On most of my trips to Walt Disney World, we fly into Orlando International Airport. Then we take the Disney’s Magical Express to the resort. With travel time between the Airport to the property being 30-45 minutes depending on traffic, why isn’t there a closer airport? Turns out, back in the day there was a closer airport. It was even less than a mile from the Magic Kingdom.
In the October of 1966, 6 weeks before the death of Walt Disney, he announced his plans for Walt Disney World. This included a futuristic city of the future (EPCOT). Among the many different plans that were made for the city, there was an Airport of Tomorrow located at the southern end of the property. It would be the way many guests would go in and out of the property by air. However, before Walt Disney could begin building Project X (Disney World), he died.
After the death of Walt, his older brother Roy took charge of the company. He decided to begin construction of phase one of the property. Phase one today is the Magic Kingdom Resort Area. The cast members began work and plans in detail were drawn up for phase one. On June 28th 1971, The Walt Disney Company announced they would be building an airport 1 mile from the Magic Kingdom called a STOL Port.
STOL Ports are a proof of concept airport in the 1970’s that had smaller runways than typical airfields. STOL stands for Short Takeoff Landing. The runway only allowed smaller airplanes to fly into the Lake Buena Vista STOL Port. This proof of concept project followed in the footsteps of Walt’s dream for Walt Disney World to be a showcase of emerging technologies or in this case STOL Ports. The originating hope was that these airports would be implemented all over central Florida and would help with rising traffic congestion. The airport was also a proof of concept for the Airport of Tomorrow, still planned for Walt Disney World at a later date.
The Walt Disney World Airport (DWS) can be split into 3 phases. The first phase was a 2000 foot runway for commercial planes use only. The second was a terminal for passengers and baggage collection off the planes. Later down the line the 3rd stage would call for another runway and parking spaces for private planes. Walt Disney World also decided to get an official airline which was Eastern Airlines. This airline went out of business in the 1990’s, but was one of the larger United States carriers at the time of the constuction on the Resort. With the help of Eastern Airlines, Disney worked with other airlines to have nonstop connection flights from the major cities in Florida.
On October 22, 1971, 21 days after the Magic Kingdoms opening, the STOL Port opened for commercial use. The runway was constructed and a taxiway was built to get the planes off the runway. Plans were to build the terminal, baggage collection system, and more parking for private planes. However, these plans (as you are soon to find out) would unfortunately never come to fruition.
There were two airlines that flew out of the Walt Disney World’s STOL Port. The two airlines to operate were Shawnee Airlines and Executive Airlines. Both would fly in and out of Walt Disney World in De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters. Shawnee airlines was to operate 11 flights daily and locations included Tampa, Daytona Beach, McCoy, and Fort Lauderdale. Executive Airlines was to start as a limited service through October 30 expanding service throughout November. This is were the story begins to fall apart.
On December 9th, 1971, after 1 month of service to Disney World, Executive Airlines eliminated there southern branch. This included flights to Walt Disney World. A few days later the company filed for Bankruptcy. This was due to the rise in tourism, since larger Airlines like Delta and United began showing a larger presence in Florida. This began to hurt smaller airlines. To fill the gap of the lost airline, Shawnee Airlines began to provide service to new airports. However, this was also short lived and they began to struggle as well.
Shawnee Airlines tried to keep the company running, however, the larger Airlines were the eventual downfall of their flights. After one year of service to Walt Disney World Shawnee Airlines went out of business. The final scheduled flight out of Walt Disney World was on December 28th, 1972.
After Shawnees service to the Walt Disney World Resort stoped, Disney took no attempt to restore flights to the STOL Port. Another ax was thrown when the oil crisis began in 1973. The final blow was made 9 years later. In 1982, the monorail was expanded with service to EPCOT Center (the re imagined Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). The monorail line was built one tenth of of a mile from the STOL Port. That made it impossible to land without serious safety concerns. After 9/11 Walt Disney World received its own personal no-fly zone. This makes it impossible for any plane to go below 3000 feet while on property. So that marked the end of the runway.
So that’s what happened to the STOL Port. It was just built at the wrong time and the wrong place. As for the Airport of Tommorow, it was never brought past concept art in 1966. I personally would have loved to have seen The Walt Disney World Airport today. Then again, in theory, the planes would have been buzzing over our heads in the Magic Kingdom. So maybe its good, considering we don’t have prop planes buzzing like bees as we are walking around Fantasyland. But I know it’s safe to say, the airport will be stuck in the air for the foreseeable future.