It’s finally happened! The news has slipped out that the Magic Kingdom in Orlando (though not YET Disneyland in Anaheim) is following the other theme parks into the NeverNever Land of serving alcoholic beverages. In some ways, it’s been here in the Magic Kingdom for some time, but with a significant expansion this week, we are arguably at some kind of turning point. Maybe.

First, let’s define what we’re talking about here. It’s the table service restaurants who are affected. Tony’s will get (Italian-themed?) wine and beer, Cinderella’s Royal Table adds champagne, Liberty Tree Tavern adds American lagers, ciders, and wine, and Skipper Canteen adds wine and beer from around the world. In other words, it looks like there’s an attempt to keep the libations at least themed to the venue.

Skipper's Canteen
Skipper’s Canteen

If this sounds like a dramatic turning point in the history of Disney theme parks to you, let’s remember that the Magic Kingdom has not been a “dry” park in some time. Since its opening in 2012, the Be Our Guest restaurant in Fantasyland has served beer and wine on its dinner menu. If you were to identify a break with history, that would be the right moment to examine.

But an expansion to four more restaurants does seem to signal something portentous, even if only symbolically. There was something about alcohol being available only in one location that kept it confined, and had the appearance of being controlled.

Be Our Guest
Be Our Guest

So far, fans look a bit divided on this expansion. Some rejoice in it because they want alcohol available at any entertainment venue; others because they simply enjoy a (single) drink with meals. There’s even a contingent that voices relief at the idea that a drink can take the edge off, because the modern-day Magic Kingdom can be exhausting, overcrowded, and even harrowing. But there are others who fear the spread of the alcohol across this park, which for so long was completely dry, and even in recent years had the more-or-less appearance of being dry.

So what’s the fear all about? Simply put, this is another one of those sacred cows left behind by Walt himself. Keep in mind it was usual for amusement parks and carnivals of the 1950s (and before) to not only serve alcohol, but indeed to rely on it heavily for profit. Just like Walt didn’t appreciate the atmosphere created by midway barkers, he disparaged the tone (and maybe even the clientele) driven by alcohol sales. Part of what Walt meant when he said he was looking for a place for parents and children to have fun “together” was a lack of alcohol. It was not coincidence that Disneyland opened without any alcohol for sale. But it wasn’t because Walt himself avoided drinking (there’s the famous story about Walt drinking too much in the Golden Horseshoe in the days just prior to the park opening to the public, for instance). It was because we was striving for a particular tonality to the park, one that overtly signaled a family-friendly environment without any drunken behavior.

If you’re on the side that adding easily-available alcohol to the Magic Kingdom is no big deal, consider the extreme of THAT position. Let’s take the ludicrous step of altering famous Walt Disney quotes to make Walt agree that drinking is normal, natural, and desirable:

  1. The way to get started is to quit talking and begin drinking.
  2. You can design, create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes booze to make the dream a reality.
  3. Whenever I go on a ride, I’m always thinking of what’s wrong with the thing and how it can be improved with beer.
  4. We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us to new drink recipes.
  5. When you believe in a cocktail, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.
  6. Disneyland’s bars will never be completed. They will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.
  7. I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a Bud Light.
  8. We are not trying to intoxicate the critics. I’ll take my chances with the public.
  9. Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making mixed drinks.
  10. Disneyland-brand vodka is the star; everything else is in the supporting role.
  11. It’s kind of fun to do the impossible beer bong.

That little bit of harmless fun does have, buried deep down inside it, a kernel of a point to make. The very reason it’s funny is the absurdity of it. Of COURSE Walt was not an alcoholic, driven by the need for getting his next fix. It’s funny because it implies Walt would likely disapprove.

If we’re going to look at this historically, we have to point out that even Walt’s Disneyland was not, strictly speaking, entirely alcohol free. Sponsors, V.I.P.s, and Disney executives could have alcohol at the corporate lounge in the Red Wagon Inn, and later at Club 33. It’s not unreasonable to point at the exclusivity of those venues, though, which meant a de facto ban on alcohol for the everyday visitor. Walt created Disneyland from scratch with complete creative control, so we know he got exactly what he wanted.

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After Walt’s death, the planned Magic Kingdom opened also with no alcohol (and this time, no corporate lounge with its separate liquor license). Eleven years later, the first non-MK park opened in the form of EPCOT Center. Walt himself was gone by this point, and the company officials were long in the habit of trying to figure out what Walt would or would not like. There must have been many arguments on this very point: would Walt disapprove of EPCOT Center serving alcohol? It was kind of a moot point. Walt had wanted E.P.C.O.T. – a futuristic city – not a different type of theme park.

Here in Central Florida, Epcot was followed by Disney-MGM Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. All of these parks not only serve beer and wine, they also sport full bars with hard liquor. The question on the table is whether alcohol has affected (polluted?) the family tonality of these parks. On the one hand, no, not really. Today’s DHS and DAK feel very much like Disney (read: “family”) parks, with no real trace of hooliganism or alcohol-driven boorish behavior.

Epcot, however, does feel different, especially when it’s the season for the Food and Wine Festival. Hordes of people of drinking age descend on the park, explicitly declaring their joint intent, via custom T-shirts, to “drink around the World” (meaning all the booths of World Showcase). The express purpose is to get drunk. This one DOES feel like a throwback to the carnivals Walt was trying to avoid. Add the fact that the Flower and Garden Festival increasingly relies on food/alcohol booths as well (and even the Holiday season with its own booths), and you’ve got many months of alcohol insanity in this park.

epcot international food and wine festival 2010-10-23-4469

Still, just when evidence mounts that alcohol would be a problem, you’ve got examples of it being no big deal. The international Magic Kingdom parks in Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai do serve alcohol, and have from the beginning. They do not appear to weather any crisis or suffer any ill effects to the desired family tonality, which seems entirely intact despite beer and wine in the park. Clearly, the role of culture and expectations play a part here, maybe the overriding part. By and large, Europeans (for example) don’t binge drink as much as Americans as teenagers, because they have been sipping alcohol with family from an early age. It just doesn’t hold the appeal.

So we circle back to Be Our Guest and ask: did it fundamentally alter the Magic Kingdom experience? Was Walt’s desired family tonality ripped asunder? I think virtually everyone would agree that has not taken place. If we were to list the reasons why not, they might include:

  1. This single restaurant lacks the through-put to move the needle on the overall park experience. Even if every visitor here got sloshed, we’re still talking a small minority of the in-park population.
  2. It’s table service, so it’s hard to chug a beer and order another one immediately. The very nature of the service slows the drinking.
  3. It’s not just table service, it’s Disney table service, which means the prices are not what you’d find in a bar outside the park (to say nothing of the prices in a supermarket). In other words, the economics of it discourage excessive drinking.

So do any of those three reasons warrant closer examination if the alcohol sales expand to four other restaurants? Certainly #1 does. Now there will be five times the opportunity as before to get access to alcohol. We could, as a result, see more drunken behavior in the MK as a result. But #2 and #3 don’t seem likely to be affected by the expansion. It’s still expensive, and it’s still confined to the table-service restaurants.

Food and Wine brings crowds.
Food and Wine brings crowds.

One of the gaps in my knowledge of Disney history is just how 1982 EPCOT Center functioned operationally. I know there was beer and wine in the table-service restaurants of World Showcase, but were they for sale in the counter-service locations? I just don’t know. Even more relevant is whether the Outdoor Vending carts sold beer back then. I know that the kiosk-driven festivals didn’t exist in the 1980s, so that’s a definite change from the early years.

The point is, the more alcohol is easy to access (outdoor vending, festival kiosks), the more visible it becomes, thus affecting the family tonality. And the more drunk people become, the more the tonality suffers. It seems like economics, and the profit motive, always win out. If the Magic Kingdom starts out like 1982 EPCOT Center (serving alcohol only in restricted, controlled ways), isn’t it an inevitability that someone in middle management will come up with an idea to increase profit by offering beer in vending carts? Creating up-charge festivals where alcohol is included? (Yes, this sort of thing now happens at DAK and DHS).

Flower and Garden. NOT Food and Wine.
Flower and Garden. NOT Food and Wine.

The real dividing line, of course, is scale. Restricted alcohol sales appear to do no damage to the Disney brand (international parks, DAK, MK so far, etc). But expanded sales do (Epcot’s festivals), and human nature + economics + quarterly results expectations + bonuses to individual managers = expanded sales. They always do.

To prevent that, it would take top leadership drawing a line in the sand and saying “no.” You can’t just pursue something because it would be profitable. As I’ve said for literally decades now, gambling on the riverboat while cruising Rivers of America would be profitable. Who wouldn’t want to play some Blackjack, and maybe walk away with some extra cash, while cruising past forts and teepees? But it doesn’t fit the family atmosphere the parks are known for.

To go to a ludicrous example, think about prostitution. Since it persists in the modern era [in places where it is legal], I have to conclude it’s profitable for someone at least (I’m guessing not the sex workers themselves). Does that mean there should be a Disney brothel, assuming it would become legal in Florida? Of course not. The pursuit of the almighty dollar, even for a public company, has to come with some limitations. I’m hoping current Disney execs know that they are coming very close to a line that defines the Disney brand with this alcohol thing.

In the years after Walt died, the Imagineers and leaders questioned themselves non-stop, wondering what Walt would do. A backlash eventually made its way through the Internet, pointing out that Walt himself was unpredictable. Imagineers told anecdotes of being surprised that Walt did (or did not) like something, which was the opposite of what they expected. So in some ways it’s a fool’s errand to ask yourself what would Walt think.

What would Walt think?
What would Walt think?

Except, in this case, I tend to believe we really do know what Walt would think. It would indeed be dangerous to speculate if Walt would like Soarin’ or the Tron ride or Mystic Manor. We just don’t know how he would have reacted. But with alcohol sold in the parks, we *do* know, because his reactions are visible in the policies of his era. Walt didn’t want the family tonality endangered. If we ever get to a moment where people are sporting T-shirts proclaiming their intent to “Drink Around the Kingdom” the way we see it at Epcot, I think we will have blown well past the point of no return, and Walt’s vision will have been irrevocably compromised.

Your opinions are hereby solicited! Do you think that expanded alcohol sales in the Magic Kingdom will stop at the table service restaurants, or expand from there? Do you think this type of thinking will spread to Disneyland (where its counterpart park, DCA, has long had alcohol sales)? Is it a big deal or making a mountain out of a molehill?

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Kevin is the prolific author of nearly two dozen books (mostly Disney related). You can find most of them on AMAZON HERE.