Before I go too much further with my story of Walt Disney World’s grand opening, I feel the need to outline the actual events theme ideas that were to be produced for the grand opening of the park itself. The first event was to be a huge luau on the beach of the Polynesian Resort. The next event was a concert by the World Symphony Orchestra on the Cinderella Castle Forecourt area, and the final event was to be the actual grand opening of the park on October 1st, 1971 featuring Meredith Wilson and over 1,180 other musicians. Our team job was to provide technical support for all of these events. It may not seem like much to say it was just three events, but when you consider the number of people involved, all the action and cues, you start to develop a better picture of the scale we were working on. This was to be an event the size of which most (if not all) in attendance had never seen before.
All of these fantastic opening events were created by the Vice President of the Entertainment Division, Bob Yani. At the time Bob was considered to be one of the most creative pageant producers in the entire country. Bob Yani also, to my knowledge, created and conceived all the live entertainment shows and ideas for themed events for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, which is an impressive resume, to say the least. It should be pointed out that there were many other talented people in the Entertainment Division who may very well have more than assisted Mr. Yani in the creation of all these shows, as at that time I was not part of the Entertainment Division and wouldn’t have known all the details regarding who did what. My team’s job was to provide and meet with the leadership of the Entertainment Division and ascertain the technical support requirements necessary to support their live entertainment shows in the parks, campgrounds, and resorts. We couldn’t afford to spend much time doing anything else. Though all of the teams communicated with each other on a regular basis, they were largely focused on working towards their own goals and responsibilities. It simply wouldn’t have been possible to have learned the names and faces of every single person working in the park at any given time during those developmental stages (or even now, I would imagine). So while we had a strong sense of direction and organization, it was still chaotic in some respects. We just had to roll with it to get the job done.
Before I get into descriptions of what it was like to actually create these events, I should talk about the team that was initially put together to meet the demands of the installation schedules so that everything would be ready when the parks and resorts were planned to be opened. The fine folks at the Disney Human Resources department were doing everything they could to interview qualified technicians and send them on to Bill Blanton for approval. While there were a lot of prospects, people simply weren’t getting hired in the numbers we were hoping for and needed. The problem that was holding the process back was the hourly rate Disney was offering; it was substantially lower than a qualified journeyman stagehand was getting in the outside market, and it really turned off a lot of otherwise talented people from the idea of working with Disney. So right out of the gate, we were way behind as we were trying to fill all the necessary positions we could in order to keep the grand opening on schedule. We did, however, get a number of applicants with theatrical backgrounds that could easily be brought onboard with minimal on the job training. They didn’t have the experience we were looking for in technicians, but their knowledge of stage setting and organization was a solid Launchpad to get them on board.
Among the best of these newcomers were women who applied because they simply loved the Disney organization and wanted to be a part of the adventure of opening Walt Disney World in any way they could. Initially, we had five women on board. They absolutely loved the job, were never late coming to work, and always worked as hard as everyone else to get the goal accomplished, no matter how long it took. Their most important quality as far as I was concerned was never complaining, and none of them did despite their lack of experience with the jobs they’d taken on. And this was very technical work they were doing, too. Yet they had a passion for the company, and that was more than enough to drive them to succeed and build their skill sets. I know for a fact that two of the women remained with Disney until retirement age, having moved up the ladder into upper management. Just goes to show that you don’t always need years of experience under your belt to get a job done well. It’s almost impossible to think that a company as big as Disney would do something like that these days, but with the pressure, we were under at the time to get those positions filled and keep things on track; it was the best option available. Thankfully, it worked out well.
I wanted to use this post as an opportunity to show you how the event planning industry operates and how things have changed drastically over the years. I also wanted to introduce some of the men and women who helped make it all happen, though we haven’t gotten too specific with individual people yet. We will later, I promise. But for now, I’m just laying the groundwork.
As you read future installments of my story, keep in mind that when I started there were maybe thirty event producers in the United States; now there are several thousand making a living and practicing their craft using the philosophy that was initially born at the Disney organization. Even all these years later, the work we did for the grand opening of Walt Disney World continues to have an impact on the industry.