Walt Disney World is a place of joy, fun, pleasure, and happiness. All good things must come to an end though, and such is the case for the very first employee of Walt Disney World. A man named Phil Smith was the first Cast Member at the now huge theme park in Orlando, Florida, and he has passed away at the age of 83.
The Orlando Sentinel reported the news of Phil Smith‘s passing, and the interesting story that got him working for the now gigantic company.
It was Tuesday when Smith passed away in Minneola due to complications of kidney disease and COPD.
Smith was the very first permanent employee for Walt Disney World, and he helped guide the legal way for the development of the theme park. He was only a few years fresh out of law school and began working for a company that he didn’t know a whole lot about.
It was a company that was not really known publicly, but it was buying land privately in Florida. Little did Smith realize that the land being bought would end up being Walt Disney World.
Phil Smith started his job with Disney in 1965, and he was brought there by Paul Helliwell of Disney’s law firm in Miami. As Walt Disney began buying him as much land as possible in Orlando, Smith wasn’t even sure what company he was representing, according to his wife, Gwen Smith.
“He really didn’t know that it was Disney yet.”
Not long after taking the job though, Phil Smith learned who he was working for, and it was an honor for him. He was a huge part in the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District which is the government body that helps Disney control building codes, planning, and emergency services much in the same way a real city does.
As 1966 came to a close, a huge stack of document were given to the Florida Legislature in regard to Reedy Creek. Back in 1988, Smith spoke with the Orlando Sentinel, and spoke of just how much had been put in writing to get it going.
“At first, they were amazed at just the size of it. I right away fielded a whole bunch of early questions that started out, ‘What are you guys doing down there anyway?’ … It took about six weeks to get it safely through the Legislature, and frankly, we considered that success something of a coup. I think there was only one ‘nay’ vote in the Senate and probably not more than five in the House.”
There was much more for Phil Smith to do though, and according to the Laughing Place, he also kept a watchful eye on the early construction of Walt Disney World. Along with his wife and two small children, Smith lived on a small piece of property nearby and often had picnics on what later became Discovery Cove.
Dick Nunis, the retired chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, said that everyone had faith in the job that Phil Smith did. With him working, no one ever had to worry that there was trouble coming their way.
“He really built a very fine legal organization that really, frankly, kept us out of trouble. Under Phil Smith I never had to worry about any legal problems. I knew we had a very competent guy that would take care of it.
“… His standard quote — this should be on his gravestone — was, ‘Let me see if I can find a way.'”
Phil Smith did retire in the early ’90s, and he was the senior vice president of administration and support of Walt Disney World at the time. It’s hard to ever find anyone that had anything negative to say about the very “humble man.”
Walt Disney World president George Kalogridis emailed a statement confirming as much.
“Phil played a significant role in the development of Walt Disney World and his contributions will long be remembered. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.”
Walt Disney World is a corporate and imagination giant in the world today, and it has lost one of the true good ones. Phil Smith was the first permanent employee and was entrusted with a lot by Walt Disney and so many others as he rightfully should have been.
[Image via Danny Cox]