Today, October 1, 2021, marks the 50th Anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World, and if you look at the resort today, it has far exceeded what Walt had envisioned for the resort.
It all started in the mid-1960s when Walt Disney had an idea of a Disneyland on the east coast, so families on this side of the country wouldn’t have to drive so far to enjoy his park.
“The Florida Project” as it was known, saw Disney buying up land in the middle of Florida, as he didn’t want this park to suffer the space constraints that Disneyland did, being located in the middle of the urban sprawl of Anaheim.
With almost 28,000 acres bought, Walt envisioned more than one park, including an eventual “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” (EPCOT). This would be a planned community showcasing the latest planning and technological advances in living.
Unfortunately, Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966, during the initial planning phase, but his older brother, Roy O. Disney, came out of retirement to help make Walt’s dream become a reality.
Construction on what would become Magic Kingdom began in 1967, with the opening approximately four years later, on October 1, 1971. It was comprised of the park and the two original resorts of Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Polynesian Resort. Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground opened shortly after on November 19, 1971. The monorail system also opened in 1971.
When I first moved to Orlando in the 90s, I worked at Disney reservations, and here are four cool facts I learned about about the original opening designs:
- When Disney’s Contemporary Resort was built, the angled steel framework of the building was built, but the rooms were constructed separately and then raised on a crane and slid into place. This design was a collaboration by Disney, the United States Steel Corporation, and Los Angeles architect Welton Becket.
- Most of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort was built the same way, except rooms were stacked instead of slid in.
- If you ever look at the ground when you’re in Liberty Square inside Magic Kingdom, you’ll notice a brown section in the middle of the red path. This is meant to represent the sewage that ran the streets during the Revolutionary War. There was also no indoor plumbing during the war, hence the lack of bathrooms in that area of the park. You have to go to Frontierland or Fantasyland to find restrooms.
- Speaking of the Magic Kingdom, the entire park is actually built on top of a tunnel system. What you think is ground level is actually a second level of the park. The tunnels were conceived so castmembers wouldn’t disrupt the themes of the various sections in the park getting to their work area. You’d never see someone in Adventureland clothing walking through Tommorowland.
Roy O. Disney passed away in late 1971, and for the next decade the Company was led by a team including Card Walker, Donn Tatum, and Ron Miller, who all were originally trained by the Disney brothers.
One of their first decisions was opening the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village in 1975 where Disney Springs now sits.
Due to the success of Magic Kingdom, the trio decided to pull out the shelved plans for EPCOT, and after the designs were refined by WED Enterprises (now known at Walt Disney Imagineering), ground was broken for the new park in 1979.
EPCOT Center, a combination of Future World and World Showcase, opened to the public October 1, 1982. It was twice the size of Magic Kingdom, and was dedicated to the celebration of human achievement. In 1994, the park was renamed to just “EPCOT”, dropping “Center” from the name.
At this time, the monorail system was also expanded to include a route to EPCOT.
Now you may have noticed the Grand Floridian Resort wasn’t mentioned in the original resorts that opened with Magic Kingdom. That’s because Walt Disney World’s flagship resort was actually the third resort opened, and it did so on June 28, 1988 when it was originally called the Grand Floridian Beach Resort. The name changed to Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa during the fall of 1997.
As you can see in the postcard above, the resort was originally conceived by Walt with an Asian design. But when construction began almost 15 years later, the concept changed and was influenced by luxury beach resorts of the early 1900s, like Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California, the Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire, and The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan.
While the Grand Floridian was being constructed, construction was also happening on land just southwest of EPCOT, that eventually opened as Disney-MGM Studios on May 1, 1989.
Conceived by Walt Disney Imagineers Marty Sklar and Randy Bright, and then-CEO Michael Eisner, the park drew inspiration from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and originally functioned as both a theme park and an actual working studio on the backlot.
During the 2000s, the production facilities were removed and restructured for park use, and in 2008, the name changed to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, when Disney’s licensing agreement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios expired.
Pleasure Island, a nightclub complex on the site of Walt Disney World Village, also opened on May 1, 1989. Later that year, the WDW Village complex was renamed Disney Village Marketplace. I miss P.I. (as we always called it) so much!
On September 7, 1997, the Disney Village Marketplace was renamed Downtown Disney, with the opening of the West Side area that at opening featured Virgin Megastore, House of Blues, Bongo’s, DisneyQuest, La Nouba, and more. I was part of the crew that opened the West Side, and it was quite a celebration, capped by Virgin owner Richard Branson flying a wire between Bongo’s and the Virgin Megastore outdoor stage, dressed as Peter Pan.
Towards the end of the 90s, construction began west of Disney-MGM Studios for a new type of park dedicated and themed entirely around the natural environment and animal conservation, a philosophy once championed by Walt Disney himself.
On Earth Day, April 22, 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened to guests, and it is still the largest park at Walt Disney World. If you’ve ever visited the park, your feet know that to be true!
With the presence of all of the live animals, special designs and provisions were incorporated throughout the park to protect the animals’ welfare. It sits far from the other three parks to reduce the impact of the fireworks shows and noise on the animals, and the park also uses biodegradable paper straws, along with prohibiting plastic straws, lids, and balloons.
Due to its care and protection of the animals, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
On September 29, 2015, Downtown Disney became a new complex called Disney Springs, which transformed the area into a dining and shopping destination, with the opening of the Town Center section on May 15, 2016. Walt Disney Imagineering took inspiration for Disney Springs from real coastal towns found throughout Florida, such as St. Augustine, in the design.
Now as Walt Disney World kicks off its massive 50th Anniversary celebration (a.k.a. The World’s Most Magical Celebration), the next 18 months will see a celebration of its history while welcoming so many new attractions, shows, restaurants, resorts, and more!
Site owner John Frost has been at Walt Disney World experiencing all the newness, so definitely follow this blog’s social media to see his photos and reports this weekend!
But I’d like to know about you and Walt Disney World. When was the first time you visited? Do you have a favorite memory? Is there anything new coming to the parks that you can’t wait to see? Tell me in the comments!