Walt Disney World Resort in New York? It Almost Happened

The Staten Island Notebook has put out a fantastic article by Chuck Schmidt explaining how the upcoming opening of the Doorway to Dreams Disney Vacation Club sales shop in the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island is not the first connection between the Empire State and the Disney Parks:

Want to get a first-hand peak at what the accommodations look like at a typical Disney Vacation Club resort without traveling more than a thousand miles south?

Later this year, the Disney Vacation Club will open Disney’s Doorway to Dreams in the Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City, L.I. The idea is to help prospective DVC members learn about membership in a relaxed, no-pressure atmosphere.

A full-scale, two-bedroom model of vacation home accommodations will be featured. Also included in the experience will be an interactive family vacation discovery zone, a comfortable discussion area where you can chat with DVC reps and a supervised children’s play area.

This isn’t the first time Disney has had a presence on Long Island. In fact, you might be stunned to learn that when the Disney folks were searching for potential sites for an “East Coast Disneyland” in the 1960s, Flushing Meadows in Queens — the same site where the two New York World’s Fairs were held — was being seriously considered.

First, a little history lesson. In the mid-1950s, Walt Disney gambled everything — including his own house — that Disneyland, the world’s first theme park, would be a success. He was right. The Anaheim, Calif.-based park captured America’s imagination and, naturally, led Disney to think about creating a sequel — a second Disneyland somewhere on the East Coast. But there were fears among many of the Disney hierarchy that Disneyland’s West Coast brand of entertainment might not fly east of the Mississippi.

The failure of Freedomland, a Disney-style theme park in the Bronx which opened to much acclaim 1960 before closing in financial ruin in 1964, only fueled that uncertainty. An astute Walt Disney saw the New York World’s Fair, which ran from 1964 through 1965, as an opportunity to gauge the area’s acceptance of his product, as well as to introduce new technology his Imagineers had been working on in California.

The Flushing Meadows site “was seriously considered as a possible setting for Walt Disney World,” Charles Ridgway, former WDW press and publicity director, told us in 1994. There were many things in the site’s favor, including a large population base and two nearby airports (LaGuardia and Idlewild, now JFK).

Think about it: Had those plans to place WDW on Long Island come to fruition, Staten Islanders would have had about a one-hour drive to get to the Vacation Kingdom of the World.

Ultimately, the specter of cold and snowy winter weather and the high price of acquiring enough land for the project (remember, WDW is twice the size of Manhattan and any open land on Long Island is prime real estate) shelved the idea, according to Ridgway. A sleepy, swamp-filled, mosquito-infested tract of land 15 miles south of Orlando, Fla., proved to be the perfect setting.

Disney also used the World’s Fair to test out his ground-breaking form of entertainment — life-like robots, controlled by pre-programmed computers, soon to be dubbed Audio-Animatronics. There were four Disney-created shows at the fair featuring the new technology — It’s a Small World at the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion, the General Electric Carousel of Progress, Ford Motor Company’s Magic Skyway and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln in the Illinois State Pavilion.

Not surprisingly, they were among the fair’s most popular shows. When the fair closed, all four attractions were packed up and shipped west, where they took up residence at Disneyland; they were subsequently replicated, in one form or another, in Walt Disney World when it opened in 1971.

It’s a Small World remains a mainstay at both parks, while the Carousel of Progress is closed at Disneyland and has been relegated to a seasonal attraction at WDW. The Grand Canyon/Primeval World segments of the Magic Skyway can be seen during the train ride at Disneyland, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln evolved into the more elaborate Hall of Presidents in Florida.

For more information about the DVC and the new Doorway to Dreams, visit www.disneyvacationclub.com.

The article hits home for me personally, as the land once inhabited by Freedomland park in the Bronx is a mere 5 minutes away from my house. The old World’s Fair grounds in Flushing Meadows are just a hop, skip, and a jump away from where I live as well. This has always given me a rare treat, as I can always get a good look at the Unisphere and what remains of the fair every time I’m traveling to the Laguardia or JFK airports for a flight down to Orlando.

This article is also very timely as we are just a few days away from the 45th anniversary of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. To celebrate this anniversary and the anniversary of the legendary Disney attractions of the fair, (including Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Ford Magic Skyway, and It’s a Small World) episode #90 of the WDW News Today Podcast and episode #60 of the Disneyland News Today Podcast will be presented as a single program dedicated as a tribute to these major milestones. For the first time ever, we will be bringing together the podcast teams from both shows for a formal episode containing some of our most popular segments such as “What Were They Thinking?!?” and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (as well as a few special surprises). We hope you will join us this Sunday for what will be a very meaningful edition of the program.