Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Celebrating Walt Disney World's 45th Anniversary: Part II - The First Year of Magic

By Keith Mahne

Walt Disney World's opening day, Friday, October 1, 1971, drew only about 10,000 visitors to the Magic Kingdom. But the Park's executives were far from disappointed at the low turnout. They had deliberately chosen to open during Florida's quietest month for tourism, on the traditionally slowest day of the week, to avoid the problems posed by peak crowds on Disneyland's first day. However, that year's Thanksgiving weekend put the resorts training and capacity to the test as thousands flocked to the vacation kingdom to see for themselves what the Disneyland of the East was really like. Join us today for Part II of our 45th anniversary celebration series as we cover Walt Disney World's first year of operation and learn what that was like for the men and women who were there helping to make the resort complex the true Vacation Kingdom of the World we know and love today...

WDW Grand Opening Parade, 1971

Although company executives were far from disappointed at the low turnout of Opening Day, members of the Disney Executive Committee, headed by Walt's brother Roy, were still concerned. And so, the next day, on October 2, former Walt Disney Attractions President Dick Nunis, who was also the Vice President and Park Operations Committee Chairman at the time, found himself before the group, explaining the reasoning behind the previous day's attendance. Nunis was quoted as saying that, "If we don't have to close the day after Thanksgiving (because of attaining Park operating capacity of 60,000 at that time) then we know we have a problem."

The day after Thanksgiving, I-4 became the world's largest parking lot as more than 65,000 people headed for the Magic Kingdom, 1971

The statement Dick Nunis made that day, which was also relayed to stock analysts after Disney stock took an opening day tumble, was right on the money. For on the Friday after Thanksgiving Thursday, so many guests flocked to the new Park that they created what could be called "The Traffic Jam Heard 'Round the World." Traffic on Interstate 4, the highway leading to Walt Disney World, was backed up more than 20 miles for hours leading the press to dub I-4 as, "the longest parking lot in the world." As Nunis predicted, the Park reached full capacity, with at least 5,000 cars being turned away.

Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland, November 1971

"That was the weekend everyone in Central Florida decided to descend on Walt Disney World," the late Jack Lindquist, former guest on the Disney Avenue Podcast and then-Vice President of Marketing for both coasts, once remembered. "I don't think we've ever had a day like that. We tried to communicate as much as possible with the public — we had tremendous cooperation from the state police and radio and television stations to get the word out that Walt Disney World was full. We were at full capacity the next day, too."

Magic Kingdom's Main Street, 1971

"That Friday was the real beginning of the spirit of cooperation that Disney World has to this very day," Bob Matheison, who helped develop Walt Disney World and create its executive training program, once said. "Everybody really had to turn to and help each other, whether it was parking cars, traffic control in the parking lot, or cooking hot dogs. It took everybody's contribution, not just the people assigned to the operational aspects." And, not only did the traffic tie-up receive national media coverage, but as Bob once mentioned, "We heard about it from places like India, five tears later!"

Crowds gather in front of Cinderella Castle to meet Mickey and the gang, 1971

Though the traffic jam was easily the most dramatic single event of Walt Disney World's first year of operation, other problems were equally memorable to those who had to deal with them. Providing most of the headaches came from the system used for transporting quests to the Magic Kingdom, which quickly proved to be inadequate. Given the luxury of land, Disney designers had decided to totally isolate the new Magic Kingdom from the "outside world." Between the Park and the parking lot they had dredged out a lagoon. The plan was that guests would be taken by tram to the Main Entrance of the Park, then ferried by boat to the waiting Kingdom. It looked good on paper. In reality, there were not enough trams and boats to go around, sometimes causing guests a long wait to enter the Park. Beyond that, although the parking lot tram tractors were the same kind used to move 747 planes at airports, they were not strong enough, when the trams were fully loaded, to mount the hill near the Contemporary Resort underpass. They would stall, leaving 200 guests immobile and having to walk the rest of the way.

During WDW's first year, fully loaded trams often stalled trying to move guests from the parking lot to the Park's main entrance, 1971

Ticket and Transportation Center, 1971

"We ended up using recreational boats, like speedboats, to transport the guests," Norm Doerges, then a Supervisor of Recreation for the resort complex, once remembered. "They held only five or six people, and we'd get ten in. But people got a kick out of it." Also on the subject, Dick Nunis was once quoted as saying, "Our boats were sinking because the ballast wasn't right. Or they'd start leaking as soon as the guests got in. Luckily, the Monorails (only 4 back then) were running well." The difficulties continued throughout the year, though in time, Disney Imagineers Bob Gurr and Arnold Lindberg designed a suitable tram tractor, and more water craft — including two 600 passenger ferryboats — were added.

"We ended up using recreational boats, like speedboats, to transport the guests," Norm Doerges, then a Supervisor of Recreation for the resort complex, once remembered. "They held only five or six people, and we'd get ten in. But people got a kick out of it." - 1971

The Christmas season was saddened by the December 20th passing of Roy O. Disney at age 78, a driving force behind the creation of his late brother's "World." On the heels of the holiday rush, January became a time of operational re-evaluation and re-organization, with executive promotions and a number of layoffs among Park cast members, to adjust operations during non-peak periods.

Newspaper article on the passing of the torchbearer, Roy O. Disney

In February and March a new phenomenon occurred according to Dick Nunis who once said, "We underestimated the number of 'snowbirds' we'd get — the people who get on a plane to escape the cold. So we implemented cross-utilization: We took Backstage management and secretaries and put them On Stage. They had a real quick crash training program, though some things don't take much training — like putting mayonnaise on bread!"

Contemporary Resort Christmas Tree, December 1971

By spring and summer, various Park maintenance concerns, caused by the Florida climate, had surfaced. Norm Doerges again recalled saying, "There is a great percentage of wood throughout the Park, including most of Main Street, and these wooden structures would deteriorate or get dry-rot because of the rain and humidity. And the hot sun would fade them We either found a new way to protect them or switched to fiberglass. But we couldn't re-paint them at night because it was too humid and they wouldn't dry, and we weren't closed Monday and Tuesday as we were at Disneyland. So we tried to make our maintenance procedures part of the show. We made sure the painters knew they were On Stage, with appropriate costumes. We did the same thing with the people in landscaping; we couldn't necessarily irrigate at night because that would cause bacteria to grow on the plants."

Main Street, Spring 1972

Original Magic Kingdom hub, 1971

In heavy rain, guests remained inside attractions once the rides or shows were over, creating a different sort traffic jam, which was allayed by building shelters over the exits. And, despite numerous lightning rods on Park buildings, lightning strikes to power lines caused the computers running such attractions as It's a Small World, the Haunted Mansion, and the Hall of Presidents to shut down, sometimes as often as three times a day. Norm Doerges was once quoted on the subject as saying, "We got very good at evacuating attractions!"

Magic Kingdom, May 1972

Installing radar equipment atop the Contemporary Resort helped to predict rainstorms, but it took several years to develop an effective new electrical control system. Even the wind played its part. When hundreds of umbrellas were installed to provide shade from the summer sun, heavy gusts would turn them inside out. Then, there were the expected glitches, such as ride breakdowns, and conditions that could be handled properly only after the Park was up and running on a daily basis. "Those are the normal operating challenges," Bob Matheison once explained. "We needed to add more things for the guests — more food facilities, more benches, more water fountains, better pathways. It happened at Disneyland, and it happens with each new opening."

Main Street, 1972

Across Bay Lake, the hotel complex was also having its share of problems during this fledgling year. "Our hotels were designed by 'normal' hotel designers, not resort designers," Bill "Sully" Sullivan, who was then Manager of various lands and operational departments, once said. "Normal guest capacity per room then was around 1.5 guests, but ours were 2.5 to 3.5, depending on the time of yuears, because of our family orientation. So everything was too small. We'd hired a lot of fine hotel people from the outside, but our guests expected a whole lot more — they expected Disney service. We'd tried to experiment with new products, such as using lightweight concrete poured into corrugated pans for the hallways, but they didn't last. We had bad floors by 1972. The beds were uncomfortable, the bathrooms were small and didn't work. The air conditioning was wrong because of the humidity, so the wallpaper would peel off. We did a $3.5 million rehab during the second year."

Contemporary Resort, 1972

Contemporary Resort concourse, 1972

Disney's Polynesian Village, the 500-room resort-hotel styled in the leisurely manner of the South Seas, as it appeared when it opened, 1971

Disney's Polynesian Village Resort lobby, 1971

Along with the resort issues, the recreational boats played their role of adding headaches to those in charge of guest satisfaction.  The batteries of the Bob-A-Round boats would die in the middle of the 400-acre lake; power boats ran out of gas and had to be towed. There were transportation scheduling problems at the new Fort Wilderness, whose campground was created after a coast-to-coast research trip of nearly 100 campsites, undertaken by then-Fort Wilderness Supervisor, Keith Kambak. As for the carefully planned daytime activities, such as nature hikes and crafts, "We learned really quickly that you don't compete with the Magic Kingdom," Kamback once recalled. "Nobody came, so we scrubbed them in about two days. But, we did have nightly animal excursions, nature hikes and campfire programs."

Bob-A-Round boats

Disney's Fort Wilderness, featuring 600 acres of campgrounds, boating, nature trails, park-like recreation areas and the Tri-Cirlce D Ranch, where saddle horses are available like the ones seen here in 1971

Disney's Fort Wilderness nature trails, 1971

WDW guests enjoy an outdoor barbecue at Fort Wilderness, 1971

Even with all the problems, Dick Nunis was more than satisfied when October 1, 1972, came around. "We had a success, and we generated an increased number of tourists for the state," he once said. "There were no big surprises, other than that we needed so much more of everything." And, after all, the difficulties were taken in typical Disney stride. It was truly the cast members that ensured Walt Disney World's continued success after the obstacles of its first year. Bob Matheison once said, "We have so much talent here. We had a terrible problem with the tram tractors, but our own people put their heads together and came up with a solution. In many different disciplines, if people get a challenge, they meet it. They say, 'Yeah, we can do that." And because of their "can do" attitude, the magic remains alive and well to this very day.

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

That will do it for Part II of our Walt Disney World 45th anniversary celebration series. Make sure not to miss Part I, which you can find HERE, and also be sure to stay tuned for our third and final article on the creation of EPCOT Center. In Part III, we will hear from those that were down in the trenches creating the dawn of a whole new Disney era which has solidified Walt Disney World as the most visited and beloved vacation destination the world has ever seen.

Part I - Bringing the Magic to Florida

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.

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