Looking Back at the 1970s at Walt Disney World
As Walt Disney World counts down the days until its 50th-anniversary celebration, MickeyBlog continues to look back.
We’re publishing a retrospective series on how the Disney of yesteryear evolved into the theme park juggernaut you know today.
Last month, we discussed facts and figures about Walt Disney World’s opening day in 1971.
This time, we’ll look at how the Magic Kingdom expanded during the early 1970s and what fans thought about the changes.
A Brief History of Theme Park Behavior
During Magic Kingdom’s first full year in operation, 1972, the park hosted 10.7 million guests. By 1974, the total had grown to…10.8 million.
That’s a bit misleading, as 11.6 million guests visited during 1973.
However, this rise and fall underscores Walt Disney’s philosophy that parks must improve.
Without frequent enhancements, customers have little incentive to return, a concept Uncle Walt recognized by the late-50s. It’s why he invented plussing.
Unfortunately, one of the recurring aspects of new park openings is that they drain resources. Parks officials rarely have enough money to do everything.
So, some projects fall by the wayside or get delayed indefinitely.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom provides the perfect example, as we’re STILL waiting on Beastly Kingdom.
That themed land should have opened with the park. Instead, Disney ran short on funding and pushed it until phase two, which never came.
Not coincidentally, Animal Kingdom’s attendance for its first full year, 1999, soared to 8.6 million but then dropped steadily to 7.3 million by 2002.
During Magic Kingdom’s early years, guests showed the same tendencies more than a quarter-century before Animal Kingdom.
The death of Walt Disney caused turmoil, which doubled after his brother died in 1971.
Still, Disney spent money to avoid a gradual erosion in customer support. By 1998, Magic Kingdom attendance had reached 14.1 million.
What changed? The park added attractions that people wanted and some that they quickly learned to love.
The First Two Years
The first year at Walt Disney World felt like something from a fairytale.
While attendance could have been better, virtually everything else went better than expected.
In 1971, Rock Hudson hosted the first candlelight processional of its kind at Walt Disney World. A Christmas parade dazzled guests.
Disney even held a PGA event that year and then caught a break when the most famous golfer of the era, Jack Nicklaus, won.
The park gained tons of momentum during the first year, and its newfound revenue allowed Disney to reinvest.
By the end of 1972, Disney had more than doubled its monorail fleet from four to ten trains and added two new ferries as well.
Also, a park favorite to this day, Columbia Harbour House, debuted at Liberty Square.
Disney and third-party affiliates added plenty of new hotel room inventory in anticipation of substantial tourism growth.
Park officials pushed for that attendance increase by adding new attractions. In 1972, the first major one debuted.
If You Had Wings
If You Had Wings seems like a dated product of its era today. However, this ride served a purpose.
Disney officials coerced Eastern Air Lines to spend $10 million to sponsor If You Had Wings, the equivalent of $62 million today.
In exchange, Eastern pushed for an It’s a Small World type of ride that would display cultures across the globe, enticing people to travel.
The quirk of If You Had Wings involved its price. Disney still sold tickets for each ride rather than utilizing the current single-admission strategy.
If You Had Wings rides came free of charge, which meant that Tomorrowland guests could watch a glorified Eastern commercial for free.
The ride, which never proved popular, closed for good in 1989.
Before then, critics hailed the ride experience for “blending cinematography, sound, dimension and diorama.”
According to early documentation, If You Had Wings “captured the sights, sounds and music of Mexico, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Florida” and other Eastern Airlines destinations.
Even back then, nobody had illusions about the mercenary nature of If You Had Wings.
The pre-ride display described it as “A flight of fancy through the world of Eastern Airlines.”
The First Heavyweight Addition
I’m not dogging If You Had Wings when I say that it wasn’t the first E-ticket attraction introduced after Magic Kingdom’s opening.
Disney officials heard quick and resounding criticism about a shocking oversight. They had decided not to duplicate Pirates of the Caribbean.
After all, many of those stories came from Florida and the surrounding area. So, executives believed that they would hold more appeal to Californians.
Once Walt Disney World debuted, everyone knew better. The glaring omission of Pirates of the Caribbean evoked outrage.
Disney quickly announced that Magic Kingdom would right this wrong. It even had the incentive to do so.
From 1971-1973, the most popular ride at Walt Disney World shared a connection with Pirates of the Caribbean…at a different park.
The other pride of New Orleans Square, Haunted Mansion, quickly earned a claim as Magic Kingdom’s best attraction.
Many celebrities, including the daughter of a POTUS, rushed to Haunted Mansion due to its newness.
After all, the Disneyland attraction opened only two years before the Magic Kingdom version.
In researching this article, the first reference I could find to Pirates of the Caribbean occurred in April of 1972.
Dick Nunis, the Executive Vice-President for Walt Disney World, confirmed it while commenting on road/infrastructure woes in Orange County.
Nunis promised the arrival of the attraction in 1973, a timeline Imagineers narrowly achieved the following December.
Pirates of the Caribbean had sold the most tickets at Disneyland for several straight years when it debuted at Magic Kingdom.
Disney officials, including Card Walker, stressed the importance of the ride, as park attendance had slumped due to the early 1970s energy crisis.
The strategy worked perfectly. For two calendar years, Pirates of the Caribbean drove attendance at Walt Disney World.
Then, something even better arrived.
The Top Five Rides of the 1970s…and Huge Plans for 1975
In 1981, a Disney official revealed the top five attractions for the 1970s.
All of them remain popular to this day at Magic Kingdom, which I find remarkable.
According to this source, the top five were: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Space Mountain.
I question the accuracy of this statement, as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad didn’t even open until 1980.
Even then, Disney officials were pushing the next big thing and willing to exaggerate a little to hype the ride.
And that brings us to the game-changer at Walt Disney World.
Before 1975, all popular attractions had come from Disneyland and/or the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
However, one of Walt Disney’s pet projects had finally come to fruition, nearly a decade after he’d thought of it.
Disney officials described the attraction as a “simulated journey through the reaches of our galaxy.”
A Florida reported indicated that “space voyagers” would view the roller coaster as the “most thrilling Magic Kingdom adventure.”
The experience would allow five million annual visitors to “stream through brilliant meteor showers, whirling light tunnels, and mysterious space caverns.”
I’ve ridden Space Mountain dozens if not hundreds of times. I have no memory of any of this, but it sounds AMAZING.
Imagineers knew that their premise would drive park demand and increase attendance, which I already indicated Space Mountain did.
The late-1970s proved extremely good for business at Walt Disney World, a subject I’ll explore again next month.
Of course, the real story is just around the corner. In 1982, Disney opened a second Orlando park, and attendance nearly doubled the following year.
There’s a reason why Disney is always moving forward to the next thing. It’s what’s best for business.
Feature Image: Disney