Walt Disney World has long been known as a global leader in exciting, innovative attraction design. Yet some of its most iconic attractions almost never came about due to design flaws or erroneous beliefs about the interests of the target market. Another came about not because of any particular inspiration, but rather the desire to settle a long-standing feud.
Here is a look at how 5 of Walt Disney World’s most iconic attractions came to life.
In 2005, Disney celebrated the 50th anniversary of Disneyland with the “Happiest Celebration on Earth.” As part of the festivities, different Disney parks around the world opened copies of popular rides from other Disney parks. Epcot got Soarin’, a copy of Disneyland’s Soarin’ Over California.
When Soarin’ Over California was conceptualized, Imagineers knew they wanted three-level seating in vehicles that would fly over the OMNIMAX (IMAX Dome) screen. The design called for three different loading platforms, each on a different level, and ride vehicles that traveled along a system of conveyor belts similar to those used by dry cleaners. This design proved to be cost-prohibitive, and the ride seemed destined to die quietly in the planning room.
That weekend, Imagineer and ride systems design expert Mark Sumner had an inspiration. He went to the attic of his home, where his 40-year-old Erector set still sat. Over the next few hours, he used his beloved childhood toy to work out a realistic model for a brand-new design that would load on a single level. He brought the Erector set to work on Monday morning, demonstrated his idea for the team, and received the green light soon after.
2. Jungle Cruise
The Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise opened with the park on October 1, 1971. A slightly tweaked version of Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, which opened with that park on July 17, 1955, the ride has changed little since its earliest days. Yet the original Jungle Cruise was imagined far differently than the iconic humor-based attraction it became.
Inspired by Disney’s 1950s “True Life Adventures” series, the Jungle Cruise was originally planned as a serious documentary-style ride down some of the world’s waterways, complete with actual live animals. Despite Walt’s best efforts, however, the animal-care specialists with whom he consulted were adamantly opposed to the idea of real animals. Then-current animal husbandry simply did not provide a way to ensure that exotic animals would be visible to guests on the boats while simultaneously providing for their needs. Walt reluctantly agreed to use audio-animatronic animals, and his dream of a ride-through attraction filled with live animals would not be realized until Animal Kingdom’s Kilimanjaro Safaris opened in 1998.
Meanwhile, the original Jungle Cruise did keep the serious, documentary-style spiel that Walt had envisioned. It was not until 1962 that the light-hearted, pun-filled script would debut.
3. Pirates of the Caribbean
Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, opened in 1967, was the last attraction Walt Disney had a personal hand in designing. Despite the ride’s smash success, however, Imagineers did not intend to copy it at the Magic Kingdom. Their thinking was sound, though incorrect. In California, the Caribbean seemed a long ways away and pirates were somewhat exotic. In Florida, however, the Caribbean was right next door and pirates had been a real threat throughout much of the state’s history.
Imagineers wanted to give Florida park visitors the same feeling of an exotic, far-off land that California guests enjoyed from Pirates, so they created an elaborate pavilion dedicated to the Wild West. The Western River Expedition would have featured a runaway mine train and a Pirates-style boat ride through some classic Western scenes. A Native American village and a pack mule ride were also in the original plans.
For budgetary reasons, the Western River Expedition was slotted for Phase Two of the Magic Kingdom rather than built as an opening day attraction. But something happened that Imagineers could never have predicted. Walt Disney World park guests began visiting Guest Relations in droves, all asking the same question: “Where are the pirates?” They had heard about the spectacular pirate attraction at Disneyland, and they wanted to see it for themselves.
The guest complaints led Disney to rush through a copy of Pirates of the Caribbean, which opened at the Magic Kingdom in 1973. The Western River Expedition was indefinitely postponed, and ultimately canceled. Over the years, however, elements of it reappeared as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain. Meanwhile, Pirates of the Caribbean proved every bit as popular at Walt Disney World as it was at Disneyland, ultimately spawning a movie franchise.