What Was Walt Disney World Like on Opening Day?
The current date, November 1st, 2020, indicates something significant.
We are now only 11 months away from the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World.
MickeyBlog takes this celebration quite seriously, which is why we’re publishing a monthly series about the early days of Disney and how the parks evolved.
This time, we’ll look at everything that was open during the grand introduction of Walt Disney World.
The Theme Park
When Walt Disney plotted an East Coast version of Disneyland, he didn’t care much about the theme park.
I realize this statement sounds like sacrilege, but it’s true.
Walt Disney purchased the land for the Florida Project in anticipation of something grander.
The visionary wanted to build the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
The EPCOT of his dreams never came to fruition due to his tragic death in 1966, only a brief time after EPCOT’s announcement.
The construction of this new theme park fell to his older brother, Roy. However, Disney’s financing vanished after Walt’s death.
Investors no longer trusted the Disney brand without its creator.
Also, Uncle Walt could no longer glad-hand potential investors and thereby persuade them.
So, construction of the Most Magical Place on Earth centered on one strategy. The theme park would earn the money needed to pay for EPCOT.
On opening day, guests flocked to Magic Kingdom to gauge how accurately Disney had named the park. They universally agreed.
While the debut of Disneyland lives in infamy for its unending series of debacles, Walt Disney World opened without a hitch.
What did guests find when they walked through the gates? Well…
The Earliest Attractions
The first ride most guests experienced at Magic Kingdom happened outside the gates. A monorail did more than entertain Tomorrowland guests here.
Unlike at Disneyland, this monorail system married form with function, transporting guests to and from the Transportation and Ticket Center.
Another line carried onsite guests from the nearby Disney hotels to the park, an unprecedented level of logistics.
At Magic Kingdom, several recognizable attractions were immediately available.
The Haunted Mansion, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant all mirrored their Disneyland counterparts.
However, Haunted Mansion embraced its newfound surroundings. The Disneyland version carries guests down to a lower level.
Imagineers built the ride this way due to a lack of space. At Magic Kingdom, the Stretching Room wasn’t even needed, as the park possessed tons of space.
Guests would have complained without the already-legendary Stretching Room, though. So, Disney added it anyway.
The ride lasts longer at Magic Kingdom due to the extra space, though. Also, guests go down instead of up to reach the Graveyard scene.
Disney similarly utilized its newfound space in modifying other attractions.
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln evolved into the Hall of Presidents, which features dozens of Audio-Animatronics.
Of course, Magic Kingdom introduced some new attractions, too. Perhaps the most fittingly southern one is Country Bear Jamboree.
Walt Disney had personally asked Imagineer Marc Davis to create some sort of bear band attraction for a proposed ski resort.
Once those plans collapsed, Walt Disney World received the country music singalong instead.
Other Magic Kingdom rides that remain from opening day include Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Tomorrowland Speedway, It’s a Small World, Jungle Cruise, and Mad Tea Party.
In fact, one ride dates back to 1917! Disney purchased Prince Charming Regal Carrousel in 1967, planning it as a mainstay at Fantasyland.
The First Resorts
Disney learned from its mistake in Anaheim, California. The company hadn’t constructed its own hotel, instead allowing an oil tycoon to build Disneyland Hotel.
This decision cost the company millions of dollars over the years before Disney ultimately bought the hotel.
As park officials plotted Walt Disney World, everyone understood that Disney would build its own accompanying resorts.
In fact, those decisions in the late 1960s continue to pay dividends to this day. You benefit from them every time you stay at an official Disney resort.
Back then, Disney aimed big with its hotels. The company would construct two, one of which would embrace the South Seas.
During opening week festivities, Disney executives proudly hosted bigwigs at this new establishment, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
Disney went so far as to host a luau for guests during the grand opening ceremonies, which you may be surprised to learn happened on October 24th.
Cast members spent the first three weeks managing park operations, causing Disney executives to wait for the big event.
Disney hosted a slew of celebrities, including Bob Hope, and it compiled the event into a network television special. Here’s Hope’s speech:
And here’s the full special:
About the Other Hotel
While Roy Disney and his team emphasized the beauty of the Polynesian, guests flocked to the Contemporary Resort Hotel.
Nobody had ever witnessed its like before. Imagineers constructed an exclusive monorail line to carry guests to and from Disney’s hotels.
The hotel we now call Disney’s Contemporary Resort came with an A-frame structure and an open facing. So, a monorail could drive straight through the resort.
You can imagine the shock and awe this caused in 1971.
Of course, the news that will stun you today is that you could have stayed at either resort for $25 a night! Even in 2020 dollars, that’s only $159.10!
Hilariously, Imagineers wouldn’t finalize the theming at the resorts for several months.
Everyone had to rush to get the buildings ready in time for the grand opening.
So, nobody could bother with the vegetation, whose growth remained outside Disney’s control, especially in temperamental Florida weather.
The Polynesian and the Contemporary needed a few years to evolve into the places you know today.
In fact, The Polynesian received significant renovations only seven years later in 1978.
To a larger point, history did almost repeat itself. The original construction plans for both hotels called for U.S. Steel to own and operate them.
However, Disney officials came up with the funding to buy out U.S. Steel and own both hotels outright.
The Other Stuff
Walt Disney World started as a theme park, two hotels, and a monorail system. The campus featured other amenities, though.
Golfers shot 18 holes at the Magnolia Course and/or the Palm Course. Campers happily explored Fort Wilderness Trail.
In fact, some of them vacationed at Walt Disney World thanks to Fort Wilderness Campgrounds, which opened six weeks later on November 19th.
Even then, the Tri Circle D Ranch entertained guests with its show ponies and other gorgeous animals.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates the growth of Walt Disney World better than the parking lot. In 1971, it was capable of hosting 12,000 cars.
Disney executives famously got confused by their own parking setup. They flew in a helicopter on October 1st, excitedly examining the long line of cars.
Everyone in the helicopter expressed confidence that Magic Kingdom would reach capacity on opening day…right up until the moment one of them realized something.
The line of cars they saw was cast members driving into work for the first time! Disney already employed 5,000 workers on opening day!