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This Closed Magic Kingdom Classic Shaped EPCOT Center and Gave a Generation Wings. Here's the Story.

As we've mentioned, sponsorship was far from a new concept for Disney.

Sure, Disney had rallied organizations to take on sponsorship of proven Disneyland classics. United Airlines had even joined Disney in 1964 to sponsor the Enchanted Tiki Room! However, by time Disney had decided on a new aviation-themed ride for the new Magic Kingdom Park, United was six years into their support of the Tiki Room… and was regretting it. 1964 was the first year that United faced multi-million dollar net losses, meaning they were unlike to sign onto any further financial support.

Image: Disney

Plus, the scope of this sponsorship would be unprecedented. Rather than signing on to support an existing attraction, Disney was – for the first time – asking if any company would be interested in paying for a ride’s creation, from scratch. Reportedly, Disney was requesting $10 million from any potential financier.

Eastern Air Lines stepped up.

Eastern was one of the “four big” domestic carriers in the airline industry (alongside United, American, and Trans World [TWA]), and had dominated the East Coast for decades. They were also quick to jump on the opportunity of servicing Walt Disney World, connecting Orlando to 60 cities by 1971.

Luckily, Eastern was willing to pay for Disney to develop an aviation themed ride for their Tomorrowland, but had a few requirements.

Designing

They wanted any air travel themed ride Disney designed to highlight Eastern and, specifically, its key travel destinations: the Caribbean, Mexico, and New Orleans.

Image: Disney, via Passport To Dreams

Disney, meanwhile, was in an unusual predicament… this new ride would require a new showbuilding (really, an extension onto the existing south showbuilding along Tomorrowland’s main entry) conforming to the very odd proportions and space limitations of this corner of Tomorrowland. It would be quite literally squeezed into an odd, elongated shape bordered by Circle-Vision and the tracks of the WEDWay Peoplemover (though that ride wouldn’t open for four more years).

With the financing assured, Eastern was officially signed on not only to sponsor the new ride, but as the official airline of Walt Disney World.

Image: Disney

Playing off of Eastern’s famous tagline through the 1960s and ‘70s (“Eastern: The Wings of Man”), the Tomorrowland ride under development became known as If You Had Wings. Claude Coats was brought in to design the ride, essentially taking the core ingredients of Disneyland’s Adventure Thru Inner Space… a sort of “spiritual sequel” to the microscopic adventure from five years earlier.

Like all great Disney dark rides, If You Had Wings would be nothing without its theme song: “If You Had Wings” was written by composer Buddy Baker (known for scoring countless Walt Disney feature films from 1953 – 1981) and lyricist X Atencio (most well-known for “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” and “Grim Grinning Ghosts” from Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, respectively.)

Image: Disney

Scenic designers and artists led by Coats worked overtime to prepare the ride, carefully balancing live sets with 41 16-mm projectors, three 70mm projectors, and dozens of special effect lighting arrays.

If You Had Wings was ready for its debut at the start of Walt Disney World’s first summer season, opening June 5, 1972. And now, it's final boarding call for non-stop flights aboard If You Had Wings... 

Taking Flight

Image: Disney, via Widen Your World

 "If you had wings – a flight of fancy fhrough the world of Eastern Airlines."

The simple, sans-serif typeface on the sleek, geometric, pastel exterior – though perfect for Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland – is understated compared to the experience that awaits within. Gazing directly into the wide open concourse inside, your first and most striking view is the ride's most iconic: a stylized globe beyond streamlined white panels. 

Image: Disney

And moment by moment, a continuous line of Omnimovers advances into the open globe. For those lucky enough to have flown cross-country, this iconic imagery will look familiar given that the same concept is (not coincidentally) at play in Disneyland's Lost Legend: Adventure Thru Inner Space, where Omnimovers glide into the Mighty Monsanto Microscope. It's the first spiritual connection.

The queue, of course, is a modern (that's 1970s) airport terminal, pre-security. But as with all Omnimover-led dark rides, the line moves quickly and efficiently as guests step into the constantly-loading chain and prepare for take-off.

"Attention please! Eastern Air Lines Flight 72, your fiesta flight to Mexico and the ancient pyramids is now departing at Gate 19."

Image: Disney, via Widen Your World 

And now, the adventure begins. As the cart advances into the globe, it's consumed by darkness... Until the lighted silhouettes of jet planes and seagulls begin to glide past. And then, a distant chorus begins to sing:

"If you had wings, you could do many things;
You could widen your world if you had wings.
If you had wings, if you had wings!
If you had wings had wings, had wings!

You could fly to a plaza, where the people play
At the Mexican fiesta, in the land of ole!
If you had wings, if you had wings!
If you had wings had wings, had wings!"

Image: Disney

Then, the first of the ride's scenes comes into view: Mexico. One of Eastern's most popular destinations, Mexico here is represented as an old Mexican celebration. And here's the brilliance: dotted among the physical sets are projection screens animated via 16mm projectors hidden throughout the showbuilding. These screens bring life and action to the scenes, creating dancers, townspeople, divers jumping from the cliffs of Acupulco, and a mariachi band who joins in the chorus. (In that way, perhaps you could call If You Had Wings and its set/screen integration and depth the great-grandfather of a Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.)

"You could fly to Bermuda, like a flying fish;
Have a ball on a cruise ship, or catch fish if you wish!
If you had wings, if you had wings!
If you had wings, had wings, had wings..."

Image: Disney, via Widen Your World

Gliding along, we then enter the next scene: the Caribbean. Here, an ocean cruise liner is docked with passengers along its decks (brought to life via projection) bidding us "Bon voyage!" as they toss streamers. Below, divers sift through the water and docked sailboats show the lighted silhouettes of dancing couples. A shed nearby features a tourist proudly showing off his fishing catch to his wife... but as the vehicle passes, the fish in his grasp becomes... well... closer to reality.

Image: Disney, via Widen Your World

We can't make it out, of course, without a salesman and his wife inviting us to take a straw hat in song:

"Wanna buy a sombrero, made of real fine straw? 
How about a nice handbag, for pretty mama?"

Then it's off to Puerto Rico, where young people "Limbo" to the ride's theme amidst the foliage before we continue along to the towering walls of Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan. Through archways, we can catch tremendous aerial views of the coast.

"You could follow a tradewind, down to Old San Juan 
And explore an old fortress, before traveling on!
If you had wings, if you had wings..."

The Bahamas (where a police officer directs a flock of flamingos opposite human traffic), Jamaica (where a premium 35mm projector showed young people diving off of Dunn's River Falls), and Trinidad all play their own flavored version of the ride's catching theme, but all are mere throughways to our final destination: New Orleans.

Image: Disney, via Widen Your World

Of course, it's Mardi Gras in the French Quarter, and a dixieland band chimes in with their take on "If You Had Wings," represented only via their silhouettes on a nearby vine wall. A blocked-off alley shows a parade passing by endlessly on the next block as fireworks erupt in the sky overhead.

"You could fly with flamingoes to that old French town;
Go on regale New Orleans, wear the carnival crown!
If you had wings, if you had wings;

If you had wings had wings, had wings!"

And now, turning the corner, the ride's true highlight comes into view: the Speed Room. The cavernous, ellipsoid-shaped room was alight with the flickering footage from seven high-speed 70mm projectors, completely and totally surrounding us in action. As we recline and ascend through the endless chamber that fills our peripheral view, flashing scenes of water skis, airboats, motorcycles, trains, and an airplane's takeoff make us feel as if we're flying along, too.

Image: Disney, via Widen Your World

We've made it. The ride's finale is the so-called Mirror Room, where the theme music swells into a harmonic symphony of sound. In this final room, two more 70mm projectors would create views of snow-capped mountains reflected on floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The hypnotic, majestic, soaring finale leads to a calm descent as seagulls re-appear, with Eastern jets soaring alongside. Orson Welles narration promises something grand:

"You do have wings.
You can do all these things.
You can widen your world.
Eastern: the wings of man."

Given its closure in the mid-1980s, high-quality videos of If You Had Wings are difficult to come across. Here's the best we've found:

Disembarking from this most unusual dark ride, guests would find an Eastern Air Lines reservation kiosk, staffed by a friendly team eager to assist with booking and travel plans.

Flying Forward

If You Had Wings was a true marvel, perfectly suited for Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland in 1972; a celebration of an industry at the height of its success, the ride was a custom-made family adventure crafted by Disney Legends with a song among the most addictive in Disney's playbook. 

Expertly crafted to fit the unusual proportions of a custom-made showbuilding alongside the park's Circle-Vision theater, the ride somehow managed to mask projectors among its brilliant sets – a true credit to Coats and the Imagineers he worked with.

And like so many of Disney's most treasured classics, If You Had Wings didn't last forever. On the next page, we'll dissect what led to the ride's closure... and it's re-opening just five days later. Read on...

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There are 2 comments.

I loved this ride. It was quick to get on and you never felt like you were in line because the line was always moving. Plus, I remember that this ride did not require a ticket (back in the days when you bought packs of tickets). I remember getting off it and getting right back on.

Thank you for this article. If You Had Wings was my fave ride of my Disney Parks childhood in the 70's & 80's. I also rode Dreamflight a lot, even though it was not as good, just because its lines were minimal. Buzz Lightyear is okay, although I don't really like playing games. I was glad you posted all the lyrics to "If You Had Wings" and rode us through a wordy recreation of the ride. It was so nostalgic. Besides that, even though it was my favorite and I have fond memories of it, I already forget a lot about what went on in that ride.

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