History of the World, Part VII

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

While General Joe Potter was taking care of the infrastructure of Disney's huge parcel of land in Florida and Admiral Joe Fowler was overseeing the construction of the hotels, the Admiral was also overseeing the construction of the centerpiece of the resort's Phase I: the Magic Kingdom theme park.

The same, but different

While similar to Disneyland Park in California, plans were made to use many of the lessons learned from that park's construction and operation, as well as to take advantage of all of the space available. Walkways would be made wider to accommodate more patrons. Backstage areas would include underground passages, called “Utilidors” (a contraction of “utility corridors”) to allow cast members to move from location to location without their costumes seeming out of place. The castle would be made taller to allow it to be visible from all lands to serve as a wayfinding point for all guests, as well as to be visible from across the Seven Seas Lagoon to build guest anticipation.

To further differentiate from the original Disneyland, advertising campaigns focused on new attractions being built for Florida that were not available in California, such as the Hall of Presidents, the Mickey Mouse Review, the Country Bear Jamboree, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Proving the Imagineering axiom that “good ideas never die,” some of these “unique” attractions were reused from prior concepts. The Hall of Presidents was originally planned by Walt as an attraction for the 1964 World's Fair in New York (and also planned to be moved back to Disneyland as part of a proposed “Liberty Street,” the inspiration for Walt Disney World's Liberty Square). The Country Bear Jamboree was originally intended for Disney's planned ski resort at Mineral King (mentioned in Part 2 of this series). In fact, after Walt Disney reviewed plans for this attraction during his last visit to the Imagineering offices before he entered the hospital for the last time, the Country Bear Jamboree gained the nickname “Walt's Last Laugh.”

Power struggles

Of course, with Walt gone, there was no single, unifying vision guiding the entire process, as there had been with Disneyland. Without a final arbiter of all disputes, conflict arose between those designing the attractions in Glendale and those installing them and planning their operation in Florida. Imagineering chief Dick Irvine and park operations head Dick Nunis, while both trying to achieve the best possible park results, had differing ideas on certain details. Nunis, being on site, frequently got his wish.

While Walt's brother Roy was trying to oversee the entire project, his attention was divided between that and running the company, and so he had difficulty riding herd on the day-to-day issues. However, he still spent a good deal of time handling internal fights among the staff. And yet, work still went on, and the park was still taking shape.

Construction issues

There were a number of problems with outside labor on the job site, with strikes, union jurisdiction issues, and other issues delaying work. Prime contractor Allen Contracting was fired by Admiral Joe Fowler a year before the resort's scheduled opening when they said that there was no way that they would be able to finish in time. Fowler dismissed them, saying, “If you can't, we will.” The Buena Vista Construction Company was quickly formed and took over as prime contractor, rehiring subcontractors and large numbers of employees from Allen.

Imagineers wanted to pave Main Street, U.S.A. with bricks. They even found a supply from brick streets being torn up in Winter Park. Howver, the price for the bricks was too steep, and they ended up only using bricks on the side streets and paving Main Street with red cement

In the Utilidors underneath the Magic Kingdom, Aerojet General installed the AVAC system, whereby pneumatic tubes would carry solid waste from various locations in the Magic Kingdom and Contemporary Resort to a central collection point, thus implementing an aspect of Walt's original planned EPCOT, after a fashion. Elsewhere in the Utilidors, the computers and other controlling mechanisms to run the attractions and Animatronic shows were all sited in the DACS (Digital Animation Control System) Control Center under Fantasyland.

A way to get around

Meanwhile, various and sundry types of vehicles needed to be constructed and/or repaired. The four Baldwin locomotives from the early 20th Century that were discovered in the Yucatan peninsula were purchased and brought to Tampa, where they were lovingly restored by Earl Vilmer. The 150-vessel armada (including paddle-wheel steamboats, ferryboats, jungle launches, canoes, keelboats, and submarines) was assembled in St. Petersburg. The Mark IV monorails were constructed at a nearby space plant, while their tracks were created in Tacoma, Washington.

The original monorail loop between the Transportation and Ticket Center, the resort hotels, and the Magic Kingdom, consisted of 337 individual track beams 85 to 110 feet long made of concrete with a special polystyrene core to lighten weight.

The beams, which still weighed 55 tons a piece, were transported via standard train from Tacoma, taking three flatbed cars apiece. Two trains carrying the beams across the country landed in a ditch. The beams were then trucked from the station at Taft, Florida like a hook-and-ladder fire engine with a drive truck under the front end and a steerable trailer at the back end of the beam. The total freight bill for just the beams was $980,000.

The monorail beams just couldn't be erected anywhere, though. Because of the swampy ground, the Hubbard Construction Company was hired to dig holes and drive pilings down to solid ground. The pilings were covered with concrete and then used as a base for the monorail beam support columns.

Next time

In the next installment of this series, we'll talk about some more pre-opening Magic Kingdom stories and look at the resort's grand opening.