Earlier this Fall, Disneyana fans could be heard all around
the Web griping about the Company's plans for Walt Disney World's 40th
anniversary. Or lack thereof.
"I don't get it," (or words to that effect) was the constant
refrain that you saw online. "Why isn't Disney making a bigger deal about
October 1, 2011? You'd think that they'd want to celebrate the 40th
anniversary of WDW's opening."
The only problem with that scenario is that ... Well, there
are still a number of old-timers who actually worked for the Company back then who
remember how frightening the morning of October 1, 1971 was. When - after months
of working 'round the clock to get The Vacation Kingdom of the World ready for
what-they-hoped-would-be-an-absolute-sea of Guests - Disney officials threw
open the gates ... and only a trickle of people came in.
Copyright Bonaventure Press. All rights reserved
As David Koenig recounted in his excellent history of the
WDW Resort, "Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World"
(Bonaventure Press, October 2007), Cast Members were crushed when they saw how
few people came out to visit the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971:
"What a brutal disappointment," (Opening Day WDW parking lot
manager) Jerry Van Dyke remarked. "We got (to the Resort that morning),
expecting road jams, traffic jams. We had a plan how we were going to close the
parking lot. The day finally rolled up and we kept saying, 'Where are the
guests?' 'Where are the guests?'"
When all was said and done, only 10,400 people came out to
the Kingdom on October 1, 1971. Which explains the headlines that ran in
newspapers nationwide on October 2nd: "Disney World Opens to Light
Crowds." Which was enough to send the price of Disney stock tumbling, dropping
$9.38 in a single day.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
And throughout the entire month of October in 1971, the
crowds weren't what Disney executives had been hoping for. Which - in a way -
was sort of a kindness. Given that - in his one year anniversary message to WDW
cast members - then-WDW executive vice president Dick Nunis admitted that ...
... we were not ready to open but time ran out and we had to.
This created some difficult conditions, some of which still exist ... inadequate
dressing facilities, break areas, cafeterias, transportation and office space ...
we guessed wrong on our costume size requirements and local housing and
transportation has not developed the way that we thought it would.
So with crowds far lighter than expected throughout much of
October and the first half of November, WDW management took advantage of this
unplanned quiet period to try & finish up construction work on the
Contemporary Resort Hotel. Not to mention trying to figure out how to plug the numerous
leaks that had been discovered in the subs for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."
But at the same time, cast members who worked at the Resort
were still extremely nervous about the perceived lack of crowds. They wondered
what might happen to their jobs (or - for that matter - to Walt Disney Productions
itself) if this $400 million project built out in the swamps of Central Florida
failed to catch on with the public.
With the hope that Disneyland might hold a clue to what was now
going on at Walt Disney World, Mouse House managers then reviewed 16 years of
attendance data for that Anaheim theme park. And what they found there seemed
somewhat encouraging, given that - every year around Thanksgiving - Disneyland would
suddenly see this huge surge in attendance.
So - if that pattern held true for the Florida property -
either on the day of or the day after Thanksgiving, WDW's Magic Kingdom should
see its first truly huge crowds.
That was the hope, anyway. But as Koenig recalls in "Realityland,"
that hope was tempered with fear.
Even Nunis admitted to his aides, "Okay, we blew Opening
Day. But if (Walt Disney World doesn't) do well (on) Thanksgiving, we're in
So November 25, 1971 - Thanksgiving Day -- arrives. And as WDW veteran Kathy Luck (who was
working at the Magic Kingdom's Camera Center on this fateful day) shared in an "Eyes
and Ears" article written 5 years after the fact:
Magic Kingdom's Camera Center in the early 1970s.Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.All rights reserved
You have to understand that we had no idea what to expect ...
We had not yet experienced peak period attendance, capacity crowds, parking
closing or traffic congestion. But we learned in a hurry - (all) in one day.
Thanksgiving Day, things began normally enough until about 9
a.m. We had no inkling of what was to come. Then the cars started backing up at
the Toll Plaza. So they opened all the booths ...
The effect on Main Street - and the rest of the Magic Kingdom
- was something similar to a tidal wave. A wall of humanity descended in one
surge. We never knew what hit us until hours after the last guest departed.
I worked in the Camera Center, which was a popular stop for
the guests as they entered ... Our
stockman was unable to keep the film on the shelves. Just as soon as he finished
stocking one end of the counter, the other end was empty and we were pulling
the film from his cartons.
That was the day I was invited to meet my fiance's family.
My mother-in-law-to-be agreed to have dinner late enough for me after work and
my intended was to pick me up at 3:30. At 2 p.m., I called him and told him
that I had to work longer. At 3, I told him not to leave just yet. At 4, I told
him that I'd call when I was ready to leave. At 5 p.m., my mother-in-law-to-be
decided to serve the turkey anyway and to meet me at Christmas. My future
husband and I had turkey sandwiches at a local Howard Johnson's - at 9:30 that
But the amazing part of (Walt Disney World's first
Thanksgiving) weekend was not the crowds, the long hours, or even the missed
meals. It was the feeling among all of us, regardless of our location, that we
could - and would - handle anything thrown at us. And we did it smiling!
Mind you, it was sometimes tough to maintain those smiles.
Especially given what Disney World employees found themselves dealing with over
the long Thanksgiving Weekend back in 1971. Again quoting from David Koenig's "Realityland"
The day after Thanksgiving, traffic ground to a halt ten
miles up International Drive. By 2:00 in the afternoon, with thousands of cars
crammed in and around its parking lot and 56,000 guests squeezed inside (the
Magic Kingdom), Disney was forced to close the access ramp leading off
Interstate 4. All four lanes of traffic slowed to a crawl in both directions,
creating a 30-mile stretch of confused, angry motorists.
Inside the Magic Kingdom, guests had to wait two hours or
more to ride the submarines, Country Bear Jamboree, and other top attractions.
Service at the park's 30-some restaurants was overwhelmed.
And 40 years later, crowds continue to be a Thanksgiving tradition at the Magic Kingdom. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.All rights reserved
The crowds remained heavy throughout Thanksgiving weekend,
forcing early closures Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Florida Highway Patrol,
overwhelmed by the traffic, demanded to know what Disney was going to do about
the traffic. "Not a thing," management responded. "We're taking care of the
traffic on our property. You need to take care of it on yours. And get ready,
because the crowds are going to be even bigger come Christmas."
So to circle back to the start of today's article ... To Opening
Day WDW employees' way of thinking, October 1st isn't a day that's
really worth celebrating. Whereas the long Thanksgiving Weekend is. Mostly
because that's when the Company definitively learned that Walt Disney World was
going to be a success. More to the point, that the 5,500 Cast Members that they'd
hired for the Florida project (most of whom were just kids at that time.
Between 17 - 22 years-of-age) were more than up to the challenge.
Which is why I'd like to take a moment to thank the Kathy
Lucks of 2011. Those WDW & Disneyland Cast Members who are foregoing the chance
to sit down with their own families today so that thousands of people from around
the globe can then spend their Thanksgiving Day playing inside of a Disney
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
reading that article now i see why Disney does not really feel like aknowledging the date of walt disney world opening when it really did not prove itsself till the thanksgiving rush that Disney was not nuts in building a second park in swamp land. and one should also give some thanks to the brave cast members who worked that day of craziness and disney history.