Ridgway on MK Opening Day

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

On September 30, the day before the 35th birthday of the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, I got to spend some time with Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway who is out promoting his forthcoming book Spinning Disney's World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent due from Intrepid Traveler in March 2007. You can advance order this 240 page hardcover book from Amazon.com.

If you don't know who Charles Ridgway is, then please go back and read the first column I ever wrote for MousePlanet. I am ready to buy Charlie's book sight unseen not just because I try to get copies of all Disney-related books for my library but because Charlie is a terrific storyteller and writer and was actually there when history was happening.

As always, Charlie was gracious to share with me some of his memories of working Disney and as an exclusive for Mouseplanet readers, here are some of his stories of that fateful opening day 35 years ago. Unfortunately, just reading these quotes you will miss Charlie's bursts of ironic laughter and his in person mesmerizing storytelling style that has captivated the public and the press for decades.

While some Disney fans may know about or have seen film clips of the Dedication Ceremony of the Magic Kingdom that took place on October 25, 1971 when Roy O. Disney read the dedication plaque and Meredith Wilson led a 1,076 piece band playing his composition of "Seventy-six Trombones," here is the account of the actual Opening Day that Mr. Ridgway shared with me:

"The construction crews refused to work on Labor Day (1971) because most of them had been working overtime seven days a week so we let them have the Sunday and Monday off. They were worn out and the productivity rate had dropped and we were having other problems. Dick Nunis said, 'Let's give them a treat. Let's show them what it's all about. We'll run the park for them.' So he invited the construction workers and their families to come and enjoy themselves at the uncompleted Magic Kingdom and we had staff run the six rides or so that were operating. When they came back to work, the productivity doubled or more because they had brought their children and all the kids had said, 'Daddy, did you build this? When is all this going to be finished?' We never realized it but it was a great incentive.

"Well, we had had several 'test' groups like that come through the park before Opening Day and the press was starting to grumble because they wanted to see what was going on. I think the Sentinel had a photographer who snuck in with one of the groups and took a photo and they printed it but it really didn't show anything. So they kept pushing me to see the park and I finally told them we would let them in Opening Day before we let in the guests and give them a tour and tell them how we were going to pick the first family, etc. I arranged for the newspeople to meet me at 6 a.m. on Friday, October 1st.

"Anyway, the only resort that had rooms completed was the Polynesian. It had something like 500 rooms and we had maybe 100 that were ready. We decided to have the press office there. The night of September 30th around 10 or 11 o'clock, I was exhausted but I went over to see the progress on the room since we were expecting maybe 200 reporters. It was horrible. There were bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. No carpeting on the floor. No wallpaper. No phones. I just lost it. I blew up and told the crew that the reporters were coming the next morning and this room wasn't even close to being finished. The crew boss told me to calm down and everything would be ready in time.

"I was staying at the Hilton Inn South on Sand Lake Road. The Disney Company had leased the place to train cast members that were going to work at the Contemporary and the Polynesian and that's where they put up the Disney executives. I was going to wake up at 5:00 so that I would have plenty of time to be there before the media got to the Polynesian. I overslept. I woke up about 10 minutes before 6:00. I also had to check out that day so I was rushing to get dressed and pack. As I rushed through the lobby I literally threw my room keys 60 feet to the desk and gave them a piece of my mind for not waking me up on time. I didn't properly check out and they still send me a bill to this day.

"So, I got to the press room and there were these beautiful chandeliers hanging down, and wall paper was up and carpet on the floor and all these tables and chairs and phones ringing off the hook. It was unbelievable. Newsmen were there drinking coffee and eating pastries and waiting for me to brief them. They had no clue what a disaster this area was just hours before.

"We took them on a tour of the park including the utilidors with young people rushing past us to get to their location. About 8:00 a.m. I took them to just inside the ticket gates. There were alot of ticket turnstiles so we could walk by any of them and pick a family. We picked this one family where the father had blue eyes and sandy blond hair. It was Bill and Marty Windsor and their two sons, Jay who was 3 and Lee who was 19 months old. Cameras flashed and the Dixieland band played 'It's A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.' We took them to Main Street for the opening parade with the reporters following closely. We put the family in a fire engine with Mickey, Pluto and Goofy, followed by a band and drove them down the street with the cast members coming out and applauding and cheering. Some were even crying for joy.

"We drove the First Family up to the Hub in front of Cinderella Castle. The doors of the castle swung open and the band played 'When You Wish Upon A Star' while all the characters came down the steps on either side of the castle.

"Later the husband asked for free tokens to use in the Penny Arcade and I phoned my boss, Jack Lindquist, and he said we didn't need to supply those.

"One really strange thing that day was my secretary told me that 'Helen' was on the phone waiting to talk to me. So I picked up the phone and this woman says 'When do you want me to come to work?' I said, 'What? Who is this?' She responded, 'This is Helen. Is this Charlie Ridgway?' I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'When we met on the train trip down to Florida yesterday, you offered me the job working as your assistant.' I had to explain to her that I wasn't on a train yesterday. I was already in Florida running around trying to get ready for the opening. I don't know who she met on that train or what she did to get that job offer but I wasn't involved.

"Earlier that morning when it was still dark, the management was getting worried about whether people would show up. Card Walker, Dick Nunis and Ron Miller got in a helicopter and went up and saw this long line of car headlights driving toward the Magic Kingdom and they breathed a sigh of relief. Until all of the cars turned on Route 535. They were all cast members heading to work and the employee entrance.

"We had decided to open the Magic Kingdom in October because it was the slowest tourist month and on a Friday which traditionally was a slow attendance day. We calculated, although we never shared this with the press, that there would be 10,000 to 12,000 guests that first day. We didn't do a big publicity push because we wanted some time to work out the rough spots before the holiday crowds.

"One newspaper announced that we were expecting 20,000 people. Another predicted 50,000. One Northern newspaper printed that there would be 200,000. Reuters newswire picked up that number and through a typing error added another zero so they announced that two million guests would show up.

"The final count that day was about 10,000 guests, exactly what Disney had expected. Maybe all that publicity about massive crowds kept more people away. Unfortunately, the press believed their own projections and so there were a lot of negative articles about how the Magic Kingdom was a disappointment and had fallen beneath expectations. However, even before those articles, word had reached Wall Street and Disney stock dropped 9 points by the end of the day.

"Roy O. Disney talked to the executives and said, 'Unless we have a full house for Thanksgiving weekend, we're in trouble.' The day after Thanksgiving, it was the worst traffic jam in Florida history. There were cars backed up to the Georgia border some 200 miles away of guests trying to get into the Magic Kingdom. Fifty thousand visitors jammed the single park and Magic Kingdom was barely able to cope with the crowd.

"More than 600 other invited press came in groups of 100 on opening trips during the first three weeks of the Magic Kingdom opening. Planned luaus on the beach were rained out regularly but we pigged out in the Polynesian lobby and that was almost as much fun. We showed them everything and sent them home tired, happy and loaded with press kits."