BAY LAKE, Fla. – Walt Disney’s Imagineers designed the Magic Kingdom with a cinematic feel. Perhaps that’s not surprising since nearly all of the first generation came from Walt Disney Productions, 20th Century Fox, David O. Selznick Studios and MGM.
Everything unfolds like a movie, with dissolves as you move from place to place. Even the music fades from one land to the next. Like a movie, your theme park experience starts with a type of opening credits. They start just past the turnstiles, above the famous floral Mickey head and just under the clock on the Main Street USA Railroad Station.
Just as his films would fade up to the words “Walt Disney Presents,” you can find the Old Maestro’s name as if he were the head of the Walt Disney World Railroad Office. The tag line reads: “Keeping Dreams on Track. Walter E. Disney.”
The tribute to Walt was not something he intended. As best I can tell, it was added between the late 1990s and early 2000s. Just as you enter Town Square, atop the Confectionary, is a nod to Walt’s older brother, partner and the financial genius who made Walt Disney World happen: Roy O. Disney.
Enough cannot be said about his impact and legacy. When Walt passed away, Roy put off retirement to keep the company going and the dream alive. He died in December 1971, just two months after opening day. His window reads: “If We Can Dream It - We Can Do It!” - Roy O. Disney - Dreamers & Doers Development Co.”
If you gave Walt or Roy’s windows a glance, they were probably quickly forgotten as your eye magically drew you to keep strolling down Main Street toward the hub, Cinderella Castle.
However, if you pause and study it, the architecture of each block of Main Street helps tell a story of a small town that is turning into a bigger deal around the turn of the last century. The second-story windows tell tales of their own, in cryptic ways.
One of my favorite tales involves Don Tatum, a broadcaster with a business mind recruited by Walt in 1956. Tatum became Roy Disney’s right-hand man when it came to building Walt Disney World. By the time construction began, Tatum had been named president of Walt Disney Productions, and served as chairman and CEO after Roy’s death in December 1971. Officially retiring in 1980, he was a driving force in expanding “The World” and building EPCOT Center.
The story I love learning about is hinted at by the window’s caption. It reads: “M.T. Lott Co. Real Estate Investments - ‘A Friend in Deeds is a Friend Indeed’ - Donn Tatum, President - Subsidiaries: Tomahawk Properties, Latin American Development, Ayefour Corporation, Bay Lake Properties, Reedy Creek Ranch Lands, Compass East Corporation.”
“M.T. (Empty) Lot” was one of the shell companies used to secretly snap up the 27,000 acres of scrub, marsh and swamp land Walt Disney World was built on. As you might expect, Tatum played a starring role. I’ll tell more about that story as we draw closer to Oct. 1. Tatum’s window is above Crystal Arts.
Above the Main Street Bakery (aka Starbucks), you’ll see a nod to “The Original Gym - Turkish Baths – Massage Parlor - Supervisor Dick Nunis, Night Manager Ron Miller, Masseur O. Ferrante.” These three gentlemen are all Disney Legends who first played college football together at University of Southern California.
Orlando Farrante graduated, served in the Navy, then played offensive guard for the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers in 1960-61. Not long after, he went to work for what is now Walt Disney Imagineering, helping oversee projects from 1963′s Enchanted Tiki Room to Tokyo DisneySea in 2001.
Ferrante was recruited by Dick Nunis, whose ambition to become a professional football player was cut short, however, when he suffered a broken neck while playing ball. He graduated in 1955, in time to start on the lowest rungs as Disneyland was getting ready to open. He retired as chairman of Walt Disney Attractions in 1999 and also told some of the best stories of getting Walt Disney World off the ground.
Nunis learned about Disneyland through Ron Miller, who went on to become president and then CEO of Walt Disney Productions. Here’s how:
During his college football days, Miller went on a blind date with a young lady named Diane. They married in 1954. After college, Miller served in the Army, then played for the Los Angeles Rams in 1956. That career was cut short by his father-in-law, who happened to be Walt Disney. In the documentary “Walt: Man Behind the Myth,” Ron says Walt “saw me play in two football games when I was with the Rams. In one of them, I caught a pass and... (a player) knocked me unconscious. I woke up in about the third quarter. At the end of the season, Walt came up to me and said, ‘You know, I don’t want to be the father to your children. You’re going to die out there. How about coming to work with me?’ and I did.”
In addition to supporting the theme parks and EPCOT Center, Miller pushed Disney animation and live-action films back into innovative territory to mixed success, founded The Disney Channel and Touchstone Pictures.
Ron and Diane Disney Miller went on to found the Silverado Vineyards Winery in Napa Valley. Diane was instrumental in taking a jewel of Los Angeles, The Walt Disney Concert Hall, from dream in 1988 to opening in 2004. Her passion project was the Walt Disney Family Museum, which opened on The Presidio in San Francisco in 2009.
Their window, which also mentions their children, reads “Lazy M Cattle Company of Wyoming – Ron & Diane Miller & Partners Christopher, Joanna, Tamara, Jennifer, Walter, Ronald, Jr. and Patrick.”
Diane’s younger sister, Sharon Disney Lund was an art lover and philanthropist. Sharon, her then-husband, and children are honored nearby with “William & Sharon Lund Gallery -- Exhibiting only Authentic Works of Art -- Genuine Antiques Selected by Victoria, Bradford and Michelle.”
Across the street, you can find a window honoring Roy E. Disney. He was an accomplished sailor, Walt’s nephew, Roy’s son, and the man who managed to get his cousin’s sister’s husband ousted from Disney in 1984.
Miller was replaced by Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Roy E. Disney went on to save Walt Disney Animation and nurtured the renaissance that led to classics including “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and many more. His window also honors his wife and children: “Roy E. Disney – Specializing in the Gentlemanly Sport of Racing at Sea – Aboard the Ketch Peregrina - Patty Disney, First Mate & Gourmet Cook – Sail Maker: Roy Patrick, Abigail – Sail Lessons: Susan, Timothy.”
Most windows don’t honor the family, however.
I previously wrote about Disney legend and Imagineer Joyce Carlson. She was famous for her work on “It’s a Small World,” “The Enchanted Tiki Room,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Country Bear Jamboree” and “The Haunted Mansion,” among others. Working with another legend, John Hench, Carlson also styled the colors for the horses for Walt Disney World’s Carrousel in Fantasyland.
There are two tributes to her in the Magic Kingdom: A Joyce Carlson doll near the Eiffel Tower in “It’s a Small World” and her window above the Main Street Emporium. Fittingly, it reads “Dolls by Miss Joyce, Dollmaker for the World.”
Other Disney legends with well-deserved windows on Main Street include one-of-a-kind publicist extraordinaire, Charlie Ridgway. While his window reads: “No Event too Small,” Ridgway and his team masterminded media coverage for hundreds of major events, from the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean in 1967, and Walt Disney World in 1971 all the way through Disneyland Paris in 1992.
Former top Disney Parks executive and likely future Disney legend Lee Cockerell’s window is above the Watch Shop and reads “The Main Street Diary - ‘True Tales of Inspiration’ - Lee A. Cockerell, Editor-in-Chief.”
The newest window on Main Street was unveiled on Aug. 11, with a quartet of notables being recognized.
They are (from left to right): Trevor Larsen, former executive vice president of Facilities & Operations Services, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts; Jim MacPhee, former Walt Disney World operations executive; Phil Holmes, former vice president of Disney’s Hollywood Studios; and Djuan Rivers, former vice president of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
A special word about Holmes. His ties to Walt Disney World started as an assistant to construction teams and was an opening day butler at The Haunted Mansion in 1971. While he retired as head of Hollywood Studios, and helped shepherd the park’s transformation, he’s probably best known for a long run as vice president of The Magic Kingdom. There’s even a portrait of him inside “Bonjour! Village Gifts” in Belle’s Village.
Born in Ormond Beach, MacPhee retired in April 2021 after a 40-year career that started in 1978 as a watercraft pilot. He eventually served as vice president for Epcot from 2007-2010 and for his work was put in charge of the $1 billion+ “NextGen” project that resulted in Magic Bands and FastPass+. He was also key in the transition and expansion from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs.
Larsen may be the least well-known among outsiders, but his 29-year Disney career saw him as a behind-the-scenes force in Ride-Show Engineering, design, mechanics, and safety systems. Later, his position put him in charge of essential arms of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts across the globe, including construction, manufacturing, horticulture, utilities, textiles, and environmental operations. He takes pride in being part of the design team for the Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and for his role helping open Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Animal Kingdom’s most recent Vice President Djuan Rivers retired in January after a 30-year career that took him from entry level, to general manager of Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, to key roles with Disney Cruise Line, Disneyland Paris, and Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs.) Rivers became one of the top African-American executives in the company in 2008, when he was named vice president of Disney’s Aulani Resort and Spa in Hawaii. In that role he oversaw construction and opening of the $800 million project, while helping it keep close ties to Hawaiian culture and its native population. At Animal Kingdom, he oversaw the addition of nighttime activities and the construction and opening of Pandora: the World of Avatar.
Their window advertises “The Academy of Talent Education & Training.” Current Walt Disney World Resort President Jeff Vahle posted those pictures of the ceremony on Instagram, adding: “It was a great morning celebrating four remarkable leaders who made an impact on @waltdisneyworld.... Next time you’re on Main Street, U.S.A., look up to see their names alongside others who left a lasting legacy in the construction and operation of our resort. Congratulations to them on this amazing honor!”
A further honor: Their window is adjacent another Disney trailblazer, Meg Crofton who is former president of Walt Disney World and Walt Disney Parks & Resorts.
To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present, and a peek at what’s in store for the future.
We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.
Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!