1971 Twenty-five Years Ago

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Two landmark events in America’s shift to the Sunbelt occurred this month: On October 1 Walt Disney World opened near Orlando, Florida, and on October 10 the antique London Bridge was rededicated in its new home of Lake Havasu City, Arizona. For centuries much of Florida had been steamy swampland and virtually all of Arizona had been barren desert. But as the country’s most inhospitable spots were watered, paved, and air-conditioned after World War II, it became clear that you can import anything except sunshine. Armed with this insight, developers acquired large tracts in warm places and let their imaginations run free.

Disney’s agents had started buying land in central Florida in the summer of 1964. Most residents assumed that a defense or aerospace firm was behind the purchases and were surprised when plans for an amusement park leaked out. By the time of his death in 1966, Walt Disney had mapped out his vision for a metropolis of high-tech corn that, with undeveloped portions, would eventually cover twenty-seven thousand acres, an area twice as big and thousands of times as clean as Manhattan. Opening day drew a smaller-than-expected crowd of about ten thousand (to the relief of Disney executives, who had feared a huge traffic jam); a gala inauguration, complete with a World Symphony Orchestra containing musicians from sixty-six countries, followed on October 23.

Early visitors were generally enthusiastic, though a few complained about the absence of thrill rides. In the years since, Disney World and its sister attractions have never lacked for guests to fill their streets and cash registers or for commentators to explain what it all means. Some are laudatory ("the most imaginative and effective piece of urban planning in America"), and some are scornful (”comforting stereotypes of corporate achievements"); with others it’s hard to tell, like the scholar who called the Enchanted Tiki Birds “the embodiment of Jean Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality in their extension of a naive realist aesthetic.” Disney World’s innovations in construction, sanitation, and robotic entertainment have become widely adopted elsewhere, while its linguistic contributions, such as imagineers and utilidors, are thankfully less popular.

Meanwhile, in Arizona the famous London Bridge—purchased, dismantled, transported, and reassembled around a reinforced-concrete core at a cost of ten million dollars—was unveiled before a crowd of forty thousand. Participants in the ceremony included marching bands, floats, skydivers, five thousand pigeons, the lord mayor of London (who sweltered with his entourage beneath the desert sun in seventeenth-century costumes), and “some 800 Beautiful People,” according to Newsweek . An ersatz English village provided the requisite architectural context. At the climax of the festivities, the pigeons were released along with thirty thousand balloons, one of them five stories tall and decorated with a huge Union Jack. A British visitor taking in the spectacle remarked: “It’s all quite mad. It could only happen in America.”