Thursday, September 29, 2016

Celebrating Walt Disney World's 45th Anniversary: Part I - Bringing the Magic to Florida

By Keith Mahne

In commemoration of Walt Disney World's 45th anniversary, Disney Avenue will be running a 3 part series on the development of the Florida resort that is jammed-packed with quotes over the years from Disney employees who were responsible for the concept, planning and construction that led to Opening Day, October 1, 1971. Join us today for Part I as we remember the obstacles the Company faced as they attempted to bring the magic of Disney to Florida as we celebrate the creation of the Vacation Kingdom of the World...

Walt Disney World, 1971

Shortly after Walt Disney World opened in 1971, two elderly ladies surveyed the sights of the Magic Kingdom. Said one to the other, "Wasn't it marvelous of Mr. Disney to pick such a beautiful place for his Park?" The men and women who worked on Walt Disney World would enjoy a good laugh if told of this remark, which was overheard by a Disney designer. In reality, the site of the Magic Kingdom and its environment was anything but beautiful when Walt Disney selected it as the future home of his premiere vacation destination. It took Walt's foresight and imagination, his designers' creativity, and years of manual labor to transform over 28,000 acres of almost uninhabited Florida swampland into what has become the United States' number one vacation destination.

Project Florida team rides Walt's plane down to Florida for an early site inspection

View of Walt Disney World from Walt's plane as he saw it. Spotting Bay Lake from the air, Walt pointed at the pine barrens and swampland and declared, "This is the place."

Walt stands on WDW property and looks over plans for the area with Card Walker with Roy Disney behind him.

While this time around the Disney project did not face the kind of naysayers who had predicted Disneyland's rapid demise back in 1955, its own designers had to overcome their doubts as to the project's success. "On one of our early visits, in 1968, we flew weather balloons to tell heights and see how things were going to relate to each other," the late John Hench, the legendary Senior Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering, once recalled. "It just seemed endless, open. There was a terrifying amount of space to fill." John Hench, who was instrumental in planning and designing the Florida resort complex, was more than a little concerned with the prospect of building in the swampland Walt had purchased. "The water level was so close to the surface. I remember digging a little hole where the castle would be. The next morning it was filled with water."

Marty Sklar, Welton Becket, and Dick Irvine on the site of the future Magic Kingdom. Here we see the “X” marking the spot where Cinderella Castle will be built and where John Hench dug a little hole and the next morning was filled with water.

Bay Lake, which was choked with swamp muck, was drained and dredged, revealing tons of white sand used to line the four and a half miles of beach along the lake shore, 1968.

A helicopter view of the canals being built to control the water in and around Walt Disney World.

The late Bill Justice, a legendary animator who later programmed various attractions for Walt Disney World, once said, "I first went to Florida two-and-a-half years before opening, when twelve of us from WED (Imagineering today) were sent to see the property. They were draining the lake, putting in canals, putting in a tree farm. The bugs were so bad they'd fly right into your mouth. A car would go by on the highway once every 20 or 30 minutes. We thought Walt was out of his mind!"

Roy O. Disney looking over the land that will soon become WDW, 1968.

Walt Disney had conceived the idea for a multi-faceted resort long before that construction phase, and more than a dozen years before Walt Disney World's October 1, 1971 Grand Opening. On file in the Walt Disney Archives is a 1959 research report titled "A Study of the Market for an Eastern Disneyland." The idea was fueled not only by Walt's desire to reach more tourists east of the Mississippi River, but by his regret that he could not afford to buy the land surrounding Disneyland during the Park's creation.

"Here in Florida... we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland — the blessing of size. There's enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine." - Walt Disney

Walt had provided four attractions for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair in part to determine if his type of entertainment would be accepted by East Coast tourists and to see if his creative team could hold their own with eastern designers. His four Disney shows were all in the top 10 at the Fair; in popularity, they were in the top five! The Disney Company began purchasing property in Central Florida under a shroud of secrecy which was not lifted until a November 1965 press conference announcing that a new Disney World was indeed in the making.

The November 1965 Press Conference announcing Walt Disney World

"We knew something was up," Bill "Sully" Sullivan, who had been with Walt at the Fair and who retired in 1993 after 38 years with Disney, once recalled. "But we didn't know what or where. There had been talk of Walt buying the property the Fair had been on."

1964-65 New York World's Fair

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse enjoy "it's a small world" at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair

"Florida came to the forefront pretty quickly," Dick Nunis, the former President of Walt Disney Attractions, once recalled of the site chosen for the Disney World project. "It had year-round good weather, a good tourist population, good major access and a lot of land at a reasonable price."

Magic Kingdom under construction

Sadly, Walt did not live to see the realization of any aspect of his Florida dream beyond the purchase of the land. He died of complications following surgery for lung cancer on December 15, 1966. John Hench was once quoted as saying, "Roy Disney told me, 'The last time I saw my brother, he was in his hospital room, looking up at the ceiling as if he could see a map of Disney World there. He was talking about the need for an east-west road.' Even when he was dying, that was his concern."

After his brother's death, Roy, who had always handled the finances while Walt handled the dreams, put aside his retirement plans in order to achieve Walt's goals. "A lot of people don't give Roy the credit they should," Claude Coats, legendary artist, animator and set designer, who worked on a number of Fantasyland attractions for the Magic Kingdom, once stated. "He was the one who insisted it be called Walt Disney World."

Roy O. Disney pauses in front of a scaffold-veiled Cinderella Castle with opening day near, 1970

"When Walt passed away, there were a lot of rumors that American Express would take over the Company, buy it out," Claude Coats was once quoted as saying. "Roy got people together and said, 'That's not going to happen. This is going to be a family company. My grandchildren will work here. There's property in Florida we'll develop. I've always been chicken about money, but I'm not going to be any more. I'm going to get all the money we need.' And he did."

A rare photo of Roy, his wife Edna and Lillian Disney at the Grand Opening of WDW

The legendary Marty Sklar, former President of Walt Disney Imagineering and reoccurring guest on the Disney Avenue Podcast, once mentioned that the point all along was, "...that we were not just creating another Park, we were creating 'The Vacation Kingdom of the World.'" Disney executives decided to begin the first phase of the Florida project with something that they were positive would be a hit with fans: a Magic Kingdom style theme park, along with two hotels and a campground.

Aerial view of WDW in 1971

Because WED (Imagineering today) was going to be master planning an enormous area that was to include water recreation, campgrounds, hotels, golf courses, a transportation system that would consist of trams, monorails, boats and buses, and also Walt's plan for a Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), Disney took yet another unprecedented step. The Company successfully lobbied the Florida legislature to enact a body of laws to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District, thus re-writing existing building codes and zoning regulations to give Disney designers the freedom they needed to utilize advanced new technology.

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, May 12, 1967

Constructing the Magic Kingdom was a challenge in itself. Even with Disneyland as a model, designers had to contend with conditions unique to this project, not the least of which was the Florida locale itself. Because of the water level, the Park had to be elevated on a plateau built over a complex tunnel system. The system, which the public never sees, houses such facilities as maintenance and utilities, wardrobe and locker rooms, the character costume shop, an employee cafeteria, and serves as the means by which costumed personnel enter and exit the park.

The Magic Kingdom Utilidors, 1971

The heat and humidity called for more indoor waiting areas for attractions as well as extensive air conditioning, even for some sections of outdoor attractions. Since Orlando is known as the "lighting capital of the U.S.," more lightening rods in the buildings were also necessary. "Being from the West, we didn't understand the effect lightening could have," Norm Doerges, former Vice President of Disneyland who was with the opening team in Florida, once said. "There are 16,000 strikes per year around Walt Disney World. We'd never experienced anything like it."

Lightening rods had to be installed in buildings throughout the Magic Kingdom during construction as seen here on Nov. 28, 1970

Inside the Park, Cinderella Castle was more than twice as tall as its Disneyland counterpart. Accordingly, Main Street increased in area and building size as well, and presented the more ornate Victorian style of architecture. "Cinderella Castle was different from anything we'd done before, because it was so vertical," Glenn Durflinger, a former WDI facility design director who was responsible for turning the Castle from design sketches to reality, once remembered. "Above a certain height, it would have been too cumbersome when we were building it to have a platform with workers, so we stacked per-fabricated components one on top of the other. We made it so vertical because in Disneyland, when the trees grew, the Castle eventually disappeared." Also, the additional height would ensure the Castle's visibility over the two-mile distance between the Magic Kingdom parking lot and main entrance.

Cinderella Castle comes to life

Early on in the project's planning stages, an upper portion of the Castle was designated to be an apartment for Walt Disney and his family. "He could have had an overview of all the Magic Kingdom from there," Glenn Durflinger once said. "I was working on those plans the day I heard he'd passed away."

Because the submarine voyage was to be situated in Fantasyland, the attraction became the fantasy-themed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, unlike Disneyland's Tomorrowland counterpart which was originally an "atomic submarine" sponsored by General Dynamics.

And, where Disneyland had only one U.S. President in "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," the Magic Kingdom had 37 in the Hall of Presidents. There were also two entirely new Audio-Animatronic shows: the Country Bear Jamboree and the Mickey Mouse Revue.

The Magic Kingdom's brand new Country Bear Jamboree attraction, 1971

Mickey Mouse Musical Revue, 1971

Although the Magic Kingdom boasted its share of man-made wildlife, Florida provided the real thing. "There was an alligator where we were working, not too far from where the Indian Village was on the River," Marc Davis, legendary animator and designer, once recalled. "At noon, we always fed him. You'd clap your hands, and he'd come up. He was about four feet long, but he grew rapidly because of the food, so eventually we had to move him."

A beautiful, 1971 photo of the Haunted Mansion and the Admiral Joe Fowler Riverboat

Walt Disney World gave the Disney Company their first shot at the hotel business, where they again became pioneers. The Resort's initial two structures, The Contemporary Resort and the Polynesian Village, became the prototypes for modular constructed facilities using steel. The Contemporary also broke ground as the first hotel in the world with a transportation system — the Monorail — running through its 14-story lobby.

Because of the variety of all these new operations, such as the hotels and outdoor recreation, Disneyland management personnel found themselves tackling new assignments. "I was transferred to Hotel Operations," Bill "Sully" Sullivan once remembered, "to operate the Hilton Hotel for six months." Norm Doerges found himself responsible for the recreational elements — pools, beaches, boats, sailing.

Vintage photo of WDW showing a whole new vacation way of life, including 650 acres of water, lined with four miles of white sand beaches, 1971

Despite years of careful planning, personnel still had to scramble to meet the opening day October 1 deadline. Designers and programmers grabbed sleep when and where they could. "Wathel Rogers and I were programming the Hall of Presidents," Jack Taylor, a former WDI director of Show Quality Standards, was once quoted as saying. "There wasn't time to go back to the hotel, so I'd take a scrap of carpet, use it for a pillow, and sleep on the stage for two or three hours while the computer program was loading."

The Hall of Presidents as it appeared in 1971

"It got crazy," Norm Doerges once recalled. "Just before opening, the Contemporary Hotel still hadn't been sodded. We all went out there, and overnight we sodded the entire Contemporary Hotel — with Dick Nunis reminding us, 'Green side up, you guys!' The night before we were to open, we still had all our boats to place at the hotels, 40- and 50-foot yachts, scarab-types, all kinds. Altogether 150 to 200 watercraft had not been placed. By morning, every boat was in place. The attitude was we're going to find a way to get it done. And we did."

Disney's Contemporary Resort offered guests several options for outdoor watersports and other recreational fun in the sun, 1971

Disney's Contemporary Resort seen here in 1971

When Opening Day finally came, the sentiment among the designers and programmers was relief — but worth the effort. A past quote by Jack Taylor sums it up perfectly, "During installation, you work crazy hours, you don't get enough sleep. Then you open the doors to the public and it's amazing. With all the headaches and all the hassles, you walk out on Opening Day and see the reactions of the public, see their smiles. That's what it's all about."

WDW Opening Celebration, 1971

That will do it for Part I as we celebrate Walt Disney World's 45th anniversary. Keep an eye out for Part II coming soon where we will cover Walt Disney World's first year of operation and what that was like for the men and women who were there helping to make the resort complex the Vacation Kingdom of the World we know and love today.

Part II - The First Year of Magic
Part III - The Creation of EPCOT Center


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. I remember watching Walt Disney on tv,when diseyworld would be built in Florida, unknown to me,I married a miltary man.We where stationed at PAFB,I had forgotten about the dream disney had at the time,I was 19 at this time,I went to the store and bought a news paper there it was,disney was real it was opein b October 1st,1971.I told my husband I have to go,I remember hearing it about this as a child. October 1st 1971 came,and we were there,omg I remember it still,I was expecting our first baby.We have lived in florida for 2yrs now,and fer my husband retired from the Navy we came back to Florida to be ab l e to go to my happy place,I'm 64 yrs old now.And a grandmother and great grandma too.I now take my grandchildren and my great granddaughter to my happy place,every chance I get,we will be there for MNSSHP next week,and we vacation there 2-3 times a year,we are also AP holders,,I'm love going home,I'm love the memory of being a child,and the feeling of magic of being home.

  2. This is great, thank you for sharing it. I have been reading "Walt Disney" by Neal Gabler and just reached the part where he purchased the Florida land. So it was nice to see the pictures of the development. Even though I am a California native and resident I prefer WDW over Disneyland.