Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Look Back at Walt Disney World's First 10 Years

By Keith Mahne

From the Walt Disney World Vacation Kingdom dedication plaque in Town Square: "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..." Walt Disney's dream...what a dream it was: a complete vacation resort destination; a total environment that Walt himself referred to as "a new, different kind of world...big enough to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine." And the dream came to life and started to grow: the Magic Kingdom, resort hotels and villas, campgrounds, abundant facilities for recreation, shopping and entertainment; all set against a lovingly preserved and designed backdrop of rolling landscapes and winding waterways. And, as Walt had suggested, there was still plenty of space for the Disney-style thinking, tinkering and building called "Imagineering." Today, this 27,443-acre wonder stands as the leading vacation destination on earth and the first 10 years of its existence played a big part in that. Let's review Walt Disney World's first 10 years and discover why it remains as happy and joyous a place as the day it opened on October 1, 1971...


The opening of Walt Disney World was scheduled for the entire month of October 1971, but more than 100,000 guests visited the Magic Kingdom in preview evenings during September. The climax of the Grand Opening was October 23-25 with a gala concert by the 60-nation World Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Arthur Fiedler, a spectacular luau at the Polynesian Village Resort, dedication of the Contemporary Resort Hotel by Bob Hope and the Magic Kingdom's opening parade, featuring a 1,076-piece marching band directed by "Music Man" Meredith Willson.

A rare photo of a magical moment when Roy introduced Lillian Disney at WDW's opening night

One thousand and seventy-six instruments are in the band led by "Music Man" Meredith Willson as part of the Grand Opening parade

A rare photo of the very first Electrical Water Pageant and Polynesian Resort Luau, 1971

Taking part in the televised opening festivities were Julie Andrews, Glen Campbell, Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters, and a "who's who" of American entertainment, business, government and industry. Distinguished guests during the first weeks included David Brinkley, Helen Hayes, astronaut Eugene Cernan, Mickey Rooney and Johnny Bench.

Julie Andrews (center) performs on Main Street U.S.A. during the opening of WDW

The Fort Wilderness Campground, a back-to-nature retreat with campsites secluded amidst pine woods, opened in November, as did Circle-Vision 360's "America the Beautiful" — a view of our great nation as projected on a gigantic screen that completely surrounded the viewer. "Flight to the Moon" opened in December.

WDW guests enjoy an outdoor barbecue at Fort Wilderness - 1971

America the Beautiful

Flight to the Moon

The Magic Kingdom observed its first Christmas with a parade and awe-inspiring Candlelight Procession featuring Rock Hudson as narrator, and the first New Year's Eve was celebrated with fireworks, balloons and a musical salute at Cinderella Castle. Walt Disney World also hosted its first professional golf tournament, won by Jack Nicklaus.


Goofy marches down Main Street during the first anniversary of WDW in 1972

"If You Had Wings," a colorful "journey" to exciting vacation ports-of-call, opened in June. Famed newscaster Lowell Thomas celebrated his 80th birthday party of distinguished guests — including flying aces Eddie Rickenbacker and Jimmy Doolittle — in April of that year. Attendance totalled 10,712,991 for the first full year of operation.

If You Had Wings


The 151-room Golf Resort — nestled between the lush greens of the championship Palm and Magnolia golf courses — opened in December. Completion of "Pirates of the Caribbean" in December also highlighted a busy year of openings that included "The Walt Disney Storey," Swan Boats, Tom Sawyer Island and the Richard F. Irvine Steamboat.

Pirates of the Caribbean opened December of 1973

The Walt Disney World Swan Boats began in 1973

President Richard Nixon visited the convention of Associated Press managing editors at the Contemporary Resort Hotel; the President was greeted by the 1974 Ambassador, Christi Lee Zeisler and gave his "I am not a crook" speech.

Nixon during the " I am not a crook " speech at the Contemporary Resort Hotel

The 50th anniversary of Walt Disney Productions featured a special parade and observances.


The year was keynoted by the opening of Circle Vision 360's "Magic Carpet 'Round the World," the Pioneer Hall dinner theater at the Fort Wilderness Campground and Discovery Island — pictured above featuring a vividly beautiful bird sanctuary, the world's largest walk-through aviary at the time — in the middle of Bay Lake.

Pioneer Hall dinner theater at the Fort Wilderness Campground

Other special events included observance of Donald Duck's 40th birthday, and the very first Walt Disney World Golf Classic, won by B.R. McClendon and Hubert Green. 

Walt Disney World Golf Classic

Other special events included observance of Donald Duck's 40th birthday, and the very first Walt Disney World Golf Classic, won by B.R. McClendon and Hubert Green. Also in 1974, Entertainment took daily fun to a new level by introducing the park’s first new parade with the launch of “Cavalcade of Characters.”

Cavalcade of Characters


Space Mountain opening celebration

In January, the thrilling "Space Mountain" attraction was dedicated before 2,000 dignitaries and was later "flight-tested" by U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. In addition, new "Starjets" and the GE "Carousel of Progress" — that classic, three-dimensional look at the innovations spawned by electricity — opened in Tomorrowland.

March, 1975

The once charming, European-styled Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened in March with 29 shops and four restaurants.

The beautiful Lake Buena Vista  Shopping Village sign

An aerial view of the original Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village before the Empress Lilly Riverboat

In July, the revolutionary, motorless transportation system, the WEDway PeopleMover, was inaugurated. Daily performances of "America on Parade" — a moving salute to the Bicentennial with more than 50 floats and 150 larger-than-life characters — and the opening of Hall of Presidents highlighted the Magic Kingdom activities that year.

America on Parade

"Mission to Mars" premiered in Tomorrowland, and Lucie Arnaz starred in a nationally televised show originating from the Magic Kingdom called "Welcome to the 'World'" that you can watch HERE.

Mission to Mars


In June, President Gerald Ford's daughter Susan officially opened the "kersplashing" River Country attraction at Fort Wilderness Campground, and "Ol' Waterin' Hole" complete with flumes, slides and waterfalls.

River Country

The Magic Kingdom's 50-millionth visitor, 13-year-old Susan Brummer of Virginia, arrived in March.


The Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village adds the Empress Lilly

In May the Epress Lilly Riverboat at Lake Buena Vista was dedicated. An authentic replica of a turn-of-the-century sternwheeler, the Epress Lilly featured old-fashioned parlor salons, three elegant restaurants and a lounge.

June saw the premiere of the Main Street Electrical Parade, a dazzling cavalcade of Disney characters and themes done up in half-a-million lights.


Card Walker reviews Disney plans for EPCOT Center with President Jimmy Carter at Walt Disney World - 1978

President Jimmy Carter addressed the opening session of the International Chamber of Commerce Global Congress (you can read more about that in my article HERE). Governor Reuben Askew dedicated a prototype solar office building in January.

Mickey Mouse's 50th Birthday Parade

Mickey Mouse celebrated his 50th birthday (November 18th) with daily parades throughout the year. Shields and Yarnell, Avery Schreiber, Phyllis Diller, Andrea McArdle, Danille Spencer and Pablo Cruise taped "Christmas at Walt Disney World", a special for "Wonderful World of Disney." Watch the Shields and Yarnell segment below...

A one-year Magic Kingdom attendance record of over 14 million was also set in 1978.


EPCOT Center ground breaking ceremony

Walt Disney Productions President Card Walker hosted ground breaking ceremonies for EPCOT Center on October 1st.

Mickey welcomed the Magic Kingdom's 100 millionth visitor on October 22nd, an eight-year-old Kurt Miller from Kingsville, Maryland

At 10:32 AM on Monday, October 22, 8-year-old Kurt Miller of Baltimore walked through the turnstiles and became Walt Disney World's 100 millionth guest. He received a lifetime pass from Mickey and WDW Vice President Bob Allen.


Lake Buena Vista Club Lake Villas

In September, the Lake Buena Vista Conference Center and the surrounding 136 Club Lake Villas opened. Television talk show host John Davidson was on hand November 15th for the Grand Opening of "Big Thunder Mountain Railroad."

John Davidson at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opening, 1980

Big Thunder Railroad, 1980


EPCOT Center under construction

Progress on EPCOT Center continued at an astounding pace. The $800 million "Community of Ideas" promised to be the most exciting entertainment concept in the history of Walt Disney Productions, and the company made good on that promise.

Walt Disney World celebrated its Tencennial — the 10th Birthday Celebration of the World

Begining on October 1, 1981, the Walt Disney World Vacation Kingdom was alive with the most thrilling event in its history to date: the Tencennial Celebration. It was a year-long party filled with high-stepping parades, live musical concerts, guest appearances by a bevy of top-name celebrities, fireworks galore...and a host of exhilarating surprises done up in the grand Disney style.

Walt Disney World's first 10 years were full of wonder and excitement. Nothing was left to stagnate and new and exciting attractions and guest experiences popped up at ever turn. These first 10 years solidified Walt Disney's final dream as the ultimate vacation destination of the world. Something of this magnitude, I highly doubt, we will ever see the likes of least in our lifetime. Thanks to the men and women who were there during this exuberant time in Disney history for helping to make Walt Disney World the true "Vacation Kingdom of the World" that it is today.

Walt Disney World cast members come together to celebrate 10 magical years


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday.

1 comment:

  1. You should keep going with the other decades after. This was a great look back at the history of WDW