A major milestone in the history of Walt Disney Productions (WDP) occured on April 30, 1969, when the company announced details for “The Vacation Kingdom of the World” in Central Florida. The announcement came from Messer. Roy O. Disney, Donn Tatum and Card Walker of Disney, Florida Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr., and the top executives from United States Steel, RCA, the Monsanto Company, and Aerojet-General Corporation. The men stated that the resort would open in October, 1971.
Roy O. Disney began with a story about a time back in 1953 when his brother Walt started the Disneyland project. He felt “the real strength of our Company has been that Walt and the staff he built always seemed to be able to reach out and touch the heart of the public.” He stressed, “The important thing in our Company has always been sticking to the basics, and upholding the high standards and quality of our product.”
Moving east was not an easy decision. Roy said, “For many years, from Walt on down, we thought there should be only one Disneyland. But as time passed, experience told us that there were about 100 million people in the east and midwest and south who would never get out west, and therefore would never have the opportunity to see Disneyland.” He credited the success at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair as the tipping point to look east. The fact that Florida got three times as many visitors as Southern California did not get overlooked.
Roy credited Walt with the way things were laid out. He said, “We traveled all around Florida looking at what other people have accomplished with similar land conditions. And Walt especially became enthusiastic about what you could do with water in an entertainment complex. He was very enthusiastic about how we could turn the water into a tremendous attraction and asset in our business.”
It is hard to imagine today just how far out in the sticks the WDW property was from any point of civilization. WDW was located sixteen miles southwest of Orlando and the first phase of the project would cover only 2,500-acres out of the total Disney holdings of 27,443-acres. The development area would reach nearly three miles across Walt Disney World from east to west, and almost two miles from north to south. Those 2,500-acres would include some 450-acres dedicated to waterways and the 3.8 miles of white sand beaches. Plus, the addition of the 200-acre Seven Seas Lagoon.
During this first phase, Disney expected to build a new “Magic Kingdom amusement theme park similar to California’s Disneyland, five related resort hotels and an entrance complex.” The hotels would range in size from 500 to 700 rooms and “will be themed along Contemporary, Polynesian, Asian, Venetian and Persian motifs.” Connecting all of these activity centers would be “a transportation network — monorail, water craft, and land vehicles.” I wonder if they imagined the dependency on buses that we have come to know today?
Opening day attractions would include the Country Bear Band show with robotic bears. “Nearby will be found Thunder Mesa, a spectacular panorama, where the old west will live again through a series of exciting adventures,” according to a press release. “Designed to resemble a “table-top mountain,” typical of those on southwestern deserts, it will offer a pueblo-style village and other attractions, including the Western River Expedition, a frontier fantasy on the grand scale of the Pirates of the Caribbean in California’s Disneyland.” Liberty Square would be unique to the east coast along with its inspirational show One Nation Under God, featuring the 37 Presidents of the United States. Fantasyland would feature Pinocchio Street and the Mickey Mouse Musical Revue. And Space Mountain would dominate the skyline of Tomorrowland.
Of course, Florida Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. was excited about Disney’s arrival. He said, “The development of Walt Disney World to date has been characterized by creativeness, thoroughness and a concern for proper planning. We are pleased to have you as neighbors.” Roy O. Disney was proud of his team and congratulated “the most highly creative, experienced and talented reservoir of personnel ever assigned to the development of an outdoor recreation attraction.”
Donn Tatum, president of Walt Disney World Co., told reporters at a press conference that the Florida project had been underdevelopment for more than three years. “Before we could award the first construction contracts,” said Tatum, “major goals first had to be attained in the areas of economic planning and financing, enabling legislation, labor relations, site preparation and water control, master planning, architecture and engineering.”
The most significant achievement was the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). Tatum noted, “During the 1967 session of the Florida State Legislature, the Disney organization sought and obtained approval of enabling legislation.” The RCID would be responsible “to perform the work of drainage, flood and pest control; to build and maintain roadways, utility and sewer systems; to provide and administer public transportation systems, fire protection, airport and parking facilities; and to regulate and administer land use and planning within the District’s limits.” Approval of the RCID was one of the major building blocks for the Florida project according to Roy Disney. He said, “Very important changes were necessary in certain Florida laws pertaining to our type of business, so that we could protect our names and characters.”
Tatum reported that the RCID had been busy during their first twenty months. The water control system would inevitably allow for development on 18,000 acres out of the more than 27,000 acres, if necessary. The RCID would also build the Central Energy Plant.
Another achievement was the signing of a three-year construction agreement with Allen Contracting Co., and the presidents of the 17 individual international unions on February 11, 1969. Tatum proudly stated, “The contract assures continuity of construction by making strikes and other work stoppages unnecessary.”
Included in the day’s events were announcements from some of Disney’s key corporate partners including Untied States Steel (USS), RCA, the Monsanto Company, and Aerojet-General Corporation. Tatum said, “These agreements are but the first examples of industry participation to be announced.” While Roy spoke only of the “outdoor recreation attraction,” Donn Tatum referred to the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).
The first two resort hotels would be built by United States Steel’s USS Realty Development Division. Their plans called for the first major use of steel framed unitized or modular construction. “The 10-story Contemporary A-frame designed hotel and the 12-story Polynesian style resort hotel will be a demonstration of the kind of technical innovation Walt Disney sought to encourage on the part of American industry,” according to Edwin H. Gott, chairman of the board of USS. If successful, USS felt this approach would be able to bring down the cost of construction for hotels and housing alike.
The 360-room “tomorrow” hotel would have a lobby big enough for the monorail to pass through and a convention hall/grand ballroom. The “South Sea” hotel, many of the 250 rooms would have private garden patios while the remaining 840 would make up the motel annex.
Each of the 1,450 steel framed unitized rooms for the two resorts weigh only six tons as compared to the typical 30-ton modular hotel rooms built using other materials. It was said that the 29 feet by 14 feet 4 inch rooms were “so complete at installation that the first person entering the room after it leaves the ground could really be the maid.” The units were strong enough that three could be piled on top of each other without additional supports. That is why the low-rise buildings at both of the hotels are only three stories. Welton Becket & Associates was chosen as the architects and the Walt Disney Hotel Company would operate the facilities.
RCA was bringing a new high-tech “System of Systems’ that would link computers, telephones, automatic monitoring and control devices, mobile communications, and television together. As a company, they asked themselves, “What shape will electronic information handling take by the year 2000?” The answer became known as WEDCOMM (Walter E. Disney Communications Oriented Monitoring and Management System). Based on a modular architecture, the system was being developed by a new organization called RCA Systems Development. Some of the goals for the system included tracking events throughout the resort, providing news and previews of activities over special television channels in the hotel rooms, and a closed-circuit television system designed to train employees. Everything would be linked together including administrative, financial, and operational functions. Another benefit to the system was the ability to build guest profiles “to assist the staff in progressively improving their service to return visitors.” Sound familiar? It was hoped that the RCA System Communication Center would open as a display in Tomorrowland.
The corporate sponsors mattered not only for their technical expertise but for their deep pockets. “It is estimated that the recreational facilities for this destination-vacation resort will require capital expenditures by the Company of approximately $165 million, exclusive of the cost of hotel and motel construction, before the project opens to the general public in October, 1971.” Fortunately, WDP was in the financial position to pull this project off.
Finally, Card Walker hinted at some of the other ideas under consideration including an “airport of the future, offering service to private and executive aircraft, as well as commercial charters; an industrial park designed to showcase American industry at work; and the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.”
Why things did and did not turn out the way promised is the stuff of future tales.
Hard for me to believe but my upcoming book, THE DISNEYLAND THAT WAS, IS, AND NEVER WILL BE, is already available for pre-order.
THE DISNEYLAND THAT WAS, IS, AND NEVER WILL BE
A Biography of an American Institution
Walt Disney said, “Disneyland is the star. Everything else is in the supporting role.”The Disneyland that Was, Is, and Never Will Be is the story of how Walt Disney’s greatest creation was conceived, nurtured, and how it grew into a source of joy and inspiration for generations of visitors. Despite his successors battles with the whims of history and their own doubts and egos, Walt’s vision maintained momentum, thrived, and taught future generations how to do it Walt Disney’s way.