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Declining by Degrees: The Context

Lest newer readers think the following marks me as a Disney-hater, I've decided to preface these comments with a disclaimer. What looks like criticism of Disney World and its maintenance is done not because I dislike the place, but because I wish for the park and its managers to live up its potential and its reputation.

The critique here should not be interpreted to mean that visitors should cancel their plans to visit Disney World. The message is more for Disney management, to alert them that we notice when maintenance and other policies are less customer-friendly than they had been in the past.

I've coined the term "Declining by Degrees" to capture the essence of the problem: little touches are being ignored, maintenance is being deferred, and details are being skipped over. There is a decline, in other words, but it's happening in such small degrees at a time that most visitors don't notice them individually.

My idea is that they build up, perhaps subconsciously, and the "magic" of what makes Disney different is endangered... perhaps even removed... when the decline reaches a tipping point.

Some may say that tipping point has already been met or even surpassed.

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A few months ago, in the article about moving to Orlando, I mentioned a kind of "suburban decay" mindset out here: if there's room to expand and build something brand new, why bother renovating that old strip mall? Instead, developers buy up some undeveloped land nearby and build something brand new. The customers seem to like it, but there's a side effect: the old strip mall just sits, boarded up, and eventually cracks appear in the parking lot pavement, and the entire area feels just a touch more run-down than would otherwise have been the case.

Disney is guilty of something similar. To be sure, there's no cracks in the pavement, but the boarded-up facility is not an uncommon sight here at Walt Disney World (WDW). I'm not sure if that's because the managers and decision-makers here have adopted the mindset of Central Florida—perhaps there's something in the water?—or if it's a wider, national phenomenon. Either way, I don't like it in my theme parks.

Disneyland endured some variation of it for brief periods. Most notable in my mind are the Carousel of Progress building (which was used for office space from 1988-1996), the sub lagoon (1998-2007), the Fantasyland skyway building (1994-present) and some smaller venues like Chip 'n Dale's Treehouse (1995?-present). In general, space is at a premium in Disneyland, so unused venues tend to look ripe for something else. The failed Space Place burger counters became the Space Mountain queue, and Mission to Mars became Redd Rockett's Pizza Port (albeit after several years of nothing in that space).

The Disneyland experience may illustrate that the Orlando situation is not an isolated event, but the two coasts shouldn't be equated completely. Like everything else when you start doing bi-coastal comparisons, you must consider size and scale. Disneyland is small and intimate; Orlando is large and sprawling. It's the sprawling nature of the complex here that provides the fulcrum on which my comparison rests. Disneyland is cramped for space anyway, so abandoned areas have a way of being re-used.

The subs are gone, the kids move in... and the adults 
don't even patrol in here all that often anymore.
The subs are gone, the kids move in... and the adults don't
even patrol in here all that often anymore.

The same cannot be said for WDW. Here, there is space aplenty. The subs need closing to save money? That's fine; just remove the vehicles and leave the lagoon looking empty (and later rip out the lagoon in favor of a rubber playground).

Need to build more rides for the masses at Disney's Animal Kingdom (DAK)? Don't give a second thought to fixing those river boats and docks that used to ferry around the park... just build a roller coaster off to the side instead. Why renovate when you can build new? (For the sarcasm-impaired, this paragraph has been answering the rhetorical questions sarcastically).

The problem is fairly deep, and I figure the best way to illustrate it would be to... well... illustrate it. With pictures. I do not pretend this rundown of run-down areas (sorry, couldn't help myself) is complete. There are probably dozens of other venues I'm forgetting. You're welcome to email [email protected] with further additions.

Abandoned Magic Kingdom

The former shops on the right side of Center Street, in the middle of Main Street, are now just painted façades (though recently remodeled).


The Adventureland Veranda sits empty and unused (this forecourt was open to meet Pirate Jack during the Pirate and Princess Party).

There used to be shops in Adventureland opposite Pirates of the Caribbean that now have been closed off with merchandise moved outside, flea market style, to make room for overflow seating for Pecos Bill. Even worse, this overflow area is usually not even open:

The "kiddy concierge lobby" back in 2004
The "kiddy concierge lobby" back in 2004

The Keelboat landing, which was turned into Mansion FastPass, now sits empty:


The Diamond Horseshoe Theater was once home to a show, then a character greeting area, and now nothing:


The Skyway stations just eat up real estate and rot in the punishing Florida environment:



For several years, the largest and most noticeable abandoned space in all of Walt Disney World was right in the Magic Kingdom, in the form of the 20,000 Leagues Submarine lagoon. We now have a tiny, mostly useless, rubber playground now. That's progress of some kind, at least.


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© 2007 Kevin Yee

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