The Mutoscopes of Walt Disney World

This is a Mutoscope. If you’ve ever popped into the Walt Disney World Railroad Station at Main Street USA, you’ve probably seen them. They make for fun little interactive elements in the park, but beyond that they’re also a real piece of film history.

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Mutoscopes were invented back in the mid 1890s by William Dickson and Herman Casler, and they were meant to be direct competition to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope. They both shared the same basic premise. You’d walk up, you’d put your money into the machine, and then you’d watch a short little animated story play out in the viewfinder.

However what’s interesting is that the Mutoscope didn’t compete by being more technologically advanced as one might expect. In fact, it competed by being less advanced. The Kinetoscope was motorized meaning that the viewer didn’t have to do anything once they put their money in, and it utilized this new exciting technology called film. By comparison, the Mutoscope had to be manually played with a hand crank, and in lieu of film it used a large drum of cards with the image printed on it. So it was sort of like a hand-cranked flipbook. As it would turn out, those cards were more durable and longer lasting than the relatively new film, not to mention larger which meant a more detailed image. The hand cranking meant that viewers had some control over the speed of the playback, and as a result the average Mutoscope movie was around one minute where Kinetoscope films at the time were around 20 seconds long.

With a better image, a longer experience, and a cheaper machine, Mutoscopes began to spring up all over boardwalks and penny arcades in the beginning of the 1900s. Now typically they wouldn’t really be found at train stations the way they are in The Magic Kingdom. Which is why these machines weren’t originally there when the park opened in 1971. They were, instead, found in the Penny Arcade on Main Street USA. However with the conversion of that space into additional gift shops in 1995, they were moved. Most of them are now in the railroad station, however they can also be found in the lobby of the Boardwalk resort near Epcot, which is more fitting.

So what happened to Mutoscopes? Well it was estimated that their popularity resulted in over 100,000 reels being manufactured over the years. However as the medium evolved businesses quickly learned that by projecting the images on a larger screen rather than having individuals watch them one at a time, they could increase their profits with every viewing. And show business, like any business, followed the money. That’s when Edison’s Kinetoscope, and its use of film secured it a more crucial spot in the history of the medium, and with the popularization of projection technology, both machines were essentially turned into novelties by the 1920s and beyond. Mutoscopes were officially supported up until the 1950’s, however for much of its life, as they are today, they were just a fun look at the past.

Today it’s estimated that only around 500 Mutoscope reels are left. They’re a small scene in the movie that is film history, and it can be found right here at Walt Disney World.

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