Although not located in Maine, many of you may be starting to plan the annual family summer vacation. As much as you may want to stay home, eat pizza, and watch reruns of Breaking Bad, the kids are probably sending you subliminal messages of Mickey Mouse, Space Mountain, and Frozen (like we haven’t seen enough of “frozen” this winter!). Perhaps they’ve even started to leave you cute, crayon-drawn pictures showing everyone in your family wearing the quintessential, fashionable (if only for the photo) mouse-eared hats. Maybe bookmarks have even started popped up on your computer or iPad with links to the “happiest place on earth” that you don’t recall saving. If you still need some help, I’m talking about that Mouse House in Orlando, Florida – Walt Disney World!
No, I’m not a Disney marketer, nor do I own stock in the company (I wish!) But, I do know that there is an abandoned, once-operational airport nestled amongst the Park that not too many visitors are aware of. In fact, it’s right across from the parking lot for the Magic Kingdom. And although it is not functioning as an airport today, the runway is still there. I’ll give you a little history before I tell you how to find it (on your summer vacation this year).
The year is 1970, Walt Disney World (now what is considered the Magic Kingdom) would open in one year. A loaf of bread cost $0.25 and a new car around $3900. Take yourself back to the time of bell-bottomed pants and polyester, and songs by CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival) and the Carpenters. And down south in Florida, Walt Disney is planning not only a Magic Kingdom Theme Park, but an International Airport as well. In 1970, the Orlando International Airport didn’t exist; it was McCoy Jetport (a small civilian area of the McCoy Air Force Base). Walt’s dream was to link the Park directly to his guests and ferry them in from other airports in Florida. So, between 1970-1971 the construction of a small, private Lake Buena Vista Airport, or STOLport (Short Takeoff and Landing) started. The STOLport was to be the first phase of an aviation project that would ultimately see a Disney “Airport of Tomorrow” in the area south of the entrance to Epcot Center and near the Celebration housing communit. Although some depictions put the “Airport of Tomorrow” on the west side of the highway (not the East where Celebration is). However, like many of his dreams, this one would not come to fruition, on either side of the highway.
On October 22, 1971, Walt Disney World’s private STOLport officially opened with a small celebration of local politicians, airline executives, and Disney officials. It was the nation’s first STOLport and given airport designator DWS. It featured a 2000 foot, northwest/southeast (34/16) runway with a small taxiway leading to an office and space to park about 4 small aircraft. Starting almost immediately, commercial air service began transporting guests from Florida airports to Walt Disney World. Shawnee Airlines, Executive Airlines, and VQ Air Lines had daily service in small propeller aircraft (only small aircraft could operation from the STOLport due to the runway size). Some flights were as short as 15 minutes! Shawnee Airlines used a fleet of deHavilland Twin Otters to deliver tourists to Disney’s STOLport. They even had a marketing campaign that featured Shawnee Airlines as “your magic carpet into Walt Disney World.” Flight started at only $7.00 per person! Celebrities were also known to use the airport; it allowed them private access to the Park. The airport was even pictured on the 1971 Walt Disney World Park Map.
The runway was rumored to have a unique “Disney-esque” feature too that was meant to surprise visitors as they landed at the airport. Set in the runway were a series of grooves that, when taxied over at a set speed of approximately 45 mph, played the Disney tune from Pinocchio, “When you wish upon a star.” How cool!
Even though the Park was drawing a great number of guests, the limited length of runway, airport facilities, parking areas, Disney restrictions on landing aircraft, and the beginning of the oil crisis, put a damper on the airport’s traffic. By December of 1972, all passenger service had creased. Shawnee Airlines was the last airline to service the STOLport. The airport remained open though until the 1980s when construction of the new monorail to link the Magic Kingdom to Epcot Center was built. The proximity of the monorail to the west and south end of the airport was such that the Disney attorneys were terrified of an airplane colliding with the monorail as it came in to land. So, the monorail was built and the STOLport was officially closed to all air traffic sometime in 1982. Efforts to open the airport again were never perused, in part, because the STOLport was never mean to be a large airport, only a first phase of a larger airport elsewhere on the Park. When the idea of the “Airport of Tomorrow” was discarded, so was any future for the STOLport.
The STOLport remained on aeronautical charts into the late 1990s as a private airfield. In 2003, with increased terror fears, a temporary flight restriction (TFR) was set up over all of Walt Disney World, preventing aircraft from flying over the area under 3,000 feet and within 3 miles. However, even with the TFR in place, there are sightings of aircraft landing there in 2006 as part of a preparation team for a visit from President Bush. As it is today, Walt Disney World has the same airspace restrictions as the White House!
Today the former STOLport remains intact and can still be seen from the Epcot monorail or World Drive/Vista Boulevard. Nowadays it’s mostly used as either an overflow bus parking/proving ground, for storage of construction containers, or most-recently as a staging ground for New Fantasyland construction. It is also visible from Google Maps/Google Earth.
To reach the STOLport, pilot your rental car, full of kids happily singing Disney songs and smelling of copious sunscreen, towards the Magic Kingdom. When you reach the shiny Magic Kingdom entrance where you pay for your parking, pay and keep to the right. There is a road that continues straight as the other multiple lanes curve left. You will see the monorail on the right too. You can view the STOLport by continuing on this road, or crossing under the monorail. Crossing under the monorail will take you to the approach end of where runway 34 was (follow the sign for Fort Wilderness Campground, Four Seasons Resort, and Best Friends Pet Care). Continuing straight (follow the sign for Bus Parking, Wilderness Lodge, etc.) will bring you to where the airport’s facility building was, and where numerous outbuildings are now. It would appear that you can access this parking area, if only to snap a few photos of the now defunct STOLport. There are no signs referencing the existence of the STOLport, so keep an eye out as you’re driving so you don’t miss it!
In 1971 when the Magic Kingdom opened, general admission to the park was only $3.50 for adults. However, all rides were not included. Rides were rated on a scale of A – E for Ride Ticket cost, with the E Tickets costing the most (.80 – .90 cents). E Ticket rides had the most excitement, thrills, and adventure. Hence, the saying, “it’s an E-Ticket ride.” – Meaning that it is worth the price of admission and prized. I’m sure that if Walt had succeeded in building his “Airport of Tomorrow” it would definitely be an E-Ticket ride today just landing at the airport!
Disney in the 1970s http://blog.silive.com/sinotebook/2010/01/gone_and_pretty_much_forgotten.html