Magic Kingdom – History
The Magic Kingdom of the 1970s was far different than the park of today. Many guests visit only a couple of times in their life, and many years tend to pass between visits. Consequently, guests become confused upon entering the park, to see some of their favorite attractions missing, with new rides in their place. While it would be almost impossible to create an accurate list of every single ride, show, shop, parade, restaurant, and so forth that has changed over the years, an overall timeline can help you plan your visit accurately.
The Disney World Magic Kingdom Theme Park opened on October 1, 1971, and was an immediate success. Designed as a larger version of the California original, the new park also allowed Disney to start fresh, using lessons learned in Disneyland to create an even better park. Crowd response was extremely favorable, leading to capacity crowds by the day after Thanksgiving. A heady period of expansion and tweaking soon followed.
For many years, the Magic Kingdom held six lands: Main Street, USA, Adventureland, Liberty Square, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. At that time, admission was divided into three categories: Adults .50, Juniors (age 12-17) .50, and Children (ages 3-11) .00. The price included admission to the park, use of the transportation system, and admission to a few select attractions. Most attractions required the use of a separate ticket for entrance. Ticket categories ranged from A (10 cents) to E (90 cents). Disney World Tickets were generally sold in books containing between seven and eleven tickets of various categories, at a price of .75 to .75 for adults, slightly less for children and juniors. The ride’s classification was based on a combination of factors, with thrill rides always claiming an E rating. As a point of interest, Disney’s ride classification system inspired the still-used phrase “E-ticket ride.”
Many beloved attractions did not yet exist when the park opened. Such icons as Space Mountain opened later in the 1970s, as part of ongoing and rapid expansion. Pirates of the Caribbean , now one of the most well-known attractions, was never meant to be part of the Magic Kingdom at all. The Imaginers believed that since Florida was so close to real pirate lore, residents would not be interested in a pirate-themed ride. Instead, the designs were created for an elaborate Wild West-themed attraction in a similar vein. However, public outcry over the omission of Pirates was dramatic, and Thunder Mesa was quickly scrapped in order to bring the Pirates to Florida. The attraction finally opened in 1973.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, new attractions, shops, restaurants, and entertainment were added frequently. The Swan Boats, long plagued by mechanical difficulties, closed in 1983, never to be replaced (although the loading dock still stands). Flight to the Moon, although by all accounts a witty show, was dated when it opened two years after the moon landing, and was replaced by Mission to Mars in 1975. A few other attractions closed as well, in addition to some shops and restaurants, but for the most part, the focus was on expansion. After all, Walt had purposely bought more than land than he would ever need. The company took full advantage of this fact to expand liberally. In 1974, plans were announced for the newest park, EPCOT Center , and ground was broken in 1979.
EPCOT’s plan caused trouble with the ticket book admission media. As an entirely different type of park, EPCOT’s attractions would not be suited to A through E classifications. Thus, admission media at the Magic Kingdom was transitioned throughout 1980, and by the end of the year the ticket books were discontinued altogether in favor of all-inclusive one price admission.
The heady days of expansionism led to some dissent among the shareholders, who felt that their stocks were seriously undervalued. After several failed attempts at hostile takeover, the team of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were given the reins in 1984. As a television executive in the field of children’s programming, Eisner seemed well-placed to bring the company’s spending under control and maximize the bottom line.
The beginning of the Eisner era seemed to signal a new direction for the Walt Disney Company. Eisner was focused on the bottom line, streamlining operations and expanding the company’s efforts at branding. Other than some changes in the entertainment lineup, and the continual renaming and re-theming of If You Had Wings as it changed corporate sponsors, the Magic Kingdom attractions roster was largely ignored during the late 1980s as efforts focused on the newest gated parks, Disney Hollywood Studios and Pleasure Island, both of which opened, along with the Typhoon Lagoon water park , in 1989.
The 1990s brought the most significant and controversial changes ever to take place in the Magic Kingdom. It was the decisions of the 1990s that would ultimately lead to Eisner’s fall from grace. The most overarching change was to Tomorrowland. Ever since Future World opened at EPCOT Center (now Epcot) in 1982, Disney battled with keeping Tomorrowland from seeming dated. In 1994, an elaborate renovation was undertaken. Tomorrowland was repainted, many attractions changed or renamed, and reopened with an intentionally retro feel, billed as “The future that never was, and always will be.”
The Tomorrowland rehab met with mixed, but ultimately fairly positive reviews. Many of the other decisions made for the Magic Kingdom at this time were not so fortunate. The Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes also closed in 1994, citing poor attendance and maintenance issues. However, it was the 1994 closing of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that stirred the first wave of serious protest. The ride closed quietly, with no fanfare or even warning. The official word from Disney was that the attraction was simply going down for a massive rehab. In fact, it was never to open again. The lagoon sat for ten years, full of water but devoid of subs, occupying 25% of the prime Fantasyland real estate. Rumors abounded as to the fate of the property, while obviously temporary fixes such an Ariel meet and greet were placed in the queue area. Outraged fans wrote letters and called the company, wanting to know when they would get their ride back, but to no avail.
It was not until 1996 that Disney finally admitted that 20,000 Leagues would never reopen. This blow was followed only two years later by the announcement that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride would be demolished to make room for an attraction based on Winnie the Pooh.
After the way 20,000 Leagues’ closing was handled, neither Disney nor fans wanted to approach Toad’s closing in the same way. Disney announced the upcoming closing, in an effort to minimize protest by allowing guests the chance for a last ride. However, fans were not content to sit aside this time around. Elaborate protests were organized, gaining strength through the power of the internet. Organized letter-writing campaigns were teamed with Toad-Ins, elaborate, coordinated protests that took place in front of the attraction itself. Despite these efforts, many of which were joined by Cast Members, Mr. Toad made his last Wild Ride at the Magic Kingdom on September 7, 1998.
Many see the back to back closings of two extremely popular rides as the beginning of Michael Eisner’s fall from grace. Combined with other poor decisions, such as the shuttering of Feature Animation, Eisner’s business decisions eventually led to the resignation of board members Stanley Gold and Roy E. Disney (son of Roy O. and nephew of Walt) during Thanksgiving weekend 2003. On March 3, 2004, Eisner received a 43.4% vote of no confidence. In July 2004, after ten years unused but essentially untouched, the 20,000 Leagues lagoon was drained and the set destroyed. The lagoon was filled with dirt and the long-awaited new attraction went in. The new attraction? A playland for children called Pooh’s Thotful Spot. Whether this event was connected to the no-confidence vote or not is open to speculation, but fans were less than thrilled with the new attraction.
On September 30, 2005, Michael Eisner stepped down and was replaced by his long-time right hand man, Bob Iger. Iger has distanced himself from his former boss, vowing to return to Walt Disney’s roots. To this end, the company has acquired Pixar (formed initially by previous Disney animators) and set Pixar’s creative genius John Lasseter up as head of the parks division of Imagineering. Time will tell whether Iger’s promises will hold. For now, however, all indications are that the parks are in the midst of a renaissance. The Magic Kingdom has been through many changes, both bad and good, and it will be interesting to see what the future holds.