Long before Walt Disney World Resort welcomed guests on Oct. 1, 1971, more than a million people visited one of the first Disney attractions in Florida – The Preview Center. Now home to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), one of the largest youth sports organizations in the world, this contemporary-style building once offered a first look at an exciting new world under construction only a few miles away. While I didn’t visit the center in the 1970s, I have felt drawn to the building ever since serving as a Disney Ambassador 20 years ago.
Located on Hotel Plaza Boulevard (originally known as Motor Inn Plaza), the center was already under construction when it was announced in early October 1969. Sneak previews for dignitaries, officials and the press started on Jan. 10, 1970, while public tours began six days later on Jan. 16. It operated daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Sept. 30, 1971, the day before Magic Kingdom Park opened.
Fourteen cast members were selected from hundreds of applicants to serve as tour guides. One guide was Debby Dane Browne, who was later selected as the first Walt Disney World Ambassador in October 1970. I recently spoke with Debby about her experience.
“During our interviews, we did not know what to expect, as none of us had visited Disneyland,” Debby reminisced. “We knew, however, Walt Disney World was going to be the most incredible and best thing to happen to Florida.”
Under guidance from Disneyland cast members who relocated to Florida, the newly selected team spent two months of intense training. They learned everything they could about The Walt Disney Company and the new resort in development.
“We were surprised at how many people came to see us,” continued Debby who is pictured above wearing her Disney Ambassador costume. “Families along the East Coast were longing for a place to have magical vacations. The center gave them a first taste of Disney. More than 5,000 people visited us opening weekend, and it was wonderful sharing pixie dust with them.”
During the tour, guests spent 12 minutes viewing a short film in a room that housed a 625-square-foot model of phase one (about 2,500 acres). Debby said parts of the model lit up during the show. The vintage postcard image above is the closest I got to the model.
Guides then escorted groups down a hallway lined with concept artwork. No photography existed since everything was still being built.
Following the presentation, guests could shop for souvenirs or enjoy beverages at a refreshment station with soft drinks and freshly squeezed orange juice. Outside, animal topiaries flanked the modern building while a path stretched down to a wooden gazebo by a small lake.
The Preview Center is rarely featured on merchandise, yet a prized possession is a tour guide Minnie Mouse pin from a Disney trading event in 2011.
It’s fun thinking back to this important moment in Walt Disney World history as we get ready for “The World’s Most Magical Celebration” beginning Oct. 1. Be sure to keep checking back with us here at the Disney Parks Blog for more of my memories and our coverage of the 50th anniversary celebration. You can follow #DisneyWorld50 on social platforms, too!
On a vacation in Miami my parents and I stopped at the visitor center on our way back to Philadelphia. I was young, but remember the magic that would be Disney World. One thing I do wonder about is the center had “Guest Books” for each State that visitors could sign. What has happened to those books?
I visited the preview center with my parents for 2 years before the park opened as we drove past on our annual drive to Hollywood Beach. It was so exciting to see the plans for the park. I will look for photos.
No joke, while driving past the AAU building on my first visit to WDW as an adult in 2012, I thought “that building looks different” and did a google maps search on it. It sparked a WDW history rabbit-trail that I’m still following today.
When my sister and I were little, we would look for all the landmarks that meant we were getting closer to being at Disney World. The last and favorite ones were the amazing different topiaries leading up to the Contemporary Hotel. Very cool to learn about the Preview Center and thanks for reminding me of the topiaries!
Amazing article!!! Thank you for sharing!!!
Great article, Steven! How fun it would be to step into a time machine and visit the Preview Center. I’m loving this series as we approach the big 50th anniversary! Thanks.