Previewing the Magic: Walt Disney World’s first hit attraction

Disney started luring tourists to future Mouse House nearly 2 years before Magic Kingdom opened

A line of cars heading down a barely paved road (Motor Inn Plaza) leading to The Walt Disney World Preview Center in 1970
A line of cars heading down a barely paved road (Motor Inn Plaza) leading to The Walt Disney World Preview Center in 1970 (Disney)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The first attraction to open at Walt Disney World was the first to close, despite drawing more than a million guests down a barren road that transformed into a gateway to The Vacation Kingdom of the World.

Still, the spirit and legacy of that attraction lives on 50 years later in tangible and intangible ways.

The Epcot Experience is inside the Odyssey Center, Epcot, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Shortly after 2019′s D23 convention, Epcot’s long-neglected Odyssey Center has been tantalizing guests with a high-tech multimedia presentations aimed at hyping up the multi-multi-multi year makeover Disney World’s second gate is undergoing. As people squint at the details of the somewhat abstract model, many wonder — what of this is legitimately happening, and what is artistic license inside “The Epcot Experience?”

Model at the heart of The Epcot Experience, inside the Odyssey Center, Epcot, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

And what if some of those dreams are now being played down, pushed back, or eliminated altogether? That’s just following Disney tradition dating way back before Walt passed away.

Walt himself allowed us to believe in visions that — for one reason or another — just never came to pass, like his greatest dream: EPCOT, the city. That caught the public’s imagination in such a big way that 16 years after the Old Maestro passed away. As they prepared to open EPCOT Center, Disney Legend and legendary Disney Parks chief Dick Nunis told Orlando Magazine “We are still haunted by a painting.”

Painting of EPCOT the city, ca 1965 (Disney)

EPCOT was also mentioned at Disney’s first Florida attraction, though it was hardly front-and-center. The Walt Disney World Preview Center opened on Jan. 10, 1970, on what is now Hotel Plaza Boulevard, then called Motor Inn Plaza.

Due to its success, a mid-1971 press release touted (in part) : “WALT DISNEY WORLD - TOP TOURIST ATTRACTION EVEN BEFORE IT OPENS!”

Aerial image from 1971 Disney article touting The Walt Disney World Preview Center (Disney)

“More than 800,000 visitors have toured Walt Disney World’s Preview Center since it opened in mid-January of 1970, getting a sneak preview of central Florida’s “Vacation Kingdom” for the world. At the same time, guests are being treated to Disney hospitality by the staff of lovely and charming Preview Center hostesses, a brand of friendly hospitality that has become synonymous with California’s Disneyland and will likewise permeate the Florida “Vacation Kingdom” when it opens in October.”

Brochures helped guests find The Walt Disney World Preview Center (and its hostesses) in 1970 & 1971 (Disney)

“The $500,000 Preview Center is open without charge every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located on the shore of Lake Buena Vista at the intersection of Interstate-4 and State Route 535, 15 miles southwest of Orlando. Guests can view construction progress photographs, see scale models, artist renderings and a colorful motion picture outlining the first five years of the mammoth project.”

Model of Phase One of The Florida Project featured in The Walt Disney World Preview Center in 1970 and 1971. This image was also sold as a postcard inside the attraction. (Disney)

Like the current Epcot Experience, the heart of the Preview Center experience was an enormous 600 square foot model of the first phase of Walt Disney World, featuring super-familiar sights like the Persian, Asian and Venetian resort hotels. OK if you’ve never heard of them, that’s because they didn’t happen, much like Cherry Tree Lane likely won’t be coming to the United Kingdom at World Showcase, at least not anytime soon.

Model of The Cherry Tree Lane addition announced for the United Kingdom pavilion inside The Epcot Experience (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

The model also featured Magic Kingdom, Contemporary and Polynesian Resorts as they almost look, with changes small and large. Some of those changes I’ll be talking about as we get closer to Oct. 1. Recently, rare video surfaced on YouTube that recorded some of the details guests learned about during their tour by the aforementioned “lovely and charming Preview Center hostesses.” (Sorry Disney guys).

Image from 1971 "Walt Disney World News" article touting the hostesses of The Walt Disney World Preview Center (Disney)

Interestingly for modern guests, the model’s narration seemed to play up everything but Magic Kingdom, talking more about “a world of water recreation, where you can swim and sail and water ski, or take a romantic cruise from miles across the broad link and sheltered lagoon. It’s a world of match where you can play golf on 18 hole championship courses. It’s a world to relax in, where you can lounge around the colorful pools at each of the resort hotels. And most of all, Walt Disney World is a kingdom where entertainment reigns.”

Concept Art of the Contemporary Resort played up the recreational activities of "The Vacation Kingdom of the World" (Disney)

The hostess later adds that the Contemporary is: “Our flagship Hotel: 10 stories tall and A-framed. You can see the monorail which is a high speed train that runs through the lobby of the Contemporary: a lobby larger than a football field. It will (also) have many different recreational activities at Walt Disney World, such as swimming, scuba diving, sailing, horseback riding. On our lagoon, you can see water skiing.”

Prototype animatronics for "The Mickey Mouse Revue" on display in The Walt Disney World Preview Center in 1970 or 1971 (Disney)

Not that the theme park was left out, by any stretch. In addition to the model and concept art, guests saw construction photos and even prototypes for audio-animatronic figures that starred in one of the headliner attractions of 1971: “The Mickey Mouse Revue.”

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, your journey ended in the gift shop.

Preview Center: Walt Disney World preview exhibits; open from January 10, 1970, until September 30, 1971. Because of the interest in the project that was under construction in Florida, Disney opened a preview center where guests could learn about the project firsthand. Besides the displays of models and drawings, there was a short filmed presentation, along with a snack bar and merchandise shop. The Preview Center itself had a higher attendance during the short time it was open than many major attractions in Florida. (Disney)

While the Preview Center itself shut down Sept. 30, 1971, and its hostesses transferred to other roles, the non-descript building — the first building completed on Disney property — is still there, looking nearly identical to 1970 from the outside.

The former Walt Disney World Preview Center in 2021 (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Giving some brown, early Polynesian Hotel vibes with a hint of the metal work atop Epcot’s Odyssey, it is currently home to the Amateur Athletic Union. It’s interesting that the Preview Center spiel declared the pretty body of water out back “Lake Buena Vista,” when most maps call it Blake Lake, but then finding the real Lake Buena Vista in the incorporated city of Lake Buena Vista seems a bit like trying to book a stay at the Persian Resort. I can still wish for it to appear behind Space Mountain, someday.

Touted as "Lake Buena Vista by hostesses inside The Walt Disney World Preview Center just in front, most maps label this as Blake Lake (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)
Disney 50

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 by sending us an email 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!