TIMEKEEPING: 1980 – Walt Disney World Thunders Into a New Decade
Walt Disney World began its first new decade not just preparing EPCOT Center, but by preparing for EPCOT. The World needed to change to accommodate the concept of a multi-park resort. The Magic Kingdom had to adapt to keep itself relevant, and make space for guests who were coming to experience the new park. And the way guests experienced the parks since 1955 was set to change as well.
The most obvious change to the Magic Kingdom was the opening of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opening on September 23, 1980 with a grand opening ceremony on November 15. This served as the replacement attraction for the Mickey Mouse Revue which closed permanently on September 14 to be moved to the upcoming Tokyo resort. The Caribbean Arcade closed and was replaced with Laffite’s Portrait Deck, a pirate themed paid photo area, and the Plaza del Sol Caribe section of the giftshop was split off. The “Magic Carpet ‘Round the World” Circlevision attraction returned to Tomorrowland at the end of 1979. On January 2, the Pinocchio Parade celebrating the 40th anniversary of the film premiered and ran through June 13.
While multi-day tickets previously existed, and unlimited ride passports had been tested with Magic Kingdom Club members in 1979, 1980 saw the first Unlimited Passport Tickets made available to the general public. These two- and three-day tickets cost $18.75 and $29.25, respectively. The 3-Day Magic Kingdom Passport also included a day’s admission to Discovery Island and River Country. The ticket books co-existed at this time, with two- and three-day options costing $26.75 and $17.75, respectively. They each contained 16 ride tickets. For perspective, in 2020 dollars, the difference between the 3-Day Passport and the 3-Day Ticket book was $8.34, the two-day difference was $3.34.
1980 was also the first year the guidebooks addressed wheelchair accessibility on the attractions pages. Previous maps listed some services, but not attraction accessibility. Another service, which actually began in 1979, was located at the Polaroid Camera Shop on Main Street, U.S.A. The camera shop would actually loan out free Polaroid Cameras to guests buying film. The service was free, but required a deposit fee.
The Resort and the Company
Possibly the biggest change to the resorts came at Fort Wilderness with the closure of the Fort Wilderness Railroad in February. Maintenance, noise, and safety issues have all been cited as reasons for the closure. Over at the Polynesian Village, the Lei hut was added some time in April. The marina was also upgraded with floating dock extensions in May. The Walt Disney World Conference Center opened in September, and plans were laid for an additional 184 villas and 112 treehouses to support it. Construction began on the 825-room Royal Palace Hotel on Preview Boulevard (now Hotel Plaza Boulevard). Designs were being produced for three additional Disney-owned themed hotels to support the EPCOT expansion.
Management changes would also take place over the summer of 1980. Card Walker would move to the position of Chairman and CEO, while Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, would move from being the Executive Producer of the studio to COO and President. The company was als split into three divisions, with the parks operating under Walt Disney Outdoor Recreation, led by Dick Nunis as President.
EPCOT Center Construction
Most of the planning and layout had been finished by the time EPCOT construction formally began in 1979, but some plans still changed. Century-3 was now being called Future Probe, and was finally in the proper place and building design in the concept art. This went for almost all the other Future World and even World Showcase pavilions. The Seas was still set to premiere with the park, and what appears to be China and the Temple of Heaven is also in the concept art, though along with Africa, Denmark, and Israel, this was more in the design phase.
Ride and show elements were also well underway. Concept art showed early designs for the crystal pylon fountain and Spaceship Earth ride vehicles. Meanwhile offsite, WED Enterprises (Imagineering) was busy building sets for the Transportation pavilion, animatronic dinosaurs for Energy, and testing prototype farming concepts for the Land greenhouses. General Electric, Bell Systems, Coca-Cola, American Express, Kodak, and Sperry Univac officially signed on as sponsors. Onsite, the Monorail lines and power facilities were being built. Vertical construction was underway on Spaceship Earth, Energy, Transportation, and the Land.
Moving forward doesn’t mean letting what you have fall apart. Disney knew EPCOT’s opening wouldn’t draw attention away from its existing resort, so it continued to improve on Magic Kingdom and other offerings. Big Thunder affirmed their commitment to the park, and phasing in the new ticket structure gave them time to adapt to a new business model. A new decade lay before Walt Disney World filled with both successes and challenges. But before it could grasp that new decade, it had to celebrate its own first ten years with the Tencennial celebration in 1981.