Friday, August 20, 2010

Snapshot: Olde World Antiques

"The furniture, tools, paintings, and other authentic European relics of the shop remind Disney guests of the tremendous foreign influence prevalent in our nation since its birth. These antiques, and the goods in all of the Liberty Square shops, reflect the mood of America's struggling years to independence, when immigrants from all over the world settled in the new colonies and brought with them their respective cultures and traditions." - 'Liberty Square's Yesteryear Shops', Walt Disney World Vacationland, Summer 1975
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Truthfully, we would all be very blessed if every seemingly minor aspect of early Walt Disney World were as well documented as that longtime mainstay of Liberty Square, Olde World Antiques. It gets rather extensive coverage in almost every Walt Disney World souvenir publication up until the early 1990s, usually warranting at least an interior picture and a mention in the body of the text, an honor which was rarely granted to attractions such as If You Had Wings or Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. And while Disney apparently never bothered to publish photographs of the early interiors of something like the Heritage House or the Magic Shop, it's startlingly easy to find documented evidence of what Olde World Antiques was all about.

In a way, this may be a reflection of the prestige Disney attached to this shop in particular. David Koenig relates in Realityland: "Resort-wide, the [Merchandise] department was led by Jack Olsen, a heavy-set old-timer, who usually dressed in shorts and a golf shirt and constantly preached that his stores were not factories. He wanted them operated first and foremost as part of the show, rather than designed and operated to maximize profit. Even though souvenirs imprinted with Mickey Mouse and other characters were the best selling merchandise in the park, none were sold in Adventureland, Frontierland, or Liberty Square. Everything had to be themed to the period."

Koenig then quotes a manager of one of these shops, who says: "Disney had very little business knowledge. Anything Jack Olsen wanted was okay. It didn't matter what it cost.... The antique shop in Liberty Square made about $100,000 a year - but spent $1 million! Money didn't mean a thing. They were movie people, there to put on a show."

So obviously some of the prestige of Olde World Antiques comes from its status as "part of the show", if a very elaborate and fanciful version of the show. Some of the emphasis may also be placed because of the shop's connection to the Disneyland original, the One-of-a-Kind Shop, apparently a Walt Disney creation. Stories of Walt Disney scouring the Crescent City for real antiques for his miniature New Orleans circulate to this day, and his haul apparently included furnishings for Club 33 and a big brass espresso machine for the Creole Cafe (Kevin Yee tells funny stories about being assigned to polish the huge and totally inoperable thing). Being in the antiques business even became something of a tradition for Disney, which at one point operated three distinct antiques shops - The One-of-a-Kind Shop, Olde World Antiques, and Von Otto's Antiques at the Walt Disney World Village. The Liberty Square shop outlasted them all.

Olde World Antiques was really three compact shops in one - Mlle Lafayett's Parfumerie, accessable directly from the rear of the shop facing Main Street, the Silversmith to the West, with the antiques shop rambling between and into them both. Vacationland had this to say about the Parfumerie in 1975:

"Time has not softened the desire of ladies and gentlemen to dab on a essences of imported perfumes and colonges. Sweet and spicy scents, drifting into Olde World Antiques from Mlle Lafayett's Parfumerie, entice guests into this little French-decor shop.

Among the crystal and china atomizers, soaps, pressed powder sachets and potpourri, are hundreds of popular and hard-to-find perfume products, including famous French lines. Yet, if a guest prefers a more personal fragrance, the hostess will custom-blend a perfume, choosing from the shop's seven basic perfume oils, ranging from the sweeter floral and citrus notes to the more heady scents of spice and musk. Then, each custom blend is numbered and recorded so that the guest may later re-order that same perfume without being present."
In light of this sort of thing, perhaps it's more understandable now why Disney once offered Shopping-Only passes to the Magic Kingdom around Christmastime. I have no photos showing the full interior of this cramped little nook, but here's an unusual image of the exterior entryway from the backside of the building, photographed totally by accident as part of the background of a picture of the Fife and Drum Band The Ancients doing their show:

The Silversmith, of course, existed mostly to lend atmosphere to the square, and any long-time Magic Kingdom visitor who remembers the beautiful silver pieces lined up in the windows, glinting in the Florida sun, will likely best understand the tactile loss this shop represented when it switched to generic Christmas items. Aside from that rather abstract addition, the Silversmith also name-dropped Johnny Tremain as the proprietor, which forged a very strong link to the nearby Liberty Tree via the fictional history of Tremain's apprenticeship, hanging of the lanterns in the liberty tree in Boston, and of course the Disney film made from it.

(Of course this detail may also have brought consternation for those of us forced to read through that book in elementary school, since obviously Johnny Tremain could hardly own his own silver shop because his hand was totally crippled in the first third of the book and most of us stopped reading it halfway through and cheated on the test. Either way, you remembered it when you were a kid, which can't be said of every detail you'd run past on your way to the Haunted Mansion.)

As for the antiques themselves, Disney took their stead quite seriously, and even hired an antiques buyer especially for their three shops: Otto Rabby (left), who was interviewed for Walt Disney World Vacationland in 1973. You may find the opinions expressed so long ago by Rabby and by the Disney company themselves to be refreshing and just a bit saddening:
"The antique shop at Walt Disney World deals exclusively in objects from abroad. Once, and sometimes twice, a year, Otto spends eight weeks searching for unusual items in Italy, France, England, Denmark, Holland, Austria, Spain and Germany. He deals only with reputable agents who, through long association, have learned to anticipate his requirements.

'Primarily,' he explained, 'I try to find objects that will interest, amuse, and attract as wide a variety of people as possible. The joy of my work is in finding the truly unique item that one sees perhaps once in a lifetime. Of course, I always look for certain qualities in a piece - good design, craftsmanship, authenticity, and an intangible thing I call "personality." An antique, by its very nature, in intriguing. It has a story to tell. I try to find out the personal history of every item I buy - who made it and for whom? Why was it sold? What happened to the original owners? If antiques could talk, they would put novelists out of business.'

Well, possibly. But as one looks at the bronze, 18th-century chandelier, complete with coiling cobras and gruesome gargoyles, that hangs in the shop, fantasies reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe are brought to mind. And the gay but silent rocking horse from England, still bearing the scuff marks of its tiny rider in 1780, stirs up memories of Jane Austen nurseries and comfortable nannies.

'Our shops are essentially attractions for our guests,' continues Otto. 'We want people to feel free to visit and to browse, to ask questions and to share antique anecdotes with the shop host and hostesses. It isn't nessicary to buy antiques to enjoy them. We have many guests who return time and again, simply to look at an item that has struck their fancy.'

Guests not only return to visit with Otto and his associates but telephone from as far away as Australia to order antiques they have seen and can't forget. The shops have excellent shipping and crating facilities and will deliver anywhere in the world. Any antique purchased at Walt Disney World is guaranteed to be exactly what it purports to be - and that includes place and year of origin, quality of craftsmanship, and authenticity."

Olde World Antiques continued to meander along until the mid 90s, when the plug was finally pulled to make way for an expanded version of a shop which had been operating in Fantasyland under the name Mickey's Christmas Carol since the late 80s. The Mickey's Christmas Carol location became Sir Mickey's at the same time and so Otto's antique collection, all the silver, the perfume, and the antique rocking horse left the Magic Kingdom forever.

(look to the right for another view of Otto's 1780 rocking horse)

(This post is part of the Disney Blog Carnival. Click to enjoy an onslaught of Disney news and info!!)