In this unique comparative history, newspaper journalist Chuck Schmidt traces the slender, often invisible strands that connect four monumental achievements in our pop culture: Disneyland, Freedomland, the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, and Walt Disney World.
Most events don't happen in isolation. There's always connective tissue, but it can be hard to find. Chuck identifies that connective tissue, his "Disney dream weavers", and spins their tales, the stories of the amazing, inspired, and even nefarious notables who created four of the most fantastic places on earth:
Oh, what a magical web they weaved!
Chapter 1: Disneyland
Chapter 2: Freedomland
Chapter 3: New York World's Fair 1964-1965
Chapter 4: Walt Disney World
I was a kid of the 1950s (and the 1960s). From the Bronx, my only connection with Walt Disney during these formative years occurred every Sunday evening. With my parents, I watched Walt Disney Presents and then Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. I could only dream about a trip to Disneyland.
Then it happened! Freedomland U.S.A. appeared just minutes from my house. It was not associated with Disneyland and it was larger than that California park. Freedomland did not embrace a popular cartoon mascot, but it did have everything that a New York kid wanted to see and experience. Freedomland was all about history. Cowboys fought at Fort Cavalry. Boat trips embarked through the undeveloped Northwest. Kids could help douse the flames of the Great Chicago Fire, and everyone survived the robberies by masked gunmen while riding a real steam train.
Billed as “The World’s Largest Entertainment Center,” Freedomland also showcased top contemporary talent for teens and my parent’s generation. Duke Ellington, Jerry Vale, Paul Anka, Chubby Checker, and Dion and the Belmonts were among the more than 150 celebrity entertainers who appeared at the park during its five seasons.
While short-lived, Freedomland made a significant impression on millions of children and entertained countless adults. The park opened my eyes, and those of many others, to the history of our nation. My passion for our past, which now involves extensive research and writing, began to burn during those Freedomland days.
As the theme park in my backyard faded, the New York World’s Fair arrived for its two seasons (1964–1965) at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens. Walt Disney arrived with the fair. He came to my town!
Walt brought to the East Coast the Carousel of Progress as the principal feature of the General Electric Pavilion. He also showcased the fun of It’s a Small World and its theme of global peace. Disney Imagineers developed the audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Our jaws dropped, literally, as this creation raised itself from the chair at the State of Illinois Pavilion.
Eventually, as an adult, I ventured beyond the streets of New York City to visit the rest of Walt’s imagination—traveling first to Walt Disney World and then to Disneyland. I have returned to both parks several times, and, over the years, I have learned significantly more about Walt, his vision and imagination, the creation of the American theme park, and the ties that bind the Disney parks, Freedomland, and the New York World’s Fair.
As each year passes, I long more for the great times of my childhood that include summer days at my Bronx theme park. With information now at my fingertips through online technology and digitization, I have become one of a handful of Freedomland historians who have rekindled memories of this great park while bringing to light many of the untold stories from its creation to its operation to its demise. Some of these stories involve Walt Disney and the World’s Fair.
I was honored to be included in the Freedomland chapter of Disney’s Dream Weavers when Chuck Schmidt published the first edition during 2012. He painted a masterful stroke as he weaved the stories that connected these fabulous places of family entertainment. Chuck knows the Disney story intimately from many years on the “Disney beat” as an editor with the Staten Island Advance. As a native New Yorker, he also knows Freedomland and the World’s Fair very well, having visited both venues with his parents.
Since Chuck first published Disney’s Dream Weavers, other books, podcasts, articles, and even the Freedomland Facebook page (Freedomland U.S.A. – The World’s Largest Entertainment Center) have brought to light new information about these parks and the fair. The intimate connections among these venues include many stories about C.V. Wood. He brought Walt Disney’s imagination to life at Disneyland and then he created his own entertainment company that conceived, constructed, or influenced other theme parks. Freedomland was one of these parks. But, Wood was gone from the New York scene and persona non grata at the Disney company by the time Walt addressed the challenges of the New York World’s Fair.
With this new edition, Chuck continues to provide us with the latest information and behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the vision, design, and operation of these theme parks and the fair. The stories are pieces to a puzzle that, when connected, reveal a unique coast-to-coast tale. I don’t doubt that new stories, facts and some fiction will emerge elsewhere as you enjoy this book. These additional discoveries might require Chuck to prepare yet another edition of Disney’s Dream Weavers that will be published a few years from today.
As for my beloved Freedomland, one urban legend must be dismissed once and for all—the opening of the New York World’s Fair did not contribute to Freedomland’s demise. But, that’s one of the many stories for another day. Right now, let’s enter this second edition of Disney’s Dream Weavers. The ride will take us on some new twists and turns as we learn more about the men and women who created these wonderful family entertainment venues.
Four plots of land. A former orange grove, a soggy empty field near a bustling metropolis, a once-active garbage dump, and a vast tract of mosquito- and alligator-infested swampland the size of San Francisco—each desolate and fraught with possibility; each like an empty canvas waiting for a skilled artist’s hand—became undeniably intertwined during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
Although thousands of miles and six decades separate them, there’s a common thread that runs through what is—Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida—and what was—Freedomland, in the New York City borough of the Bronx, and the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, just a few miles east in Queens.
Over the years, I’ve walked through the gates of all four of these entertainment venues. It’s next to impossible to ascertain just how many people can make the same claim.
Actually, I know of two. My mother, Alice, was more than willing to schlep us to Freedomland and the World’s Fair, even if we had to use a variety of cars, buses, ferries, and subways to get there. My wife and I gladly returned the favor in later years, having Mom join us on numerous excursions to Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Most of those trips were on jet airplanes, but on a few memorable journeys, we took Amtrak’s AutoTrain to Florida.
And there’s Van Arsdale France. He developed training programs and handled traffic during Disneyland’s opening and tackled similar tasks at Freedomland. He also designed training guidelines for the It’s a Small World workers at the World’s Fair and wrote training programs for future cast members at Walt Disney World.
Here, in order of my visits, are my thoughts on each entertainment enterprise and why they are, to this day, so special to me.
Freedomland USA, the least-known of the quartet, was the first of the four venues I visited. My father, mother, sister, and I made the long haul to the Bronx from Staten Island in 1962, traveling by car from Staten Island to New Jersey, north up the New Jersey Turnpike, over the George Washington Bridge and across the Bronx to the park’s entrance. I have many vivid memories of Freedomland, which was based on the history of United States…or at least some of the more newsworthy events which made a city or a particular slice of the country famous.
Of special interest to me was the Great Chicago Fire attraction. During our visit, I was chosen as a volunteer “firefighter,” helping a group of other kids with the giant hand pumper as we teamed up to douse the “raging inferno.”
I also was intrigued by the Horseless Carriage ride—what 12-year-old wouldn’t be thrilled to get behind the wheel of a car and show off his driving skills?
I recall, too, sitting in one of the Tucson ore buckets some 70 feet above the ground and gazing down at the vast expanse of the park from that moving perch. For whatever reason, my mother got a big kick out of my pronunciation of Tucson—I called it Tuckson when we got on line to ride it.
But what I most remember about Freedomland was its Civil War section. Like many Americans, I was caught up in the 100th anniversary hoopla surrounding the Civil War in the 1960s (I had a subscription to Civil War Times magazine and even went as far as to purchase a sliver of land—one-inch by one-inch—from the Gettysburg battlefield site), so taking a step back in time, albeit in an amusement park, to that defining era in our nation’s history was quite a thrill.
There were elaborate scenes viewed by guests from aboard a correspondents’ wagon as it made its way through authentic-looking battleground recreations, all populated by blue Union and gray Confederate-clad “soldiers” in forts, behind trenches, or in their camps. The attraction culminated with a drive-by of Appomattox Court House, with generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant in attendance at a poignant surrender tableaux.
The San Francisco Earthquake ride also caught my imagination, mainly because it was so different from any carnival or bazaar ride I had ever experienced. Not only was the attraction indoors, but it shook just enough to be quite believable to a skinny pre-teen.
I remember, too, sitting on a stagecoach as it was robbed by menacing, six-gun-wielding bandits. Little did I know then that I’d have the opportunity to interview one of those “bandits” five decades later.
In 1964 and 1965, our family made several pilgrimages to the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. My father grew up in Whitestone, just a few miles from the fairgrounds, and, in fact, had worked at the 1939–1940 World’s Fair as a young man. To get to the Fair from our home on Staten Island, we needed to take two buses to the St. George ferry terminal, sail on the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan, and then ride the subway train to Flushing.
The Fair was an exciting experience, if a bit overwhelming; there was just too much to see in one day. Thankfully, we did make it a point to get to the four Disney-created attractions during our visits, even if we had to wait on long lines to see each one.
It’s a Small World was just OK in the eyes of a now-teenage boy, but, of course, it was a big hit with my mother, who couldn’t take pictures fast enough with her little Kodak camera. I have since grown to appreciate the ride’s message of peace and global harmony and its colorfully resplendent redundancy.
Ford Motor Company’s Magic Skyway—a trip through the ages in an automobile, starting with the dawn of man and traveling into the distant future—was notable for all those new-fangled Audio-Animatronics figures (cavemen and dinosaurs in particular) on display during the journey.
You boarded a brand-new Ford convertible and then “motored” your way through a clear tube on the outside of the building before traveling millions of years back in time…all the way back to when men and women lived in caves and shared their primeval world with menacing reptiles. Your ride culminated with Walt Disney’s vision of what the future world might look like.
General Electric’s Carousel of Progress also featured Audio-Animatronics figures, but on a much grander scale. These guys actually talked to the audience (as opposed to the grunting cavemen and squealing dinos on the Ford ride) as guests ventured on another time-traveling tour through the history of electricity…with the promise of a great, big beautiful tomorrow just a dream away.
But to me, by far the most stunning attraction was Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the featured show inside the Illinois state pavilion. From our comfortable seats in the theater, we watched as a life-like Abraham Lincoln figure at center stage did things never seen before in a world’s fair or amusement park setting. First, he stood up from his chair and then—incredibly—he began to talk to the audience, reciting verses from many of his famous speeches. He even moved his arms as he put extra emphasis on his words. And as he spoke, we in the audience became speechless; it was truly a breathtaking presentation.
In 1965, I passed up an opportunity to visit the Fair one last time in favor of seeing the New York Mets play the Milwaukee Braves in just-built Shea Stadium, which was within walking distance of the Fair’s subway entrance. At the time, it sounded like a great idea—my father and I would meet up with my grandfather to watch the game on a bright, sunny afternoon, while my mother, sister, grandmother, and aunt would go to the Fair. I saw the Mets’ Warren Spahn pitch against his former team; I saw the great Henry Aaron and up-and-coming star Joe Torre play for the Braves; legendary Casey Stengel was in his final season as the Mets’ manager.
It was a great afternoon for a game, but in retrospect, I wish I had passed up the trip to Shea and gone to the Fair. Baseball games come and baseball games go, but the Fair would be closed before I knew it. All those wonderful buildings and exhibitions would be torn down in a matter of months.
My wife and I made our first trip to Walt Disney World in November of 1972, just a year after it opened. Under the misguided assumption that the place was only for kids—and with no kids of our own at that point—we took my wife’s much-younger brother Bob along for the adventure during the Thanksgiving break.
We flew Eastern Airlines, the official airline of Walt Disney World at the time, from Newark Airport to Miami, then on to Orlando Jetport at McCoy. We rented a car at the airport and made our way west, past cattle farms and citrus groves, to an area just south of the city of Orlando.
We stayed at a nondescript hotel off a rather desolate place called International Drive, which was a far cry from the bustling thoroughfare it is today. The only thing I remember about the hotel is that it had a heated outdoor pool.
We made our first visit to the Magic Kingdom the day after we arrived, driving down Route 4, following still-glistening road signs pointing the way to this place filled with magic and wonder.
The toll booths were backed up with lines of cars. We paid the 50-cent fare, received a ticket stub with a map of the lot on the back, and followed the long line into the massive parking area divided into sections named for Disney characters—Chip and Dale; Happy and Dopey, Goofy and Grumpy.
After parking in the Dopey section, we walked over to a tram stop, where we waited a few minutes to board one of those open-air, snake-like contraptions. It was cold as the tram started and I vividly recall announcements coming over the loudspeaker about how we should remember the area where we parked. “All you Dopey people will get off at this stop when you return….”
The tram, maybe 10 vehicles long, wound its way through the lot and into the Ticket and Transportation Center. It was—and is—a marvel how the tram would make sharp turns and all the vehicles would follow in perfect lockstep. We disembarked at the TTC and got on the back of a long line to purchase admission tickets, as well as the books with individual tickets marked A, B, C, D, and E that you needed back then to experience each “adventure” inside the Magic Kingdom. An A ticket was for the least exciting attraction, while the E ticket was reserved for the most thrilling.
Then it was on to another long line, this one leading up a ramp and to a covered station, where sleek, futuristic-looking monorails stopped. As we waited for the next train, you couldn’t help noticing the towering spires of Cinderella Castle in the distance, beckoning us from the heart of the sparkling Magic Kingdom.
After boarding, the monorail moved out of the station, heading in the direction of an odd-looking structure built in the shape of a giant A. Below us were a series of topiaries—large bushes carved in the shape of familiar Disney characters.
Although still a mile or two away from our destination, the excitement was building, the magic seemingly enveloping all of us onboard as we glided over the concrete beam. That beam took us right inside the thoroughly modern A-framed building known as the Contemporary Resort. The monorail slowed somewhat as we entered the massive structure, giving us time to take in the exterior of the magnificent concourse. People were milling about below, heading to shopping and dining areas or just staring up at the incongruous site of a gleaming transportation conveyance moving quietly through the heart of the heavily populated hotel.
At the center of the concourse was a massive floor-to-ceiling tile mural, its style reminiscent of the It’s a Small World dolls I remembered seeing at the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair—which is not surprising, since both were created by Disney artist Mary Blair.
The sleek train quickly and quietly exited the building and made its way along the curved beam and toward the monorail station near the entrance of the Magic Kingdom. Just before reaching our stop, however, we passed the Main Street Railroad Station. A giant Mickey Mouse head fashioned out of flowers bloomed on the grassy area in front of the 1890s-style brick building.
The entire experience—riding the monorail, passing through the Contemporary, seeing the train station, the pristine atmosphere, the smiling faces—was intoxicating. Those first few minutes were the beginning of a love affair for our family that has only gotten stronger as the years have passed.
We took our three children to Walt Disney World on a regular basis, starting with our then-1½-year-old son in 1979. We’ve watched all of them go from infant strollers to being tall enough and brave enough to ride Space Mountain in what seemed like a heartbeat.
And we’ve had the pleasure of watching the looks of amazement on their faces as they’ve experienced this magical place with their children for the first time.
We finally made it to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 1998, some 43 years after the Happiest Place on Earth opened. By then, Disney had become embedded in our family’s psyche, much in the way families become fans of a particular sports team, and everything—from T-shirts to memorabilia to even undergarments—reflect that passion.
Disneyland was in a state of transition in 1998. Large earth-moving vehicles occupied the main parking lot as a second theme park, to be called Disney California Adventure, was in the preliminary phases of construction.
Our five-hour flight featured spectacular vistas of the Grand Canyon miles below, as well as close-up views of several imposing mountain ranges as we descended. After landing at LAX in Los Angeles, renting a car, and driving about an hour south to Anaheim, we checked into the Disneyland Hotel, dropped off our luggage in our room, and made a beeline for the monorail station.
The monorail in Disneyland is quite different from the monorails that service the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. The winding beams in Disneyland lead the train through the heart of the park—passing the Matterhorn, the soon-to-be-closed Submarine Voyage, Autopia, and Space Mountain—giving riders a bird’s-eye view of all the excitement that awaits just a few feet below.
We exited the monorail and began exploring a place I had seen on television many times, beginning in the mid-1950s. Walking along Main Street in Disneyland is at best disorienting after having strolled down Main Street in Walt Disney World dozens of times before. It looks very much the same—yet it’s decidedly different.
Once you come to the end of the thoroughfare and reach the hub area near Sleeping Beauty Castle, that’s when it becomes really odd. To the right is the massive Matterhorn Mountain. In the center of the hub, as at Walt Disney World, is the Walt and Mickey Partners statue. And up ahead is a castle that pales in comparison to its Florida counterpart. Yet, though short in stature, its larger-than-life iconoclastic presence dominates the landscape.
Walking around Disneyland was much more than just visiting another theme park. This was the place that Walt Disney had dreamed of…where he had poured out his heart, soul, and entire fortune to create…his “amusement enterprise,” where parents and their children could have fun together.
Walt actually walked up and down these same streets, I thought, as I looked around in wide-eyed wonderment. He had his own apartment atop the firehouse and was known to sleep overnight there so he could be inside the park to watch guests come in when the gates first opened the next morning. He walked into these same shops and stared with pride at Disneyland icons like Sleeping Beauty Castle, Matterhorn Mountain, and the monorail. In all probability, he grabbed a hammer as the park was being built and knocked in a nail or two.
This was his dream, his park. And here I was, walking right down the middle of Walt Disney’s original Main Street, U.S.A. I hadn’t even been on an attraction or seen a show, yet I was simply awestruck.
Chuck Schmidt was bitten by the Disney bug at an early age. He remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for the Staten Island Advance, writing a number of features and covering a variety of events involving the expansive world created by Walt Disney, which he detailed in On The Disney Beat (Theme Park Press, 2015).
Since 2009, he has shared his passion for all things Disney in his weekly Goofy About Disney blog on SILive.com and currently writes a blog for AllEars.net called Still Goofy About Disney.
Chuck resides in Beachwood, New Jersey, with his wife, Janet. They have three grown children and five grandchildren.
After being thrown out of paradise—otherwise known as Disneyland—C.V. Wood takes what he learned as one of Disneyland's key creators and tries to duplicate the feat in harsher climes: the Bronx.
It’s safe to say the folks in The Walt Disney Company’s hierarchy raised more than a few eyebrows when Freedomland U.S.A. opened on the site of a former landfill in the New York City borough of the Bronx in 1960. After all, C.V. Wood—Disneyland’s former general manager, vice president, and the man who for a time billed himself the Master Planner of Disneyland—was the driving force behind Freedomland, which, for better or worse, became known as the East Coast Disneyland.
No doubt adding to that uneasiness: many of the people who made key contributions to Disneyland’s design, construction, and operations were lured by Wood to join his Marco Engineering firm and played similarly important roles in creating Freedomland.
One of Wood’s right-hand men at Freedomland was Van Arsdale France. Wood and France, buddies since World War II, had worked together during the planning, development, and opening of Disneyland. France, a master at employee relations who devised many unique ways to teach employees how to be more efficient and how to translate that efficiency into making park guests happy, would help infuse many of the same philosophies and tenets he had created for Disney into the Freedomland operation.
Another key contributor to both Disneyland and Freedomland was Wade B. Rubottom, a former Hollywood set designer who was largely responsible for the nostalgic look of both Main Street, U.S.A. in California and Freedomland’s main thoroughfare, the Little Old New York section near the park’s entrance.
Hanging over this scenario, like a dark, ominous cloud, was the fact that many Disney executives—including Walt Disney himself—had well-documented fears that the company’s West Coast brand of entertainment wouldn’t work east of the Mississippi, that Easterners were just “too sophisticated” for Disney’s new style of theme park entertainment.
For a brief period in 1960, Freedomland was proving them wrong: a Disney-style theme park was, indeed, drawing attention—as well as throngs of paying customers—to New York City’s northernmost borough. In its first few weeks of operation, Freedomland was a big hit, leading many people to surmise that Wood, Disney’s former right-hand man, had beaten his former boss to the punch on the East Coast.
As with Disneyland, a national television audience got to see much of the pomp and ceremony surrounding Freedomland’s opening; unlike Disneyland, however, the glitches weren’t nearly as visible—the segment that was shown to a nationwide audience was taped and edited before it was broadcast on the hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night, June 19, 1960.
But that doesn’t mean Freedomland’s opening was problem-free. Far from it. “We had a tough time just getting the thing open, and then the onslaught came,” Freedomland’s director of operations, Cliff Walker, said years later. Walker got his start in the industry as a Jungle Cruise ride operator at Disneyland and was one of the many people who “jumped ship” and followed Wood east. He continued:
We were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. When you’re inside the park, we didn’t know what was happening in the outside world on the thruways and things like that. It was just absolute chaos.
Freedomland conducted a “soft” opening on Saturday, June 18, 1960. About 5,000 invited guests were on hand, many of them children. The Sullivan show taped several segments during the day to be broadcast the following evening.
On hand to cut the ribbon on June 19, the official opening day, was singer Pat Boone and his family. Looking on with an approving smile was C.V. Wood, Freedomland’s impresario who had been a central figure when Disneyland opened just five years before and who was one of the few people who could say they were in attendance on opening day at both parks.
After having left the Disney inner circle under acrimonious circumstances, this day must have been one of the most satisfying times in Wood’s life. After exiting Disney, he took what he had learned as Walt’s aide-de-camp and started building amusement parks of his own. Wood was part maverick, part pioneer, part copy-cat. No one else at the time had the savvy or the chutzpah to compete with the legendary Walt Disney. But having been privy to the Disney inner circle for several years, he knew full well just what it took to build a theme park from scratch. He also was well aware of the Disney company’s misgivings about taking their show to the East Coast.
“The Eastern audience was perceived to be more sophisticated than the West Coast audience,” is how Disney historian Paul Anderson describes Disney’s reluctance to push its product on that “upper crust” clientele.
With Disney’s theme park template in hand, Wood boldly headed east. The one fatal flaw in his plan, however, was his decision to head to the northeast, where cold and snow could necessitate closure—and decreased revenue—during the often bitter winter months.
Many of the people Wood brought with him from Disneyland, including France and Walker, worked with him at Pleasure Island, one of his other projects, located north of Boston, before heading south to Freedomland in New York City. France set up a training program at Pleasure Island called It’s Been My Pleasure. It was similar in content to what he had produced for Disneyland in 1955 and what he would devise a year later for Freedomland.
The opening of Pleasure Island and Freedomland were obvious attempts by Wood and his Marco Engineering firm to beat the Disney company if Walt ultimately did decide to head east. And while the concepts for Magic Mountain, another Wood venture, this time in Golden, Colorado, and Pleasure Island called for family-friendly venues and were a cut above typical amusement parks of the day, Freedomland was a radical departure altogether, stunningly unique in both concept and design. America’s Theme Park, as it came to be known, was conceptualized by Wood and his partner, TV sports producer and attorney Milton (Ted) Raynor of the International Recreation Corp., which also played a big part in the development of Pleasure Island. Freedomland would be a park based on something near and dear to all Americans: the story of America itself.
But where to build this red, white, and blue theme park? Wood and Raynor found a ready and willing investor in William Zeckendorf Sr. of the Webb & Knapp development company; Zeckendorf owned 400 acres of land in the Baychester section of the Bronx—the New York City borough that was home to Harlem, Yankee Stadium, Van Cortlandt Park, and the Bronx Zoo—and was itching to develop something on that prime, if water-soaked, piece of real estate.
The timing for Freedomland couldn’t have been more advantageous. With the wounds of two major wars fading quickly in the rearview mirror and the threat of a Cold War not quite percolating, Americans were ready to embrace happy days. As yet, most folks hadn’t heard of a tiny country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam. There was a new, post-World War II/Korean War generation—dubbed Baby Boomers—more than anxious to take part in all that America had to offer.
Progress was everywhere—snazzy, gas-guzzling cars with ornate front grills and often obnoxious-looking tail fins, as well as an ever-expanding highway system to drive them on; wide-screen, black-and-white television sets broadcasting wholesome Mom-and-apple-pie shows like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver and Disney’s landmark Mickey Mouse Club; record players featuring stereophonic sound; and new and improved electronic appliances for the home. Americans just couldn’t get enough of this post-war prosperity. These were truly wonder years in the country…and what better way to flaunt all this patriotic spirit than with a theme park dealing with America’s relatively brief, but proud history?
Continued in "Disney's Dream Weavers"!
From mucky, smelly, and buggy to magical, one cubic ton of swamp dirt at a time.
Once the dust had settled after Walt’s death, his inner circle quickly discovered that, while many of his ideas looked great on paper and in theory, they simply weren’t workable, at least not in the late 1960s.
The Walt Disney Company was fresh off its success at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair—having dispelled once and for all the fears that Disney’s brand of entertainment would work on the East Coast—when the wheels were set in motion for the Florida Project.
Bob Matheison, director of operations for Walt Disney World when it opened, recalled:
We didn’t know if the East would cotton to our kind of entertainment. But we had four of the top five shows at the World’s Fair. It’s safe to say that Walt Disney World would not be here without that success at the Fair.
Roy Disney, in charge of the company after his brother’s death, explained during a Walt Disney World press conference in Florida on April 30, 1969, how and why Walt gradually embraced the idea of a second Disneyland on the East Coast:
For many years, from Walt on down, we thought there should be only one Disneyland. But as time passed, experience told us that there were about 100 million people in the East and Midwest and South who would never get out West, and, therefore, would never have the opportunity to see Disneyland.
And so, after the great success of the Walt Disney shows at the New York World’s Fair, we finally decided to bring some kind of Disney entertainment approach to the East on a permanent basis. And eventually it grew and grew and became not just a Disneyland, but a whole new world of Disney entertainment.
Once all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering was completed and all the land was gobbled up, the monumental task of building a vacation kingdom out of swampland began in earnest. Official announcement of the project came on Nov. 15, 1965, with Walt and Roy Disney and Florida Gov. Haydon Burns telling of the $100 million project, although preliminary work had started weeks before.
John Hench had spent hours in Walt’s office in California going over plans and ideas for the big project, his creative juices salivating at the thought of helping to make Walt’s dream come to life. “Walt and I talked so much about what we could do with all that space,” Hench said in 1996. “I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.” But after taking a field trip to the site of the Florida Project, his opinion quickly soured:
The site was so vast. The soil was appalling. There were massive spreads of land the surveyors hadn’t even researched because the vegetation was so impenetrable.
Dick Nunis, at the time Disneyland’s chief of operations who would go on to play a pivotal role during Walt Disney World’s construction and early years, was another Disney exec whose first visit to the property left him aghast:
I went out in a Jeep with a surveyor. He said, “Here we are.” I looked around at all the swamp. It just scared the hell out of me.”
There were a host of other problems. Orlando Ferrante, former Vice President of Engineering, Design and Production for Walt Disney Imagineering, remembered his first visit to the property:
I looked around and thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” There was absolutely no support in the area, no place to eat, no place for the guys to get a beer after work.
The one and only establishment the workers could go was Johnny’s Corner, a small hunters’ bar located off state Highway 535.
He was the only guy around for miles. But he just couldn’t handle 7,000 construction workers.
Johnny expanded his business by putting up a large building behind his place to keep more beer chilled. He also cashed the workers’ checks. But Johnny was so overwhelmed that he ended up selling the business.
One unexpected problem popped up occasionally during the length of the project. Ferrante noted that many of the construction workers were outdoorsmen:
There were a lot of hunters and fishermen [among the guys]. When the hunting and fishing seasons opened up, we’d have an awful lot of absentees [on opening day].
Ferrante played a major role in the behind-the-scenes work at both the New York World’s Fair and at Walt Disney World, thanks in large part to his regimented, no-nonsense football background. Ferrante attended the University of Southern California (USC) on a full scholarship in the 1950s. Among his USC teammates were Dick Nunis, former chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, and Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law and the former Disney company president. Ferrante, like Miller, played pro football for one season.
Ferrante joined the former WED Enterprises in 1962. In 1966, he made his mark by helping in the relocation and installation of the attractions developed by Disney for the New York World’s Fair back to Disneyland—no small feat. During that time, he helped establish the Project Installation Coordinating Office, or PICO, a new department within WED which coordinated the creation and installation of several Disneyland attractions. PICO went on to help with the installation of many of the shows and attractions for Walt Disney World.
William “Joe” Potter was weeks removed from his position as executive director of the New York World’s Fair (essentially, Moses’ right-hand man) when he was brought in to supervise the Florida site. He certainly had plenty of experience working in tropical environs—he was a major general in the Army Corps of Engineers and was the former governor of the Panama Canal Zone as well as the former man in charge of the Panama Canal Corporation.
Potter’s job at Walt Disney World was, to put it bluntly, monumental. He was in charge of clearing the land, sidestepping snakes and alligators and bulldozing through the muck and thick native flora. Like a modern-day Michelangelo, his task was to take a formless lump of stone and turn it into a masterpiece.
During the early phases of construction, Disney literally was creating something out of nothing. Unlike Disneyland, which encompassed a postage stamp-like 85 acres in total, Walt Disney World property was massive in comparison and much preliminary work needed to be done. Where Disneyland was built on a flat piece of land with orange trees planted in neat rows, unkempt vegetation was everywhere in Florida and major water and drainage issues had to be addressed. Canals and levees were built to help control water flow; lakes were drained, cleaned, and refilled; energy plants were constructed; sewage treatment and fresh water systems were installed. In addition, electrical conduits and underground telephone lines were put in place.
That was all Potter’s handiwork. Seven million cubic yards of dirt had to be moved just to get the Magic Kingdom ready for construction. In all, there were 55 miles of levees and canals that were carved out of the swampy soil. “It was John Hench who insisted on meandering canals to follow the contours of the land,” Disney Archives founder Dave Smith said, alluding to the fact that Disney wanted to be as environmentally conscience as possible during those early days of construction.
As the 7,000 construction workers were busy turning “the ugly muck” that was the Florida Project into the beauty and wonder that would become Walt Disney World, Disney cast members were hunkered down at other locales, learning the ropes and preparing themselves for the day when WDW would be up and running.
Continued in "Disney's Dream Weavers"!