Walt Disney World Storiesby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I was in Storm Lake City, Iowa in August where I was a guest lecturer at Buena Vista University, talking to several different classes on “Walt Disney’s Approach to Leadership” (using examples of Walt and Roy to explain the differences between a leader and a manager), how the Disney Brand developed over the years and why it impacts people on an emotional level, and “Disney’s Three Dimensional Storytelling” (how Disney tells stories through architecture, music and more throughout the theme parks and resorts).
Then, I had a two-hour lecture to the Iowa Lakes Corridor business community on “Disney’s Tools of Innovation” and how they can be used to position a company for growth in a competitive market place.
Many people forget that I am, as my resume states, an award winning teacher. I have a master's degree in education with a minor in theater arts. I was a public school teacher in Southern California for several years where I was recognized as both a master teacher (a teacher who mentors new teachers in training) and a mentor teacher (a teacher who coaches peers). Over the years, I have taught every level from nursery school (primarily creative dramatics classes) to advanced college courses.
While I worked for the Disney Company, I was not officially labeled an instructional designer, but I did perform that function. I created hundreds of different classes. The Disney Company even flew me up to New Jersey to teach 2,000 employees of Toys R Us a program I developed titled “Animation Leadership,” which was a team building experience with interactive exercises based on what it was like being part of Walt’s animation team in the 1930s.
Often college-level classes visit Orlando and employ my services as a guest instructor. That’s how Buena Vista University discovered me, when I assisted in a popular Disney class taught by their knowledgeable instructor Jerry Johnson earlier this year. I also did a similar class this year for Western Illinois University, taught by the also-knowledgeable David Zanolla. Recently, I have also been a guest lecturer for classes at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
However, I would never abandon my loyal and well-loved readers here at MousePlanet, no matter how busy I get. With the official 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World happening in October, I thought I would share a few rarely told stories about that historic opening over the next three weeks.
As we all know, Walt did not have enough money to purchase all of the land he would have wanted in Anaheim when he was building Disneyland.
As a result, shortly after the opening of Disneyland, many motels, businesses, annoying signs, and more popped up around the perimeter of Disneyland. Walt felt all this clutter took away from the story he was trying to tell and could be seen from high points in the park—like the Skyway. Walt was especially irritated that guests had to drive through all of that chaos and cheapness in order to get to his magical kingdom.
Walt’s Imagineers at WED quickly grew in skill and, through the process of building Disneyland, had learned how to make an attraction really work. However, there was only so much room to expand the park and build more things. It is remarkable how many attractions are squeezed into the acreage of Disneyland and yet still do not intrude into the themes of other areas.
As I mentioned, the surrounding area of Disneyland had soared in price and was already cluttered with other businesses. So, Walt needed more land to hold all of his future dreams that his Imagineers were eager to design and build.
Surveys showed that roughly two-thirds of the visitors to Disneyland came from around the California area. Less than 8 percent of the guests came from east of the Mississippi. Even publicity efforts trying to showcase that there were more things to do in Southern California than just Disneyland to try and convince people to travel West were not effective. So Walt decided that if he got more land that it should be on the East Coast to tap into that new audience.
Walt looked at sites in St. Louis (that would have been a multistory indoor venue that would have included the first Pirates of the Caribbean attraction), Niagara Falls, Washington, D.C., and Southern Florida among other places.
Central Florida was picked for several reasons. The location is up the coast and inland so it is not near the beach or hurricane activity. The weather would permit year-round operation, unlike some other East Coast locations. It was at the intersection of two major highways (north/south and east/west).
It was reasoned that people going down to Miami for vacation would stop at Walt Disney World or stop on their way going back up. Amusingly, once Walt Disney World opened, visitors did not continue on down to Miami but were content to make the Disney vacation destination their main trip.
Of course, there was plenty of land, more than could be used in a lifetime or two. Unfortunately, Walt died before he could finish his dream. The land had been purchased, preliminary plans had been discussed but the financial investment seemed overwhelming.
Roy O. Disney was 73 years old and planning to retire when he stepped in after the passing of Walt Disney and he decided, against the recommendations of others at the Disney Company at the time, to build Walt’s final dream. Richard Irvine from WED was in charge of creative development and Admiral Joe Fowler in terms of construction. (General Joe Potter prepared the land for construction.) Others assisted with creative development, like Marc Davis, Marvin Davis and others.
However, the two steamboats were named the Richard F. Irvine and the Joe Fowler to acknowledge the right and left hand of Roy O. Disney in making the dream a reality.
So here are two stories from the beginning of Walt Disney World to help us start celebrating the 40th anniversary:
Walt in Disguise
In the beginning, Walt Disney was not recognized if he wanted to visit someplace quietly. Could someone not in the entertainment business instantly recognize Jack Warner or Samuel Goldwyn or Harry Cohn or other big movie producers? That all changed with the Disneyland television show where every week, people saw Uncle Walt encouraging them to come and visit Disneyland. Walt was instantly recognized so he tried to disguise himself, sometimes with his hat pulled down obscuring his face.
Walt had loved the idea of disguises since he was a kid. One of his favorite childhood heroes was Jimmy Dale, who was a master of disguise. On one trip, Walt’s barber, in response to Walt wanting to go unnoticed on a trip, suggested snipping off Walt’s mustache.
“I don’t want to look that different” he snorted.
Walt’s long time friend Art Linkletter recalled, “One day, Walt and I went into the little magic shop [at Disneyland] and bought some mustaches and beards and put them on so we wouldn’t be recognized. The funny thing was just minutes later, people were still coming up to him to ask for an autograph and not one of them even asked, “Why are you wearing a beard?”
Sometimes when Walt was in the park and people came up and asked if he were Walt Disney, Walt would mischievously point at Imagineer John Hench who occasionally accompanied him and bore some slight physical resemblance.
Walt and Roy used pseudonyms when they physically visited the Florida area before the official announcement was made that Disney was coming. Walt was “Walt Davis” and Roy was “Roy O. Davis.” That way they didn’t have to change their initials on luggage or any other monogrammed items. If they started to write their names by the time they got to the “D” they could make the correction. If someone said their first name, they would respond without having to remember they were someone else.
In addition, Imagineer Marvin Davis who drew the layout for Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, had married Walt’s niece, Marjorie, and he traveled with Walt so he could legally bring out a driver’s license or whatever to prove this was the “Davis” group.
One night in Orlando, Walt was dining with some associates in a hotel dining room. The waitress kept eyeing him. Finally, she approached and commented, “You know you look a little like Walt Disney.”
Walt, so wrapped up in the conversation and now distracted by this remark, replied indignantly, “What do you mean, I look like Walt Disney? I am Walt Disney!” and he started to pull out his driver’s license for proof.
Fortunately the rest of the group stopped him, said something to the waitress and the incident never made it to the newspapers. If it had, land prices would have skyrocketed since the Disney Company was still in the process of obtaining land.
Roy would wear dark glasses and a false beard and would claim to be from New York and at a stopover in Miami, he ran into a prominent person he knew but they had dinner and it worked out so that the secret was kept.
The Walt Disney World Time Capsule That Never Was
Several things planned for Walt Disney World couldn’t be completed in time for the official opening in October 1971. Sometimes money or time prevented the realization of everything from attractions like Thunder Mesa in Frontierland to the Asian Resort Hotel where Disney's Grand Floridan Resort and Spa sits today.
That didn’t prevent concept art of Thunder Mesa adorning everything from postcards to guidebooks nor the land with an area jutting out into the Seven Seas Lagoon being prepared for building to begin on the Asian Resort.
Almost a decade ago, Ron Heminger made me promise not to tell all the stories he shared with me. Heminger began his Disney career in 1955 as one of the dancers at the Indian village in Frontierland where his father was a chief. He worked his way up into managerial roles, finishing out his decades with Disney working at Epcot.
When he and other upper executives were offered a buy-out package a decade ago, he took it. While he freely told terrific stories to those of us interested in listening, he warned each of us that he was going to write a book about his experiences and didn’t want any of us telling some of the great stories before the book came out. He had boxes and boxes of 8mm movies, memos, memorabilia and more that he had gathered in half a century to use as a resource. There is no indication he ever started writing his book.
One of Heminger’s stories was about the building of the Magic Kingdom. Since Coors Beers was only available on the West Coast and it was a favorite of some of the California people working on the Magic Kingdom in Florida, they arranged for it to be shipped out in boxes from the West Coast marked as equipment for the Peter Pan's Flight attraction.
"Yeah, Ron was right," Bill “Sully” Sullivan who was also there at the building of Magic Kingdom told me with a laugh. "This guy brought out Coors Beer in boxes marked ‘small tools and parts.' He almost got fired because he had used company trucks. We also had things like refried beans shipped out so we could have good Mexican food. Ron took that package that the company offered years ago and he is now in some double wide trailer in Colorado or somewhere. He was half-Sioux, you know.”
One of my favorite Heminger stories is about the Walt Disney World Time Capsule That Never Was. Several years after Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, he was walking with his supervisor through the theme park and reminiscing about the frantic time of opening the place on time.
“One of the things I really regret is that we never did the time capsule," Heminger shared. "We prepared the spot but just ran out of time."
His supervisor, who was not there in those months of construction, laughed and told him that it was just an urban legend and that there were never any plans for a time capsule. Heminger knew better and insisted that it was true and that a place had been prepared at Cinderella Castle. The discussion started to escalate and Heminger finally told the supervisor to meet him at Cinderella Castle a few hours after park closing, after the guests and maintenance staff had left.
When the park closed, Heminger and one of his cohorts went to the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and took a full skeleton. Then they went to Cinderella Castle and carefully removed a plaque. In the hollowed-out hole, a space had indeed been prepared for something. They dressed the skeleton in a WED (Imagineering) hard hat and vest, stuffed it into the opening and then replaced the plaque.
Later that evening, Heminger met his supervisor and gave him a flashlight. With some theatrical difficulty, Heminger removed the plaque while he told how things were so hectic in the final days of building the Magic Kingdom that they basically spent their energy during the last few days just making sure everything was covered up for the guests until they could get to it again.
The supervisor was surprised to see a wide hole hidden behind the plaque. Turning on the flashlight, he curiously stuck his head deep inside and peered below….where he saw the supposed remains of a hapless WED employee inadvertently trapped and forgotten for years. I am sure the readers of this column can imagine the reaction much more effectively than I could ever describe it.
Next Week: Rarely known stories about the October 1 opening day at Magic Kingdom from people who were actually there and, the following week, a comprehensive look at the Walt Disney World dedication ceremonies October 23-25 with the man who was in charge of entertainment.