Visiting the Magic Kingdom in 1971

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

With the celebration this year of the opening of Walt Disney World in October 1971, forty years ago, I thought it would be fun to look back at how visiting the Magic Kingdom in its first few weeks was different from a trip today.

Obviously, today it is a much more expensive activity with many new attractions never dreamed of decades ago, but there are other differences, as well.

I think the two major misconceptions many people have about the Magic Kingdom are that it is similar to Disneyland Park (there are many more significant differences than similarities) and that, once it opened, it stayed pretty much the same with some gradual changes and additions over the years. Actually, the traditional Magic Kingdom that some of us fondly remember was not fully up and operating until 1975 at the earliest.

In the very first issue of the cast member newsletter, Eyes and Ears of Walt Disney World, the Vacation Kingdom of the World (with a little pennant saying “Florida” waving above the word “Disney”), dated simply October 1971, the first page had this statement on the front page from Chairman of the Board Roy O. Disney:

“On the eve of Walt Disney World’s opening day, may I thank all of you for your spirit—your cooperation and the fine job all of you have done in getting ready for our opening. Years of planning and long hours of work have brought about this historic moment. It will be an experience none of us will forget…You, the cast, are responsible for making Walt’s dream come true…yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

When the Magic Kingdom officially opened at 10 a.m. on October 1, 1971, Director of Marketing Jack Lindquist had already picked the first family to enter the new Disney theme park. Operating hours for the Magic Kingdom in October were daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m..

That lucky sandy-haired father was William “Bill” Windsor Jr. from nearby Lakeland, Florida who was accompanied by his pretty blue-eyed wife, Marty, and their sons Jay—who was three years old—and Lee—who was nearly nineteen months old. Accompanied by the first Walt Disney World Ambassador, Debbie Dane, they were driven up Main Street to Cinderella Castle where the Walt Disney World marching band played “When You Wish Upon a Star”.

Running down the sloping walkways on either side of the castle entrance were a flood of Disney costumed characters who danced with the guests before sending them off on their Magic Kingdom adventure.

Fearing a similar disaster that accompanied the opening day of Disneyland in 1955, the Disney Company had de-emphasized that first day of operation and instead proclaimed that all of October was “Preview Month.” Slightly more than 10,000 guests showed up that first day. It was exactly the amount that Disney predicted, but the media saw it as an example that the park was a failure.

The official dedication of the park and Walt Disney World took place during a three-day weekend event October 23-25, 1971. More than 40,000 guests were there to celebrate that historic moment.

Those three days included a special moonlight performance by the World Symphony Orchestra in front of Cinderella Castle, the filming of a television special, banquets like a special beach luau at the Polynesian featuring the debut of the Electrical Water Pageant, and famed composer Meredith “Music Man” Wilson conducting a 1,076 piece marching band on Main Street.

For many, the highlight was Roy O. Disney’s memorable reading of the dedication plaque on Monday, October 25, that would be enshrined on the ground near the Town Square flagpole on Main Street U.S.A. Roy had motioned the costumed Mickey Mouse character to stand next to him so that it was clear that Walt was there in spirit.

If you visited the Magic Kingdom in October 1971, what might you expect to see?

Once you parked and purchased your ticket, you had to journey across the Seven Seas Lagoon to begin your day at the Magic Kingdom.

The principal means of travel were the new Mark IV monorails that cost almost $6 million apiece and could hold up to 210 guests (no standing room!) in its five train cars. There were two temperamental side-wheelers called “The Southern Seas” and the “Ports-O-Call,” which were originally slated for special charter parties with alcohol (served by hostesses from the Contemporary) or leisurely Moonlight Cruises that moved guests across the man-made lake.

Other forms of transportation were rushed into service, including six steam launches that held up to 40 guests each, but were originally meant to ferry guests to the resorts and campgrounds. Even the Frontierland Keel Boat, Bertha Mae, found itself shuttling guests across the Seven Seas Lagoon at one point.

In addition, half of the parking lot trams were also used to haul guests from the Ticket and Transportation Center to the Magic Kingdom. They had not been designed for this purpose and as a result, they overheated and broke down, leaving guests stranded until they could be towed to their destination.

The friendly Magic Kingdom cast members wore name tags that were 2 ½ inches wide by 1 inch high. It had their first name in red block letters and up above was a black lined globe with mouse ears, the symbol of Walt Disney World. Beginning in 1972, cast members got their one-year pin (not the fabled Steamboat Willie attachment familiar today, but a little gold globe Mickey with green inside the globe).

Let’s look at our ticket book. “Your Admission to the Magic Kingdom and Seven Adventures. Adult $4.75” and in parentheses it says “a $7.65 value” so we got a really good deal because individual prices for tickets run from a dime for an “A” ticket to 90 cents for an “E” ticket.

General Admission and Transportation for an adult was $3.50 just by itself, so the ticket book was a great deal. A Junior (12-17) seven-adventure ticket book was $4.25 and a Child (3-11) was $3.75.

Of course, you could get an 11-adventure ticket book for $5.75 or a guided tour for $6.50. By the way, parking was 50 cents for all day and you could leave your pet at the Kal Kan Kennel Club for 50 cents a day (including a free meal) or $1 overnight. Stroller rental was 75 cents. Wheelchair rental was $1.

There were extra expenses if you decided you wanted to rent recreational watercraft (pedal boat, war canoe, aqua cats, etc.), participate in Fort Wilderness activities (archery, bicycle, canoe nature excursion) or visit the beaches and pools (synchronized swimming, skin diving instruction, exercise programs).

Let’s plan our trip. Hmmm. A green “A” ticket is good on Main Street for the Omnibus, the Horse Cars, Main Street Vehicles or could be used in Fantasyland for Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel.

An orange “B” Ticket is what you would need for the Main Street Cinema (showing a silent version of the first synchronized sound Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie along with other silent films) or you could save it for the Frontierland Shootin’ Gallery or Mike Fink Keel Boats in Frontierland or the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse in Adventureland.

A gray “C” Ticket could get you on the Grand Prix Raceway in Tomorrowland or Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes that close at dusk in Frontierland. However, that “C” ticket can get you on five rides in Fantasyland: Dumbo (with only 10 ride vehicles, not the 16 that guests have enjoyed since 1990), Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or the Mad Tea Party.

Disney would never get rid of classic attractions like Mr. Toad or Snow White. Those attractions will be around forever so you can save those adventures for the end of the day or your next visit.

Okay, the yellow “D” ticket is good for the Grand Circle Tour on the Walt Disney World railroad trains, but you could also use it for the Skyway…either one way to Tomorrowland or one way to Fantasyland. Still, you may want it for the Flight to the Moon in Tomorrowland or Hall of Presidents or the Admiral Joe Fowler Riverboat in Liberty Square (which began operating on October 2 and was later joined by the Richard Irvine in 1973). Of course, like most guests, you will probably use it for the Country Bear Jamboree in Frontierland, an attraction unique to the Orlando park with a bunch of Audio-Animatronics Florida bears having a good ol’ country hoedown.

Now, the treasured brown “E” ticket. It is good for “it’s a small world” or "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" in Fantasyland or the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland or The Haunted Mansion”in Liberty Square. The Haunted Mansion was completely installed and operational by April 1971 since its Audio-Animatronics had been built at the same time as the Disneyland attraction that opened in 1969.

Of course, whether you rode “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” with the vehicles crafted to resemble Captain Nemo’s infamous submarine depended on when in October you visited the Magic Kingdom. On Opening Day, the lagoon was filled and the subs had arrived, but it took another two weeks for the placing of the artificial fish and other details before the attraction opened to guests on October 14, 1971.

In Tomorrowland, the Grand Prix Raceway was running as was the Skyway to Fantasyland but “Flight to the Moon” didn’t open until December 24, 1971 (replaced by “Mission to Mars” on March 21, 1975) and America the Beautiful in CircleVision 360 didn’t open until October 15, 1971.

There just weren’t that many attractions, but Disney was careful to advertise that this was just the beginning of “Phase One” with more spectacular attractions on the way and that the park would be completed by 1975.

When Frontierland opened in 1971, there was no train station and the railroad only provided a grand circle tour of the park. There was no reason to stop at the far end of Frontierland. Tom Sawyer’s Island wasn’t completed (it would open in 1973) so there were no rafts to take guests to it. Obviously, there was no Splash Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad either. There was no Caribbean Plaza allowing you to move from Frontierland to Adventureland because there was no Pirates of the Caribbean.

In fact, the Disney Company felt that Florida was too close to the home of the real pirates, so guests would want a different experience.

The area that now encompasses Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attractions was originally supposed to be home to a huge looming mountainous backdrop known as Thunder Mesa that would have been the centerpiece of Frontierland.

In this complex, there would have been a runaway mine train ride. (Of course, that idea developed years later as we all know into the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction.) In addition, Thunder Mesa would have had a series of hiking trails atop the mesa where guests would walk by natural arches, waterfalls, desert flora and fauna and a Pueblo Indian village. There would also be a pack mule ride working its way across the stone bluffs.

However, the main attraction would be staged inside the mountain itself, where guests would take a watery boat ride like in Pirates of the Caribbean through the legendary days of cowboys and Indians. This was to be called the Western River Expedition, although some Imagineers jokingly referred to it as “Cowboys of the Caribbean” because of its similarities to that other popular ride. It would feature comically exaggerated Audio-Animatronics tableaux (with 150 figures, more than on Pirates) designed by Imagineer Marc Davis whose clever composition and characterization is so prominent in the Pirates ride.

This ride would have been a musical experience with a reoccurring theme song, as well as other lively original music by Disney composer Buddy Baker. Indians would do a rain dance and get immediate results. Outlaws would not just wear bandanas to hide their faces when they robbed a stagecoach but so would their horses. Dance Hall girls would perform for cheering cowboys to the general disapproval of the rest of the town. Toward the end of the ride, guests would have experienced a wild trip through the rapids and a fall down a waterfall to avoid bandits.

In 1969, preview literature for Walt Disney World was heavily promoting Thunder Mesa. Elaborate models had been built, work started on some of the animal Audio-Animatronics and Disney Legend Mary Blair had done some concept paintings. Land had been cleared for the show building, but as deadlines for the opening of the Magic Kingdom got shorter and budgets continued to soar, it was decided to not have this expensive addition ready when the park opened but to have it completely built within the first five years as part of “Phase One.”

However, when the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, guests clamored for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Then Disney Company President Card Walker agreed and that attraction opened in 1973. However, it certainly dimmed the enthusiasm for the Disney Company to build an expensive similar attraction so close to it but the project was not canceled and hope lingered for many years that it would soon debut in Frontierland.

Not only would Thunder Mesa have made Frontierland different than its West Coast counterpart, it also set the tone for the whole area of more fast action and humor than the original Frontierland in California.

Visiting the Magic Kingdom in 1971 was a unique experience for most of its guests who had never ventured to the West Coast to see Disneyland. Even the few guests who were familiar with Disneyland were taken aback by the massive scale of the Magic Kingdom and the blue skies that seemed to go on forever.

Forty years later, it is still the favorite park for most of Walt Disney World’s guests.



  1. By danyoung

    Thanks for the memories, Jim. I grew up in SoCal, and I watched the building of the Florida project with great interest. But I wasn't able to visit for myself until 1979. I was blown away, both by the similarities and the differences in the 2 parks. In fact it was very disorienting to be standing in Frontierland, in a somewhat familiar setting, but just different enough to be confusing.

    I made up for my late arrival by being in EPCOT during its first week of operation. Again, totally blown away! The day would have been much for fun except for the fact that the day before was spent on a Tampa beach, and I had the worst sunburn of my life! Ah well, still a very cool day!

  2. By Timchat2

    Did any of the Western River Expedition ever get recorded or demoed? The prospect of hearing long lost Buddy Baker attraction music is too good not to explore.

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