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Gronvold: Waltzing with Walt Disney

By Staff | Sep 2, 2016

Carissa Mavec’s column “8 Days in the Happiest Place on Earth” made me wonder where on Earth that could be. She explained that it was in Walt Disney World and went on to describe how many of the “guests” (who pay about a hundred dollars a day for the privilege of being invited in) appeared to be grouchy, disappointed, tired, etc. Carissa, you have nailed it.

In 1965 the Orlando Sentinel sniffed out a story that Walt Disney was behind significant purchases of massive tracts of Central Florida land near Kissimmee, a cow town south of Orlando. Disney was able to keep this under the radar by using three “dummy” companies, none of which had the word “Disney” anywhere near their titles.

Disney had chosen the site in 1963 and announced his plans in 1965, once the story had leaked. There had been rumors that NASA or the Rockefellers or even Howard Hughes were behind the big land buys. Orlando was a sleepy citrus town of 90,000, the county seat of the aptly-named Orange County. No one could have guessed that someday over 52 million people would be attracted to Walt’s world…each year.

Minot’s Channel 10 (NBC) carried some ABC programming (as did Channel 13). One of the ABC shows was “Walt Disney Presents”, which I watched faithfully as a kid. Mr. Disney loved to show us the newly-built Disneyland in Anaheim, California and his plans for the futuristic yet-to-be-built “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow” (EPCOT). No mention was made of Florida. The Walt Disney Company would later buy ABC.

My Dad and I visited Disneyland on Dec. 30, 1959, after I had cajoled and pleaded with my parents for several years. Disneyland was built on 160 acres, which planners soon realized was way too small. Entrepreneurs quickly bought up land across the four streets that surround the park and built motels, restaurants, etc. Mickey was boxed in.

So, Mr. Disney decided that when he built Walt Disney World he would be sure to have enough room to grow, sort of like when my Mom bought me blue jeans at Jacobson’s before the school year. She got them plenty long and I turned up the cuffs a good four inches. By the end of the term, the cuffs were much shorter.

Disney had plenty of cuff room, buying up 30,500 acres and managed to: a) Keep the price of land down by keeping it quiet; and b) getting many concessions from the State of Florida and the surrounding counties. He formed the Reedy Creek Improvement District, encompassing 38.6 sq. mi. in Orange and Osceola Counties, with its own police and fire departments, saving a ton o’ tax dollars.

The so-called “Magic Kingdom” theme park was developed first and opened October 1, 1971. My parents and I visited a few days later. We paid $3.75 admission and if you wanted to go on certain rides, you had to buy a booklet of coupons (A thru E). The E coupons were for the big attractions such as Space Mountain.

We took one of the Magic Kingdom’s tours, conducted by a fresh-faced, uniformed young woman who wore an equestrian helmet, a blue vest, green and blue plaid skirt, black patent leather pumps and knee-high white stockings and carried a riding crop. All of the ride attendants, restaurant servers, etc. were between 20-30 years of age and of a singular color. New employees were called “cast members” and after a group’s first day of training their photo was on the cover of the next day’s employees’ newspaper.

I went to Korea a few days after our Disney visit and upon my return in 1972, things had begun to change. Over the next five years there was a gentle relaxation in hiring standards. The faces weren’t as fresh or monochromatic and the prices of everything were gently rising. My parents occasionally entertained friends from up North and accumulated booklets of unused ride coupons. So, I could pay $6.95 for admission and use all the unused A thru E coupons. And, yes, Carissa, there were two-hour waits and much grumbling and even fainting during hot days.

I last visited the Magic Kingdom on a grueling August day in 2010. I waltzed all over the place, marveling that although the park’s geography was the same, the demography of the “cast members” and the “guests”, had changed. It resembled what I imagine the Ellis Island experience was a hundred years ago. I was so worn out from spending just five hours at the “Happiest Place on Earth” that it took me two days to happily recover.

Bill is a 1966 RHS grad and has accumulated nearly a month’s worth of waiting in WDW/EPCOT lines. Best way to beat the lines: Rent a wheelchair.

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