A Tour of Walt Disney World in the 90s and 00s
Last week we took a tour of the first two decades of Walt Disney World History. This week, we’ll be visiting the 90s and 2000s. Or we will be after we take a very brief detour. Those with a keen sense of Disney history likely noticed that we didn’t mention Disney-MGM Studios last week, even though the park opened in 1989. Coming in as it did on the tail end of the decade, we hope you’ll excuse us for sneaking it into the 90s (the better to spread out the magic!). One more caveat, for practical reasons this won’t be a comprehensive history. Think of it more like a magical mystery tour of some favorite Walt Disney World memories. So, with our ad hoc justifications out of the way, let’s move along!
The Backstage Studio Tour & Inside the Magic – Special Effects and Production Tour
When Disney-MGM Studios first opened, a portion of the park actually functioned as a working movie/television studio. Guests who wanted a look inside the magic of movie and television making could get an in-depth look by taking the Backstage Studio Tour and Inside the Magic (a special effects tour). While taking the tour, you could see terrifying natural disasters (if you remember the tour, you can probably still feel the heat of that explosion and feel your pulse racing from the flash flood), as well as the sets of movies like the live action 101 Dalmatians.
The Loony Bin
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of craziest films ever created, a brilliant combination of zany humor and excitement, as well as a stunning demonstration of Disney animation blended with great live action. As you left the Backstage tour, you could visit a place called The Loony Bin, which was dedicated to the world of Roger Rabbit. There were photo ops with the villainous Weasels and Jessica Rabbit. Anvils, tons of bricks, and other cartoonish threats hung from the ceiling, and you could even catch a glimpse of Eddie Valiant’s car.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
In the late 80s and early 90s, it’s hard to think of a franchise that was more popular than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They were the stars of their own cartoon series, had action figures and, in 1990, became immortalized in a feature film. In June of 1990, they also made their way to Walt Disney World. The heroes in a half shell would drive their Turtle Party Wagon, show off some high action moves, and then hang out for pictures. The Turtles human friend April O’Neil was also part of the performance. It was a brief show, but for fans of the Turtles it was brilliant.
The Birthday Cake Castle
Let’s take a jaunt outside of the Disney-MGM Studios and hop over to the Magic Kingdom. There’s no way to talk about Disney in the 90s without talking about the transformation of Cinderella Castle for the park’s 25th anniversary. The castle was transformed into a giant pink and white confection, covered in bits and pieces of candy, peppermint sticks, frosting, and a large 25 on the it’s face. It was whimsical and completely unforgettable.
Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show
Another staple of 90s culture, Goosebumps began as a wildly successful book series by author R. L. Stine, which later became a popular television show. It was a great way to introduce young audiences to the joys of getting spooked. In 1997, the franchise made a brief appearance in the Disney-MGM Studios with the Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show. The performance featured Amaz-O the Magician, Slappy (an evil ventriloquist dummy), Curly the Skeleton, and other ghoulies. Even better? The show pulled two kids from the audience to be a part of the frights.
Jane Goodall At Animal Kingdom
In 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened. As the fourth gate at Walt Disney World, it was a stunning addition to the resort, a perfect blend of entertainment, conservation education, and a celebration of the natural world. The park’s icon was (and is) the Tree of Life, a towering tree covered in animal images. The park’s grand opening was held on Earth Day and featured renowned primatologist Jane Goodall Ph.D. In fact, Goodall’s work was eventually immortalized on the Tree of Life in the form of David Graybeard (one of the chimpanzees Goodall wrote about). Eventually? Yes, originally there were 324 carved animal images on the tree. When Jane Goodall visited the Animal Kingdom, she was very impressed but noted that there were no chimpanzees on the tree! Imagineers went to work and not only added a chimp, they added Goodall’s favorite, David Graybeard. (You’ll find David near the entrance to It’s Tough To Be a Bug).
When I think of the early days of Animal Kingdom, one word comes to mind: Nahtazu! The word made its first appearance around 2001 in a commercial promoting the park. A visit to Animal Kingdom was (and is) like stepping into one of Disney’s old Real Life Adventure films. It was a chance to get completely immersed in the wonders of the natural world and to learn about our role in protecting it. Because of that, it was important to Imagineers and others at Disney that Guests realize it was more than a zoo. Hence, the Nahtazu campaign. It only lasted a few years, but I’ll always associate it with the park.
Lights, Motors, Action!: Extreme Stunt Show
Big changes were taking place at the Disney-MGM Studios in the early 2000s. In 2003, a portion of the Backlot tour was closed. Two years later, that space become the Lights, Motors, Action!: Extreme Stunt Show. It was an awesome experience, giving Guests a look at how action sequences are made in movies. There were high action scenes like a car chase, explosions, motorcycle chases, and even a sequence featuring a “driverless” car. The show was an absolute spectacle and brilliantly celebrated the magic of movie making.
Eight years after the opening of Animal Kingdom, Expedition Everest made its debut. A high octane thrill ride, the roller coaster takes Guests through the Forbidden Mountain as they traveled to Mount Everest (yes, you are not actually racing through the caves of Everest itself!). It was an Imagineering wonder, featuring the most complex Audio Animatronic ever created to that point in the form of the giant Yeti wreaking havoc on the expedition (including ripping part of the coaster track to shreds). For many years now, the Yeti has actually been working in “B Mode,” meaning that the animatronic itself is motionless, with a strobe light creating the illusion of movement. (This is because some structural issue arose soon after the attraction opened, though the exact details vary depending on which story you hear). Despite that, Expedition Everest remains the most heart pounding attraction in the park, and the sight of the mountain towering over the landscape is easily one of the most photographable parts of Animal Kingdom.
So there we go…a very quick look at some great moments in 90’s and 2000’s park history. Up next, we’ll revisit the past decade leading up to the 50th Anniversary (just weeks away now).