WDW: October 1, 1971by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
For the 40th anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World, the familiar stories will be told again and again. For MousePlanet readers, here are some rarely told stories told by some of the people who were actually there. Some of these quotes come from interviews at the various birthday celebrations over the last four decades.
Disney Legend Dick Nunis was a key figure in making the dream a reality. In 1971, he became vice president of operations for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
“I was flying back to California with Donn Tatum and Card Walker after a visit to the [Florida] site—I think it was in May or June . One of them said, ‘Dick, what do you think? Can we get it open by October 1?’ I said, ‘Frankly, from what I’ve seen, under present circumstances, I don’t think so.’ They asked me if there was any way we could make it. ‘Only if we throw all the resources of the company into it,’ I said.
“They called me into the office on Monday morning and said, ‘If we turn the total energies of the company in one direction, Dick, would you be willing to go down and get it open?’
“I left Disneyland with their total backing. There was no time to worry about budgets. They told me I could get anyone I called for. I called the Disneyland heads in before I left and told them, ‘It’s your baby. When I call, don’t say when. It means yesterday.’
“We had a couple-hundred key management people and experts on the site now. There was no discussion of changing the date. We had to open. Roy Disney, Donn Tatum, Card Walker, all of them were here [in Florida]. We had acquired some houses at Bay Hill for them. Decisions were made quickly. On the spot.
“I carried a tape recorder and dictated all day long as I went around the project. Secretaries typed the memos at night and sent them out the next day.”
One day, it was discovered that they couldn’t lay the red cement on Main Street for the next morning. There was none to be found this side of New Jersey. Nunis called in Jack Lindquist, who was then vice president of marketing and told him to go get some. Lindquist dropped everything, flew immediately to New Jersey, chartered a plane and brought back the cement in time to meet the schedule.
Ron Miziker, who was one of the people in charge of entertainment, remembered when I talked to him in July, “Does anyone mention the Nunis Death Marches? He’d take the top people in each division and walk them through the park during the day, pointing out stuff and asking why things weren’t done.”
Disney Legend Bob Allen talked about the infamous managers’ meetings that Nunis would call early in the morning: “They kept getting earlier and earlier. Finally, we got word to be in the meeting room at 6 a.m. There were some phone calls among us and when Dick walked in next morning we were all there in our pajamas. Jack Olsen [director of merchandising] had a mug and was shaving himself. Dick got the idea and after that he held the meetings at 7 a.m.”
Actually, it was Roy O. Disney who talked with Nunis about the early meetings and the need to move them to a later hour, especially on Sundays. Admiral Joe Fowler, who oversaw construction of Walt Disney World, lived in one of the cottages at Bay Hill, right next to Roy.
“Everyone realized what was at stake,” Fowler said. “I had one powerful asset. Roy Disney. He lived beside me. Between the two of us, we made a lot of decisions that nobody knew about.”
“The turning point was Labor Day,” Nunis said. “We couldn’t get the construction crews to work that day. We decided if they wouldn’t work, we would. We would have to show them what it’s all about. We opened up the theme park and all of us turned out to man the attractions. We invited the construction workers to come out with their families and enjoy the day on us. There were some large families.
“We had 10,000-12,000 people," Nunis continued "Kids would say to their daddies, ‘Daddy, did you really build that?’ It gave the men a feeling of importance. And it worked. We told them afterward, ‘Help us, guys, and we’ll have your families back again’. They had picnicked and played out here all day. And you know, it was amazing the amount of work we got done the rest of that week. Pride is a wonderful thing.”
The Walt Disney World Employee Bulletin distributed September 30, 1971 tried to prepare the cast members:
“Tomorrow…we raise the curtain for the beginning of the October Preview Month of the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Planning began in 1965. Now…$400 million and six years later and untold gallons of blood, sweat and tears, the public will visit this most ambitious creation in the history of the Disney organization…It will be a great and memorable day…for all of us. This does not mean that it won’t have its frantic…hectic…confusing moments. If your costume doesn’t fit…a tram breaks down, and other things don’t happen like they should, don’t get up tight. That, as they say….is show business.”
The night before opening, work was still going on nonstop, either instituting temporary measures where the job simply could not be completed by the next morning or by making final finishing touches. One crew slept on the benches in the Country Bear Jamboree since it had cushions. They were afraid to go home since they might not get back in time in the morning if a predicted overwhelming crowd showed up.
One newspaper in Cocoa Beach had speculated that 200,000 guests might show up. Frighteningly, some overseas news outlets picked up the story but jumbled the number and predicted as many as 2 million people might show up.
Actually, October 1 had been purposely selected by the Disney Company as the slowest day of the week in the slowest month of the year in Orlando to try to keep crowds manageable. Memories of the disastrous opening of Disneyland in 1955—where many more people than expected flooded into the park and there were challenges with food and attractions—still haunted Disney management who experienced that event first hand.
To ease that situation, the Disney Company also announced that the entire month of October would be the “Preview Month” with the official dedication happening October 23-25. No special promotion was done for the opening day and there was only low-key publicity.
The Disney Company also declared that the opening was just the beginning of “Phase One,” a five-year plan to complete the vacation destination. It had been determined that it took roughly five years for Disneyland to become the dream that Walt had originally envisioned with the addition of new attractions, adjustments to operating procedures and more.
However, overeager guests had already started lining up at the Walt Disney World toll booths by midnight or parked along the roadside where police attempted to shoo them away.
By 8 a.m., there was a crowd of reporters and photographers hovering just outside the main entrance to the Magic Kingdom by the tunnels under the Main Street Train Station. They were waiting for the first guests to enter the park for the first time to record this moment in history. The park would officially open at 10 a.m.
While there were actually only 1,000 or so adventurous souls who pressed against those gates in those early morning hours, they seemed much larger because of their enthusiasm.
Jack Lindquist, who had been there many hours earlier with Charlie Ridgway from publicity and Dick Nunis, walked slowly back and forth surveying the crowd to determine which gate would be opened first. By 9:30 a.m., he had made his decision.
“I did that by walking the gate and looking at people at the front of the line. I wanted a family who represented a typical Disney family to me,” wrote Lindquist in his book In Service to the Mouse. “I picked a family with a father who looked like [popular golfer] Jack Nicklaus and a mother who looked like Mrs. Brady [from the television show The Brady Bunch]. They had two blonde sons. After the first family entered, we opened the Walt Disney World gates and people came in to a well-staffed and well-organized day.”
That blonde Jack Nicklaus look-alike was William “Bill” Windsor Jr. from nearby Lakeland, Fla., who was accompanied by his pretty wife, Marty, and their two sons: Jay who was 3, and Lee who was nearly 19 months. It turned out the family had arrived so early that they had slept in their car overnight at the nearest roadside rest area in order to be among the first into the parking lot.
However, while they were the first ones let into the park, they were not the first to purchase tickets.
Three University of Florida students had devised an almost fool proof plan: Keith Padgett, Jack Sherrod and Gary Walker had camped-out overnight and had skillfully avoided being shooed away by the police.
Once the gates opened to sell tickets, Sherrod, a former high school football star who had a 9.7-second time in the 100-yard dash, ran to the gate. Walker, also a high school football star, ran to purchase the tickets. Padgett parked the car.
That plan worked amazingly well and, technically, these three friends were the very first paying customers through the gates of the Magic Kingdom. However, they failed to take into account that there were several turnstiles and it was Jack Lindquist who decided which of the multiple turnstiles would be unlocked first. Linquist told Disney historian David Koenig, “You didn’t want to pick teenagers. You didn’t want to pick an old couple….There can really be no first person because there are 20 gates.” (Actually, 14 at the time.)
As the college students looked on, the reporters swarmed toward the Windsor family and the Disney Dixieland band broke into spirited rendition of It’s a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.
The Windsor family was escorted to Main Street and helped into the antique fire engine that would be featured prominently on Magic Kingdom postcards and photographs in the early years to lead the parade. They were accompanied by Debbie Dane, Walt Disney World’s first ambassador, and Mickey Mouse. Guest Relations cast members walked along the side of the slow-moving vehicle and were followed by the Magic Kingdom marching band attired in bright red uniforms.
“They had this cute little boy,” Dane (now Brown) said. “He was about 2. Mickey and I each grabbed a hand and started him on the tour. He was just overwhelmed, of course. At one point he looked up at me wide-eyed and said, ‘This is better than Christmas!’ I haven’t heard anything in all these years that can match that in describing Disney World.”
As the parade moved slowly down the street, cast members poured out of the buildings clapping and cheering as they crowded the edge of the curb of the street. Many of the cast members had tears of joy streaming down their faces as they nervously braced for the feared onslaught.
Mickey Mouse himself took the Magic Kingdom’s First Family to the center of the Hub as the band formed behind them and began to play When You Wish Upon a Star. From the castle entrance came a huge stream of Disney costumed characters, including Cinderella, Snow White, Donald Duck, Peter Pan and scores of others all dancing and waving as they ran down the two broad sloping pathways on either side of the entrance.
As the band continued to play on that beautiful morning, all of the characters converged around the Windsors, still dancing with enthusiastic joy. Paying guests poured into the Magic Kingdom’s lands for the first time.
Several reporters commented that a steady stream of humanity seemed to keep entering the park all day, even though officially the final total would be close to almost ten thousand guests.
The First Family was taken from attraction to attraction, many of which didn’t exist at Disneyland, like the Country Bear Jamboree and the Mickey Mouse Revue. Other attractions, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, would not be ready to open for weeks.
“After selecting the first family for the opening of Walt Disney World, I welcomed them in to a mass of flashbulbs and hoopla," Lindquist said. "The Windsors received a royal day of VIP-hosted functions, including lunch and an overnight stay at the hotel."
An excerpt from the November 1971 issue of the Walt Disney World cast member newspaper, “Eyes and Ears”: “Day One for the Windsors was full of tours, important persons, and dozens of reporters and photographers. But, Day One was not the only big day in the Windsor’s lives. They received a lifetime Silver Pass to Walt Disney World. So we hope to see them often in the days and years to come.”
Word had reached Wall Street quickly that the final attendance was well below their estimate. However, it was almost exactly the number that the Disney Company expected but had never revealed. People tried to unload their Disney stock fearing that this Florida Folly would be the end of the entertainment company. Disney stock dropped nine points by the end of the day October 1, 1971.
Card Walker, at the time an executive vice president and COO, said later, “The worst time in my life was at the Polynesian on opening day, a question-and-answer session with newsmen. They were asking why there were only 10,000 people that day. All of us wanted to kill ourselves.”
However, there was a happy Disney ending. More than 400,000 guests passed through the gates of the Magic Kingdom in its opening month. Often on a Saturday or Sunday, there were 25,000 visitors. Roy O. Disney predicted that, in the first year of operation, the Magic Kingdom would see in excess of 10 million people.
Officially, during that first year, the Magic Kingdom had attracted 10,712,991 guests (a figure that most articles round up to an even 11 million) and recorded total gross revenues amounting to $139 million.
Next week: Rarely told stories of the official October dedication of Walt Disney World from a man who helped handle it all. (Although I don't have enough room to tell everything—like how during the dedication parade, on October 25, a reporter ran out into the street to take a photo of a float and publicist Charlie Ridgway had him tossed out of the park for trying to ruin the show.)