The 1969 First Official Walt Disney World Press Eventby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
With the 45th anniversary celebration of Walt Disney World approaching in October, I felt it was time to revisit the very first press event describing Disney's plans for the Florida property, after the earlier announcement on November 15, 1965 by Walt and Roy that Disney was coming to the state.
Walt had been purposely vague about his plans although everyone expected an East Coast version of Disneyland.
"I've always said that there will never be another Disneyland, and I think it's going to work out that way," said Walt during the press conference. "But it will be the equivalent of Disneyland.
"We know the basic things that have family appeal," he said. "There are many ways that you can use those certain basic things and give them a new decor, a new treatment. This concept here will have to be something that is unique, so there is a distinction between Disneyland in California and whatever Disney does in Florida."
Imagineer Marvin Davis remembered, "Walt always steadfastly refused to do another Disneyland because he said he had done the best park he knew how to do and why would he want to repeat himself? He said, 'There are too many things in the world to do that are different and new and more of a challenge to me.' The only reason I'm sure he decided to tackle Disney World was because of its connection to Epcot."
Roy O. Disney's son, Roy Edward told me, "Walt wanted to build this futuristic city called Epcot where people were going to live. My dad didn't know how that made us any money. He argued with Walt that we needed to build a Magic Kingdom and some hotels first to get money to afford to build Walt's Epcot."
"Walt kept insisting that Epcot needed to be built first or it would never get built," he said. "Walt died while they were having those arguments. So Dad won by default and he regretted winning that way. Walt probably would have been surprised to see what it all is today."
Walt realized that the public wanted some type of entertainment venue similar to Disneyland, so that was always part of his plan, but just the smallest part tucked away in a corner at the top of the map on the worst land on the property.
Walt's vision was not for just another theme park, or even the famous experimental community showcasing new technology, but an entire vacation destination. Walt made it clear that the area would be "dedicated to the happiness of the people who live and work and play here".
With Walt's death, Walt's older brother Roy wisely decided it made more sense to begin with a theme park. It would be similar to Disneyland but feature all the improvements that the Imagineers had been limited in accomplishing in Disneyland by the lack of land and budgets.
By 8:30 a.m. on April 30, 1969, the parking lot at the luxurious new high-rise Ramada Inn on Highway 50 in Ocoee, Florida, was already filled with cars. News media from all over the world mixed with prominent Florida officials and corporate executives waiting for the big event of the Disney Company revealing exactly what was to be built in Florida.
There had been a growing sense of annoyance at the Disney Company in Florida. It had been more than two years since special legislation creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District had been passed to allow Disney to build its Florida project. While there had been activity out on the property (primarily clearing and preparing the land under the direction of General Joe Potter), there had been no specific news about exactly what Disney was building.
Now, the Disney Company had rented out the entire Ramada Inn, not just a conference room or two. They set up a big circus tent outside filled with models and artist renderings of Walt Disney World for a three-day event to reveal the plans for the Florida property.
The Disney press release stated that there would not only be scale models, films, sketches, and opportunities for interviews, but also the first on-site tours of construction progress for non-Disney personnel.
Attractive young Disney female hostesses would help lead tours for members of the Florida legislature, leaders of American industry (including top executives of U.S. Steel, RCA, Monsanto Company, and Aerojet-General Corporation), as well as news reporters. The set-up of the models and artwork, and the prepared speeches for the hostesses, were created by Imagineers Marty Sklar and Randy Bright.
"My first time in Florida was here to help with the unveiling of models and plans for Walt Disney World Phase 1 to an audience of over 350 out-of-state editors and reporters plus local press and dignitaries," Walt Disney World Publicist Charlie Ridgway told me. "I flew to Chicago in Walt's plane to bring some of them back. There was a film, detailed models, and renderings. It was the first major revelation since the initial announcement in 1965 prior to Walt's death. It was meant to convince the press that Walt Disney World was for real. Many editors went back home and bought Disney stock."
Buses took the nearly 400 participants to the Parkwood Cinema Theater. There were newsreel cameras to record the event. The theater was located at 3315 W Colonial Drive. It was opened in July 11, 1961, and closed in February 28, 1991, and later demolished.
Governor Claude Kirk, an enthusiastic spokesperson for Florida, spoke first: "The Disney organization brings to this project the most highly creative, experienced and talented reservoir of personnel ever assigned to the development of an outdoor recreation attraction."
Donn B. Tatum, who was then-president of Walt Disney Productions, also spoke and announced the "Vacation Kingdom" would open October 1971. Representatives from U.S. Steel, RCA, Monsanto and Aerojet-General (responsible for the innovative AVAC system) also spoke. Card Walker, then the executive vice president and COO of Walt Disney Productions, wrapped things up.
"Of all those who spoke, I'm sure the one who most impressed the audience was Roy Disney. Here was no hard-nosed financier, as he had sometimes been described, but a warm, gentle, down-to-earth man totally dedicated to bringing to life the dreams of his brother," wrote Edward Prizer, who was then editor and publisher of Orlando Magazine.
Here is my transcript of Roy's entire speech that, to the best of my knowledge, has never appeared in print except for an excerpt or two. This was written by Marty Sklar:
"All of us in the Disney organization who have come to Florida over the last several years can't say enough about the warm and enthusiastic welcome we have received here. It's a real pleasure for us to be here.
"This is a big day for our Company. Looking back over the years, it seems strange now to recall that this day really began in 1953, when Walt and his creative staff started the planning of Disneyland in California. Now, Disneyland has become a tremendous success, beyond even Walt's wildest dreams. Last year, we were hosts and hostesses to almost 9.5 million guests, and, since the day Disneyland opened in 1955, there have been 79 million visitors.
"Disneyland is typical of everything we have accomplished at Walt Disney Productions over the years. The real strength of our Company has been that Walt and the staff he built always seemed to be able to reach out and touch the heart of the public. The important thing in our Company has always been sticking to the basics and upholding the high standards and quality of our product. After 46-some years in the entertainment and recreation business, that's really how we have arrived at this exciting day.
"For many years, from Walt on down, we thought there should be only one Disneyland. But as time passed, experience told us that there were about 100 million people in the East and Midwest and South who would never get out West, and therefore would never have the opportunity to see Disneyland. And so after the great success of the Walt Disney shows at the New York World's Fair, we finally decided to bring some kind of Disney entertainment approach to the East on a permanent basis. And eventually, it grew and grew and became not just a Disneyland, but a whole new world of Disney entertainment.
"Many potential sites for this project were studied before we finally decided Florida was the place to build our new concept. Here we can operate all year 'round, just as we do in California. And here in Florida, you already have a great appeal to vacationers. In fact, Florida had three times as many visitors last year as Southern California had. Before we purchased the land for Walt Disney World, we studied how we might prepare this kind of land for development.
"Walt was with us at that time. We traveled all around Florida looking at what other people have accomplished with similar land conditions. And Walt especially became enthusiastic about what you could do with water in an entertainment complex. He was very enthusiastic about how we could turn the water into a tremendous attraction and asset in our business.
"So we have taken this project one step at a time. First, we decided to build a new kind of entertainment attraction…then we chose the State of Florida…and then we studied and selected this particular site.
"Now for the past three and one-half years, our Company has concentrated on achieving the major building blocks for our Florida project. We were anxious to establish a solid foundation in the areas of financial planning, legislation, labor relations, preparation of the site for construction, and finally the creative master planning of Walt Disney World.
"Three of these major building blocks deserve special comment.
"First, there were areas of legislation. Very important changes were necessary in certain Florida laws pertaining to our type of business, so that we could protect our names and characters. And the nature of our land here made it highly desirable to have an Improvement District formed, as a necessary first step toward accomplishing our overall goals.
"In this legislative program, our Company has enjoyed wonderful cooperation from officials of the State of Florida, from the Governor on down. I'm pleased to say that the required programs have been developed and passed by the Florida Legislature.
"Second, there was the area of labor relations…and this very well could be the most important building block of all. It would have been folly to undertake a project of this size and scope without a project labor agreement. And so our representatives spent many months…long, difficult months…bargaining with the presidents of the National Building Trades in Washington, and with representatives of the local building trades.
"Today, I'm most pleased to say that we have a strong no-strike agreement through June 1972 that will make possible the orderly progress of construction in Walt Disney World.
"The third building block has been the financing of Walt Disney World. Our Company is relatively small, but Walt Disney Productions has been successful and has enjoyed orderly and considerable growth over the years. We have a cash flow of about $20 million dollars a year, and our credit is good. But because we needed more funds for this project, we went into the 'money market'. Over the past 15 months, we have sold two issues of convertible bonds totaling $90 million dollars. When converted, these bonds will represent close to 20 percent equity in our Company.
"To this solid foundation, one more building block should be added. I'm proud to tell you that the organization Walt Disney built is ready, capable and anxious to carry out his plans for this exciting project.
"You should know that the dedication of our staff to Walt's goals is tremendous. And, I know Walt would like what his creative team is doing…because these are the ideas and plans he began. Everything you will see here today is something Walt worked on and began in some way. And today, the Walt Disney organization is dedicated to carrying out these wonderful plans in Walt Disney World."
When Roy finished, the lights went down and on the screen, for the first time, people outside of the Disney Company saw the plans for Walt Disney World in a specially prepared 17-minute film. The whole event was described as "breathtaking" and spectacular by those who attended.
Others commented that Roy had not mentioned himself at all but repeatedly invoked his brother Walt's name.
Later, aboard the same buses that brought them to the theater, the participants were taken down the turnpike for a tour of the site.
As a teenager, Peggie Fariss began her Disney career as a ride operator at Disneyland in 1965. In 1969, she was invited to join a small group of cast members who traveled to Florida for the press event.
"To prepare for this press conference, they took 10 of us. Some were ride operators, but most were from Guest Relations—tour guides and VIP hostesses. After a tour of WED and an introduction to the project and its designers (including John Hench, Marc Davis, Herb Ryman, Claude Coats, Randy Bright, and Marty Sklar), they flew us to Ocoee, which is a little suburb on the outskirts of Orlando. We stayed at the Ramada Inn there for about two weeks," remembered Fariss, who later became a Walt Disney World cast member in 1971.
On the way to Central Florida, the plane stopped at a small airstrip in Tampa to re-fuel. Group leader, WED's Valerie Watson, had to shoo away the overly attentive young men who gathered to see these Disneyland hostesses in their mini-skirts milling around while the plane was refueled. She told the young men the girls were finalists in a nationwide spelling bee and shouldn't be disturbed since they needed to concentrate.
"We took them (the participants at the event) on a tour of the actual site" Fariss remembered. "There were eight or 10 buses, one hostess per bus. We delivered narration written for us by Marty and Randy. At that point, there was a platform built at what is probably now the Main Street train station at the Magic Kingdom, and you could see the basement complex excavation. The lagoon was still being excavated... in fact, we drove the bus through it."
Prizer, who attended the press event, later wrote about the experience: "Like tanks in battle, ponderous earth-moving monsters lumbered across the dunes. Scores of them. It was total chaos on a grand scale. Balloons floated at intervals over the raw earth. They marked, we were told, the location of various features of the theme park. Above all the others floated a smiling Mickey Mouse, secured to the site of Cinderella Castle. By means of the balloons, Disney planners were able to work out the placement of buildings and plot elevations.
"We skirted a mountain of root mass which had been scooped from the lagoon. This spot, General Potter told us, had been the worst piece of terrain in the entire tract—a forbidding swamp."
That area was soon to become the main entrance to the Magic Kingdom.
The day ended with an elaborate buffet on the patio of the Ramada Inn. Strolling musicians played Mexican songs and the sun shone brightly. Everyone was in high spirits.
The hostesses were given a limited edition print of Herb Ryman's painting of Cinderella Castle to commemorate their participation in the history-making event.
"At the end, in the backyard of Roy O. Disney's cottage at Bay Hill were 30 tour guides, drivers and publicists who had helped," recalled publicist Charlie Ridgway. "Roy was obviously pleased with the success of the first real Florida Disney Press Event. At the time, I thought, 'Right now, this is all there is to the company; it will never be that way again'. And it wasn't."