Walt Disney didn’t allow any of the designs or concepts drawn up for Walt Disney World events to move forward unless he gave it his personal approval. To ensure this policy was followed to the letter, he set up a special department called WED (Walt’s initials) where all events theme ideas, designs, visuals, and fabrications had to be submitted for Walt’s final approval or rejection. Though I can’t prove it, either way, I was told that on most evenings you could find Walt visiting the WED’s offices and making notes on all the projects and designs being planned. He would carefully analyze each one, taking notes on what he felt needed to be improved.
He would also submit his own personal design ideas. It’s absolutely true that Walt was always working, be it on a film or just how the business itself would run. It wasn’t uncommon for him to jot down ideas and sketches on napkins while he was eating, for example. Though I don’t know this for a fact, I was told this by almost every top executive in the Disney organization who worked directly with Walt that everything visitors would experience in the park was personally approved by Walt himself, so if you had seen the Walt Disney World in those early days you were experiencing some of Walt’s genius directly.
I mention this because after Walt’s passing there was a brief period where WED was consumed with pending projects. They would have been quickly approved or rejected had Walt still been with us, but without him, there was a scramble to develop a new system to get projects moving again. His verbal approval would have kept things moving quickly, especially with the construction of Walt Disney World underway, but in his absence, the folks working in WED had to prioritize projects themselves.
There were still a few projects waiting to go that Walt himself wanted to be created, such as the nightly “Electric Water Pageant” in the Disney’s Seven Seas Lagoon leading into the park. A small island was created in the middle of the lake to house all the Fantasy in the Sky fireworks launching mechanics in support of the nightly fireworks show. Then a U-shaped canal had to be dredged so that the Electric Water Pageant could launch nightly and return without the need to reposition itself for the next show. I’m don’t know for certain if the WED office designed this show or if it was the brainchild of Reid Carlson on my staff. Regardless, the original design I remember seeing consisted of a series of pontoon boats that would be linked together to create a long train of boats that would follow one another. Each boat had a long stream of custom made chain link fencing in which we placed what back then would have been considered outdoor Christmas tree lights.
To create the images for this show, we used a Tandy 140 (though I could be wrong about the actual computer used to create the programming; you have to remember this was before the introduction of DOS and PC’s, so there were many different computers on the market we could have used to create the programming that was necessary for the show). If you’re too young to remember what computers were like in those years, or if you have no knowledge of coding, it’s difficult to explain just how primitive this arrangement as compared to the technology we take for granted today.
Programming languages weren’t as flexible as they are now, and while we were able to get everything to do what we needed for the show, it was a rigid process with little room for flexibility. That isn’t to say that programming is somehow an easy affair today, but the with a wider variety of languages available it would be a much simpler affair set up the images we needed. It just goes to show Disney’s dedication to getting the most out of everything.
The Electric Water Pageant was one of the corporate event ideas that also designed to feature sound. Because the sound system had to be battery powered it, would need additional protection at all times in case bad weather rolled in. Even mild rain had the potential to disrupt the sound systems in place. The same was true of the computer operating the lights and sound. Protecting these electronic components was vital to the experience of the show. On top of this, each boat had a small generator and a 50 horse powered motor, which needed to be muffled in order to reduce sound. Finally, every boat required an operator to mix the sound and maintain the lighting effects. It is safe to say that the Electric Water Pageant of today is far more sophisticated than what we had to work with back then, but we were able to get the best show possible with what we had. In the end, it looked and sounded great.
As we were making all of these arrangements, we still had to focus on the main corporate event: the Grand Opening Parade that would open Walt Disney World on October the 25th, 1971.
The plan was to stage a massive parade featuring over 1,186 performers. All of these people would be working together to recreate the main number from the musical “Music Man,” starring Merideth Wilson. Disney actually flew in Merideth Wilson to lead the parade in a custom rolling bandstand. This bandstand was to lead Mr.Wilson through Disney’s Main Street as he conducted the marching band as they followed close behind him.
Disney had recruited each of the over 1,186 band members to play the hit number and staged all of the rehearsals as well. However, Disney did not have a single place large enough to allow all of those people to rehearse at the same time prior to the big show, so they had to rehearse in much smaller groups in various parking lots, schools, and playgrounds throughout the Orlando area. The only time they all got together to rehearse was late in the evening the night prior to the big day on Main Street. To say that this was highly unusual would be a tremendous understatement, but given a large number of people it was impossible to have everyone rehearse the music consistently as one group, let alone practice their movements, without hindering some other aspect of the show still in development.
I can’t imagine the pressure all of those musicians were under or what their nerves must have been like, but in its own way breaking everyone up into smaller groups, while perhaps not ideal, proved to be an effective team building strategy.
Our job (along with those in the Entertainment Division) was to provide the logistics for the performance as well as equipment distribution. The real challenge, though, was Disney’s plan to release what I believed at the time to be the largest numbers of helium balloons ever, with well over 400,000 balloons being released at once. This was the tricky part: Disney had to create two balloon trains to be positioned on the back staging areas of Disney’s Main Street. They weren’t literal, full-sized trains, of course: they were made up of custom rolling box car units, each with top lids that would spring open upon receiving an RF signal to release the balloons. There was also a second opening located towards the top of the boxcar that allowed for the balloons to be placed in the unit. Each side of Main Street had one of these balloon trains and was at least 300 running feet in length each. Disney had required almost 800 volunteers to blow up the balloons throughout the night to fill the train’s boxcars. Once again, volunteers played an important role in bringing the grand opening events to life.
My team’s biggest concern was making sure the release latches on the top of each car opened up instantly and fully when the signal was given. When you’re working on even simple event themes ideas like these, you have to keep in mind that there is always room for error. Our biggest fear with the arrangement as it had been designed was that the signal would be delayed and the latches might not open on time or could jam entirely. Though things went smoothly during test runs, we needed to have a backup plan in place just in case. To make sure we had no issues, we stationed personnel at each train to force the lids open should the lids fail to open. We also made use of signal boosters to make sure the signal was strong enough to reach every unit. As it was, though, we only experienced a few issues during the release, and the park guests were absolutely blown away by the spectacle. To add to the excitement, we had a number of celebrities make appearances during the opening parade such as Bob Hope, Julie Andrews, Rock Hudson, Jonathan Winters, Annette Funicello, and Fred MacMurray, just to name a few. It was a spectacular day and a fitting celebration for a project that took 7 years to complete. It’s a shame that Walt didn’t live to see the project he was so heavily involved with come to fruition, but I think everyone who knew him would say he would have been proud of the final result.
Looking back on a job well done is critical for building team exercises. It’s easy to pat yourself on the back when everything goes off without a hitch, and that’s certainly not a bad thing to do, but you’ll find the real value of looking back in introspection. When I think about the grand opening and all of the work we did to stage all of these events, it’s amazing to see how everything came together with the way that it did. I came in with little experience, we were all under intense time constraints, and we took on many volunteers from outside the industry to fill our ranks. From an outside perspective, you might say the odds were stacked against us, and that it was a miracle that the grand opening was as successful as it was. But that’s overlooking some important things. For one, we were all passionate about what we were doing. Beyond wanting to see the event itself succeed, we all enjoyed our jobs and wanted to do them. Second, and most importantly, we were flexible. Nothing is ever set in stone, and while we were lucky in that we didn’t have any major difficulties, we still had to adjust when things didn’t go according to our own plans.
Those two things go hand in hand. You have to like what you’re doing because you’ll more likely than not have to explore multiple options when it’s time to stage an event. If you’re set in your ways and don’t have the passion needed to endure the process of trial and error, you simply won’t be able to adapt to things that are beyond your control.
Walt’s designs were very specific because he was a perfectionist who knew what he wanted. But that didn’t mean there was only one way to reach his goals. Everyone knew this, including Walt. People sometimes have this romantic notion of what “Disney magic” is, that things always came together perfectly because there are so many creative geniuses in the company. In my time with Disney, we definitely had our share of brilliant minds (and I hope I’ve made that clear in these chapters), but there’s really no magic to it. It’s simply a matter of applying one’s self and willing to learn new ways of doing things. It’s nothing unique to Walt or anyone else.
As a post-script, I’d like to mention Roy Disney. Though he had planned on retiring, he took over operations shortly after Walt’s passing in 1966. He wanted to make sure that the finished Walt Disney World was as close to his brother’s vision as possible. His role sometimes gets understated because he wasn’t as prolific as Walt (honestly, who could be?), but I think he did an incredible job.
In my next chapter, we’ll fast-forward a bit and look at how the modern Themed Event came into fruition.