The question was asked, “How did Walt Disney control the weather for the Opening Ceremonies at the Winter Olympics?”
I suppose it is a silly question, but then again… it is easy to understand why someone might want to know. The magic of Disney would forever impact these Winter Olympics in 1960 at Squaw Valley and as we have seen in our previous articles, forever change the way Olympics are celebrated across the globe.
The date is February 18th, 1960, Walt Disney and his team started the day by facing a blizzard. Now a snowstorm is one thing but a blizzard is something else and as you might imagine…can create a problem.
Television coverage was going to begin just a few hours as the Opening Ceremonies would be televised for the first time live, The snow meant that people were having trouble getting to Squaw Valley, including the press and the network media crews who would be covering the event. An incredible 10 inches of snow fell that morning. Legendary CBS news anchor, Walter Cronkite might as well have been broadcasting from a frozen tundra. Reports were that the musicians couldn’t see the conductor through the blizzard and the pigeon guardians said they could not let the birds loose in such horrible weather. The vice president of the United States, Richard Nixon was supposed to participate in the opening ceremonies but due to the harsh weather could not fly in as planned. He would drive in and it was not clear if he would make it in the icy conditions.
The B Plan was to move it all inside to a very small venue. While that would have worked for television it would have meant scaling back the huge scope and pageantry that Walt had planned. Walt was calm, cool (or perhaps cold) , and unruffled while all around him were growing more panicked and wanted him to make the decision to move it inside. Walt told everyone they would move forward as planned, it was going to be alright, and to get the show ready. He then recruited his friend Art Linkletter and pressed him into last moment duty as a broadcaster and television host for the event, since all the of the press and broadcast team couldn’t make it to the site.
Traffic was bumper to bumper in the snowy mountains, a twelve mile backup meant people couldn’t get to the ceremonies as planned. They went live on national television and after a fifteen minute delay they had to start the festivities. It was then that the miracle happened. The snow stopped falling, the skies cleared, and the sun began to shine. The opening ceremonies of the VIII Winter Olympics were underway.
Today we are all familiar with the grand scale of Olympic ceremonies but this time, in 1960, it was the first extravaganza. 30 national flags were raised as the United States Marine Band played “The Parade of the Olympians.” Fireworks were shot into the skies in the early morning hours as 740 athletes then entered the arena. Fireworks had never been used in the daytime before, Walt had advertised they not only would be used but they would work. He did and they did and daytime fireworks are now used in Disney theme parks across the planet every single day…but this was the first time.
Richard Nixon had driven forty-six miles through the snow and arrived on time to deliver a fifteen-word address. Two thousand pigeons were released, and once they were clear there was an eight-round cannon salute—one salvo for each of the previous Winter Olympic Games. The Olympic Torch made the last thirty miles of its route via cross-country skier. The skier appeared to the crowd on the peak of Little Papoose and blazed down the slopes accompanied by an honor guard of eight skiers to pass the Torch to Olympic speed skater Kenneth Henry. who lit the ceremonial torch, officially beginning the Games.
The chimes were sounded and rang throughout the hills, athletes then joined in the Olympic prayer, narrated by actor Karl Malden. Now if you are reading that and doing a double take, it is no surprise. As you might imagine this was a wildly debated and controversial decision. This was not an Olympic tradition but Walt Disney was about to make it one. It was later reported “Walt felt that prayer represents one of the freedoms of America and that we should definitely have it.”
More music, then the release of 30,000 balloons and additional shells were fired that exploded with bursts of flags from each nation, which drifted back to earth via parachutes.
The ceremony came to an end. The people were still cheering and the snow began to blow once more.
To borrow a phrase that would be uttered at a Winter Olympic years in the future, “Do you believe in miracles? – Yes!”
Walt wasn’t done in Squaw Valley. The Squaw Valley Olympics were the first to be scheduled with live entertainment for the athletes in mind, and when Walt first announced his plans he proclaimed that “nothing is more important than creating lasting goodwill among our visitors, and we shall do everything we can to make their stay a happy one.”
Art Linkletter rounded up a number of his Hollywood friends every evening, resulting in appearances by Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, Red Skelton Marlene Dietrich, Jayne Mansfield, Danny Kaye and Jack Benny.
Walt brought up the entire Golden Horseshoe Revue from Disneyland to present to the Olympians. Wally Boag, Betty Taylor, Gene Sheldon, Henry Calvin, Don Novis and three stuntmen all performed to a rapt audience, and the staged “saloon brawl” at the end of the evening was so raucous that the media reported a frightened security officer had rushed to the phone to summon help.
Walt also put on a show each night for the athletes based on the results of the day that had just passed. Art Linkletter would introduce the new champions who had won medals that day. They would then have a drawing, with the winner getting a free phone call home—this was a big deal in a world before cell phones and internet.
Disney’s Olympics, received rave reviews. The once-skeptical IOC chair would go on to say they were the “greatest games ever staged.” Army Archerd, in Variety, called Disney’s opening ceremony “the greatest show on Earth,” and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that “It is my conviction that you’ll never see anything of that kind so well done in your lifetime.”
And of course the question we started with…one of the Russian delegation approached an Olympic security chief and asked what chemicals Walt Disney had used to control the weather during the opening ceremony.
Did Walt Disney control the weather? No, of course not.
What did Walt control? The plans, the schedule, the details, the design, the backdrops, the way the show would work and each thing was done with a master plan on how to create the best show, create great memories, and how to put it on display in a way that the world had never seen before. Those were the things Walt Disney could control. And he did them well…so well that history remembers this Olympics as the one that forever changed the way the world sees the Olympics.
That is why the morning of February 18th Walt was so cool and calm. He was busy staying focused on what he could control. The weather, well… that was something that was out of his control and no amount of worrying could change it, stop it, or do one thing about it.
It is so easy to waste energy, effort, time and become stressed over things we cannot control. Often we use so much energy in trying to control and manage things that are beyond our control that we have no energy, strength or time to do something about the things we can control. Worry doesn’t make you one more dime, doesn’t get you one more moment, and surely won’t change the weather. Worry robs you of the joy of living each moment to the fullest and if you are not careful, worry will paralyze you and you won’t ever accomplish anything worth remembering because you have wasted your life with worry.
Don’t miss the point. Walt had a secondary plan. He just didn’t like it. He knew it would rob the athletes, spectators, and television audience of a moment they would never forget. He made a choice. The show in the snowstorm would be something worth seeing…even if it was going to be difficult. And he knew it would be better than the scaled down easy version. Too boring, too small, and not the show he wanted to give the world. So he decided to face the storm, let it snow, and he would do the best he could… no matter what the circumstances.
During a time of year when we celebrate the triumph of athletic spirit and competition, let me encourage you to learn the lessons of Walt Disney and put them into practice in your life. There are lessons of leadership, work, and being willing to take a risk to make a dream come true. All of those things will change the way you live. But on a grander scale… the life lesson is huge… and will change your life forever…. don’t waste worry over the things you can’t control. Focus your time, energy, and passion toward things you can control and do those with excellence.
If you do you will create a life worth living and a life that will inspire others.
Don’t worry… there are miracles happening all around you… even today.
Believe in Miracles!
Jeff Dixon is an author, teacher, and transformational architect who lives in Central Florida. He is the author of a series of mystery thrillers set in and around Walt Disney World that are loaded with Disney history, trivia, little known facts, and the trivia is never trivial. The Key to the Kingdom and Unlocking the Kingdom are available from booksellers everywhere and you can find out more about them here http://www.amazon.com/Jeff-Dixon/e/B00A1DJDNQ/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 Jeff is a Florida native who likes to ski. He is not very good at it but a diamond slope does not frighten him. Sadly in Florida the only mountain near him is a place called Mount Dora, which is actually a hill, really an incline, and well…you can’t ski it. Take a few minutes and follow Jeff on both Twitter and Facebook. You can get there by visiting www.DixonOnDisney.com
Research and inspiration for this article comes from The Walt Disney Family Museum and Michael A. Crawford, Disney historian, that share details about the story of Walt and his involvement in the Olympic quest on their website. Additional research was found at Progressland USA, Jim Hill Media, and notations in the book, The 1960 Winter Olympics by David C. Antonucc.