History of the World, Part VIII

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

Finally, and too soon, opening day was approaching. In order to open the park on time, many attractions were left for later completion. As with Disneyland, Tomorrowland would be left to the future. Only the Skyway and the Grand Prix Raceway would open with the park in that land.

Some new attractions originally planned for the park proved unworkable, or development took too long, and so attractions based on Mary Poppins, Sleeping Beauty, and Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman originally planned for Fantasyland were scrubbed and existing specifications were used to re-create slightly modified versions of the Peter Pan, Snow White and Mr. Toad attractions already built at Disneyland. (As it was, Peter Pan's Flight didn't open until two days after the park opened.) Other new attractions under development, such as Space Mountain and the Western River Expedition, were left for later completion.

After seven years of planning, 52 months of actual construction, eight million cubic yards of earth moved and $400 million spent, it was time for Walt Disney World to open. Three years earlier, the park's opening date had been announced as October 1, 1971. Keeping in mind the opening day of Disneyland—when freshly-laid asphalt swallowed the heels of women's shoes, food and drink shortages had patrons waiting in long lines, water fountains didn't work—Dick Nunis decided that the grand opening press event would not take place until October 23-25. That would give the park and hotels a little time to get things running smoothly—perhaps the original “soft opening.”

The October 1 date had been chosen with care, as well. By selecting a Friday in October, the park would open on the slowest day of the week in the slowest tourism month of the year in Florida. Before opening, many of the support and training staff served as test patrons to help the cast members be relatively well trained for the first paying guests.

Local media and law enforcement whipped up a frenzy by estimating that opening day crowds would be as high as 100,000, or even 200,000. Disney planners had much lower estimates—either 12,000 or 30,000, depending on the source. (Bob Thomas' biography of Roy Disney claims 12,000, while Van Arsdale France's book claims approximately 30,000.) Either way, even Disney overshot. Opening day attendance: 10,000. Not too bad, considering that they were hoping for a low number to ease the park into operation.

However, Wall Street wasn't in on the realistic projections. Disney stock dropped seven points overnight. Roy O. Disney hadn't been informed, either. He called in all of the top executives and lambasted them for the dismal opening day performance. Roy would not listen to their explanations that the small turnout was exactly what they were hoping for. By the end of the first month, however, 400,000 people had come through the turnstiles, making Roy much more relaxed about the future of the resort.

The Magic Kingdom opened with 26 attractions: Jungle Cruise; Swiss Family Tree House; Sunshine Pavilion (Tropical Serenade); Cinderella's Golden Carrousel; Dumbo Flying Elephants; Mad Tea Party; Mickey Mouse Revue; Mr. Toad's Wild Ride; it's a small world; Snow White's Adventures; Diamond Horseshoe Revue; Frontier Shooting Gallery; Country Bear Jamboree; Mike Fink Keel Boats; Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes; Hall of Presidents; Haunted Mansion; Main Street horseless carriage, Jitney, fire truck, horse-drawn streetcar and omnibus; Main Street Cinema; Walt Disney World Railroad; Skyway to Tomorrowland/Skyway to Fantasyland and Grand Prix Raceway.

The Admiral Joe Fowler Riverboat opened the next day, Peter Pan's Flight the next, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea two weeks later. That made for a grand total of 29 attractions open before Dedication Day, 30 if you count both directions of the Skyway. By the end of the year, Tomorrowland was a bit more populated, with “America the Beautiful” opening in the CircleVision Theater in November and Flight to the Moon opening in December.

Finally, it was showtime. The media gathered for the three-day dedication ceremonies at the end of October. Two luxury hotels, two golf courses, lakes and lagoons offering fishing and water sports and a campground were ready to be unveiled to the world. A 1,076-piece marching band paraded down Main Street, U.S.A., led by Meredith Willson and featuring 76 trombones, 110 cornets, and so on. The World Symphony Orchestra, consisting of musicians from 60 countries, performed under the direction of Arthur Fiedler. A 1,500-voice choir sang “When You Wish Upon a Star and other Disney favorites. And then—in a scene that John Hench, in his book Designing Disney, calls “perhaps the most moving moment I have experienced with Mickey and our guests”—Roy O. Disney dedicated the park to his brother. But, well, let's let him tell the story.

Roy Disney stood facing the microphone before a crowd of guests ready to deliver the dedication speech at the opening ceremony. He suddenly turned and looked around, and I heard him say quietly, “Somebody go find Mickey for me. We don't have Walt any more, and Mickey is the nearest thing to Walt that we have left.” Mickey appeared and Roy promptly began his speech, with Mickey standing proudly at his side.

After talking briefly about his brother and his dreams, and about being in business together, Roy read the dedication plaque for Walt Disney World.

WALT DISNEY WORLD is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney… and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney's dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place… a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn—together. Dedicated this 25th day of October, 1971.

Roy Disney had done what he had set out to do after his brother's death almost five years earlier, when he had put off his retirement in order to see his brother's dream realized. Now it was time to finalize a succession plan, retire, and relax.

After a great deal of thought, Roy decided to name Card Walker as the person to run the company after his retirement. While he liked Donn Tatum more on a personal basis, he felt that Card would be the stronger leader. He booked passage for himself and his wife Edna on the S.S. Monterey to Australia, with a departure date of February 20, 1972. He planned to first attend the annual shareholder meeting on February 1 before taking his leave. Things didn't work out as planned.

On December 17, 1971, Roy decided that he did not feel well and told his wife that he would not join her and his son and grandchildren at the Disneyland Christmas parade, and that they should go without them. When they returned, they found him on the floor of his bedroom. Shortly afterward, he lapsed into a coma. After some time, the hospital staff told Edna Disney that her husband's brain was dead, and he was only being kept alive by the life-support systems. She agreed that the life support should be discontinued. On December 20, 1971, Roy O. Disney was dead of a massive brain hemorrhage at the age of 78. Now, for the first time in the almost 50-year history of the company, it would be run by someone other than the Disney brothers.