With the recent opening of Walt Disney Imagineering Presents the Epcot Experience, an impressive preview of the exciting new attractions coming to Epcot in the near future, I was reminded of just how innovative and effective the concept of a “Preview Center” has been in the development and public awareness of Disney projects through the years. And it all started in earnest nearly fifty years ago right in the heart of Central Florida.
I wonder how many visitors to Walt Disney World Resort have any idea of the historical significance of the very distinct 1970s-style low-slung building with the manicured lawns and wrap-around windows, located along Hotel Plaza Boulevard in Lake Buena Vista? Now home to the Amateur Athletic Union, this unassuming building was the birthplace of the Disney “preview center” concept that has become ubiquitous with the opening and expansions of Disney Parks around the world.
Although preview centers have been utilized to introduce, showcase, and promote such diverse endeavors as Disneyland Paris, Disney California Adventure, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland, it was the Walt Disney World Preview Center that had the biggest burden in terms of introducing an entirely new concept in family leisure. In typical Walt Disney fashion, the “Disney World” concept was something entirely different that needed to be explained and conveyed.
Thanks in large part to the popular “Disneyland” TV series of the 1950s and the subsequent global renown of Disneyland park, people were familiar with the idea of a stand-alone Disney park destination (groundbreaking in its own right at the time). However, by all measure, Walt Disney World Resort was simply not another Disneyland park.
At a November 15, 1965, press conference announcing the “Disney World” project (featuring then Florida Governor Haydon Burns and Roy O. Disney), Walt Disney had this to say:
I’ve always said there will never be another Disneyland, Governor, and I think it’s going to work out that way, but it will be the equivalent of Disneyland . . . This concept here will have to be something that is unique so that there is a distinction between Disneyland in California and whatever Disney does…notice I didn’t say “Disneyland”…Disney does in Florida.
I’m very excited about it because I’ve been storing these things up for years. Certain attractions at Disneyland that have a basic appeal I might move here. Then again, I’d like to create new things. You hate to repeat yourself. I don’t like to make sequels to my pictures. I like to take a new thing and develop something, a new concept.
When the Walt Disney World Preview Center opened on January 10, 1970, its goal was to communicate to guests and visiting media that this project was an all-new approach to family vacationing that encompassed not only a Disney park but all kinds of entertainment, dining, sports, and recreational activities on a scale never before imagined. At 47 square miles and 27,500 acres it was, indeed, a “Vacation Kingdom” undo itself.
Featuring charming and informative hostesses, an impressive 12-minute film, intricate models, impressive artist renderings, souvenir merchandise, along with food and beverage offerings, the preview center might be considered the resort’s very first popular attraction. As a matter of fact, in its first nine months of operation, the preview center welcomed over a half million guests!
One of my prized Disney possessions is the “Preview Edition” souvenir guide that was offered for sale at the preview center. It was also available by mail and occasionally at Disneyland Park in California. The impressive booklet, now almost a half-century old, is brimming fantastic early Walt Disney World concept art, plus exciting photos and illustrations.
I can’t imagine that visitors to the preview center couldn’t help being impressed by what they saw. Considering the fact that Walt Disney World Resort is soon to celebrate its 50th anniversary and remains the number one family vacation destination in the world I would say that the modest, and very first, preview center for a Disney park did an admirable job of “previewing” for the public a destination that would soon be affectionately dubbed the place “Where Dreams Come True.”