What Walt Disney World was like in when it opened in 1971, after turning swampland into the Magic Kingdom

Disney World opens (1971)

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When did Disney World open? October 1, 1971 is when the latest and greatest addition to Walt Disney’s empire of imagination started to thrill a whole new generation of visitors.

After years of secretly buying up swampland acreage in central Florida, Walt Disney’s dream of a theme park even bigger and better than Disneyland was finally realized.

See what the theme park originally looked like here — plus how papers reported on the Disney World opening as it happened!

See what Disney World looked like when it first opened in 1971

Disney World Opening: Welcome to Mickey’s World

By William A. Davis – The Boston Globe (Massachusetts) October 24, 1971

DISNEY WORLD, Fla. — The way the story goes, the late Walt Disney flew over this then uninviting stretch of scrub pine and cypress swamp one day, looked down, and said: “This is the place.”

So, with a touch of his magic wand — and $400 million — a fairy kingdom rose from the bog-like Atlantis returning from the depths of the sea.

Which makes Disney Enterprises the only multi-million dollar corporation in the country with an annual report that reads like it was written by The Brothers Grimm.

Fantasy and profit have been associated with the name Disney ever since a mouse named Mickey danced across movie screens in the late 1920s.

As they say in showbiz: “They’re Together Again!”

Vintage 1971 Disney World postcard

The entertainment formula that has been fabulously successful at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. has been polished, refined, enlarged, and transferred to the East Coast at Disney World, a semi-autonomous kingdom 20 miles from Orlando.

Florida, the East — and maybe the whole US — will never, ever, be the same.

The “neon jungle” that grew up around Disneyland outraged Walt Disney’s aesthetic sensibilities — and the fact that twice as much money was spent in the area immediately outside the park as in it, offended his financial ones.

The answer at Disney World was to create a 2500-acre “Vacation Kingdom” on a 28,000-acre tract, with a Disneyland-like “theme park” called The Magic Kingdom right in the middle. “We want to control the entire environment,” a Disney official said.

Vintage 1971 Florida Walt Disney World postcard - park model

Disney World opening: Controlled environment

The environment has not only been controlled, it’s been transformed. An existing lake was drained, its muddy bottom, cleaned, sand spread on its beaches, then re-filled. A whole new lagoon was also dug out.

You can’t buy a palm tree in Florida — they’re all here providing the necessary tropical atmosphere.

Disney World expects 10 million visitors its first year — about what 16-year-old Disneyland gets now — and will probably be the State of Florida’s biggest taxpayer very shortly. A grateful Florida has given the Disney people almost every power short of granting patents of nobility.

The Florida legislature created — and Disney controls — the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which has all the powers — police and judicial excepted — of a county. This includes authority to create THREE separate incorporated towns, which, when populated, will have their own police and courts.

As a practical matter, the only police force of any size in this corner of Florida already is the 200-man Disney World security force, a corps of six-footers euphemistically called “security hosts.”

See Disneyland's original Pirates of the Caribbean ride, before the changes

The main effect of the Florida legislature’s blank check to date has been to free Disney World from zoning restrictions and archaic building codes. As one executive put it: “In what county could we have put up Cinderella’s Castle without a court fight lasting 20 years?”

But, the Disney people plan to use this freedom to create two self-governing resort towns — Bay Lake, Lake Buena Vista and EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.) The latter is intended to be a city of some 20,000 persons and “a living blueprint of tomorrow.”

“Let’s face it,” one Floridian said, “they’ve got their own country here.”

So far, it’s a happy country.

Disney World opened its gates Oct. 1, although the official dedication isn’t until Friday, when the VIPs fly in from Anaheim and the World Symphony Orchestra (Arthur Fiedler conducting 140 musicians from 60 of the world’s finest orchestras) puts on a black-tie concert in front of Cinderella’s 18-story castle.

Walt Disney World opening day fact

How much did Disney World tickets cost on opening day?

The cost of admission to Disney World in 1971 was $3.50 — approximately $22.91 today — but that price didn’t include rides. You needed to purchase a separate book of tickets. And if you wanted to ride ALL of the most popular rides, you’d need to buy more than one set!

Vintage Walt Disney World - It's a Small World (1970s)
Vintage Walt Disney World – It’s a Small World (1970s)
Disney World opening: No “Black Sunday”

October is “try-out” month at Disney World, a time to get the bugs out. Disney executives, remembering “Black Sunday,” the day in 1955 when 35,000 persons jammed into Disneyland on opening day, picked the low point of Florida’s tourist year to open Disney World.

The two hotels, the 500-room Polynesian Village and the 1000-room Contemporary Resort Hotel, which has a nine-story “Grand Canyon” lounge and restaurant area with a monorail running through it, are not quite completed yet. Three other hotels, with Persian, Venetian, and Oriental themes are planned — along with a dude ranch.

Grand Floridian Beach Resort opens at Disney World (1988)
Disney World opening: Safe formula

Rates are $22 to $40 a room, regardless of the season.

Finishing touches are also being put on the Tomorrowland section of the theme park but the rest of the Magic Kingdom — Fantasyland, Adventureland, Liberty Square and Main Street, USA — is fully functioning.

It’s the tried and true Disney formula, and the public loves it.

At the moment, there are fewer attractions than at Disneyland (35 compared to 53) and many are counterparts of ones found on the West Coast: Main Street, Cinderella’s Castle, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, all proven crowd-pleasers.

Walt Disney World opening Magic Kingdom vintage map 1971

And, of course, the Disney cartoon characters — Donald Duck, Pluto, the Three Pigs, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and all the rest — are led frequently through the streets by Mickey Mouse, pausing only to pose with bug-eyed youngsters.

The Disney magic lies in beguiling the senses so totally that disbelief is suspended utterly. This doesn’t just work with children — adults have their own Fantasyland, too.

At Disney World, it’s called Main Street, and it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the main gate. This is the idealized small town your grandfather was supposed to have lived: in back around 1900.

There’s a flower-filled town square, dominated by a high Victorian railroad station, and surrounded by period buildings bedecked with carpenter’s gingerbread and topped with iron spikes.

A horse-drawn streetcar pulls into the square, a loudspeaker tells us that Casey is dancing with a strawberry blonde, and girls in shirtwaists pull their skirts modestly around their ankles as they step off the curbing.

Walt Disney World Cinderella Castle postcard - Amtrak (1971)

Disney World opening: Unreal perfection

Everything is gleaming, and buildings, vehicles — even people — are exact replicas of the originals.

The only inaccuracy, of course, is perfection. No turn-of-the-century town — except one in a magic kingdom — had so much gingerbread one place, or had streets so clean. (Horse dung was one of the hazards of urban life 70 years ago; at Disney World, the horse-drawn streetcars are trailed by white-uniformed, eagle-eyed “sanitary hosts.”

It’s the way the world should have been — not the way it was. The middle-aged and elderly (retirees are a sizeable part of Florida’s population) seem to be reluctant to leave Main Street for Adventureland or other less reassuring parts of the park.

Vintage Disneyland tickets: The A B C D E rides and attractions at the Magic Kingdom (1959-1982)

Meticulous attention to detail is characteristic of Disney productions, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the people who staff Disney World. Actually, “staff” is the wrong word — they’ve been cast.

There are some 7000 employees at Disney World, each given a “role” that matches his or her physical appearance. The men in Adventureland are tall and rugged, the girls in Fantasyland short and cute, the women in Frontierland stately and heroic, and the girls on Main Street are plain and wholesome. All are well-groomed — servicemen look shaggier these days — and never seem to stop smiling.

Employees are trained at “The University of Disney World,” where among other things, they are exposed to a representative selection of old Walt Disney films to give them “The Disney Spirit.”

Disney World has vigorously recruited minority groups, and blacks and Spanish-Americans are well represented. In fact, the Magic Kingdom staff is as beautifully-balanced as to race, color — and presumably creed — as the Hollywood version of a World War II bomber crew.

Tasty tuna recipes from vintage Disneyland's Pirate Ship restaurant (1955-1956)

Walter Elias Disney was plugged into Middle America if ever a man was, understood its fears, and in Disney World created the Good Society where the grass is always green, the young are neat, courteous, and respectful to their elders, women are “modest and self-effacing, minorities are happy, and things work.

(The Carousel, of all things, provides a discordant political note at the Magic Kingdom. One of the tunes it plays is “The Internationale” — the Socialist anthem. )

Walt Disney World opening day fact

Who was Disney World’s first visitor?

William Windsor, Jr., with his wife and two young children, drove all night to be the first in line for Disney World’s opening day on October 1, 1971. In return, they won lifetimes passes to the park!

YouTube video

Tomorrowland today

It takes a lot of logistics and technical expertise to make a fantasy believable. Some of the features that will be incorporated in the “city of tomorrow” are being tested out at Disney World, among them AVAC, a system of underground vacuum tubes that will whisk away up to 50 tons of refuse daily. The Disney World AVAC, a system developed in Sweden, is the largest in the world.

Disney World opening: 50,000 costumes

The AVAC tubes, served by 15 Stations around the Magic Kingdom, run through a maze of almost 10 miles of “utilidor” tunnels under the park, which carry other utilities as well as providing an easy — and invisible — way for the staff to move from one part of the area to another. Besides, its utilidor system helps preserve illusions.

Using the tunnels, employees can go from the wardrobe department (50,000 costumes) to their own “land” without being seen — or shocking a youngster who doesn’t expect to find a frontier scout in a coonskin cap in Tomorrowland.

Naturally, the prototype model community will be pollution-free, so even the Model-Ts on Main Street are driven by engines powered by natural gas. (As an ecological gesture, 7500 of Disney World’s 28,000 acres have been set aside as a conservation area.)

See what Disney World looked like when it first opened in 1971 - Vintage scenes (6)

Much of the entertainment at the Magic Kingdom is quite futuristic already, since the entertainers are more or less robots.

It’s what Disney World calis “audio-animatronics,” a system of electronically animating objects and synchronizing voices, music and sound effects.

The most elaborate example is The Mickey Mouse Review — billed as “The First-Ever Computer-Programmed Stage Show” — in which life-size Disney characters sing, dance and play songs from Disney films. The Mickey Mouse figure that conducts the orchestra, is a technological marvel capable of several thousand combinations of movement.

The audio-animatronic system is also used in one of the most popular shows, “Country Bear Jamboree,” a genuinely funny review in which rubber-faced bear figures parody Grand Ole Opry.

See what Disney World looked like when it first opened in 1971 - Vintage scenes (7)

The wildest use of the system is in The Hall of The Presidents (a replica of Independence Hall in Philadelphia) where, after a rousing widescreen film on the Declaration of Independence and the Civil War, the curtain parts and all 36 presidents of the US, from Washington to Nixon, are seated on stage. As his name is called, each rises and takes a bow. When Lincoln delivers a speech about unity, they all nod their heads wisely.

Busch Gardens: The Dark Continent rides and adventures at the theme park in Tampa, Florida (1987)

It’s rather eerie. After a few days at Disney World, it’s a little hard to tell what’s real, anyway.

One evening, a crowd gathered on the beach outside the Polynesian Village for a luau. They looked admiringly at the black clouds piled dramatically behind the turrets of Cinderella’s Castle and clapped when artistic streaks of lightning lit up the sky.

Then it began to rain.

Disney World opens – 1971 Life cover
Mickey opens in Florida: Disney moves east

LIFE magazine – October 15, 1971

The new site is Florida, but the air is pure old Disney. Who else could be responsible for this carefully-crafted vision of the American past, the intricate, hokey, hugely-expensive assemblage of lives and places that never were?

Walt Disney World, which opened this month, is $400 million worth of amusement park, vacation resort and planned model city enameled onto the scrub-pine flats outside Orlando, Florida. The Disney trademark is all over it: the businesslike use of fantasy, the no-nonsense approach to nonsense.

See what Disney World looked like when it first opened in 1971 - Vintage scenes (1)

Disney World incorporates some lessons learned in the original gold mine called Disneyland that opened 16 years ago at Anaheim, California.
Some changes are minor. At Orlando, the vinyl leaves on the Swiss Family Robinson tree are draped with live Spanish moss. No such decoration at Anaheim.

Disney World’s 18-story Cinderella Castle is more than twice as high as its Anaheim counterpart and houses a lavish restaurant. Anaheim has only one president, an animated Abraham Lincoln, but Disney World’s Hall of Presidents offers all 36 of them — in costume, in motion, and getting along famously.

See what Disney World looked like when it first opened in 1971 - Vintage scenes (4)

Orlando’s Disney World: A world with lots to do in it

At the heart of Disney World’s 27,400 acres is at the Magic Kingdom (foreground), a theme park much like California’s Disneyland.

A stern-wheeler offers a winding cruise of the Rivers of America in the foreground. The red-brick Haunted Mansion (far left), Cinderella Castle (center) and Main Street (upper right) are Disney landmarks.

See what Disney World looked like when it first opened in 1971 - Vintage scenes (3)

See what Disney World looked like when it first opened in 1971 - Vintage scenes (2)

DON’T MISS: See how Carowinds theme park in North & South Carolina looked in the 1980s

Magic Kingdom 1971 Grand Opening, Walt Disney World

This is video footage only — there is no sound

YouTube video

Vintage Disney World opening
Cinderella’s castle: Disney World opening
Disney World opening — Fun, fantasy and reality (1973)

It’s a vacation kingdom — 43 square miles. And more than that, it’s a laboratory for city planners

by John Reddy – Reader’s Digest – December 1973

Our stately Chinese junk glided through the waters of the lagoon, one night at Walt Disney World in Florida. Ahead, etched in brilliant lights, the golden spires of Cinderella’s Castle rose above the Magic Kingdom.

An electrical water show, with sea creatures animated in lights and music blaring, serpentined past us in the darkness. Spotlights ashore pinpointed the flashing figures of water skiers soaring over jumps while one, suspended from a kite, rose higher than a ten-story building before floating safely down. To top it all off, an eruption of fireworks spangled the sky like a giant Christmas tree.

“I only wish Walt could have seen this,” said Card Walker, president of the Disney organization. “He’d have loved it.”

Disney World: Fun, fantasy and reality (1973)

Disney World opening: Be their guest

Visitors love it. Ten million flocked to Disney World last year to see this latest and greatest in Walt Disney’s ever-expanding empire of imagination. That is more American tourists than visited Britain, Germany or Austria.

Walt died seven years ago. But Walt Disney Productions, which he started with one mouse 50 years ago, is thriving as never before. “Build a better mousetrap,” says the old adage; Disney built a better mouse and, ever since, people by the millions have been beating a path to his door.

Disneyland, California, opened in 1955. It covered 250 acres and was constructed at an original cost of $17 million — Walt had to hock his life insurance to finance it. But it was an enormous instant success (nearly ten million visitors every year).

So for his next venture, ten years later, he bought 27,000 acres in central Florida — an area twice the size of Manhattan.

Disney World: Fun, fantasy and reality (1973)

Disney World opening: A $400 million dream come true

The cost of Disney World, as of opening day in October 1971, was $400 million. Walt indeed would be proud of the way his vision materialized from a wilderness of swamps and pine barrens.

The vast and varied layout embraces not only the theme park — a big and shiny hunk of fun and fantasy — but a model town, five lakes, three golf courses, two railroads and a monorail, 50 miles of waterways with 256 boats (giving it the world’s tenth-largest “navy”), 717 campsites, and 7500 acres of wildlife preserve.

The place is filled with eye-popping attractions. The Magic Kingdom here has many of the same features as Disneyland — but bigger and better.

Vintage Disney World - Orlando 1973 - Main Street USA

Cinderella’s Castle, for instance, is twice as high as its California counterpart. And where Disneyland has one lifelike Audio-Animatronic figure — of Abraham Lincoln — Disney World has the figures of every US President, from George Washington on.

One of the new attractions, housed in a gingerbread Victorian building, is “The Walt Disney Story.” Here his busy, creative life is traced in memorabilia and on film, with his own voice on the soundtrack.

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