50 years ago: Roy Disney made Walt’s dream come true

Ever wonder why it’s called Walt Disney World? And why Oct. 1, 1971 was opening day?

Roy O. Disney and Mickey Mouse at the Oct. 25, 1971, dedication ceremony for Walt Disney World Resort on Main Street, U.S.A., in Magic Kingdom Park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Disney) (Disney, Disney)

BAY LAKE, Fla. – On Oct. 1, 1971, Central Florida changed forever, and while Walt Disney envisioned The Vacation Kingdom of the World, it was his older brother Roy Oliver Disney who made it happen. That was kind of their relationship for Walt’s entire life.

In 1956, Walt told writer Pete Martin, “Roy was the one who would always see that [our little sister] Ruth and I had a toy. Roy didn’t have much money, but by gosh, he always saw that we had a toy. Roy always saw we had little things like that. Roy was one of the kindest fellows I’ve ever known in my life to other people. He was really a kindhearted guy. Roy is very mule headed at times, too.”

Walt & Roy Disney ca. 1923 (Disney)

Indeed, Roy Disney could be stubborn, and the pair butted heads often throughout their lives, but Roy was as much of a wizard as Walt: casting spells with accounting and finances. Roy is the reason Walt came west to California after his first company Laugh-O-Grams, Inc. went bankrupt in Kansas City. Roy had served in the Navy during WWI and was recovering from tuberculosis when he sent his brother enough money to pack up his film cans and camera and take a train west.

Walt Disney at his first business: Laugh-O-Grams, inc in 1922 (Disney)

In “The Walt Disney Story” movie that once played on Main Street, Walt said “It was in July, I think, of 1923. I was 21, going on 22. Now, my brother Roy was already in Los Angeles, both of us were unemployed. We solved the problem by going into business for ourselves. We established the first animated cartoon studio in Hollywood.”

Originally it was the Disney Bros. Studio, incorporated on Oct. 16, 1923, Roy suggested renaming it “Walt Disney Studios” and eventually “Walt Disney Productions.” When they lost their first cartoon star, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Roy found the money to keep the studio going, to fund the first Mickey Mouse cartoons and to pay the enormous expense of recording an orchestra for the first cartoon with synchronized sound “Steamboat Willie.”

"Steamboat Willie" actually wasn't the first cartoon with Mickey. (Image: Disney file photos/WKMG archives)

That gamble paid off, as most of Walt’s gambles did. Roy at first opposed creating Snow White but eventually came around leading to the biggest hit in the company’s history -- making enough money to build the studio lot where it exists today.

Walt & Roy Disney in 1932 (Disney)

Roy Disney was also very reluctant to risk money on Disneyland, but eventually came around after Walt poured his own money into the dream and made it clear he would build it with or without the Disney company. Roy negotiated the TV contract that helped fund the theme park and most other major deals. Roy quickly bought out all of their partners when it was clear Disneyland would be a hit.

"The Disneyland Story" Introduces Walt's plans in Anaheim on the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 (Disney)

Of their relationship, Walt said, “I always go and check with my brother. Always. But I don’t always agree with him. Roy had faith in me. I think that Roy has done a lot of things against his better judgment because he felt that I wanted to do it. Most of our arguments and disagreements I think have been because Roy has felt that he had to protect me.”

Roy’s side of the story: “To the bankers who financed us, I’m sure (Walt) seemed like a wild man, hell-bent for bankruptcy. To me, he was my amazing kid brother, full of impractical dreams that he made come true.”

Roy O. Disney (Disney)

When it came time for Project Florida, there was no disagreement. Roy was in from the start. After secretly snapping up 27,400 acres in Florida, and after Orlando Sentinel’s so-called “girl reporter” (actually an editor) Emily Bavar blew their cover and broke the new Disney was coming east, Roy Disney was at his brother’s side.

Orlando Sentinel Headline in 1965 announced the mystery industry buying land was Walt Disney Productions (Disney / Orlando Sentinel)

At the formal announcement on Nov. 15, 1965, in the Egyptian Room of the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando, Governor Hayden Burns asked, ”I don’t think you’ve mentioned the amount of money of the investment that would indicate the size of this project.” Walt replied with a chuckle, “A heck of a lot. There was a time in my life when I didn’t think there was that much money...But my big brother says we can do it. He’s the money man.”

November 15, 1965 announcement confirming Walt Disney is behind "Project Florida." (Left to right: Walt Disney, Florida Gov. Hayden Burns, Roy O. Disney (Disney)

At that news conference, Walt Disney said the initial phase would easily be, “A hundred million. A hundred million plus.” The actual construction cost came in at $400 million for the first phase, including the Magic Kingdom, The Contemporary, Polynesian Village, The Seven Seas Lagoon and Fort Wilderness, not to mention their own power plant, water plant, drainage canals and other utilities (and Utilidors).

An editorial cartoon marks the death of Walt Disney on December 15, 1966 (Disney)

Many thought it would never happen. When Walt Disney died on Dec. 15, 1966 -- just one year after the announcement -- many on Wall Street thought the whole Disney company was through. Keep in mind, while a publicly traded company, it was very much a small family business compared to the other studios. One week after Walt’s death, Roy insisted otherwise, rallying the top leadership in a projection room, the 73 year old announced he was putting off his planned retirement saying, “We are going to finish this park [in Florida], and we’re going to do it just the way Walt wanted it... Don’t you ever forget it. I want every one of you to do just exactly what you were going to do when Walt was alive.”

Roy O. Disney surveying the future site of Walt Disney World (Disney)

People who barely knew Roy before Walt’s death quickly learned he was in charge. He gave up his title of President of Walt Disney Productions, moving to Florida once main construction started. He and his wife Edna lived in a house in Windermere until it was complete. Of the formidable challenges of transforming a swamp and making creative decisions his brother always made, Roy told a reporter in 1969, “This is a lot of fun... 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.”

Walt’s wishes remained top of mind the whole time. When some executives proposed building the Magic Kingdom where 192 & I-4 met to save on road costs, Roy shut it down firmly, saying “I want to continue with Walt’s plan. So let’s quit wasting time on these meetings.”

The Movie touting EPCOT the city officially named Walt's Florida Project a "Disney World" (Disney)

One big reason Roy stuck to those plans came down to the final conversation he had with his brother and business partner, in St. Joseph’s Hospital -- across the street from the Walt Disney Studio --just hours before Walt’s death. General Joe Potter, who was in charge of construction said, “Walt was lying flat on his bed pointing and he’d say ‘Now in this square mile we’re going to do that. In that one we’re gonna do that.’ That must have had a terrific effect on Roy.” Walt was using the grid of ceiling tiles as an imaginary map of his Florida fiefdom.

Walt, Roy O. and General Potter in front of “Florida Welcomes Walt Disney” note on sleeve: “Used 5/66 Fortune - Orlando” (Disney)

One of the biggest -- and quickest -- decisions Roy made came down to a name for Project Florida. Someone called it Disneyworld. Roy Disney shut that down saying, “I’m only going to say this one more time. I want it called ‘Walt Disney World.’ Not Disneyworld, not Disneyland East, not anything else. Walt Disney World.”

Others have backed up that account. Then Disney President E. Cardon Walker 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.” Walker says Roy was right in the end.

Roy Disney personally handled much of the negotiations with Florida lawmakers, threatening to pull out if they did not give Disney sweeping governmental powers with The Reedy Creek Improvement District. While EPCOT: The City never materialized, from the beginning Roy insisted on innovations in construction to take advantage of creating their own building code.

Sign and lushly-landscaped pathway lead to the Reedy Creek Improvement District Headquarters on Hotel Plaza Blvd, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

He picked Oct. 1, 1971 as opening day for two reasons: ever the money man it was the start of a new fiscal year, and it was expected to be one of the slowest days of the year so the park could get up and running before peak holiday crowds flooded into town.

The morning of opening day, Roy O. Disney met with and encouraged the young cast members as they got ready for the first crowds. After opening, Roy was nowhere to be found, but he was watching by riding the boats on the Seven Seas Lagoon. When asked why, Roy replied, “Today is my brother’s day. I want them to remember my brother today.”

Aerial Image of the still-under construction first phase of Walt Disney World prominently shows the Seven Seas Lagoon in Bay Lake Ca. early 1971 (Disney)

He did give a memorable speech just over three weeks later, at the Grand Opening of Walt Disney World. Oct. 25, 1971 he faced the cameras with his wife, Edna on one side and Walt’s Widow Lillian on the other. Disney Legend -- and then head of Imagineering John Hench said, “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 anymore, 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.”

Edna Francis Disney, Roy O. Disney, Lillian Disney and Mickey Mouse at the dedication of Walt Disney World October 25, 1971 (Disney)

With that, Roy dedicated the dream he made come true saying, ”Walt Disney World is tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney... and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney’s dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and new knowledge to all who come to this happy place... a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn -- together.”

The Dedication Plaque of Walt Disney World sits near the flagpole on Main Street, USA in the Magic Kingdom (Disney)

Days after the ceremony, Roy Disney flew home to California. He never made it back to Florida. Roy fell into a coma and died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Dec. 20, 1971, in the same hospital where Walt died five years earlier. As Disney legend Marty Sklar put it, “Roy literally gave his life to make sure Walt Disney World was finished. He died two months after it opened.”

The engine "Roy O. Disney" (No.4) pulls into the station in the Magic Kingdom (Disney)

Roy O. Disney is remembered with an honor he didn’t want: a locomotive on the Walt Disney World Railroad, a tribute he wanted used for others, the windows on Main Street (His name is above the confectionery shop) and my personal favorite, a statue with Minnie Mouse on Main Street.

Roy O. Disney's window on Main Street, USA in the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Disney legend Blaine Gibson sculpted “Sharing the Magic” in 1999, honoring Roy as he honored Walt and Mickey in 1993 with the more famous “Partners” statue in the hub in front of Cinderella Castle.

Minnie Mouse holds Roy O. Disney's hand in a state on Main Street, USA in the Magic Kingdom (Disney)

Gibson once told Disney historian Jim Korkis, “Roy is sitting back in the bench which indicates he was there first and Minnie came to him, not that he came up to her to ask why she was sitting down and not working. “Also he is holding her hand underneath so he is supporting it, just like he always supported Walt’s dreams.”

Minnie Mouse holds Roy O. Disney's hand in a state on Main Street, USA in the Magic Kingdom (Disney)
Disney 50

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!

About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.