TIMEKEEPING: Walt Disney World’s Opening October 1 – December 31, 1971
This article is part of 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, but we are attempting to be as accurate as possible. Sunday nights, our topical discussion show “Pressing Issues” will serve as a companion piece, dedicating part of each show to discussing the year in question.
As the sun rose over Central Florida on October 1, 1971, the management and cast of Walt Disney World braced for the expected onslaught. The Fall date was planned to help manage crowds, however newspapers and Florida Highway Patrol estimates had pushed that number into the hundreds of thousands after opening day at Disneyland ended up being an overcrowded disaster. Walt Disney World didn’t have the same grand, live, star-studded opening day special. Those events would happen later in the month, but October 1 was just to be opening day.
By the end of the day, approximately 10,000 people had visited the Magic Kingdom. The park layout was essentially the same as we know it today, but smaller. Large parts of Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland were not the size they are today. But before they got to the Magic Kingdom, guests still had to pass through the Transportation and Ticket Center. The overall set up was similar to today’s, minus the security and the Epcot platform. After paying 50 cents to park, the guests had two ways to get to the Magic Kingdom—via monorails or ferries. The two original ferries were the Ports O’ Call and the Southern Seas—side wheel steamers with a 250 guest capacity. Monorails Orange, Green, Gold, and Blue were in service on opening day.
Passing through the TTC, Magic Kingdom visitors would buy their tickets. There were three categories for tickets Child (3-11), Junior (12-17), and Adult (18+). An Adult General Admission cost $3.50, but of course, this didn’t include ride tickets. There were also 7 Adventure books that sold bundles of tickets including admission. This book contained one each of A B, and C tickets and two each of D & E tickets at a price of $4.50 for an adult. An 11 Adventure Book also existed at $5.75 for an adult. The individual tickets were also available in the park with an A ticket costing 10¢, B 25¢, C 50¢, D 75¢, and E 90¢ for an adult (80¢ juniors).
Main Street, U.S.A.
As you would have passed through the turnstiles, strollers were in the same location and the shop on the west side was the Newsstand. Lockers were under the train platform inside the station building. Once a guest entered Main Street, U.S.A., the Town Square looks much like it does today. The Oscar Meyer-sponsored The Town Square Cafe was in place of Tony’s Town Square, but the Confectionery and Chapeau were there, however the GAF Camera Center took up part of the current Confectionery’s space. Next to the Town Square Cafe was the Gulf Hospitality House, which served as a secondary guest relations for Town Hall across the street.
The Harmony Barber Shop was on West Center Street, which divided the west half of Main Street. The corner of Center Street and Main Street housed the New Century Clock Shop sponsored by Elgin-Helbros and The Greenhouse consisted of flower carts in the middle of the street. The Emporium still occupied the front corner, but stopped before Center Street. The back half of that side of the street contained the Card Shop sponsored by Hallmark, Penny Arcade, the House of Magic, and a Tobacconist. The Refreshment Corner sponsored by Coca-Cola stood where Casey’s Corner now occupies.
On the east side of Main Street, you would pass the Confectionery, Main Street Cinema, and the Cup and Saucer China Shop. The Wonderland of Wax Candle shop was tucked into the back of the south side of Center Street. Art stands where guests could have artwork drawn of themselves took up that side of Center Street. Along the north of Center Street, you would find Disney & Co. (a toy shop) and Uptown Jewelers. Moving further along Main Street, you’d find the Market House sponsored by Smuckers and Dixie Crystals followed by The Shadowbox Silhouette Studio and Crystal Arts. Next would be the Bakery Sponsored by Sarah Lee and the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor sponsored by Borden.
Main Street featured several attractions that can still be found today. Of course, the Walt Disney World Railroad existed at the train station at the beginning of Main Street, but at this time was the only stop. Three trains were in service: the Walter E. Disney, the Lilly Belle, and the Roger E. Broggie. The Main Street Vehicles were also in operation featuring the fire truck, horse drawn street car, an omnibus, a jitney and horseless carriage. The Main Street Cinema was open, as was the Penny Arcade. There was various entertainment, including the Dapper Dans, Walt Disney World Band, the Firehouse Band, a pianist at Refreshment Corner, a saxophone quartet known as the Keystone Kops, a Crystal Palace Trio, as well as the Characters on Parade.
Along the west side of the central hub area, the Baby Care Center and First Aid were in their current locations. The Crystal Palace opened with the park, but was a cafeteria-style, a-la carte restaurant served buffet-style, and was called a buffeteria.
Moving clockwise, Adventureland featured nothing beyond the Jungle Cruise and the Tropical Serenade (the original name for Florida’s Enchanted Tiki Room) sponsored by the Florida Citrus Growers. The Swiss Family Treehouse was there, and the Safari Club shooting arcade was in the current place of the Island Supply Company. This arcade was comprised of coin-operated individual shooting machines as compared to the Frontier Shooting Gallery model. The bench design was not the lava rock we see today, but smoother concrete benches, and the foliage had not grown in yet to the extent we see today. The “Leaky Tikis” existed, but didn’t shoot water and faced each other in a circle, more directly in front of the Jungle Cruise entrance. Also in this area was a ticket booth.
The main restaurant was the Adventureland Veranda, in the current home of Skipper Canteen. The menu was listed as “Polynesian” and featured items such as Fiji Chicken. The Sunshine Tree Terrace occupied its original location between the Tiki Room and the pass through to Frontierland and the Veranda Juice Bar was across from the Treehouse in the Sunshine Tree’s original location. Adventureland Bazaar, Traders of Timbuktu Tiki Tropic Shop, The Magic Carpet, Oriental Imports, and Tropic Toppers comprised the shopping complex along the north set of buildings. The patio area here also housed J.P and the Silver Stars, Adventureland’s steel drum band. The overhang area that separates Frontierland and Adventureland was not installed yet, so the transition between the lands was much harsher.
Opening day Frontierland featured three attractions. First was the Frontier Shooting Gallery featuring lead pellet shooting guns, necessitating repainting every night. The Davy Crocket Explorer Canoes boarded near the current docks for the rafts to Tom Sawyer Island. While the islands existed, they were not open for guests yet. The Country Bear Jamboree was one of the Magic Kingdom’s premiere attractions at the time, and was sponsored by Pepsi and Frito Lay.
The Frontier Trading Post located between the Shooting Gallery and Country Bear Jamboree appears to have been the main store in Frontierland. Located just past the Country Bear’s entrance sat another shop, Westward Ho. The Country Bear Jamboree exited into the Mile Long Bar, a refreshment stand, and the land ended with Pecos Bill’s Cafe.
Liberty Square opened with the Mike Fink Keel Boats, the Haunted Mansion, and the Hall of Presidents. Mike Fink featured two boats: the Gullythumper and the Bertha Mae, and loaded near the entrance to The Haunted Mansion. The Hall of Presidents was up to date with Richard Nixon as the most recent president. Blaine Gibson sculpted all 36 presidents for the cap off to a presentation that featured the voices of Paul Frees and Dal McKennon. The film featured the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Lincoln Douglas debate, and capped off with a Saturn 5 rocket lifting off. Royal Dano once again voiced Lincoln for the finale. The Haunted Mansion exterior was vastly different: no interactive queue, no empty hearse and not even a canopy over the queue. The inside was much the same as it would be until the 2007 refurbishment. One thing to note, the stanchions for the queue and exit were necessarily in different places, as it was the removal of these original stanchions that led to the story of the original bride’s ring.
The Diamond Horseshoe Revue was also an opening day draw, and the hour-long show featured Wally Boag at opening, as the comedian had temporarily relocated from Disneyland to get the Magic Kingdom version of the show going. The current Christmas shop area was broken up into Old World Antiques, Mlle. Lafayette’s Parfumerie, and the Silversmith. The Heritage House next to the Hall of Presidents sold Americana. The Yankee Pedlar opened in the current spot of Memento Mori. The area where the market sits today was an open field. The Liberty Tree Tavern opened as a standard a-la carte table service restaurant. Sleepy Hollow Refreshments appears to have been open as a snack bar opening day as well.
Two opening day notes I would like to mention. The supposed sewage river running through Liberty Square was not the brown stones, but it was a series of rectangular slate tiles. The Liberty Tree across from the Hall of Presidents was originally an oak tree found on the property and transported to its current site.
Entering Fantasyland, first thing you’d encounter would be the Skyway to Tomorrowland taking up the area where the Tangled themed toilets sit now. “it’s a small world” was in its current location, but load and unload were on the opposite sides of the ride canal. The location of PhilharMagic housed its spiritual predecessor, The Mickey Mouse Revue, an animatronic extravaganza featuring some of the most memorable songs in the then-existing Disney catalog. Cinderella’s Golden Carousel, a refurbished 1917 carousel, opened in the castle courtyard. Immediately behind the carousel was Dumbo the Flying Elephant, featuring ten ride vehicles that weren’t wearing hats. Snow White’s Adventures also opened, along with Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Both of these differed considerably from their Disneyland counterparts. The Mad Tea Party was in its current location, but did not feature a canopy.
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Pinnochio’s Village Haus served as the main quick service restaurant serving burgers and the like, and King Stephan’s Banquet Hall was the table service located in Cinderella Castle. The Lancer’s Inn served pizza in the place that would eventually become the Friar’s Nook. The Troubadour Tavern, a refreshment stand, sat next to Peter Pan’s Flight. There was also the Tournament Tent refreshment stand back behind Dumbo. Early shops include the Fantasyland Art Festival, located in what is now the Peter Pan queue, the Castle Camera Shop, the Royal Candy shop and the Mad Hatter, between Mickey Mouse Revue and Peter Pan’s Flight.
The Tomorrowland of opening day was fairly barren. The only attractions were the Grand Prix Raceway sponsored by Goodyear and the Skyway to Fantasyland. None of the attractions along the main pathway from the central hub were ready. Despite its impressive entrance bordered on either side by two waterfall towers, there was nothing futuristic about the attractions in the land at this time. With a decor drastically different from today, the buildings were mainly white concrete and glass, in a depiction of the future that seems like an evolution of the stark style of brutalism popular in the late mid-century period. The Tomorrowland Terrace originally sat in Cosmic Ray’s current location, and the only shops on opening day were the Skyway station shop and Mickey’s Mart, housed in what is now Star Traders. It’s unclear if the original Lunching Pad, now Auntie Gravity’s, was available opening day, but did open in 1971.
Later in 1971
Looking at this list, you’ll no doubt miss a few things you’re sure were there on opening day. In the mad rush to open, not everything made the cut for October 1. First to open just the next day was the Admiral Joe Fowler Riverboat in Liberty Square. Fantasyland saw Peter Pan’s Flight open on October 3, then 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea opened on October 14, and Tinkerbell Toy Shop opened in November. November also saw the “America the Beautiful” Circle-Vision 360 film open in Tomorrowland on the 25th presented by Monsanto. Flight to the Moon premiered across the street one month later on December 24.
The Contemporary Resort
Of course, the Magic Kingdom wasn’t the only thing to open on October 1, 1971. The Contemporary and Polynesian Village Resorts opened that day as well, if not fully. Prices ranged from $25-$44 per night. The Contemporary Resort opened with the familiar A-frame tower and 2 Garden Wings, with a north Garden Wing slightly larger than the south one that exists today. While its lack of landscaping on opening day was necessary to get the hotel open, the nearly 1,000-room resort still featured relatively little landscaping even after being completely redone within the month. The resort also featured significant convention space, even if the large convention center building was not there. There were ten convention rooms including names like Atlantic, Continental, Everglades, Gulf Coast, Pacific, Redwoods, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Great Smokies, and Grand Republic Rooms. The 1,400 seat Ballroom of the Americas was a combination of the Atlantic and Continental Rooms. The convention area also featured the Hemisphere lounge.
Outside, the Contemporary featured multiple pools, a marina, and two snack bars. The Dock Inn focused on normal fast food fare and the Sand Bar was an actual bar. The marinas at both resorts featured multiple watercraft for rent, including the infamous Bob-A-Round Boats. The round teen pool extended into—but was not part of—Bay Lake, and the square adult pool sat between the tower and the lake. The beaches were open for swimming, and featured volleyball courts.
Back in the Grand Canyon Concourse on the fourth floor of the tower, you could find a variety of shops and restaurants. There were several sections operating under the Grand Canyon Terrace, including a cafe and a bar in the areas now taken up by the current restaurants. There was also the Monorail Club Car bar opposite the entrance to the monorail station. The area on the northwest quarter housed The Spirit World (a liquor store), Plaza Gifts and Sundries, and the Fantasia Shop for children. The Bay Lake side had the Contemporary Man and Contemporary Woman, as well as Kingdom Jewelers. And of course, all of this existed under Mary Blair’s famous mural.
The original Top of The World opened with the resort as well. It featured a supper club, lounge, and two private rooms. In addition to the regular nightly shows, it would also occasionally serve as host to famous acts such as Cab Calloway. The area behind check-in now known as The Wave was the Sunshine State Exhibitorium, featuring gaming tables.
The Polynesian Village
Just down the monorail track, past several topiaries, was the Polynesian Village. This opening day version of the resort featured 484 rooms across eight longhouses. Going clockwise from the Great Ceremonial house, they were Bali Hai, Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii, Bora Bora, and Maui. Like the Contemporary, the rooms were not highly-themed, as getting them built on time was the priority. There was only the main pool that looked like a waterfall grotto—the current east pool location was a putting green. The marina featured many of the same watercraft as the Contemporary marina, with the addition of a war canoe. The beaches were also open for swimming, with a small raft slide out in the Seven Seas Lagoon. The infamous wave machine did exist, and operated briefly.
Like today, the Great Ceremonial House featured most of the shops and restaurants. The building did feature the grand waterfall area, but a checkered tile floor. The Polynesian Princess, Robinson Crusoe, Esq., Trader Jack’s Grog Hut, News from Civilization, and Village Gifts and Sundries were the shops off the main lobby. The Tambu Lounge existed, but the restaurant it was attached to was called Papeete Bay Verandah, which featured breakfast, lunch, and a Polynesian revue with dinner. The South Seas Room, which now exists as conference space, was a buffet. The Coral Isle Cafe was the precursor to Kona. The nightly luau took place on the beach as the cove was not ready yet.
October 23-25: The Grand Opening Ceremonies
Not wanting to repeat the chaos that was July 17, 1955 when Disneyland opened, Disney decided to hold the grand opening ceremonies and filming for the TV special after 3 weeks of “soft openings.” Celebrities such as Jonathan Winters, Julie Andrews, Bob Hope, and Buddy Hackett descended on the property for the filming, much of which was done outside of operating hours. The special aired on October 29.
October 24 saw the opening ceremonies for the two resorts. The night culminated with a 1,000 person luau on the beaches of the Polynesian Village. This was also the debut of the Electrical Water Pageant. The 1971 version featured the Sea Serpent, whale, two sea lions, clamshell mermaid, goldfish, dolphins, redhead mermaids, octopus, flying fish, four seahorse, and King Neptune. Fantasy in the Sky is also reported to have premiered that night.
The next day, Roy Disney dedicated the park:
“Walt Disney World is tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney … and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney’s dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place … a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn – together.”
The dedication speech was followed by a 5,000 performer Walt Disney World on Parade, which included a 1,076 member marching band.
Fort Wilderness and Golf
When it came down to deciding what would be available opening day, the Fort Wilderness Campground unfortunately was delayed. Despite appearing on the October 29th opening special, in a rather—well, calling it outdated would be kind—comedic set of segments featuring Jonathan Winters, the campground did not actually open until November 19th. The initial phase of the resort featured 250 campsites. All the recreation facilities and stores were located at the Trading Post. The Tri-Circle-D Ranch opened at the same time.
The Palm and Magnolia course opened in 1971. That year as part of the marketing of the resort, the course hosted the Walt Disney World Golf Classic in December. Jack Nicklaus won. Spalding was the original sponsor and provided the first rental clubs under their Top Flite brand, that were branded with a “Swinging Mickey.”
The early days of Walt Disney World were hectic. From executives being worried that they couldn’t handle the crowds, to them being afraid they were not getting enough on opening day. By the end of November, the daily guest count had passed 50,000. The resort was a huge success. However, the year ended on a solemn note when Roy O. Disney passed away on December 20, 1971, five years and five days after he said goodbye to his younger brother Walt in the same hospital. However, he and Walt Disney Productions accomplished what they had vowed to do that half decade ago, to make Walt’s final dream a reality. Now it would be up to a new set of executives to continue operating the property in the years to come.