The Walt Disney Story

Magic Kingdom Archives



by Lou Mongello

The article first appeared in the August 29, 2006 issue of ALL EARS® Weekly Newsletter


Ever wonder what Walt Disney World was like way back when? Each month we visit a time gone by in Walt Disney World history. We travel now with author Lou Mongello, who takes us back to 1973 and "The Walt Disney Story."

Having just returned from a research trip to Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, I was really able to take my time in what is my favorite part of the entire resort. I spent a great portion of my day on Main Street, USA, and was brought back to my childhood, walking down the street, parents in tow, marveling at the sights, sounds, and yes, the House of Magic. So, on this journey in my WayBack Machine, I wanted to focus on a time when the Magic Kingdom was still in its relative infancy, and discuss a wonderful, now-extinct Main Street, USA attraction.

(Lou borrows four quarters from his dad, plunks them into the WayBack Machine's coin slot, and sets the dials for 1973.)

The sounds of Tony Orlando and Dawn singing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Oak Tree" are quickly drowned out by the sounds of children laughing, train whistles, and a ragtime tune being played on a distant piano. I'm on Main Street, USA in the spring of 1973. There is no EPCOT Center. No Blizzard Beach. Not even a Port Orleans or Grand Floridian. The Magic Kingdom IS Walt Disney World. Well, for now, anyway.

So... Main Street, USA -- an eastern seaboard, Victorian-era model town, with architecture and elements found in the late 1800s. I could literally spend hours (or should I say "pages"?) talking about the shops, both present and past, the architecture, the windows, details and so much more. But I'll have to save that for another trip. What I want to focus on is something that you may not really remember all that well. Let's head on over to the Town Square Exposition Hall... or, as it was known then, the Gulf Hospitality House.

Along with Tom Sawyer Island, this was Walt Disney World's newest attraction at the time. Located adjacent to the Hospitality House, The Walt Disney Story depicted Walt's life from his early childhood days in Marceline, Missouri, to the creation of Mickey Mouse and the development of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The attraction played in a theater constructed explicitly for this film. The film itself was a project that began in June 1969. It wasn't completed and previewed until March 1973, though. In order to accurately tell Walt Disney's life stories, a staff of more than 200 people at Walt Disney Productions pored over 75 hours of interviews conducted with Walt before his untimely death on December 15, 1966, just 10 days after his 65th birthday. One of the principle contributors was Bill Bosche, an artist and producer who worked for Disney for more than 30 years. Taking excerpts from these interviews, Walt Disney posthumously narrated much of his own autobiography.

This 23-minute film played simultaneously at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, with the WDW version opening in April 1973. It was dedicated on May 6 of that same year and ran until October 5, 1992. This attraction was unique in that it was free, as Walt Disney World was still using a coupon system of ticketing. It was sponsored by Gulf Oil, the same sponsor of the attraction building.

The theater was built on the southwest side of the Hospitality House, and even had a separate entrance constructed. Looking at the Town Square Exposition Hall today, the short staircase to the right of the building's main entrance was originally created for the Walt Disney Story.

Inside the building, the long hallway that made up the queue area was filled with Disney memorabilia, including the one-of-a-kind Academy Award given to Walt for the 1937 masterpiece Snow White. Unlike a traditional Oscar statue, this one had seven smaller Oscars at its side. You could also find a scale model of the Nautilus, used in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Until recently, you could have found that same model in the Living Seas queue. It is unknown whether it will remain when the Nemo-ization of the pavilion is complete.)

The hallway was filled with not only displays, but the sounds of Disney's classic film songs as well. At the end of the hallway were entrances to two identical, 300-seat theaters. Between the two sets of doors was a mural with 170 Disney characters. Up until the mid-'80s characters from new releases were added for every film up until the Great Mouse Detective. One of these theaters was remodeled and now shows classic Disney cartoons. The door to the other (now unused) theater can be seen at the back of the Hall.

The film itself took Guests on a moving journey throughout Walt's personal and professional life, and concluded with his plans for Disneyland, eventually WDW, and most importantly, EPCOT the city. The film was presented on a screen specially designed to give guests the impression they were looking through a virtual scrapbook of Walt's life. It was presented as a photo album, with rare audio accompanying photos and illustrations.

The post-show area was always in a state of change. It showed everything from plans for the expansion of WDW, to the futuristic EPCOT Center. Most notable was the brief display of the model of one of WDW's newest projects, the Western River Expedition. In addition to a working model, Hoot Gibson, an Audio-Animatronic owl, told Guests he would be the star of the attraction. He also explained some of the processes of Audio-Animatronics, and was accompanied by an Animatronic storybook, which flipped pages as he told his story.

The Walt Disney Story closed from June 1981 until October 1982 to become home to the EPCOT Center Preview Center. The original film was replaced with one that more specifically outlined Walt's dreams of his futuristic city. In October 1982, when EPCOT Center opened to the public, the Preview Center was removed and the original film returned.

Just six years later, though, The Walt Disney Story was removed once again, this time to preview Walt Disney World's third theme park, the Disney-MGM Studios. It was renamed, aptly enough, "The Disney-MGM Studios Preview Center." Oh yes, our friend the owl was redressed yet again, perched in a director's chair, and narrated this as well.

After the Studios opened in 1989, The Walt Disney Story returned once again, but closed permanently in October 1992. Disney said that the original film had deteriorated so much that it could no longer be shown in the theater.

The original exit from the film took Guests into the Disneyana Collectibles shop, which sadly is long gone. It can be argued that this store, with its wonderful collectibles, was the first of the trend toward having themed shops at the end of attractions. It had wonderful items such as commemorative plates, original hand-painted animation cels, and various limited edition reproductions. You could also make a reservation for a seat at the Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree while there.

To preserve the film and continue to make it available to Guests in the future, it was released in a much abbreviated version on VHS tape in 1994. Sadly the video is unavailable on DVD today, other than any remaining copies of the 100 Years of Magic DVD, which had a much shorter, pan-and-scan version, minus the original opening and ending.

In October 1996, the building that once housed The Walt Disney Story became the home of the Walt Disney World 25th Anniversary Welcome Center. Like the earlier "preview centers" before it, the building was filled with models and exhibits introducing the Disney Cruise Line and other upcoming projects. The Welcome Center closed in 1997, and the exhibits were removed. It later hosted the "Disney's Animal Kingdom Welcome Center."

While the mural is still there at the back of the theater, most of the original displays are long gone. The remaining ones are themed toward photography, as the building is now sponsored by Kodak.

(To get a very small sampling of what this attraction was like, I highly recommend taking time to go through the exhibits and film "Walt Disney: One Man's Dream" at the Disney-MGM Studios.)

As we get ready to head back home (darn this real job of mine), we can see some signs of things to come later in 1973, like the Plaza Swan Boats, which will ply the waterways of the Magic Kingdom, the Fort Wilderness Railway (hop on-board fast, as this won't be around for long), and some new attraction called "Pirates of the Caribbean." Nah, that'll never catch on.

On a personal note, I often walk through the Town Square Exposition Hall to reminisce about the former attraction, view the exhibits and see what is on the horizon. It saddens me to see such a wonderful, personal tribute to Walt having gone by the wayside, and the building remaining almost vacant for all intents and purposes. That being said, I did do a little snooping, and it looks like there may be something new on the horizon for part of the building... Keep your eyes peeled!

Anyway, I can see by the docks up ahead that... oh wait. Wrong attraction. Er... What I meant to say was that this is going to do it for this installment of my Walt Disney World WayBack Machine. Time to return to the Magic Kingdom of 2006 and enjoy Stitch's Grea... ah, forget it.

About the Author:

Lou Mongello is the author of the Walt Disney World Trivia Book and owner of DisneyWorldTrivia.com