In celebration of Walt Disney World's 40th Anniversary, I thought it would be a good idea to try to create a timeline of milestones at the resort. My next four articles will feature each of the four decades and the events that have occurred during that decade. If anyone thinks Disney has ever been resting on its laurels, this chronology might very well convince you otherwise.
I've tried to use many resources to best identify the most accurate timeline possible. Many official and unofficial Walt Disney World Resort resources were searched in preparation for this chronology. Preference was given to actual published dates, though emphasis was placed on internal Disney documentation over outside and internet documentation. Note that while specific dates are used whenever possible, many attractions and other operations did soft openings in the days prior, and experienced temporary closings after the official opening date.
All that said, I'm not admitting accuracy and perfection. This decade is perhaps the most difficult, as many openings and events were not all that well documented. If you know a better date, or if I may have missed something, please share. Together, I hope we can build the best chronology possible.
Summary: Much of the year is spent with the park frantically working to prepare for opening. To inspire construction workers, The Magic Kingdom opens on Labor Day with management running attractions and the park open for free to workers and families. Despite fears, the park kicks off with a soft opening on October 1. but has its highest attendance day on December 29 at 69,458.
This montage from Time magazine on the opening of Walt Disney World depicts the diverse costumes of cast members, and beaches of Disney's Polynesian Resort, and the hectic construction still underway in Tomorrowland.
October 1: Walt Disney World opens. Marty and Bill Windsor, along with their sons, Jay and Lee, are the first guests to enter. The Magic Kingdom opens with some 10,000 guests entering the park that day. Opening attractions include:
October 1: The Transportation and Ticket Center opens along with car and bus parking, a kennel club, car care center, ferry system, and the Walt Disney World Monorail system.
October 1: Disney's Polynesian Resort—with its shops, restaurants, and Polynesian Luau—opens.
October 1: Palm and Magnolia Golf Courses open, although it's uncertain as to whether it opens October 1 or even possibly before.
October 2: Admiral Joe Fowler Riverboat begins operation.
October 3: Peter Pan's Flight sets sail in Fantasyland.
October 14: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea opens in Fantasyland.
October Date Uncertain: Disney's Contemporary Resort will open before the grand opening.
October 23-25: "May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration to all who come to this happy place..." reads Roy O. Disney at the grand opening dedication. Events include an opening parade with a 1,076 piece marching band led by "Music Man" Meredith Willson, and a 60 nation World Symphony Orchestra under direction of Arthur Fiedler. By the end of the festivities, some 5,000 performers, 500 doves, and 500 gazillion balloons have been part of the festivities.
October 24: Electrical Water Pageant begins performance on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon. This predecessor to the Main Street Electrical Parade uses a version of "Baroque Hoedown" in its earliest rendition.
November 19. Fort Wilderness opens along with the Tri-Circle Ranch.
December 5: First Walt Disney World PGA Invitational is won by Jack Nicklaus with a 14-under par 274.
December: Circle-Vision 360's America the Beautiful and Flight to the Moon open in Tomorrowland. The first Christmas parade, Candlelight Processional (with Rock Hudson hosting) and New Year's Party is held.
Date Uncertain: Waterski Spectacular show begins on the shore of the Seven Seas Lagoon each afternoon.
Summary:One year later, more than 10 million people have visited the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Additional monorail trains and ferry boats bring guests from the Ticket and Transportation Center to the front gates of the Magic Kingdom. Demand for guest accommodation sees the opening of new hotels in Lake Buena Vista. Guests frustrated with the lack of Pirates of the Caribbean sparks a decision to begin construction on that attraction. By the end of the year, Space Mountain begins construction as well, but an energy crisis is also underway.
March: Olde World Antiques shop opens in Liberty Square. Merlin's Magic Shop opens in Fantasyland.
April: The Magic Kingdom's first Easter parade premieres.
May: The first Grad Nights begin and will continue for nearly 40 years.
May 1: The Frontierland Train Station opens in Frontierland.
June: "If You Had Wings" opens in Tomorrowland with Eastern Airlines as sponsor. In Liberty Square, the Columbia Harbor House opens.
October 1: Royal Plaza Hotel opens in Lake Buena Vista.
October 15: Americana Dutch Inn Lake Buena Vista Resort opens. It would later be known as the Grosvenor and then eventually as the Wyndham.
November 21: The TraveLodge also opens in the Hotel Plaza District. It would later be known as the Vistana, and then as the Best Western Lake Buena Vista Resort.
December: First phase of the Vacation Villas open in Disney's Village Resort. The resort will continue opening additional rooms, dining, stores and facilities for golfing and meetings over the next years to come.
Date Uncertain: World Cruise on the Seven Seas Lagoon takes passengers on a paddlewheel steamboat cruise of Walt Disney World waters.
Summary: Construction is heavy throughout Tomorrowland with new attractions that would open in 1974. Meanwhile other new additions are added throughout the Magic Kingdom and the entire Walt Disney World Resort. Beyond the gates, Sea World opens a park in Orlando.
February 8: Howard Johnson's opens in Lake Buena Vista. Later it would be known as a Courtyard by Marriott before being changed to a Holiday Inn.
April 15: "The Walt Disney Story" opens in the Gulf Hospitality House on Town Square.
May 20 1973: The rivers of the Magic Kingdom get busy as The Plaza Swan Boats opens. It would run the better part of 10 years. On the Rivers of America, the Richard Irvine Riverboat joins the Admiral Joe Fowler. Rafts set sail for the new Tom Sawyer Island.
July: Plaza Pavilion becomes Walt Disney World's 65th food location to open.
September: Yankee Trader Shop opens in Liberty Square.
October 16: Walt Disney Productions celebrates its 50th Anniversary. A celebration and parade are held.
October 21: The Fort Wilderness Railroad opens
November 17: From the Contemporary Resort, President Richard Nixon declares "I am not a crook" to Associated Press Managing Editors.
December: The Golf Resort opens its doors, providing a place for those wanting to be nestled among Disney's golf offerings.
December 15: George Millay, creator of Sea World of San Diego, brings Shamu and company to Orlando.
December 17: Just in time for the holiday season, Pirates of the Caribbean along with Caribbean Plaza opens at the Magic Kingdom.
Summary: 1974 was a time to hold on through the last days of the energy crisis, while taking risks in building for the future. Meanwhile, Central Florida is hoping to getting in on the action as motels and hotels build up along U.S. 192 and International Drive. At the Intersection of I-4 and US 27 Circus World opens. It would close as Boardwalk and Baseball in 1990.
March 16: Magic Carpet 'Round the World takes the place of America the Beautiful in Tomorrowland.
March 31: The Wonderful World of Disney features the documentary film The Magic of Walt Disney World. The same film would accompany Disney films in theaters.
April 8: Treasure Island opens in the middle of Bay Lake. It would be later known as Discovery Island. It would serve as a small zoo and aviary until July 9, 1999.
June 14: Few tables are filled for the first showings of the Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue at Pioneer Hall in Fort Wilderness. Within a few months, the show would be a runaway hit.
Summer: Caribbean Arcade opens as part of Caribbean Plaza.
November 22: Buena Vista Golf Club opens in Lake Buena Vista. It includes a restaurant, pro shop, a pool, lighted tennis courts, and a boat rental and transport marina.
November 28: Star Jets becomes the first of the new Tomorrowland attractions to open.
December 27: With 74,597 guests in the park, the Magic Kingdom hits an all time record, shutting the park down for several hours.
December 29: While staying at Disney's Polynesian Resort, John Lennon signs paperwork that officially breaks up the Beatles.
Summary: With the addition of Space Mountain, the Walt Disney World Resort is on a roll. By the last day of the year, some 82,404 will fill the gates of the Magic Kingdom on a single day. This would be the completion of what was known as Phase 1 of Walt Disney World. Now it's time to focus on EPCOT Center, as governors of 15 southern states and some 33 foreign diplomats visit Walt Disney World for briefings about the next major project.
January 5: "Now is the Time" as the Carousel of Progress returns to the East Coast to a permanent home in Tomorrowland.
January 15: At 2 p.m., Space Mountain officially launched taking the thrills of the Magic Kingdom to a whole new level. When you disembark RCA's Home of Future Living offers a more down-to-earth view.
May: The first EPCOT Future Technology conference, a two-day seminar focusing on world problems in agriculture and energy is held at Walt Disney World. From this conference comes an EPCOT advisory committee of leading energy experts.
March 22: Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opens. A variety of shops and eateries are clustered along the shore. A marina with recreation lined the shore. There were 29 shops that would open that year, which over time until the emergence of Downtown Disney, would include, but not being limited to:
Dining has included, but not been limited to:
April: Tree House Villas are introduced in Lake Buena Vista.
April 15: Flight to the Moon closes in Tomorrowland.
June 6: "America on Parade" begins a two-year run at both Disneyland as well as Walt Disney World. Included are some 50 floats and 150 characters. Complimentary showings of America the Beautiful and the Hall of Presidents rounds out the U.S. Bicentennial offering.
June 7: Mr. Johnson and Mission to Mars replaces Mr. Morrow and Flight to the Moon in an attempt to paint a more futuristic view of space.
July 1: The WEDWay People Mover offers circle tours of Tomorrowland to Guests.
A sixth car is added to five monorail trains to create additional capacity.
First Festival of the Masters is held this year, although the date is uncertain.
Glory and Pageantry of Christmas will commence somewhere between now and the end of the decade. Still it is uncertain when.
Summary: Susan Brummer, a 13-year-old from Virginia, is welcomed as Walt Disney World's 50 millionth guest. Tourism has increased 9 percent during the year and 79 percent of out-of-state guests are first-time visitors. All three hotels are averaging 97 percent occupancy. To increase park capacity, plans for creating a Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are underway. In creating new recreational options, River Country will open as an "Old Fashioned Swimmin' Hole." Attendance is high at this new attraction, but, most importantly, management surveys show data reflecting no impact on theme park visitation at the Magic Kingdom. Meanwhile, America celebrates its Bicentennial.
June 19: River Country opens in Fort Wilderness as Walt Disney World's first water park. President Ford's daughter Susan participates in opening ceremonies. It will average more than 4,700 guests a day during July and August.
July 4: A special Bicentennial fireworks show bursts over Walt Disney World.
September 6: America on Parade ends with a 4,000 Orlando area high school students joining the regular cast in the final performance. Some 668 showings were completed alone at Walt Disney World.
Date Uncertain: Coconino Cove opens in the Contemporary Resort.
Summary: The company has transitioned fully from the first half of the decade of making a Magic Kingdom and vacation destination grow, to figuring out what EPCOT is. Still, new attractions and resort additions are put in place.
January: Baby Care Center presented by Gerber opens.
March 13: George Millay of Sea World fame opens Wet 'n Wild off of International Boulevard. Its design of wave pools, slides, and lazy rivers will define the water park business.
May 1: The Empress Lilly riverboat, named after Lillian Disney, opens in Lake Buena Vista as an elegant dining option in the Walt Disney World Village. It includes three restaurants: The Empress Room, the Steerman's Quarters, and the Fisherman's Deck, along with a Dixieland show bar/lounge known as the Baton Rouge, and a banquet room.
June: Fairway Villas open surrounding the Lake Buena Vista golf course. The Village Verandah Restaurant also opens. Nightly "Fantasy in the Sky" Fireworks are staged at Cinderella Castle.
June 11: The Main Street Electrical Parade premieres at Walt Disney World.
November 22: The Wonderful World of Disney television show showcases "The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World."
Date Uncertain: Treasure Island becomes Discovery Island.
President Jimmy Carter addresses the opening session of the International Chamber of Commerce Global Congress. He will be escorted by E. Cardon Walker, president of Walt Disney Productions, in a showcase of plans for EPCOT Center, now being announced for an opening date in 1982.
From the Walt Disney Production 1978 Annual Report we see Card Walker reviewing plans for EPCOT Center with President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn. Note Marty Sklar standing in the background to the right of Walker.
January: A prototype Reedy Creek Solar Office Building is opened by Governor Reuben Askew.
July 18: Lake Buena Vista Office Plaza, also known as the Sun Bank Building, opens across from the Marketplace at the Walt Disney World Village. It will serve as headquarters for Walt Disney World marketing and administration for several years until Team Disney opens.
October 2: Card Walker announces the Company's decision to move forward with the EPCOT Center project before the International Chamber of Commerce Global Congress.
November 18-19: Weekend party is held to Salute Mickey Mouse's 50th birthday, featuring celebrities. A major birthday parade is premiered.
Christmas: "The Wonderful World of Disney" offers the television special "Christmas at Walt Disney World with Shields and Yarnell, Avery Schreiber, Phyillis Diller, Andrea McArdle, Danielle Spencer, and Pablo Cruise.
64 more Fairway Villas are built at Lake Buena Vista Golf Course.
Vista Florida Telephone System installs the nation's first commercial fiber-optic phone cable.
The Polynesian Village Resort adds 144 new guestrooms, a restaurant and additional pool. The Fort Wilderness Railroad is dismantled due to operational problems.
Summary: Emphasis in the first part of the year is centered back in California, where Imagineers and planners are busily trying to solidify plans for EPCOT Center in time for a ground breaking later that Fall. Meanwhile, new mountains begin to emerge on the Western front of the Magic Kingdom. And while per cap spending resulted in an increase in revenues, attendance is down 2% from the prior year.
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 receives a lifetime pass from Mickey and WDW Vice President Bob Allen. Photo taken from Walt Disney Productions 1979 Annual Report.
January: Construction begins on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Lake Buena Vista Conference Center and 136 Club Lake Villas.
October 1: EPCOT Center holds ground breaking ceremonies.
October 22: Walt Disney World welcomes its 100 millionth guest, Kurt Miller. EPCOT Center breaks ground for a 1982 opening.
A prototype water-hyacinth waste-water treatment center begins operations.
Discovery Island is admitted to membership in the prestigous American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.
Walt Disney Production sells Celebrity Sports Center, a sports facility in Denver, Colo., that served as a training center for new employees and managers prior to Walt Disney World's opening.
Summary: Guests love Walt Disney World, and attendance rises as Big Thunder Mountain takes the stage in Frontierland. It will surpass the 13 million mark for the fifth consecutive year. Meanwhile, construction gets underway for EPCOT Center.
March 29: Adventure Island opens next to Busch Gardens in Tampa, which had opened back in 1959.
September: Walt Disney World Conference Center building opens in Lake Buena Vista. Also, 136 Club Lake Villas open.
September 14: The Mickey Mouse Revue closes and packs up for Tokyo Disneyland. The venue will sit empty until Magic Journeys moves from EPCOT Center in December of 1987.
October: The six-hole PGA Tour Wee Links golf course opens.
November 15: Big Thunder Mountain is dedicated in ceremonies starring John Davidson. It quickly becomes the "Wildest Ride in the Wilderness!"
December 31: Single-Day record is made with 92,969 Guests in attendance.
Date Uncertain: Construction will begin on a facility that will convert approximately 100 tons of waste a day into usable energy and other commercial by-products, while providing about 10 percent of the hot water requirements for the entire Florida property.
Construction has begun on the Royal Palace Hotel in Lake Buena Vista. The intent is to double the nightly resident tourist on property population of some 15,000 by the middle of the next decade.
Summary: By the time Walt Disney World reaches its 10th birthday, or Tencennial as publicist Charlie Rigeway called it, attendance will be at 126 million guests. Already more people have visited Walt Disney World than have toured the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Majal, the Tower of London, or the Great Pyramids of Egypt. In this year, revenues will top the billion-dollar mark. Meanwhile, probably the most important event to occur to Orlando tourism outside of Walt Disney World is the opening of the new Orlando International Airport. In time, this will transition the tourism base from one of families driving to Florida to one of people flying from all over the world to visit Orlando.
May 25: A Kindercare Center child-care facility opens in the backstage area near the warehouse district for children of cast members.
June 1: The EPCOT Preview Center opens in Town Square. A special film presentation, models of the pavilions, artists' renderings and construction updates are showcased.
June 29: A new dinner show, Broadway at the Top, opens at the Top of the World, bringing an end to a schedule of nightclub acts being brought to Walt Disney World's Contemporary Resort.
September 20: The new Orlando International Airport terminal opens. Airline arrivals and departures soar from 1 milion to 6.5 million in the 10 years.
October 1: Walt Disney World celebrates its Tencennial. A new parade and a new live stage show, Disney World is Your World, in front of the castle begins performances. There will be televsion specials, major promotions, decor and themed merchandise, and it will occur through the opening of EPCOT Center.
(Send an email to Jeff Kober)
J. Jeff Kober, (@MousePlanetJeff) president of Performance Journeys and CEO of World Class Benchmarking, is also a thought leader on best-in-business practices at the Walt Disney Company. He brings those ideas to organizations via keynotes, seminars, and workshops to organizations around the world. He has authored "The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney" as well as a "Disney at Work" series of apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, available via DisneyatWork.com. You can find out more about his newest book, "Lead With Your Customer: Transform Culture and Brand into World-Class Excellence" at LeadWithYourCustomer.com.