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.
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!
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…