Did you know that for Epcot’s opening in 1982, Disney avoided spending any money on advertising for the park by… spending $18,000 a day? Yeah, it’s a little confusing, but trust me there’s a logic there.
“Spinning Disney’s World” by Charles Ridgway
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It was 1982 and Disney was just about to open their first ever second gate over in Walt Disney World, Epcot. As part of the run up to the grand opening you might expect Disney to spend a bunch of money on advertising to get the word out about the park, but in truth that wasn’t Disney’s style. Ever since the days of Walt and the original Disneyland opening, Disney never directly advertised their parks. Walt figured that Disney was such a beloved and well known name, that news outlets across the country would willingly come to cover major events, resulting in free publicity for the company, and you know what? He was right.
For decades after the opening of Disneyland, they didn’t have to advertise. Guests flocked to the parks year after year regardless and news stations would gladly send camera crews and reporters to cover openings at the parks.
As I mention in many of my videos, when Walt passed away the company fell into this sort of “What Would Walt Do?” coma. There wasn’t much growth or change at the company because after so many years of Walt’s leadership, they felt his way was still the best way.
So when Disney Parks VP Jack Lindquist went to Disney CEO, Card Walker, and asked for two million dollars to spend on a multi-media advertising campaign to promote the opening of Epcot, it was no surprise when Walker said no. To be fair, the park had also just gone vastly over budget and totalled out at around $1.4 billion dollars, so Walker was also probably looking to save some money.
The original plan for Epcot’s opening was very similar to The Magic Kingdom’s. Disney would welcome small batches of reporters over the course of the first month so that they could experience and record their time at the park and bring it all home to their audiences to share.
However a recent technological shift brought upon another idea. At this point in the 1980’s, satellite broadcasting was on the rise. While it was something the major networks already had access to, it was finally starting to grow for smaller stations across the country. Many of them were in the process of getting their hands of satellite receivers, which would allow them to receive broadcasts of sporting events and syndicated programming. However most still didn’t have the uplinks needed to broadcast via satellite.
So Lindquist and Charles Ridgway of Disney’s PR came up with the idea to get their own satellite transmitter and invite smaller stations around the country to come to Epcot and use it, free of charge, to broadcast to their local areas live from the park. The cost of the transmitter for Disney would total at $180,000, averaging out to $18,000 a day. I guess when compared to the sticker shock of two million dollars, asking for $180,000 isn’t nearly as bad, because Walker OKed the plan and Disney went ahead and got that transmitter.
Many stations jumped at the offer, and over thirty-five of them sent crews and reporters to the opening of Epcot to cover it live. Disney divided up the use of the transmitter into five minute time slots and let the stations switch off on using it during the prime news hours of the evening. These small stations, many for the first time, were able to broadcast from across the country via satellite. Today, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Our current technology let’s virtually anyone do that with the phone in their pocket. However back then it was a big deal, and as a result there was a novelty to the reports that went beyond just the fact that it was news about Disney.
In the following weeks over thirty more news crews would travel out to Epcot to cover the event. Many stations would even report live over multiple days from multiple parts of Epcot to show off what Disney’s latest park had to offer.
Disney technically hadn’t spent a dime on direct advertising, just the way Walt wanted, and yet Epcot was still a household piece of news that once again put Disney under the spotlight. As Lindquist would later say to put it in perspective: “We never really broke it down, but that $18,000 bought us probably over $20 million in publicity.” Not bad!