Last Update to this page: March 24th 2016
In June 1969, a staff of over 200 at Walt Disney Productions began going through thousands of feet of taped interviews with their late founder in order to produce a film in which he would narrate his life story. Almost four years later, in March 1973, a small fraction of that material became The Walt Disney Story, 23 minutes worth of movie that became the centerpiece of like-named but different new attractions on the Main Streets of Disneyland and Walt Disney World in the months to follow.
At Disneyland, the Walt Disney Story took the place of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln in the Main Street Opera House. This provoked a bunch of complaints from park visitors who didn’t hate Walt Disney but really loved the Lincoln show. So in 1975, The Walt Disney Story film was ousted from the Opera House theater, edited down and combined with other footage to create a new version which became part of the pre-show for the restored Lincoln presentation. Among the pre-show’s other exhibits were recreations of Walt’s “work” and “TV” offices, displays of various awards and an audio-animatronics owl who talked about Walt’s nature films. This new attraction became The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
, which really rolls off the tongue. Walt Disney World’s version of the attraction was housed in a building constructed just for the film. This new structure wrapped around the south and west sides of the Gulf Hospitality House (which was originally going to be a hotel), with its garden-y entrance walk connecting to Town Square by the WDW Railroad station and its exit spilling guests into the Hospitality House itself. It opened in April 1973 and was dedicated on May 6, in a ceremony attended by Walt’s widow, Mrs. Lillian Disney Truyens and her sister-in-law Mrs. Roy O. Disney. The attraction was sponsored by the Gulf Oil Corporation from its opening until 1979.
Just inside the main entrance was a long, pre-show hallway filled with memorabilia pertaining to Walt and his achievements in the world of entertainment. Letters to Walt from celebrities and political figures (among them Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon and Julie Andrews) were displayed near the entrance. The majority of the exhibits were contained in displays falling under various titles attributed to Walt, such as “International Ambassador,” “Naturalist,” and “Artist & Impresario.” Pictures depicting his accomplishments in feature-length animation, live-action filmmaking, television, the 1964-1965 World’s Fair and his association with the CalArts Institute lined the walls. The unique eight-Oscar Academy Award presented to Walt for 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was housed here for nearly two decades. A few steps away, a scale model of the Nautilus submarine used in 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea sat in a diorama casing. This model was moved to Epcot’s Living Seas pavilion in 1986, where it was placed in the queue area.
Music from Disney’s animated features played quietly throughout the pre-show and segments from Fantasia
‘s soundtrack accompanied a group of items related to that film midway down the hall. The overall atmosphere of the pre-show was museum-like, similar to the holding area in Liberty Square’s Hall of Presidents, and it somehow managed to make most people quiet and to shush kids a lot.
At the end of the pre-show hallway were the entrances to the twin, 300-seat theaters in which the film was presented. Between the entrances on a convex section of wall was a mural, created for the attraction by Disney artist Bill Justice, containing 170 Disney characters. This piece took four months to complete and incorporated over 1,200 separate colors. Up until the mid-1980s, characters from more recent releases such as The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective
were added to the mural. This practice was finally abandoned (either Justice retired or it was basically agreed that no one wanted to see Oliver & Co. up there). Several other displays in the pre-show area suffered from neglect in the attraction’s last days, primarily evident in the dramatic yellowing of many wall hangings.
Cast members played an active role in the presentation of the aforementioned mural and other parts of the attraction, particularly during its earlier years. Guests were traditionally greeted at the entrance turnstiles by a host or hostess before passing into the exhibit area. Prior to each showing of the film, another cast member would step up onto the podium in front of the character mural and give a spiel about it and the upcoming presentation. Shortly thereafter he or she would drop the blue velvet rope in front of the doors to one of the theaters (the opposite theater would normally be midway through the film). The Walt Disney Story used to have its own cast members, primarily females in long flower-print gowns. The staffing scenario was reworked and positions were dropped from the operation by late 1989, when the attraction was mostly run by old men in Main Street Transportation costumes who weren’t happy about how long a break their co-worker Jerry was taking.
Walt Disney Story entrance c. 1979
Once everyone was seated in a theater, a cast member delivered the normal protocols about food, drinks and smoking, then informed guests that aside from a brief introduction the voice they would hear would be that of Walt Disney. It was also explained that the uneven quality of his narration stemmed from the fact that it had been culled from years of interviews with Walt and assembled into one narrative.
The film can be viewed on YouTube (links below) but I’ll summarize it here. It was an account of the Walt’s career highlights with few mentions of episodes or persons in his personal life. It began with a prologue spoken by Pete Renoudet, a Disney vocal impresario who appeared in several other WDW theme park attractions. This introduction used a story about “the boy who wanted to march in the circus parade” and a scary closeup of Vesey Walker’s (the original Disneyland bandleader) face to illustrate one of Walt’s simple philosophies about life and the importance of taking chances. Then Walt’s voice took over and the story of his life began with his mother and father’s Chicago contracting business at the time of his birth on December 5, 1901.Various episodes along the way to Walt’s commercial success were touched upon. Among these were his family’s move to Marceline, Missouri, his first “paying job” as an artist drawing Doc Sherwood’s horse, his stint as a WW1 ambulance driver in Paris, and his initial forays into animation with the Alice Comedies in Kansas City. His rough and tumble beginnings led him to California and the 1923 establishment, with his brother Roy, of the first animation studio in Hollywood.
From there the film focused on the studio’s successes and failures over the course of the next thirty years. Guests learned about the creation of Mickey Mouse, the evolution of the Silly Symphonies, the runaway hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the thought process behind the True-Life adventures and the company-wide confidence in the promise of Mary Poppins. Walt also explained that financial restrictions prevented the intended viewing of Fantasia in its wide-screen format, which he felt compromised the final product upon its release. Additionally, he rationalized that Alice In Wonderland‘s box office “nose dive” was directly attributable to its lack of “heart.” Contrasted with the sympathetic Cinderella, he said millions of people didn’t care about Alice.
The last section of the film dealt with Disneyland and the plans for Walt Disney World. Walt revealed that his Disneyland park would offer his take on what he felt were the most “vital” parts of American history and also delve into the world of tomorrow and the realms of fantasy. It was to be an environment where parents and children could have fun together, and one where he could make constant improvements. He also states that there would be a distinction between Disneyland and “whatever Disney does in Florida.” In a segment pulled from his 1966 EPCOT film, he stated that the heart of WDW would be his city of tomorrow. The effect of hearing Walt say this just moments before the screen panned out on Herb Ryman’s famous EPCOT painting was powerful, and – as the film grew older and EPCOT changed directions – disheartening. But at the time of the attraction’s debut it was testimony to the company’s intention of following through with EPCOT, the city.
In conclusion, Walt described his “little bee” role in the company during his last years and explained what he felt was most gratifying after over forty years in the business. For him the reward was in building his organization and gaining the acceptance and appreciation of the public for the work he’d done.
e dropped) and those African elephants ended up more demure in their behavior. And if you caught mention of a few elements that are completely unfamiliar to you, like the flaming skulls, parrot and the bullfrogs, explanations will follow below.
Although the film was described in company literature as the story of Walt and Roy, the latter’s part in the film was (much as in life) largely behind the scenes. Walt’s wife was absent from the story, as were his daughters aside for a brief mention regarding their role in the genesis of Disneyland. If something seemed amiss, it was at least in part because of the process of editing the different available recordings available into one cohesive script. The circumstances surrounding Walt’s death were naturally not among the topics he discussed in interviews and were, consequentially, left out of the film as well.
The Walt Disney Story
was projected through an anamorphic lens which enabled a screen proportion of 2.67 to 1. This allowed for a unique scrapbook effect that was used extensively in the film, where as many as three different films would be running side-by-side as part of the same scene. The soundtrack was scored by longtime Disney composer Buddy Baker, and included his haunting WDW theme that could be heard in different films during the resort’s first ten years.
Both theaters exited into the east end of the post-show exhibit area. This part of the attraction underwent the greatest amount of change over the years. In its first incarnation, there was a large model of WDW Phase One on the north wall. Nearby were displays centered around EPCOT and the direction it was expected to take when the resort approached Phase Two. There were also displays of Walt’s Carolwood Pacific backyard locomotive and two of his first forays into audio-animatronic technology: The “Dancing Man” and “Barbershop Quarter” dioramas. One of the most memorable parts of this area was the small alcove where part of the Western River Expedition
model could be viewed. Set to special lighting and music, the scene depicted a boatload of guests floating past an Old West street scene, where can-can girls sang and a cowboy and his horse stood atop the front porch of a saloon. Tied in with the model, a nearby display featured another audio-animatronic owl (cousin to the aforementioned Disneyland bird) in a setting also linked to the Western River Expedition. The owl introduced himself as the star of that upcoming WDW ride and he offered a brief lecture on the audio-animatronics process. An animated book next to him flipped its own pages in time with his speech. This little show culminated in a rock and roll-driven, flashing-light mess taking place on the programming console in the display’s foreground. As with many other displays, the owl and his spiel were adapted to meet the needs of the Walt Disney Story’s later inhabitants.The Walt Disney Story was temporarily replaced by other attractions at three points during its nineteen-year run:- 1981: In June, the building became the home of the EPCOT Center Preview Center (an unpleasant mouthful). While the area leading up to the theaters remained largely unaltered, the Walt Disney Story film was stored away to make room for a new film promoting Walt’s “greatest dream,” EPCOT Center. This also prompted the restructuring of the post-show exhibit area and the complete enclosure of a display revolving around Walt’s backyard railroad and the Western River Expedition model (which was rediscovered in 1994 with lights still burning in its miniature buildings.) The owl was decked out in a tour guide costume and talked about the audio-animatronics that would be a part of EPCOT Center. The Walt Disney Story was returned to the theaters again in October 1982. – 1984: To mark the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, the Walt Disney Story building played host to a pre-show display and film focused on the games. Upon exiting into the Hospitality Center, guests had the chance to meet Olympic athletes like Bruce Jenner and Cathy Rigby. This utilization of the space lasted the duration of the summer.- 1988: The attraction gave way once again to a preview of the upcoming Disney-MGM Studios park. The post-show was once more redone with wall hangings of conceptual artwork and construction photos. The owl perched himself on a director’s chair and spoke on yet another new topic. It was to be his last.
When The Walt Disney Story returned in the summer of 1989, the owl was left without anything to talk about. He was soon sitting in silence and flew away within a year. The remainder of the attraction followed his lead in October 1992. The company cited deterioration of the original film print as the main reason for the closing of the attraction. Cast members speculated privately that low attendance at the film played a major role in the decision. By this time, however, the company’s real reason for closing anything with operating costs wasn’t exactly a mystery.
In 1994, The Walt Disney Company released a home video version of The Walt Disney Story to appease guests who inquired about the attraction’s departure. Unfortunately the video’s producers chopped up the film by replacing its original introduction and ending with appearances by a costumed Mickey character. And in not offering a letterboxed version, over half of the film’s original scope was deleted from view.
On October 2 of that same year, The Walt Disney Story was parodied mercilessly in The Simpsons’ “Itchy & Scratchy Land” episode. Part of the show’s Disney-mocking tradition, The Simpsons’ second Disney-esque theme park (the first being Duff Gardens) featured “The Roger Meyers Story.” This homage to the late creator of Itchy & Scratchy lauded Meyers for loving children of “almost all nations.” This was a direct allusion to the 1966 It’s A Small World dedication ceremony at Disneyland in 1966, where Disney and Bank of America’s Louis Lundborg waded through a sea of foreign children who had been invited to participate and bring water from rivers in their home nations; suffice it to say there was a lot more water poured from the Seine, the Rhine and the Danube than the Congo, the Nile or the Mekong.
Of course The Walt Disney Story film did represent the rose-colored take on Disney and his organization. This version of the past, however, was entirely in keeping with the overall feel of the Magic Kingdoms. People don’t visit Disney parks expecting to find the popular image of Walt Disney (as a grandfatherly paragon of creative achievements) challenged. The Walt Disney Story was made for people with a layman’s appreciation for Walt Disney’s work, affirming warm feelings and also introducing innumerable children, like myself, to the fact that there was a man behind the name behind the parks. It’s something that a lot of children simply don’t know. For that reason alone I believe if the closing of any of the Magic Kingdom’s attractions could be deemed reprehensible, then this ones fits the bill. In the mid-1990s Michael Eisner made public his opinion that the Disney parks and their attractions should not serve as “museums,” and to an extent even someone like me can rationalize why some well-loved old rides and shows are eventually altered or retired. To have willfully abandoned, however, the sole physical venue paying testament to the creative mind that spawned an entertainment empire while simultaneously capitalizing on every conceivable aspect of its assets was simply tasteless. The bronze statue of Walt Disney in the park’s hub was nice, but it spoke nothing to the man’s ideals and philosophy. The Walt Disney Story should have played on – even if seats remained empty and the operating costs seemed high relative to capacity – because the attraction anchored Town Square, Main Street and the rest of the park to a sense of tradition. Yet with so many of the company’s other traditions having been set aside since the early 1990s, it may have only been fitting that The Walt Disney Story was closed at the offset of the new era.
In October 1996, The Walt Disney Story’s building was re-occupied by a new “attraction,” the Walt Disney World 25th Anniversary Welcome Center. New exhibits filled the pre-and post-show halls and the theaters ran films previewing new Disney projects such as the cruise lines and the Animal Kingdom park. While a far cry from the old presentation, the pre-show exhibits in particular represented a happy first: the in-park display of artwork and models that went into the planning of WDW’s first five years, plus publications and souvenirs from that time period. And at least the theaters were occupied again, which gave momentary hope that the space might have a future. Then in 1997, as with The Walt Disney Story
before it, they closed the Welcome Center down and those items were removed. After that the majority of the building was filled with an assortment of displays that were related in one way or another to photography and it was renamed the Town Square Exhibition Hall, sponsored by Kodak. What has happened to those buildings and interior spaces since the early 2000s I can’t remember well enough to recap here.
In 2001, the company kicked off a year-long-plus tribute to the 100th Anniversary of Walt Disney’s birth. All of the Florida parks received some form of modifications to acknowledge the event (even if it primarily seemed like it came in the form of merchandise). The Disney-MGM Studios, however, actually housed an exhibit that captured a stunning amount of The Walt Disney Story’s spirit. It was called Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream and presented a well-executed and memorable tribute to his creativity, accomplishments and goals. It even devoted a significant amount of space to his plans for EPCOT. So ten years after the last show devoted to him as a person closed, there was still proof that he could be given in-park representation beyond a statue. Hopefully that will continue to be the case.
More Walt Disney Story Images & Video Links
click on any of the thumbnails below for larger images
The video below can also be found on WYW’s YouTube Channel (click here to visit)
The Walt Disney Story – Extinct WDW AttractionLocation: Main Street USA, Magic KingdomOperating Dates: March 1973 to October 1992Ticket Required: None Remnants: Portions of entrance and theater areas were incorporated into the Town Square Exhibition Hall, which has probably been turned into other stuff since the early 2000s
This page incorporates information and images provided to WYW by Paul Anderson, Russell Brower, Steve Boutet, Ty Bumgardner, Mike Hiscano, Dave Hooper, Jerry Klatt and Tracy Rhodes
All images copyright The Walt Disney Company. Text copyright 2016 Mike Lee.
First version of The Walt Disney Story posted to WYW March 1998Updated November 2006 (page rebuilt, expanded text, additional images)
Page rebuilt again March 24th, 2016