Disney World opened 50 years ago; these workers never left

ORLANDO, Florida

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Applying to be one of Walt Disney World’s first workers, high school graduate George Kalogridis made a split-second decision that marked his life’s path: He chose a room where future hotel employees were hired.

Chuck Milam received advice on a job offer from a transplanted Disney executive whose new home he was fitting out. Earliene Anderson jumped at the chance to work at the new Disney theme park in Florida, having fallen in love with the beauty of Disneyland in California on a trip two years earlier.

At the time, the three were among the 6,000 employees who first opened Disney World’s Magic Kingdom to the public on October 1, 1971. Today, they are among the two dozen from that first day still employed at the theme park. seaside resort as it celebrates its 50th birthday on Friday.

During those decades, Disney World added three more theme parks, two dozen more hotels, and grew to a workforce of 77,000, as this helped Orlando become the most visited place in the United States before. the pandemic.

What has never changed is the original employees’ dedication to Pixie Dust, the dream machine created by Walt Disney and his Imagineers.

“Disney has been my love, and still is,” Anderson said recently before starting his merchandising job at a Magic Kingdom hotel. “I love Disney.”

Employees who have made up the club for 50 years say the theme park has allowed them to develop their careers and try on new hats. Kalogridis rose through the ranks to become president of Walt Disney World and Disneyland in California. Milam went from being a warehouse worker to buying spare parts for rides and shows.

Forrest Bahruth joined the staff at Disney World in January 1971 as Show Director, responsible for directing and choreographing parades and shows. He has also had the opportunity to help open other Disney theme parks around the world over the past five decades.

“There are people all over the world getting up to go to work. They are unhappy with it. They don’t really like their job, ”Bahruth said. “As you can see from us, there is enthusiasm. We have the privilege of being in a place where we love what we do. “

There was no guarantee that Disney World would be a success 50 years ago. Walt Disney, the pioneering entertainer and entrepreneur whose name graces the Florida resort, had died in 1966, just a year after announcing plans for “Disneyland on the east coast.” for around $ 5 million via secret land purchases using fake names and shell companies.

The task of running the project until opening day fell to his brother, Roy Disney, who, along with other company officials, convinced the Florida legislature to create a quasi-government agency that would allow for Disney to self-manage infrastructure and planning. . Roy died almost three months after the opening of Disney World.

Just weeks before the opening, the construction of the Magic Kingdom was a controlled chaos, and it seemed impossible for everything to happen on time.

“It was like an army of ants. Everything was under construction. The interiors were still being installed. The roof was still being laid, ”Bahruth said. “There was painting, landscaping. Things were happening then. It was as if trucks were going everywhere.

Bahruth repeated the performers through the choreography of the parade down Main Street, which passed through the center of the Magic Kingdom and looked like a small town from the turn of the century of Walt Disney’s childhood. Even though he was a busser, Kalogridis was enlisted to lay sod outside the hotel he worked in, hours before Disney World opened.

Two things have remained etched in the memories of long-time employees on this opening day. The first was the photo. It was an image of thousands of Disney World employees standing in front of the iconic Cinderella Castle with Mickey Mouse and other costumed characters holding hands in front. Two weeks later he made the cover of Life magazine.

“They brought all the characters in, staged them first, and then they tried to keep all the different workers together based on the color of their costumes,” Milam said. “If you were from Fantasyland and in yellow you would go there.”

The second was the parade. There was a 1,076-member marching band led by Meredith Wilson, the songwriter for the Broadway show, “The Music Man”. white doves have been released into the air, and less respectful of the environment, as have thousands of multicolored balloons.

“It was the greatest thing I have ever seen,” Bahruth said.

Only about 10,000 visitors showed up on day one – which in today’s much larger Walt Disney World would be about 90 minutes of inbound visitors. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 1971, nearly three months later, that Disney executives would know if their new resort would be a success. it was then that the cars trying to enter the Magic Kingdom stretched for miles on the highway.

“It was very clear after that first Thanksgiving, that the audience really liked what we were doing,” Kalogridis said. “That first Thanksgiving was the moment.”


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Mike Schneider, The Associated Press

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