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The New Oil Crisis Part II – Planning in times of crisis

When Walt Disney was involved in planning the Florida property, transportation was one of his highest priorities.   A jet airport of the future, a revolutionary city (EPCOT) that would provide public transportation to all, and a welcome center where folks could leave their cars behind and board a high speed monorail that connected the entire property.

When Walt passed away and plans were scaled back bit by bit, the priority of transportation stayed.  Instead of a transportation hub intersecting with Highway 192 as originally planned, Roy Disney and Co. moved it up to its current location on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon at the tip of the Magic Kingdom parking lot.  Still, everything was connected by monorail or boat, as all early publications boasted.

Another priority for Walt (no doubt a product of the 1950s and 60s Freeway revolution) was that there were to be no traffic lights on Disney property.  You can see interesting solutions to this in the roundabouts of the proposed EPCOT street layout and the “jug handle,” still in existence in the Magic Kingdom parking lot at the intersection of World Drive and Vista Blvd.

The first outlyer to this system was the construction of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village (now Downtown Disney) and the community of Lake Buena Vista – at the time planned as a retirement community of sorts, and a sort of testing grounds for what was to be EPCOT (city).   Even then, as plans were being drawn up for what was to become World Showcase (then right by the TTC), you can see plans for a monorail running past towards the south, no doubt connecting Lake Buena Vista to the rest of the property.

Then, the proverbial mess hit the fan.  As Walt Disney World was still in its infancy,  projects like the Asian, Venetian, and Persian Resorts, as well as attractions such as Thunder Mesa, were shelved due to the OPEC Oil Crisis – it was assumed that so much of WDW’s guests would quit coming from states far and wide due to “pain at the pump,” in an era before the giant airline deregulation and Orlando Airport expansion of the 1980s.

Plans were scaled back – EPCOT was turned into a theme park (due to reasons more governmental than tourist related), and World Showcase was shoved into what is now known as Future World.

The dream of a transportation system were still alive – a spur of the monorail line ran into EPCOT from the TTC, and an extra pad was left at the EPCOT monorail station for a future line.  Lake Buena Vista was still serviceable only by bus, but the future seemed bright.

Enter Eisner and Co., and their disbelief that the property was so underdeveloped.  Massive expansion efforts began, but none with the care for development and planning that Walt and his successors had.  Not only were parks such as the MGM Studios built in the most unseemly of places, without any care for the flow of the theme park that the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT show, they also were built at such a pace that the increasingly expensive monorail system could not keep up with.  Bus service grew to dwarf any other on property – the TTC was abandonned mostly as a bus hub for individual theme park bus stations, wait times grew, and magic was lost.

The second time I worked at Disney were the salad days of 2000 in Magic Kingdom Guest Relations.  Animal Kingdom was entering its second year – attendance had been disappointing, particularly with the new threat of Islands of Adventure next door, and new theme park rumors were slowly dying.  I still believe that among the whispering, the ESPN theme park next to the Wild World of Sports was perhaps most credible.

Instead, Disney execs moved their sights towards keeping WDW a “destination resort,” where folks could come and not have an excuse to leave for any reason to give money to the competition.  The jet airport was considered again – I don’t know for how long or seriously, as was an airline.  This I believe gave rise to what is now known as the Magical Express free bus service to the airport.

The idea and hope was that folks would not rent a car or need one while on Disney property so it would be harder to get off.   Thus, the transportation service was looked at seriously.  In my last day of an extensive several week long training program, we met with WDW President Al Weiss and VP Lee Cockerell, and they outlined two new initiatives for the Florida property.

The first was a hand held computer device that every resort guest could be given that would manage their stay – a palm pilot like device that could reserve Fastpasses, order photos from rides, dinner reservations, etc.

The second was a renovation of the transportation system.  A study was done to see where it was needed the most – for environmental and gridlock concerns.  I remember Cockerell telling that they had researchers posted at spots all across property to average out the average amount of time that a Disney bus was in view.  At Downtown Disney, busses literally never left view.

In July 2000, Weiss even went so far as saying, “in two years, we are committed to drastically reducing the number of buses required to fulfill our internal transportation needs.”  He put the two year date on a “transport system which will whisk guests from the airport to a new hub on property in five minutes.”

In most every office room in the Magic Kingdom, there is a property map – and not all are current.  Most had “Future Monorail Expansion” leaving the EPCOT pad and going through the gap between Journey Into Imagination and The Land, down by the Yacht, Beach, and Dolphin, and ending at the Studios.  Some had a line leaving from there to Animal Kingdom as well.

Speculation ran rampant, and Cockerell and Weiss admitted that plans were not finalized – but they were looking at several transportation systems and knew they would not use the monorail to connect everything, just perhaps the theme parks.  A lead contender was a light rail line – and though there were several rumors, I believe the most credible was a spur going from the TTC down to Fort Wilderness, Dixie Landings, and Port Orleans, and another going down Buena Vista Drive basically from Downtown Disney, Typhoon Lagoon, Carribean Beach, Studios, Coronado Springs, Blizzard Beach, and perhaps the All Stars.

It was exciting to hear of these changes, and with attendance booming, why not take some time to invest in infrastructure?

Then, everything stopped.  September 11 took away the record numbers flocking into the theme parks, and in a scramble to compensate for problems, the WDW execs put the band aid on quietly and bought a new fleet of more fuel efficient busses.  The plans discussed in 2000 were dead.

In this time of financial crisis, I can only hope that the new regime of Disney execs, who appear very able and in touch with Disney history learn the lessons of their fathers and don’t respond with knee jerk reactions to economic turmoil.  Shelve the plans for now if you must – but don’t forget them, and don’t come up with the lowest possible solution to your problems.

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