Main Street U.S.A.: Then and Now
by Brian Martsolf, ALL EARS® Guest Columnist
This article appeared in the April 4, 2006, Issue #341 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
Those of you who are long-time readers of the ALL EARS(R) newsletter may remember my previous articles, Tomorrowland: Then and Now, and Fantasyland: Then and Now. Some may have asked themselves, "But what about the rest of the Magic Kingdom?" I ve certainly asked myself that question. All the lands of the Magic Kingdom have seen some changes since opening day, including Main Street U.S.A.
Main Street U.S.A. provides such a wonderful entrance for the Magic Kingdom. The elegant Victorian style of the buildings seen here today certainly was in evidence from the opening of the park. The Main Street vehicles and trolleys still travel from Town Square to the Hub and back, the Emporium and other shops still sell many wonderful souvenirs of vacations to this magical place, and the train station still sees many departures and arrivals each day, but each of these areas has had changes. Many of us don't think of Main Street as a place for attractions, and while the only attractions listed on the park maps there in recent years are the "Main Street Vehicles" and the Walt Disney World Railroad, in one older guidemap of the park I have (Winter /Spring '74) it lists 10 attractions for this area. Of course, five of those are vehicles now covered by the catch-all Main Street Vehicles (Jitney, Fire Engine, Horseless Carriage, Horse Cars, and Omnibus). But the other five attractions are the Walt Disney World Railroad, a presentation called The Walt Disney Story, the Cinema, the Penny Arcade, and the Swan Boats.
The first attraction, geographically at least from the entrance, is the Walt Disney World Railroad. This attraction has seen some changes in its views over the years, but those are in parts of the park other than Main Street, where the view has not changed so much. Still, the station has seen some renovations recently. Much of this is the type of renovation that you need to do for any building that has been in the Florida humidity (and just yards from a lakeshore at that) for more than 30 years. But another part of it is that the stroller area has traded places with the locker rental areas, which were housed on the ground level below the train station. Hopefully they will keep the decor in this area the same. The large posters with the history of the locomotives and their namesakes have returned and some photos of Walt's own backyard railway, the Carolwood Pacific, are back, too.
As you leave the station and head into the park, the first building on your right is the Town Square Exposition Hall, formerly known as the Hospitality House. This is where The Walt Disney Story was shown from April 1973 until October 1992. This 23-minute long film told the story of the life of Walt Disney. It didn t require a ticket for entry, but was sponsored instead by Gulf Oil. Its post-show area changed a number of times over the years to showcase new things coming to the resort. The Epcot Center Preview Center was one of these changes. Later it previewed the Disney-MGM Studios during their construction phase. After the Walt Disney Story had ceased playing here this building hosted the 25th anniversary welcome center, and later a preview for Animal Kingdom. The Photo Center is now located here.
The Cinema also used to be listed as an attraction on the park maps, and it required a B ticket for entry. It has seen many changes over the years. In 1998 the Main Street Cinema was converted to retail space, and it now hosts an information center for Virtual Magic Kingdom, or VMK as it's known by many of those who participate in it. VMK is an online game based on the layout of the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom theme parks. In addition to playing the game online, you can experience it in the parks in a sense by participating in "quests," which are basically trivia hunts for information about the park. The VMK center in the Cinema provides the brochures that have these quests in them.
The Penny Arcade was listed as an attraction in the early information guides for the park as well, though it did not require a ticket for entry. The arcade featured hand-cranked antique movie-showing machines that worked a bit like a flip book. You put your coin in the machine, put your eyes to the viewfinder, then a series of photos would flip by. Other machines were predecessors to the modern jukeboxes, being automated music-making machines, a sort of one-man band under glass. This attraction closed in 1995 and the space was absorbed into the retail along Main Street (Main Street Athletic Company). Some of the machines from the arcade still survive — a few are in the Main Street Train Station, including a Sebring (one of the one-man band machines) located in the lobby of the station. http://www.bigbrian-nc.com/moon/b6-00-800.jpg
The last change in attractions to mention is the Plaza Swan Boats. These slow-moving swan-shaped ships loaded from a dock near where the Rose Gardens adjacent to the castle are — the loading structure is still there. This attraction was hosted by a guide who described the sights along the canal that encircles the Plaza and this same canal's extension into Adventureland. They weren't the most thrilling or absorbing ride, but they did look pretty. http://www.bigbrian-nc.com/70s/0111-1001.jpg
So much of Main Street is dedicated to being the biggest shopping center of the Magic Kingdom, where all different kinds of merchandise are sold. It might not be surprising that the stores have seen many of the changes over the years. In 2001 a new extension was added to the Emporium, filling the space formerly occupied by West Center Street. This new extension's "backstory" had it opening in 1901, and the signs on the construction wall surrounding the area during construction read, "A bigger and better Emporium for a new Century," a nice bit of double meaning there referring to both the 1901 backstory date and the actual opening in 2001. This new section of the Emporium has a later date than the rest of the building. Several pictures I've seen of the Emporium's entrance show the phrase "since 1863" over the entrance. So the 1901 section of the Emporium is to be seen as an addition in the backstory as well, and the fixtures and decor inside this new section were chosen to support this. In a sense, these details tell the story of a merchant and the growth in his prosperity as his town grew with him, and he has a name, in gold leaf on either side of the main entrance — Osh Popham, which was the name of a character played by Burl Ives in the Disney film "Summer Magic."
Attractions and shopping haven t been the only changes on Main Street over the years. Dining locations have had their share of changes as well. What was once the Town Square Restaurant has become Tony's Town Square. As is appropriate for a place whose owner's name is a restaurateur in Disney's "Lady and the Tramp," some of the decor here is dedicated to that film. A section of sidewalk out front has two pairs of paw prints inside a heart in it. Other dining changes on Main Street include the change of the Crystal Palace to a buffet with characters from the Pooh films, and the change in name of Coca-Cola Refreshment Corner to Casey's Corner, both of which occurred in 1995.
Other changes on Main Street over the years include the addition of statues of both Walt and his brother Roy O. Disney. Walt's "Partners" statue is in the center of the Plaza Hub, while Roy's is at the Town Square end of Main Street. These special touches, tributes to those who made the park possible, bring to mind other tributes seen here — the windows on Main Street. Many of the upper story windows of the buildings facing Main Street feature painted business office signs that appear to just be part of the setting, but also feature the names of many of the folks who have worked at WDW over the years. I've heard it compared to the credits at the beginning or ending of a movie, and that seems a wonderfully appropriate analogy to me. These signs, too, have seen changes over the years as more of the folks who were with the park in its earliest days have retired. Sometimes they are presented with a window paying tribute to their efforts for the park and its guests through the years.
Still, with all the changes that have occurred here over the years, there's at least one thing that I'm very glad has not changed — Main Street U.S.A. still provides a wonderful transition into, and at the end of the day, out of, the Magic Kingdom.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Bruce Metcalf for the interesting Main Street, U.S.A. and Walt Disney World Railroad information he provided.
Brian Martsolf is a lifelong Disney theme park fan whose first visit to Walt Disney World was in 1996. He lives in Charlotte, NC, with his wife, Carlene, and works at a Tyco Plastics manufacturing facility. He also has his own Disney website, http://www.bigbrian-nc.com , which features trip reports (with lots of photos), a section on the history of Walt Disney World illustrated with its postcards, and articles on the Disney Internet community and Disney theme park souvenirs.
Other articles by Brian Martsolf: http://allears.net/btp/brianm.htm
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.