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Disney World turns 40: An insider's look at how the Magic Kingdom got its start

Charles Ridgway has vivid memories of Walt Disney World's opening day 40 years ago this weekend. From a stint as a Disneyland publicist in California, Ridgway became lead press agent for the Florida Disney park's debut, part of a 42-year career creating events and headlines for one of the world's top tourist destinations. An official Disney Legend, one of 237 executives cited for their creative contributions to the Hollywood entertainment colossus, Ridgway is also among 50 park pioneers honored with their names painted on a second-floor office window on Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom. Ridgway and Co., PR, it reads: "No event too small." His 2007 book Spinning Disney's World is regarded as a must read among Disneyphiles. With about 180,000 paying guests daily and 62,000 employees, Disney's 43-square-mile spread near Orlando changed the face of Florida and its tourist industry. In a recent conversation, Ridgway, now 88, offered stories about Disney World's ominous start, how he persuaded a U.S. Supreme Court chief justice to tout the park, and advice on what to feed ducks that don't like birthday cake.

Walt Disney died before his Florida park opened, leaving it to Roy O. Disney, who handled the studio's finances, to fulfill a pledge to make his famous brother's dream reality. Roy gambled the company's future to open the Magic Kingdom, borrowing deeply to spend a then-startling $400 million on construction double the budget. What was the opening like?

We wanted to avoid duplicating the disaster of opening Disneyland in 1955, which was still partly a construction site in the middle of the hot, California summer tourist season. Women complained their high heels sunk in melting asphalt. We had a gas leak. We chose to hook up the available water to more bathroom fixtures than water fountains, then three times more people showed up than we thought we invited.

So we opened Disney World in Florida on the slowest day of October, the slowest month of the year.

The first day got off to an ominous start?

I got there at midnight and was assured they would remove the construction cranes from the Contemporary (hotel), spread 6 acres of sod without getting too many upside down and install the carpet and the chandeliers in the Polynesian Resort before I opened the press center at 6 a.m. Somehow they made it. But press speculation about 50,000 and even 200,000 guests showing up didn't happen.

What did happen?

We weren't sure what to expect, because we already put 100,000 locals through some attractions for practice. Two top executives wondered where the crowd was, so they took a dawn helicopter ride to gauge the traffic. They were relieved when traffic finally did surge. But when most of it took a wrong turn, they realized it was our own 5,000 cast members getting to work. Our attendance was 10,000, if that.

Wasn't attendance sparse until the traditional start of Florida's winter tourist season?

Yes. We even staged another grand opening three weeks later. Then suddenly on Thanksgiving, the roads were gridlocked for miles, about every hotel was booked solid to the Georgia border, and we had to close the parking lots before noon. Roy Disney died the day after Thanksgiving, knowing the good news about Disney World.

What was it like to work for Walt Disney?

Walt wasn't a personality that bowled you over, but he was very inspirational, passionate about quality and doing everything right. He refused to hire executives from other parks, because he wanted young managers to learn the "Disney way." He called employees cast members and taught them to act on the job as if they were on stage. He could be the kindest man and the most demanding micromanager. He rarely handed out praise.

One park executive told me how Walt ordered the Jungle Cruise boats slowed down because guests could not follow the storyline. That required a monumental resychronizing of all the mechanical animals to meet Walt's very short deadline. When it was done, he returned daily for unannounced test rides for a week. How did this attention to detail affect the rides?

The Haunted Mansion had been in full design work for over a year when he said it just wasn't working. He ordered they start over from scratch. The steel for the Pirates of the Caribbean was up when Walt changed his mind about it being a walk-through ride. He wanted the boat ride system from It's a Small World that we built for the (1964 World's Fair in New York).

Walt relied heavily on free publicity from events until the parks bought their first national advertising in 1985. To open Epcot in 1982, Disney World revolutionized public relations by providing free satellite uplinks for local TV stations all over North America to broadcast live from the event. How did that work?

Only the networks used satellite feeds then, mostly for sports and political conventions. But local stations were starting to acquire their own downlinks for syndicated program feeds. So we rented uplink dishes, provided camera crews and invited broadcast stations to send reporters and producers. About half paid their own way. The evening TV news in Cleveland didn't report the tainted Tylenol recall until their remote from Disney ended. It turned into a such a big thing that we have rented up to 13 dishes to transmit live feeds from events to 80 TV stations and live remotes for 150 morning drive-time radio shows.

The executive team of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells parlayed a small Disney studio that got half its business from theme parks into an entertainment giant. What was their role in Florida?

They were a great combination that took us through a resurgence called the Disney Decade. Between 1988 and 1998 they spent billions on Disney World, opening two theme parks, two water parks, Downtown Disney and 30 hotels.

How did you land Warren Burger, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, for an event?

I was visiting CBS News in New York, telling Walter Cronkite about our bicentennial parade. He put me in touch with the chief justice, who had been trying to get attention for the upcoming 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. We added a display at the Hall of Presidents and staged a communitywide event with him as keynote speaker.

How did you get 50 live Peking ducks to waddle behind Donald Duck in a parade for the character's 50th birthday?

We sent the costumed Donald to a Miami hatchery to bond with a newborn troop. He got down on the floor and played with all these little yellow fuzz balls. As the ducklings grew up backstage here, he fed them lettuce every day. We fitted them with little party hats and name tags. The story made network news.

We knew ducks won't eat birthday cake, so we made one from frozen corn. The ducks just attacked it. Once they got to the Cinderella castle they all made a break for the moat, so we had to wade in and herd them out.

What did you do?

We put them on a parade float with Donald behind a little picket fence. They were the hit of the parade all summer. Ducks pant in real hot weather, so it looked like they were singing and quacking with the music.

Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.

Disney World turns 40: An insider's look at how the Magic Kingdom got its start 09/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 30, 2011 10:16pm]
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