StartedByAMouse.com - The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World

Tinker Bell

Here in Florida we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland: the blessing of size. There is enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.
                                                  -- Walt Disney, October 1966

Walt Disney had always regretted that he did not buy enough land surrounding Disneyland to keep away the tacky hotels, shops and restaurants that sprung up around the immediate area. Walt reasoned that if he was to ever build another park, he would make sure there would be enough land to keep any urban intrusiveness far enough away. Eventually he decided to go ahead and do just that. There would be another Disneyland-type theme park, but it would be surrounded by first-class recreational facilities, campgrounds, hotels and a futuristic city.

Before fully going ahead with his ideas, Walt and his Imagineers concentrated on developing four exhibits for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. The reasoning was two-fold:

  1. To develop innovative attractions for the fair with the aid of corporate funding. These rides and shows could later be added to Disneyland.
  2. See how the Disney-style of entertainment would play with predominantly East Coast residents.

Disney's exhibits were the biggest hits of the fair. It's a Small World, The Carousel of Progress and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln all made their way west over the following few years. The continuously moving ride system built for Ford's Magic Skyway at the fair was reformatted and renamed as the PeopleMover.

Walt could now concentrate on acquiring the land needed for what he would call "Disney World." He found just what he was looking for in a largely undeveloped area just south of Orlando, Florida, near the intersections of major Highways U.S. 192 and Interstate 4. It was in Orlando on November 15, 1965, with his brother Roy and Florida Governor Haydon Burns that Walt publicly announced that he had bought about 27,500 acres (now over 30,000 acres) for a vacation resort project estimated to cost $100 million (the final tally would be about $400 million, but with no outstanding debt to the company).

There was considerable concern that Disney World would never be built following Walt's death on December 15, 1966. Roy postponed his planned retirement and took over the Disney organization, with the Florida project becoming his top priority. As a tribute to its creator, the complex was renamed Walt Disney World so, as Roy said, "People will always know that this was Walt's dream." The idea of a futuristic planned city as originally envisioned was ultimately dropped, but the other initial plans went forward. Epcot would eventually evolve into the park it is today, with its distinct Future World and World Showcase sections. The Disney company would also establish its own planned community, but in a more traditional sense. The town of Celebration welcomed its first residents in 1996.

October 1, 1971, was the target date for opening. To avoid the problems that plagued Disneyland on its opening day, official dedications and other media events were held off until late in the month so as to make sure everything was running smoothly. Capping off the celebration would be a 90-minute television special called, naturally, The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World on October 29. Unlike Disneyland's opening special this broadcast was entirely pre-recorded and "brought to you in living color on NBC."

Before getting into the specifics of the program itself, it has to be noted that Roy's formal dedication is not included in the broadcast. For that matter, no member of the Disney family is seen. Here at StartedByAMouse.com, we are not forgetting Roy's words delivered at the Magic Kingdom's Town Square on October 25, 1971:

"WALT DISNEY WORLD is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney ... and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney's dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place ... a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn ... together."

Later, Roy elaborated on his brother's legacy: "He was really, in my opinion, truly a genius-creative, with great determination, singleness of purpose, and drive; and through his entire life he was never pushed off his course or diverted by other things." Turning to Walt's widow Lillian, Roy asked, "Lilly, you knew of Walt's ideas and hopes as well as anybody. What would Walt think of it?" Her response: "I think Walt would have approved."

The show opens with the sunlight peering through clouds, as if to symbolize the dawn of an exciting new day. Country music star Glen Campbell sings "Today is Mine" as the scene fades into various aerial and ground shots of Campbell walking with his guitar through remote areas of the property. The song is beautiful but somewhat difficult to fully appreciate because (in a foreboding of a few musical numbers to come) the studio recorded audio and choral backgrounds don't quite match with the action on the screen. He passes under a monorail beam as one overhead transports primary host Julie Andrews over the Seven Seas Lagoon towards the Magic Kingdom Park. She calls Walt's final dream, "A commitment to the future for your children and mine. This is a world of lakes and waterways, of incredible new rides and illusions, of wildlife sanctuaries for nature's creatures, as well as camping grounds and golf courses and all manner of wonderful things for the human species. Best of all, it is a place to stir the imagination and instill a sense of hope for tomorrow. [It is] a joyful land built by an inspired dreamer for other dreamers and dreams still to come.
     The Time: Now
     The Occasion: The opening of Walt Disney World
     The Place: Orlando, Florida"

It is indeed The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World and is presented exclusively by "Eastern Airlines: the people to call for travel to Walt Disney World; GAF: the official film of Disneyland and Walt Disney World [GAF's spokesman at the time was Henry Fonda and is featured in all of their commercials]; and U.S. Steel: In countless ways that contribute to a better life, we're involved."

Contemporary Hotel
The A-Frame Contemporary Hotel at the Walt Disney World Resort.

It was U.S. Steel that built the Contemporary and Polynesian Hotels and was originally going to own them. Their construction was unique: The main frame was built on site with the rooms made at an outside location, trucked to the property and inserted into the frame. Just before opening, Roy decided to buy out their interests and let Disney run the hotels themselves. It was a decision that had some skeptical has the company had not owned or operated a hotel to that point (recall that until 1988 The Wrather Corporation ran the Disneyland Hotel). Ultimately, it proved to be a wise move.

Following the first break, Andrews returns to sing, or more accurately, lip-synch, "When You Wish Upon a Star." Her nice rendition is highlighted by clips from some of the classic animated features. This segues into a rousing 1971 pop-version of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" featuring dancers attired in bright orange and red and purple and pink shirts, accented by white pants and skirts. Accompanied by Goofy, Pluto, Pinocchio and the Seven Dwarfs they all make their way up Main Street U.S.A., to Cinderella's Castle. One clever touch: a sly reference to a phrase from a very familiar movie starring our hostess. It is pure variety show razzle-dazzle glitz, but the characters and Andrews' energetic performance don't make it too painful to watch. As everyone heads into Fantasyland, we catch a glimpse of Mickey waving from atop the castle.

Next up is the first of a three-part sketch (seemingly largely improvised) with Jonathan Winters as a chauvinistic husband with a large family of 7, 8 or 9 kids -- we're never too sure and frankly, it seems neither is he -- who has graciously let his wife Margaret (played by Mary Gregory) drive the entire two-day and two-night trip in their large Ford convertible to experience Fort Wilderness. She is catatonic, but that hasn't fazed her husband: "We did this vacation for you, so you can get out of that hot, sweaty kitchen and have the fun of your life right here at Disney World!" Her hands are frozen to the steering wheel, but with Winters' "help," limps to their campsite: "You look like Smokey the Bear after he's been struck by lightening!"

Campbell returns to point out the unique A-frame shape of the Contemporary Hotel and introduce Bob "Ex-Mouseketeer" Hope inside the hotel concourse against the backdrop of artist Mary Blair's large tile mural. Hope enters via the monorail and launches into one of his patented monologues. Some highlights:

  • [Hope's take on the Contemporary's design]: It's really two buildings leaning against each other -- and I want to congratulate the architect Dean Martin.
  • I have a lovely room with complete privacy, except in the bathtub which Donald Duck shares with me. Have you ever tried bathing with a duck who was playing with his rubber man?
  • I ordered lunch from room service. Snow White brought it in and I was afraid to eat the apple. I don't dare drink the water because that was delivered by Pluto.
  • This is the biggest vacation/entertainment complex in the world. And to think it all started with a gentle mouse, a bad-tempered duck and seven mixed-up dwarfs!
  • It's a fantastic achievement. They took a swamp and turned it into a Magic Kingdom. It wasn't easy. Have you ever tried to relocate 8,000 angry alligators?
  • Walt Disney always believed in the beauty and natural wonders of the world. But he felt as we passed through that we should try to add a little wonder and beauty to it. Maybe you'll understand that Walt's dream was just a beginning. The dream doesn't stop here. This is the start of it. I think you'll want to tell your grandchildren you were there when it happened.

Later near the end of the program, Hope offers a deeper tribute: "Walt Disney World is the culmination of a lifetime devoted to bringing joy and excitement and laughter to children and adults in America and throughout the world ... there is a spirit here everywhere. All of this is Walt -- this is what Walt wanted for all of us: an escape from our aspirin existence into a land of sparkles and lights and rainbows ... Walt Disney loved America. He loved its children and their moms and pops. Walt Disney loved America because his dreams came true ... The entire world owes Walt a great debt. He achieved much, but perhaps his greatest accomplishment is that he made children of us all."


Continued ...



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