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A Model Kingdom, 1968

One hallmark of Walt Disney World since its very earliest inception is the ambitious master plan; the sweeping, grand vision which is slowly whittled away and watered down once the practicalities of construction and the vagaries of history take their toll. While the construction of the resort in the late 1960s involved a massive amount of terraforming and infrastructure creation, which resulted in miles of newly-dug drainage canals and the dredging of an entire lagoon in front of the Magic Kingdom, there were other major landscaping projects that never came to be.

This is apparent as far back as the public’s first glimpse of the Florida Project, with Walt’s “EPCOT film” from 1966. The large map of property, which Walt famously stands in front of during the film, depicts a Bay Lake that has been artificially expanded so that it reaches all the way to where EPCOT Center now stands. Had this plan come to fruition, it could possibly have covered the area now occupied by Fort Wilderness, Port Orleans and Dixie Landings.

Over the years, other plans were hatched to enlarge and link the small natural bodies of water on property. At one point, what is now the Sassagoula River was to be widened so as to link a series of recreational areas north of the Lake Buena Vista village; even EPCOT Center’s World Showcase Lagoon was once designed to extend beyond the current row of pavilions into a larger lagoon beyond.

So while it’s fascinating, it’s not completely jarring to take a look at early plans for the Disney project…

To find obscure, forgotten zoning details like this:

The “lagoon” labeled here is what is now the Seven Seas Lagoon; you can also see the site of the Polynesian resort hotel. Of the two sites labeled “future hotel site”, the rightmost was once earmarked for the Venetian resort and the square site to the left, where the Grand Floridian resort sits today, was intended for the planned Asian resort.

What’s of interest is the area behind the Asian site, labeled as “future lagoon extension.” It’s odd to think that the Seven Seas Lagoon could have theoretically been extended to wrap around the Asian resort, north of what is now the Grand Floridian’s parking lots and covering what is now the site of the Floridian’s convention center. Of course there are many zoning and land-use provisions hidden in the depths of the Reedy Creek Improvement District’s many master plans from years past, and I’ve never seen any suggestion that Disney had seriously considered extending the lagoon.

Until now, that is.

This model of the Vacation Kingdom comes from January of 1968 and represents one of the earliest models that I can recall ever seeing of Walt Disney World in a form similar to how it was finally realized. In the first publicly-revealed version of Disney World’s theme park area, the resort hotels were located in front of the Magic Kingdom and there was no lagoon in between. This model, which actually predates the blueprint discussed earlier, shows a theme park area featuring a lagoon and a number of resort hotels. The difference is that unlike in the blueprints, the hotel configuration seen on the model is completely different from any with which we were previously familiar. Let’s take a look.

First, here’s a familiar face to get our bearings. The Contemporary hotel is located much where we expect it to be, although its environs have been altered. Located between Bay Lake and the still-unnamed lagoon, the Contemporary is connected by monorail (the yellow tape) and roadway – although the famous “water bridge” has yet to appear and the road southward merely crosses a conventional causeway.

The core of the hotel itself looks much like it would continue to be depicted during the construction process. The octagonal dock seen here would continue to appear on Imagineering models, although the extensive garden wings shown winding around the building would soon vanish.

Three wings, no circus-tent convention center, no Bay Lake Tower.

The next resort is also a familiar name, but with a different face.

This is the Polynesian hotel, as originally conceived. Unlike the current “longhouse” design, this resort was originally envisioned as a high-rise hotel very indicative of the era in which it was created. This concept would last another year or so, before evolving into the hotel we know today.

As you can see, a much larger area would have been carved out of the lagoon to provide water-facing views and marina space. Multiple docks would have allowed access to a variety of watercraft and – who knows? – maybe that top floor would have featured a themed venue just as swanky as the Contemporary’s Top of the World! You can bet your bottom dollar that, at the very least, there would have been glass-walled elevators in abundance.

The last resort on this model which can be identified is in an unexpected place; the Venetian hotel, which would eventually occupy the “future hotel site” on the aforementioned blueprint, appears here where I’ve never seen it before.

The Venetian is shown here to the right, on a site facing Bay Lake which would be given a year later to the Persian theme hotel. The design shown here seems familiar, though, and changed very little when it is moved to the Seven Seas Lagoon.

The Venetian, themed to northern Italy, was composed of a central building with outlying wings, a marina, and two campanile “belltowers”.

The biggest surprise of this model, however are two resort hotels that we’ve never seen before. These two anonymous hotels would be replaced over the next year or so with the Asian and Persian hotels, but they appear here and their themes remain, for now, a mystery.

The two mystery hotels both face the Seven Seas Lagoon. One, shown here in the foreground, is located on the expansion site where the Venetian would eventually be moved in 1969. The other is sited on a spit of land somewhere between where the Grand Floridian exists today and the Magic Kingdom.

The first hotel, which I’ve taken to referring to as “Fontainebleau Jr.”, is very reminiscent of other luxury hotels of its era. It’s semicircular tower overlooks a circular pool and arcade, and several outbuildings provide added guest rooms. Note that it is also on the monorail line.

The second mystery hotel also features a “modern” design but might actually be a precursor to the Asian hotel which would replace it on the master plan.

Note the odd shape of the central tower, as well as the somewhat traditional-looking pyramidal roof on the marina structure and the outbuildings. The size of the cabanas, and something about the slope of their roofs, make me think that this was an early attempt to give a vaguely oriental flair to a standard luxury hotel. This is pure speculation on my part, but it would explain the somewhat unconventional structure of the hotel tower.

This, too, is on the monorail line.

There’s one more mystery resort element on this model, and it sits on the south shore of the never-dredged lagoon expansion. You can see it in the far left-hand corner of this image:

This distant area is frustratingly vague, even in closeup – you can’t make out any features aside from the boat dock and the fact that it is on the monorail line. My guess – and it is a guess – is that this is either the first location of the Walt Disney World campground or the first location of the golf clubhouse and facilities. If I had to wager, I’d guess it’s a campground, which means that the Vacation Kingdom’s camping area would have to move twice before taking up residence on the south shore of Bay Lake.

A campground? Or something more?

So that’s the Walt Disney Resort, as conceived in early 1968. It’s a world of endless recreational opportunities, but let’s not forget what’s sitting across that vast lagoon…

It is, of course, the Magic Kingdom.

A Magic Kingdom that is, perhaps unsurprisingly, as alien as it is familiar.

There are many major differences. Note the large, winding waterways both to the left of Frontierland and to the right of Tomorrowland. Space Mountain is the original, larger, quadrilateral design seen during the 1960s and known as “Space Port”, and the black line of the Skyway can be seen extending from one of the Space Mountain spires, making a ninety-degree turn, and passing over Fantasyland.

Note the large show building one would see directly ahead after passing through Cinderella Castle, and check out that enormous show building guests would actually pass under upon entrance into Tomorrowland.

A prominent feature of this model is the legendary unbuilt attraction in Frontierland called Thunder Mesa, home of the Western River Expedition. Occupying a huge show building on the west side of the park, it was to be located where Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain currently sit. You can see the Walt Disney World Railroad, denoted by the red tape, passing through the Frontierland station and entering the mountain.

The hulking mass of Thunder Mesa would loom over the area, facing the Rivers of America on the right, and the mysterious river area to the left. Look out, though – the steamboat is driving in the wrong direction!

Looking across Adventureland and Liberty Square towards Frontierland and Thunder Mesa

Other large changes can be found on the eastern side of the park, where the model depicts a Tomorrowland far different from that we know today, much less the one that would open in 1971.

Obviously, Space Port is quite different from Space Mountain, but looking closer one can see many other alterations.

The yellow tape, representing the monorail line, enters the park and passes between Space Port and the show building which straddles the entrance to Tomorrowland. It travels northeast where you see the station which would have allowed guests to exit the monorail inside the park itself. Passing over an Autopia area, this monorail line would leave the park before looping around to service the Venetian and Contemporary hotels.

This model, from 1969, shows a more dimensional and detailed version of this track as well as the odd-looking Space Port:

Back in 1968, you can see how the Magic Kingdom’s version of Autopia was once planned to be much more elaborate – as well as water-laced. There’s another one of those mysterious water ride areas to the east of the Autopia, and along the red tape which designates the path of the Walt Disney World Railroad you can see a planned Tomorrowland railroad station. This was never built, but twenty years after this model was built a station was finally erected in that spot to service the new Mickey’s Birthdayland.

So that’s a glimpse at Walt Disney World in its earliest recognizable days. Within a year, the design would have evolved into this:

In this 1969 rendering, you can see that the additional lagoon has been abandoned and the resorts have taken their traditional locations. The Polynesian remains the funky, 1960s tower, but is correctly sited, and the Asian hotel sits on the square piece of land which would – again, 20 years later – play host to the Grand Floridian Beach Resort. Note that the campground has also come along for the ride, at the very bottom of the rendering where the Wilderness Lodge sits today.

Here’s a rough attempt to show how that original model matches up with the reality of today…

What a difference forty years and a few hundred million dollars make…

Special thanks to John Donaldson for sharing these images

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31 comments to A Model Kingdom, 1968

  • This is fascinating, and I love the gif at the end–it’s a great visual representation of how much things have changed from the original concept.

    The Venitian looks so cool–very compact and I love the towers. I also love the layout of the second mystery hotel. What wonders never to be explored: what would have been at the top of that observation tower?

  • Amazing! Stuff like this makes me wish I had the ability to travel between realities to spend some time in a world where this stuff actually got built.

    • The WDW multiverse is the most elusive and yet the most enticing…

      This is a good point, though – I’ve always wished the Asian et al were build, but I don’t think we’d have been better off if these “normal” hotels had been built. Would love to see them in that alternate universe, though…

  • Great post and photos, Michael! Appreciate your person insight and detailed breakdown of the model and images. Keep up the great work.

  • SteveK

    Awesome post. As a local Disneylander who’s only been to WDW twice, I love insightful, behind the scenes historical info like this. Amazing how plans change significantly over time. Was there ever an explanation why two of the other resorts were never build around the lake? Seems like the land is still available.

    • Well as with most things from this era it’s hazy and kind of mysterious. The plan that evolved in 1968 – which you see in that fancier rendering towards the end – remained through the resort’s opening. The plan was for the resort to open with the Contemporary and Polynesian, to add the Asian (on the Grand Flo site) in 1973, then the Venetian, and then the Persian, which was north of the Contemporary where the Venetian appears on the model.

      Disney didn’t have time or money to get them built in 1971, and then a number of factors took over. One is that the local motel market WAY overbuilt, which didn’t hurt Disney occupancy but for some reason Card Walker elected not to add rooms at WDW in the interest of being a “good neighbor.” Then the energy crises hit in 1973/74, which delayed expansion, and I think that’s probably what really did in the hotels. By that time Disney had turned most of its cash and Imagineering attention to expanding the park and developing EPCOT, and resort expansion didn’t come around again until around 1980 when management was deciding what they’d work on after EPCOT Center opened.

      I talk about the ~1980 plans here:

      Today the Venetian site is still unoccupied – allegedly because of sinkholes – and the Persian site would be wedged between Bay Lake Tower and the WDW boneyard and backstage marina.

  • That’s fantastic, as already expressed on Twitter. One wonders what that massive showbuilding was for in Fantasyland… Small World? Maybe they intended to put up the Blair/Crump facade after all.

  • This is really fantastic. I am a bit surprised to find that the Best Friends Pet Hotel and Golden Oak weren’t on the 1966 plan, but then again, I suppose some things took some time to dream up!

  • James D

    Wonderful article and great models! It makes one think what could have been built. It is very interesting to see and track how things have changed from there original plans!

  • anonymous

    @- Was there ever an explanation why two of the other resorts were never build around the lake? Seems like the land is still available-

    I read that the land was soft at the final Venetian site. As far as the Persian, pure speculation but the route of the Monorail probably didn’t help it.
    Very nice and no need for a TTC when you arrive from Progress City!

    • Very true – the land at the Venetian site has always been a problem. They’ve publicly announced resorts for that site THREE TIMES and still haven’t built anything! And you know they’d love to have some pricey Kingdom-view rooms there…

  • I love this article! The visuals really make me wonder what this version of Disney World would feel like. I would have liked the additional waterways, especially if there would have been watercraft included. I like the kinetic energy of all of the forms of transportation in motion.

  • Michael–

    This is a long shot, but any thought about the Venetian being where it is in the model and being seen from the Campground that you posted about earlier? IF there was the thought of a campground where it (sorta) exists today, that could be close.

    • No, I think that rendering was from 1968 or later, when the Venetian was supposed to be on Seven Seas Lagoon and the Campground was supposed to be where Wilderness Lodge is today…

  • Steve Boutet

    What a great post! Just another reason that Progress City, USA is on the top of my favorites list. Just when you think you’ve seen just about everything when it comes to WDW history, more nuggets of juicy info get dropped onto our plates. Thanks again for all the great info and pics.

  • Rob Herndon

    Wow! Amazing. Where do you get this stuff? And more importantly, is there any more?

  • Wdidreamer

    Could one of those hotels be an Atlantis theme hotel? I remember seeing a concept painting in the wdi archives done by herb ryman of a building that looks very similar to the hotel where grand Floridian is pictured above. The towers in the painting look very similar, very modern but there was a huge Neptune statue in the painting in front of the middle tower between the two wings…possibly the front of the resort. The artwork was filed in the wdw section of the archives and I remember thinking how weird the juxtaposition of the undersea kingdom god was with this modern looking architecture.

  • This is a fantastic post Michael. I’m keenly interested in the planning and construction of Walt Disney World and this gave me some more insight into this. Keep up these great articles.

  • Wow, Michael, I am bowled over by the awesomeness of these photos and models. Thank you so much for sharing these with all of us geeks! So very fascinating!!

  • Michael too

    Just an outstanding article. THANK YOU.

  • Thanks to everyone for the kind comments! Glad you enjoyed!

  • I know this is a late post for this, in regards to the TOMORROWLAND WDW RAILROAD station shown in the model. That was one of TWO Tomorrowland depots designed. The first originally expected to be built for 1971 opening would have been very similar in style to the Disneyland Tomorrowland Station , but the support “trees” didn’t have the cell-form holes that were probably too out-of-date 1950’s looking. WED held off on this station because on the big delay in getting attractions opened in the land. They decided “why drop people off here when we don’t have much to show them anyway?”. The SECOND station designed was BEAUTIFUL and matched the look of the rest of Tomorrowland 1975. It would have been to the left of the Space Mountain exit and the WEDWAY beam heading to Space Mountain went right over it. Even the complete graphic and signage package was completed for this depot. This time the problem was TOO MUCH to see. WED felt dumping people off in Tomorrolwand right where the Space Mountain exit/enter crowds were was too messy people wise, and the area was already pretty tight, so the Station was never started. Sadness.

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