From this vantage point, you can see two of the most popular attractions: the beautiful, old-fashioned 189-foot-tall Cinderella’s Castle and, directly behind it, a futuristic Space Mountain.
When Walt Disney World opened its gates in Orlando in 1971, I was 19 years old. Having traveled Florida’s byways since getting my driver’s license at 16, I’d become a fan of the mom-and-pop tourist attractions, roadside citrus stands and alligator-wrestling stops that peppered my home state.
Most of them did not survive Disney’s onslaught of technology, its marvels and magic and its sheer overwhelming size. Disney World, within just a few short years, changed the face of Florida tourism forever.
The brainchild of the talented Walt Disney in the early 1960s, Disney World would extend the concept of California’s Disneyland beyond anyone’s imagination.
Walt Disney, himself, was upset with the urban sprawl that came to dwarf Disneyland in Anaheim, Ca., and he wanted to avoid that in Florida. So beginning in 1964, several dummy corporations were created to secretly purchase pieces of land for “The Florida Project.”
Walt didn’t want locals to know that he was behind the purchases, since he feared that prices would go through the roof. One of these companies was named Retlaw (Walter spelled backwards), and another Ayefour (the main highway through Orlando is I-4).
In all, about 43 square miles were acquired from more than 100 property owners, and 2,000 acres have been added since.
Walt Disney publicly announced the Disney World project in Orlando in 1965, with Florida’s Governor Hayden Burns by his side. Walt stayed very personally involved in WDW’s conceptual development until his death in 1966. Sadly, he never lived to see the construction begin in 1969.
The state officially created two cities and a special utilities district, and the race to opening day was on. Two years and 9,000 workers later, what was once swamp, woodlands, homes and farms became a 200-acre lagoon, two championship golf courses, two hotels and the six lands of the Magic Kingdom, with transportation between them.
Postcards made prior to Walt Disney World’s opening in 1971 have distinctive brown-printed backs showing the opening date in the center. Artists’ renderings of things to come added to the excitement, and Floridians flocked to see what had become of “that swampland in Kissimmee” that became the world’s greatest amusement park. These illustrations are of two different postcards. Pre-opening cards range from $10 to $20 in online auctions.
Between April of 1970 and the grand opening, more than a million people visited the Preview Center to see Disney World’s models and plans. A month of events marked the opening, beginning on October 1, 1971, when Mickey Mouse led the first visitors into his Magic Kingdom.
During that time, Arthur Fiedler conducted the World Symphony Orchestra, Bob Hope dedicated the Contemporary Resort Hotel and a 1,076-piece marching band brought the World alive.
In its opening days, Disney World consisted of just the Magic Kingdom and two resort hotels—the Contemporary and the Polynesian Village. The Contemporary’s futuristic monorail was an exciting ride in itself, and it was common for visitors to take it between the hotels and the Magic Kingdom just for the fun of it.
I remember the thrill of buying one each of the scores of standard-size postcards in the shops each time I visited. Different postcards were sold in each of the Lands, illustrating their own attractions. Best of all, they cost only 5 cents each! I’m happy to say that I still have most of them, in mint condition.
Let’s take a tour of that amazing, new Disney World of the early 1970s. Disney’s six Lands are best visited in a circular route, and we savvy, frequent park-goers soon learn to set out counter-clockwise to avoid the crowds (and more importantly, long lines for the attractions), since most visitors instinctively stay to the left and move clockwise. Today though, we’ll skip around to visit our favorite attractions.
We walk up Main Street USA, its visitor services and a wide array of souvenir shops lie right by the entrance gates. Little girls are immediately entranced by this wide walkway leading right up to Cinderella’s castle. Dads hurry the boys past the pirate wares and arcade games on this turn-of-the-century street. If it’s rainy or scorching hot, the air-conditioned theatre showing vintage Mickey Mouse cartoons is a popular stop, as are the homemade fudge and ice-cream shops.
Antique cars and horse-drawn trolleys offer rides up and down Main Street USA for a small fee. In these pre-1981 days, we purchase a ticket to the Magic Kingdom and then buy booklets of brightly colored A-through-E tickets, carnival-ride style, to the wonders within. The coveted E-tickets are for the best attractions.
Main Street will be our last stop, too, offering a final chance to buy a Mickey or Minnie Mouse hat with ears, a Cinderella dress, statuettes of a myriad Disney characters and, of course, more postcards.
The Main Street Electrical Parade, as well as the Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks, began in the 1970s, and we stay to see it all—stay until the entertainment has finished and the announcement is made that the gates will close in just 15 minutes.
More than a half-million twinkling lights bring Disney stories to life during the parade, and sleepy little eyes close above smiling mouths.
Cinderella’s Castle is the gateway to Fantasyland, home of Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the peerless Prince Charming’s Regal Carousel, where the golden ribbon on its tail marks Cinderella’s trusty steed.
Goofy goes for a spin on Fantasyland’s Mad Tea Party ride. The It’s a Small World ride is a huge hit on opening day, with hundreds of international figures singing and dancing on “the happiest cruise that ever sailed the Seven Seas.”
The Mad Tea Party, otherwise known as the “teacups,” is best ridden before a meal. The whirling, swirling ride makes our heads spin and our stomachs lurch, and the kids beg for second and third times around.
It’s a Small World is ready on opening day and has a constant stream of visitors stepping on and off of its small boats all day and into the evening. As we cruise into the cool, misty ride, we see 472 dolls, animated figures and toys representing cultures found on six continents. By now, we all know that, if you can’t get a commercial jingle out of your head, the sure-fire cure is to start singing, ever so quietly, “It’s a small world after all, …”
It’s on to Frontierland to see the Country Bear Jamboree. Will today’s show be the original, the Vacation Hoedown or the Christmas Special? The big bears sing up a twangy storm, and even Buff, Max and Melvin (the trophy heads on the wall) have stories to tell.
We hear that Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition are coming soon but alas, these attractions were scrapped. Instead, this area of Frontierland offers Big Thunder Mountain, and then we visit Splash Mountain to cool us off. Next, we cruise on log rafts to get to Tom Sawyer Island, which opened in 1973.
The old grist mill, Fort Sam Clemens and Injun Joe’s secret cave await us as we dock at Tom Sawyer Island. Inside the cool air-conditioning of the Country Bear Jamboree, Big Al tries to steal the show from his furry fellow guitar-picking bears.
Disney World is the only Disney resort with a Liberty Square, and it’s our next stop. We go back in time to colonial America, and the brick buildings remind us of those up north. During our 1976 Bicentennial, each state received a replica of the Liberty Bell. Since Pennsylvania already had the original, years later it would give its replica to Disney World for Liberty Square, making Florida the only state to have two.
This Hall of Presidents postcard back shows a Florida flag above the logo. Only a small percent of the Disney World card backs have this flag. In the Haunted Mansion, the ghostly organist plays a haunting refrain.
It’s 1975, and we’re amazed that the Hall of Presidents shows all 36 American presidents on stage. Each one is life size and speaks dramatically about our nation’s founding and its growth. The show is the end result of 15 years of work in audio-animatronics, and it makes our hearts swell with patriotic pride.
The spooky Haunted Mansion beckons us, and we enter through its squeaky door. This is the only attraction that is at all of the Magic Kingdoms, but in a different land in every park. After our ghostly journey, we sneak up behind the Mansion, and see that the house is just a façade and that we were only in the actual mansion for the first room. The huge building that houses the actual ride is right next to the Small World attraction.
The wench auction is a feature of Pirates of the Caribbean, a dark ride with a new adventure at every turn of the river. Space Mountain hurls us through outer space, and as planets and meteorites whiz by, we hang on for the ride of our lives.
We reach Adventureland, which has the feel of a tropical island, or maybe a jungle. We stop at the Enchanted Tiki Room and giggle at the jokes told by the almost-real birds. We take the Jungle Cruise, where a bathing elephant accidentally squirts us with water from his trunk.
We gaze up at the Swiss Family Treehouse, but decide to forego its 116 steps and head for Pirates of the Caribbean. Walt Disney didn’t think that “Pirates” was exotic enough for Florida, so this adventurous boat ride wasn’t originally scheduled to be part of the park. We’re glad it’s here though, even though we gasp as scary pirates try to grab us from behind their prison bars.
Last but not least, we head for Tomorrowland. The Carousel of Progress is a must-see, even though we’ve already seen it at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The talented voices of Mel Blanc and his son Noel are heard, and we marvel at the amazing things the future will bring as revealed in this show, which was actually designed by Walt Disney himself.
We ride the Star Jets (now called the Astro Orbiter) to warm up for the grand finale, the roller coaster that is Space Mountain. The ride was originally called Space Port, and it was built at Disney World before it became part of Disneyland—a departure from the usual procedure. We board our rockets and hear the familiar “clack-clack” as we zoom into outer space. Stars twinkle everywhere in the darkness and we can hear the asteroids as they streak by.
We’ve traveled through six Lands and we’ve seen amazing sights. But it’s the Disney characters that are the glue that binds the lands into one, cohesive Disney World.
Pluto, Mickey Mouse and Goofy let us shake their hands, and we have our pictures taken with them, too! Disney World postcards carry a logo proclaiming it “the vacation kingdom of the world,” and so it has been. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Dopey, Happy, Grumpy and Doc) send us off with a big “Hi-ho!”
Mickey Mouse is one of the most-recognized characters in the world. His official debut was as the star of “Steamboat Willie” in 1928, one of the first cartoons with sound. His ears can be seen on thousands of hats atop the heads of boys and girls both in and out of the Disney parks. His splendid birthday celebrations at the parks are fit for the king he is.
Pluto the Pup has been Mickey’s pet since 1930 and is the only character that doesn’t dress in people’s clothes. Goofy has been a close friend of Mickey’s (and Donald Duck’s) since 1932. Though he’s often clumsy and doesn’t seem very bright, he does some clever things now and then.
Although the large characters sometimes frighten the littlest children, they are by far the experiences that most often make children’s eyes grow wide when they describe their very personal encounters with them. I’ll bet that someone in your extended family has at least one photo of a child with a Disney character.
The Disney Imagineers outdid themselves with Walt Disney World. It’s still evolving, growing and changing and has become an American icon. A few years ago, I visited the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan and had the honor of chatting with King Jigme Wangchuck for a few moments. When he heard that I was a visitor from Florida, he beamed. “I have been there!” he exclaimed. What had he visited? Disney World in Orlando, of course.
Bonnie Wilpon, the author of “Postcard History of Sarasota and Bradenton, FL,” and “Postcard History of Hollywood, FL.” (published by Arcadia Books), is a Worthologist who specializes in postcards.
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