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A Friday Visit with Jim Korkis: Charles Ridgway and the Opening of Magic Kingdom



By Dave Shute

Welcome back to Fridays with Jim Korkis! Jim, the dean of Disney historians and author of Jim’s Gems in The easy Guide, writes about Walt Disney World history every Friday on yourfirstvisit.net.

CHARLES RIDGWAY AND THE OPENING OF THE MAGIC KINGDOM

By Jim Korkis

As we celebrate this year the 45th anniversary of Walt Disney World, I am going to occasionally write about some of the early days of this vacation kingdom.

Charlie Ridgway was hired at Disneyland in January 1963 as a publicity man. In 1969 he was offered the job as Publicity Manager for Walt Disney World and re-located to Florida.

He helped launch the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 and EPCOT Center in 1982 as well as special projects for celebrations such as Donald Duck’s 50th birthday in 1984. He retired in 1994 and was made a Disney Legend in 1999.

Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with him where he talks about that fabled opening day October 1, 1971.

“Well, we had had several ‘test’ groups come through the Magic Kingdom park before Opening Day and the press was starting to grumble because they wanted to see what was going on. They kept pushing me to see the park and I finally told them we would let them in Opening Day before we let in the guests and give them a tour and tell them how we were going to pick the first family, etc.

“I arranged for the news people to meet me at 6 a.m. on Friday, October 1st. We took them on a tour of the park including the utilidors with young people rushing past us to get to their location.

“Anyway, the only resort that had rooms completed was the Polynesian. It had something like 500 rooms and we had maybe 100 that were ready. We decided to have the press office there. The night of September 30th around ten or eleven o’clock, I was exhausted but I went over to see the progress on the room since we were expecting maybe 200 reporters. It was horrible. There were bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. No carpeting on the floor. No wallpaper. No phones.

“I just lost it. I blew up and told the crew that the reporters were coming the next morning and this room wasn’t even close to being finished. The crew boss told me to calm down and everything would be ready in time.

“I was staying at the Hilton Inn South on Sand Lake Road. The Disney Company had leased the place to train cast members that were going to work at the Contemporary and the Polynesian and that’s where they put up the Disney executives. I was going to wake up at 5:00 so that I would have plenty of time to be there before the media got to the Polynesian. I overslept.

“I woke up about ten minutes before 6:00am. I also had to check out that day so I was rushing to get dressed and pack. As I rushed through the lobby I literally threw my room keys 60 feet to the desk and gave them a piece of my mind for not waking me up on time. I didn’t properly check out and they still send me a bill to this day.

“So, I got to the press room and there were these beautiful chandeliers hanging down, and wall paper was up and carpet on the floor and all these tables and chairs and phones ringing off the hook. It was unbelievable. Newsmen were there drinking coffee and eating pastries and waiting for me to brief them. They had no clue what a disaster this area was just hours before.

“More than 600 other invited press came in groups of 100 on opening trips during the first three weeks of the Magic Kingdom opening. Planned luaus on the beach were rained out regularly but we pigged out in the Polynesian lobby and that was almost as much fun. We showed them everything and sent them home tired, happy and loaded with press kits.”

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Thanks, Jim! And come back next Friday for more from Jim Korkis!

In the meantime, check out his books, including Secret Stories of Walt Disney World: Things You Never You Never Knew, which reprints much material first written for this site, and The Vault of Walt: Volume 4, and his contributions to The easy Guide to Your Walt Disney World Visit, all published by Theme Park Press.
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