“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” – Walt Disney (1901-66)
How did Walt Disney World Resort emerge out of Central Florida swampland in the late 1960s to become the world’s most-visited tourist destination? It all started in 1964 when Walt Disney secretly started purchasing 27,433 acres of land in Central Florida for approximately $180 per acre as part of his “Florida Project.” To ensure that the true nature of the investment remained under wraps, Disney bought up the land using dummy corporation names such as Bay Lake Properties and Compass East Corporation. Disney’s only regret with Disneyland, which opened in 1955, was that he had only acquired 160 acres for the original park. With Disney World, he was determined not to make that mistake again. In fact, Disney later remarked, “Here in Florida … we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland – the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possible imagine.”
Meanwhile, Disney showcased some of his state-of-the-art audio-animatronic technology at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair at exhibits such as Carousel of Progress, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and It’s a Small World. On October 20, 1965, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Disney had been buying up thousands of acres of land in Orange and Osceola counties. During a hastily arranged press conference at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando on November 15, Disney (accompanied by his brother Roy and Florida Governor Haydon Burns) made his first public announcement detailing his plans for the “Florida Project.” Just over a year after the announcement, Disney died of lung cancer at the age of 65. However, Roy and the Disney team forged ahead with the Disney World project. In 1967, site preparation began for Disney’s Magic Kingdom after legislation was passed into law creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The following year, a Florida Supreme Court ruling allowed the Reedy Creek Improvement District to issue tax-free bonds to help finance the Disney World project. In 1969, construction began on Disney’s Magic Kingdom, including Main Street, U.S.A. and the 189-foot-high Cinderella Castle.
Disney’s Magic Kingdom first opened its doors on October 1, 1971, for approximately 10,000 visitors with the following attractions: Cinderella’s Golden Carousel, Country Bear Jamboree, Diamond Horseshoe Revue, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Frontier Shooting Gallery, Hall of Presidents, Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, Jungle Cruise, Mad Tea Party, Mickey Mouse Revue, Mike Fink Keel Boats, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Skyway, Snow White’s Adventures, Swiss Family Treehouse, Tiki Room, Tomorrowland Indy Speedway and Walt Disney World Railroad. In those days, adult admission cost $3.50, while a seven-ride attraction ticket book cost $4.75 and an 11-ride attraction ticket book cost just $5.75! In addition, parking was only 50 cents per car. Walt Disney World Resort was officially dedicated on October 25 by Roy Disney, who remarked, “Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney … and to the talents, the dedication and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney’s dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and new knowledge to all who come to this happy place … a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn together.” NBC aired the Disney TV special, Grand Opening of Walt Disney World, on October 29, which featured such celebrities as Bob Hope, Julie Andrews, Glen Campbell, Jonathan Winters and Buddy Hackett. Roy passed away less than two months later on December 20.
When it first opened, Disney’s Magic Kingdom featured six themed lands: Main Street, U.S.A., Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Several new attractions opened at the Magic Kingdom before the end of 1971 such as Liberty Square Riverboat, Flight to the Moon and Circle-Vision 360. Other popular Magic Kingdom attractions to open during the 1970s were If You Had Wings (1972), The Walt Disney Story (1972), Tom Sawyer Island (1973), Pirates of the Caribbean (1973), Swan Boats (1973), Star Jets (1974), Carousel of Progress (1975) and WEDway People Mover (1975). In addition, one of the Magic Kingdom’s most popular thrill rides, Space Mountain, opened in 1975 with astronauts Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper and Jim Irwin taking the ceremonial first ride. Other classic Magic Kingdom rides and attractions to open over the years include Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (1980) and Splash Mountain (1992). Development continued outside of the Magic Kingdom as well with the addition of Lake Buena Vista Village in 1975 (later to be known as Disney Village Marketplace and currently Downtown Disney). The following year, Disney World’s first water park, River Country, opened at Fort Wilderness Campground (River Country closed permanently in 2001).
Construction began on Epcot, the second theme park at Walt Disney World Resort, in 1979 with an initial budget of $600 million. Walt Disney himself had envisioned Epcot as a living, working community of tomorrow rather than a theme park. In fact, in a 1966 film outlining the project, Disney said Epcot would always be “a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.” Opened on October 1, 1982, Epcot (which originally stood for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”) featured Future World pavilions The Land, Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy and World of Motion, as well as nine World Showcase pavilions (USA, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Mexico, Germany, Italy, China and Japan). A four-mile stretch of the Walt Disney World Monorail System was also completed to connect the Ticket and Transportation Center to Epcot. Epcot was officially dedicated on October 24 by Disney Chairman E. Cardon Walker, who remarked, “May Epcot Center entertain, inform and inspire and above all, may it instill a new sense of relief and pride in man’s ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere in the world.” The now-defunct Horizons attraction was added to Future World in 1983, the Morocco Pavilion opened in the World Showcase in 1984 and the Living Seas Pavilion was added to Future World in 1986. The Norway Pavilion, which included the Maelstrom thrill ride, opened in the World Showcase in 1988.
In 1985, Walt Disney Productions signed a licensing agreement with MGM/UA Entertainment, paving the way for the development of a third Disney World theme park, Disney-MGM Studios (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios), which eventually opened on May 1, 1989. Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner dedicated the new theme park to “Hollywood – not a place on a map but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine, a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic.” That same year, both Typhoon Lagoon water park, which featured one of the world’s largest wave pools, and Pleasure Island, an immense entertainment complex with eight eclectic nightclubs, both opened at Walt Disney World Resort. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror made its debut at Disney-MGM Studios in 1994, followed by Rock ‘n Roller Coaster – Starring Aerosmith in 1999. Blizzard Beach, billed as the “Coolest Water Park in Central Florida,” opened at Walt Disney World Resort on April Fools’ Day, 1995.
The fourth Walt Disney World Resort theme park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998. During his dedication speech, Eisner remarked, “Welcome to a kingdom of animals … real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama and learn.” The original name for the theme park was actually “Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom.” Encompassing more than 500 acres, the Animal Kingdom is the largest theme park at Walt Disney World Resort (in comparison, Disney’s Magic Kingdom occupies 142 acres). The Asia section of Animal Kingdom opened in 1998 with such attractions as Kali River Rapids, Flights of Wonder and Maharajah Jungle Trek.
In 1999, Walt Disney World Resort introduced FASTPASS, a free reservation system that allows guests to avoid crowds at the most popular theme park rides and attractions. Walt Disney World Resort has continued to expand over the last 15 years with the addition of such immensely popular attractions as Mission: SPACE (Epcot, 2003), Soarin’ (Epcot, 2005), Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show (Disney’s Hollywood Studios, 2005), Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom, 2006) and Toy Story Mania! (Disney’s Hollywood Studios, 2008). In 2012, Disney’s Magic Kingdom celebrated the “Grand Opening” of New Fantasyland. The highly anticipated Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will make its debut at New Fantasyland sometime in May 2014.
Today, Walt Disney World Resort encompasses 40 square miles, making it about the same size as San Francisco. Less than 35 percent of the Disney World land has been developed with one-fourth designated as a wilderness preserve. In addition to its four world-class theme parks, two water adventure parks and Downtown Disney, Walt Disney World Resort includes 35 resort hotels, four championship golf courses, two full-service spas, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and more. The largest single-site employer in the United States, Walt Disney World Resort employs nearly 70,000 cast members and draws 52.5 million visitors annually. In 2013, Disney introduced MyMagic+, which “unlocks a new dimension of Disney Magic” with the following customized features: My Disney Experience (mobile application and website), Disney’s MagicBand and Disney FastPass+. One of the next big expansions at Walt Disney World Resort will be the opening of the new AVATAR-inspired land, which is scheduled to open at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2016.