Thursday, November 03, 2011

Other Kingdoms to Conquer

The theme park scene in Orlando sure is competitive, isn't it? Whether it be attraction wars, bragging rights or the thrice-annual price hikes, Universal, Disney and Sea World are all necking for the front of the race trying to squeeze the others out.

But it wasn't always like that. Yes, competition may have always been the name of the game, but rather than the rather open hostility between the various travel destinations, back in the 70s there was at least an aura of shared destiny about all of this. Prior to Eisner arriving on the scene, declaring "war" on Universal Studios and attempting to vacuum up every last tourist dollar in Florida, there was a rather cooperative atmosphere about the whole business. Today it's rather strange to see the footage of the Disney Florida press conference and watching the owners of Busch Gardens Tampa and Cypress Gardens praising Disney's arrival, because history tells us that Disney would alter their history forever.

Walt Disney World even shifted traffic patterns for hundreds of miles around. Prior to the opening of Walt Disney World, US 192 was hardly a cow road and most tourist traffic followed along US 27, a north-south strip passing through a number of major southern cities and connecting Indiana to Miami. The Bok Tower, Citrus Tower, and Cypress Gardens, three hugely important early Central Florida tourist attractions, are located off US 27 , and today it's littered with the skeletal remains of hundreds of fruit stands and motels meant to capitalize on the wagon train of tourists headed north and south along a trail that's been dead for decades now.

So Walt Disney World's early relationship with other tourist destinations was always sort of strange. There were buses to Cypress Gardens and Kennedy Space Center leaving every day from the Transportation and Ticket Center. This alone indicated Disney's position as just one component of a huge ecology of Central Florida tourist, an ecology they could all benefit from and which seems quite strange to us today. This was the era of the family road trip, and indeed it was a very big deal that Walt Disney World was once engineered so the vacationing family could leave their car behind for an entire week or more. But car trips outside the "Kingdom" were indeed expected in those early days when Disney's empire was still limited, and so Walt Disney World Vacationland enters the fray to help tourists decide what to do and when.

Vacationland was a regional magazine descended from its Disneyland cousin, which was distributed everywhere within a one day drive of Disneyland. It describes itself this way on the inside cover:

Vacationland is a service-feature magazine published three times yearly by the Walt Disney World Co. Personally distributed through numerous hotels, motels, chambers of commerce, AAA clubs, and leading tourist attractions and carriers, Vacationland is the only publication specifically directed to the vacationer and travelers in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina.

Of course there were plenty of articles about Walt Disney World, but they featured in each issue a nearby Florida attraction such as Ybor City or the Everglades, where Vacationland editors gave us such gems to savor as this:

For the motor-bound tourist, Vacationlands are chock-a-block with delicious, delirious advertisements, which have already been highlighted on this blog here and here. But these advertising missives from three generations ago today are strange, beautiful and sometimes frightening. So let's take a brief look outside the 'Vacation Kingdom' at the Vacationland, a world that seems very different from our own of multi-day tickets, LEGOlands, Magical Expresses and theme park fortifications. A world found today only in... Disney publications of the past.

This eye-poppingly gorgeous ad from 1972 highlights a famous and historical chain of Florida restaurants. I'm pretty sure the Columbia on Lake Eola is gone, but there is one along the lake in Disney's own Celebration, Florida.

More great mid-century typefaces!

Vacationland could always be counted on to deliver advertisements for Walt Disney World sponsors. GAF was Walt Disney World's photography sponsor until 1977, when Polaroid signed on until the rise of Kodak in 1982.

Kal-Kan sponsored the Walt Disney World Kennel, which if you believe what old Vacationlands tell you, was more like a private club where Goofy and B'rer Fox would regularly cavort. If you believe what you read in old Vacationlands, that is.

Circus World never quite grew past its' "Showcase" - read: preview center - although it did last until right around the opening of EPCOT Center, eking out a rather sad eight year existence. It's now a strip mall.

Now we're cooking! The very first Red Lobster opened in 1968 in Lakeland, Florida - about thirty minutes from Walt Disney World and a true Florida original. If you think the vaguely-unappetizing plate of fried shrimp is a little off putting, here's your month's supply:

This. This is terrifying in so many ways, from his eerie expression to those fried... shrimp, or sausages, or something, to the ghoulish supernatural void from whence this image is emerging. Imagine that popping out of a trunk in the attic of the Haunted Manson. We're waiting for you!

Did I mention you can click on these for a higher resolution version? Huh?

This one is fantastic, minimalist, and all about Lake Buena Vista, so you know I couldn't resist.

Probably the most handsome of Sea World's many Vacationland advertisements throughout the first half of the 70s.

Okay, Sambo's. Having grown up in the North and in the middle of nowhere, I had no idea what a Sambo's was until I started collecting these Vacationland magazines. We had a few Burger Kings, a Denny's, and a Bob's Big Boy. But you know what? I'm totally sold. There is one Sambo's left - in California. One day I will eat there and tell the staff that I'm here to eat because I saw them advertising in a Florida magazine from 1974.

I'm sure this will make me the most popular gal in the restaurant.

I love this one. It's absolutely pitch-perfect in my book, from the appealing squiggly people, the happy sun, the copy text - they don't make them like this anymore. All the coffee I can drink for just a dime!! I'm there.

Look at that. A bowl full of strawberries and walnuts. It's simple, sure, but don't tell me that spread doesn't raise your spirits.

These are only a handful of the advertising riches found in these all-too-scarce volumes. From restaurants to bars to antique malls, the pages of Vacationland are like an index of places and things you can't do or see any longer. Yes, there are happy endings amidst all that, but they're few and far between, and not every Florida tourist attraction could afford a full page ad in a Disney-published magazine slick.

For every Sea World or Weeki Wachee there's dozens of Movieland Wax Museums, Mystery Fun Houses, Circus Worlds and Marco Polo Parks. Orlando tourism is a gold rush business, where places spring up and dry out as quickly as money can be lost. I don't know about you, but I think maybe a little more cooperation between the tourist attractions and a little less competition could go a long way in the long run.