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TIMEKEEPING – The Chronological History of WDW: Rising From the Swamp – Disney World’s Pre-Opening Period

This article is the preface to a year-long series detailing the chronological history of Walt Disney World. “Timekeeping” will attempt to chronicle year-by-year changes to the resort, from ride openings to stores changing names. We will be as specific with dates as possible, and try to cover everything. We know there will be some changes that we miss, and some dates are just not known, or contradictory. Most weeks, our show “Pressing Issues” will serve as a companion piece, dedicating part of each show to discussing the year in question.

The story of Walt Disney World doesn’t begin with its opening on October 1, 1971. In fact, pinpointing where to begin telling the story of The Vacation Kingdom of the World can be quite difficult. Do you begin with the announcement of the project, or go back even further and start with Disneyland? But for argument’s sake, we’ll say Walt Disney World’s story truly began in 1959.

Choosing Central Florida

That June, Walt Disney met with executives from NBC to develop a project in the New York City area, as well as move his show from ABC to NBC. By this time, Walt had already encountered problems with the amount of land and control he had in Anaheim, which led to him passing on the New York project. This wasn’t the end of the discussions however—talks continued between Disney and RCA, an NBC subsidiary, about land in Palm Beach, Florida. Walt commissioned several feasibility studies on Florida, including a survey of 12,000 acres of land owned by billionaire John D. MacArthur. These talks also broke down when MacArthur only wanted to sell a few hundred acres of land, not enough to include a Community of Tomorrow that Walt was already envisioning. 

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The 1964 World’s Fair is often referred to as a test for Disney attractions on the East coast. (Photo Credit: Disney)

Of course, we can’t discuss Walt Disney World without mentioning Disneyland. The park had opened July 17, 1955 and by 1959, it was a massive hit already undergoing its first major expansion with the Matterhorn, Monorail, and Submarine Voyage. To Walt though, there were many problems. First, was the lack of land. There was little room for expansion, and third-party motels and attractions now littered the area around the park. The related second matter was control. While Disney could flex its influence with Anaheim, he couldn’t control what was around his property.

And while these were the deciding factors in choosing central Florida, there were still a few other locations seriously considered as an East coast attraction. These were centered around more established areas. In 1963, Walt was considering a site in Niagara Falls, the smallest of the proposed locations. Also in 1963, a site in St. Louis that would have been part of the same complex of the Gateway Arch was considered. This would have been a five-story indoor park. Also in Missouri, Walt had earlier considered purchasing and updating his old family farm in Marceline. And the NBC project actually began as a discussion of a New York City area project.

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Roy Disney tours the Florida property with General William (Joe) Potter. (Photo Credit: Disney)

The Land Rush

Central Florida ended up being the only site that provided the amount of land Walt really wanted, but acquiring it without significantly driving up prices would lead to the kind of operation people write spy novels about. In fact, two of the principal participants in this plan, Paul Helliwell and William Donovan, were former members of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. Using fake names, a series of law firms, and even convincing the Orlando Sentinel’s publisher that the anonymity of the mysterious buyer was good for Central Florida, Disney was able to keep their involvement under wraps until most of the land had been purchased. Disney managed to purchase the main tracts of land using option agreements in the name of attorney trustees. There were even negotiations for oil and mineral rights with Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Though it was often named as the mysterious buyer, Disney managed to shake off the rumors for a while. The proximity to the ever-expanding operations at NASA pointed to several aerospace companies as the most likely buyers. By 1965, Disney had procured 27,000 acres for under $200/acre in the names of dummy corporations such as Ayefour Corporation, Bay Lake Properties, Inc., Latin American Development, Reedy Creek Ranch, Inc., and Tomahawk Properties, Inc. You can see these names listed above Crystal Arts on Main Street, U.S.A. in a tribute to Donn Tatum, who played a key role in the land purchases. That same land jumped to nearly $80,000 an acre after the project was announced.

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Donn Tatum’s window of the Crystal Arts store on Main Street U.S.A.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District

Even with the land acquired, Disney still had to figure out how it would govern the project. On June 14, 1965, a four-day meeting commenced to decide upon the legalities needed to fulfill their goals. This included discussions on drainage, zoning, building codes, and taxation. The team, which Walt only attended for the opening and closing, focused on two types of legal structure, a municipality or special district. Special districts in Florida allow for more specific control of building codes and drainage of the wetlands needed to build the project. In the end they decided on a combination, the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista and the Reedy Creek Drainage District, now the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Disney now had the power to build its own utilities, court system, police force, and airport, in addition to the construction related powers it wanted.

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Florida Governor Claude Kirk signs the legislation for Walt Disney World.

The state legislature approved the entities and they were officially formed May 12, 1967. However, this wasn’t the end of the story. In a lawsuit that was almost a comedy sketch, the  district sued the State of Florida and Disney challenging itself. This was to pre-empt any other court challenge and to get the Florida Supreme Court to uphold the legality of the district. The State had to legally oppose the suit, but in reality the attorneys for the state helped to make Disney’s case, and when asked if it had a rebuttal to the District’s case, the attorney arguing for the state responded, “Yes, sir, but I don’t know what to say.”  Suffice it to say, the District won the case.

The Secret is Out

On October 1, 1965, Paul Helliwell announced that his mystery client would be identifying themselves at a press conference on November 15. However, Disney didn’t get the chance to do things the way they wanted. On October 21, Emily Bavar, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, published an article, “Is Our ‘Mystery’ Industry Disneyland?” Bavar had been covering Disneyland’s 10th Anniversary, and noted that in an interview Walt had dodged questions about the Central Florida acquisitions, but knew a suspicious amount about the area. The secret was out and Disney accelerated their plans with Florida Governor William Haydon Burns announcing the project on October 25th.

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Emily Bavar discovers Disney is behind land purchases.

EPCOT ‘66 

The development of the project continued, as did the public relations trying to convince both the public and politicians about the project. In June of 1966, Marvin Davis was tasked with creating the master plan for the property, laying out how the theme park, resort areas, and the City of Tomorrow now known as EPCOT would fit into the 12 mile long, seven mile wide property. These plans can be seen in most famous of these PR pushes, known as the EPCOT film as Walt walks around the Florida Room. Two versions of this film were created, one for the general public, and one for the Florida legislature. Sadly, this film would be Walt’s last appearance on camera, as he was diagnosed with lung cancer that November and died at St. Joseph Hospital December 15, 1966, reportedly still working on the Florida Project on his deathbed. The EPCOT film screened February 2, 1967 in Winter Park as part of a conference and press event to promote the project.

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Walt with an overhead map of EPCOT in the 1966 film. (Photo Credit: Disney)

The film was shot October 27, 1967 and starts with a brief overview of Disneyland, explaining that Disney is innovative and knows what they’re doing. It then moves into a quick overview of WED Enterprises (Imagineering) and the accolades Disney’s designs have gathered. In the main part of the video, Walt explains the layout of the proposed project, and in particular the city of EPCOT, the model of which you can see on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People mover—when it’s running. The city featured a central core commercial district and hotel, surrounded by housing in an almost floral pattern with population density decreasing as you move away from the core.

Building a World From the Ground Up (and Down)

If it was a spy mission to buy the land, it was a military one to build it. Two of the principals were Admiral Joe Fowler, who helped build Disneyland, and General William (Joe) Potter, former governor of the Panama Canal one and the number two construction man for the ‘64 World’s Fair. While land clearing began as early as 1965, it was May 30, 1967 when the large scale reclamation project on the property really began. This first step was the infrastructure. Roads were built to get equipment in, 55 miles of canals and levees were dug and seven million cubic yards of dirt were removed to create the Seven Seas Lagoon and prop up the site of the Magic Kingdom. This land would allow for most of the original Magic Kingdom layout to be built on the second floor, with access corridors known as Utillidors down below. These would house a lot of the behind the scenes facilities and allow the cast to travel outside the view of the guests.

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A map showing all of the planned resorts circa 1969. The Persian is located north of the Contemporary. The Venetian is between the TTC and the Contemporary. The Asian Resort sits on the current site of the Grand Floridian. (Photo Credit: Disney)
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Concept Art Featuring the Polynesian Resort Tower (Photo Credit: Disney)

Of course, this was a highly unique construction project and it faced unique challenges. In addition to the two original hotels, the Polynesian Village Resort the Contemporary Resort, three other hotels were planned around the Seven Seas Lagoon area: the Asian Resort, the Venetian Resort, and the Persian Resort. Of these, only the land for the Asian Resort was prepared and would later be home to the Grand Floridian Resort. Both the Polynesian and Contemporary original were 12+ story towers, but the Polynesian design changed before work on the hotels began in 1969. Disney contracted US Steel to build the hotels using a unique form of modular construction. Despite popular misconception, this wasn’t so; the rooms could be slid in and out of place for modification later, so the rooms could be built off-site for greater speed in construction. The factory sat near where Port Orleans currently sits, and could produce as many as 15 rooms per day. Disney would own the land and US Steel would own and run the buildings, though there are some sources that say Marriott and Western International were to handle the operations. At this time, Disney had never run a hotel, since the Wrather Corporation ran the Disneyland Hotel.

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Sliding a modular constructed room into place at the Contemporary Resort. This often had to be attempted multiple times, and alternated on sides of the resort for load balancing. (Photo Credit: Disney)

Construction Problems

However, US Steel fell behind and over budget. Each modular room cost was almost five times what was expected, so Disney bought out US Steel for $50 million, which is reportedly what US Steel originally paid Disney for the rights to build and run the hotels. There are different stories about the specifics of this deal termination. Some report that it was before construction ended and Disney finished construction themselves, others say the termination was in December of 1971. It’s hard to tell what the real story is at this point, but we know that some of the finishing work was done by Disney employees working until, and through the last minute of September 30, 1971, as the Contemporary opened unfinished.

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Early construction work on the Contemporary Resort. (Photo Credit: Disney)

Of course, the rest of the construction had its issues too. Actual construction began in April 1969. Originally thought to cost $100 million, the budget had already reached $400 million at that point, and there were constant delays. Even before vertical construction began, Disney was met with strikes by the International Union of Operating Engineers stating almost as soon as the land clearing began, with things becoming violent before the dispute was settled on February 16, 1968. Disney originally hired J.B. Allen as the contractor, as he had done extensive construction at Disneyland, but after saying he couldn’t make the October 1, 1971 opening date, he was fired and replaced with the company’s own engineer Peter Markham, and Buena Vista Construction was formed.

Monorail!

The iconic monorail line also had to be constructed. Two concentric lines and a spur to the maintenance and storage barn were built totaling six miles of track. The beams themselves were constructed as individual spans each 25 inches wide, up to four feet thick and between 90 and 110 feet long. They were cast off-site in Oregon and shipped to Florida for installation. Four of the original 10 Mark IV trains built by Martin Marietta were ready by October 1, 1971. Monorails Orange (delivered April 5), Green (delivered May 20), and Gold (delivered June 15) were the first trains to enter service, on September 1, 1971. Monorail Blue was the fourth train, and entered service on September 20. 

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Monorail beams cast in Oregon being lowered into place. (Photo Credit: Disney)

Previews Begin

Disney held another four-day event in Orlando to showcase a more finalized plan than the Epcot film on April 30, 1969. Here, models and a seventeen-minute film were shown to the public. Corporate involvement and sponsors were announced. And most importantly, this is when the name was officially changed to Walt Disney World. A lot of this was later seen at the Walt Disney World Preview Center, which opened January 16, 1970 (note: some sources say “June”) and would close on September 30, 1971. Over 800,000 visitors passed through the center. The building still exists on Hotel Plaza Boulevard as the Amateur Athletic Union Headquarters. This time period also saw Disney’s first conservation area, when in 1970 the company set aside 7,500 acres of the property to preserve.

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The Walt Disney World Preview Center building. (Photo Credit: Disney)

The October 1, 1971 had been set in stone and was approaching quickly. Decisions had to be made as to what was going to open on day one and what would open soon thereafter, such as Fort Wilderness. One way or another, the resorts and the Magic Kingdom would be ready to go, even if Disney had to have non-construction workers laying sod in front of the Contemporary on September 30th. Thus, the pre-opening phase ended in a mad rush and The Vacation Kingdom of the World officially rose from swamps of central Florida on Friday, October 1, 1971.

For more information on booking your next trip with our official travel agent sponsor, the Vacationeer, visit wdwnt.travel.

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Buster M.
Buster M.
1 year ago

This was very interesting, thank you for the story!

BigBlueLeaf
BigBlueLeaf
1 year ago

Great feature, written in a brief style that can quickly read & digested. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Chuck J.
Chuck J.
1 year ago

It’s a detail, but I thought I should tell you that RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, was not a subsidiary of NBC. Rather, RCA established NBC, the National Broadcasting Company, which was the first nationwide network of radio stations.