Time-Traveling Through Magic Kingdom
By Tony Stamatoplos
Have you ever felt like you’re traveling through time when you’re at Walt Disney World? WDW abounds with representations of both the past and future, from subtle allusions to elaborate depictions. You can see this almost everywhere in the parks and frequently in the resorts. If you’re like me, you also find yourself flashing back in time with your own Disney memories and imagining future changes and experiences. Here are just a few of my thoughts on time travel in Magic Kingdom.
Main Street, U.S.A.
First off, I love the approach to Magic Kingdom, with its grand view of the Walt Disney World Railroad station. This magnificent welcome never gets old. And when I see it now, I can’t help being nostalgic for the old welcome show, which featured favorite Disney characters and music and was hosted by the Mayor of Main Street, U.S.A. The station architecture and the trains themselves are throwbacks to the early 20th century, when train travel was prevalent. Walt himself had an interesting history with trains and always loved them—this building is a bold reminder of that. And isn’t it appropriate that the entrance to Magic Kingdom is through a train station, that fixture of many cities and towns, which in the past was a portal to other places and new experiences?
Once inside the park, guests find themselves in the Town Square of Main Street, U.S.A., Disney’s version of a quintessential early 20th century American town. Disney really knows how to set a scene. The ambience here and the views of Main Street and Cinderella Castle can be overwhelming, flooding the senses and creating a charming impression of a time and place that are distant yet familiar. Though this area is sometimes crowded, it’s hard not to relax, reflect, and leave the outside (and present) world behind.
Walking through Town Square and strolling down Main Street to the sound of that wonderful period music, you might imagine yourself decked out in the attire of the day, chatting with friends and neighbors. Familiar features of a town of that time surround you: City Hall, a barbershop, an ice cream parlor, storefronts, restaurants, a theater, and a fire station. The interiors and displays in the shops also give an impression of the era. You can imagine a young Walt there, taking in every detail of it. You might also see vintage vehicles such as the fire engine, horse-drawn trolley, and the two-story omnibus. You can treat yourself to a trolley show or a performance by the Dapper Dans. One of our favorite memories is of the morning we had the good fortune to ride the bus with Main Street Mayor George Weaver, who unfortunately is no longer with us.
Beyond Main Street and Cinderella Castle, Liberty Square is an obvious place to step into the past. For me, it’s about reflecting on American history, especially events and personalities of the Revolution (in Disney style). The striking architecture, background music, and general atmosphere immediately set the stage and put one in the mood. One finds in Liberty Square a more serious ambience, and in a few places even a sort of reverence, not typical in other lands. For many of us, Liberty Square plays on our senses of history, pride, and patriotism. Though small, it has more than its share of real historical references, such as the Liberty Bell replica, the Liberty Tree, and the Hall of Presidents. It’s easy to just pass through on your way to the Haunted Mansion or destinations in other lands, but I recommend stopping to reacquaint yourself and enjoy things you might have forgotten or take for granted. Three appropriately themed restaurants also help make it a place worthy of spending some time, my favorite being the quaint and affordable Columbia Harbour House, bordering Fantasyland.
Frontierland, on the other hand, is like stepping into a movie rendition of the past. It celebrates frontier times and places in the spirit of popular books and movies of Walt Disney’s time. The vibe here is about the period of westward expansion in America. Its depiction is fun and sometimes tongue-in-cheek, which you see in the structures and attractions. And there’s the ever-present mood music, some of which is pretty good. Many of the standard clichés and stereotypes of the Old West are on display at attractions like the Shootin’ Arcade, Country Bear Jamboree, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, as well as in souvenirs outlets such as the Frontier Trading Post. My Frontierland experiences are undoubtedly influenced by childhood memories of Hollywood westerns, and it always takes me back to those. There are plenty of appropriately themed eatin’ places, too, my favorite being Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Café, one of the best quick service restaurants in WDW.
Tomorrowland, of course, is dedicated to the future—the hopes and dreams of tomorrow. It seems appropriate that as you approach from the Hub, you cross a bridge (actual and symbolic). Walking under Tomorrowland Archway, there’s a sense of entering a strange world. The intensity of the scene and background music grows as you enter. Before you is a stunning view of what could be a crowded main street of a future city, perhaps on a distant planet, with the iconic Astro Orbiter and the ever-present Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover dominating the scene at first. The “futuristic” music adds to the ambience, making one think of computers, space travel, and other things emblematic of the future. Details of the buildings and attractions become more conspicuous as you make you way through the land. Space Mountain serves as both an attraction and a key landscape backdrop.
Visiting Tomorrowland is not exactly like traveling into the future—it is more like stepping into the past to see a supposed future from a point of view of that time. It has some wonderful examples of “retrofuturism,” a genre in the arts that plays on this idea—the future as imagined in the past. Retrofuturism is everywhere in Tomorrowland, rooted in futurist and science fiction themes from film, television, and comic books. Not surprisingly, more than any other area of Magic Kingdom, Tomorrowland evokes feelings of otherworldliness and another time.
We rarely miss an opportunity to ride on the TTA PeopleMover, immersing ourselves in the sensations of Tomorrowland. (“Paging Mr. Morrow…Mr. Tom Morrow.”) We also are regulars of Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress. Yes, it’s old, corny, and some would say, “outdated.” I admit that’s probably its biggest appeal for me, though I’m also a sucker for classic attractions with audio-animatronics. This attraction, portraying technological and societal change through the eyes of a family, is typical of how Walt saw progress in terms of imagination and ingenuity. It also brings to mind the impact technological innovation still has on us.
Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café, a quick service restaurant, though themed for Tomorrowland, demonstrates that food in the future is remarkably like fast food common in the mid- and late-20th century—cheeseburgers, fries, shakes—you get the idea. And there are lots of places to shop for appropriately themed souvenirs, my current favorites being Merchant of Venus and Mickey’s Star Traders.
Yesteryear’s notions of the future were imperfect. I’m sometimes reminded in Tomorrowland that I have yet to own the flying car or jet pack we thought we would have by now. Meanwhile, however, I’m wearing my MagicBand and carry in my pocket a massively powerful computer with a digital camera and communication device, with which I access and create information accessible across the planet.
Though not specifically about the past, Adventureland brings to mind the fascination with exotic things and places that was prevalent in American popular culture during the mid-20th century. It is a product of that time, celebrating adventure and highlighting the exotic as depicted in movies. I can’t help being reminded of the many Saturday afternoons I spent as a boy in front of the family TV set, engrossed in old adventure movies such as King Kong, Treasure Island, and Tarzan. Disney draws heavily from such depictions in Adventureland, with themes reminiscent of colonial Africa and Asia, as well as Polynesia. Three classic attractions, all old favorites of mine, epitomize this: Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, and Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Our new favorite plate to eat is the Jungle Navigation Co. LTD Skipper Canteen, a lighthearted but delicious extension of the Jungle Cruise experience. And of course, you’ll want to get a Dole Whip at Aloha Isle before you leave. For me, time travel in Adventureland is more about experiencing popular culture sensibilities of the past than a specific time or place. We all connect to WDW through the lens of our own personal history, so perhaps this says as much about me as it does about Disney.
A Tribute to Disney’s Worldview
One of the recurring themes I‘ve discovered when time traveling through Magic Kingdom is that Disney presents both the past and future in a mostly positive light. Depictions of the past can seem nostalgic and the future can seem utopian. Some might see this as unrealistic, glossing over blemishes of the past and ignoring less than ideal realities of the future. But there’s more to it than that. The positivity in Liberty Square and Frontierland reflects Walt Disney’s belief in the American spirit and its promise for the future. Tomorrowland’s idealized version of the future is about his optimism and belief in progress.
As I hope to show in future posts, this sense of time travel can be found in many other parts of WDW. Epcot’s Future World comes to mind, as do areas of Disney’s Hollywood Studios that celebrate the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s also everywhere in WDW resorts, some of which are thematically connected to lands in Magic Kingdom. Whether you’re staying or just visiting, you can time travel at WDW resorts such as Disney’s Grand Floridian, Pop Century, Contemporary, or others. Wherever you find yourself in Walt Disney World, I wish you happy time travels and magical days.
What are your favorite images of the past and future in Magic Kingdom? How do they connect with your life and experiences? Do you have a favorite place to experience time travel at Magic Kingdom or elsewhere in WDW? Do you or your family have your own special Magic Kingdom history?
Welcome to Magical Days in the World. My name is Tony Stamatoplos, and I’m a lifelong Disney fan. Growing up, my Disney experiences were through television, movies, books, and comic books. I didn’t get to visit a Disney park until I was an adult, fulfilling a big dream. Since moving to Florida, I visit WDW often. Whether I’m there for a week, a day, or just a few hours, there’s always something magical about it. I’d love to share some of my experiences, insights, and tips with you. I’d also like to hear about some of yours!