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This is Why Disney World NEVER Should Have Started Selling Alcohol in the Parks

alcoholic drinks
Credit: Disney Parks/Canva

For years, guests have debated about whether alcohol should be sold at Walt Disney World, and while everyone is certainly entitled to his or her own opinions about alcohol in the Central Florida Disney parks, when all is said and done, the powers-that-be at Disney’s second theme park resort were flat out wrong to begin selling alcoholic beverages to guests in the parks–no two ways about it.

alcoholic drinks

Credit: Disney Parks/Disney/Canva

The Walt Disney World Resort first opened to guests in Central Florida in October 1971, more than 52 years ago. The resort welcomes millions of visitors annually to its four theme parks–Magic Kingdom Park, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Walt Disney’s First Park: 1955

On July 17, 1955, after just 364 days of construction, Walt Disney’s very first theme park opened in Anaheim, California. Before deciding on Anaheim, Walt had met with city officials in Burbank, where his studios were located, but the City of Burbank declined to have Walt’s new theme park located there, as the city council was concerned that such a park would create a “carny”-type atmosphere in the city.

walt disney at his burbank studios

Walt Disney at his Burbank studio/Credit: Walt Disney Archives

Opening Day at Disneyland was a disaster, though, and became known as “Black Sunday” in the media. The story for publication across the country was that Walt had failed, and that opinion was based on the fact that everything that could go wrong on the park’s first operational day did go wrong.

Women’s heels got stuck in the tar that had not yet dried on the park’s walkways. Food ran short. Because of a plumber’s strike, Walt had to decide between having working toilets or water fountains, so he chose toilets. The day was hot and steamy as the area had been in a heat wave for weeks, causing afternoon temperatures to soar well above norms. And to complicate every issue already present on that day, counterfeit tickets to Disneyland had been made and distributed, meaning that 28,000 people attended opening day at Disneyland, though only 15,000 had received legitimate invitations.

parking lot at disneyland

Thousands arrived at Disneyland on Opening Day, many with counterfeit tickets/Credit: Disney

But on September 8, 1955, less than two months after the park opened, Disneyland welcomed its one millionth guest through the gates. And by April 16, 1961, less that six years after its opening, Disneyland saw its 25 millionth guest. Maybe Walt hadn’t failed after all.

25 millionth visitor to disneyland

Credit: D23

Walt Decides to Build a Second Theme Park: Early 1960s

It must have become apparent to the visionary genius that a second theme park was not only needed but surely wanted by the general public. After all, Disneyland was located on the West Coast, making it about as far away as it could be from people living on the Eastern Seaboard and in the New England area.

Add to that the fact that the U.S. interstate highway program was in its infancy in the first years after Disneyland opened (President Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t sign the Federal-Aid Highway Act into law until June 29,1956), and it’s easy to see how challenging such a cross-country trek would have been for Disney’s fans who wanted to experience his new theme park but lived hundreds or thousands of miles away.

President Eisenhower signs federal highway act

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs the Federal Highway Act of 1956 into law/Credit: Eisenhower Presidential Library

Once Walt decided to move forward with his second major project, he had to decide on a location. Among the cities he considered as potential hosts for his new project were New Orleans, Louisiana, the site of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair (and a larger site near the Meadowlands area of New York), St. Louis, Missouri, and Central Florida.

Land in Louisiana proved to be too expensive, and it’s likely the same was true of New York. New York also experiences cold weather several months out of the year, as well as snow, making the location less than ideal for a theme park resort that would operate year-round. But at least part of Walt’s big heart was set on building a park in St. Louis, the largest city in the state of Missouri.

Though Walt was born in Chicago, Illinois, his family moved to the tiny town of Marceline, Missouri, when Walt was just five years old. As such, he always considered Missouri his home state.

Walt Eyes St. Louis as the Place For His New Project: 1963

In the early 1960s, one section of the city of St. Louis getting ready for the Gateway Arch. Land located between the Eads Bridge and the Poplar Street Bridge was being cleared to make room for the new structure, and at the time, Walt Disney was interested in the surrounding area because he knew the location would be a short walk from downtown St. Louis and Busch Municipal Stadium–the place the St. Louis Cardinals called home.

st. louis missouri in the early 1960s

St. Louis, Missouri, in the early 1960s/Credit: Missouri Legends History Site

Walt had told his colleagues and friends that he’d like to build his theme park in St. Louis. He loved to study traffic patterns, believing in earnest that where the traffic went, business would follow, and in the early 1960s, the St. Louis riverfront seemed the perfect location because it was an area of convergence of several highways–Interstate 55, Interstate 64, Interstate 70, and Route 66.

But a differences of viewpoints and a snarky comment would forever change Walt’s mind about laying down theme park roots in “The Mound City.”

A Disagreement and Snide Comments Change Walt’s Mind

Walt and his team moved forward with plans to build in St. Louis, drawing up schematic renderings for a place Walt called Riverfront Square to share with the city’s officials.

disney schematic drawings for riverfront square in st. louis

Credit: Disney/Canva

disney schematic drawings for riverfront square in st. louis

Credit: Disney/Canva

On March 16, 1963, they flew to St. Louis for a meeting with several St. Louis heavyweights, including Gussie Busch, an American businessman whose family owned the Anheuser-Busch brewing companies.

Busch took over the role of chairman of Anheuser-Busch in 1946, and by 1957, he had grown the company in the largest brewery in the world. Born and raised in St. Louis, Busch’s family was well known and had a lot of influence in the city’s affairs.

The headline on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that morning read, “Disney Reveals Ideas of Large Amusement Unit on Riverfront,” and it was spot on. That day, Walt Disney was prepared to share his plans for that “unit” with the St. Louis men, but according to Admiral Joe Fowler, who worked closely with Walt, the meeting went downhill before Walt ever had the chance.

Joe Fowler - D23

Admiral Joe Fowler stands with Walt Disney/Credit: D23

“[Riverfront Square] was only two blocks from Anheuser Busch Stadium. And of course [August “Gussie” Busch] was a great man in St. Louis. We had a big banquet the night before the final papers were to be signed. Walt was there. The Mayor of St. Louis was sitting beside me.

When Mr. Busch got up and he said, ‘Any man that thinks he can open and make a success of any amusement park and not sell beer or hard liquor ought to have his head examined,’ Walt was sitting beside me, and I saw that eyebrow go up. Sure enough we embarked the next morning. We had our own plane to go back to California.

Walt said, ‘All right, fellas. No St. Louis.’ And that was it.”

Walt had long been committed to not having alcohol of any kind in his parks, and he wasn’t about the change his mind about that. Instead, he changed his mind about St. Louis and never looked back.

Walt Decides on Orlando

The first purchase of land in Central Florida took place later that year, as Walt ultimately chose the Orlando area for a number of reasons. He had studied traffic patterns in the area, and he knew that the well-developed network of roadways, as well as plans for the continued construction of Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike, would lend themselves to driving visitors to the area. Additionally, the airport at McCoy Air Force Base was closeby as well.

“Where I-4 meets the turnpike he said, ‘That’s it,’” University of Central Florida History professor Dr. Jim Clark said of Walt Disney making the decision to build in Central Florida.

But Central Florida offered Walt a few other things: cheap land, the ability to buy up lots of the land so the new park wouldn’t be landlocked like Disneyland was, and the freedom to stick to his guns about not selling alcohol in the parks.

Though they did their best to keep Walt’s identity secret in multiple land purchase transactions, word got out, and on November 15, 1965, Walt and his brother Roy joined Florida governor Haydon Burns to officially announce Disney’s plans to build a second theme park in Central Florida during a press conference.

walt disney and roy disney meet with governor haydon burns of florida

Credit: D23

All was going well for the Disney team. But exactly one year and one month later, on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney died at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank. The nation stood still. The world was in shock. And Disney’s Florida Project team would have to learn quickly how to carry on Walt’s dream without the most important part of that dream.

Construction Begins on Walt Disney World: 1967

Six months after Walt’s death, his team surely held back tears as they celebrated the groundbreaking ceremony for what would soon be the Walt Disney World Resort. But before the team broke ground, Walt’s brother wanted the world to know that though Walt was gone, his vision was still very much alive.

walt and roy disney

Credit: Disney

Disney’s team held a “first look” event aimed at giving visitors an idea of their plans for Disney’s second theme park. During the event, which was held at the Ramada Inn Tower in the town of Ocoee, Florida, Roy O. Disney, Walt’s older brother, said the following in his speech to those who attended the event:

“You should know that the dedication of our staff to Walt’s goals is tremendous. And I know Walt would like what his creative team is doing because these are the ideas and plans he began. Everything you will see here today is something Walt worked on and began in some way. And today, the Walt Disney organization is dedicated to carrying out these wonderful plans in Walt Disney World.”

Roy O. Disney is Born - D23

Roy O. Disney/Credit: D23

The event also included a 17-minute film titled Walt Disney World–Phase 1. Attendees watched the film at the nearby Parkwood Cinema Theater and then they were treated to a bus ride to the site where Disney World would be built.

walt disney world first look

Credit: Walt Disney Archives

As construction of Walt Disney World was progressing, Walt’s team knew that they needed to give visitors and residents in the area another look at their plans, as well as they progress they were making. When Walt Disney was alive, he understood that rather than expecting others to understand his vision and buy in to it immediately–especially bankers and other financial investors–he would have to give them a visual, tangible exhibit of sorts so they could begin to share that vision as well.

But Walt was no longer there, so his team of men who made it their daily business to continue working under the guidance of Walt’s wisdom, his directives, and his vision, did exactly what Walt would have done and opened the Disney World Preview Center on January 10, 1970.

disney world preview center in lake buena vista

The Walt Disney World Preview Center/Credit: Disney Parks/Canva

The Preview Center not only garnered the public’s support for the new theme park complex, but it also helped to create an excitement and anticipation for what was to come, and it did so by giving the public a look at what the Disney World resort would look like once phase one of the project was completed.

cast member at the disney world preview center

A cast member welcomes visitors to the Disney World Preview Center/Credit: Disney

There were no bars included in the plans for Disney World, nor were there locations at which alcohol could be purchased.

The center remained open until September 30, 1971, the day before Disney World officially opened, and by the time it had run its tenure in Lake Buena Vista, 1,332,927 people had visited what came to be called by some “the attraction before the attraction.” It’s important to note than in 1971, the population of Orlando was only 331,000.

Disney World Opens . . . With No Alcohol: 1971

On October 1, 1971, Disney World finally opened to the public, and, just as Walt had wanted, alcohol could not be found on any menu anywhere in the park. But that didn’t stop the crowds from pouring in through the gates.

Walt Disney World Resort Opens - D23

Credit: D23

Just eight years and three weeks after opening Disney World welcomed eight-year-old Kurt Miller, a Maryland native, through the gates as its 100 millionth guest. In 1982, EPCOT Center opened, and adult “libations” were sold, despite Walt’s aversion to it.

On October 12, 1995, Michelle Davis, 31, was welcomed at the gates as Disney World’s 500 millionth guest. And still, no alcohol was sold at Disney World outside of EPCOT.

These numbers make it clear that the absence of alcohol certainly hasn’t deterred visitors from coming to Disney World.

The Beginning of Alcohol Sales at Magic Kingdom: 2012

In 2012, alcohol became available for purchase at Magic Kingdom for the first time with the opening of the new Be Our Guest Restaurant in New Fantasyland.

Be Our Guest Restaurant Crest

Credit: Disney

The addition of alcohol in the parks infuriated some fans, while delighting others.

But regardless of how guests feel about the sale of alcohol at Disney World, one thing is certain: Walt Disney felt strongly against it. He was so committed to not having alcohol sold in his parks that he walked away from the dream location for his second theme park because of that commitment.

It seems only reasonable to say that the decision to sell alcohol in the parks–even at EPCOT in 1982–is just another way of dishonoring Walt’s vision, and that makes many of his biggest fans extremely sad.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

3 comments

  1. I agree. I think the adding of alcohol, combined with the heat, has drastically changed the parks. People’s attitudes are affected and most can’t handle their alcohol and heat combination.

  2. YES ALCOHOL HAS NO PLACE INSIDE OF THE PARKS !

    Disney’s insistence of NO ALCOHOL is well founded, Disney built the parks with Families in mind and an experience to transport everyone into a Fantasy World to leave behind the riggers and mundane of every day life to enjoy the family atmosphere and fun .
    If you need Alcohol to enjoy life you need help !
    Alcohol has a place and time and consumed responsibly it as everyone know there are those that can not control themselves and create a bad and dangerous environment and children do not be exposed to this alone with everything that comes with the consumption of Alcohol.
    After you leave the parks and go home or to a hotel and to want to relax and enjoy an Alcoholic beverage that’s fine if that your life style , by bring Alcohol into the parks that exposes other guests that’s enjoying a family day with there family that doesn’t fill they need Alcohol to have a good time is
    IRRESPONSIBLE !

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