The Forgotten Brother Who Built a Magic Kingdomby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
At the dedication of the Magic Kingdom on October 25, 1971, Roy O. Disney, the 78-year-old brother of the fabled Walt Disney who had died nearly five years earlier, stood stiffly by the flagpole in the town square of Main Street U.S.A. with a costumed Mickey Mouse character by his side.
With his strong Midwestern accent and tenor voice, he read off the dedication plaque: “Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney…”
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 70s—with a longing to retire and travel and spend time with his grandchildren—wrestled with heat and humidity, swamp land and scrub brush, construction delays and finances to make Walt’s last dream a reality.
From the October 1972 Walt Disney Productions’ publication titled, The National Champion: A Report to Participants in Disneyland and Walt Disney World:
“Of the thousands of persons responsible for the creation of Walt Disney World, no one played a more important role than the late Roy O. Disney. Long known as the behind-the-scenes financial genius, he was thrust into the leadership role by the untimely passing of his brother Walt Disney in 1966. Throughout the busy years that followed, Roy devoted nearly all his time and energy to bringing Walt’s dream to reality. It was a dream that was staggeringly complex…and yet with Roy’s guidance, it did indeed become a reality…”
In October 1966 (a little more than two months before Walt died), at a luncheon with Walt, his brother Roy and other Disney Company executives, Billy Dial (chairman of the First National Bank of Orlando and the power broker who helped the Disney Company make the connections for the Florida Project) asked Walt what would be the fate of the Florida project if he got hit by a truck after lunch? Walt replied, “Absolutely nothing. My brother Roy runs this company. I just piddle around.”
No one really believed that answer. Most people regarded Roy as merely the quiet, unassuming businessman who was firm but fair and aggressively avoided the spotlight for decades. An early home movie of a sandlot baseball game at the Hyperion Disney Studio in the 1930s shows Walt proudly and prominently up at bat, even though the film demonstrates his lack of athletic prowess. Whenever the cameraman turns his movie camera toward Roy standing nearby, Roy quietly and quickly moves out of frame whenever he is aware he is being filmed.
One week after Walt Disney died, Roy spoke to a group of Disney Company executives and creative staff in a projection room at the Disney Studio. He was going to postpone his retirement. “We are going to finish this park [in Florida], and we’re going to do it just the way Walt wanted it,” Roy firmly stated. “Don’t you ever forget it. I want every one of you to do just exactly what you were going to do when Walt was alive.”
One of his first decisions was that the Disneyworld project would be officially renamed “Walt Disney World.” Roy was insistent that people be reminded that this was Walt’s project. Very few others in the company agreed with that choice because of marketing reasons.
In a meeting, someone referred to it as “Disneyworld” and Roy’s hand went to his glasses as he focused on the offending word: “I’m only going to say this one more time. I want it called ‘Walt Disney World.’ Not Disneyworld, not Disneyland East, not anything else. Walt Disney World.”
Others tried to convince Roy to build the Magic Kingdom at the intersection of I-4 and 192 since the roads were already in place and it would temporarily eliminate the additional cost of building roads and canals. Walt’s plan was to have the theme park at the top of the property so that guests would experience the rest of the area on their way to the park rather than merely stopping at the front of the property.
Roy told the financial people, “I want to continue with Walt’s plan. So let’s quit wasting time on these meetings.”
As Roy O. Disney stood on the marshy ground of Walt Disney World, all that could be seen were black water swamps often choked with decaying, tangled roots that would have to be removed, barren dunes of white sand, and an occasional grove of pine trees. There were a handful of tethered gas balloons of different colors that also dotted the landscape to indicate the height and location of things to come like Cinderella Castle.
Roy knew he was not as charismatic as his younger brother, nor as creative. He surrounded himself with a talented group of men to make Walt’s dream a reality. On the creative end, he deferred to Dick Irvine of WED who had also been instrumental in the creation of Disneyland. On the construction end, he relied heavily on Joe Fowler and Joe Potter whose military background and “can do” attitudes were invaluable to transform the frightening wilderness into a civilization under a nearly impossible deadline.
Roy devoted much of his time to his area of expertise: finance. Escalating costs, labor challenges, and even the most effective way to raise the almost four hundred million dollars needed for the largest private construction project in the world were handled by Roy with a skill that would have eluded anyone else. However, even while delegating authority to others, Roy was clearly in command and he was the one who made the final decisions.
“Without Roy, (Walt Disney World) wouldn’t have happened,” Jack Lindquist who was then a marketing director told writer Bob Thomas, “Everyone else was so in awe of Walt that they could not step forward and take his place. It took a Disney to do it and that was Roy.”
It was Roy who proposed to the Disney Board of Directors having Card Walker and Donn Tatum become executive vice-presidents and assume some of his managerial duties to effect a smooth transition for when Walt Disney World opened. Roy planned to retire and travel.
Originally, on his trips to Orlando, Roy stayed at the Hilton Inn South near International Drive. Later, he and his wife lived in a cottage at Bay Hill, next door to Joe Fowler. Roy would work long hours during the day and at night accompanied by his wife, he would browse through the local stores. Reportedly, tool counters in stores especially fascinated him. There were five cottages allocated for Disney executives and sometimes there would be backyard cookouts to boost morale for the displaced Californians.
Roy told reporters, “Walt had this idea [for Walt Disney World]. My job all along was to help Walt do the things he wanted to do. He did the dreaming. I did the building.”
Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971. The entire month of October was promoted as “Preview Month” with the official dedication scheduled as a three day event from October 23-25, 1971.
At the dedication, Roy was asked by reporters why a grandfather had felt the obligation to tackle this impossible project at this point in his life. Roy smiled, “I didn’t want to have to explain to Walt when I saw him again why the dream didn’t come true.”
Later, Roy spent time in a boat on the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of the Magic Kingdom and when asked why he wasn’t in the park to handle all the media attention, Roy quietly remarked, “Today is my brother’s day. I want them to remember my brother today.”
When the television special, The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World aired on NBC on Friday October 29, 1971, Roy sat next to his wife Edna in their Bay Hill house and began weeping.
Roy returned to California and never came back to Florida. He had planned to stay in California only until February 1st for the annual meeting and then with his wife get on a cruise ship for Australia for a few weeks and make plans for additional travel.
Roy had complained for some time about seeing something like a cloud over his vision but delayed going in for blood tests, assuming he just needed a new prescription for his glasses.
Roy Disney fell into a coma on Sunday, December 19, 1971 and was rushed to a hospital. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Monday night, December 20, 1971 in Room 421 at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank, California at the age of seventy-eight. It was the same hospital where he had sobbed uncontrollably at the loss of his younger brother a half decade earlier.
Flags flew at half staff over Walt Disney World on that Tuesday in honor of Roy but both Disneyland and Walt Disney World remained open for business. “When Walt died,” said Jack Lindquist, “Roy said a lot of people had come from a lot of different places that day to see Disneyland. And he felt it was the only way to do business.”
Reporter Charlie Wadsworth wrote an article in the December 22, 1971, edition of The Orlando Sentinel: “It was Roy Disney’s guidance and leadership that brought Walt Disney World to its opening. He was completely dedicated to building the dreams of his brother Walt. They say a little of Roy left when Walt died in 1966 of cancer. But not much could have left. He was the keeper of the flame and had to be the curator of the spirit that Walt Disney created. He inherited the Disney entertainment empire. It was difficult for his neighbors in Windermere to grow accustomed to the fact that the little round, balding man with the twinkling eyes and inquisitive nature was the chairman of the board. But that’s the way Roy Disney wanted it. That is the way he lived…[he] was a man of great personal warmth and charm, as personable as his late brother Walt.”
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to much too briefly talk with Disney Legend Blaine Gibson about the “Sharing the Magic” statue of Roy O. Disney that sits by the flagpole in Town Square underneath the shadow of Roy’s name on the upper window of the confectionery shop.
“Roy is sitting back in the bench which indicates he was there first and Minnie came to him, not that he came up to her to ask why she was sitting down and not working,” laughed Blaine who based the pose on photographs taken of Roy in the park in October 1971. “Also he is holding her hand underneath so he is supporting it, just like he always supported Walt’s dreams.”
Roy was a modest man and, when he died, little was known of his accomplishments, especially in comparison to his brother, Walt. Roy was the man who built Walt Disney World without a cent of debt and, hopefully, those who celebrate the 40th anniversary this year will remember him and how he made his brother’s final dream come true for all of us.