BAY LAKE, Fla. – Ask most people to picture the heart of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and they would probably picture Cinderella Castle.
They would be wrong. The park’s icon is the gateway to Fantasyland, and visible through its entryway, drawing guests past the drawbridge, is the oldest attraction at Walt Disney World, one that was symbolically near and dear to the Disney family.
In 1963, when asked where he came up with the idea for Disneyland, Walt Disney replied, “Well, it came about when my daughters were very young and Saturday was always daddy’s day with the two daughters. So, we’d start out and try to go someplace, you know, different things. I’d take them to the merry-go-round and I took them different places and I’d sit while they rode the merry-go-round. Sit on a bench, you know, eating peanuts. I felt that there should be something built where the parents and the children could have fun together. So, that’s how Disneyland started.”
That merry-go-round is still operating today in Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt insisted on having a more elaborate carrousel as a “weenie,” drawing guests into Fantasyland, and no doubt recalling those days with his daughters, Diane and Sharon.
Ever the savvy businessman, the ride was named King Arthur Carrousel, even though his animated feature “The Sword in the Stone” would not debut until eight years later.
Walt’s team located an old, run-down merry-go-round with “good bones” as they say in home renovation. Each hand-carved horse was stripped down and restored, a process later repeated on a larger scale for Walt Disney World. One big change: Walt insisted each horse be a jumping steed, for more visual appeal, so some of Disneyland’s horses were modified.
When it came time to build Walt Disney World, imagineers scoured North America to find an even larger and more impressive Carrousel to match the scale of “The Florida Project.” They found what they were looking for in 1967, at a closed amusement park called Olympic Park in Maplewood, New Jersey. What is now known to be the largest carrousel in North America was about to be torn down. Instead, it was dismantled and transported to Florida for an extreme makeover.
The ride had been at Olympic Park since 1928, but imagineers discovered it was actually built as Liberty Carousel by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1917, and debuted at Belle Isle Park in Detroit. Liberty was a popular theme in the years after World War I, and you can still find traces of Lady Liberty if you look closely.
At 60 feet in diameter, Liberty Carousel featured 72 horses hand-carved in Maple by German and Italian craftsmen, along with and two chariots. At the time of purchase, the horses were a mixture of drab colors more appropriate to Frontierland than Fantasyland. When they stripped off the paint, Disney’s restoration team was astonished at the level of artistry and detail that made each steed unique.
Each horse was painted white, with different colors highlighting each one’s unique carvings. For opening in Florida, additional steeds were purchased and restored so 90 at a time were available to ride in 1971.
For a Disney touch, and to tie it into Cinderella Castle, some of the original artists who worked on 1950s Cinderella, hand-painted 18 vignettes retelling the fable on panels above the riders, replacing scenes of the Old West.
Each brass pole is polished regularly to keep the ride gleaming. Real 14-karat gold leaf and other metals are used as accents. If you were to ever thump your steed as you ride, you might occasionally hear one that sounds hollow. Eleven fiberglass copies of the original horses were made so Disney’s maintenance team can regularly repaint and care for these works of art. An older Disney news release says about 50-60 of the horses are given facelifts each year, costing several thousand dollars each.
There are currently 87 steeds on the ride. Three were removed after one of the Liberty Carousel chariots was rediscovered in a Disney warehouse in California in 1997. It was restored and re-installed, allowing guests who can’t physically mount a horse to ride, living up to Walt’s vision of parents and children having fun together. Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel was renamed Prince Charming Regal Carrousel on June 1, 2010. Along with the new name, it gained an elaborate and convoluted backstory about the prince allowing lucky peasants to ride a mechanical jousting contraption.
Each horse has a number and a name. The numbers are on the “bridles.” For the names, I know they used to keep that information in City Hall on Main Street. And speaking of numbers, there are 2,300 popcorn lights outlining the ride so it gleams at night.
Another important number: 8 inches. That’s how far the carousel’s base was first installed off-center from the castle. While he was always labelled “the money man,” Walt’s brother Roy Disney noticed the error on a construction tour and insisted it be torn down and moved those 8 inches, despite the time and expense. Nothing but the best for his late brother’s dream, and the carrousel remains at the heart of it all.
To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present, and a peek at what’s in store for the future.
We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.
Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!