The Old Wabasso Bridge Finds a New Home at Walt Disney World
by Mike Miller
(Mount Dora, Florida)
The Old Wabasso Swing Bridge
Disney's Vero Beach Resort opened in 1995 on Orchid Island just south of the road to the Wabasso Bridge. I wonder how many of the guests enjoying their stay in Indian River County know the historical link that Disney has to Wabasso? It is a link that dates back to the years just before Walt Disney World was completed.
Walt Disney World opened near Orlando in October 1971. The Magic Kingdom theme park is located in the northern region of Disney's huge acreage at the north end of a large artificial lagoon. Ferries transport guests from the main entrance complex across the lagoon to a landing near the end of Main Street. The ferries need to be hauled out of the water from time to time for servicing, so Disney built a boat yard to take care of their sizable navy. This boat servicing area is tucked away in the back side of the Magic Kingdom, out of sight of the tourists.
In 1970 the Magic Kingdom was under construction, including a small gauge railroad whose tracks encircled the theme park. This little train would become known as the Main Street Railroad. The railroad design included a draw bridge over a canal leading from the lagoon to the boat yard. The bridge would be opened whenever the ferries needed to be moved through the canal to the service area.
Disney's engineers heard about an old swing bridge near Vero Beach which was going to be scrapped. They decided to take a look at the bridge to see if it could be used instead of designing and building a brand new one.
The old Wabasso Bridge was built in 1927 and crossed the Indian River Lagoon between the small town of Wabasso on the mainland and Orchid Island north of Vero Beach. In the late sixties the Florida Department of Transportation was about to replace this old swing bridge with a modern high rise concrete model. Disney sent over its engineers to take a look at the old silver painted relic, which DOT intended to scrap as soon as the new one was completed.
The steel bridge beams and girders were antiques, and were no longer being made by the steel mills. The names of hundreds of boats had been scratched into the tired old bridge trusses by the pen knives of lonely bridge tenders over the many years the bridge stood sentinel over the river. Many of the structural members were badly rusted and pitted, and some were corroded completely through. Still, after careful inspection, the Disney engineers decided they could salvage the old bridge.
They decided to buy it and use it at Disney World rather than building a new one. They bought it from DOT and had it cut up into smaller sections. The whole collection of old bridge parts was then loaded on barges and towed to a shipyard on the other side of the state in Tampa. There it was rebuilt to Disney's high quality standards at great expense.
The bridge sections were then trucked from Tampa down Interstate 4 to Disney World and reassembled over the canal on the route of the Main Street Railroad. The completely restored bridge looked very little like the old original, except for its general shape. Only Disney knows for sure whether this imaginative venture saved money or not. The Imagineers may have been more interested in saving an old bridge than in saving money.
Millions of happy tourists from every corner of the world have ridden on the Main Street Railroad since Disney World opened in 1971. It is unlikely many of them are aware of the history of the old bridge. And that history is the link Disney has to Wabasso.
Many of the Disney guests now have the opportunity to ride over two Wabasso bridges: the old and the new.