Building Walt’s Florida Project: Walt Disney World from Dream to Reality


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While D23 Expo is known for being the ultimate Disney Fan event, where new announcements from the company surprise and delight park guests and moviegoers alike, one of the other facets is the historical content largely presented by the Walt Disney Archives.  These presentations give the viewers new insight and appreciation into the innovative work that went into creating the current Walt Disney Company.

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One great example was “Building Walt’s Florida Project: Walt Disney World from Dream to Reality,” a presentation that looked at the seminal days of Walt Disney World with accounts from the cast members who had been there at the beginning.

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The panel was made up of Tom Nabbe, Disneyland’s original Tom Sawyer who ultimately ended up as manager of distribution services for WDW; Debby Dane Browne, first WDW ambassador; Peggie Fariss, Disneyland ride operator selected to go to Florida and work the press event announcing the plans for the first phase of Walt Disney World’s construction who stayed to ultimately Imagineer attractions in parks around the world; and Bob Gurr, attraction designer and transportation specialist with Imagineering for almost four decades.


Gurr on what Walt was trying to achieve:  “Well, you know, that’s a hypothetical question and I get it all the time.  I have to answer it this way:  I worked with Walt for twelve years, and I could look him in the face and I’d have no idea what he was thinking.  But if you look at your history, Walt never did anything over.  He was always finishing one thing, had 10,000 thoughts growing up next and he kicked one of those immediately and he’d charge off in that direction, so there was no way to ever know what he was going to do next.  It was some little hints–sometimes it was different–but what you finally saw was where he went and I would say today to answer that hypothetical question, he’d be finding the best technology to find how to tell stories better and he’d be just ripping around as fast as any of us.”

First impressions of the site?

Nabbe:  “Well, I thought Disneyland was in the boonies when we moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim, but we left civilization and drove for another 20 minutes out there through this palmetto bush area and when we got there, Bob Matheison was sort of our guide, and he was pointing out how that castle’s gonna be here, and we’re going to refill the Bay Lake with white sand, but it was out in the boonies.

Dane Browne:  “The first time I actually saw the property probably was in 1969.  It was a moonscape.  It was craters and earth moved and swamps…a few Gators here and there and snakes and I went…Honestly, I went home, I said “Dad, they say we’re opening October 1st of 71, but I don’t see it.””

Fariss:  “As Tom and Debbie were saying, you could drive for 20 minutes from Orlando to where the Contemporary Resort Hotel is today and all you would see would be orange groves.  Big, big commercial orange groves and these pine forests.  And if you were driving south, you could probably drive to Lake Okeechobee before you hit anything.  And so I saw it in 1969 at the press conference and we drove through all of that wilderness and then emerged onto the construction site where they were excavating the Seven Seas Lagoon.  It was just a monumental project.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Gurr:  “Well, a few months after the world found out what our internal secret Project X was, we were on The Mouse (Walt Disney’s Grumman Gulfstream I plane,) which you saw downstairs.  We went down to 1000 feet, lowered the flaps a bit, fly as slow as possible and the pilots drove us around the property line which took 20 minutes.  I remember looking out the window…These people down there–there’s sinkholes, one cabin–they have no idea what we’re going to do to Orlando. I think I still have the pictures I took out the window that day, but that was the shock of shocks:  “Walt bought what?!”

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Peggie Fariss

Fariss on the 1960 press event:  “There was a large circus tent erected.  The model that you see there was installed in that tent, along with lots and lots of artwork and models.  So our opportunity was really a three-day event and we hosted the press and we hosted leaders of American industry and we hosted members of the Florida Legislature and the idea was to introduce them to something that nobody had ever done. So you couldn’t say, “well, this will be like…” because there wasn’t anything like it. You could say, “well, there’s Disneyland, but then we’re really extending this whole experience into hospitality and recreation, and so you’ll really be able to immerse yourself in all the adventures,” and we got such a great reaction.  I think we were so excited about it, our enthusiasm was pretty contagious.”

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Bob Gurr

Gurr on designing a new set of monorails for WDW:  “Well the monorail system we were to refer to as the Mark 4 for Florida was an outgrowth of the Disneyland Mark 3 model, which was an outgrowth of trying to get the original Mark 1 monorail to work well.

So we spent a lot of time making a better monorail in very great detail.  We learned about the Florida project going to need many many miles of monorail so the Mark 3 program morphed into the 4 by simply making the same basic train longer and wider to the larger beam, but at the same time changing the body structure completely from kind of a standard construction to an advanced racecar type of honeycomb type of structure with custom extrusions because we had to carry a lot more weight and people and we saw some were going to be a little bit bigger in Florida and the air conditioner requirements. 

“So the train was quite a radical train at its time and oddly enough we wound up designing it in Glendale and Burbank, building it all over the United States with different suppliers, and all the parts being sent down to Martin Marietta in Orlando for the final assembly and shipment to the site.  So it was a very lengthy project that ultimately had ten 10-car trains.”

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Tom Habbe

Nabbe on operating the new monorails:  “Well, we were supposed to have six monorails.  On opening day we had three and a half.  You never knew that monorails at Walt Disney World would operate in both directions–monorails at Disneyland only operated in one direction, and we would have to end up driving the train all day through the periscope and driving it back if we wanted them.  We finally got up to about six trains around the first year around Christmas time. 

“But yeah, it was a challenge every day as Bob was saying, as about 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon we’d take a summary of how many vehicles that we had in the transportation system in order to get people out of the park.  Then we’d look at what the import count was and then we figure out what our theoretical capacity to get people out and if the park was quite crowded, the duty manager would come on the PA system, and pretty much tell folks, “for your convenience, we’re going to stay open another hour and a half” or “another two hours” because we didn’t have enough vehicles to get people out by six o’clock.”

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Debby Dane Browne, Peggie Fariss

Dane Browne on getting restricted from touring the construction site:  “…We would take these guests out, and it might be governmental officials, lessees, participants that we were courting to join us, there would be our folks that had already companies that had already come on board with Walt Disney World.

“So we would bring them out onto the property we would stop at what was going to be the Stolport, which is the short takeoff and landing airport.  Then, we would stop in that general area and as Miss Peggy and everybody had mentioned there was the Contemporary balloon would be ahead of us to the north and northeast a little bit, then there would be the castle balloon.  So we would get off and show them all this and we’re talking about again, it was a construction site of enormous proportions. 

“And then we would look over to where the castle was the Polynesian, and we would get back on the bus and we would stop at the golf courses and talk about the construction there.  From there we would go to Bill Evans Tree Farm, which was so much fun.  Everybody loved to see the topiaries.  Again, we would all get off and we would look at the topiaries and all of the trees. 

“We did this several times, and then we got back to the Preview Center one time, and Billie Hoelscher, who was our boss–he was out on the steps and kind of like this when we got off and we went “oh yikes, something’s up.”   And he called us up…he said “you can’t get off the buses anymore.  You have stopped construction and Dick (Nunis) has already called so you can not get off those buses anymore” because our costumes were short.  It was 1970 and we were in heels.  So from then on, I always had to have Dick’s permission to go out on the property.”

Memories from the grand dedication ceremonies?

Nabbe:  “Well, we had a lot of celebrities and a lot of them were staying in the hotels and how did you get to the Magic Kingdom from the hotels?  By monorail.

And so I made sure I figured out the Magic Kingdom Station to make sure that if we had any problem we could immediately address it.  One of the things when they released all the pigeons for the opening, they flew around once then they came and landed on the beam and I was sure the train was going to come through it.  But yeah, it was spectacular.  The balloons must have really messed with the radar at Orlando Airport because it just covered the sky with red, white, blue, and green balloons. Amazing.”

Dean Browne:  “The big dedication day itself on the 25th was beautiful and perfect and it really touched my heart.  I had a great honor, which was not lost on me, to escort Lillian Disney Truyens in one of the cars to her seat.  So we started backstage and got in one of the Main Street vehicles and sat with her…to be with her on the day that Walt Disney World was dedicated…I could only imagine everything that went through her head.  And here she is, this wonderful, beautiful, kind lady–it amazed me because I was riding with her and I thought some people don’t even know who this isThis remarkable woman, Walt’s partner…she named Mickey Mouse, for Pete’s sake!  I would be saying, Mortimer. 

And then of course the other thing was when Roy spoke and dedicated Walt Disney World and called Mickey up was probably one of the most beautiful moments in my Disney history, and I feel like I grew up with Walt Disney World.  It’s been my life, so that moment stands out.  Just huge.  It’s bigger than life.”

Fariss:  “So October 1st I had an office in the contemporary in the South building, and my responsibility was a supervisor of guest activities.  So my team was responsible for guest information in the hotel lobbies and the childcare for the Mickey Mouse club, and the Mouseketeer clubhouses, and one of my hostesses was so excited that she had forgotten her shoes.  So luckily, we were the same size and I donated my shoes to my cast member.  So I spent October 1st in my office in the hotel room.  I couldn’t leave ’cause I was barefoot, so I missed the whole thing.  So I was thrilled that for dedication weekend I could actually be out and see some of the festivities.  

“And so the picture you see looking down Main Street with the parade coming down Main Street and the sky filled with balloons–I was standing next to the photographer Gary Krueger, who took that picture and was assisting with some VIP seating on the train station area.  But it was such a remarkable moment. That photograph to me culminates everything I had been thinking about.  And it was real, you know?  I’d seen it when it was dirt and to see it all come up out of the ground and…you know how many people had brought their incredible talent to deliver this dream of Walt’s and that Roy was so dedicated to seeing his brother’s vision come to life and dedicating it to Walt Disney just meant so much to me.”