Ron Miziker Remembers the WDW Dedication Ceremonyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Ron Miziker has a long list of accomplishments in his still thriving entertainment career. He joined the Disney Company as director of Entertainment and Show Development around the time of the opening of Walt Disney World. He was responsible for the planning and production of all the shows that opened Walt Disney World and then for all Disney parks, among them Disneyland, Epcot Center and Tokyo Disneyland, including many original shows, parades (such as the development of the Main Street Electrical Parade), fireworks extravaganzas and a variety of other productions.
Recently, he was a guest at the Disneyana Fan Club (formerly known as the National Fantasy Fan Club) convention in Anaheim on July 14. I am an original member of that organization since it was first formed in the Los Angeles area more than two decades ago. For this year’s event, I was also a speaker, and shared some rarely told stories about the creation of Walt Disney World and got to meet some terrific, enthusiastic members.
Miziker talked about his work with the show Disney on Parade and how he shifted to working on the dedication ceremony for the opening of Walt Disney World. He brought some rare visuals from his personal collection to accompany his talk, including the thick “Opening Spectacular and Dedication Ceremony” booklet that was a combined script, concept storyboard and time schedule to handle the more than 7,000 cast involved in the production on Monday, October 25, 1971.
I was lucky enough to be able to spend a little extra time with him after his well received presentation. To continue celebrating the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World, here are some insights from Miziker about that dedication ceremony.
“One of the great things about the Magic Kingdom is that, for the first time, Disney was really able to design a parade route with all the technical requirements that were necessary so that it really was a stage.
“For that opening day [October 1], Dick Nunis insisted that all the top people in each division wear a blue sports coat with a Walt Disney World logo, have a working radio and have a special sticker for the windshield of their car. It was a great idea. Supposedly, that would allow us as Nunis said ‘to go anywhere to handle any situation’ in case something cropped up. So I got to the Magic Kingdom early and tried to park behind the castle and I was immediately stopped by a security guard.
“I smiled and pointed to my coat and radio and the sticker on my windshield. He had no clue what all of that meant. So after some discussion, he eventually let me park. Then, I was stopped by another guard at the entrance to the Utilidoors by the commissary and had to go through the whole thing again.
“Nunis had drilled into us that we all needed to accomplish three things on that opening day. First, ‘push the envelope and do something bigger and better’. Second, ‘meet the objectives of the company’. And, finally, third, ‘make it happen flawlessly.’ Those were our marching orders.”
The Disney Company was cautious about the opening of Walt Disney World. It was literally and figuratively new territory for Disney. Despite the success of the Disney exhibits at the New York World’s Fair in 1964-1965, there was still the concern that East Coast audiences might react differently to the Disney approach. The Disney Company was not just opening a clone of Disneyland but an entire “vacation destination” with resort hotels, campgrounds and other activities.
In an attempt to cushion the impact, the Disney Company had declared that the entire month of October 1971 was “Preview Month.” There was less emphasis on the actual opening day of October 1, since not everything would be open and operating that day but would continue to debut during the month.
Rather than a formal dedication on that opening day, it was scheduled that there would be a three-day spectacular ceremony from Saturday, October 23, to Monday, October 25, for the press, celebrities, politicians, participants, executives and more. It was hoped that three weeks of operation with regular guests would help smooth out some of the speed bumps before the ceremony.
“There was a tri-fold sleeve for tickets because some people were invited to one thing, others to two and a select few to all three things scheduled. It depended which type of group you were in as to what you were invited to during those three days,” recalled Miziker. “The company chartered two jets to bring in people from California and New York.”
In those days, there was no Orlando International Airport, just Orlando Jetport/McCoy Airfield (which is why visitors to OIA today have baggage tags that say “MCO”). Saturday began with the arrival of all sorts of celebrities, including legendary dancer Ray Bolger and actor Andy Devine who eagerly talked to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper about their excitement for the new Disney project when they disembarked the plane.
The stars were quickly put aboard buses for the trip to Walt Disney World. By 1 p.m., the parking lot at the Magic Kingdom was a little more than three-quarters full as eager guests flooded into the park to try and catch a glimpse of the stars.
That Saturday night, the World Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Arthur Fiedler, played in the forecourt of Cinderella Castle to 2,500 invited guests in black tie and elegant gowns. Fiedler was entering his 42nd season as the conductor of the popular Boston Pops Orchestra.
The 141 musicians were assembled from 60 countries and 26 states at the request of the Disney Company in order to bring an international flavor to the dedication.
The first rehearsal was not until Wednesday, two days before the Symphony’s first concert in New York at Lincoln Center and three days before its appearance at Walt Disney World. The group made its final appearance two days after the Walt Disney World dedication at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
“We had to coordinate who was invited in terms of what instruments they played. You can’t have them all be violinists, for instance. There was a slight drizzle during dress rehearsal and the violinist from Iceland refused to go out and play. He had a Stradivarius and would not go out into the rain. He pointed out that his country owned the instrument and had only loaned it for the performance so he feared it might get damaged. Fortunately, the rain cleared for a rehearsal. Some of the invited guests were scheduled for a 6:30- 7 p.m. dinner at King Stefan’s Feast,” Miziker said.
That night’s performance was delayed by 15 minutes from its announced starting time of 8 p.m. because of the musicians’ late afternoon rehearsal. The musicians sat in the natural semi-circle area made by the two curving ramps in front of Cinderella Castle, which was the stage area for shows before a raised stage was built decades later.
The orchestra played Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland, Prelude and Love-Death from Tristan and Isolde, The Pines of Rome by Respighi, an excerpt from Estarcia by Ginastera, and Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne. For encores, the orchestra played Little Fugue in G Minor by Bach, a tribute to Walt Disney with it’s a small world and a stirring rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever that brought the audience to its feet.
Thousands of Magic Kingdom guests were allowed to remain inside the park to enjoy the show and they lined Main Street several levels deep as invited guests entered the exclusive viewing area. Nearly 40,000 people had shown up that day to catch a glimpse of celebrities like Fred MacMurray, Cesar Romero, Hugh O’Brian, Fess Parker, Robert Stack, Rock Hudson and others.
“The symphony lasted roughly an hour and a half and ended with fireworks," Miziker said. "It was the first fireworks display at Walt Disney World."
Sunday marked the formal dedication of the Contemporary Resort at noon, followed by the dedication of the Polynesian at 6 p.m. From the television special that was filmed and first aired on Friday, October 29, some people might remember comedian Bob Hope’s well-known monologue at the Grand Canyon Concourse inside the Contemporary Resort (“Now I know where the Goodyear Blimp goes in mating season.”) as part of the dedication.
That night was a celebrity-laden three-hour torch-lit luau and show on the beach of the Polynesian Resort. More than 1,000 invited guests enjoyed a variety of Polynesian dances and ceremonies, climaxed with a spectacular fire knife dance with three dancers flashing their flaming blades in the darkness.
The luau consisted of aloha bowls; egg rolls; fried shrimp; rumaki; Hawaiian poi; fresh coconut; luau pig; chicken with almonds; mandarin-style duck with lichee nuts, snow peas and water chestnuts; barbequed pork, fried rice and jasmine teas.
“We had crafted a man-made rock formation near the shore," Miziker said. "To begin the show, we had a cast member who stood on top and blew a conch shell. Out on the Seven Seas Lagoon was a barge with entertainers that, accompanied by outrigger canoes on either side, made its way right up to the shore. For dessert, there was Banana Flambe, which meant it was on fire. One of the waiters got a little too close to the wife of the president of U.S. Steel and her hair burst into flames. Fortunately, no one was hurt.”
The planned luau show was followed by the debut of the Electrical Water Pageant announced by “a matrix of lights” in the sky from the Goodyear blimp floating overhead according to Miziker. Fourteen floats covered in twinkling lights, just like those on a Christmas tree, showcased real and fanciful creatures of the deep.
The finale was a “super spectacular” pyrotechnic fireworks show in the balmy skies that brought the guests to their feet as America the Beautiful played over the speakers.
The Grand Finale of the official Dedication of Walt Disney World was on Monday, October 25.
“For rehearsal purposes, we had laid out the parking lot of the Magic Kingdom into a recreation of the train station, Main Street and the hub," Miziker said. "We put up trailers for the performers and large blue and white tents for things like props. We had more than 7,000 people. We had five different Mickeys because he was scheduled to appear at different places during the show and we soon found we just couldn’t move Mickey in time.".
“At 2 p.m. the sound of a Westminster carillon struck the hour," he added. "A 1,500-voice choir sang Disney songs and then a patriotic song as the flag was going up. The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets from Washington, D.C. were on the ground and the rooftops doing a fanfare. We released a hundred white doves with red, white and blue ribbons on their tails.
“Then in Town Square, you heard the voice of Jack Wagner announcing that Roy O. Disney would read the inscription he had written,' he continued. "In that presentation, Roy never mentioned himself once. That always stuck with me. He was that kind of person."
In his book Designing Disney, Imagineer John Hench, who was there, recalled a moving moment.
“Roy Disney stood facing the microphone before a crowd of guests ready to deliver the dedication speech at the opening ceremony. He suddenly turned and looked around, and I heard him say quietly, ‘Somebody go find Mickey for me. We don't have Walt any more, and Mickey is the nearest thing to Walt that we have left.’ Mickey appeared and Roy promptly began his speech, with Mickey standing proudly at his side.
“The show began as performers instantly filled Main Street coming in from as many entrances as we could find,” Miziker continued. “There was a big dance production number that included antique cars and bicycles. They sang the song Fortuosity [from the last live-action film Walt Disney saw before it was released, The Happiest Millionaire). You know, ‘do your best and leave the rest to fortuosity’. Things were moving in and out.
“Then there was a drum roll and the big parade began with more than 1,000 performers featuring different parts of the park. First, there was Mickey and a big drum at the start of the parade followed by characters like Snow White, the Aristocats in those neon-colored costumes, the marching soldiers from Babes in Toyland and finally 50 state flags.
“Then a rolling gazebo with conductor Meredith Willson on it as the marching band played his song 76 Trombones. The band came out of both tunnels under the train station and curved around Town Square and joined up as they marched down the street. We had seven conductors in different locations listening to a click track so we could keep them all together. The first time they had all practiced together was that morning in the parking lot. Before then, we had rehearsed them separately in small groups. It still is the largest marching band to actually march.
“There were 276 trombones first, followed by 64 piccolos, 144 clarinets, 210 trumpets, 102 French horns, 72 Baritone horns, and there were tubas and more. It wasn’t a 76 piece band. It was a 1,076 piece marching band.
“When the band finished we released fifty thousand colorful balloons and right up in the sky in the middle of it was a helicopter filming the entire thing."
Musicians remember they later got personal letters of thanks from both Willson and Roy Disney, as well as several ticket books to the park as a show of appreciation for their participation.
Willson sent a letter to Roy dated November 2, 1971: “Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. What an unbelievable magnificent weekend. For once, Rosemary’s [Wilson's wife] husband has found himself completely speechless.”
President Richard Nixon had planned to attend the ceremonies but canceled just days before the event because of the difficulty in getting the proper amount of security. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief aide, presented an American flag on behalf of the President to Roy O. Disney. The flag, which had flown over the White House, was the first Nixon had personally sent to anyone, Halderman said. It was to fly over Main Street, U.S.A.
A special showing of The Hall of Presidents for President Nixon had been arranged earlier, on October 18, so he could view his Audio-Animatronic doppelganger.
Roy’s dedication speech was unique because it was not just a dedication of the Magic Kingdom but all of Walt Disney World:
“Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney… and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney's dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place… a Magic Kingdom where the young-at-heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn—together. Dedicated this 25th day of October, 1971. Roy O. Disney.”
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 cottage, held her hand and began weeping. Walt’s final dream had come true.