A Walt Disney World Duo - Golf Championship and the First Candelightby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
To contribute to the continuing 40th anniversary celebration of the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW), I wanted to take a look at two special events that took place just weeks after WDW opened to the public: The Walt Disney World Open Golf Championship and the first Candlelight Processional.
When WDW opened October 1971, the Disney Company went to great extremes to try and educate the general public that it was not just “Disneyland East.” It was not just an entertainment theme park, but an entire “vacation destination” featuring a wide variety of leisure activity from boating to horseback riding to dining, and, of course, golf.
Golf courses were always part of the original WDW plan as conceived by Walt Disney himself. Walt had briefly taken up golfing as a hobby but, supposedly, his frustration at the game led him to explore other options. However, he was well aware of the game’s attraction to a large part of the population and included it as part of his plan for the Florida Project.
In 1971, both the Magnolia and Palm golf courses, designed by Joseph L. Lee, opened. A June 1971 edition of the New York Times pictured Lee looking over the blueprints for the courses with Mickey Mouse. In 1993, Lee renovated the Magnolia by rebuilding the greens and planting a different kind of grass. The Magnolia has a “Hidden Mickey” in its mouse-eared sand trap on the sixth hole.
It is said that lower-handicap golfers prefer the Magnolia over the three other 18-hole courses at Disney because of its championship tradition that began in 1971.
Sandy Quinn, vice president of the Nixon Foundation, was head of marketing for WDW in Florida through construction, the opening and several years of operation. He eventually headed his own marketing firm in Los Angeles.
Primarily, his job was to tell people what WDW was going to be about, although he claimed he spent a good deal of time calling people back to inform them that even if they were a distant cousin of Walt Disney himself, and had somehow been promised a free week, that they had to get in line and pay like everyone else. He laughs as he remembers the tall stack of phone message “pink slips” he had to deal with on that matter on a weekly basis.
“You have to credit two people [with opening Walt Disney World on time]. Joe Fowler, the admiral, created all the levels of contractors and suppliers. He planned the invasion. Dick Nunis took them across the channel. They made a great team,” Quinn recalled.
With a few weeks to go before the opening of Walt Disney World, Quinn was given the task of setting up a PGA golf tournament before the end of the year. Quinn knew nothing about arranging golf tournaments, but he did know that famed golfer Arnold Palmer was in town at his new Bay Hill development.
“I sent somebody over to see if he would come by and at least talk to us about it,” Quinn said. “Well, he came over and we’re starting to talk and all of a sudden he looks off in the distance, curious about something. I walk over and see he’s watching the train engineers put the new cars on the monorail. Right away he gets interested and wants to know if he can take a ride.
“Well as luck would have it, the engineers were running a full scale test on the whole system that day—and they were delighted to have Arnie as their first passenger. But not nearly as delighted as Arnie. He jumped in one of the cars and that’s where he stayed for about four hours. He was just like a kid, going ‘round and ‘round, waving and laughing, having a wonderful time.
“We said a small prayer, hoping the damn thing wouldn’t fall down or something while he was in it. When he was through, we started talking a little about a golf tournament. ‘No problem,’ he says, “Sign me up. I’ll call a few friends.’ And that was it. In no time at all, we had a full-fledged PGA golf tournament.”
The Walt Disney World Open $150,000 Golf Championship was scheduled November 29 through December 5, 1971. A $5,000 Pro-Am Tournament would take place December 1, 1971. Golfer Jack Nicklaus won that year, and the following year (1972), and the year after that (1973).
The tournament is still part of the PGA Tour. Tiger Woods has won twice at Disney, including his rookie year on tour in 1996.
In 1973, the Walt Disney Open Invitational changed its name to the Walt Disney World Golf Classic. Golfing at Walt Disney World was so popular that the 125-room Golf Resort opened December 15, 1973, adjacent to the golf courses and near the Magic Kingdom.
In 1986, the Golf Resort became the Disney Inn, shifting the golf theme to a Snow White theme. It became the Shades of Green Resort, an Armed Forces Recreation Center resort, when the U.S. Department of Defense leased the hotel from Disney in 1994 (and purchased it outright in 1996). It now has almost 600 rooms.
However, when Walt Disney World opened in 1971, there was another “Golf Resort” advertised that referred to the Magnolia and Palm golf courses and the clubhouse shared by them. Just as the Magic Kingdom had a castle, this Disney “golf kingdom” had a multi-winged, two-story country club that featured live entertainment in the evening. In early 1972, it was Sam Barnes (Wednesday-Sunday) and John Chen (Monday and Tuesday) playing soothing soft rock and folk music.
The brochure handed out to guests in 1971-1972 stated:
“Play Golf at the Golf Resort. Open to all golfers. Parking at the Clubhouse.
“Golf on either championship course. Green fees--$10 plus electric golf car $10 or a total $15 per person for a twosome sharing golf car. Rent top-line clubs ($5), range balls or take lessons from the pros. Luxurious locker rooms and club storage—all complimentary. Complete Pro Shop.
“For Golfers or the whole family, delicious continental breakfast, luncheon or dinner (7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.) in the Golf Resort Clubhouse. Cocktails ‘till 11:00 pm. Complimentary transportation from both hotels and campground.”
"Guests wishing to strengthen their own golf games may take advantage of the Golf Resort's full-service Pro Shop. One of the services offered through the Pro Shop is the Golf Studio at the Magnolia driving range. This unique instructional program is conducted by pros for golfers of any age and at any playing level. As part of the Golf Studio experience, participants have their swings videotaped for replays and critiques in the Pro Shop."
In addition there was a beautiful pool (three water-spouting columns in the shallow end) and a snack bar called the Sand Trap.
My friend and fellow Disney historian Jeff Pepper has written about that forgotten Walt Disney World Golf Resort.
That historic December not only featured the first Walt Disney World Open Golf Championship, but also the very first Walt Disney World Christmas celebration. An announcement in the December 12, 1971 edition of the Orlando Sentinel claimed:
“Walt Disney World’s first Christmas will be a spirited two-week holiday full of gaiety, tradition, colorful Disney character parades, and commemorative religious pageantry of the season. Yuletide decorations will bring added sparkle to the already fun-filled Magic Kingdom — ‘decked out’ literally for Christmas with a giant tree and hundreds of wreaths of hemlock and holly. Special daily Holiday Parades and two mammoth candlelight processionals are part of the spectacular events scheduled for the holidays.
“Florally adorned by poinsettias, snapdragons, petunias and 50,000 pansies, the theme park will feature lights and decorations in each of the Main Street shop windows. And in Town Square, a snowy, 50-foot Christmas tree, especially selected and cut from a forest in Paradise, Michigan, will serve as a colorful centerpiece for the festive theme park celebration. More than 1,200 lights and a thousand giant ornaments adorn the tree.”
The Christmas Parade was very similar to the one staged at Disneyland for many years and featured the marching toy soldiers and dancing reindeer that had been designed by the legendary Bill Justice. Those seasonal characters delighted audiences for decades. Of course, the grand finale was the appearance of jolly Santa Claus himself.
When the tradition of the Candlelight Processional was transplanted to Florida, Dr. Charles Hirt helped shepherd the original Walt Disney World version. Hirt, then chairman of the Choral Music Department at the University of Southern California, was the man responsible for creating Disneyland’s original Candlelight Processional in 1958 and supervising it for years. The first celebrity narrator, actor Dennis Morgan, didn’t appear until 1961.
Over the years there have been some variances in the narration script and some different musical selections between the two parks but the core of the ceremony has basically remained the same for decades.
Walt Disney World’s first Candlelight Processional was only held on two nights, December 18 and 19 at 6 p.m. each evening. The nearly 1,200 carolers from across the state of Florida walked down Main Street to the Cinderella Castle forecourt where the performance took place, since most of the early Magic Kingdom shows were staged in that natural hollow space between the two sloping walkways that led up to Cinderella Castle.
Actor Rock Hudson narrated the Christmas story while Frederick Fennell conducted the orchestra. The living Christmas tree was made up of boys choirs from Orlando and St. Petersburg. Hudson would eventually perform the narrator role six times in Florida and three in California.
The selection of Hudson was interesting because he did not make a positive impact on Magic Kingdom guests during the three-day dedication ceremony earlier in October. According to a news report in the Orlando Sentinel, Hudson “disappointed many female fans over the weekend by refusing to sign autographs or have his picture taken” and physically trying to hide when fans approached. On the other hand, other celebrities at the event like Cesar Romero, Annette Funicello, Fess Parker, Robert Stack, and Sebastian Cabot were exceedingly gracious and welcoming to their many raucous fans.
The Magic Kingdom was open on Christmas Eve from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Christmas Day hours were 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Extended hours of 9 a.m. to midnight were in effect for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The park remained open until 2 a.m. on New Year’s Eve as part of the first Walt Disney World New Year’s Party.
Forty years later, those two events are still held as—and still are—highpoints for visitors to the Walt Disney World Resort.