Home » The 4 Steps in the Evolution of Disney’s Main Street USA

    The 4 Steps in the Evolution of Disney’s Main Street USA

    The Penny Arcade Featured Vintage Arcade Games

    Opened with the park in 1971, the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA was inspired by its Disneyland namesake. While Disneyland’s Main Street recalls the Marceline, Missouri of Walt’s youth, Walt Disney World’s version was expanded to include architectural styling from across the country.

    Nonetheless, the area remained a charming, idealized variation on a turn-of-the 20th century small town. Until the 1990s, Walt Disney World’s Main Street USA was well-known for its unique shops and small details that truly brought the era to life. Everything changed, however, during Michael Eisner’s Disney Decade.

    The Magic Kingdom’s version of Main Street USA is a good example of how the street, and its role in Disney’s parks, has changed over the years. Many of the updates have been paralled at Disney’s other parks – let’s take a look.

    1. 1970s and 1980s shops

    The Penny Arcade Featured Vintage Arcade Games

    When Main Street USA opened in 1971, it featured a carefully crafted collection of shops and restaurants that would have fit into any small downtown in the nation in the early 1900s. Yet all were given a subtle Disney twist. For example, Disney Clothiers, which replaced the Hallmark Shop in 1985, featured high-end clothing and jewelry in a space decorated with unique Disney artwork.

    Although it seems shocking in this era of designated smoking areas, both Walt Disney World and Disneyland once featured tobacco shops on their respective Main Streets. At Walt Disney World, the Tobacconist was beloved by smokers for its vast selection of both domestic and international cigarettes, as well as pipes and cigars. Prices were, of course, higher than those at local gas stations and convenience stores, but were not astronomical for their time.

    Of course, changing public sensibilities made it impossible for a theme park marketed to kids to retain a store dedicated to an activity that was increasingly seen as socially unacceptable. Although the Disneyland Tobacconist survived until 1991, Walt Disney World’s version closed in the mid-1980s. The cigar store Indian, however, remains as a tribute.

    Other highlights included the Penny Arcade and the House of Magic. Opened with the park, the House of Magic was small but surprisingly well-stocked. Choices ranged from simple kids’ magic sets to more professional props, along with a small selection of books written by or about famous magicians. Cast Members performed sleight of hand on a frequent basis, always drawing a crowd.

    Next door to the House of Magic, the Penny Arcade featured a well-balanced blend of modern arcade games and vintage items. From hand cranked Mute-o-Scopes that showed short film clips via a series of rapidly-flipping cards to mechanical horse races, the vintage machines were all fully operable. Prices varied by era, from a quarter for modern high-tech video games to a single penny for the oldest amusements.

    2. 1970s and 1980s attractions

    The 1970s and very early 1980s were the days of attraction tickets, when park visitors had to present a coupon for each ride or show they wanted to experience. A very few attractions, typically those with large corporate sponsors, were “free.” No ticket was required, and guests were free to experience the attraction over and over again. Along with the still-existent Walt Disney World Railroad and Main Street Vehicles, Main Street USA also offered three attractions that are no longer open.

    The Plaza Swan Boats opened in 1973. This D-ticket attraction sailed the central waterways of the Magic Kingdom, circling the Swiss Family Treehouse before returning to its Main Street dock. Originally skippered only by female attendants, the Swan Boats provided guests with a 17-minute narrated tour of the Magic Kingdom’s highlights. However, they were slow loading, expensive to maintain and prone to breaking down. The seasonal attraction closed in 1983.

    The Main Street Cinema was a B-ticket attraction, later an A, that gave park visitors a cool place to sit down and watch old Disney shorts. Classics such as “Steamboat Willie” and “Mickey’s Polo Team” played on multiple screens. From the window mannequin wearing a “Jennifer” name tag to the theater décor, the place did a wonderful job of recreating an early 20th century movie palace.

    The Walt Disney Story was a nearly 30-minute biographical film of Walt Disney. Through careful craftsmanship, the movie was narrated by Walt himself, despite the fact that he passed away five years before the Magic Kingdom opened! Sponsored by Gulf Oil, the Walt Disney Story was one of the Magic Kingdom’s few free attractions. The theater was attached to the Gulf Hospitality House, which featured a wide and ever-changing array of historical Disney memorabilia.

    3. 1990s and 2000s

    The Walt Disney Story Became Exposition Hall

    Michael Eisner’s Disney Decade was packed with changes designed to improve the parks division’s profitability. One of the most tangible effects was the massive refocusing of Main Street USA from turn-of-the 20th century nostalgia to turn-of-the 21st century sales goals.

    In 1989, the table-service Town Square Café received a Lady and the Tramp overlay, transitioning into Tony’s Town Square Restaurant. Although this change was fairly subtle and tastefully done, it served as a preview of things to come. Most prominently, in 1996, the popular and reasonably priced Crystal Palace was reimagined as a buffet-style character meal, complete with a massive price hike.

    During the mid-1990s, synergy was in and individuality of merchandise was out. Many of Main Street USA’s quaint shops closed to make room for a massive expansion of the Main Street Athletic Club—a giant catchall gift shop with a loose sports theme. Two of the most prominent victims were the Penny Arcade and the House of Magic, both shuttered in 1995. Thankfully, some of the vintage mechanical arcade games were relocated to the second floor of the Main Street Railroad Station.

    The Walt Disney Story closed in 1992. The space was used for annual pass redemption, then converted into a Welcome Center for the park’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1996, complete with a short promotional film for the then-under construction Disney Cruise Line and Animal Kingdom. It then became Exposition Hall, featuring some of the original memorabilia from the Gulf Hospitality House days.

    4. Today’s Main Street USA

    Main Street Tribute Windows

    Today, Main Street USA largely resembles the version of Michael Eisner’s era, with a few additional changes. The Firehouse is now headquarters for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom in-park collectible card game. Exposition Hall is now a character greeting location. Modern merchandise opportunities still reign supreme.

    However, if you scratch the surface a bit, you can still find echoes of Main Street USA’s original theming. Inside the Chapeau, or hat shop, the party line phone that once graced the wall of the General Store is still waiting to give those who lift the receiver a surprise. All along the street, the second floor windows still bear tribute to those who created the Magic Kingdom, including a listing for Walt himself above the Main Street Cinema.

    Check the side streets and quiet corners, where flowers still bloom and the crowds seem to disappear. Although nothing will ever be as it was, those who intentionally search it out will find a glimpse of Walt’s original vision for this recreation of his beloved childhood hometown.