Vacation Rewind: A brief history of Orlando theme park VHS tapes
“Universal Studios Florida: Experience the Magic of Movies” was better than DayQuil. Laid up on a school day in the middle of a Cleveland winter, when the only constant is a colorless, pencil-smudge sky, I found no greater solace than that videotape.
“A Day at Epcot Center” came close, but my illness had to line up with a jackpot at the local library to catch that one. “A Day at the Magic Kingdom” was in the running until our VCR disemboweled it. Even these absolutes were thrown into disarray when Mom and Dad sent away for our first free planning video with included brochure pocket. No matter the VHS, when I was at my down-and-out-est, nothing revived my spirits like the contact high of a Central Florida vacation.
By Jeremy Herbert
The golden age of souvenir tapes, the 1990s, has more than a little to do with the history of VHS. For the first decade of its existence, Walt Disney World Resort only offered relivable vacation memories in two main formats: 8-millimeter film and View-Master reel. The earliest VHS tape, “A Dream Called Walt Disney World,” wouldn’t grace gift shops until 1980. The commercial VCR was introduced to American consumers only three years prior. It was still shiny, new, and upwards of $1,000 at most retailers.
Function followed format, and Disney’s first souvenir video was aimed at the same crowd who used to take their vacations home on film: families who could afford the means to show off these cleverly disguised commercials to friends, neighbors and sworn enemies.
“A Dream Called Walt Disney World” runs a tight 25 minutes, when that was enough time to cover every park, hotel, means of transportation, golf course and most of the bird species found on Discovery Island. It’s the prototype for every free mail-away to come with two exceptions – a price tag and touch of class from its closest blood relative.
In the 1930s, if you wanted to see the world, all you had to do was see a movie. There was a better than average chance that one of James A. FitzPatrick’s nearly 300 travelogues would be the opener. His TravelTalks series introduced ports of call too far-flung for even the imagination, like Egypt, Japan, and Florida, to audiences that could barely afford the 25-cent matinee. The formula never changed.
Unobtrusive camerawork, letting the locations sell themselves, with pans and tilts reserved for only the most breathtaking views. Tourists in three-piece suits and ankle-length dresses sweating to death in photo-fade Technicolor; FitzPatrick’s “Voice of the Globe” underlining it all with newsman-like ease and authority.
“A Dream Called Walt Disney World” paints its subject with the same exotic brush. “The Magic Kingdom is history, prophecy, adventure, fantasy, and nostalgia,” says the narrator, and it is. “The Vacation Kingdom” as presented here is a fallacy in terms; it’s not a vacation, but a destination, an oasis in a Lake Buena Vista swamp. “A reminder of a time when anything was possible, and still is.” None of the tourists are wearing suits, but the Osmond-lite opening song, “The Magic of Walt Disney World,” cements it as the product of a bygone era just the same.
By the end of the 1980s, the need for envy-inducing home screenings of tapes like “A Dream Called Walt Disney World” was almost non-existent. According to a survey by the Opinion Research Corporation for the Motion Picture Association of America, 2.4 percent of American households owned a VCR in 1980. By the end of the decade, over 70 percent would have one sitting on their television sets. More vacationers than ever could watch VHS tapes, but with the mid-80s advent of the camcorder, they could now shoot their own.
Apart from an Epcot-equivalent tape in 1983, “Walt Disney World: EPCOT Center – A Souvenir Program,” Disney wouldn’t bother with VHS again until 1991. But the next souvenir tapes would lean into the very technology that almost made them obsolete.
Both “A Day at the Magic Kingdom” and “A Day at EPCOT Center” follow tour groups armed with camcorders the size of lunchboxes and the finest pastels Disney Dollars could buy. Close-ups of Magic Kingdom Dad or Epcot Grade School Teacher aiming down the sights are usually answered with camera POV in a simulated viewfinder frame, complete with red recording dot.
Most of these shots are exactly what you’d expect. But there’s gold in that b-roll, like when Dad breaks multiple park rules by taping his ride on Big Thunder Mountain, or when Teacher hands his camcorder to a cast member to capture the once-in-a-lifetime memory of eating in The Land and she shoots some top-quality back and scalp footage. The point, accidentally or otherwise, is still made – home video is no substitute for the real deal.
Now, these tapes are time capsules for a real deal that an entire generation would scarcely recognize. The Magic Kingdom greatest hits are mostly spoken for – Splash Mountain would open the following year – but the details are all wrong. Tomorrowland was still sporting its blinding Future-of-1971 white. Mickey lived at the back of the park. There were goats.
“A Day at EPCOT Center,” on the other hand, harkens back to a time several identities ago, when EPCOT was still an acronym and not a strange word nobody questions on T-shirts. The original Future World line-up is present and spoken for, including the park’s first thrill ride, Body Wars at the almost-new Wonders of Life pavilion. The latest addition is almost blasphemous to consider anymore: a show on World Showcase Lagoon in the humid light of day.
Disney-MGM Studios wouldn’t have its day until 1995. In the meantime, another studio picked up the slack.
“Universal Studios Florida: Experience the Magic of Movies” isn’t a souvenir so much as the resort’s urtext. The oldest release I could track down is dated 1991, but includes 1993’s reinvention of Jaws and 1992’s Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue alongside the American Tail Theatre it replaced, and showcases 14 attractions.
Today, two are left in abbreviated forms, and only E.T. Adventure remains mostly unscathed. Even with that hallowed original roster, Universal Studios Florida’s founding priorities are spelled out in the time code; Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies earns seven minutes of tape, but King Kong doesn’t even get three.
The video doesn’t recall a theme park, but a working backlot with a pyrotechnic pulse. Stuntmen tumbled off the buildings in New York. Speedboats ran hot laps around the lagoon, drenching the unwary. Soundstages disguised world-class attractions, constructed on a scale never before attempted and some never again, in fashionable pink-and-blue pinstripe. Sweeping helicopter shots betray the flimsiness of every façade, but that’s the point – you’d never know the difference on the silver screen.
Riding the movies, as the brochures said, was just as important as understanding them. Our host, a khaki-coated John Forsythe, sells it a single line: “The most lavish, exciting production ever conceived.”
That same footage, shot for an electronic press kit before the park officially opened, remains in the 1994 and 1996 reissues of “Experience the Magic of Movies,” a little further out-of-date each time. The final edition marks the park’s first major casualty, the Ghostbusters Spooktacular, and drops the brand-new T2-3D: Battle Across Time in its place, with only a momentary still of the rooftop temple of Gozer as a eulogy. They even dug up the same suit and shot new material with John Forsythe.
“Universal Studios Florida: Experience the Magic of Movies,” across its various incarnations, tracked the height and decline of souvenir VHS tapes. PAL copies of the 1996 version, unplayable on North American and Japanese VCRS, gathered dust in the emporium past Y2K.
In the meantime, Disney sold a sparse selection of tapes based mostly on events or milestones, like 1992’s “The Magic of Christmas at Walt Disney World” or 2001’s “100 Years of Magic.” DVD loomed on the standard-definition horizon, camcorders grew fold-out viewfinder screens, and, most importantly, VHS tapes got cheaper.
In 1993, Disney offered the Walt Disney World Vacation Planner, the first of its kind, to anyone who mailed away for it. Other complimentary tapes could be had through Disney-adjacent companies, like GM’s Make Your Magic and Premier’s Cruise and Disney Week, their first attempt to conquer the seven seas, but this one was made for the Mouse by the Mouse (and presented by The then-official airline of the Mouse, Delta Airlines). Convincing the folks at home to bite the Disney bullet called for a different approach than the 8-millimeter previews of old.
A park-centric rewrite of “Be Our Guest” sets the tone straight away. This place is magic, but don’t take our word for it. In between stock footage new, foreign (Phantom Manor in the Haunted Mansion section) and old (the rest of the Haunted Mansion section), talking-head interviews with admirably genuine tourists toe the line between endorsement and explanation.
These live and die by each man, woman and child’s respective on-camera charisma, bless their hearts. An elderly woman, clearly the sassy one of the group, scores genuine laughs just for admitting she got wet on Catastrophe Canyon. But the poor British man with sunglasses the size of dinner plates and a natural monotone, tasked with explaining The Country Bear Jamboree, has no such luck: “You go inside and, uh, see a load of bears dancing around and singing […] it’s country music […] it’s a real hoedown.”
This format wouldn’t change for the next decade, until Disney made the full leap from VHS to DVD in 2004. Each release set aside a natural spotlight for the latest attractions and year-long events, but the real story is in the repetition.
In the 1993 planner, a jazzed Midwestern mom raves about the Adventurers Club at Pleasure Island, saying her “kids loved it!” While not all the venues were age-restricted, the misconception of Pleasure Island’s intended audience persisted since opening day.
By 1995, the mom was gone and the narration bluntly amended – “Pleasure Island is the place for grown-ups to enjoy their own night without the kids.”
Only the 1996 tape calls Walt Disney’s World’s studio park Disney-MGM Studios. The rest drop MGM, with later releases painting over the offending half of the water tower and “A Day at the Disney Studios” digitally smudging the letters above the turnstiles. It’s a distribution hiccup and as much as you’ll ever see in official Disney publication about the belatedly contentious relationship with the company, which inspired a 1992 lawsuit at its worst.
By 1998, the tapes no longer promised the possibility of bumping into the cast of “Boy Meets World,” either. One-season wonders make inadvertently grim appearances, like the Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show, The Imagineering VR Lab, and Splashtacular, which gave Epcot its dancing fountains and a cybernetic tyrannosaur.
In the span of 10 years, Walt Disney World went from 5-Day Super Duper Passes that never expired to multi-tier Park Hopper tickets they recommended your travel agent explain to you. These VHS tapes tell the story of Walt Disney World’s most formative decade in fast-forward, as it evolved from three theme parks and more into a true “Vacation Kingdom” that guests would never have to leave.
Like a tape for another theme park promised, “Orlando will never be the same.”
In the time since John Forsythe last reported for duty, Universal Studios Florida changed. By 2000, when they offered their first vacation planning tape, Universal Orlando was an honest-to-God resort. Two theme parks, two hotels, a shopping and entertainment complex with clubs that carried no expectation of kid-friendliness. In a breakneck nine minutes, the brand-new lay of the land is spelled out in no uncertain terms: “Two Days, Two Parks, One Great Vacation.” Clean enough copy to forget the resort’s 1998 perilous rebranding as Universal Studios Escape, which guests took to mean anything from a third park or a combination of the two already there.
The only hint in the 2000 tape is the website www.uescape.com, a domain currently available for purchase.
The 2005 planning video, the last they’d produce in any format, shows the resort in a more familiar groove, halfway between past and present. Jaws and Back to the Future – The Ride still make appearances, but Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride is the latest and greatest. Halloween Horror Nights had gained enough steam by then to finally earn a mention.
The 2001 tape deserves special attention, though, and not only because it shows the Green Eggs and Ham Café open for business, the Halley’s Comet of Central Florida theme park cuisine. It does something unusual, unheard of, and downright unthinkable – it names the competition. The friendly tour guide reminds us that Universal Orlando is just a stone’s throw away from the airport, the beaches, SeaWorld, and, yes, Walt Disney World Resort.
This is hardly a comprehensive account of Central Florida theme parks on tape. Busch Gardens, Sea World and Cypress Gardens had their own souvenir videos. Just comparing the two theme park giants tells a bigger tale than either intended. Reading between the tracking errors reveals an abbreviated history of Orlando itself.
Walt Disney World might’ve had a 20-year head start on Universal Studios Florida, but once it arrived, neither grew in a vacuum. Three parks vs. one became four parks vs. two in nine years and fewer tapes. In 1991, Universal Orlando was a one-day diversion vying for visitors down the street. In 2001, Universal was reminding tentative tourists that they could stay at the Hard Rock Hotel and still see the Magic Kingdom without much hassle.
The end of the VHS tape marked the beginning of Orlando as we know it today. In all my sick days, I never noticed. Each video was its own piece of plastic memory, detached and distinct from the rest. Watched together now, though, they mark time almost as well as Dad’s camcorder masterpieces. Considering some of those are in storage, others have rotted away, and I fear my VCR will devour the rest, my souvenir tapes will do the trick just fine. They’re always worth a rewind.
For the record I owned the 1993 Disney World tape and definitely PAID MONEY FOR IT at a Disney Store in the local mall. And I wore that thing out as a kid. To the point where I still have it memorized.