History of Disney World

Erin De Santiago
Disney World Castle, Orlando

If you have ever seen the enormous Disney World complex in Orlando, you may be wondering about its history and how it came to be. It is a story of a man with a dream and a vision for the perfect theme park.

The Disneyland Years

The story of Disney World actually begins with Disneyland in California. Walt Disney had visited amusement parks in the 1920s and '30s and he wanted a place where the whole family could enjoy a magical experience while feeling safe.

His original idea was to develop eight acres next to the Burbank Studios, but World War II put his plans on hold. He continued to develop his ideas and soon realized that the small parcel of land was clearly not enough. Ultimately, he found the 160-acre parcel that was developed in 12 short months into the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.

Why Orlando, Florida?

Walt Disney started planning Walt Disney World in the early 1960s to give the Eastern United States the same joy he brought to California. The team at Walt Disney Imagineering (then WED Enterprises) decided on Florida since it offered weather that supported year-round operation, and it ranked first in tourism at the time. They narrowed the search to Orlando primarily due to the availability of land which also happened to be at the crossroads of major traffic arteries.

Walt Disney quickly began buying land in secret, with speculation that everyone from Howard Hughes, Ford Motor Company, or even the Kennedy Space Center were behind the purchases. A reporter for the Orlando Sentinel had suspicions it was Walt Disney and released a story based on non-responsive answers from Disney employees. Once Walt arrived in town and announced his plans, property surrounding the park began getting gobbled up as hotel chains and restaurateurs recognized the future potential.

Building a Whole New World

Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival
Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

In exchange for bringing economic development to central Florida, the governor gave Disney permission to establish his own autonomous quasi-government. This gave him full control over things like building codes, zoning, and planning. The initial development was called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which included two cities inside the district: Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (renamed later to Lake Buena Vista).

One of Walt's plans was to preserve the nature environment in his park. At the time, he set aside over 7,500 acres that would not be developed, and are known as the Wildlife Management Conservation Area. Today, around half of the 30,000 acres at the resort are conservation lands, water bodies, and other green spaces that will never be developed.

To ensure the environment wasn't disturbed, construction crews built over 50 miles of levees and canals to maintain quality fresh water while draining planned construction areas.

And, because Walt Disney World was to be built on swamp land, it took some creative engineering to make it work. They made a huge mound of dirt from what was excavated to make room for the Seven Seas Lagoon, and then built the theme park on top of it. Technically, that means you're walking on the second floor when you enter the park. The first floor is filled with tunnels and buildings-the ideal way for cast members to move around the park without being seen.

Unfortunately, Walt Disney died in 1966, before construction commenced on the Florida Project, or what would come to be known as Walt Disney World. Fortunately, his brother Roy E. Disney took over and helped see the project to completion.

To be the self-sufficient city that was envisioned by Walt, the park built its own energy plants, food center and laundry to handle the needs of everyone at the park. It even had its own airstrip, which granted Shawnee Airlines the exclusive contract to fly commuter planes from Orlando Airport to Walt Disney World.

By the time the Magic Kingdom was ready to open, more than 9,000 construction workers spent 18 months to build the $400 million theme park (roughly equivalent to $2.4 billion in 2017 dollars).

The Opening of Walt Disney World

Princess Elena of Avalor
Princess Elena of Avalor

Walt Disney World opened to the public on October 1, 1971. They purposely picked a slower season to allow them to solve problems before more people arrived. They anticipated more, but opening day only saw about 10,000 visitors. The first few weeks had modest, but not staggering numbers. This all changed, however, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1971. Crowds started pouring into the park and eventually they had to close the gates. Traffic was backed up for miles on the highway leading into the park. Walt Disney World was a success.

Walt Disney World opened with the Magic Kingdom park and two hotels: Disney's Contemporary Resort and Disney's Polynesian Village Resort. There was also a campground, golf courses, and a shopping village. Magic Kingdom had six themed lands/areas:

  • Main Street U.S.A.
  • Adventureland
  • Fantasyland
  • Frontierland
  • Liberty Square
  • Tomorrowland

There were 23 attractions on opening day, three of which were unique to Walt Disney World:

  • The Hall of Presidents
  • Mickey Mouse Revue
  • Country Bear Jamboree

Surprising Facts About Walt Disney World

The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World Resort
The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

Here are a few interesting facts you may or may not already know about Walt Disney World.

  • Walt designed the parks so you won't see other lands as you pass to the next one.
  • While it looks real, the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom is man-made, and it's even designed to withstand the hurricane force winds that occur in the area.
  • The Liberty Tree in Magic Kingdom is over 100 years old, and the 13 hanging lanterns represent the original 13 colonies.
  • The World Showcase of Epcot covers 40 acres and the distance to walk around the promenade is over 1.2 miles.
  • Hollywood Studios is home to the Brown Derby Restaurant, patterned after the original famous Hollywood location, which was the birthplace of the Cobb salad, named after owner Robert Cobb.
  • Look at the gravestones when leaving the Haunted Mansion attraction to see a figure of Mr. Toad, which is a tribute to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride that closed to make way for the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
  • The two municipalities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista are home to Walt Disney World, and the two cities are governed by Disney employees who live in a small section of homes "backstage."
  • You can fit the entire Disneyland park inside the parking lot of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and still have room to park several hundred cars.
  • Disneyland Paris' Magic Kingdom park was the only Magic Kingdom style park to serve alcohol to the general public until the Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant, Be Our Guest, opened in Walt Disney World in 2012. (Note: Club 33 in Disneyland serves alcohol, but it is membership only.)
  • If you look up on one of the upper-story windows on Main Street U.S.A., you'll see names for a few of the shell companies Walt Disney used to buy up the swamp land in the area.
  • The original plan was to have tunnels through Walt Disney World, but only two other areas have the Utilidors: Future World in Epcot and Pleasure Island in the original Downtown Disney.
  • The airstrip that once flew workers from Orlando Airport is primarily now a staging area for buses.

Additions to the Park

Dedication of the new land, Pandora – The World of Avatar
Dedication of Pandora - The World of Avatar

Walt Disney World started with the Magic Kingdom park, which closely resembled Disneyland in California. From there, the resort began to grow and continues to receive updates, new attractions, and even new lands.

  • A separate Disney shopping area opened in 1975. After undergoing several name changes, it's currently known as Disney Springs.
  • Epcot opened in 1982 after construction started in 1974. It was originally called Progress City.
  • Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989 and was renamed Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2008. A new Star Wars Land is slated to open at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2019.
  • Animal Kingdom Park opened in 1998. Pandora - The World of Avatar opened in 2017.

In Search of the Perfect Resort

Disney World represents the realization of Walt's vision for the perfect resort, striving for an unsurpassed family experience. While the vision is timeless, the story will never be complete. The expansive park continues to evolve with new adventures and attractions being built all the time.

History of Disney World