Walt Disney World's First Press Event, 1969

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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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. Newsmen from all over the world mixed with prominent Florida officials and corporate executives waiting for the big event.

There had been a growing sense of annoyance at the Walt Disney Company in Florida. It had been two years since special legislation had been passed to allow Disney to build its Florida project but while there had been activity out on the property (primarily clearing and preparing the land), there had been no specific news about 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 hostesses would help tour 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 done 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.

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 World Company, 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 Chief Operating Officer 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.

"This is a big day for our company. 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," said Roy Disney.

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.

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 Peggie, 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 refuel. 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 on a tour of the actual site. 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," remembered Peggie.

"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," wrote Prizer who attended the press event.

"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," wrote Prizer. 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 print of Herb Ryman's painting of Cinderella Castle to commemorate their participation in the history-making event.

"At the end, in the back yard of Roy O. Disney's cottage at Bay Hill were 30 tour guides, drivers and publicists who had helped. 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," sadly recalled Charlie Ridgway.