Once upon a time, the swampy flatlands of central Florida were home to oranges, cattle, and alligators. Then a man came and said, "lo, there shall be a theme park." A few years later, swampland turned to fantasyland, as Walt Disney World arose. This is the story of how it happened.
Jim Korkis, the world's premiere Disney historian, weaves a compelling, organized tale from the thousands of details, reports, and eyewitness accounts—some of them never before in print— about the early days of the most magical place on earth. As with his companion book, The Unofficial Disneyland 1955 Companion, Korkis delivers a top-down history, from the perspective of high-level Disney executives to that of front-line Disney cast members.
Korkis begins with the initial surveys of the Disney World site in 1958 and takes the story through 1972, telling the complete and definitive story of how the park was designed and built, and how it was run during its first year.
As Walt Disney stood on a swampy marsh in central Florida not long before his death in 1966, he did not see a wilderness, he saw a bright city of tomorrow, a towering castle, innovative hotels, and above all, families having fun in themed lands of wonder.
We know how the story turned out, but now you can stand alongside Walt and experience it all over again, from the very beginning.
Foreword by Tom Nabbe
The Walt Disney World Story
Before Choosing Orlando
Roadside Florida Before Disney
The History of Orlando
Buying the Land: A James Bond Operation
Emily Bavar Spills the Beans
1965 Press Conference
WDW’s First Resident: Philip N. Smith
Marty Sklar on the Epcot Film
From the 1966 Annual Stockholder’s Report
Roy O. Disney Steps In
Epcot Film Premiere: February 1967
The Reedy Creek Improvement District
1969 Press Conference
Dick Irvine and Marvin Davis
The Nightmare of Building a Dream
The First Cast Members
The Life Magazine Photo
Opening Day: October 1, 1971
WDW’s First Family
Dedication of WDW: October 25, 1971
Getting to the Magic Kingdom
Magic Kingdom’s Many Lands
Main Street, U.S.A.
WDW Resort Hotels
The Contemporary Resort
Polynesian Village Resort
Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground
The Golf Resort
In Their Own Words: Memories of WDW 1971
First Fiscal Year 1971-1972
Afterword by Bill "Sully" Sullivan
Appendix A: The United States in 1971
Appendix B: Walt Disney Productions in 1971
Appendix C: Glossary of Names
Florida was a whole different world. We had operated Disneyland for over a decade and had refined and improved it. We thought that all that experience would transfer to the new park.
We were wrong. The guest demographic, weather, and bugs were just some of the major differences. We didn’t have Walt so a lot of the decisions were made by committee.
Roy was a good guy, fair and honest. He had postponed his retirement. He told us: “We are going to finish this park [in Florida], and we’re going to do it just the way Walt wanted it”.
Roy did share one important thing in common with his older brother: the belief that his trusted team that he had put in place would somehow figure out how to do what was needed to make the dream come true.
Donn Tatum and Card Walker were key players and would be in charge of the company after Roy’s death, but the most significant figure in the Walt Disney Would project was Dick Nunis.
Dick’s team included a few members who were my also my mentors: Bob Allen, Bob Matheison, Sully Sullivan, Bill Hoelscher, and my manager Pete Crimmings who would all make it happen by the deadline of October 1, 1971. There wasn’t any doubt from his team that we would open on time.
I was promoted into management at Disneyland in May of 1970 as an assistant supervisor in the Rides and Attractions Theme Parks Operation division and was going to be on the Walt Disney World opening crew.
I had worked all of the attractions at Disneyland except the steam trains and monorail because they were managed by Retlaw. They had a height requirement for the monorail operator to be six feet tall and I wasn’t close to six feet tall.
I started training on the Disneyland monorail system that was managed by Retlaw so that I could open up the system at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971. We were re-located to Florida with the intent of being here for three years maximum. My plan was to move on from WDW and to be part of the opening team for the Mineral King ski area project but that project fell through by the mid-1970s.
I ended up staying at WDW for the next 32 years and moving from the monorail operations to one project after another. In 1972, I moved over to Frontierland during the construction of Tom Sawyer Island. They dragged out a bunch of old photos of me as a young Tom Sawyer at Disneyland in the 1950s for publicity. I got tagged as a “nuts and bolts” guy so was later moved to Tomorrowland in 1973 for the building of Space Mountain and then a few other locations.
Then I moved again to another project call EPCOT and in 1984 I finally made a key career change by going into warehouse operations and that’s where I retired from in June of 2003.
It was a major transition coming from California, a huge cultural shock. Orlando was about the size that Anaheim was when Disneyland opened. The city of Orlando ended at I-4 and 33rd Street.
International Drive was maybe two city blocks long. One of the other things that was different was all the “blue laws” concerning when you could sell alcohol. That became a challenge.
In 1971, trying to get through the US Steel security checkpoints to check on my monorail stations in the hotels was a real pain until Disney security took over. I used to walk on the beams from Ticket & Transportation Center (TTC) station to the Contemporary Hotel station which was no problem unless the weather was bad.
One of the other problems back at opening of WDW was radio communication. We were on the same radio frequency as the parking lot, STOLport, submarines and the kennel. If someone radioed “Sub #2 you are clear to go”, when we were switching the monorails at the same time the operators might only hear “clear to go” and think they were clear to go through the switch.
For the filming of the opening television special, we drove Bob Hope into the Contemporary Hotel concourse on the monorail to do his bit. They had built a platform/stage in the hotel’s fourth floor concourse.
I was standing on the Contemporary monorail station which was on the opposite side of the train from the platform/stage when one of the coordinators, Jim Cora said over the radio, “Tom, the noise is drowning out Bob’s monologue.” The monorails had individual air conditioners units in each car and they were quite noisy. “Can you do something about it?”
And I went over and hit the power disconnect button on the station console which turned the monorail track 600VDC power off for that section of the system. Then I picked up the phone and called the monorail shop and said, “I just turned off the power to the rectifiers. I’ll tell you why I did it later. Right now you need get over to re-set the rectifiers here because we’ve got to haul Bob Hope out of this building in fifteen minutes.”
They got to the rectifiers building by the switch beams and were standing by so that the minute Hope finished they could re-set the rectifiers so we could take him on his merry way back to the Polynesian Hotel for press interviews for the cameras.
I didn’t have a single day off during those first months from the first of October through the Christmas season. There were a lot of glitches that first year. Every day was a learning process.
After opening, I noticed that guests were dropping things down between the train and the station platform like ticket books, hats, sunglasses, and toys. It was difficult and time consuming to retrieve those things.
The opening was very narrow at about four inches, a tight squeeze. We would have to clear out the station, turn off the power and someone would climb down in the trough to retrieve the guest items.
I noticed the custodial crew had a device to pick up trash with a pincer at the end or suction cups. I got a dozen of them and took them to the monorail shops and had them stretch them to eight feet and insulate them. They used PVC plastic pipe for the handles, added nylon cords and we were able to pull up lost items safely and quickly.
People started calling them Nabbe Grabbers and that name spread around the park and is still used today even for the custodial ones. What a legacy!
I have so many memories of those early years and Jim has captured some of those stories in this book. I first met him when I was doing a presentation for some WDW cast members about my early days at Disneyland. Jim has always had a fascination for Disney history and every time we get together he has many questions for me that no one else has ever asked. He is definitely passionate and knowledgeable about WDW history.
In 2016, he wrote The Unofficial Disneyland 1955 Companion about the first year of Disneyland’s operation and included some stories I have shared with him over the years just like other Disney Legends have. Now he has written The Unofficial Walt Disney World 1971 Companion filled with facts and anecdotes.
The story of the opening of Walt Disney World was another three-ring circus with lots of unexpected emergency fire drills in a hostile environment that was hot, humid and unforgiving. And too many alligators and bugs!
I am glad Jim has documented that special time and gives recognition to so many people who have often been forgotten over the years. Like you, I am looking forward to finding out some things I never knew as well as re-living some memories.
In 2001, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World was celebrating its 30th anniversary and the Disney Design Group helped develop products specifically for that event.
One of those items was thirty-one trading cards, one card commemorating each year of the park plus one extra focusing on concept art for Cinderella Castle that was only available in a limited edition collector’s tin that included the entire set.
DDG contacted me to do the historical research and write the text on the back of each card. I was given a two-week deadline to try to condense important milestones into just one or two sentences and to find something interesting for the years where nothing significant happened. An additional challenge was that some years had multiple milestones but I could only select one.
I was shocked to discover that the eight WDW department research libraries on property had little if any real documentation and that much of the information that did exist was somewhat shrouded in misinformation from earlier abandoned concepts as well as hearsay and myths even in the publicity releases.
Apparently, there were three official heights for Cinderella Castle listed in different WDW departments. One area had started its measurement from the utildoors underneath the structure considering that was the foundation or basement of the structure. Another had measured from the level of Main Street, U.S.A. while a third had measured from the archway entrance. So the decision was made to just state it was over twice the size of Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Through this experience, I realized that there needed to be a one-stop accurate reference at least about the making of Walt Disney World and so I started to aggressively gather information and interviews to add to my previous more casual personal archives on the subject.
Of course, as always, I hoped someone else would write the book because the story of WDW’s creation is a sprawling, epic tale filled with countless people, events and changes and it was a daunting task to try to wrangle it all into a somewhat manageable package.
I started several times but always found myself bogged down in the details, frustrated at gaps and contradictions, and stymied at trying to tell a coherent story since there were so many intriguing tangents.
Finally, I realized that the making of WDW is about the people and their stories, many of which had never been told. Some names are familiar while others are often completely unknown and yet each contributed significantly to the final realization of Walt’s dream. When possible, I have tried to use their words to tell the tale. Fortunately, over the decades, I had the opportunity to interview many people who were directly involved in the project.
I was going to school in the Los Angeles area when WDW opened in 1971 and having grown up visiting Disneyland frequently, the information and publicity about this new version initially seemed incomprehensible to me.
Disneyland was the name of the park and so I assumed as do some people even today that Walt Disney World just referred to the theme park with its castle as well. It didn’t. WDW referred to the entire property with the Magic Kingdom being just one of many elements.
I made my first trip lasting four days thanks to a generous gift from friends and family in 1981 for the Tencennial and was overwhelmed even though I was staying at a hotel off property. I didn’t return until my brother got a job performing at Disney-MGM Studios in 1989. I moved out to Orlando in 1995 to take care of my ailing parents and got a job at WDW and continued to work in a variety of different roles until spring of 2009.
While there are some superficial similarities including nomenclature between the two parks, the differences are far greater than just size. They are two very different experiences. Disneyland was often referred to in publicity and marketing as a “magic kingdom” which is where the name for the park in Florida originated.
Imagineer Tony Baxter sagely described Disneyland as an “intimate experience” and Walt Disney World as a “spectacular experience”. Even just limiting the story to the planning and the first year of operation of WDW still resulted in many, many things that were unable to be documented because of space or lack of any other verifiable information and so they are not included.
Walt Disney World is a living experience that is constantly changing. These are some of the stories of how that world began. Hopefully, it will provide a better understanding and appreciation of the Most Magical Place on Earth as it was first described and will encourage others to continue to tell the rest of the story.
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney historian who has written hundreds of articles and twenty books about all things Disney over the last forty years.
Jim grew up in Glendale, California, where he was able to meet and interview Walt’s original team of animators and Imagineers. In 1995, he relocated to Orlando, Florida, where he worked for Walt Disney World in a variety of capacities, including Entertainment, Animation, Disney Institute, Disney University, College and International Programs, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Design Group, Marketing.
His original research on Disney history has been used often by the Disney company as well as other organizations such as the Walt Disney Family Museum.
He is the author of over two dozen books about the Disney films, theme parks, and culture.