Imagine flying into Walt Disney World, taking off in your hometown and landing on Disney property. For a time, some guests could actually do it. There is an airport in Disney World that must guests pass at least once during their visit to the Magic Kingdom without realizing it. You don’t know what you’re looking at unless you know what you are looking for in this case. The other airport in Disney was used more recently but is impossible to find although some of you may have slept in its location. This runway was never meant to handle travelers. Its sole purpose was to feed a spectacular show that has been written about in this blog. The airports of Disney World are a thing of the past, but have somewhat of an interesting history.
Walt Disney World Airport (Lake Buena Vista STOLport)
This airport may be the most well-known airport of the two that have been in Walt Disney World as it was the one that was meant for public use in the early years of the Magic Kingdom. It was even shown in park maps starting in 1971, the parks opening year. The airport was actually considered a STOLport (Short Take-off and Landings), so as you can guess this was a short runway at only 2,000 ft. In comparison, the shortest runway at the Orlando International Airport is 9,001 ft long and its longest runway is 12,005 ft long.
Despite being such a short runway the WDW Airport hosted three airlines during its time in operation. Shawnee Airlines began passenger service to the Walt Disney World Airport beginning October 1971. Shawnee used de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft that carried 19 passengers with service from McCoy Jetport (now Orlando International), Tampa International Airport, Orlando-Herndon, Daytona Beach and Palm Beach. Another company, Executive Airline using the Twin Otters also, offered flights to and from Orlando-Herndon and Tampa. While a third airline, VQ, flying Beech Bonanzas and Piper Cherokees, offered flights to and from Orlando-Herndon and Daytona Beach. As you can imagine, flights were pretty short. The longest being from Palm Beach, taking about an hour and the shortest being 15 minutes coming from McCoy (Orlando Internation).
Shawnee marketed itself as “your magic carpet into Walt Disney World” and for only $7 per person or about $42 in today’s money! It is hard to confirm how many flights Shawnee handled in and out of Disney daily, but one schedule shows 11 daily flights from Disney World in fall of 1971. Because Eastern Airlines was a sponsor of in Disney World at the time Shawnee followed Eastern Airlines flight schedules.
Executive and VQ airlines only lasted a few months. Executive Airlines ended operations in December of 1971 and VQ ended operations in February of 1972. Shawnee was the longest running airline at Walt Disney World lasting until December 1972. For those keeping count, Executive lasted 2 months, VQ lasted 4 months and Shawnee lasted 14 months.
Bad timing and a lack of desire by Disney kept the STOLport from every flourishing. The beginnings of the 1970s oil crisis was starting and regional airlines were being challenged by national carriers forcing many “Mom and Pop” airlines were being forced to close. To make matters worse for the STOLport, Disney never planned to expand the airport. They never built a hangar for the airplanes to shelter from the Florida weather and only had enough spaces to hold about four airplanes at a time.
Bigger plans were in the works! Imagineers still had plans for Walt’s original dream for EPCOT, an International Airport with multiple runways. The STOLport was meant to be temporary, giving them time to build the true airport. We all know that never happened. The construction of the new elevated Monorail line for the new Epcot finally saw an end to almost any aircraft flying in and out of the STOLport. After that, the airport was used as a staging area for buses and anything else Disney needed to store. The STOLport did see a plane land on its runway as recently as 2006 in preparation for President Bush’s arrival. Everything was pulled off the runway for the landing then pulled right back on after takeoff. Good luck flying anything into Disney’s airspace any longer, a “temporary” no-fly zone was enacted after the terror attacks of 9/11.
EPCOT Center Ultralight Flightpark
This airport that is definitely no more. Good luck finding it, because you can’t, but you may have slept on the land where it was. The sole purpose of the Ultralight Flightpark was to feed two shows at Epcot, Skylaidescope (1985-1987) and Suprise in the Skies (1991-1992). The runway was circular and measured about 424 feet all the way around. The runway handled about 20 ultralight aircraft and single engine airplanes. The runway was used up until Surprise in the Skies ended then sat abandoned for about 8 years until it was bulldozed over for the second phase of the Pop Century Resort. 9/11 happened so the second phase put on hold and finally turned into the Art of Animation Resort. So, if you have stayed at the Art of Animation you’ve probably slept on a runway.
So there you have it!
The airports Disney World, both now defunct. One that is a reminder of what could have been and the other a long forgotten workhorse for the shows of Epcot. Be sure to look for the Walt Disney World Airport the next time you are in Walt Disney World, whether it be a glance from the monorail as your traveling to Epcot or the purposeful tour down World Drive. If your going down World Drive stay right after you pay for parking heading towards the Contemporary. Don’t veer left like everyone else to the parking lot. You could even turn right at Vista Blvd toward Fort Wilderness Campground where you will get a great look down ther unway and imagine a small Twin Otter flying your family in giving you a glimpse of the Magic Kingdom!
- It is said that Imagineers often used the runway as a testing grounds. One such experiment was using raised parts of concrete to create songs as you drive over them at certain speeds.
- When Mickey Mouse One was flown over to be displayed at MGM (Hollywood Studios) the STOLport wasn’t used to land the plane. Instead, Disney opted to shut down World Drive and use it as a runway!