Gentle Visionary: Walt's Disney World
Roy was scared. Although devastated by his brother’s death in December 1966, he mustered the resolve to see through Walt’s plans for the Florida project, which would not be a replica of Disneyland. John Hench recalled Roy saying, “I simply had to do it. Because when I meet Walt again, if I hadn’t even tried to build that thing, I would really catch hell.” Hench said, “He really believed that…And he did it for Walt.”
It was not Roy’s wish to be a public figure. General Joe Potter, who by 1974 was vice president for EPCOT Planning and senior vice president of Walt Disney World Co., said one of his greatest corporate experiences was when the “company was left without its creative leader when Walt died and Roy moved in and took the company over.”
This started in a studio projection room a week after Walt died. Roy collected his staff there, and out of an atmosphere of “doomsday,” he gave them a pep talk. Marvin Davis, WED Project Designer, recalled that although Roy could hardly speak, he urged, “We’re going to finish this park and we’re going to do it just the way Walt wanted it. Don’t you ever forget.”
Roy delayed the retirement he had been longing to take at age 73. Instead, he gave Walt his last gift: 23 years after Walt shed the title of President to accomplish more, Roy did likewise. According to a “News from Walt Disney World” press release, “In November of 1968, Roy O. Disney relinquished his position as President of Walt Disney Productions so as to ‘concentrate his efforts on finalizing plans for financing the enormous Walt Disney World project near Orlando, Florida.’”
Roy spent much time in Florida during the construction. “I think he liked being part of the excitement of something coming out of the ground like that,” recalled Marty Sklar in an interview. “He was very proud of it, as he should have been, because he was the one that really made it happen.”
“Exultant,” is how a reporter described Roy, waving a cigar, in 1969. “This is a lot of fun,” said Roy. “It’s exciting. Seeing all these new things is a thrill for me. I’m only sorry that Walt isn’t here to see it too. Boy, would he enjoy it.”
As early as the company annual report for 1967, Roy referred to the project as “Walt Disney World” rather than simply “Disney World.” Roy insisted on the “Walt,” states Marty Sklar in his recently published memoir Dream It! Do It!
Card Walker, then president of Walt Disney Productions, concurred in an interview from 1973. “I think that he wanted to be sure…that it was really Walt’s project and maybe he was sensitive that Walt had gone now and we were opening without Walt here, so that there’d be no misunderstanding.” The decision “was probably one of complete unselfishness to make sure that nobody thought any other Disney involved. That was Walt’s. That was Walt Disney World. At least, that’s the way I interpret it.” Walker was sure of Roy’s insistence on the name because, as he said, “I fought him on it. ‘Disney World’ was a better title to market. But he said, ‘No, Card, I want it that way.’ So boom! We said, ‘Fine. That’s it.’ And that was the end of that.” In retrospect, Walker was pleased with Roy’s decision. And glad the project wasn’t called Disneyland East, another proposal bandied about since Walt’s time.
Roy refused to commemorate his own name, but enjoyed passing on the honor. Replying to Marty Sklar in a memo dated March 15, 1971 about Walt Disney World nomenclature, Roy wrote:
“In the Main Street section with reference to the Steam Railroad, you list three locomotives named for Walt, Roger Broggie, and myself. I want you to withdraw my name and see if you can find a more suitable one—one connected with the Railroad. I don’t feel right about having my name used there, because I have had absolutely nothing to do with the steam trains. I can’t help you with any substitute suggestions, but anyway, please remove my name from consideration before you get to the point of painting it on the equipment.
“I would like to see us make liberal use of the names of people who have had leading parts in the building of the Florida Project, particularly along Main Street on the second floor windows, similar to what we did at Disneyland. We could have a lot of organizational fun with it.
“For example, we might have your name up there (with many flourishes)—
MARTY SKLAAR [sic]
As it turned out, Imagineers Marty Sklar and Al Bertino, a Disney artist and role model for Big Al in the Country Bear Jamboree attraction, share a window: “Manuscripts & Melodramas.”
On Walt Disney World’s opening day, the third locomotive that circled the Magic Kingdom was named Lilly Belle, for Lillian Disney, harkening back to the locomotive of Walt’s miniature Carolwood Pacific Railroad. But engine number 4, that started service in the park two months later, on December 1, 1971, bears the name Roy O. Disney. Roy passed away later that month.
In fact, Roy did have a little something to do with Walt’s trains. In a memo from 1951, he made detailed suggestions to Walt about how to use the Carolwood Pacific in a Christmas window display at Hecht’s department store in Washington, D.C., on a turntable with Alice in Wonderland dolls seen in the Christmas TV special “One Hour in Wonderland.” Such a display could help maintain Walt’s railroad and promote his little side business based on it. Roy suggested, “You might even put some cards in the window to the effect that moulds, parts, etc., are for sale—inquire in the Hecht store!” Merchandise presentation specialist Bill Stensgaard had written to Walt from Chicago, in December 1950, after seeing the TV special, asking to take the train “on a nation-wide tour” and to put it in Hecht’s window. By 1951, however, Walt was only interested in “my Americana project wherein I plan to use little mechanical people who will sing, dance and talk…they might almost be described as visual juke boxes with the record playing mechanism being replaced by a miniature stage setting.” And Project Little Man, which would wind up as Audio-Animatronics® figures years later, was underway.
Roy deferred to Walt even at the dedication of Walt Disney World. In his book Designing Disney, John Hench recalls:
“Roy Disney stood facing the microphone before a crowd of guests ready to deliver the dedication speech at the opening ceremony. He suddenly turned and looked around, and I heard him say quietly, ‘Somebody go find Mickey for me. We don’t have Walt any more, and Mickey is the nearest thing to Walt that we have left.’ Mickey appeared and Roy promptly began his speech, with Mickey standing proudly at his side.”
Walt was there, too, in the technological wonders throughout the “‘Vacation Kingdom of the World’…the largest recreation enterprise ever undertaken by a single company” at that time. These resonated of Walt’s plans for EPCOT and his insistence on cleanliness at his parks to appeal to the best in people. Roy did not skimp. According to a press release from August 1969, “the most modern and advanced telephone system in America,” was installed at Walt Disney World. So was the apex of trash collection. A press release headline from November 1971 proclaimed, “Giant Vacuum Helps Keep the Magic in The Magic Kingdom.” The quiet, discreet trash removal seen in small operation in Sweden became not only the first AVAC system in the U.S. but also, “by far, the largest system in the world.”
Roy took such trouble buying the property bit by bit and constructing a sound financial basis for Walt Disney World that the headline of an August 1969 press release was no coincidence: “Florida Bankers First to Reserve Walt Disney World for Convention.” In fact, the Executive Vice-President of the Florida Banker’s Association announced that the organization “reserved the entire 800-room Contemporary Hotel for its convention at Walt Disney World, May 16-20, 1972.”
Had Roy lived, he likely would have attended—with Mickey.
Jennifer Hendrickson has worked for the Walt Disney Archives and in a former research office of The Walt Disney Family Museum. In Boston, she researched and wrote some scripts on musical topics for WGBH Public Radio.
Acknowledgements: Gratitude to Rebecca Cline, David R. Smith, Steven Vagnini, Kevin M. Kern, Michael Buckhoff, Jenn Berger, and Jeff Golden of the Walt Disney Archives for their generous assistance and expertise. Thanks also to Brianne Bertolaccini of The Walt Disney Family Museum, to Margaret Adamic of The Walt Disney Company, and to Paula Sigman Lowery.
John Hench interview with Bob Thomas, audio, Aug 30, 1995, 7 minutes in[JH1] [PS2] .
Joe Potter interview with Bob Mervine, audio, Feb 1980, 4 minutes in.
Marvin Davis interview with Bob Thomas, audio, Nov 2, 1995, 19 minutes in.
undated press release with those from 1969, pages not numbered.
Marty Sklar interview with Bob Thomas, part 2, audio, Sep 1, 1995, 5 minutes in.
Thomas Murray, “The Men Who Followed[JH3] Mickey Mouse,” Dun’s Review, Dec. 1969, p. 38[JH4]
Marty Sklar, Dream It! Do It! p. 154
Card Walker interview with Bob Thomas, transcript, May 23, 1973, pages not numbered[JH5] .
Michael Broggie, Walt Disney’s Railroad Story: The Small-Scale Fascination that Led to a Full-Scale Kingdom, 2nd edition, Donning c1998, p. 392-394.
Roy Disney memo to Walt Disney, May 11, 1951, about “Your Train – Window Display Hecht & Co. Washington.”
Bill Stensgaard letter to Walt Disney, Dec 27, 1950.
Walt Disney letter to Bill Stensgaard, Nov 29, 1951.
John Hench, Designing Disney, Disney Editions, c2003, p. 147[JH6] .
Edward A. Lacy, “Electronics at Disney World: How Electronics is Helping to Make Disney World a Success,” Popular Electronics, Aug 1972, p. 44.
“News from Walt Disney World” press release, “The Florida Telephone Corporation and Walt Disney World…” Aug 1969.
“News from Walt Disney World” press release, date-stamped Jul 1, 1971.