We remember some retired Walt Disney World attractions for their revolutionary ideas or innovative layout and presentation, while others bring about feelings of nostalgia. If You Had Wings, which took flight in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom from 1972 to 1987, definitely falls into the latter category.
When Walt Disney World opened in October 1971, Tomorrowland was not complete, and the company looked for attractions to fill in certain spaces. Eastern Airlines came on board as a sponsor, and the Imagineers developed an attraction that fit their new sponsor perfectly.
If You Had Wings bore the stamp of Claude Coats, one of the Imagineers famous for his work on Disney’s “dark rides.” This dark ride combined Disney’s new Omnimover ride system (think Haunted Mansion) with Coats’ innovative design, filmed segments, and three dimensional sets to inspire guests to travel the world – presumably on Eastern Airlines.
Really, If You Had Wings couldn’t be simpler, but thanks to Coats, all the elements worked together to create an experience that was more than the sum of its parts. As one writer puts it:
There were no moving props or animated figures, but the ride was still very alive. This was due in large part to Claude Coats’ gift for staging. His talents gave the ride a strong sense of atmospheric plausibility.
Guests entering the ride first walked through a set that looked like an ultramodern airport terminal. After walking through a switchback queue, guests boarded Omnimover cars that passed through an opening in a huge globe. Inside the globe, the projected images of seagulls morphed into jet planes, symbolizing the journey ahead.
The first destination – Mexico! Guests saw Aztec pyramids, cliff divers in Acapulco, and the wonders of Mexico City. Next, guests went on to Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Trinidad, and New Orleans. After travelling the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico, guests experienced the Speed Room!
The Speed Room was one of the most exciting parts of the attraction. As passengers traveled down the middle of this huge bullet-shaped tunnel with various 70mm projections of high-speed adventures are shown on the walls. Tilting the Omnimover backwards as large fans gave the sensation of motion enhanced the sensation of moving fast through a dune buggy across the desert, water skiing on a lake, or flying down a forest path on a speeding train. Once passengers left the Speed Room they entered the final thrill of the ride – the Mirror Room. This room is exactly as it sounds; a box-shaped room covered with large floor to ceiling mirrors that had two 70mm projectors reflecting images of snow-capped mountains and other relaxing scenes. These scenes were shot in an upward motion – giving another type of forced-perspective – that of being lifted.
Finally, the seagulls and jets returned, accompanied by the voice of Orson Welles, who intoned:
You do have wings.
You can do all these things.
You can widen your world.
Eastern: the wings of man.
When Eastern changed its slogan, the narration changed to “Eastern: we’ll be your wings” and the voice of (presumably) Pete Renaday. At the end of the ride, Eastern ticket agents stood by to help guests book flights on the airline.
One of the most unique features of the attraction – and probably the one that guests remember most – was the catchy title tune. Veteran Disney composer Buddy Baker wrote the music, and Imagineer Francis “X” Atencio penned the lyrics. (Atencio had never written lyrics before, but Walt Disney tapped him to compose lyrics for a theme song to Pirates of the Caribbean. He went on to write the lyrics to “Grim Grinning Ghosts” for The Haunted Mansion as well as “If You Had Wings.”)
If You Had Wings was a big hit. In the first six years, more than 40 million guests had taken flight on this charming attraction.
In 1987, Eastern ended its relationship with Disney, not just as the sponsor of If You Had Wings but also as the company’s official airline. Disney shuttered the attraction on June 1, just four days shy of its 15th anniversary and refurbished it with new sponsor Delta as If You Could Fly and later Dreamflight. Neither of the new versions proved to be as popular as If You Had Wings, and today the space hosts Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, a laser target shooting game featuring Buzz and other characters from the Toy Story films.
The fingerprints of If You Had Wings found their way on to other Walt Disney World attractions at Epcot. World of Motion and Horizons employed the Omnimover technology, along with similar projections to the Speed Room and Mirror Room. At the Mexico pavilion in World Showcase, the whimsical travelogues of If You Had Wings inspired the fun-filled depiction of Mexico at El Rio de Tiempo and its replacement ride The Gran Fiesta Tour.
The author of the If You Had Wings entry at Widen Your World wrote extensively about the attraction’s last days and legacy:
In June 1987, the last guests rode through If You Had Wings. Eastern had withdrawn its WDW sponsorship due to financial problems, which called for several changes to the attraction. Its next incarnation, called If You Could Fly, opened later that month. If You Could Fly was just an “alternate” version of its former self … the ride was physically much the same but the old music and references to Eastern were missing. It lacked the magnetism of the original and invited disappointing comparisons. If You Could Fly hosted its last visitors in January of 1989. Upon its closure, almost everything visually inherent to If You Had Wings and its successor was destroyed and removed from the building’s interior as trash. By the time Dreamflight (sponsored by Delta Airlines) opened there in June 1989, If You Had Wings was a memory with another attraction built around its track.
Nearly everyone who remembers If You Had Wings loved it, and even more people will at least tell you it was one of their favorites. …it was dated from the offset and very silly but that’s what made it great. It had a compromised track layout and its theme was basically “four-minute airline commercial” and it did amazing things in spite of both. It didn’t overreach or ask its riders to buy into anything as unfathomable as being launched into space – as did its early neighbor, Flight To The Moon. It simply asked you to pretend that you were visiting a few vacation spots not that far removed from Florida, encountering both locals and other tourists who were having a great time dancing, singing, fishing and all sorts of other stuff. Whether regarded as a classic or not, lots of people can still sing If You Had Wings’ theme song as if they had just stepped off the ride, which no one has done for 25 years.
For me, the legacy of If You Had Wings centers around it’s nostalgia. It encapsulates the 70s in its own perfect way – looking at a time when air travel was still pretty exotic for many Americans. As a kid, I dreamed of travelling by plane, thanks to the flight of fancy on If You Had Wings – and, over a quarter of a century later, I still miss that sense of wonder.