On January 19, 2012, Barack Obama became the seventh United States President to visit Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida during their term in office. He stood in front of invited guests and media at Cinderella's Castle encouraging folks from around the world to visit the U.S.
Walt Disney himself was pretty apolitical. In his lifetime he supported both Democrats and Republicans alike. He had friends on both sides of the aisle, including a few Presidents.
Every US President from Dwight Eisenhower, who was in office when Disneyland opened in 1955, to Obama, has paid a visit to a Disney park at least once. Most visited either before or after their terms.
Harry S. Truman, while enjoying his retirement, came to Disneyland and famously refused to ride Dumbo the Flying Elephant because he said it reminded him too much of the Republican mascot.
Here now, in chronological order, are Ten Presidential Disney Connections:
Ronald Reagan Opens Disneyland (July 1955)
Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney had a lot in common.
They both came from small Midwestern towns, followed their dreams to California and made a name for themselves in the entertainment industry. They also socialized with each other on occasion, though Walt pretty much kept to himself and was not big in the Hollywood party circles.
Another link is that they both faced the infamous labor leader and organizer Herb Sorrel in disputes, Reagan as President of the Screen Actor's Guild, Walt as studio head during the animators strike in the early 1940's.
This led Reagan and Disney to be called, in the fall of 1947, to testify before the HUAC hearings in Washington D.C. Both men insisted that Sorrel was responsible for the dissension and strife in Hollywood's labor unions and that he was influenced by Communist forces.
They did not, as widely reported, name names or contribute to the horrible "blacklists" that later became commonplace under Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts.
Reagan's movie career wound down after World War II, and he, like Walt, embraced television as the coming dominant force in American culture. Reagan gained his fame as "The Great Communicator" by signing on to host GE Theater, a weekly show on CBS. Like Disney with his Disneyland program on ABC, Reagan shrewdly made a deal for a cut of the profits on the show, which lasted over a decade.
Walt spent a year on ABC touting his upcoming theme park, so when the time came, he planned a 90 minute live "Grand Opening' show for Disneyland in July 1955. Art Linkletter, Walt's closest friend, was asked to be the main host, but he soon realized the job was too big for one man. Linkletter suggested that co-hosts might be helpful, so Walt hired Bob Cummings, the star of the previous year's hit "Dial M For Murder", and Ronald Reagan for the task.
The show was broadcast in black and white, and filled with technical glitches, live television was still in its infancy, but Reagan and the others handled the job with aplomb.
The broadcast skipped around the park, switching from host to host in various remote locales. Reagan was assigned introduction duties at Frontierland and Main Street USA. It was the latter job that gave him the distinct honor of calling Walt Disney to the podium to issue his famous "To all who come to this happy place, welcome.." speech, which is now permanently inscribed on plaques in the front of all Disney Magic Kingdoms.
The original broadcast is available on DVD, and portions of it can be seen online. It's remarkable to watch a relatively young Reagan and Walt Disney get their footing in front of live crowds, both in person and to the millions at home.
Reagan and Disney continued their cordial relationship throughout their lives.
When Walt died in 1966, it was Reagan, the newly elected Governor of California, who successfully petitioned the US Postmaster General to waive the limits requiring a certain number of years to pass after death, and to immediately issue a special postage stamp in Walt's memory. They did so in 1968, an honor rarely given to any citizen other than a President.
In 1990, shortly after Reagan left the White House, Disneyland honored him on their 35th anniversary with a parade acknowledging both his term as President and for his unique place in Disney history.
Presidents Get The Disney Treatment (1955 - Present)
Quick, name the first US President to be depicted in life size form at Disneyland.
If you said, "Why it's Abe Lincoln, of course!" You're wrong. "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln" would not come along until almost a decade after the park opened.
The first President to be seen in Walt's kingdom - in mannequin form - was "Old Hickory" himself, Andrew Jackson. It was part of the Davy Crockett exhibit in Frontierland, later moved to Tom Sawyer's Island.
Walt Disney had no formal education beyond a few years in high school. He was, however, an avid reader and is regarded as a self taught man. He also had a passion for American history. One of his goals was to use the tools he had at hand to educate schoolchildren while entertaining them at the same time.
His early films, for necessary budget reasons, were mostly fairy tales and animal stories. When television came along, Walt saw the opportunity to use his weekly small screen platform to tell the tales of great American heroes. It's no surprise then that one of his first TV shows, the biggest hit of them all, featured the first portrayal of an American President in a Disney production.
"Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier", filmed for the Frontierland portion of Walt's weekly Disneyland show, told the story of Davy's life. (Unfortunately for Disney, Crockett was killed at the Alamo, so they couldn't continue on even if they wanted to. They eventually came up with two more stories.) The first episode concerned Davy's time as a Tennessee Militia Man during the Creek War. He fought alongside General Andrew Jackson.
Jackson, who became President shortly after the Creek War, was portrayed as a stubborn military man by Basil Ruysdael. In later episodes, Crockett is shown serving in Congress for his home state and joining an anti-Jackson movement, despite the former cordial relationship they enjoyed.
This was remarkable for its time. Recent biographies and articles have taken a critical look at Jackson, who was considered the first populist President and lionized as a true frontiersman. In the 1950's his reputation was largely unblemished.
Walt Disney had the courage to show the true story of Crockett's disappointment with Jackson for playing politics and betraying the Native Americans, who had been promised land after the settlement of the Creek War. Crockett was a man of honor who believed that when his word was given, as it was to the Creek Tribe, it was sound. He was shocked when Jackson began using his Presidential powers to move American Indians off of their lands. Crockett left Congress in disgust.
True to Disney's philosophy, his TV shows were not dumbed down or sweetened just because children were watching. He used Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson to point out the injustices that were done to native Americans throughout our nation's history. Remarkable indeed.
The display on Tom Sawyer's Island of Crockett confronting Jackson in his makeshift frontier office was a constant reminder to Disneyland visitors of Jackson's flaws. It remained there for almost two decades.
In 1968, Disney paid tribute to a duo of Presidents who don't get as much attention as Jackson, and whose faces don't grace $20 bills.
Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison have the unique distinction of being the subjects of a Sherman Brothers song in a major Disney film.
"The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band" (still one of the most cumbersome Disney titles) starred Walter Brennan as the patriarch of a family of musically talented pioneers in 1888 Dakota. Disney stalwarts Buddy Ebsen and Kurt Russell also star, as do the very young John Davidson, Lesley Anne Warren and Goldie Hawn.
Brennan's character is a Democrat, an avid supporter of President Grover Cleveland (who, like Harrison, doesn't actually appear in the film itself.) The Dakota territory is overwhelmingly Republican, so it causes tension.
The family sings their song "Let's Put It Over With Grover" to help gain votes for Cleveland, who was the incumbent facing Benjamin Harrison in the Presidential Election of 1888. Supporters of Harrison have their own ditty, "Oh, Benjamin Harrison." Both songs were written especially for the film by the Sherman Brothers and were not actual campaign songs heard in the election eighty years before. They sounded so authentic that it led many people to believe they were.
The film concludes with Cleveland's narrow loss to Harrison. It was the first time that a candidate won the popular vote but lost the all important electoral college. Cleveland did return to the White House again four years later, the only time we've had a President serve two non-consecutive terms.
"Family Band" has suffered the same unfortunate fate of Presidents Cleveland and Harrison, residency at the bottom of rankings in their respective categories (Presidents and live action Disney films.)
In recent years, Disney has paid more attention to the White House with depictions of Presidents both real (William Howard Taft in "The Greatest Game Ever Played", Teddy Roosevelt in "Newsies" and Franklin Roosevelt in "Pearl Harbor" to name just a few) and fictional (Bruce Greenwood's character in "National Treasure" Geena Davis as the first female president in ABC's short lived series "Commander In Chief", and Tony Goldwyn in "Scandal.")
The Disney Channel even had a sitcom based at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Cory In The House", a spin-off from "That's So Raven" starring Kyle Massey was quite popular and ran for two years.
Walt would be proud to see that his company is introducing youngsters to the office of the President and to the highs and lows of the job. All these years later, Disney is still educating and entertaining simultaneously.
Walt "Kidnaps" Richard Nixon (June 1959)
Perhaps no President was as close to Walt Disney as Richard Nixon.
While he didn't enter the Oval Office as President until two years after Walt's death, Nixon and Walt spent a significant amount of time together. Disney had no greater national booster than Nixon. It's easy to see why.
Richard Nixon was a Southern California native and resident, serving as both Congressman and Senator for the area. He was proud that Walt chose to locate Disneyland right in his backyard.
By the time the park opened to the public in 1955, Nixon was in his first term as Dwight Eisenhower's Vice President. Nixon had two daughters, as Disney did, though Walt's girls were a few years older than Nixon's. The V.P.'s duties as Daddy sometimes took precedence over his official ones.
He was not present at the official Disneyland opening in July 1955, but Nixon paid a State Visit shortly after that, welcomed by Walt and Davy Crockett himself, Fess Parker. Most dignitaries that visited the park back then made an official speech, did a tour of the park with Walt and left with a souvenir. Nixon stayed the whole day and rode all the rides with his two little girls. He and his daughters would drop by as often as they could when back in California, always warmly greeted by the Disney family.
In 1959, Soviet Leader Nikita Kruschev was on a history making State Visit to the U.S., with stops all over the country. Influenced by Vice President Nixon's constant touting of the park, Kruschev insisted that a trip to Disneyland be included on the itinerary. When the request was refused for security reasons, Premiere Kruschev went ballistic. He flew back to Moscow fuming that he never got to ride with Mister Toad. Who knows if the Cold War would have continued had he met Mickey and the gang?
That isn't even the strangest Nixon/Disney connection. In 1959 Walt Disney "kidnapped" the Vice President.
Yes, that's right, the fate of America's second in line of succession was in the hands of Uncle Walt.
On June 14, 1959, Disneyland was introducing its state of the art ALWEG Monorail system. A crowd of reporters were on hand as Walt proudly showed off his new toy, the first daily operating monorail in North America.
To help him with the unveiling, Walt asked Vice President Nixon and his family to do the honors. When it came time for the ceremonial ribbon cutting, the over sized prop scissors provided did not work, so Walt just tore the ribbon with his hands while Nixon stood at his side smiling.
It was, as June days tend to be in Southern California, incredibly hot.
Disney, Nixon and their families were wilting in the heat on the platform as cameras were being set up to shoot the inaugural run. Walt suggested that they step into the monorail pilot's cabin, with the air conditioning running, to cool off. After taking a seat, Walt realized that the vehicle itself was charged up and ready to go. Ever the mischievous soul, Walt hit "FORWARD" and the monorail took off.
This delighted Walt and the Nixons, not so much the Secret Service.
Since nobody expected the monorail to leave while the Vice President was inside, his security detail was still on the platform when the ride suddenly got underway. They frantically ran after it, to no avail. They helplessly watched as Nixon rode off as Walt's willing captive on the 4,200 feet of track.
When the monorail made its loop and came back to the starting point, the Secret Service agents breathed a sigh of relief, only to see Walt's face smiling and waving at them through the front window as he sailed by them for a second trip around.
After much anxiety on the platform, Walt ended the ride and returned the delighted VP and his family unharmed. They all laughed about it and continued on with the day's events.
A few years later Walt nervously admitted that nobody had really done a complete test on the monorails in the heat or showed him what to do in an emergency, so for all he knew the whole thing could have burst into flames with all of them stuck inside.
Nixon saw Walt one last time in his capacity as Vice President, when he officially opened the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California.
Disney had designed the entertainment and ceremonies for the Olympics that year, and was on hand in his capacity as Head of Pageantry.
A few months after that, Nixon lost the Presidential election to John F. Kennedy and retired from public service.
Or so he claimed.
Nixon would go on to have a memorable second act, both in Washington and in Disney history.
Abe Lincoln Returns (April 1964)
America's 16th President had a profound impact on Walt Disney's life.
In many interviews, Walt cited Abe Lincoln as his personal hero. He used to dress up like Lincoln as a child, entertaining his friends and teachers by reciting the Gettysburg Address from memory.
Disney never made a feature film on Abe Lincoln's life, there are already too many of those. At last count Abe Lincoln has been film's most depicted President, in almost 150 pictures, followed closely by John F. Kennedy and Andrew Jackson.
Walt is, however, responsible for more people hearing Honest Abe's words than anyone else.
In 1963 Robert Moses, the uberplanner of New York City and Director of the upcoming 1964 Worlds Fair in Queens, contracted Walt and his personal company, WED Enterprises, to create attractions for the fair. On a tour of the design shop, Moses was captivated by a model of an audio animatronic Lincoln that the imagineers were toying with for Disneyland. He had to have it for his fair.
Presentations were made in front of many corporations to solicit sponsorship for the Lincoln Exhibit. None stepped up. Eventually the State of Illinois agreed to fund the presentation and install it at their pavilion in the fair. It was to be called "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln."
Initially, there were many people who objected to this use of a revered President for what was seen as a tacky stunt or, at best, a high tech wax museum trick. Once they saw what Walt and his staff had done, however, their fears were quelled.
Using an actual 1860 life mask of Lincoln as a basis, Disney's sculptors, led by Disney Legends Blaine Gibson and Rolly Crump, were able to make a figure of Lincoln so lifelike that he seemed to be flesh and blood. Noted actor Royal Dano recorded a 5 minute speech, which was based on actual speeches Lincoln gave. The figure of Lincoln was seated as audiences came in and then would rise from his chair to address the crowd. He gestured and nodded throughout the program.
It was so realistic that even some newspaper accounts reported - inaccurately - that Lincoln walked through the crowd greeting guests. Walt said it was the biggest compliment his staff ever got.
Like the other Disney attractions at the Worlds Fair - It's A Small World, Carousel of Progress - "Great Moments With Mister Lincoln" was moved to Disneyland when the Fair closed. In July 1965, President Lincoln made his Disneyland debut at the newly built Main Street Opera House,sponsored by Lincoln Savings and Loan.
The show featured a film highlighting American history and the contributions President Lincoln made in holding the country together. It concluded with a stirring rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Walt was often seen exiting the theater dabbing tears from his eyes.
In 1973, Lincoln was evicted from the Opera House so that a tribute to Walt Disney, who had died just a few years earlier, could be installed. The public demanded that Lincoln return, so a compromise was made. In1975, a new show titled "The Walt Disney Story: Featuring Great Moments With Mister Lincoln" opened.
In 1984, the show added two songs, "Two Brothers" and "Golden Dream", which originated at Walt Disney World. Those remained the only changes until 2001, when it was completely re-written to focus more on the Civil war period. Royal Dano's original recordings of Lincoln were replaced by another actor who recited the Gettysburg Address. Glasses were added to Lincoln's face and he now holds the speech in his hand.
The show closed completely in 2005 as the Opera House was once again replaced by a show about Disney history. It was a celebration of Disneyland's 50th Anniversary.
When "Great Moments With Mister Lincoln" returned in 2009, it was with updated animatronics and a digital version of Royal Dano' speech (restored once again) from the Worlds Fair. It's still as popular as ever.
Walt's admiration for Mr. Lincoln has led directly to the Presidents legacy, words and mission being kept alive well into the 21st Century. Quite a fitting tribute.
Walt Pulls A Prank on LBJ (September 1964)
Forty years after founding his studio, Walt Disney was given the highest honor an American citizen can get in peacetime.
In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson named Disney as one of the 30 recipients for that year's Presidential Medal of Freedom Award.
Among the honorees gathered at the White House for the ceremony on September 14th were fellow artist Willem deKoonig, authors Carl Sandburg and John Steinbeck, newsman Edward R. Murrow, performers Alfred Lunt, Lynne Fontainne, composer Aaron Copland, Notre Dame University President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh and advocate for the disabled Helen Keller. That's quite a group to be included in.
The story doesn't end there, though.
Walt was not a big fan of Lyndon Johnson. While he respected the office of President, he didn't care for the man personally. Johnson was running for re-election that year against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Disney was a prominent supporter of Goldwater and made no secret of it.
While humbled by the Medal of Freedom, Walt felt that the timing of the ceremony, just a few weeks before the election, was suspicious. He thought that Johnson was using this as an easy photo op to show the President standing side by side with Walt Disney.
There was no way that Walt was going to turn down the honor, so he decided to have a little fun with the President. On the day of he ceremony, Disney wore a small gold pin that said "Goldwater In '64" to the White House. He was discreet enough to wear it on the inside of his lapel, so that to the naked eye all you could see on the outside of his jacket was the pin tack.
When Walt walked to the podium to have the ribbon and medal placed around his neck, he waited for the right moment, turned his body away from the cameras, grinned at Johnson and flipped over his lapel revealing the pin. Nobody in the room picked up on it because neither man made a big deal about it. The moment passed as quickly as it happened.
Walt got a chuckle out of it, but Johnson, who had a volcanic temper, supposedly was furious at having been teased by Disney.
LBJ got the last laugh, as he handily beat Goldwater to win another term.
This story has been printed as legend or myth, and its veracity has been questioned over the years. In a recent interview, however, Walt's late daughter, Diane, confirmed in an interview just before she died that it did indeed happen.
Walt visited the White House while on an East Coast trip to compete with his lawn bowling team (I'm not making that up, really he did travel around the country to bowl on lawns.) His wife Lillian declined to make the trip, so he was free to let his impish side, which she reined in all the time, get the best of him.
According to Diane, Lilly would have never let Walt head to the White House with the Goldwater pin and when she found out about his prank, he was in the doghouse for a while.
Facing the most powerful man on the planet, no problem for Walt. Facing Lilly, that was another story entirely.
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
The Hall of Presidents Debuts (October 1971)
Disneyland was intended to be a place that would never be finished. Walt liked the idea of "plussing", or constantly improving his product. He would have meetings often to brainstorm ideas with his staff.
It was during one of those sessions in the 1950's that an expansion of Main Street USA was discussed. The plan was to create an offshoot called Liberty Street, with an area known as Edison Square. This section would highlight the growth, progress and future of the United States.
An attraction was to be added called "One Nation Under God." It would be housed in a replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall. It was meant to be a three part experience, starting with a Hall of Declaration, celebrating America's 1776 birth certificate, continuing with a recreation of the Liberty Bell, which would ring every few minutes, and finishing in the Hall of Presidents. This last Hall would be like a wax museum, with standing figures and descriptions of all 34 Presidents to that date.
Like many of the early Disneyland ideas, it never made it past the drawing board. Part of the Presidential idea was utilized with 1965's Abraham Lincoln attraction, but the complete Hall of Presidents wouldn't be resurrected until the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971.
One of the ideas proposed for the area between Fantasyland and Frontierland in Florida's Magic Kingdom was to have a "haunted hill", which would nicely bridge the gap and be a great fit for the second version of the Haunted Mansion. (The Disneyland one sits in a version of a New Orleans Square, but Florida is closer geographically to the real New Orleans than California is. Disney didn't want to replicate it, so a new home region needed to be developed.)
One imagineer remembered the dormant Liberty Street idea and suggested that it might be a better use for the area.
Liberty Square was born.
The centerpiece of Liberty Square is the Hall of Presidents, not a replica of Independence Hall as intended but a colonial era style building nonetheless. This Hall was not a wax museum, but an audio-animatronic showcase for the Presidents. Abe Lincoln was present, of course, now joined by the other 36 men in his exclusive club.
Since there were no life masks, busts or measurements to use for some of the earlier and lesser known Presidents, as there was for Lincoln, imagineers supposedly improvised a little bit. Legend has it that they used Disney employees whose faces closely matched portraits of those Presidents as models for the new figures.
The show, which was one of the original attractions when Walt Disney World opened in October of 1971, began with a film that set the tone. Like the Great Moments With Mister Lincoln film, it was a narrative history of the US, which did not shy away from the problems and difficulties the country faced in its 195 year history. Just as in Disneyland, Abraham Lincoln rose and gave a speech. The highlight of the Hall of Presidents, though, was the roll call.
Narrator Lawrence Dobkin (later Maya Angelou and Morgan Freeman) slowly read the names of each and every President. The most startling thing was that the figures did not sit still. Each man acknowledged in some way when his name was mentioned. They also fidgeted, squirmed and even nodded off as the other names were listed. This was human behavior that might be expected with such a gathering, and added tremendously to the realistic illusion created by the Imagineers.
The Hall of Presidents was one of the centerpieces of the Magic Kingdom and remained untouched until 1993. Since they were planning an update anyway, Disney sent a crew to the White House and had newly elected President Bill Clinton record a speech. This speech was then added to the program, with Clinton's figure front and center addressing the crowd.
This marked the first time that a President other than Abraham Lincoln spoke at a Disney attraction. The other change was that America's Poet Laureate Dr. Maya Angelou recorded a new narration for the show itself. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he also recorded a speech and Bill Clinton took a seat with the rest of the former Presidents.
In 2008, the Hall of Presidents closed for almost a year. When it re-opened, President Barack Obama's speech was added and he now led the group. Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman recorded narration for a new script updating the show for the 21st Century. "The Father of Our Country" George Washington (voiced by actor David Morse) was also given a speaking part for the first time.
Though it's not as exciting as some of the "E Ticket" rides at Disney World, The Hall of Presidents never fails to provide a stirring experience for those - American and foreign visitors alike - who step inside to see it.
The Hall of Presidents serves as a living (OK, audio-animatronic) reminder of the qualities of and the contributions made by the 44 men who have served our country nobly in the Oval Office and it will continue to do so for Presidents in the future.
Nixon's Most Famous Sound Bite - November 1973
Think of a comedian impersonating President Nixon, all jowly faced, somber, and with arms held above his head. What is the line that you associate with that visual image?
Most would say "I am Not A Crook!"
That one quote became irrevocably linked with Nixon, and satirists everywhere latched on to it to use it in their routines (some still do.)
While the line lives on, what has been forgotten now is where Nixon actually delivered it. The President spoke those infamous words on a live national television broadcast direct from Walt Disney World.
When President Nixon made a pilgrimage to the "Happiest Place on Earth" in November 1973, all was not happy for him. The walls were slowly closing in, and his Presidency was nearing an abrupt end.
After years in the political wilderness, Nixon had made a triumphant return to Washington D.C., winning the Presidential election in 1968, a feat he repeated in 1972.
Nixon did not forget the kindness and friendship Walt Disney had shown him. In March of 1969, he issued a Presidential Proclamation honoring Walt and had a special gold Presidential medal created with Walt on one side and Mickey Mouse on the other. It was presented to the Disney family at a White House ceremony that was filled with third and fourth graders from local D. C. schools.
In his speech that day, Nixon continued his unofficial role as Disney ambassador by urging the youngsters and their parents to vacation at Disneyland in Anaheim or at the soon to open Walt Disney World.
President Nixon's Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler, was a former skipper on Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, so it was only natural that he suggested that Nixon address the 400 reporters gathered for the Associated Press 1973 Convention at Walt Disney World in person.
On November 17th, Nixon stood in front of the cameras set up at the Contemporary Resort Hotel to make his speech. Afterwards, he took questions and the event was carried live by all three networks.
At that time, more reports were coming out connecting Nixon to the illegal break in of a Democratic national Committee office in the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. It was being alleged that not only did Nixon know about the crime, he also had a hand in the cover-up that followed. The President and his people tried to fight and dispute the charges but they were being attacked from all sides.
Nixon finally had enough.
With a weary look on his face, the President stared directly into the cameras, faced the nation and said "The people have to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook!" Like the people watching at home, those in attendance in Disney World were stunned by the remarks. It became an instant catchphrase.
Nixon was finally forced to resign in August of 1974, the first President ever to do so. He once again entered the political wilderness.
Nixon kept a pretty low profile after that at his homes in San Clemente, California and Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. A few of his rare public appearances were in Disneyland and Disney World, this time doting on his grandchildren.
In 1995, Hollywood Pictures (a division of Disney) released a controversial version of Nixon's life starring Anthony Hopkins and directed by Oliver Stone. Walt's daughter Diane was so offended by what she saw onscreen, she was moved to write a personal letter of apology to Nixon's daughters.
Say what you will about the man and his political legacy, but Richard Nixon definitely proved himself as one of the greatest of all Disney fans.
Carter Is First To See EPCOT Plans (October 1978)
The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was Walt Disney's great dream just before he died. It was the reason that his company acquired so much land in central Florida, more than would be needed for just a simple theme park and resort.
Disney died before he could see his plans come to fruition. He wanted to spur the world's greatest scientists, businesses and engineers to contribute to this new type of community, an ideal city of tomorrow that would be the showplace for cutting edge ideas. Those plans were sidelined as his brother Roy chose to get the resort and theme park phase of the planning underway first.
Once Disney World proved successful and became the most visited place on the planet, Card Walker - who began his career with Disney as a mail boy in 1938 and had risen to President of the company after Roy's death- wanted go get back to Walt's last dream. The newly renamed EPCOT Center was first announced in 1975 as an upcoming project, but definite plans and the overall look for it were not finalized until 1978.
Walker wanted to make a grand introduction of the plans so that the public and corporations could start getting excited, but when to do it?
Walker quickly got his answer. The President of the United States was coming to Mickey's house and the world would be watching.
James Earl (Jimmy) Carter, who was elected President in 1976, was a native of the southeast and very popular in Florida. When the International Chamber of Commerce chose to have its 26th Conference and Convention at Walt Disney World (the first time the event was held outside of the capital city of the host country) Carter was the obvious choice to make the opening remarks.
Plans were made to have the President fly in, address the 2,500 Chamber members and their guests from in front of Cinderella Castle at night after the park was closed, view a special Disney fireworks display, and then stay for a short cocktail party and reception before flying back to the White House. Card Walker saw this as an ideal promotional opportunity for Epcot.
Despite the happy castle courtyard setting, Carter's speech was a rather somber one. The theme was "Enterprise, Freedom and the Future." The President chided the assembled business men and women, urging them to be more responsible and to look out for the poor. He also touched on the mideast peace agreement talks between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He did acknowledge being at Walt Disney World when he said that he was looking forward to seeing Fantasyland, as it seemed to be the place where his economic advisers were getting most of their ideas.
At the conclusion of the speech, as the guests assembled in the banquet hall to mingle, a surprise awaited them. Card Walker had set up large boards with the concept art for EPCOT Center and announced an opening date four years hence.
The guests were dazzled. That was the idea.
Walker realized that the members of the International Chamber of Commerce were exactly the kind of people who could invest in, or at least make connections to those who could sponsor pavilions and attractions at the new project. It did prove as successful as he had hoped.
President Carter, who had an engineering degree and served on a nuclear submarine, was particularly fascinated and spent the night discussing the plans for EPCOT with Walker and his staff. He actually overstayed the timeline that had been so carefully planned by his White House aides.
In February of 1980, President Carter issued Proclamation 4725, declaring a national day to honor Walt Disney. This was a nice gesture, but a little odd in the timing as the date had no connection to Walt Disney or his company.
Less than a year later someone would enter the White House who had a much deeper personal relationship with Walt Disney and would do even more to promote the dream of Epcot.
Reagan Makes History at EPCOT - twice (March 1983/May1985)
As noted earlier, Ronald Reagan shared a lot of personality traits with Walt Disney. One of those was their eternal optimism and belief that tomorrow will bring a better day. That sunny attitude helped to sweep Reagan into office in the 1980 Presidential election.
EPCOT Center, which opened shortly after Reagan began his first term, is the perfect illustration of the hopes and dreams both Reagan and Disney held for the future of American and the world. It was only fitting then that Reagan would accept an invitation to help christen the new park. This would mark the first time a sitting President was on hand for such an occasion.
Unfortunately Reagan's schedule did not allow him to make the actual opening date of October 1982, so an alternate date was chosen for a "second grand opening" with the President.
On March 8, 1983, President Reagan paid a visit to EPCOT, escorted by Dick Nunis, President of Walt Disney World, and several hundred math and science students from Central Florida.
The President's first order of business was to take in the American Experience attraction in a theater full of students, which he said he found incredibly moving. (Ever the comedian, Reagan joked at his surprise about seeing the show with all those students and not getting hit with a single spitball.) He then made an afternoon speech at a podium set up right on the World Showcase Lagoon, directly opposite of Spaceship Earth.
Reagan's remarks that day dealt mostly with the promise of EPCOT Center and what it meant to his friend Walt Disney and to the world. He noted that the Disney Corporation had set up a fellowship program which would allow exchange students from counties featured in the World Showcase to come there and learn about America while also teaching visitors about their home and culture.
The technical side of EPCOT was covered when Reagan spoke presciently about the speed of modern computers and how we were soaring into the 21st Century. The students got his attention once again when he pointed out that their aptitude at video games and digital devices would make them better prepared for the future than his generation. The crowd burst into laughter when Reagan pleaded with the youngsters not to tell their parents that the President told them they had his permission to spend all day playing video games.
Never one to let a comic moment pass, Reagan followed this with a joke about a student whose teacher scolded him for getting everything wrong on his homework by saying "I don't know how one person could make all those mistakes!" The student's reply: "One person didn't, my Dad helped me make them!"
Finally, President Reagan reached out to the young girls in the group, encouraging them to pursue careers in math and science, citing Sally Ride - who would soon be the first female on the space shuttle - as an example to look up to.
It was a great day and Reagan told everyone that he enjoyed his time at EPCOT Center and looked forward to returning some time soon.
He had no idea how soon that would be.
Reagan was re-elected in 1984, and was set to have an inaugural parade through the streets of Washington D.C., as had been the custom since it became the nation's capitol.
Inauguration Day, January 21, 1985, turned out to be one of the coldest days ever recorded in the Potomac River region. The actual recorded temperature that day was 4 below zero, with a high of 17 degrees. The wind chill factor brought the temps to 20 degrees below zero. The conditions were too dangerous to have an outdoor parade, so festivities were moved indoors, to the Capital Center Arena.
Things would have been fine except that over 25 high school marching bands had been invited to perform in the parade, which was now canceled. The schools and the students were bitterly disappointed, as they had trained long and hard for the honor of marching in front of the President. Unfortunately, they were not going to get that chance. Into the void stepped Michael Eisner, who offered the sunny climes of Walt Disney World as a replacement for the parade.
Since events involving the President cannot be put together overnight, the parade was re-scheduled for Memorial Day at EPCOT Center. Twenty of the canceled bands accepted the invitation to the do-over. This was the first time in history that a President's Inaugural Parade would be held outside of the capital.
On Monday May 27, 1985, President and Mrs. Reagan flew by helicopter from Orlando Airport and landed right behind the American Adventure at EPCOT Center. A reviewing stand was set up to watch the festivities and the first couple sat next to Mr. Eisner and his wife. Mickey and Minnie were there too.
After the parade, the President made a few short remarks where he focused on the many contributions of America's innovators, pioneers and businessman, taking great pride in adding Walt Disney to that list. When the speech was done, the President got back on the helicopter and flew to Miami for another Memorial Day ceremony.
Reagan paid one last tribute to his old friend Walt before leaving office. Though President Carter had already declared a national day to honor Mr. Disney, Reagan had Proclamation number 5585 put into the books. It also declared a day in honor of Walt Disney, but this one was timed properly. it came on December 5, 1986, which would have been Walt's 85th birthday.
When the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California decided in 2001 to start a year long exhibition about people who were the true embodiment of the Spirit of America in 2001, it was Walt Disney that was chosen as their first honoree. It would have been Walt's 100th birthday.
Two legendary American dreamers, bound together forever by history.
Bush's 1,000 Points Of Light Come to EPCOT (September 1991)
Like Nixon before him, George Herbert Walker Bush served eight years as Vice President before getting his shot at the Oval Office. He was elected as the nation's 41st President in 1988.
While he was more of a milquetoast character than his predecessor Reagan, comedians - most notably Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey - found ways to parody him.
One of the phrases they gravitated to was Bush's campaign call to American citizens to make a difference in their communities and be the "thousand points of light" in the darkness of despair. It was a nice sentiment, but left him wide open to those looking for an easy catchphrase to use to mock the President.
One person who wasn't laughing was Disney CEO Michael Eisner. He was moved by Bush's feelings on the subject and offered the services of Disney in any way they could to aid this "1,000 Points of Light" Presidential project.
For the first two years of his Presidency, Bush named a daily "Point of Light", a citizen who showed great compassion towards their fellow Americans and gave of themselves to help, without asking for anything in return. When it came time to have a ceremony honoring all of these "Points of Light", President Bush called Eisner. A date was set for EPCOT Center (which would be shortened to just plain EPCOT a few years later) to host the ceremony, and arrangements were made to bring as many of the honorees to Disney World as they could.
On September 30, 1991, President and Mrs. Bush arrived at EPCOT Center. The President spoke in the American Gardens and, like Reagan before him, took great care to link Walt Disney to this special day (It was also one day before the 20th Anniversary of Walt Disney World's opening.)
Bush had this to say about Disney:
"Everything here at EPCOT Center reminds us of the vision of the man who conceived this amazing place as an exploration of community. Walt Disney once said, "The greatest moments in life are not concerned with selfish achievements, but rather with the things we do for the people." And he was absolutely right. That creed brings us together in this extraordinary place, sharing this extraordinary day. We celebrate the American spirit, the greatest natural resource of this, the greatest Nation in the entire world.
We celebrate it in front of this tableau of American heroes: our 575 Points of Light. We've honored them for showing "the better angels of our nature," for volunteering to help others in their own communities."
When he was done addressing the crowd, the President stayed to meet in smaller groups with each and every honoree. He and he First Lady were then personally escorted around Walt Disney World. Though no formal parade was held, for security reasons.
In November 1989, President Bush was the first Commander in Chief to officially pardon a Thanksgiving turkey. Prior to that, Thanksgiving turkeys were given to Presidents in White House ceremonies, but they were all consumed. Bush spared the life of his turkey and donated it to a petting zoo in Virginia named - of all things - Frying Pan Park.
What does this have to do with Disney? Beginning with President Bush's son, George W. Bush, in 2004, the pardoned turkeys (two are actually chosen) were flown to California to be the Grand Marshals of the Disneyland Thanksgiving Day Parade. They are then able to live out their natural lives at Disneyland.
I'll bet you won't ever hear about that in the Hall of Presidents.