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50 yrs later: Dozens of Disney employees from opening day in 1971 still work at Florida theme park

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The Walt Disney World Resort in Florida will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Friday, October 1st with a festive party dubbed ‘The World’s Most Magical Celebration.” Remarkably, around two dozen employees who were there on opening day in 1971 still work at the world-famous theme park, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

George Kalogridis said he applied by chance for a job as a hotel worker, before spending the next five decades rising up the ranks to become president of Walt Disney World and Disneyland in California.

He said he decided on an impulse just after graduating high school to apply during a recruitment day the park was holding. He was hired as a busser, but initially was laying down sod on the grounds of the hotel he would be working in, just hours before the park would open, according to the Daily Mail.

Forrest Bahruth joined the workforce at Disney World in January 1971 as a show director, responsible for staging and choreographing parades and shows. He went on to spend the next 50 years helping open other Disney theme parks all over the world.

“There are people all over the world who get up to go work. They’re unhappy about it. They don’t really like their jobs,” Bahruth said.

“As you can tell from us, there’s an enthusiasm. We are privileged to be at a place where we love what we do.”

Earliene Anderson recalled how she jumped at the chance to take a job at the new Disney theme park in Florida back in 1971, having fallen in love with the beauty of Disneyland in California during a trip two years earlier.

She now works in merchandising at a Magic Kingdom hotel.

“Disney has been my love, and it still is,” Anderson said.

Another original employee, Chuck Milam, recounted how he had gotten a tip about a job opening from a transplanted Disney executive whose new house he was landscaping at the time. He started out as a warehouse worker before moving up the ladder to become a buyer of spare parts for rides and shows.

Walt Disney World opened in Florida on October 1, 1971, six years after Walt Disney announced plans for a new park following the success of Disneyland in California. He is said to have grown irritated by the level of development that sprung up around his original Anaheim Park, and secretly purchased massive swathes of Florida swampland to build a much larger resort where he could have complete control of the surrounding areas.

He quietly bought up 27,000 acres (11,000 hectares) of scrubland outside Orlando for around $5 million via secret land purchases using fake names and shell companies. This kept local landowners from driving up the cost of the land, were they to realize the scope of the project and who was buying it.

Sadly, Walt died just a year after announcing his plans for the “Florida Project”, which left it up to his brother, Roy Disney, to make his vision a reality.

Though the park was open to the public on October 1st of ’71, many ceremonies would take place over the next few weeks, culminating with its official grand opening and parade on October 25th of that year.

It featured a 1,076-member marching band conducted by Meredith Willson, the composer of the Broadway show, ‘”The Music Man.” There were 4,000 Disney entertainers marching through the theme park, a mass choir and trumpeters from the United States Army Band.

On that first day, only around 10,000 visitors showed up, which at today’s much larger Walt Disney World would represent about 90 minutes’ worth of visitors entering.

At that time, around 6,000 employees welcomed excited members of the public for the very first time through the gates of the Magic Kingdom – the first park to open at the resort.

Since then, the resort has seen the opening of three more theme parks, two water parks, two dozen hotels and an entertainment district, with the workforce reaching 77,000 employees.

“The World’s Most Magical Celebration” begins on October 1st with celebrations and special engagements continuing for 18 months.

Frank Webster

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