By Francesca Scrimgeour, Walt Disney Archives
With the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World underway, what better way to celebrate than by looking back at the grand opening celebration of the Magic Kingdom Park? After the success of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, Walt Disney recognized the impact an East Coast theme park and city of tomorrow could make. Walt acknowledged that it would be different from Disneyland Park in California, stating, “I’ve always said there will never be another Disneyland, and I think it’s going to work out that way… This concept here will have to be something that is unique, so there is a distinction between Disneyland in California and whatever Disney does in Florida.” Sadly, Walt passed away in 1966 before the ground was broken in 1967 for the construction of Walt Disney World. The new park and resort continued taking shape, though, as Walt’s brother and business partner, Roy O. Disney, put off his retirement to make sure his brother’s dream became a reality.
Learning from the previous mishap of a live televised broadcast on the opening day of Disneyland Park, Walt Disney World had a preview month beginning with an opening gala on October 25, 1971. The opening ceremony was filmed and broadcast through NBC across the nation in living color as the television program professes. Guest star Glen Campbell kicked off the program with a walk through the wilderness of the property, strumming his guitar and singing “Today Is Mine.” Disney Legend Julie Andrews starred as the host of the show as she zoomed in on a monorail to tell audiences, “I’m here at the opening of the Walt Disney World in Florida. We’re just a few miles away from Cape Kennedy where men point their space vehicles toward the stars, and Walt Disney decided to launch his final dream.” Throughout the broadcast, Andrews shined as the illustrious narrator, a groovy dancer, and a legendary singer. Other guest stars included Buddy Hackett and Jonathan Winters, who each did their own spin of comedy about the opening of the new theme park.
Another familiar face at the opening was Bob Hope—or, as he called himself, Bob “ex- Mouseketeer” Hope—who also whooshed in on a monorail to the Contemporary Resort, escorted by two Guest Relations Cast Members. Hope complimented the achievement of the vacation resort while sprinkling in his characteristic humor, with jokes like ordering room service delivered by Snow White and being afraid to eat the apple! Summing up his comical and entertaining experience, Hope praised Walt Disney World and how it “is a tribute to the vision, imagination, and genius of Walt Disney.”
The World Symphony Orchestra played an inspiring concert for thousands of invited guests at the foot of Cinderella Castle. The event program for the World Symphony Orchestra professed that it consisted of 145 musicians from 63 nations, 30 states and the District of Columbia, and that “they have been brought together under the auspices of the Federation of People-to-People Programs to affirm the universal meaning and worldwide heritage of symphonic music.” The creation of the group was the idea of Walt Disney Productions, along with help from the U.S. State Department. The World Symphony Orchestra only performed this concert just three times, first for members of the United Nations in the Philharmonic Hall in New York City, then at Walt Disney World, and finally at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The performers all wore special red-and-white ribboned medallions, and the conductor was Arthur Fiedler, who led the Boston Pops Orchestra at the time. The World Symphony Orchestra also participated in the opening TV special, playing Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.”
What is a Disney celebration without a parade? A Grand Opening Parade was held on October 25 to kick off the momentous event with the grandeur that The Walt Disney Company was known for. The parade included 4,000 entertainers with Mickey Mouse leading the procession aboard a giant drum, followed by a merry menagerie of beloved Disney characters. Then, to signal the 1,076-member marching band, Herald Trumpeters of the United States Army Band played a fanfare from atop the roofs of the Main Street, U.S.A. buildings, heralding the arrival of composer Meredith Willson, who wrote the Broadway musical The Music Man. Fittingly, Willson rode on a gazebo-type float while directing the incredible 1,076-member ceremonial band that streamed behind him down Main Street, U.S.A., playing the iconic American Standard from that show: “Seventy-Six Trombones.”
Once the marching band circled around the Central Plaza in front of Cinderella Castle, a mass choir was at the ready in the Castle Forecourt to sing “When You Wish Upon a Star” accompanied by the band. As the song came to a resounding finale, enormous decorative drums which lined the entirety of Main Street, U.S.A. to signify the grand opening of the Magic Kingdom and Walt Disney World.
Roy O. Disney firmly believed in Walt’s vision of Disney World and as a financial mastermind, he knew that this endeavor was not only a creative milestone but also a very sound business decision. The entire Florida Project meant a great deal to him, and to honor his dear brother, Roy changed the name of the resort from the announced “Disney World” to “Walt Disney World”. Roy felt that “Everybody knows the Ford car, but not everybody knows it was Henry Ford who started it all. It’s going to be Walt Disney World, so people will always know that this was Walt’s dream.”
On a sunny Monday in October with Mickey Mouse by his side, Roy O. Disney dedicated the park and Walt Disney World as a whole to his little brother. Roy proudly read his dedication to the audience, stating, “Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney… and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney’s dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place… a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn – together.”