Walt Disney World Turns 40: A tribute from a life-long fan and a 40-year cast member

Disney-World-1971

Image Credit: Disney

This month, the Happiest Place on Earth hits middle age.

Forty years ago, Walt Disney World opened in a tiny Florida town called Bay Lake, about 20 minutes outside Orlando, a place that was just a smattering of orange groves in the middle of nowhere.

Walt Disney had already revolutionized in-person, multimedia entertainment in 1955 with Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., but the space limitations of the park had hobbled his original vision. Not to mention that it still relied upon some old-fashioned assumptions about amusement parks: the park should be open only five days a week; it should be primarily oriented towards kids; and it’s a one-day experience — you show up in the morning and leave at night.

Uncle Walt’s “Florida Project” was going to change all that with a completely immersive environment: not just a Magic Kingdom, but hotels, restaurants, golf courses, a campground, and, eventually, a living, breathing city, codenamed the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (i.e. EPCOT).

Though the now-normally-capitalized Epcot didn’t turn out exactly as Disney himself had imagined it, even he, a man of no small vision, would have to be impressed with the sheer size of Walt Disney World today. What is now a fanciful cityscape of four theme parks, two water parks, and 20 hotels, plus an entertainment district/shopping marketplace that could rival that of any major city, opened on October 1, 1971 with just the Magic Kingdom and two hotels, the Contemporary and the Polynesian. (The latter is the resort where John Lennon signed the legal documents that officially ended the Beatles.)

That’s the Walt Disney World show that director Forrest Bahruth, a 40-year veteran of the park, remembers. In early 1971, he had just left his job as a choreographer on ABC’s variety show This Is Tom Jones, when he first set foot on what would become WDW. “I remember the first time I walked into what is now the Magic Kingdom,” Bahruth says. “There were literally four to five thousand construction workers. It was like an anthill where you could see things going up practically minute by minute.”

Though the park opened on October 1, the biggest celebration came over Dedication Weekend October 23-25, when Bob Hope and the president’s daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, inaugurated the Contemporary Resort, while Music Man composer Meredith Willson (of “Seventy-Six Trombones” fame) led a one-thousand-seventy-six-trombone band down Main Street.

Bahruth also needed a young woman to play the Statue of Liberty, during a pageant promoting domestic travel called “Show Me America.” Surprisingly, it proved difficult to fill the part, so they settled on a young, relatively unknown comedienne who, up to that time, had only landed bit parts on TV. “A friend of ours knew this young woman who was a hysterical person,” Bahruth says. “And her name was Teri Garr. Yep, Teri Garr got her start as the Statue of Liberty at Disney World.”

Other Disney World alumni have since achieved stardom as well, but when I asked Bahruth about how, say, Wayne Brady famously used to play Tigger at the Magic Kingdom before making it big, this was the response: “Christian, we don’t know what you’re talking about. Tigger is Tigger. Wayne may have been a friend of Tigger’s and met him a few times, though.” Needless to say, these are magicians who are deeply committed to keeping their tricks a secret.

And it’s that commitment that still makes Walt Disney World such an exciting place. I first visited on my third birthday in 1989, and though I’ve come back at least once every year since — as a Florida native, it’s my birthright — I’ve never run out of new things to experience there. As a kid, though, WDW also served as a pivotal gateway to pop culture. I first discovered the Alien franchise because of an animatronic Sigourney Weaver on the Great Movie Ride; rode Star Tours years before I had even seen an actual Star Wars movie; got my first taste of the Old West at Frontierland; discovered Michael Jackson through Captain EO; and even received valuable conservation lessons by Ellen DeGeneres on Ellen’s Energy Adventure at Epcot. It’s something I still experience. I’m a David Lynch fanatic, so you can imagine what a thrill it was this past Thanksgiving when no less than Isabella Rossellini (of Lynch’s very un-Disney Blue Velvet) led Epcot’s stirring Candlelight Processional.

Big rival Universal Studios has always had the slogan, “Ride the Movies.” Walt Disney World might as well be a movie — it’s just too big for any screen. No wonder that in his rhapsodic 1971 article about the park for Film Comment, the famously serious-minded film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, after having already likened the artistic achievements of Tomorrowland and the Haunted Mansion to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the oeuvre of F.W. Murnau, respectively, ended with this: “Midnight or so, passing back through the gates and into the cosmic reaches of the Disney parking lot, I look up at a dazzling skyful of stars, every constellation in its appointed place – stars poised and ready like raindrops about to fall. Are they Disney’s too?”

When did you make your first pilgrimage to Walt Disney World? Feel free to share your memories in the comments below.


Comments (40 total) Add your comment
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  • Shannon S

    I live in Florida, and when I got older I forgot how important Disney World was to my childhood. Now I have 2 young children, and I’ve gone back there 4 times in the last 2 years. There’s simply nothing in this world that lights up your children’s eyes more than seeing that place…particularly if they like Disney movies and they recognize the Cinderella castle (which is of course the Disney movie logo) when they walk into Magic Kingdom. And if you stay at one of their Disney resorts while you’re there, it’s also going to be one of the most expensive vacations you’ll ever have. But in the end it’s worth it. We actually just came back from there a few days ago, and my kids are already asking when we’re going back.

    • You know…

      I’ve never been.

      • jeffery

        My parents & I have visited Disney World & Disneyland so many times that at this point, I can’t count. We always have fun. Btw, we’ve been on 2 Disney Cruises too.

  • Carly

    I’ve been to Disney World once and Disneyland several times. Neither ceases to amaze me. I love how you are just transported to a completely different place. In Disneyland, you forget you’re in the middle of a city in California.
    I always wonder if Walt was truly aware of how much his vision impacted the world.

  • Tess McGill

    Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom is the stuff of dreams. We have a condo at Old Key West and go there often. Still magic after all this time.

  • Mike P

    No matter how old I get, I feel I’ll never be too old to enjoy Disney World. I enjoyed it so much as a kid, and I enjoy it (possibly even more) now. Its just such a place of magic and while you’re in one of the parks you can practically get lost inside it. You can really see the attention to detail in all of the rides and shows, or just walking through one of the 4 amazing theme parks. There’s really no other place like it! Not to mention, Aerosmith’s Rock N’ Roller-coaster was my first upside-down ride at a theme park, and to this day is still one of my favorite rides of all time

    • Susan

      Just remember.. you are your “Disney” age..the two numbers of your age added together. I’m 11..perfect age to enjoy Disney!

      • Squishmar

        I like that… I’ve never heard of that. So, you’re really 92? ;)

  • W

    Walt Disney wanted an area that would not compete with Florida’s beaches and he bought the land for
    the original site for a steal before people were aware of his plans…smart man. Disney World has been very good for the area and I like to visit my hometown often, I was in high school
    when it was under construction.

  • sam

    Our first trip there when my kids were young brought three generations to a place that we had only dreamed about seeing when I was little. I know that it is heavy with promotion, but it does have a kind of magic about it. That castle lit up at night still takes my breath away.

  • Becca

    When I was 6 I decided that’s where I wanted to get married. 15 years later thats still where I want it to be. Thats where my first memory was. Nothing comes close to being there.

  • Dusty

    I went there twice when I was a kid, and just got back a few weeks ago from my first trip there as an adult (boyfriend and I, no kids). It was a blast, and I was amazed at how absorbing the entire Disney World experience is. We are already talking about going back again.

  • tigger851

    OMG! I can only take Disney once a year for the holidays and I live 30 mins from the park! Too much happiness in those parks!!

  • michelle

    the “E” ticket rides ruled!
    My parents took us to Disney World for the first time in February of 1972. We stayed at the Contemporary and was thrilled of the idea of the monorail cutting through the building! My kids and I still love to ride the Monorail. Amazing then and amazing still..I have brought my kids yearly since they were born. This summer, my 15 year old visited California and Disneyland and could not believe what they called Cinderella’s castle! It is sad that they will no longer have “Grad Bash” for the seniors here in Florida. It was a wonderful evening of fun and music. This year (May 2011) was the last one.

    • tigger851

      agreed! Monorail is the BEST ride at WDW!

      • Flyer

        I actually was riding the monorail at WDW in June 1985 when it caught fire. That was pretty scary, as the entire back car was destroyed, and most of the people on the train had to somehow climb up on top of the roof, then walk down the length of the train to get away from the flames. We were about 35 feet above the ground, and I’m amazed to this day that no one fell or was seriously injured by the fire.

  • Cdn Sarah D

    There are very few places in the world where you can go and see children and the elderly, every nationality imaginable, and every possible contrast of humanity smiling and laughing and Joyful at the very same thing. Disney World is one of those places.

  • MWeyer

    Lived four years in Florida, took advantage of “resident deals” for weekends at WDW. You’d be amazed how mcuh you can do on a weekend when the crowds are low. Miss a lot of stuff (Horizons, Mr. Toad, Skyway) but still magical being there and love my niece and nephews also embracing it.

  • Laura

    Been there five times…once when I was 7, then 9-10 (best birthday ever), 13, and 17, and 18. I never get too old for it and every time I was back there, there was always something new. And I would love to go back again, and hope to take my kids there someday too. I just smile when Im there.

  • Debsy

    I stepped foot in Disney in 1972 and even had my senior high school party there when the park closed back in 1976. We lived for e-tickets and eating breakfast at the Polynesian back then. We travel extensively and have had many family vacations other places but, my family and I still head back there almost every single year because where else can you go that has so much for everyone at all hours of the day and night. When we go, we still stop by our brick at the Magic Kingdom.

  • jean

    I first visited Disney World in CA when I was 15. It was the most magical place and I have vivid memories of that visit. This past July almost 50 years later I visited again. Except for a few name changes (i.e., Swiss Family Robinson’s tree house is called something else) it is just as I remembered it: magical.

    • plushpuppy

      Disneyland is in California, Disneyworld in in Florida

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