We managed to get everything prepared in time, and the Luau was a huge success for the opening corporate themed event, drawing critical acclaim from those in attendance as well as those working with Disney alike. It managed to surpass the already high expectations we had set on it, and everyone was relieved and invigorated. You can imagine, given the shortage of workers and tight time constraints we were working under, just how excited everyone was to see the final event with the audience in attendance. Strangely enough, though, we never used the hydraulic stage positioning except for the opening event. Once the stages were in position, they stayed that way for all future performances. You might think getting those hydraulics in place and up and running was a waste of time and effort if they were only used once, but when it comes to those sorts of situations there’s no such thing as too much preparation. It’s always better to have something ready and not need it than to need it and not have it ready. With the Luau completed, our next project was to get all the technical aspects ready for the second opening event called the WDW Symphony Orchestra, which was to be performed in the Cinderella Castle Forecourt.
Disney’s Entertainment Department, under the direction of Bob Yani (Executive Vice President of the Entertainment Division), had sought out first chair musicians from all over Europe (and eventually expanding the scope of their search throughout the world) and cordially invited them to be a part of the opening celebration of Walt Disney World. He was very successful, ultimately attracting over 40 world class musicians to agree to perform for the grand opening in the Cinderella Castle Forecourt. One of the big draws planned for Walt Disney World was bringing some their famous fairy tale adaptions to life in glamorous style, not unlike Walt Disney Land. The WDW Symphony Orchestra was vital to creating this atmosphere. It would have been easy enough to pipe in pre-recorded music instead, but live music added a flair of magic to the event that couldn’t be duplicated. Bob Yani put all of his resources into finding the best musicians he could to ensure the event captured the feel of a Disney film.
Disney flew the musicians out to Orlando and provided them with full accommodations at the Contemporary Hotel. Meanwhile, my team’s job was to provide technical support in the form of lighting for the music stands as well as instrumental and verbal microphones (where necessary) for the musicians.
Overall, getting sound equipment properly arranged can be an incredibly daunting task. A lot more than the equipment being used has to be considered. Space is an important factor, be it the area where the performance taking place (affecting the acoustics) or the position of the microphones and speakers themselves relative to the performers as well as the audience. Good sound arrangements are taken for granted by audiences, but when something is off it’s immediately noticeable. Just something for people working in event production to keep in mind: those in attendance may not notice everything you’ve done right, but they’ll almost certainly notice your mistakes.
My events production team didn’t have much more than that to produce, though, so our jobs were finished in what felt like no time at all. The staging had already been designed by WED and fabricated in position by the WDW shop. That was the most physical aspect of staging the event and having it handled already was a major time saver (and relief!). The sound was handled by a permanently installed system and augmented by a state of the art mixing system and speaker enclosures, completing most of that work as well. We were lucky that the weather held firm for both the rehearsals and performance, as it had with the Luau. Though I’m sure we would have found a way to adapt should the weather have turned south, the weather staying consistently good meant performers and attendees alike would stay happy and comfortable during the event. You could stage the best corporate event in the world and still have poor audience reception if nature doesn’t play along. Disney willingly took a big gamble by hosting events outdoors, but it was a calculated risk: they knew that a powerful way to create a great first impression for the opening of Walt Disney World was to utilize the beachfront.
We were able to put together a great team of technicians and designers for the WDW Symphony Orchestra show. This group of workers came on board just to mix the performance and nothing else. Perhaps it seems strange to you that a team would sign on with such a large company to work just one event when several others were going on in the same time span, but sound mixing and engineering is a very precise skill set that can be very lucrative, even for one-off projects like the orchestra show.
The only thing me and my production support services team were required to do was get the group events ideas, physical set in place and establish the sound and lighting in support of the performance. It was a much easier experience than what we had done for the Luau, but we moved forward carrying that same momentum. Just because the labor was lighter didn’t mean we could afford to slow down.
But despite the reprieve my team’s experience with the orchestra show, there were still a tremendous amount of other projects going on at this time as well. On top of these preparations, we had numerous other stage productions to work on. We had operators, sound, and lighting equipment for the Top of the World Dinner Club with a featured name entertainer to set up. We also had the Diamond Horseshoe Review and the Country Bear Jamboree to complete, as these shows were all planned to be in operation on the opening day of the park. And several others were added after the official opening itself. This was all going on at the same time and our operators (a great team) worked diligently to get the lighting and sound systems up and running for all rehearsals and ultimately the live shows which went on throughout the day. It just goes to show, I suppose, that at Disney there is always something in the works and that people are always working, especially in those days. There really never was a dull moment during my time there.
In the next chapter, I will describe the creation of the “Water Pageant,” “Fantasy in the Sky,” the grand opening of the park, as well as the creation of Disney’s themed events, to include its philosophy and the team that was vital to making it all happen. I will tell you all about the creative and talented team that Disney put together to build what thousands of people make their living with today. In many respects, me and all the other employees working at that time helped form the groundwork for how Disney would stage and operate events for years to come in the future. In laying out our work in these chapters I hope to others working in event planning in staging to parts of their process and hopefully inspire them to adapt Disney’s strategies into their own.