History of the World, Part IX

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

Walt Disney World had opened successfully. Approximately 52 million Americans watched the NBC television special introducing the park, which aired on October 29, 1971. The park would attract over 10 million visitors in its first year; however with Roy Disney's death in December, 1971, the company had lost its other founder. The leadership role would now be taken by E. Cardon (“Card”) Walker, with Donn Tatum in the number-two spot.

Thankfully, Roy had at least been able to enjoy the opening of the resort. Imagineering chief Dick Irvine, on the other hand, never saw the park operating in person. He became ill and went home less than a month before the park opened. And while people brought him photos and reports on how well the park was doing, he remained ill at home for five years before passing away in 1976. The Imagineers honored him by naming the Magic Kingdom's second steamboat after him. The Richard F. Irvine debuted on May 20, 1973, the same day as Tom Sawyer Island.

It has been said that Walt's way of managing had trained some to imitate his style, but without the genius. It has also been said that—after Walt and Roy's deaths—the company to some extent adopted a philosophy of “what would Walt have done?” This, however, looked to the past, neglecting to consider the fact that Walt was always looking for the newest technology and the newest tools for telling the best stories that he could. In addition, without a strong-willed Disney presence, the company placed increasing emphasis on what the shareholders wanted, as opposed to putting the product first. Instead of adopting Walt's philosophy of finding new ways to tell good stories, the company's leadership decided to continue to turn out “more of the same.” Projects already in motion that Walt or Roy had been behind were pushed through, regardless of how much story was lost in the process. New ideas were pushed to the back burner, usually never to be heard from again.

The Western River Expedition saga

One casualty of the rush to open, cost-cutting and playing it safe was the Western River Expedition, thought by some to be the greatest Disney theme park attraction complex never to be built (others argue for Discovery Bay or Tomorrowland 2055, but those are other stories.)

Originally conceived for the cancelled project in St. Louis (see part 2 of this series), the Western River Expedition was Marc Davis' masterpiece. Conceived as a boat ride through scenes from the Old West, Western River Expedition took advantage of lessons learned from the design and construction of Pirates of the Caribbean, and everything learned since then.

The attraction would be one of three to be housed in or on Thunder Mesa, a huge ride building themed as a Western tabletop mountain. The other two attractions would be Thunder Mine, a runaway train ride, and a flume-like canoe ride, both of which were to have ride vehicles designed by MousePlanet contributing writer George McGinnis, with Bill Watkins and Ed Feuer, respectively, as ride engineers. The massive Thunder Mesa complex was slated to be built in the approximate location of the current Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain.

Since Disney wanted to differentiate the new park from the old, it was decided that the Florida park would get Western River Expedition instead of Pirates of the Caribbean. With the real Caribbean so close, Imagineers figured guests would want an attraction themed to something less readily accessible in the immediate vicinity. Due to the cost of the attraction, work was postponed until after the park had opened.

Less West, more Pirates

Of course, after the park opened, the most asked question at City Hall was, “Where are the Pirates?” They had heard so much about the famed ride at Disneyland, they naturally assumed that it would be duplicated in Florida. As a result, Disney decided to push the Thunder Mesa complex back to a 1974 start of construction and instead rush Pirates into production.

Partly as a cost-saving measure, partly because the attraction didn't have to go underneath railroad tracks to get to the show building, and partly because there was no Blue Bayou-type restaurant in Adventureland, Walt Disney World's Pirates attraction was built at approximately two-thirds the length of the Disneyland attraction with no modifications to the show scenes other than some reordering.

While Western River Expedition and Thunder Mesa remained on the Phase I coming attractions list (construction within five years of the park's opening) for a while, it was eventually relegated to the annals of history. The Thunder Mine attraction resurfaced as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in the late 1970s with Tony Baxter as show designer, debuting in 1979 in Disneyland before spreading to all of Disney's other Disneyland-style Magic Kingdom parks around the globe.

For another synopsis of the attraction's history and some photos of work that was done on the attraction, check out the Western River Expedition page on the Widen Your World site (link). For those with lots of available time to read, check out the 10-part epic, “Why 'Western River' Went South” at Jim Hill Media (link).

The rest of Phase I

In the meantime, other Phase I attractions did open, including If You Had Wings, Tom Sawyer Island, the Plaza Swan Boats, The Walt Disney Story, Star Jets, the WEDway PeopleMover, Space Mountain and (imported from Disneyland) the Carousel of Progress. The Magic Carpet 'Round the World film would replace America the Beautiful in the CircleVision theater in Tomorrowland.

In addition, the Easter Parade, Grad Nites, the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue in the brand-new Pioneer Hall, and Fantasy in the Sky fireworks all debuted in that time frame. The inaugural Walt Disney World Golf Classic was held in December 1971 (won by Jack Nicklaus). More resort hotels opened, both on Hotel Plaza Boulevard (Royal Plaza, Dutch Inn, Howard Johnson) and around the property (Treehouse & Vacation Villas, Golf Resort, Fairway Villas). Discovery Island, River Country and the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village (now Downtown Disney Marketplace) opened in those first years, as well.

By March of 1976, over 50 million people had passed through the Magic Kingdom's turnstiles. No more major construction would take place until the clone of Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in 1980. The resort was a hit. Now came time for the next daunting task: Epcot.

Next time

In our next installment, we look at the beginnings of how Imagineers got from Walt's original vision of E.P.C.O.T. to the EPCOT Center theme park, and how the executives handled the project.