Looking Back at Walt Disney World during the 1970s Part II
Last month, I discussed some of the highlights of the first few years at Walt Disney World. However, I’ve only just scratched the surface.
When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, park officials were still scrambling to honor the late Walt Disney’s legacy. They lacked the resources or the leadership to achieve their goals immediately.
So, the Disney campus that you know evolved over time from humble beginnings. To wit, several of your favorite park additions came from 1973-1979. Meanwhile, everything was building toward EPCOT Center in 1982.
Let’s take another look back at Walt Disney World during the 1970s.
1975 and Beyond
Last time, I discussed the most essential Magic Kingdom ride of the 1970s…and possibly ever.
Space Mountain created a buzz from the moment Imagineers broke ground on the stunning Tomorrowland structure.
Disney made the above television special to build hype for the new attraction. The park held a glitzy opening ceremony, too:
The remarkable aspect is that another event of similar magnitude would transpire within a year.
Disney participated in America’s Bicentennial celebration. And the company led with a parade.
Bob Jani, who had recently produced Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland, received this plum assignment.
Jani created America on Parade, a trippy show that would feel more appropriate at Westworld.
Parade floats mimicked paddle boats, stagecoaches, Ferris wheels, and…a Dagwood sandwich?
I guess gluttony counts as one of America’s core values, at least to Jani. I joke, but the Bicentennial qualified as a massive achievement for Disney.
The company looked patriotic and respectful while crowds gathered for this limited-time engagement.
Magic Kingdom hosted the parade and other events from June of 1975 through September of 1976.
You can look at more ridiculous adorable pictures that Disney posted on its Parks Blog.
The parade’s popularity triggered ripple effects at Magic Kingdom.
Park officials successfully lobbied to transition Main Street Electrical Parade to the East Coast.
This parade debuted in June of 1977 and anchored Magic Kingdom for 22 years.
So, Space Mountain and the Main Street Electrical Parade claim some responsibility for the growing popularity of Magic Kingdom.
The park serviced more than 12.5 million guests in 1975 and surpassed 50 million visits overall. By 1978, Magic Kingdom alone totaled 14.1 million guests.
Adding More Hotel Rooms and Shopping Options
Much of the Walt Disney World that you know didn’t start until the mid-1970s.
For example, Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened to the public in March of 1975. We know it now as Disney Springs.
Disney strategists sought something that would guarantee commerce for generations to come.
Their big idea reflected the times, as the shopping village acted like a multi-block mall, a kind of early outlet mall.
Later, Michael Eisner would evolve the concept to keep more vacationers on the Disney campus.
The outlet mall concept lasted for the body of a decade before Disney modified it, though.
As part of this new experience, the Empress Lilly riverboat debuted at the end of the shopping village, too. This happened in 1977.
Another venture proved less successful, even at the time. Disney connected its glamorous vacations with the sport of golf.
The ultimate demonstration of this involved a long-forgotten hotel, Disney’s Golf Resort.
You know the place as Shades of Green now. However, in 1973, Disney altered the Clubhouse for the two courses into a full hotel.
In 1996, Disney sold the property to the Department of Defense, who switched it to Shades of Green.
The hotel has since serviced members of the armed services and their families.
By way of explanation, all military troops feature some shade of green on their uniforms.
Switching from golf to the military may seem dramatic, but the hotel still features ample golf courses.
You’ll find two PGA-approved 18-hole courses in the area, plus a nine-hole course.
So, the name and style changed dramatically, but the golf remains omnipresent.
Making the Modern Tomorrowland
Park planners took some impressive approaches during this era, too.
Tomorrowland received numerous updates, many of which remain in operation to this day.
The legendary Carousel of Progress had left the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Walt Disney had convinced its sponsor, General Electric, to pay for shipping to Disneyland in 1967.
After only a few years, everyone realized that the attraction would provide more of a boost to the still-struggling Walt Disney World.
So, Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress switched coasts once more, reaching its final destination at Tomorrowland.
Space Mountain and Carousel of Progress opened on the same day in 1975. Six months later, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover debuted.
Yes, those three attractions have anchored Magic Kingdom’s version of Tomorrowland for more than 45 years!
The Rest of the 1970s
I should mention that Walt Disney World introduced two amenities that did NOT stand the test of time.
Discovery Island, formerly Treasure Island, returned in 1976 as a walkthrough animal (and bird) attraction. It closed for good in 1999.
Meanwhile, the first water park on the campus, River Country, debuted on Bay Lake. It featured two modest water slides and a beachfront area.
This water park closed in 2001, rendered superfluous by the more modern options, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach.
Two other amenities would draw bigger crowds than these modest offerings.
Magic Kingdom introduced a seasonal offering whose name you’ll know. The Very Merry Christmas Parade started in 1977!
Then, an E-ticket attraction followed in 1980.
In 1979, Disneyland added another roller coaster, and its duplicate arrived at Magic Kingdom soon afterward.
I’m referencing Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which debuted in September of 1980 and quickly became a park favorite.
Thanks to the new amenities, Disney continued to attract crowds. Its attendance figures for 1976-1980 were:
- 1976 – 13.1 million
- 1977 – 13.1 million
- 1978 – 14.1 million
- 1979 – 13.8 million
- 1980 – 13.8 million
By 1979, 100 million guests had attended Walt Disney World.
As a reminder, it only consisted of one theme park, one mediocre water park, Discovery Island, and an outlet mall at the time.
Only the theme park counted toward attendance. However, that leads me to the next dramatic event at Walt Disney World, the source of next month’s discussion.
The Road to EPCOT
At the end of the 1970s, all Disney roads led to the next big thing.
Park officials banked $600 million, the equivalent of $2.3 billion today, on a new theme park.
Yes, Disney finally started construction on EPCOT Center, the park that Walt Disney had promised before his death in 1966.
More than 15 years later, it would finally debut and change the course of tourism.
Feature Image Rights: AP Photo