Year One: The Dedication of Walt Disney World

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the March 15, 2011 Issue #599 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

More than 40,000 guests jammed the Magic Kingdom on Saturday, October 23, 1971, for the beginning of the official three-day dedication of Walt Disney World. (Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971.)

Fearing a repeat of the turmoil of Disneyland's disastrous opening in 1955, the Disney Company had proclaimed that the entire month of October was the "Preview Month" for the Magic Kingdom. The Company had hoped that after three weeks of operation, everything would be running smoothly by the time of the official dedication a week before Halloween.

Those three days included a special performance by the World Symphony Orchestra, the filming of a television special that included Bob Hope's well-known monolog at the Grand Canyon Concourse inside the Contemporary Resort ("Now I know where the Goodyear Blimp goes in mating season."), banquets like a special beach luau at the Polynesian featuring the debut of the Electrical Water Pageant, and famed composer Meredith Willson conducting a 1,076-piece marching band on Main Street.

For many, the highlight was Roy O. Disney's memorable reading of the dedication plaque that would be enshrined on the ground near the Town Square flagpole on Main Street U.S.A. It was unique because it was not just a dedication of the Magic Kingdom, but all of Walt Disney World:

"Walt Disney World is a 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. Dedicated this 25th day of October, 1971. Roy O. Disney."

While most Disney fans are familiar with the Monday dedication ceremonies thanks to the television special, "The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World", which aired on NBC on Friday, October 29, 1971, and various film clips and photos from the Monday festivities over the years, there were plenty of other activities on Saturday and Sunday leading up to that grand finale.

That Saturday, celebrities arrived by chartered jet at the Orlando Jetport at McCoy Airfield (later to become Orlando International Airport — which is why the tickets on baggage today still reference "McCoy" or "MCO"). Dancer Ray Bolger remarked, "It's a wonderful beginning of (Walt's) dream." Raspy voiced actor Andy Devine added, "Actually, I feel Walt is here. And he probably has the best seat in the house."

The stars were quickly put aboard buses for the trip to Walt Disney World. By 1 p.m., the parking lot at the Magic Kingdom was a little more than three-quarters full, as eager guests flooded into the park to try to catch a glimpse of the stars.

Fifteen soldiers also showed up at the park that day. These volunteers from the 197th Infantry Brigade at Fort Benning, Georgia had completed a 160-mile "fun march" five days after it started in Jacksonville, Florida. The march, according to their leader, was to show prospective recruits that the modern Army could be fun. The soldiers spent the night in Sanford and walked from there to Walt Disney World for the first day of the dedication ceremonies.

Saturday night, the World Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Arthur Fiedler, played in the forecourt of Cinderella Castle to 2,500 invited guests in black tie and elegant gowns. Fiedler was entering his 42nd season as the conductor of the popular Boston Pops Orchestra.

The 141 musicians were assembled from 60 countries and 26 American states at the request of the Disney Company in order to bring an international flavor to the dedication. Of course, the challenges of putting together such a symphony were physically and musically enormous. Nearly every major symphony in the world was represented, including several East European and one South Vietnamese musician.

The selections were announced in August, but the first rehearsal was not until Wednesday, two days before the Symphony's first concert in New York, and three days before its appearance at Walt Disney World. The group made its final appearance two days later at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

That pleasant evening at the Magic Kingdom, with a new moon showing through the few clouds, the performance was delayed by 15 minutes from its announced starting time of 8 o'clock because of the musicians' late afternoon rehearsal.

The magnificent Cinderella Castle loomed quietly and majestically in the background as the focus was on the lighted forecourt.

Following the introduction of the symphony members, accompanied by a roll of drums, the orchestra opened the concert with "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland. Other pieces included "Prelude and Love-Death" from Tristan and Isolde, "The Pines of Rome" by Respighi, an excerpt from "Estarcia" by Ginastera, and Offenbach's "Gaite Parisienne". For encores, the orchestra played "Little Fugue in G Minor" by Bach, a tribute to Walt Disney with "It's A Small World" and a stirring rendition of "Stars and Stripes Forever" that brought the audience to its feet.

"When we began we were just musicians from 60 different countries with a language barrier from each," said Joseph Reines of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. the day after the WDW performance. "But after we played the music, there was no barrier. We can communicate through our music."

Thousands of Magic Kingdom guests were allowed to remain inside the park to enjoy the show. Those guests, several levels deep, lined Main Street to enthusiastically applaud the invited guests as they entered the exclusive viewing area. There was a tremendous ovation for Fred MacMurray and his wife who were guest favorites during the weekend.

Mr. and Mrs. Roy Disney, Mr. and Mrs. John Truyens (Walt's widow Lillian had remarried by this time to John Truyens), Governor and Mrs. Haydon Burns (Burns was the governor during the press conference announcement October 1965 that Disney was coming to Florida), also former Governor Claude Kirk and his wife, as well as current Florida Governor Reubin Askew and his wife, Orlando's police chief Robert Chewning and his wife were all there.

Comedian Jonathan Winters and his wife, actors Cesar Romero (another crowd favorite), Greg Morris (of the television show "Mission: Impossible"), Mr. and Mrs. Sterling Holloway (who were generally overlooked with the crowd not suspecting that the actor provided the voices for so many classic Disney animated projects), Hugh O'Brian (television star of "Wyatt Earp"), Fess Parker ("Davy Crockett"), Joe Flynn ("McHale's Navy"), Johnny Whitaker ("Family Affair"), Robert Stack and his wife, Rock Hudson (who disappointed many female fans over the weekend by refusing to sign autographs or have his picture taken), Sebastian Cabot, and Annette Funicello (another huge audience favorite) acknowledged their many fans.

There was a host of military and political figures, including Mr. and Mrs. J.J. Griffin and Mr. and Mrs. William Capehart. Those two were the mayors of the villages located at Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista on Walt Disney World property.

President Richard Nixon had planned to attend the ceremonies but canceled just days before the event because of the difficulty in getting the proper amount of security. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief aide, presented an American flag on behalf of the President to Roy O. Disney. The flag, which had flown over the White House, was the first President Nixon had personally sent to anyone, stated Haldeman. It was to fly over Main Street, U.S.A.

Sunday night was a celebrity-laden, three-hour, torch-lit luau and show on the beach of the Polynesian Resort. More than a thousand invited guests enjoyed a variety of Polynesian dances and ceremonies, which climaxed with a spectacular fire knife dance with three dancers flashing their flaming blades in the darkness.

The luau consisted of aloha bowls, egg rolls, fried shrimp, rumaki, Hawaiian poi, fresh coconut, luau pig, chicken with almonds, duck mandarin style with lichee nuts, snow peas and water chestnuts, barbecued pork, fried rice and jasmine teas.

That show was followed by the debut of the Electrical Water Pageant announced by "mysterious lights" in the sky from the Goodyear Blimp floating overhead. Fourteen floats covered in twinkling lights, just like those on a Christmas tree, showcased real and fanciful creatures of the deep.

That float configuration was different than in later years. The processional seen for the first time was: Sea Serpent (four floats), Whale (one float), Two Sea Lions Playing With a Ball (one float), Clamshell Opening and Closing (one float), Three Red-Haired Mermaids (one float), Three Jumping Dolphins (three floats), Three Goldfish Swimming Through Bubbles (one float), Four Seahorses (one float), and Neptune (one float).

The finale was a "super spectacular" pyrotechnic fireworks show in the balmy skies that brought the guests to their feet as "America the Beautiful" played over the speakers.

"Just another typical Florida night that could never be duplicated in California," smiled former Governor Claude Kirk.

Close to 100,000 guests were at the Magic Kingdom over the three-day dedication. The celebrities were all unanimous in their approval.

"It's the most bewitching place I've ever seen," quipped actress Agnes Morehead, who played Endora on the televison show "Bewitched".

"It makes me feel young again," claimed actor Walter Brennan.

"It's too bad all cities can't do what Disney World has done with regard to ecology," commented actor Robert Stack, who was then a board member of the National Wildlife Federation, as throughout the weekend he continued to praise the Disney organization for its concern for the environment.

The Grand Finale was on Monday beginning with a character-filled parade down Main Street, followed by the world's largest marching band playing composer Meredith Willson's song "76 Trombones". The composer himself was there to direct the band that numbered 1,076 from a podium in front of Cinderella Castle. Musicians remember they later got letters of thanks from both Willson and Roy Disney, as well as several ticket books to the park for their participation.

"When You Wish Upon A Star" was sung by a 1,500-voice choir and ended with the release of thousands of balloons filling the sky with all the colors of the rainbow. Then, a modest Roy Disney motioned a costumed Mickey Mouse to join him as he read the dedication.

The dream had officially begun for millions of eager Disney visitors.


Jim KorkisABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. He is the author of the popular recently published book The Vault of Walt, which contains nearly 40 chapters of untold Disney stories. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.