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For many years I was stationed in Ohio, during that time we made the long drive to Florida every year to visit family and of course Mickey Mouse too, at Walt Disney World.
On the second day of our drive we’d be crossing into Florida from Georgia on Interstate 75 and waiting for that first glimpse of Mickey.
After crossing Interstate 10 we’d all be on high alert to see who’d spot the first billboard for Walt Disney World, that first glimpse of Mickey, a Dwarf, Goofy, or one of the other characters was enough to set the whole car cheering.
From I-10 south to Ocala Florida it was another 45 miles, as we rolled along the road we’d keep our eyes peeled for the next Disney sign, then the next, each new one creating growing excitement.
As we neared Ocala we’d be looking for the billboard which announced the Disney radio station. This wasn’t the Disney Radio of today but an AM radio station near Ocala which played pre-recorded Disney World information.
Many of the characters added their voices as “announcers”. Topics included what was new in the parks, hotel and dining information, ticket information, and lots of other informational things about the resort.
When we got to Ocala we’d eagerly exit the highway and pull into the parking lot of the AAA sponsored Walt Disney World Welcome Center. The Welcome Center was a gift shop and information center staffed by Disney Cast Members and employees of the Automobile Association of America. Here you could buy Walt Disney World souvenirs as well as get park info, buy park tickets, and make Disney dining or hotel reservations.
By then it was lunchtime and we’d grab some fast food at Burger King or KFC then get back on the highway.
From Ocala we were just a short one hour fifteen minute drive to Disney World! We’d continue to check out all of the Disney billboards on I-75, the Florida Turnpike, and then finally I-4. Our excitement built with each passing sign until at last we finally rolled under that Welcome to Walt Disney World sign.
This tale played out many times over the years and was an exciting ritual for our family. It always kicked our vacation into high gear.
Recently I was driving east on I-10 with my adult kids heading to Orlando to visit Universal Orlando and as I turned south onto I-75 I reflected on how the above story changed over the years.
The scenario as written above was in the mid 90’s and a little later. But as the Walt Disney Company kept expanding, buying ABC, ESPN, and other companies the parent company began to depend more and more on revenue from the Walt Disney World Resort to keep the other unprofitable branches of the company afloat. This meant many cutbacks over the years, less long-term upkeep of the parks, less daily cleaning and attention to detail, and many other things that bothered WDW aficionados.
For those traveling to Disney along I-75 and the Florida Turnpike it meant a slow withdrawal south of Disney’s outdoor advertising. At first the most northern billboard that you would see on I-75 kept moving further and further south. It took longer and longer from the time you crossed I-10 till you saw that first Disney billboard.
This stabilized north of Ocala for a while but then the radio station was shut down. After a while the billboards began to retreat south again halting just north of the Florida Turnpike entrance for a time then deserting I-75 altogether.
This took place during the early to mid (how do you say it?) 00’s (between 2000 and 2005). In the summer of 2006 Disney closed the Ocala Welcome Center. And the line for outdoor advertising seemed to be drawn at the north end of the Florida Turnpike
But slowly over the last few years they again started retreating towards Orlando. This time I was really saddened to find that there wasn’t a single Disney Billboard on the Florida Turnpike, they didn’t start until I got on I-4 just a few miles from Disney
It felt like the end of an era and I guess it is. Disney no longer feels it need these signs to draw the public. The sad thing is you still pass billboards for Universal Orlando, Ron Jon Surf Shop, Kennedy Space Center and other Orlando attractions all the way to Orlando from I-10.
Of all of the advertising options Disney had on the approach to Orlando I miss the Welcome Center the most. It was always our first taste of Disney each vacation. We could see what new souvenirs there were and what new logos Disney had come up with.
We also would stop on our way home just to get that last little feel of Disney and to pick up perhaps one last souvenir. Plus they had the cleanest bathrooms on the interstate…
Update 2015: Over the last couple of years about 4 Disney billboards have popped up on the Florida Turnpike, generally promoting seasonal events or new rides/attractions like The Epcot Food and Wine Festival and the Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train.
Update 2016: There are probably 8 to 10 Disney billboards now starting in Lake County on the Florida Turnpike.
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