By Zach Johnson
Today, Walt Disney World Resort kicks off “The World’s Most Magical Celebration,” an 18-month event to commemorate its 50th anniversary with new attractions, nighttime spectaculars, and more. Across its theme parks and resorts, there are countless ways to mark this milestone—and thanks to Disney Editions, you can also immerse yourself in its rich history from home. The new coffee table book A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth, authored by Kevin M. Kern, Tim O’Day, and Steven Vagnini, paints a robust and magical portrait of Walt Disney World Resort through vibrant voices along with rare Disney theme park concept art, ephemera, and photographs.
Because we can never get enough Disney trivia, we wanted to go behind the scenes of this behind-the-scenes book. Below, Kern, O’Day and Vagnini recount how their book went from a dream to a reality—and share some of the exciting things discovered along the way.
D23: Where did the idea for this book come from?
Steven Vagnini (SV): I think the idea arose pretty naturally. In 2013, Kevin and I were colleagues in the Walt Disney Archives, which, as you might imagine, is involved in nearly all notable Disney anniversary celebrations. Thinking a bit ahead (and probably inspired by the hundreds of books around us!), we approached each other, suggesting that anyone who would want to work on a book for something as monumental as the Walt Disney World 50th anniversary would need to start… yesterday! That was eight years ago, and, of course, we wish we had even more time. Meanwhile, Tim and I had recently finished collaborating on D23 events for the resort’s 40th anniversary, as well as for the EPCOT 30th anniversary, which further sparked our interest in the project. The three of us made the pitch to our esteemed colleagues at Disney Editions—and got to work right away!
Kevin M. Kern (KMK): As Steven hints at, I think each of us holds a pretty high regard for the Walt Disney World publications of the past, and those were our constant creative compasses in many ways. After a few initial conversations, thoughts of “What if we pitched this idea?” quickly morphed into a roadmap for creating the book before us. Once we all connected with editors Wendy Lefkon, Jennifer Eastwood, and Monica Vasquez at Disney Editions, and after early encouragement from our colleagues in the Walt Disney Archives and at D23, we were off and running. Keeping the concept under wraps for so long was one of the hardest parts!
Tim O’Day (TO): I’ve always been fascinated by the affinity people have for various aspects of the Walt Disney World Resort experience. Having helped produce or co-produce elements of such events as the Official Disneyana Convention, various Walt Disney Art Classics celebrations, Disney Vacation Club events, and, of course, D23 Destination D gatherings, it was always thrilling and delightful to see the enthusiasm and passion people have for Walt Disney World. So, my interest in creating a book that celebrates that affection was at the forefront of my thoughts when teaming up with Kevin and Steven in planning and pitching the book.
D23: When did you start working on the book?
TO: If you ask any of our wives, they may answer that it feels like it’s been forever! [Laughs] However, in actuality, we were talking a great deal about how to approach the book from 2017 through most of 2019. There was just so much to tackle. The resort is very much like a living entity that grows and contracts, changes, morphs, adds, and subtracts, etc. Attempting to keep up with all the exciting changes while trying to ascertain the right tone and format took many, many, long phone calls and video chats. You cannot write a book like this for just one audience; it needs to satisfy the novice fan, the ardent enthusiast, the armchair historian, plus the countless cast members and Imagineers of yesterday and today. Once other projects cleared the runway, we were given a “go” for take-off in autumn of 2019. It was then everything kicked in at warp speed, with many sleepless nights and too many emails, texts, and phone calls to count. However, it all proved to be a delightful flight down the rabbit hole of Walt Disney World history, stories, personalities, beautiful artwork, and incredible photos.
D23: What new insights or surprises did you discover through your research?
SV: The story of Walt Disney World is ever evolving and has been told in many various forms over the past five decades. That said, in presenting this unique “portrait” of the resort, we hope to captivate readers who might be less familiar with this remarkable story while also delighting the most knowledgeable fans with fresh insights and discoveries—and some fun surprises—about a place they deeply cherish.
Technically, you could say our research began more than a decade before the project officially launched! Poring through hundreds of files, memos, and other records preserved in the Walt Disney Archives that dated to the resort’s early development revealed a pivotal era in Disney history—from the time the state of Florida first caught the eye of Walt Disney in the 1950s, in fact—to the eventual design, development, and opening of the property without Walt.
Through this research—and in interviewing dozens of Disney Legends and company personnel—we are thrilled to paint a robust portrait of the resort, the profound inspirations and guiding philosophies behind its continual design and its impact on the world at large.
Along the way, we uncovered answers to curiosities that we, as historians, had long held. For example, we had seen only a handful of photographs of Walt on the property, but were there others? What, exactly, did Walt experience on his first visit to the site, and what did he think of it all? We are pleased to finally answer these questions in this coffee table book.
Further digging in the Walt Disney Archives revealed some of the first known concepts for the yet-to-be-named Magic Kingdom, noted by young Imagineer [and Disney Legend] Marty Sklar just weeks after Walt’s passing, as well as some of the earliest proposed names for the resort, years before it was called “Walt Disney World.” You’ll find these informational nuggets sprinkled all throughout the book, whether in the main narrative, photo captions, or the 10 pages of endnotes!
D23: How is the book structured or laid out?
KMK: When the three of us sat down to chat about how to structure the content, an apt metaphor presented itself—that of a “thematic compass.” By focusing in on the resort through various conceptual lenses we were able to tie concept art, photography, and ephemera from across the five decades together in ways that hopefully will surprise and delight readers.
D23: This book includes some rare and never-before-seen material. Can you share some specific examples that will delight and excite Disney fans?
KMK: One of the joys of this creative process was having the chance to work very closely—though, mostly remotely!—with the amazing teams at the Walt Disney Archives, Walt Disney Archives Photo Library, the Walt Disney Imagineering Art Library, and numerous groups from across the Walt Disney World Resort to try and identify visual material that seemed fresh and engaging, or at a quality that just hadn’t been seen before. We’re so grateful for the support across the board; it really helped to make the book sing.
The Archives, for example, has preserved an absolute treasure trove of original print ephemera from the resort over the years that was just remarkable to cull through for this project. We feature some fun examples throughout the book, including a “Preview Month” ticket from October 1, 1971, also known as “Opening Day.” The ’70s colors and design of this rare example of admission media are just delicious to take in.
I think one of my favorite “behind the scenes” shots in the book comes from the chapter where we cover the construction of the resort; we feature an absolutely stunning photograph from inside Disney’s Contemporary Resort while it was being built. The black- and-white composition of the photograph has such a gorgeous quality to it, largely due to the grid of windows looking out from the hotel’s Grand Canyon Concourse. When we first reviewed the photo, it stuck out to us so much we immediately said, “We have to use this!”
There are lots of other fun examples peppered throughout the book, too, that we were excited to be able to include—things like original concept art for early cast member costumes and the original Country Bear Jamboree cover painting for the 1971 coloring book, A Visit to Walt Disney World; it felt like such an embarrassment of riches when it came to picking the final options for the book, which was tough!
D23: How did your own experiences at Walt Disney World affect your approach to this book?
TO: All three of us came to this project with our own Walt Disney World memories and experiences. Me, as a Disneyland cast member, in 1983 at the age of… well, that’s not really important in this context, is it? Steven first visited in 1988 at age of one and a half (I was considerably older, let’s put it that way) during Mickey’s big 60th birthday celebration. Kevin visited in 1990 at the age of three (and now you know why I didn’t mention my age) around when the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, plus the Swan and the Dolphin, made their debut. Our experiences through the decades started as guests but eventually expanded to include such roles as Jungle Cruise skipper, Imagineer, Archivist, event producer, marketer, spokesperson, etc., all the while having the privilege of getting to know many of the Walt Disney World pioneers, Disney Legends, and noted personalities. The imprints of all those memories and experiences are on display on every page of our book.
D23: Tell us about some of the people you interviewed for this and tease what they shared.
SV: As authors, we felt it important to include the voices of the designers, planners, builders, operators, and many others who have left an indelible mark on Walt Disney World. We are grateful to have interviewed nearly 100 individuals—cast members, Imagineers, celebrities, and guests. From opening day tour guides to Imagineers overseeing the next great attractions, we are proud to spotlight a diversity of representatives, united by an enduring love for this remarkable place.
We are also pleased to showcase the contributions of some of the Florida Project’s original “founders.” Incidentally, our first interview, held over lunch inside a Central Florida smokehouse, was with none other than Phil Smith, the first Walt Disney World cast member, who shared fond memories establishing the resort. (Phil was also asked to live on the Disney property to oversee things, which he did with his family in the years before construction began!)
And retired legal vice president Robert Price “Bob” Foster graciously met with us over several years, reminiscing over his experiences scouting and acquiring more than 27,000 acres of Florida scrub and swamp… and negotiating with more than 100 individual landowners in the process! We’ve included many of Bob’s favorite stories from this fabled era in our “Building the Dream” chapter.
And of course, we’re thrilled to feature guest essays by three Disney notables who hold deep-rooted and lifelong connections to Walt Disney World—Dick Nunis (Disney Legend and retired chairman, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts), Debby Dane Browne (inaugural Walt Disney World Ambassador), and Roy Patrick Disney (grandson of Roy O. Disney). Through their recollections, readers will get a sense for what it was like to open the resort and even experience its colorful Grand Dedication weekend in October 1971.