Walt Disney World has been compared to a living, breathing entity, in the sense that it is always growing, always changing.
During a recent visit to the Magic Kingdom, my son Gregg, grandson Ryan and I paid a visit to The Hall of Presidents, where we saw and heard evidence of that metamorphosis.
To begin with, since it first swung open its doors in 1971, The Hall of Presidents has added seven presidents to its collection, with an eighth due to join the crew this January.
During the pre-show, we were reminded that there was no eating, drinking or smoking and that flash photography was not permitted to protect the dignity of the presentation. Then the cast member added that cell phones should be switched off.
It got me to thinking. Who, in 1971, would ever have thought that guests would have the ability to carry portable, lightweight cellular devices with the capability of making phone calls, sending electronic messages or even taking photos?
And who would have thought that just around the corner from The Hall of Presidents that you could take your devices to a designated area where you could plug them in to recharge them?
Yes, a lot has changed in the 45 years since Walt Disney World opened. Here are a few that come to mind:
Perhaps the place that’s most representative of change in Walt Disney World is Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom. Although the storefronts look pretty much the same as they did 45 years ago, what’s being offered for sale today is vastly different from what was available back in the day.
For instance, the Main Street lineup of shops in 1971 included a Tobacconist, a Card Shop, the Wonderland of Wax Candle Shop, the Greenhouse Flower Shop, the Cup ‘n Saucer China Shop and a Camera Center. Most of the stores were sponsored by corporations, such as GAF, Smuckers, Elgin and Hallmark. Over the years, most of those shops along Main Street evolved into Disney merchandise-exclusive outlets, although the opening of the Starbucks in the Main Street Bakery suggests that we might be headed back to the days of corporate sponsorship.
Still-photo cameras and video recorders also are emblematic of the changes that have swept over WDW over the years. Remember the days when you needed to make sure you had enough film in your camera? Or whether you wanted black-and-white or color prints? GAF was the official camera sponsor for WDW back in the 1970s and they offered four pages of photo tips in the park’s information guide.
And, if you were like me, remember lugging those gigantic video cassette recorders on your shoulder? Yes, over the years, I did film some very memorable scenes, but with the demise of the VCR player, those cassettes are but a distant memory. And now, all of you memories can be recorded on a single, hand-held device.
Over the years, the proliferation of strollers and wheelchairs in the parks has been astounding. In fact, single and multi-seat strollers, as well as standard and electric wheelchairs became so plentiful, that designated parking areas are now the norm, with Disney cast members assigned to make sure those spots are kept orderly.
Cinderella Castle, always a beloved, iconic and stately structure, has evolved into a veritable artist’s palate over the years, with the transformation never more evident than during the holidays. It’s during this time of year in particular when Disney’s creativity truly shines as the castle magically transforms into an ice palace, shimmering and glistening during the evening hours. And with the flip of a switch, projections of all shapes, sizes and colors are splashed onto the castle’s front, giving guests a truly jaw-dropping experience.
Disney character appearances also have evolved over the years. When the park opened, the characters roamed freely, sidling up to guests almost out of the blue. And they were a pretty diverse cast: Giuseppi Cat, Br’er Bear and Jose Carioca joined the likes of Minnie [dressed in yellow], Mickey, Donald, Pluto and Goofy walking among guests. These days, of course, the characters are kept in a more controlled environment, often indoors at meet-and-greets or at breakfasts/dinners. And the popularity of the Disney princesses has increased the stable of characters exponentially.
The characters have always participated in parades down Main Street, but today’s parades are light years ahead of where they were during the park’s first few years. Where once there were just marching bands and a few characters dancing their way down the street, there are now elaborate and colorful floats, some with fire-breathing dragons, with scores of heroes, villains, princes and princesses along for the ride.
Security also has evolved over the years, with the biggest uptick coming after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Prior to 9/11, who among us had ever heard of a bollard. You know, those large poles that are strategically placed in front of entrances to prevent vehicles from going into places where they shouldn’t. Post-9/11, they started popping up just about everywhere … at parks, resorts, shopping areas. We even saw a string of them going from the shores of Seven Seas Lagoon right up to the monorail station at the Ticket and Transportation Center.
And then there are bag checks as you enter the parks. Gone are the days of walking into the parks carrying just about anything, either innocent or untoward. The men and women who sort through your bags are generally pleasant and professional, but the process is time-consuming and the lines are almost as long as they are for an attraction. As an added measure of security, some guests are now pulled over at random to go through an airport-type screening.
As it turns out, what we’ve mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way WDW has changed over the years. In no particular order, we noted the emergence of the Disney Vacation Club [now in its 25th year]; the proliferation of on-property resorts; an entire network of bus transportation to and from those resorts to the parks; “special ticketed events” so popular during the holidays; the expansion of the hub area in front of the castle … the list goes on.
Lastly, we have noticed an increase in the amount of service animals that accompany guests in the parks. They are so popular, that Disney has designated special areas in the parks for the animals to go to relieve themselves.
And we’re not just talking dogs, either. Recently, while checking out all the aquatic life in The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion in Epcot, we came upon a group of three women, each with a service animal. There were two dogs … and a pony. That’s right. A pony. The times really are a changin’.