Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that most of the venerable and beloved attractions at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and the parks worldwide stemmed from the creative mind of the man, Walt Disney himself. From his earliest childhood, Walt was always a showman and most important, a storyteller. He always had an intense love of history. Who can forget his idol, Abraham Lincoln? When he was in the fifth grade at the Benton Grammar school in Kansas City, he befriended schoolmate Walter Pfeiffer. Throughout the year they put on many vaudeville skits and plays, and even entered and won an amateur night at a local theater portraying another Disney hero, Charlie Chaplin. They soon became known as the “Two Walt’s”. One day Walt dressed up as Abraham Lincoln on the president’s birthday, and the Principal of the school, Cottingham was so impressed, he took Walt into each class to recite the Gettysburg Address. This continued until he graduated.
It was this love of history that even early as 1957, he envisioned an area in Disneyland called “Liberty Square” A street he would call “Liberty Street” would run parallel to Main St. and terminate in the new land, Liberty Square. This new land would represent Colonial American during the American Revolution, with stores and buildings aping that period. One of the attractions he had planned there that later morphed into the beloved “Hall of Presidents” we have at Walt Disney World was to be called “One Nation under God” This was originally conceived as Circle-rama screens showing projections of milestone episodes in our countries history, while the guests would hear a soliloquy of events leading up to the creation of the United States. At the end, guests would see all the figures of the nation’s presidents (At the time, 34). Walt wanted the figures to move, but at the time, the technology was just not satisfactory to Walt for the effects he wanted, so the idea was put on hold.
With Walt’s untimely passing in 1966, plans were still in operation for the Disney World resort in Florida. (Later re-named “Walt” Disney World by Brother Roy!). As time rolled by, the Imagineers decided that since Walt Disney World was so close to the real “New Orleans”, another “New Orleans Square” in Florida would be too repetitive. This was the wonderful opportunity to finish Walt’s dream of Liberty Street and Liberty Square here in Florida. The original plans were reviewed and revised and Walt Disney World’s “Liberty Square” was born, sort of a doppelganger of Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. Now with the technology in place, they also could create Walt’s dream show of “One Nation under God” with audio-animatronic figures of the past presidents in a moving theater show that we know as “The Hall of Presidents” It is interesting to note that James Algar (June 11, 1912 – February 26, 1998) American film director, screenwriter, and producer who worked for Walt Disney Productions for 43 years, penned the initial script for the attraction.
Liberty Square is a unique and very popular themed land in the Magic Kingdom. It opened on October 1st, 1971 and is noteworthy to say that it has changed very little in the past 45 years. If you visited on opening day, and returned today, you would think nothing has progressed! The land has only three attractions…The Hall of Presidents, The Liberty Belle Riverboat and perhaps one of the most popular attractions in all of Walt Disney World, The Haunted Mansion. In fact because both Haunted Mansions interiors and audio-animatronics were being constructed at the same time, Disneyland’s and Florida’s, the Mansion in Florida was installed and working by April of 1971. If you recall, the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland is located in New Orleans Square. Liberty Square, as in Walt’s original plan is if you are going back in time to the Revolutionary War period in colonial America. The buildings are suggestive of those in Williamsburg Virginia. There are two major items in Liberty Square that have to be mentioned. One is the replica of the Liberty Bell in front of the Liberty Tree Tavern. In 1976 there were cast 50 replicas of the famous bell to honor the countries 200th birthday. All states were given one to display. Since Pennsylvania had the original bell, they did not need a replica. Walt Disney World wanted a Liberty Bell for the new land, and asked Pennsylvania if they could have their replica for Liberty Square and they agreed. On July 4th, 1989, the Bell was placed in its present permanent location. Florida is the only state with two replica Liberty Bells.
The other amazing object in Liberty Square is the Liberty Tree, in front of the, what else…The Liberty Tree Tavern. It got its name from the movie “Johnny Tremain”, the 1957 Disney movie. If you look into its branches you will see hanging 13 lanterns which represent the original 13 colonies. The tree weighs approximately 38 tons and is the largest living thing in the Magic Kingdom. The story of how the tree was brought here is also very interesting. The tree (Southern Live Oak) is approximately 100 years old and was originally on the east side of the Disney property about eight miles away. The problem was the tree, weighing in at 38 tons, needed a unique was to move it without killing it. The root ball was over 18 feet by 16 feet and over 4 feet deep. You could not just lift it with a cable wrapped around it. If attempted, the bark and cambium layers, vital to the trees survival would have been crushed by the weight of the tree.
The man with the brilliant idea of moving the tree safely was the brain-child of Disney’s own hand-picked landscaper, Bill Evens. Many years earlier at Disneyland, he had invented a way to move a Coral tree that Walt did not want, so it could be replaced by a larger, artificial tree. He decided that boring several holes through the trunk of the tree and inserting several steel pins, the tree could be lifted easily and not damage the bark or root ball. Using that very method, the Liberty tree was transported and lowered into its present position. The tree symbolizes the original Liberty Tree in Boston by patriots who called themselves the “Sons of Liberty” and was christened as such in 1765. It was an icon of freedom of speech and assembly and the patriots would gather under its limbs to protest the imposition of the Stamp Act.
Some of the minor aforementioned changes to the land were its entrance from the hub. The bridge leading to Liberty Square represents the Old Concord Bridge, where the first battle of the Revolutionary began. 13 flags of the original States lined the bridge as you walked into the land. In 1991, the flags now surrounded the Liberty Bell. The entrance was re-done with the guardhouse and brick walls. There is a plaque also at the entrance that reads…
“From this Gateway stirs a new nation waiting to be born. Thirteen separate colonies have banded together to declare their independence from the bonds of tyranny. It is a time when silversmiths put away their tools and march to the drums of a revolution, a time for gentlemen planters to leave their farms and become generals, a time when tradesmen leave the safety of home to become heroes. Welcome to Liberty Square!”
Other changes…Below the Haunted Mansion were a dock where the Mike Fink Keelboats took guests around the Rivers of America. The boats ran from 1971 to 1997. The original Riverboat was the Admiral Joe Fowler which began service on October 2nd, 1971. In 1973 the Richard Irvine Riverboat was added, and after more renovations, is now called the Liberty Belle. The frontage of the Hall of Presidents was plain with brick and three windows over the three doors going into the waiting area. In 1973 the breezeway and large white veranda was added. If you look at the date on the building, 1787 denotes the year the Constitution was signed.
Across the street from the Hall of Presidents, the stores were different also. In place of the now Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe was the Old World antiques shoppe, sporting genuine antiques and reproductions, the Silversmith shoppe, with different silver knickknacks, (This shoppe was owned by Johnny Tremain, of the same Disney named Movie) and Mademoiselle Lafayette’s Parfumerie, where guests could formulate their own fragrances and you could record the recipe if you ever wanted refills. You could also shop in the Heritage House for other “Revolutionary” items, i.e. copies of the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There was also a Tri-cornered Hat shoppe.
Today, dining at the Liberty Square includes the Diamond Horseshoe restaurant, Liberty Tree Tavern, Columbia Harbour House, Sleepy Hollow and the Liberty Square Market. The Liberty Tree Tavern apes an 18th century New England eatery. The Columbia Harbour House was given the moniker of “Chicken and Fish” and later the “Nantucket Harbour House” on the 1971 maps. It opened in early 1972, with two stories with separate kitchens on each floor. At the time, it was the biggest quick-service restaurant on Disney property. The Diamond Horseshoe Saloon is characteristic of the city of St. Louis of the early 1800’s. Another quick note, Liberty Square is found only in Walt Disney World here in Florida!
Although today, with all the latest and greatest attractions and new shows and venues being built at the World, Liberty Square is tame and less popular as in the past. But it is still a wonderful land to explore, learn and appreciate our Nation’s History and still sit at an authentic Colonial Tavern and quaff a cold beverage and discuss politics, even in these modern times.