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Looking back at Walt Disney World's very first Thanksgiving Weekend

Jim Hill

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Looking back at Walt Disney World's very first Thanksgiving Weekend

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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."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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 trouble."

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.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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 night.

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!

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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 theme park.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!




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  • 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.

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