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Remembering when Ronald Reagan came to EPCOT Center to see the President's Inaugural Bands Parade

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Remembering when Ronald Reagan came to EPCOT Center to see the President's Inaugural Bands Parade

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After having dealt with those record low temperatures that this past Winter's Polar Vortex whipped up, I have to admit that I am genuinely enjoying this year's belated (but much appreciated) Spring.

But that said, I recognize that late 2013 / early 2014 wasn't the only time that things got really, really cold here in the US. One other time that immediately comes to mind is January 21, 1985. Which is when things got so cold in Washington D.C. that then-President Ronald Reagan was forced to move the swearing-in ceremony for his second term indoors.

But worse than that (at least for the 50 high school bands who'd traveled to our Nation's Capital specifically to march in Reagan's inaugural parade), all outdoor events which had originally been scheduled for that date wound up being cancelled due to the record cold temperatures. Which meant all these kids had practiced & fund-raised for months ... all for nothing.

Ronald Reagan at the grand opening of Disneyland Park on July 17, 1955.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Well, leave it to The Walt Disney Company to take a weather-related disappointment and then turn that into a once-in-a-lifetime promotional opportunity. Given Reagan's unique relationship with the Mouse (Let's remember that -- along with Bob Cummings & Art Linkletter -- Ronnie was one of the three MCs who worked ABC's 90 minute-long live television for the grand opening of Disneyland back in 1955), the Company was able to use back channels and make an intriguing offer to the White House. Which was: If the President would agree to come down to EPCOT Center sometime later that year, Disney would then attempt to restage Reagan's second inaugural parade.

Now you have to understand that the Secret Service is not a big fan of the President's possible location being broadcast weeks, even months in advance. Now add to that that the White House was still somewhat skittish on the heels of John Hinkley's botched assassination attempt back in March of 1981 and ... Well, if any other company had made this offer to Reagan's staff, they would have been turned down flat.

But again, given the President's history with Disney (More importantly, given the many times that Reagan had been down to Disneyland during his two terms as Governor of California, he was already well aware of Disney's crack security team), Lake Buena Vista was the one place on this planet that Reagan would be willing to travel to for a restaging of his second inaugural parade.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, there were a few caveats to this plan. First and foremost, if some sort of threat to national security arose and/or an international incident erupted on the day this inaugural parade redo was supposed to be staged, President Reagan would (obviously) immediately opt out of this event. More to the point, the Secret Service would be driving the show. They'd be the ones putting together a security plan for the event and Disney Security would be taking all of its cues from the Feds.

But once that agreement was in place, Walt Disney World officials were then given permission to contact the 50 high school bands who were originally supposed to march in President Reagan's second inaugural parade and to then say -- in a vague sort of way -- that if these musicians could somehow make their way to Orlando in late May ... Well, they might then get a second shot at playing for the President / passing in review.

18 of those 50 high school bands actually took Disney World up on its invitation. Mind you, that was mostly because Osceola County offered to serve as the official sponsor of what eventually became known as the President's Inaugural Bands Parade. They put up $150,000 to help stage this event as well as defray the transportation costs of the 2,800 student musicians who had agreed to take part. The Walt Disney Company ponied up an additional $350,000 to help cover food & housing. And several other Central Florida businesses made donations to help out with additional incidental costs.

Marine One gets ready to land out behind the American Adventure pavilion.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which is why -- 29 years ago today -- musicians from 16 states were getting ready to march around World Showcase Lagoon. Per the Secret Service's instructions, President Reagan arrived on property around noon aboard Marine One which then landed out behind Epcot's American Adventure. The President and his wife then exited that helicopter and were taken by limousine to a brief reception which was held inside of this World Showcase pavilion.

After meeting with senior Disney officials as well as key Florida politicians, the presidential party reboarded that limousine and were then ... Well, the motorcade then drove all the way around World Showcase Lagoon. As I understand it, Reagan himself requested that his team be driven all the way around that 1.3 mile-long promenade so that he and the First Lady could then see all of the high school band members who'd journeyed to Washington D.C. & Orlando to serenade them on their special day.

After making a full circuit of World Showcase Lagoon, the presidential party exited their limo at the American Gardens Theater. Where -- after Ronald & Nancy Reagan gamely posed for pictures with Mickey & Minnie Mouse -- they then entered their specially constructed reviewing stand. Which had been built to echo the colonial stylings of the American Adventure right across the way but also included some uniquely modern features like air conditioning & bullet-proof glass.

As Minnie Mouse and President Reagan look on, the First Lady gives Mickey Mouse a
buzz on the schnozz. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

After the president and his party had settled in, the National Anthem was played. Then newly installed Disney CEO Michael Eisner rose and said ...

... I was in Washington 105 degrees ago. It was minus 20 degrees at the Inauguration and it's 85 here today. Even though this isn't the official inaugural parade, it's the first time since 1789 that it's not been in Washington. I just want to say that -- if Walt Disney were alive today --he'd be proud to be standing where I am, with the President of the United States. And I welcome him, with Lillian Disney, (Walt's) widow to our great wonderful company here.

After Michael Eisner completed his introduction, President Reagan stepped up to the podium and made a few brief remarks. Noting that he and the First Lady (before they had flown down to Florida) had started their day ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... at Arlington Cemetery -- and I just wonder if because of the special character of this day, Memorial Day, if we couldn't perhaps bow our heads for a few seconds in silent prayer for those who have given their lives that we might live in liberty. [A silent prayer was observed.] Amen.

Well, indeed it is an honor for me to be here today to receive a magnificent gift that I received on a second and very much warmer Inauguration Day. I understand that in preparing for this event more than 2,500 young people worked with sponsors in the private sector who donated food, transportation, and lodging. And each of you who helped to make this private sector initiative possible has my heartfelt thanks.

And once Reagan had completed his remarks, this grand procession -- which was led off by a stars-and-stripes-wearing Mickey Mouse and the combined Osceola & St. Cloud high school bands -- finally got underway. And this time around, it wasn't frigid temperatures that wound up threatening parade participants. But rather 90 degree heat & Central Florida's ridiculously high humidity levels.

The Pascagoula High School Band passes the presidential reviewing stand.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But in spite of the brutally hot weather, an estimated 60,000 people made a special trip out to EPCOT Center with the hope of seeing President Reagan up-close. Sadly, most of these WDW visitors wound up confined to Future World. Only those that arrived at this theme park early-early on the morning of the 27th and who had then passed through multiple security checkpoints were then allowed to stand along the actual parade route.

After all 2,800 performers had moved clockwise around World Showcase Lagoon along the 1.3 mile parade route, there was then a spectacular daytime fireworks display (which was to have used the most shells ever for a Disney World display. Up until that time, anyway). Not to mention the release of 15,000 balloons as well as a flyover of EPCOT by four F16 fighter jets. And once all of this Disney-style hoopla was complete, President Reagan and his party were once again taken by limo out behind the American Adventure pavilion. Where -- after reboarding Marine One -- they were then whisked off to Miami for a Republican fundraiser at the Omni Hotel.

Yes, it was a very special day at Walt Disney World. And no one was happier that the Company had actually managed to pull off this publicity coup than Disney's then-newly installed CEO Michael Eisner. You see, not only had Michael & his wife Jane been invited to sit in the Presidential reviewing stand with Reagan's party. But -- by Eisner's estimate -- EPCOT Center received $100 million worth of free publicity that day. Which -- given that attendance had recently begun falling off at this troubled science-and-discovery theme park -- was just the shot in the arm that EPCOT Center needed at that exact moment.

By the way, if you want to see what it was actually like to be at EPCOT Center back om May 27, 1985, Walt Disney World Media Productions put together a 90 minute-long TV special which chronicled the entire President's Inaugural Bands Parade. And it's worth taking a look at if only to see how this then-2 & 1/2 year-old theme park looked back in the day.

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  • This was great! A fascinating piece of US and Disney history. I enjoyed the Presidents speech about freedom and liberty and the involvement of government. Makes me think how times have changed. Thanks for sharing this!

  • The quoted portion of Michael Eisner's speech states "... I was in Washington 105 degrees ago..." and I just wondered if that wasn't supposed to read "... I was in Washington 105 days ago".

    EDITOR'S NOTE: No, it's supposed to be "degrees." Eisner is making a joke about the fact that, when the President's second inaugural parade was originally supposed to be held, it was 20 degrees below zero in Washington D.C. And on the day that Disney was staging the President's Inaugural Bands Parade around World Showcase Lagoon, it was a humid 85 degrees. Hence the "105 degrees" gag.

    More to the point, if you were to actually do the math, between January 20 (Reagan's second inauguration) and May 27 (the date the President's Inaugural Band Parade was held), 1985, there are 127 days, not 105 days. So your attempt at a correction isn't even correct from a calendar-based point of view.

    Still, thanks for playing ...

  • I came 'On Stage' this day through EPCOT's China exhibition and immediately ran into Michael Eisner. "Mr. Green Mail!" As my colleagues referred. We spoke briefly but I was trained to exchange niceties and move on. I was an integral part of the show in my 'French Foreign Legion' costume but if I wanted to work Special Events, I had to be professional at all times...and I was spot-on " The Disney Look".  

    When I arrived at Center Showcase, EVERYTHING was different.  People were milling about in suits and 'Back Areas' was off limits unless you had Gold Ears on your name tag. I did not but I belonged. I was scheduled to be here. Then, I got the word. "The President will be arriving within the hour."  I was numb to 'Celebrity' and had just met Michael Eisner. President? What President?

    President Reagan arrived and I suddenly understood the magnitude. I was in the midst of Greatness. He was short in stature but, with the Planet Earth as a backdrop, Mr. Reagan was 10 foot tall and walked on air. He was talking with me and from that day forward he was My President!

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