“I am a big believer in tradition,” Disney CEO Bob Iger told The Hollywood Reporter. “This just seemed like one of those traditions that if we changed it the empire wasn't going to crumble.”
As with most of Disney’s most controversial changes, it was a subtly worded post on the Disney Parks Blog that made the announcement: when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened at Disneyland Park in May 2019 (a controversy in and of itself), one of its Wizarding World-style, in-universe food and drink stops would be Oga’s Cantina, an alien-run watering hole serving pilots, bounty hunters, smugglers, and galactic travelers with “choices for kids and libations for adults.”
Fans knew exactly what that meant.
For the first time in its sixty-year history, alcohol would be available to the public at Disneyland, and that ruffled a few feathers. Despite the outcry, it’s not the first or last time that alcohol has “invaded” Walt’s original park, or the other “castle” parks around the globe… But let’s start at the beginning.
Dry as a Bone (1955)
Around Disneyland’s 1955 opening, Walt had a lot to prove. At that time, there was nothing else like Disneyland or even close, so when Walt spoke of his desires to build the park, people could only envision the seaside “amusement parks” that dotted America’s coasts – boardwalks of gaudy neon signs, shouting carnival barkers, rickety thrill rides, and the beach-going public wandering about, causing trouble.
Even Walt’s own wife Lillian tried to snap her husband out of it, asking, “Why would you want to get involved with an amusement park? They're so dirty and not fun at all for grownups."
"Well, that's exactly my point," Walt told her. "Mine isn't going to be that way. Mine's going to be a place that's clean, where the whole family can do things together."
We know that Walt made a few key choices when it came to Disneyland, all in hopes of differentiating this new enterprise from mere “amusement parks.” For example, Walt ensured that his location scouts stayed well away from a beach, as we didn’t want the “barefoot crowd”; his park was not open for the public to amble through, but had one entrance with an entrance fee; no chewing gum, cotton candy, peanuts, or ice cream bars were sold, as they stickied and dirtied up amusement parks; Disneyland had a dress and appearance code…
And, most important for us to know today, Walt decreed that Disneyland would not serve alcohol to the public.
In the summer of 1956, Walt was interviewed by The Saturday Evening Post’s Pete Martin, who asked what exactly made Disneyland different. Walt replied in part, “No liquor, no beer, nothing. Because that brings in a rowdy element. That brings people that we don't want and I feel they don't need it. I feel when I go down to the park I don't need a drink. I work around that place all day and I don't have one. After I come out of a heavy day at the studio sometimes I want a drink to relax.”
But the introduction of alcohol in Disneyland actually began mere months after Walt’s death… but don't misunderstand: Walt did approve of it...
Drops of Alcohol (1967)
At a cost of $15 million, New Orleans Square debuted at Disneyland in July 1966. With the then-mayor of New Orleans in attendance, Walt Disney joked that his new “land” cost more than the original Louisiana Purchase during his dedication. It’s often said that New Orleans Square was Walt’s pride and joy, and many fans call it the most beautiful land in any Disney Park. It easy to see why, as guests explore the intricate, criss-crossed streets of the city, pop into bauble shops, enjoy live jazz bands as steamships sail past, or relax on wrought-iron, ivy-covered patios with steaming beignets and a (non-alcoholic) mint julep.
Walt’s speech at the land’s opening also happens to be his last public appearance at the park before his unexpected death of lung cancer that December. Spring of 1967 is when the park finally opened Pirates of the Caribbean (Walt’s magnum opus, by most accounts), and by summer, the second story of New Orleans Square was brought to life by Club 33, a private club established for Disney’s corporate sponsors and VIPs.
From the beginning, Club 33 served alcohol.
In fact, Disneyland has long had a liquor license to cover Club 33 and special events at the park. That’s why, when discussing Disneyland’s “dry” tradition, it’s carefully noted that Disneyland has never served alcohol to the public. But for the well-to-do of Club 33, it’s never been taboo to relax on a second story patio overlooking New Orleans Square with a real mint julep in hand.
Ah, but now we arrive at the opening of Walt Disney World… With Walt gone, how would the new Florida property handle alcohol?
Disney World (1971)
When Magic Kingdom opened in 1971 under the supervision of Walt’s brother, Roy, the same “dry” policy for the park was put in place. And without a Club 33 of its own, that gave Walt Disney World’s single theme park the more straightforward policy that no alcohol was served at Magic Kingdom, period. Of course, that didn’t stop it from looking like alcohol might be served at various “taverns” scattered across the park’s themed lands – a humorous and surprising tour undertaken by our friends at Yesterland.
But give it a decade.
In 1982, EPCOT Center opened. With two World’s Fair style realms dedicated to futurism and globalism, respectively, executives had to face the elephant in the room: alcohol. From the day it opened, alcohol has been a part of Epcot. And how could it not be? The pavilions of World Showcase are meant to be samplers of international culture and cuisine, and for many countries in the World Showcase, alcohol is a defining part of their culture and cuisine. Could you really visit a Germany pavilion that doesn’t serve beer?
A little revisionist history is all it took. Suddenly, what Walt meant back in 1956 when he said that his park would be dry is that any Disney park with a castle at its center would be dry... a charming differentiation, but admittedly a somewhat absurd and arbitrary reinterpretation that, for some reason, has become canon.
So a new tradition was born: while “castle” parks would not serve alcohol in Walt’s tradition, other Disney parks would serve alcohol galore. And not even behind the fortress walls of “fine dining” restaurants. Buy a beer at a cart, and carry it with you throughout the park if you want! Grab a margarita in Mexico; a beer in the United Kingdom… Could the France pavilion really feel authentic if it didn’t serve wine?
And that brings us to our next leap forward… The real France… Read on…