Before continuing, it should also be noted that the Stage Managers for the shows came out of the Entertainment Division and technically supported by the Technical Services Department. It wasn’t uncommon for different divisions and departments to overlap like this, and perhaps it just goes to show what the staffing situation was really like in those days, but to some degree, it created complications and additional stress. Not that we as workers could do much about it, of course. Orders came down from the top and we followed them to the best of our abilities.
Despite the staffing problems we had initially faced, we ultimately managed to get all the positions we needed for the grand opening filled. We were even lucky enough to attract a few very qualified stagehands who just wanted to experience the themed corporate event and were eager to work with us to bring the grand opening to life. Journeyman stagehands were important to the department because many of the live shows we had planned were quite complicated and required precise and professional sound and lighting cues, the execution of which really only comes with experience and can’t easily be taught. This was especially true for the Top of the World Restaurant, which featured well-known celebrity talent in the Contemporary Hotel, The Hoop de Due Show at the Campgrounds Pavilion, and the nightly luau in the hotel as well as the outside nightly luau on the beach (it should be noted that Disney no longer produces a luau at the Polynesian Hotel today). If not for the technical know-how those journeyman stagehands brought to the table, we would have been scrambling even more than we were to get everything up to the expectations set.
Things were going well for us, or at least we thought we were on schedule until United States Steel made the earth-shattering announcement to Disney that they would not be able to complete construction of the Contemporary Hotel and the Polynesian Hotel by the deadline of October 1, 1971. This came as a total shock and created a truly frustrating challenge for everyone. Roy Disney, who was Walt’s brother, called an emergency meeting with the people from United States Steel in an attempt to pressure them to live up to their end of the agreement. This wasn’t unreasonable on Roy’s part, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to United States Steel. The deal Walt Disney entered into with United States Steel required them to have the buildings finished and opened by the October date. Perhaps they had fallen behind schedule, or maybe they underestimated the amount of work it would take, but that certainly wasn’t our fault even though we’d be the only ones suffering from it. Sadly, that’s not an uncommon consequence in the world of business.
The crisis for us was two-fold. If United States Steel didn’t follow through on their obligations and meet the completion date, Disney would lose a substantial amount of tax savings at the end of its fiscal year and have the tighten spending the following year. But even more important was the fact that if United States Steel didn’t finish on time, there would be no accommodations for the guests, invited press, and dignitaries during the grand opening. That would have been tremendously embarrassing for the company and could have jeopardized the trust they’d built with business partners and the public. With discussions falling through, Disney in effect bought United States Steel out and asked them to vacate the project. At this point, Disney decided it would ultimately complete the construction itself and set up what I believe to have been the Buena Vista Construction Company to finish the project. I’m not aware of how much Disney had to pay to take possession of the properties back then, but it was substantial. But whatever they paid, I’m certain United States Steel lost much, much more; the terms of the original deal they signed was that they would own and operate the hotels with Disney just managing them. Rather than find a solution to the problem and make up for lost time, they opted instead to lose out on years of profits. Hard to believe, that’s what I think happened.
United States Steel and Disney had hired a man named John Currey to be the Vice President of the Resorts Division. He remained in that position during the opening and for a couple of years after that. John was a member of the Currey family, who owned and operated a number of lodges and properties in Yellowstone National Park, so there was no doubt on Disney’s part that he could handle hospitality operations and corporate themed events.
I believe that the reason United States Steel got the project in the first place was an innovative design they had called shot rooms. The concept was to build the main structure of the hotel and then pre-wire the electrics and plumbing and then pre-fab the rooms in a factory with all the electric and plumbing designed to easily be attached to the main grid on the main structure. Everything to my knowledge was going well, but problems arose shortly into construction. The rooms would be delivered on a daily basis for the cranes to move them into position for the final install. The problem was that in Florida it rains almost every single day in the summer, which would slow the install down until they could dry them out. No installation could be completed until this happened, and as a result, things were done in a rather piecemeal fashion. What I’m saying here is only an observation on my part as my department and I had nothing to do with the Resort Division. I mention this only because it created some initial stress from all of the departments, not just those working on getting the park completed and those who had to get the hotels opened.
These sort of issues aren’t uncommon when you’re collaborating on large-scale projects like we were. There was no way the grand opening could have happened without all of the different partners, divisions, and partnerships working together, but by the same token, it meant that one group failing to follow through, like United States Steel, resulted in drastic changes to keep on track. We were too far along with the planning of the grand opening celebration to simply postpone it, so the Disney organization had to buyout United States Steel and take over themselves. On all levels, even on the corporate level, we had to be flexible in all of our plans, not just event production.