The Island

Walt Disney World is pretty amazing. But, the amount of work that went into just prepping the site is astounding!

For example, Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon – the two bodies of water to the south of the Magic Kingdom – were present when Walt Disney purchased the property back in the 60s; but certainly not in their current forms. You see, many of the trees in Florida have vast amounts of tannin in them; which stains the water they come in contact with. Instead of the pristine waters the Walt Disney Imagineers had in mind these two lakes looked more like they were filled with a nasty dark tea.

Believing that no visitor would ever swim, fish, or boat in these ugly waters they decided it was best to completely drain them both. This presented a bit of a problem: where do they put all that water? The best solution was to dig a series of channels around the entire perimeter of the property (over 27,000 acres). Once these channels were finished they were able to drain the 3.5 billion gallons from the lakes and scrape all the sludge and muck off the bottom (a process that took five months). At the bottom they found fine white sand; which they used to create all of the beaches that currently surround these two bodies of water. Finally, they were refilled a foot and a half above their previous level to ensure no outside sources would feed water back into Disney’s new lakes (the refill alone took another nine months).

My first trip to Walt Disney World was in May of 1981. With the opening of EPCOT Center still over a year away there was only the Magic Kingdom and the three major resorts – the Polynesian Village, the Contemporary, and Fort Wilderness Campground. My Dad drove the family station wagon, pop-up camper in tow, all the way from Minnesota. It seemed like we drove forever! When we finally arrived at the gate I remember hearing the guard tell my Dad to follow the painted yellow line to the camp ground. I was certain we were in the middle of nowhere – completely isolated from the outside world (and if you were to compare Orlando of 1981 to today… I was mostly right).

Not long after checking in we were riding a tram to Pioneer Hall (sadly, the Fort Wilderness Railroad had already been retired) where I watched the big passenger ships on Bay Lake. I don’t remember my parent psyching me up before taking this trip. I never recall them prepping me about what I should expect. I do remember being suddenly intrigued: what kind of place, out in the middle of the woods, needs this kind of boat transportation? A few motor boats pulling skis, some fishing boats, maybe even a pontoon. Sure. But passenger transports? Where could they be taking all these people?

Eventually we boarded one of the boats. Without straying too far off topic, this must have been one of my very first experiences with water craft because I can still vividly remember how cautiously I stepped on board (what with the edge of the boat bobbing up and down next to the dock). We took our seats and soon we were off. To our right was a tropical-looking island with a wrecked ship. Ahead of us a massive A-frame hotel. There was some sort of raised cement beam… and then a train riding on that beam! More and more large boats were now visible; and they all seemed to be going the same direction. There were palm trees and more islands and… a city! With a castle?!

At this moment, and for the following two trips (1983 and 1987), I was convinced the Magic Kingdom was on an island assessable only by boat and Monorail. I must have never noticed the busses – or, if I did, I must have thought they only serviced ‘the island’. Photos reveal a very serious child, complete with furrowed brow, attempting to understand all this marvel and amazement. My parents were actually concerned I wasn’t having a good time – until we went to leave and I cried. I wanted to live there.

I vividly remember that night in 1987 when we had just missed a boat leaving for the campground and my Dad (no doubt worn out and eager to get back to our Wilderness Cabin) said, “we’ll take the bus”.

For a moment it didn’t seem possible. But I was older… and, as I matured, my suspension of disbelief was giving way to reality. I didn’t ask. I didn’t argue that it wasn’t possible. Somehow I knew the bus ride would serve to confirm: there was no island. In that moment the Magic Kingdom lost a tiny bit of my child-like amazement and wonder. It was still mightily impressive! I still saw it as a triumph of technology and architecture. But it wasn’t the island I always imagined it was – and so I began to view Disney World with more mechanical intrigue and less wonder.

The artwork above is by a kitschy artist who goes by the name SHAG. I think his artwork is a lot of fun – and I think you should check it out. Just click on the picture to link to his website.

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