1994 ended up being one of the most important years in Walt Disney World history

From the opening of new attractions to the changing of some central themes, 1994 ended up being one of the most vital years in Disney World history

Behind the Attraction: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Image courtesy Disney+
Behind the Attraction: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Image courtesy Disney+ /
facebooktwitterreddit

There's an old saying on history that it truly takes time to understand it. Yes, it's obvious when a huge event occurs that changes things, but often, moments that end up being dramatic aren't as obvious when they occur. When Walt Disney began his movie career in the 1920s, no one could have imagined how he would shape all of pop culture. 

Disney has had a lot of huge years, many of them obvious, such as the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 and EPCOT Center in 1982. However, looking back, it's remarkable to realize that thirty years ago, Disney World began a series of changes that would pave the way to the resort we know today. It wasn't just adding new attractions, it was taking on a new mentality in the parks, their message and their development.

There was also one huge event that would change so much for the company itself. Here's a quick look back in time to show how 1994 is underrated in one of the most important years in Walt Disney World history and 

The New Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland was deserted on opening day.

Tomorrowland Crop
Tomorrowland was deserted on opening day. Tomorrowland Crop / Seth Kubersky/The Unofficial Guides for

The Magic Kingdom had some shifts in 1994, which included getting rid of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The bigger news was the park finally doing something about Tomorrowland, which had seemed a bit dull with the white column buildings and such. Disney had learned the hard way that trying to predict the future is a risky business. 

So they took the fun idea of "the tomorrow that never was and can be," the glorious retro buildings and lights harkening to 1940s sci-fi but still a futuristic edge. The Rocket Jets remade into the flashy Astro Orbiter provided a fun sight, and bits from Space Mountain to the People Mover felt better. It took a bit to put in stuff like Alien Encounter and the Timekeeper, but making Tomorrowland feel both modern and futuristic at the same time showed a new push in Imagineering for the park. 

The Transformation of EPCOT

EPCOT
The long walk to the EPCOT entrance is getting faster! Photo credit Brian Miller /

There's no denying that Disney World park changed the most in 1994 was EPCOT. Starting with how it was the last year it went by EPCOT Center. However, after years of mostly quiet stuff with Wonders of Life the only big addition, 1994 saw the park endure some big changes.

First, Spaceship Earth got a makeover with new narration by Jeremy Irons and updated scenes. Gone were the cheesy 1980s screens and song at the climax, and instead, Disney was ahead of the curve, noting how the Internet was going to transform the world. It truly felt more like the future than it had before.

Then Communicore was shifted to the livelier Innoventions. From virtual reality to the huge SEGA game displays and focusing on then outrageous ideas like smart houses, portable phones and more, it wowed guests by showing items that are now taken as everyday things. 

Other alterations included the Land boat ride updated and Food Rocks replacing Kitchen Kabaret. What this meant was Epcot beginning the transition from pure "Edutainment" to flashier presentations, one that would continue over the next few years. Some may argue if that's good or bad, but 1994 laid the seeds for how Epcot would evolve into a new showcase for Disney fun.

The Tower of Terror began a shift for the Studios

When the Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, the focus was less on rides than how movies were made. Disney, and Universal, both truly thought Orlando would become a new center for movie-making. By 1994, it was clear that wasn't going to happen, so Disney began shifting the Studios to be more about the celebration of movies than how they were made.

Paving the way for that was the opening of the Hollywood Boulevard section with the Tower of Terror, really Disney World's first epic thrill ride. A genius mix of Imagineering and excitement, it would inspire quite a few great attractions over the years. 

While other mild changes occurred, like the Animation Building celebrating the huge success of The Lion King, 1994 was when the Studios began the transformation from a classic "tour is the highlight" half-day park to one of the movie adventures fans love today. 

The All-Star Resorts begins a new resort wave

As much as folks love to stay at Disney World, it's hard not to feel annoyed at the costs. That actually went back to the early 1990s with Disney pushing the fancy resorts, including the Wilderness Lodge opening in 1994. So, the All-Star Resorts were something guests then could appreciate.

They weren't huge or flashy but retained the Disney magic with the fun of the huge props for either Sports or Music. Better was the cost, under a hundred dollars a night for a Disney hotel a huge bargain at this time. Their success made Disney realize the value resorts were a good investment as not everyone needs the full massive Disney resort stay to make a visit a huge deal. 

The Loss of Frank Wells 

Frank Wells
Disney Executive Frank Wells Attends Oscar Party / George Rose/GettyImages

Sadly, one huge moment in 1994 would lead to wide-lasting effects on Disney that would be felt for years. When Michael Eisner took over the company in 1985, a key move was installing Frank Wells as President. Over the next decade, Wells was instrumental in revitalizing the Disney parks, including being the one to openly tell Eisner he couldn't do something and had huge plans in mind for "The Disney Decade."

So when Wells died in a helicopter crash in April of 1994, the blow to the company was huge. First, it kicked off an ugly fight when Jeffrey Katzenberg assumed he'd take over Wells's spot, only for Eisner to do so, and Katzenberg left. Also, with Wells gone, Imagineering lost one of its key champions, leading to a downturn in quality and scores of attractions canceled.

Biggest of all was that without Wells' guidance and calming influence, Eisner's worst instincts took over to cause problems. Eisner himself has been upfront on how he "lost my way" without Wells, leading to bad business decisions. Had Wells lived, it's possible Disney World would look a bit different today, and some might argue for the better. 

It all combines to show that 1994 was a watershed year for Walt Disney World, with effects still felt today in how the parks are operated and run. This just goes to show how often folks don't realize they're in a historic time until long after it happens.