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Monday, March 18, 2024

EPCOT Part Eight: Roy’s Folly

As the October 1st grand opening of Walt Disney World grew near, Roy Disney was riding high. He had canceled his brother’s plans for the experimental prototype community of tomorrow and was eager to open his vision of the Florida project, which consisted of just the parts that he deemed as being profitable- the Magic Kingdom theme park and three resorts. Eager to avoid the madness of Disneyland’s chaotic and overcrowded opening day, Roy strictly limited the number of tickets available for opening day and prepared for the onslaught that was sure to await the park on day two- when the real guests would finally experience his idea of a “Magic Kingdom.”

In an effort to get good press, Roy planned an opening day that would only host half the number of guests who visited Disneyland on an average day at the time. This would allow the media to comfortably experience the park and declare it to be more polished than Disneyland. Imagine his shock when less than a third of the expected crowd showed up. Magic Kingdom park set a dubious record that it continues to hold to this day- as the Disney theme park with the lowest opening day attendance. Initially, Roy blamed the lack of attendance on guests remembering Disneyland’s disastrous and overcrowded opening day. Truly day two would be better.

Except it wasn’t. The newly built theme park’s second day attendance was worse than the first day and a fraction of what Disneyland was attracting. As opening week continued, Roy reeled from the daily attendance reports. Magic Kingdom park was not attracting enough guests to justify the expense of building it. Weekend attendance wasn’t much better than weekday attendance. To the outside world, the company was confident that things would improve. Inside the company, however, was a different story. While Walt’s Imagineers smugly observed the disastrous attendance as Walt’s revenge for Roy disregarding his original plans, they also worried about their jobs. What would the rapidly growing Florida problem do to their job security and pensions?

Days of poor attendance became weeks of poor attendance. Magic Kingdom’s abysmal attendance was quickly becoming a crisis. While Disneyland had been forced to step aside to let its newer sibling take the limelight, it was now propping up the looming disaster in Florida. If Disneyland’s attendance had mirrored that of Florida’s Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney Productions would have gone bankrupt as many had predicted before the original park opened in 1955. Lucky for Roy, Disneyland’s profits would keep the company solvent- for now. As October switched to November with no improvement, everyone knew that Roy would soon have to make some tough decisions- and things didn’t look good for the company’s Florida property. Layoffs and cutbacks were on the horizon.

This period of time was said to be stressful for Roy Disney. He was beginning to fear that he had doomed Walt Disney Productions to bankruptcy. Was the Florida project DOA regardless of what was built or would building EPCOT as his brother had originally planned have improved its fortunes? As a second month of poor attendance lurched forward, Roy decided that despite the bad optics of doing layoffs during the Christmas season, he would have no choice if he wanted to stave off bankruptcy. He decided to wait until after the Thanksgiving weekend to begin cutbacks, layoffs and closures, but was sadly certain that he would have to actually do them.

If this situation doesn’t sound familiar to you, it was due to the miracle that awaited park staff on the day after Thanksgiving. As the resort prepared to open that morning, staff encountered a welcome sight- backed up traffic at the parking lot toll booths. The crowds had finally showed up. Florida’s Magic Kingdom finally had its first full capacity day. The crowds continued to show up in the days and weeks ahead. If Walt had cursed the park because of the cancellation of EPCOT, he must have felt that his point had been made after two months of poor attendance. Roy could finally rest easy and Walt Disney Productions would pretend that Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom was always hugely successful.

Sadly, Roy wouldn’t get to enjoy the success of his version of the Florida project for too long; he would pass away a few weeks later on December 20, 1971. While he had been afraid that he had doomed the company a month earlier, he would enter his eternal rest knowing that the company he built with his brother would be on firm ground.