What Disney World Was Like On Opening Day In 1971

As hard as it might be for many people to believe, Disney World has now been open for 50 years. The sprawling central Florida theme park, properly called Magic Kingdom, first opened its gates on October 1, 1971, just over 16 years after its California counterpart Disneyland had opened to the public in the summer of 1955. Sadly, Walt Disney himself, namesake of the brand and the mind behind the movies, parks, and many more facets of the sprawling Disney empire, was not on hand to see the momentous occasion, having passed away five years before.

All told, Walt Disney World now spans across 43 square miles, a space roughly equivalent to the size of downtown San Francisco. There are several theme parks, hotels, restaurants, Downtown Disney with shops and attractions, lakes and canals crisscrossed by boats, and of course the famous monorail sliding around above much of the quasi-city below. The Magic Kingdom theme park itself occupies 107 acres and is comprised of six "lands," namely Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasy Land, Tomorrowland, Liberty Square, and Main Street USA, with the whole park surrounded by a functional narrow gauge railroad, according to The Ledger.

Much about Disney World has changed in the half century since it first welcomed guests, but much is still remarkably similar to how it was that October day in 1971. Walt Disney would surely approve of the progress and those timeless elements just the same. Here, we'll take a closer look at the latter. 

There were 5,000 employees and about 10,000 visitors

On October 2, 1971, the Orlando Sentinel claimed that guest attendance on Disney World's opening day was exactly 10,422, though decades later the same paper cited a more fluid figure of somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000. What's sure is that the crowd was in good hands, as Disney World deployed some 5,000 workers (or "cast members," as Disney parks employees refer to themselves — by regulation) who were on hand that day, thus the guest-to-employee ratio was about 2:1. This ratio existed because park officials expected a dramatically higher attendance than occurred on opening day. The park had barely been ready in time for its opening, coming together thanks to another large number of people, namely a veritable army of 9,000 construction workers who had worked at a frenzied pace to get the park built on time.

During those first days of operation, executives at the company began to fear they had greatly overestimated the numbers of people who would come to the park, worrying they may have a failed venture on their hands. However, by Thanksgiving of that year, not two months later, lines of cars snaked down the road in a massive jam as excited visitors waited to crowd into the Magic Kingdom.

In recent years the numbers have swelled dramatically, with daily attendance at the Magic Kingdom often in excess of 57,000 people, according to WDW Travels — these numbers come from just before the COVID-19 pandemic, though; at the time of this writing, daily attendance is capped at 35,000 visitors. That after a total shutdown of Disney's U.S. parks commenced on March 12, 2020 and lasted until mid-July of the same year, according to the BBC.

The parade alone involved thousands

At any given moment while Magic Kingdom is open, you'll find Main Street, USA — the first "land" you enter after passing through the park's gates — rather crowded with people. But on that momentous morning in the early autumn of 1971, Main Street, USA and soon many other pathways throughout Disney World were positively packed, and not because of the thousands of guests, but because of the sheer size of the spectacle planned for the day.

The Disney World opening day parade involved a marching band with a staggering 1,076 members. The massive band was led by conductor Meredith Wilson, composer of the classic Broadway play "The Music Man," according to KHOU-11. Meanwhile, some 4,000 more entertainers were spread about the park, many in costume, others performing other musical acts. And that's not including a core of trumpet players on loan from the United States Army.

As wild as it is to think of their being fully one marching band musician for about every 10 guests, that's the way the numbers broke down. And it was worth the effort and expense, as the massive parade remains the iconic symbol of Disney World's opening day.

Prices were a lot cheaper

Today, the cost of an adult's one-day Disney World ticket is an average of about $130, according to WDW Info. (And kids' tickets are not much cheaper!) According to the Orlando Sentinel, the savings (vs. modern prices, that is) started in the parking lot, where motorists had to shell out a mere 50 cents to park a vehicle. They could then travel to the park via ferry or monorail and, arriving at the gates, would be met with their next expense, entrance costs.

An adult's general admission ticket to Disney World in 1971 cost $3.50. That fee did not get you onto rides, however — that required the additional purchase of tickets that were issued in various classes, A through E, which cost different amounts (10 cents through 90 cents per) and got you onto different rides or into various attractions. An A ticket got you onto the carousel, for example, a 50-cent C ticket onto the Dumbo ride, and a "pricey" E ticket into It's a Small World, The Haunted Mansion, and so on. Let's assume someone used one of each ticket, thus spending $2.50, add in the parking and entrance fee, and we have a total cost of $6.50 for an adult to have a fine day at Disney.

For reference, adjusted for inflation according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator, $6.50 in 1971 is about the same as $44 today. Which means the prices have more than tripled, and that's without parking even factored in.

The first family that ever entered Disney World

Mary Windsor Ritter fondly remembers the magical experience she and her family had thanks to being the first ever guests to enter Disney World. She told My News 13 that her husband shuttled the family to a gas station near the park where they camped out overnight before the park's opening day, all nearby hotels and motels being booked up. Approached by a policeman, the family explained what they were doing and rather than being shooed away, they ended up with their own personal night watchman. 

On the morning of October 1, 1971, the family headed to the gates early and were indeed the first into Disney World, which would come with many more benefits than bragging rights alone, as it happened. For being first in line, ever, the Ritter family not only got free admission to the park that day, but in fact they were given a Golden Key that allowed lifelong free entrance into the theme park, with any guests in tow getting in free as well. What's more, The Walt Disney Company put the family up in a hotel for an entire week, making it easy for the gang to visit and revisit their new favorite place.

Roy Disney gave a speech in Walt's place

Sadly, the namesake of the entire enterprise Walt Disney was not alive to see the grand opening of the Disney World Magic Kingdom theme park. He had passed away due to complications caused by lung cancer in mid-December of the year 1966, well before the construction of the park had even commenced. (Walt did know the project was in motion, however.) With Walt's passing, Roy Disney, Walt's brother and one of the financial brains behind the brand, agreed to delay his planned retirement and stayed on to oversee the construction and launch of Disney World. (Roy is pictured left, holding the map, while surveying the land in Florida on which Disney World would eventually be built.)

The Tampa Bay Times reports that on the morning of October 1, 1971, standing on a dais set up on Disney World's Main Street, USA (and beside an actor dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume), Roy Disney gave a speech celebrating the opening of the new park and honoring the legacy of his late brother Walt.

Several rides operating on Disney World's opening day are still in use

Granted, much has changed at Disney World since that opening day in the autumn of 1971. Back then, there was no Buzz Lightyear ride or Little Mermaid ride. In fact, there wasn't even a Space Mountain yet, that world-famous indoor rollercoaster was only added a few years later in 1975. But there were quite a number of rides and attractions open that are still there today and in fact largely unchanged even 50 years later, according to Touring Plans.

Original Disney World rides that are still open today include the Mad Tea Party, Dumbo the Flying Elephant (which has actually been expanded since then), Peter Pan's Flight, Tomorrowland Speedway, the Jungle Cruise, and several others. Attractions that were in place then and remain open today include the Country Bear Jamboree, The Hall of Presidents (still enjoyed today as much for the fact that it's air conditioned within as it is for bringing history to life), and a lot of parades.

And, of course, the horse drawn carriages still plod their way up and down Disney's Main Street, USA and costume characters are everywhere around the park, delighting fans young and not-so-young alike. While there have been lots of changes over the years, they know not to mess too much with a good thing.

On opening day, there was a bar at Disney World

When Disney World's Magic Kingdom opened, it featured a bar. And not just any bar, but one called the Mile Long Bar. It wasn't actually all that large, truth be told, but because of the clever placement of mirrors at either end of the bar, it rather looked to go on endlessly depending on where you stood in the saloon. Of course despite the implications of calling the place a bar (and indeed with the word "saloon" was slung over the establishment), in keeping with Magic Kingdom policy, no alcohol was served at the Mile Long Bar, according to Inside the Magic.

Instead, the Mile Long Bar served an array of nonalcoholic beverages along with snacks and quick, lighter meals. While extant for decades, the bar is now gone, replaced by Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe, which also serves quicker, smaller meals. There is a sign that pays homage to the Mile Long Bar in the queue area of Big Thunder Mountain, however.

Several opening-day employees still work for Disney World

As amazing and almost incredible as it sounds, there are a few Disney World employees who were there working for the park on the day it opened in 1971 and are still proud to be "cast members" today, 50 years later, according to 10 TV. Among those who have hit the half-century mark working for Disney World is Earliene Anderson, who rushed to score a job at the new Florida theme park in 1971 after spending a wonderful time visiting the original Disneyland in California during the year 1969. "Disney has been my love, and it still is... I love Disney," Anderson said.

Another 50-year Disney World veteran is George Kalogridis, who was fresh out of high school when he applied for a job at Disney with almost no forethought, inadvertently stumbling into his life's work. And he worked his way up, too, eventually serving as president of Walt Disney World and Disneyland in California.

Disney World's opening day had no fireworks

Today, it's almost impossible to think of Disney World (or Disneyland) without the nightly Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks Spectacular. So spectacular are the fireworks at a Disney theme park, in fact, that Disney is annually the largest buyer of fireworks on earth and is in fact the world's second largest buyer of explosives overall, a runner-up only to the United States Department of Defense, a.k.a. the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, according to Business Insider. Which makes sense when you see a Disney World fireworks show, which goes on for a full 18 minutes each night, according to Click Orlando.

But for guests on opening day, there would be no fireworks show. And in fact there were no fireworks blasted off into the skies over Disney World for just over three weeks: the first fireworks show at the park took place on October 24, 1971, happening on the occasion of the dedication of the Polynesian resort, according to Disney Food Blog.

The Walt Disney World Monorail also opened that day

While it still seems rather like something from the future today, in fact the Walt Disney World monorail has been operating for 50 years, just like the Magic Kingdom theme park to which it daily delivers and retrieves thousands of visitors. According to Disney Food Blog, the monorail's first trip carrying members of the public took place on that momentous day (for Disney) of October 1, 1971. The monorail connects Magic Kingdom to several nearby hotels and can save visitors time and effort, especially as Disney World grows ever more crowded.

The Disney World Monorail System was closely modeled after the Disneyland Monorail System, which was the first such regularly operated mode of transportation in the entire Western Hemisphere when it opened in 1959, according to the OC Register. The Disney World monorail often ferries in excess of 150,000 people daily. Each monorail train is 230 feet long and at present there are 12 trains in operation, according to WD Magic. The trains travel at a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour on a few limited stretches of operation, but by and large the monorail trains move much slower. They traverse about 14.7 total miles of elevated track.

Everything went smoothly on Disney World's opening day

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the first day that Disney World opened is the fact that nothing much went wrong. This is in stark contrast to the quasi-disaster that had taken place 16 years earlier when Disneyland opened in Southern California. On that day, in July 1955, it rather seemed that anything that could go wrong did go wrong. Many rides were simply not functioning, still-wet paint was dripping off myriad surfaces in the 100-degree hellish heat, most of the park's water fountains were not working, and, most horribly of all, the Mark Twain riverboat, the paddlewheel boat chugging around the man-made waterway in the park, capsized. The "guests" that summer day were equally horrible, by in large: scores of people swindled their way into Disneyland using fraudulent forged tickets, while many others used a ladder proffered by an unscrupulous opportunist to simply climb over the fence and hop into the park. 

In October 1971, nothing like any of these problems would occur at Disney World, which "opened without a hitch" according to Mickey Blog. The visitors were civil, the rides functioned (as did all of the plumbing) and there were no aquatic disasters. And according to Almanac, the weather that October 1st was ideal for the occasion, with the mean temperature of the day a warm but fangless 80.5 degrees Fahrenheit and not a raindrop to dampen the celebration.

The Magic Kingdom would be joined by Epcot (which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of the Tomorrow, by the way) 11 years later to the day, on October 1, 1982, according to Disney Fandom. Disney's Hollywood Studios opened on May 1, 1989, and Disney's Animal Kingdom opened on April 22, 1998.