When I’m writing my articles for ImagiNERDing or researching a topic for Communicore Weekly (the Greatest Online Show™), I want to make sure that the information is correct, or at least as correct as can be. I have a tremendous book and ephemera collection but anyone researching Walt Disney World history knows that there is an unreal dearth of information about the first two decades of WDW. It’s inspiring and disconcerting to do any online WDW research and realize that your own articles are the only things out there.
For many years, my go to site to look for documentation and check facts has been Widen Your World. Michael Lee has been curating the site for almost two decades and was one of the first people to document WDW history as it was happening. I mean, who else thought to set up a tripod and a video camera just to record the entrance loop for an attraction.
One of my most-visited pages on Widen Your World is the Magic Kingdom Index: Extinctions, Alterations, Unbuilt Components, Vacated Sponsors and Things that are the Same. I think this page was the reason the Internet was originally built.
Michael has always been the quiet one in the Disney-sphere; he always let his material speak for him. I’ve reached out to him on many occasions for help with a topic or a hard-to-find photo. I’ve tried to promote his site as much as possible (still waiting for that Widen Your World t-shirt) so that he’ll keep documenting the historic magic. I approached him about doing a small interview for ImagiNERDing and he agreed!
So, on with the show!
What are some of your earliest Walt Disney World memories?
My dad’s Super 8 camera footage mixes up the actual memories a little. My parents took me in 1971 but I was two, so probably the first fuzzy things I recall are from around 1973. The giant squid in 20K, with the big eye just a few inches from my face, is a clear early one, and also sitting with my brother Brian in Fantasy Faire when a bandleader-type guy and Peter Pan handed out jingle bells to kids for a singalong. That’s in our 1973 home movies but I also recall it in person, being confused and not liking it. My youngest WDW experiences were more like unpleasant bewilderment, not love at first sight.
Do you remember when WDW became an obsession?
1976, when I first kept a WDW guide book. It had a blue cover with the America On Parade logo. I inhaled that thing. The attraction icons, the ticket designations, the GAF photo tips. My fascination with those things started replacing fears of talking buffalo heads and oncoming trains. By then I was becoming aware of just how recently WDW was built because of my dad’s early ’70s Disney annual reports and the D-shaped Story of WDW book. Those pictures, of America Sings maquettes and Kim Irvine with the Snow White witches, put other stuff like Mad magazine and Archie Comics a distant second and third.
From perusing the amazing Widen Your World, I’ve noticed that you spent some time as a cast member. When and where did you work? How did your CM experience influence WYW?
Thanks for the compliment! In terms of when and where I worked at WDW, my luck was disgustingly good.
In fifth grade, WDW invited kids from my school to test the Wonders of WDW program and I was able to go. They took us to all of these places I’d never seen before like the Center building and sponsor lounges behind the rides. A hidden layer of Disney World was peeled away and I started to grasp that cast members were real people who went home at the end of the day and watched TV like anyone else, so maybe I could do that too. Over time that goal faded, but I had a girlfriend in high school who worked in Magic Kingdom Merchandise. Her mom did too and knew Casting people. She said they would hire me if I applied, so I did and they offered me a position in Foods. One of my location choices was the Columbia Harbour House, which was my favorite restaurant in the world when I was ten, so I picked that.
By the time l left in 1989, I had also worked at Pecos Bill, Sleepy Hollow, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise, Diamond Horseshoe, 20K, Mr. Toad, Dumbo, Snow White, Mad Tea Party and Space Mountain. Now when I think about getting to do all that in four years, it’s almost hard to believe it actually happened.
Working there meant I could easily take photos and make recordings in places most guests wouldn’t go because they would get caught, or at least think that they would get caught. So for documenting dark rides like If You Had Wings, knowing what ladders led where and which doors weren’t locked was a huge boost.
Why did you start Widen Your World?
Around 1986 I started doing small Xerox publications in high school, so that format was a comfort zone. The Janzen Brothers’ E Ticket magazine launched at the same time. I learned about that through Dave Hooper, from Baltimore, around 1989. He was a big Disneyland fan, one of the first people to copy old WDW videos for me and a great guy in general. He sent me a couple issues of the E Ticket. Anyone who’s read it knows how it changed the world of theme park fandom. It was a really big deal, but also very California-centric with virtually no dedicated Florida content.
By 1994, thanks to people like Mike Hiscano, Gerald Walker, Robert Boyd, Ross Plesset, Christopher Merritt, Dave Ensign, Mike Cozart and my own obsessive dealings, I had enough WDW material to start sharing things with other people who were into The Mickey Mouse Revue or If You Had Wings. Trading tapes was fun but I wanted to reach maybe 50 people instead of ten. So I did another Xerox newsletter then switched to a website in 1996.
I refer to WYW quite heavily when doing research for articles. How do you do your research since WYW is often the only site on the interwebz with documented and detailed information?
All over the place. There’s a ton of old WDW info, as you know, to be gleaned from ebay alone if you just have the time to pore through it. Sometimes if I want to verify something online there are inaccurate things on one person’s page but then another person’s info will beat mine by a long shot. I hope in 2024 we look at what was online in 2014 and that it seems quaint. WDW nostalgia barely existed in 1994. By 2004 it was exploding. Look at Foxxfur’s blog Passport to Dreams alone … now THAT’s research. Your site, Imaginerding, is very inspiring as well because you’ve already looked deep into aspects of early WDW that I haven’t even skimmed over. I even heard these two guys are doing a podcast called Communicore Weekly. Sounds pretty unlikely, right? In a broader sense I don’t know how much is truly online now, but people send me links and the stuff is usually amazing.
Pre-internet, though, my first verifiable info came from park guides and annual reports. In the early 1990s the Walt Disney Archives was a great resource. I met Dave Smith in 1988 and he personally looked stuff up for me many times – very generous with his time. If that didn’t work, Ross Plesset knew how to reach people and always offered to help. In some cases we got information from Buddy Baker, Rolly Crump or Ward Kimball directly. I had questions then but not too much now. David Koenig’s Realityland had so much information about old WDW that I started focusing on using my piles of papers instead of trying to learn more.
What’s your holy grail of Walt Disney World research? (What is eluding you, what do you want to find more information about?)
It would have to be something nobody even knows about, like pictures of a Bedknobs and Broomsticks parade float that broke down after three days of use in 1972 and was never fixed (I don’t think that ever existed). Early merchandise displays in general are very rare. I’m sure there’s other stuff but I can’t think of what it is. A home movie will show up on YouTube someday and it will be there.
If you could travel to any time period for a week’s vacation (taking a new-fangled digital camera disguised as an older point and shoot), when would you go and what would you document?
Summer of 1975 will put us in the middle of a WDW that is 100% fresh and 0% annoying. The disguised camera is a great idea. Let’s take something that can capture smells too because Coppertone mixed with Clairol Herbal Essence and Orville Redenbacher can be bottled and sold. I can also sneak up on a Swan Boat hostess from 30 paces undetected and get a lock of hair.
What’s your next big project for WYW?
Every time I think of a big thing to add, I fail to finish it. Facebook has been perfect because I was tired of proofreading long essays and posting one photo or video at a time seems to be working out. There will be a few more pages on miscellaneous things, a lot more pictures and audio. Just the crazy cool stuff that Jerry Klatt sends me could fuel this project for years.
Last year I was thinking to retire WYW at 20 years and just do my stupid artwork, then a lot of people expressed strong support and said they would really miss the site. It was like that scene in Year Without A Santa Claus that makes me cry and I hope no ones notices. Or maybe it was Snoopy Come Home. Anyway, there’s no going back now. Amy, my fantastic supportive wife, said I wasn’t allowed to stop and my daughter Sophie backed her up. My son Owen didn’t care too much unless I was going to include Minecraft somehow. But WYW has the best fans on the planet! Even people who think I’m dead wrong most of the time seem to hang in there. If Philip Kippel’s not bailing, that’s a very good sign.
Someday there will be a book that has little to do with WYW itself. There are several accounts out there of strange things people did or got away with at WDW. They are worthy of admiration, but my personal docket in the Disney World Court of More Cowbell appears to be at no risk of an incriminating eclipse.
Make sure to head over to Widen Your World and check out the amazing articles and photos. While you’re at it, become a fan of WYW on Facebook. Michael is posting some spectacular photos every day!
Have you visited Widen Your World? What is your favorite site on the web for Walt Disney World history?
Check out this seminal book covering the first few years of Walt Disney World!
ImagiNERDing is written and edited by George Taylor
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