A Press Conference With Roy O. Disneyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As we celebrate this year the 40th anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World, it is amazing to me how little documentation there has been about one of the most visited vacation sites in the world. In forty years, we have taken for granted a massive undertaking that was so unique at the time that it was not fully understood by the general public during the years it was being built. Most people were expecting an East Coast Disneyland but the Disney Company instead announced that it would be “The Vacation Kingdom of the World.”
“A totally new concept in family-oriented destination vacation resorts will come to life in October 1971, when Walt Disney World opens to the public on a site 16 miles southwest of Orlando, Fla.” began a 1969 press release.
In 1969, the city of Orlando was listed as one of the nation’s 10 fastest growing areas. If someone measured it in terms of jobs attracted from other areas, Orlando ranked sixth nationwide. Downtown Orlando was expanding, primarily because of the impact of Disney coming to town, and attracting major businesses.
There had been more than 16 months of excavation work with some of the work of creating the water control system that included more than 40 miles of canals being done at night under the light of huge spotlights.
An important and memorable four-day meeting took place in Orlando, Fla., in April 1969 at the then new Ramada Inn tower in Ocoee where the press and key invitees were shown “scale models, films and sketches [that] will depict the theme park and hotels as they will appear when the park opens in late 1971” according to a Disney Company press release from the time. In addition, there were limited on site tours of the construction progress.
There were roughly 200 state, national and international newsmen who got this glimpse into the future along with public officials, businessmen, civic leaders and Disney employees. The vague comments and possible ideas for an experimental community were replaced with a snapshot of what the first phase of the Walt Disney World project, “a vast destination vacationland.” would actually look like in a little more than two years.
The meeting highlighted that four of America’s foremost industries—United States Steel, RCA, the Monsanto Company and Aerojet-General Corporation (a subsidiary of the General Tire and Rubber Company that would be responsible for the AVAC system of trash removal)—would be participating in this project that included not just the theme park but “five related resort hotels….themed along Contemporary, Polynesian, Asian, Venetian and Persian motifs.”
Roy O. Disney told reporters that “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. The construction of Walt Disney World presents an immense challenge. However, I am convinced that we can bring to reality the greatest dream of Walt Disney’s life."
“This is a big day for our company," he continued. "I know Walt would like what his creative team is doing because these are the ideas and plans he began. Everything you see here today is something Walt worked on and began in some way.”
The lights in the room dimmed and the screen behind Roy jumped to life with concept art showing what Walt Disney World was going to be. A Florida newspaper, The Evening Star, ran a huge headline about the meeting that proclaimed, “Disney World Presentation Overwhelms the Viewers.”
After the meeting, Florida Governor Claude Kirk Jr. while inspired by the presentation, still had some misgivings: “My only concern is that Central Florida isn’t ready. We don’t have enough roads. We don’t have enough rooms. The Disney people have been conservative all along the line. First, they estimated they would have 5 million visitors the first year. Now they have increased that to 8 million—that’s 30 percent or so more, isn’t it? And again, I think they’re being conservative. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of million more than that the first year.”
Among the speakers on the first day of the Walt Disney World Press Conference on April 30, 1969, was Walt Disney’s brother, Roy O. Disney, the often forgotten hero of making Walt Disney World a reality.
At the dedication of the Magic Kingdom on October 25, 1971, Roy stated, “Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney…” but Walt Disney World was actually a tribute to two brothers. Walt may have dreamed castles but it was Roy who got them built. It was Roy who in his seventies wrestled with swamp land and scrub brush and finances to make Walt’s last dream a reality.
For those unable to attend that impressive press conference (or might not even have been born yet for several decades), here is Roy’s formal speech at that press conference in April 1969. This was the year that actual construction truly began, after much time spent clearing land, draining swamps and moving millions of cubic yards of earth. Nearly $90 million dollars had been spent and there was still nothing built above ground yet.
“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 1/2 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 3 1/2 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 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. When converted, these bonds will represent close to twenty 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.”