about this eatery in those early days:


It's clear, based on the evidence available, that for the first few years of the operation of the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor that the restaurant included a large seating area to its east, on the Tomorrowland side. As I've argued here before, the Magic Kingdom at first experienced a glut of tourists unlike any the company had prepared for - a rapid flow that only the 1974 Energy Crisis could diminish. Confirming this scenario, in February 1972, journalist Edward Prizer wrote in the pages of Orlandoland Magazine:
"Such a deluge of Disneyphiles hasn't been without problems for Disney World itself. Months ago the top men realized they needed more of everything, and fast. But it wasn't like an ordinary amusement park, where you could bring in another ferris wheel or pitch game or two and set them up overnight.

[...]

Even more urgent than the opening of new attractions has been the problem of attending to two of the basic requirements for the park's operation: transportation and feeding. With an average day's crowd, it's been possible to move guests smoothly from the main entrance to the theme park aboard the present monorails, trams, and steamships. But just let a swarm of extra people descend on the place and soon there are long lines waiting to get across to the scene of the action. I've had to wait as long as an hour, myself.

Then, once you're in the park, it has on occasion been a real challenge to get into a restaurant or up to a food counter for some grub to assuage a rampant appetite. All the smiling in the world doesn't pacify a crowd of hungry guests."
True to Prizer's word, we see that by Spring 1973, the Ice Cream Parlor has now added Waitress Service to its lineup:


Presumably the waitress service area took over a spot that was previously an open seating area on the Tomorrowland side. However, the two spaces continued to operate under the same name and share the same space, as seen in this 1972 photograph, where I'm reasonably sure that the small sign over what was previously the seating area still reads "Plaza Ice Cream Parlor":

Thanks to Jeffrey Lipack
As we can see, the Swan Boats were still ostensibly located down by the water near the Parlor. However, the Summer 1973 GAF guide promotes several upcoming attractions:


And just as suddenly, where there had previously been open lawn north of the Tomorrowland Bridge:


The familiar Swan Boat queue and dock suddenly appear on park maps in June 1973:


In Summer 1973, the Plaza Pavilion restaurant opens, requiring the construction of steps to replace the previous gentle "exit ramp" slope, and by December 1973, Vacationland Magazine is depicting the former Swan Boat area as a seating area for the Ice Cream Parlor:


Notice how the yellow and white striped umbrellas, which remain to this day, visually echo the original canopy which stood here.

Today we know the area which was probably once the Ice Cream Parlor seating area as the Plaza Restaurant, and although I've found one mention of the name in a Summer 1976 Vacationland, it doesn't appear in park guides until 1977:


Park maps are still vague about exactly how the two areas interface, showing both "Borden's Ice Cream Parlor" and the "Plaza Restaurant" as a single continuous space, although the overall arrangement is now closer to how we know the park today:


Today, few hints remain of the brief period when the Plaza Restaurant was the seating area for the Ice Cream Shop. The wall that joins the two locations has been filled in:

The door that wasn't
And questions linger on. The current Plaza Restaurant has an Art Nouveau interior worlds away from the plain decoration of the Ice Cream Parlor next door, and quite far removed from the relatively unchanged interior seen in the mid-70s Vacationland interior photo:


Watch that connecting door in the back vanish before your eyes!

The "back" wall of the Plaza Restaurant is raised off an apparent original back wall to allow a place for servers to refill drinks and ring checks. It's more of a simple partition which implies that all of the Art Nouveau niceties were added the same time the partition was. There's also evidence of "In" and "Out" signs above the doors to the back area that have since been wallpapered over. How many interior designs has this space gone through?


But when did this happen? 1973? 1977? Or some later date? When did the "Plaza Restaurant" become the "Plaza Restaurant"? I've combed the pages of countless Eyes and Ears and other official documents without ever turning up a mention of the original change. For that matter, when and why were the two establishments walled off from each other?


For that matter, why on earth would you call the darn thing the Plaza Restaurant when you know it's already sandwiched between two other establishments called the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor (1971) and the Plaza Pavilion (1973)?  The Plaza Pavilion is already such a troublingly generic and forgettable name that most people only know what I'm referring to when you refer to it by it's contemporary name.... The Noodle Station. Which it hasn't been called for five years now.


The Noodle Station is a terrible name, but at least it's memorable. What deficit of creative thought gave us three restaurants with the name "Plaza" as their first word right in a row?

Even more puzzlingly: did the Swan Boats relocate to make room for the additional seating, or did the seating fill in a space vacated for the Swan Boats? Since this is the 1970s, it seems hardly likely that Disney would've relocated an entire attraction just because the construction of the Plaza Pavilion required the substitution of a staircase for a ramp. After all, this was 1973, years before anyone has even thought of the idea of ADA-compliance.

When did the Swan Boats open?

Even a question as basic as "When did the Swan Boats" open - something that seems so basic, so simple - is impossible to answer. The official Disney opening date for the attraction is May 20, 1973, which is great but unfortunately demonstrably wrong. I excluded a paragraph from Edward L. Prizer's Feburary 1972 article above, because I wanted to include it here, where it would have the most impact.
"Such a deluge of Disneyphiles hasn't been without problems for Disney World itself. Months ago the top men realized they needed more of everything, and fast. But it wasn't like an ordinary amusement park, where you could bring in another ferris wheel or pitch game or two and set them up overnight.

Disney attractions are complex packages of planning and engineering talent and meticulous craftsmanship that sometimes take years to perfect. There was just no way to phone back to California and say, "Send us another half a dozen."

In due course, according to previous plans, they did get [Flight to the Moon] and America the Beautiful in operation early this year. They'll be opening Eastern Airlines' "If You Had Wings" around June. Two more shops, Olde World Antiques and Mlle Layafette Parfumerie, have just started doing business. Before too long, swan boats will be launched in the canal that flows around The Hub before Cinderella's Castle."
How long is "before too long"? A month? Two months? A year? Well, it took the Swan Boats a year and a half before they opened.

Maybe.

Now, if you go to the Orlando Public Library, you can look through every Walt Disney World newspaper clipping from the 1970s, including many not in English. And if you do so you will find extensive coverage of the opening of Tom Sawyer Island in June 1973, and absolutely no mention of the Swan Boats except to note that they were expected to be ready "By Summer".

The nearest I can find for an concrete implication of an opening date for the Swan Boats is a single paragraph mention of the boats in a June 1973 issue of Walt Disney World News, which abruptly adds the familiar Swan Boat Dock to the map of the hub, as seen above. The May 1973 issue includes no mention of the boats - despite hyping the imminent opening of Tom Sawyer Island - and no visual representation of the dock.

Everything points to a May or June 1973 opening, which makes it very hard to explain how this photo was appearing in Disney publications as early as 1972:

"Anybody have a map?"
Notice that the boat is moving around the moat counter-clockwise, just as both the Herb Ryman concept art and Paul Hartley map seem to suggest.

The Omnibus passes the original canopy, 1972
Also look all the way to the left of the photo, above the Crystal Palace. That black object that isn't a palm tree? It's a crane, putting up the superstructure for Pirates of the Caribbean. This means this photo was taken sometime between early 1972 and mid 1973, when the Swan Boats finally opened.... traveling the opposite direction around the Hub.

The thing is that this direction of travel makes no sense. The highlight of the Swan Boat journey was undoubtedly the trip into Adventureland - a highlight which occurred in the first third of the attraction as it operated from 1973 to 1983. But if the boats traveled in the direction indicated by the above photograph, concept art and Hartley fun map, however, the Adventureland section would become the last third - after which the boat would immediately dock by the Ice Cream Parlor. Isn't this a more sensible and dramatic way to arrange an attraction?

What's even more puzzling is what happened to the Swan Boats after they opened in 1973 - Disney ran them only during Summer months, and even removed them from the GAF park guides in 1975. After only ten years, the boats closed.

So let's review. We have an attraction which looked ready to open in 1971, was reported to open in 1972, finally opened in 1973 in a different place with no fanfare after its original boarding area became an ice cream patio, then was closed with no fanfare after only ten years after being operated only in fits and starts.

"Off to your right, you'll see the site of our future loading dock!"
The 1972 date given by Prizer and the photographic evidence we have of the dock apparently open and in use and the boats traveling on the water in 1972 only makes sense if we assume that the Swan Boats did run in 1972 following the original ride path and then closed. This would explain why there's little to no press for their apparently vague opening date in 1973 - they were already open. June 1973 is when their new loading dock opened, not when the boats began traveling.

Why did they move?

I've considered all of the possibilities here. Was it because the boats needed to load from the opposite side of the river? Seems unlikely, since they had entrances from both sides. Was it because there was some kind of technical problem with the boats or ride path? At first I thought the waves generated by the Tomorrowland entry slopes and spires (they used to spit water, you know) could've caused issues with the Swan Boats, but the boats in operation had no less than two wave breaks and the Tomorrowland entry wasn't re-engineered to produce more water until 1974, anyway. There's no way that moving the attraction closer to the waves before they were a problem could've affected the decision. In fact, directly above and to the left you can see a 1972 Swan Boat blissfully drifting through the area that would later have wave breaks installed around it.

Was it for crowd control?

This seems like a more likely choice to me. The spot outside the Ice Cream Parlor can become a traffic jam even 40 years later, so relocating the boat dock north may have eased congestion in a spot that was becoming unmanageable - and this was back when Disney was still actually trying to operate the Plaza Pavilion as a restaurant all day instead of just letting it become the fanciest covered walkway in the park. Were the Swan Boats causing traffic jams?

Remember what Edward Prizer said - they needed more of everything. In fact, there is some evidence that the Swan Boats were and continued to be an operational nuisance. On Widen Your World we learn:
"A cast member who worked this attraction during its last season said the ride was closed due to operating costs, which stemmed largely from the maintenance of the boats.  This would make the Swan Boats the first ride to contract the disease that laid 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to rest in 1994.  All manner of other reasons have been given for the Swan Boats' closure, including that the ride was "just too popular."  When I first heard that, I presumed it was entirely untrue.  According to Greg Scott, however, the ride's popularity was actually a problem.  Scott staffed the ride as a Lead during its last few summers and in 2003 recounted that even with six boats running the queue could easily reach 45-60 minutes."
In a park that had two theater shows to offer guests as reward for entering Tomorrowland, no roller coasters, no Pirates of the Caribbean or Tom Sawyer Island, no Peoplemover, and an apparently unreliable submarine ride, it's easy to imagine a queue for the Plaza Swan Boats spilling right out into the Main Street parade route at this crucial juncture. In fact, when you get right now to it, isn't the most striking difference between the two boat landings - besides the more attractive and permanent nature of the 1973 canopy - the fact that the newer version has at least three times as much queue space?

Top: 1971 Bottom: 1973

Ah-ha! And now it becomes possible to fit the story of the Plaza Swan Boats into a narrative we've already covered at Passport to Dreams: the early attractions with out of control lines. We already know that new structures and crowd control devices had to be built for Country Bear Jamboree, Hall of Presidents, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; now we can add Plaza Swan Boats to that list.

In fact we now know that their unreliability was evident from the start, making their closure in 1983 much more understandable. Premiering two years too late, being prone to always being broken and causing inestimable crowd flow damage is not a way to get on Disney's good side. In fact, the mere fact that Disney only ran them during summers is itself a huge red flag for their era. The Plaza Swan Boats were open less often than the Plaza Pavilion, a restaurant that today is open perhaps six weeks out of the year. You have to be a pretty lousy ride for Disney in the 1970's to give up on you so quickly. In fact, it's now easier to place the swan boats alongside something like the Fort Wilderness Railroad: it was a disaster, and it closed quickly.

So that's the story of the ice cream parlor that wasn't and the attraction that wasn't, and who knows exactly what happened but it's still around to haunt us today. We may never exactly know when the Swan Boats opened for real or why they ran them in the wrong direction for a decade or exactly how they got messed up in the first place. Just as we may never know what those original Magic Kingdom guests had to look at while they ate their fancy crepes and ice cream sundaes in the spot that was not yet the Plaza Restaurant. And we'll never know why they just had to have three restaurants in a row starting with the name "Plaza".

I was going to end with this familiar photo of a Swan Boat in 1972, pulling towards the original load dock - already tracing the "backwards" route, with no 1973 landing visible in the background:


Until I noticed something in this photo I never had before:


Is... is that a tow line?

It can't be. Nobody attaches a line to tow a boat under the water line.

Could this be the mythical early electrical guidance system which caused the attraction to close in 1972 after it failed?

And does this early photo, showing the Swan boat ride path under refurbishment, perhaps betray traces of that original, failed ride system?


If this is true, then the May 20, 1973 date given by Disney probably refers either to the opening of the new landing or the conversion of the Swan Boats to the new guidance system - underwater jets, just like the modern day Friendships at EPCOT. But which is it?

The Magic Kingdom refuses to yield up all of her mysteries.

This page was updated on March 16, 2013, with new photos and information.