Photo Credit: Ayefour Publishing

Four Decades of Magic:  Celebrating the First Forty Years of Disney World: a collection of essays, Compiled by Chad Denver Emerson, Ayefour Publishing, 2011, 379 pp.

Amid the pomp and circumstance certain to be part of the Walt Disney World 40th Anniversary celebration, what will likely be ignored is any reference to the Walt Disney World that never was.

There will be speeches given and articles written praising Walt’s vision, Roy’s persistence and how one park and two hotels evolved into today’s vast resort.  But little attention will be given to the countless choices made by Walt, Roy and the Imagineers and executives who followed—choices that shaped Walt Disney World, not merely by what was done, but also by what was rejected.

In Four Decades of Magic, Chad Denver Emerson has compiled a diverse collection of essays, written by some of the most preeminent authors in the Disney Community, about the 40-year history of Walt Disney World. Not surprisingly, there are several in depth essays devoted to the development and history of the parks, certain attractions and key resorts.

But the collection contains nearly as much material exploring concepts and ideas that never saw the light of even one resort day. These were not just pie in the sky dreams randomly “thought up” in Imagineer brainstorming sessions but left to wither on the vine for one reason or another. In many instances, the concepts were fully developed, articulated, designed, modeled and promoted, but never built. Taken together, these essays reveal an intriguing story of how budget concerns and corporate politics played as important a role as imagination in the development of today’s Walt Disney World.

For Disney fans seeking behind the scenes tidbits and obscure historical information, Four Decades of Magic delivers. Tom Corless provides a thorough history of the Magic Kingdom parades, while Chuck Mirachi discusses the genesis and evolution of the Main Street Electrical Parade. There are essays delving into the amusing history of the Hoop De Doo Review (Greg Ehrbar and Chuck Mirachi), Spaceship Earth (Jason Diffendal) and Carousel of Progress (Michael Scopa) as well as a delightful examination of the evolution of Disney’s nighttime fireworks displays aptly entitled, Magic of the Night (Debra Martin Koma).

But what of the Disney that was never built? And why should we care?

When Walt conceived the “Florida Project,” one of his primary motivations was to create a controlled and immersive environment, so totally segregated from the surrounding area that nothing could intrude upon or distract from that immersion. At Disneyland, Walt could control the environment within the park, but could do nothing to stop the commercial blight that developed immediately outside. In Florida, he knew he could do much more.

So, instead of a simple theme park, Walt conceived an entire community:  the famed Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. EPCOT would be a city of innovation containing advanced telecommunications and transportation systems and would be constructed using state of the art building techniques and materials.

Yes, of course Walt would build a better Magic Kingdom, but its primary purpose would be to fund EPCOT. He had already conquered the theme park genre and, as Sam Gennawey discovered during research for his essay about EPCOT, “Walt Disney did not like sequels. He was always looking over the horizon at the next opportunity.” There was no taller horizon or greater opportunity than the development of a privately built city.

Walt’s ambitious plans for EPCOT and for the entire Florida property were revealed in his October 27, 1966 film loosely called The EPCOT Film. Not only was it a brilliant marketing device, the film was also a lobbying tool designed to convince Florida legislators to pass legislation necessary to allow Disney to self-govern the Florida property. Amazingly, EPCOT would fall outside the control of local Florida government.

Walt died on December 15, 1966, less than 2 months after the release of the film. Between his death and the opening of EPCOT Center in 1982, Walt’s original concept was changed dramatically. In the essays about EPCOT by Gennawey and Michael Crawford, we are encouraged to imagine how different Walt Disney World would be today if Walt had lived another 10 or so years and his version of EPCOT had been built.

Walt’s unrealized vision of EPCOT is the most dramatic example of the World that never was—but it is not the only one. Scott and Carol Holmes’ write about the meticulously designed but never built Beastly Kingdom section of Animal Kingdom. They question the wisdom of Disney management and specifically, former Disney CEO, Michael Eisner, in abandoning the area which was themed around imaginary animals.

The painstaking development and tragic abandonment of the Western River Expedition attraction is chronicled in Mike Lee’s essay about the planned Magic Kingdom anchor. Lee describes WRE as “a ‘Cowboys and Indians’ version of Pirates of the Caribbean” which was designed to be part of the larger Thunder Mesa project. Thunder Mesa, as promised, would contain several attractions unique to Florida and “tower high above dense pine forests, offering a spectacular panoramic view of Frontierland.” Lee calls WRE the “single-most dynamic unbuilt Disney attraction in the entire history of Disney attractions.”

But not all of the unrealized concepts were attractions. Lou Mongello takes a detailed look at Disney’s original plans to build the Asian, Persian and Venetian Resorts on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake. The strategy was to open the Magic Kingdom with the Polynesian and Contemporary Resorts in 1971 and then, over the next five years, phase in the other three heavily-themed resorts.

The exhaustively researched essays in Four Decades of Magic provide a rich and thorough history of the development of Walt Disney World. That alone would make it a worthy read. But the book provides so much more than just history. The discussion of the Walt Disney World that never was provides an opportunity to learn why the resort developed as it did and a chance to imagine how different it might have been.

Contributed by: John Marchese (NDD#172) John is the DDL Media Relations Blogger.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Four Decades of Magic

  1. Sam Gennawey here. Thanks for the great review. Just wanted to let you know that I have just released “Walt and the Promise of Progress City” that greatly expands on what was in that chapter. It is also an Ayefour release.  

  2. Kathy, I am in constant awe of those in the Disney community whose knowledge of WDW dwarfs mine.

  3. Sam, thanks so much for the wonderful compliment. It is I who should thank you and the other contributors, however, for your work and passion. I look forward to reading “Walt and the Promise of Progress City.”

  4. I had the opportunity to interview Chad for Project Future on the night he released this book. There are so many great contributors to this book and look forward to reading it finally.
    Sam, I write about people pursuing Disney here at the DDL, just starting, and hoping I can get an interview with you on your new book. It will fit perfectly with my ‘Recapturing the Future’ podcast, if you’d be so kind 🙂

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