Early Walt Disney World: 1971 to 1984

Last page update: 21 May, 2017 (page first posted)

If you didn't grow up with Walt Disney World in the 1970s, the best starting point for understanding the difference between the WDW of your era with the very original form is to compare property maps.  You'd see that the resort grew respectably by 1983.  Starting in 1989, you'd find the comparisons becoming pretty stark.  By the 2000s, remarkable.  The original scope of Phase One WDW (1971-1975) is positively understated when compared to the WDW of today, as is the original WDW master plan that included EPCOT as a city, an industrial park and airport.  But it's not the size of WDW that strikes me as being the key difference, it's the level of cohesion and connectivity.  Every part of the property in the 1970s and early 1980s felt like it was orchestrated by the same hands, linked to the same "vision" and completely interwoven both physically and aesthetically with the rest of the resort.  This continued through the opening of EPCOT Center in 1982, with the additional monorail line and the layering in of a few more hotels between Lake Buena Vista and the Seven Seas Lagoon (when the Grand Floridian was conceived as the new hotel for the site where the Asian Resort was originally planned). 

Then, like the flip of a switch, the new Walt Disney Productions management team of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells arrived on the scene in September of 1984 and the big changes began.  The company was in dire financial straits due to the cost of building EPCOT Center and a series of box office flops, and Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney had helped to engineer the hiring of Eisner and Wells because of their past experience in the film industry.  They had no experience with, or real passion for, theme parks, but they did see three things right off the bat with Disneyland and, even more so, WDW: the prices were too low relative to the amount of visitation, the marketing of the parks was not aggressive enough and there was room for a lot more on-property development to make the resorts more profitable.  And from that point forward, prices at WDW began to rise more dramatically (admission, foods, accommodations, merchandise), additional theme parks, water parks and hotels were conceptualized and new options for on-property nighttime entertainment were introduced as a means of keeping WDW hotel guests on property rather than visiting other Orlando-area destinations such as Church Street Station or International Drive.  It wasn't just a burst of expansion, it was the first leg of a marathon that has never ended.

I'll never make enough time to chronicle the full range of changes that took place after WDW turned 25, and consciously stopped keeping track of stuff in 1996 because it was too much (and too depressing, really, given my level of affinity for the original attractions that were being removed left and right).  I do, however, want to describe that early WDW to the best of my ability without having it just be an exercise in comparisons and contrasts.  And looking back at the resort as a whole, vs. my normal approach of focusing on something precise like MacBadger's desk in Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, is worth a little bit of time and energy.





In 1958, once it was clear that Anaheim California's Disneyland (which opened in 1955) was a financial success, Walt Disney hired Harrison "Buzz" Price's Economic Research Associates to begin evaluating locations for another Disney project in the eastern United States.  Disney put substantial time and effort into a mid-1960s plan for a park in St. Louis called Riverfront Square, but before and during that time he was looking at Florida as a likely location for his next venture.  He commissioned two additional reports in 1959 and another in 1961, the result of which was that Ocala would be the ideal site, with Orlando coming in second.  After yet another report in 1963 elevated Orlando to the top of the locations, and immediately following a meeting in St. Louis where Walt was verbally insulted by August Busch II (head of Anheuser-Busch Inc.) over Disney's position to not sell alcohol at Riverfront Square, Walt flew over Central Florida that November and set the wheels in motion for what would become Walt Disney World.

By mid-1964, the exact location and plots of land that Disney would purchase (using fake company names and operatives with CIA backgrounds, chief among them Paul Helliwell) had been decided upon, with the center of the site being about 15 miles southwest of Orlando.   Three major parcels for the site were tied down by August and a year later there were less than 300 acres left to secure out of the final count of 27,443.  Orlando had been a quiet citrus and cattle town for most of its history, with some tourism activity related to its location through which people headed south toward Miami, southwest toward Cypress Gardens, northwest toward Silver Springs or, at its own doorstep, Gatorland.  But now it was ablaze with rumors regarding who was purchasing all that property.  The names and theories thrown out for consideration ranged from the Hercules Powder Company, Ford Motor Company and Boeing.  Why so much land, and why the secrecy?  The guessing game was intense and often zany, with Orlando Sentinel columnist Charlie Wadsworth hot on the trail of any lead or source that might reveal the identity of his "mystery industry."  Disney did make the list of potential buyers in the mix, but was not a prime suspect.  Not, at least, until Emily Bavar got involved.

On October 17th, 1965, Bavar, an Orlando Sentinel reporter, printed her firm belief that Walt Disney Productions had purchased the land.  She and other reporters from across the country had been invited to visit Disneyland on the occasion of that park's tenth anniversary. During a Q&A session with Walt, she asked if he was behind the Florida land purchases.  She said he was shocked by the question and that his answer belied a detailed knowledge of the region's details such as annual rainfall and tourist visitation even as he told her Central Florida was not the kind of place he'd want to locate an attraction.  Bavar, referring back to Walt's response years later, said "he wasn't a very good liar."  Although few took her story seriously at first glance, within a couple days her editors decided to make her educated guess a front page headline.  On October 24th, Florida Governor Haydon Burns confirmed in a public announcement that he'd received official word from Walt Disney: his company was in fact the owner of 43 square miles of land near Orlando.

Walt Disney might have chosen Central Florida not entirely as the result of research, but also out of a bit of sentimentality.  His parents, Flora and Elias, had been married in Kismet, Florida in 1888.  Kismet no longer exists but was located in north Lake County, in the Paisley area.  Although their parents moved to Chicago before Walt and his brother Roy were born (respectively in 1901 and 1893), the two visited relatives just north of Orlando periodically... decades before Disneyland itself was even built.


Orlando Sentinel reporter Emily Bavar and Walt Disney in 1965   The Orlando Sentinel made Emily Bavar's Disney theory headline news on October 21, 1965   Walt Disney, Florida Governor Haydon Burns and Roy Disney at the first Disney World press conference on November 16, 1965   Roy Disney, Haydon Burns, Mildred Burns and Walt Disney in November, 1965   November 1965 letter from Cocoa Beach doctor L.R. Wells to Florida Governor Haydon Burns, proposing weird stuff ostensibly linked to Disney coming to Florida   1965 letter from Disney's General William E. Potter to Florida Governor Haydon Burns regarding personnel involved in addressing the Disney property's drainage needs.

As far as history has recorded, however, the first and only time that Walt Disney actually set foot in the city of Orlando was November 16, 1965, when he, Roy and Burns held a press conference in the Egyptian Room of the Cherry Plaza Hotel on the shores of Lake Eola.  While it seems from the standpoint of revelations that Walt and Roy hadn't expected to be attending this type of event at such an early date in the project's lifespan, Walt did make mention of plans to equal or top the amount of investment that he had made in California.  But he also stressed that he had too many possible ideas for what might materialize in Florida for him to list off and that it was all preliminary.  Between Governor Burns and the reporters, you can see in videos of the event that everyone just wanted to hear Walt say he was going to build another Disneyland (something they could wrap their heads around in terms of scope, size and concept), but Walt didn't cave to the pressure.  No concept art was presented at the time and the best verbal indicator for what the thousands of interested parties could hope to see Walt Disney Productions develop in Florida was a unique, family attraction that might include a model community.

Try to imagine being the governor of Florida when all of this was happening and, immediately afterward, when the announcement has passed and Walt has returned to California to begin the long process of assigning form to what he will build in Florida, when all the heated speculation as to the owner of the land has concluded and when your entire state is recovering from the biggest announcement to be made there since the advent of television.  And now, time for peaceful reflection?  Nope, because now you're being deluged with all sorts of inquiries about every single possible aspect of Disney coming to Florida from every conceivable governmental or business interest from all corners of the state, wanting connections, influence, assurances or special insights when you are in fact in possession of not much more information on Walt Disney's plans than the average reporter was during that press conference. Inquiries ranging from the mundane to the borderline insane.  That probably sucked.  Anyway, among the images here you'll find some correspondence that speaks to exactly what Governor Burns was contending with during that time period (the one about legalized bullfights is a gem).

Meanwhile, Walt Disney, fresh off A) giving the world a consciously vague introduction to the biggest and most expensive project his company has ever planned to tackle and B) the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair... for which he had produced four original shows... coming to a close, had a lot on his mind regarding what would come next. 

Of course there were ideas Walt had for Florida by November 1965 that he just wasn't ready to share with anyone outside his organization.  Plenty of concepts that he had overseen for the development of not only Disneyland and the World's Fair, but also Riverboat Square in St. Louis and a proposed Mineral King ski resort in Sequoia Valley, California provided him with more than enough content to build two entire theme parks if he so desired without the need for a single "new" proposal.  He had already made mention, however, in the Orlando press conference how his team was incredibly capable of coming up with concepts and executing them quickly (he cited It's A Small World, designed for Pepsi-Cola's and UNICEF's World's Fair presence, as an example of something that went from "gag sessions" to opening for the public in a mere eleven months).  Some of the concepts that former Disney animator Marc Davis devised, in his then-recent reassignment to the position of Imagineer with WED Enterprises (Walt's acronymical theme park design firm), for Mineral King and Riverboat Square would find themselves marked for Florida quickly, primarily a musical show with animatronic bears and a Lewis & Clark Expedition boat ride.  Walt really liked both concepts and had other Florida-specific elements in mind which he had his creative team working on full tilt.


Walt Disney and associates, Roy Disney in the foreground, on the Florida property c. 1965  
Walt Disney and some guy, possibly Joe Fowler, on the Florida property c. 1965   Kind of legendary 1966 map sketch that Walt did of Disney World, which was echoed in subsequent master plans for the property    WED Imagineers Marc Davis, Richard Irvine and Claude Coats discussing WDW concept art in 1966   WED Enterprises' Florida Conference Room in Glendale California. Standing is Marvin Davis.   

As a practical matter, Walt had clear notions about creating a self-contained destination resort that existed apart from everything around it.  One of the reasons he wanted 40 square miles was to ensure that when his guests were on Disney property, their eyes and ears would not be distracted by the sights and sounds of the outside world as they were for guests of Disneyland in Anaheim... where the freeways and billboards and high-rise hotels encroached upon the borders of his kingdom and worked against the illusory qualities inherent to the park's appeal.  In Florida this would be entirely avoidable and every component of the project would complement the others.  "Twice the size as the island of Manhattan," in Walt's words, and all of it to be orchestrated in full-scale harmony.  There would be a theme park comparable to Disneyland, without question.  It would contain attractions familiar to Disneyland guests and also some unique to Florida.  Themed resorts connected to the park and other features of the resort by Alweg Monorail, Peoplemover lines or boat, golf courses, artificial waterways adjoining Bay Lake (with more islands within them), water activities such as swimming, skiing, nightly cruises and a "swamp ride." An industrial park, an entrance complex and day guest parking area, and an airport. 

The number of things his company could do to entertain people was essentially limitless with that much acreage to work with.  Walt, however, was thinking about something much bigger than rides, hotels or even theme parks for his land.  He was thinking about a city (see WYW's EPCOT: The City page).  

  

It's hard not to feel bad for Florida Governor Haydon Burns.  Here this poor guy is dealing with all of the bureaucratic and political workings of Disney coming to Florida when he gets defeated in the summer of 1966 for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination by Robert High of Miami (who then goes on to lose the election against Claude Kirk in November).  That's a pretty big kick in the pants for Burns, who was only elected to the office in 1964.  So, licking his wounds and preparing to relinquish the governor's mansion to a Republican, he still has one bright spot in his short legacy - being the governor who announced the Disney project and sat with Walt Disney in that legendary press conference.  And just a few weeks later, Walt Disney dies and the entire future of everything that you promised to bend over backwards to see accomplished is now totally uncertain.  What a year. 

Not many people, even those close to Walt Disney, knew how bad his health was in 1966.  Even in his final weeks, according to many of his WED Enterprises associates of the time, he wasn't revealing the severity of his condition. 

TEXT PLACEHOLDER (IF YOU ARE HOLDING YOUR BREATH, DON'T) (IF YOU ARE HOLDING YOUR HORSES, FINE) 

This first image below links to a .pdf file I created of the 1967 Project Florida book that was distributed to Florida business and governmental figures in 1967.     

   

 

 

 

 

First version of WYW's Early WDW page posted 21 May 2017

Images copyright the Walt Disney Company.  Text copyright 2017 Mike Lee.

Thanks to Mike Hiscano, Dave Hooper and Ross Plesset for their assistance with my research on EPCOT.  Other sources for this article included a number of Walt Disney Company press releases, employee publications and annual reports, as well as pre-opening WDW materials.