Walt Disney World • A History

Walt Disney was the inventor of the theme park back in 1965 with the opening of DisneyLand and the success surprised even him. Because he hadn’t anticipated just what a momentous accomplishment it was going to be he made a very serious mistake. He built Disneyland on a parcel of land in a growing urban area of Los Angeles, California. His creation had an explosive effect on property values adjacent to the park and there was no way for him to benefit from what others were building nearby or to expand the park itself.

He vowed not to let that happen again, and soon in Florida he began to secretly buy up a large tract of rural land west of Orlando. When the Disney organization was done buying land they had acquired 52 square miles of real estate, of which 47 square miles would be considered Walt Disney World. To appreciate just how big it is consider that New York’s Manhattan is less than 35 square miles. In addition to buying the land, they convinced the state of Florida to grant them a special authority. That created the Reedy Creek Improvement District which is the official governing authority of Walt Disney World. As of 2020 less than a quarter of that original land allocated to Disney World has actually been developed.

The Contemporary hotels skeleton goes up.

Walt Disney was the force behind the planning for his “Disney World” but unfortunately Walt died in late 1966 and never saw his Florida dream fulfilled. Disney World opened in 1971 with one theme park, a duplicate of DisneyLand, called the Magic Kingdom, three hotels, the Polynesian Resort, the Contemporary Resort, the Golf Resort and golf course and a campground. That was just the opening act because in less than thirty years it would explode to four theme parks, two water parks, thirty Disney owned hotels, three golf courses and 17 additional privately owned hotels.

The Contemporary with monorail tracks in front.
Monorail traveling through Epcot.

In 1975 the shopping district at Lake Buena Vista opened and in 1982 the Epcot theme park opened. In 1989 they added Disney MGM Studios (later renamed just Disney Studios) and the first water park, Typhoon Lagoon. 1998 saw the opening of the Animal Kingdom Park.

In creating DisneyLand Walt had assembled a creative team of engineers, artists, architects and designers that he called Imagineers. He soon deployed their talents to create some major pavilions for corporations at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair, which, after the fair closed were moved and installed at Disneyland.

Walt Disney also understood that transportation inside his “World” had to be highly efficient at moving large numbers of people around. From the beginning a number of interesting transportation innovations were planned. To get people from the parking lot to the Magic Kingdom a monorail system was developed along with motor launches and large ferry boats crossing the lake. There were also a number of waterways designed into the World that provided for boats to move guests.

Disney Studios Park

Walt was also an avid scale railroad enthusiast and he included an operational steam engine train as a ride at DisneyLand and Florida’s Magic Kingdom but he also installed The Fort Wilderness Railroad a 2.5 and 3.5-mile 2 ft. 6 in. narrow gauge steam-powered railroad that operated between Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground and the River Country water park. After an operational trial period in late 1973, the railroad officially opened on January 1, 1974. After a couple of accidents, problems with track maintenance, pedestrian safety concerns, and noise issues, railroad operation was scaled back after 1977 and closed permanently in February 1980.

In Walt’s original vision for Disney World he planned to build a futuristic city called Epcot that would include residential neighborhoods, offices and shops. EPCOT stood for experimental prototype city of the future. As Disney World developed, financial reality dictated that increased revenue required more attractions and the Epcot plan evolved into another theme park. The vision was changed and promoting the new park as a permanent World’s Fair, Disney management convinced a number of corporations including GE, Kodak and GM to finance pavilions. In keeping with the Worlds Fair theme Disney also promoted dedicated exhibits for a number of countries.

Animal Kingdom Park

Disney management around 1990 was testing concepts for new attractions and animal themes tested high on the surveys. That information along with the Disney brands wide involvement with animal characters and stories convinced Disney CEO Michael Eisner to explore a new animal based theme park. As the story is told, Eisner and company executives were concerned about the problems and expenses in keeping live animals and if a zoo based live animal attraction would really draw in guests.

Joe Rohde was the head of the Imagineer team developing the park and was convinced that live animals were important. To make his point one day he brought a live, 400 pound Bengal tiger into a meeting with Eisner and senior management. As Rohde gave the presentation, the tiger roamed around the room. After the experience of being eye to eye with a full-grown live tiger, Eisner agreed that live animals would be central to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Today in a world full of theme parks and resort hotels Walt Disney World has no equal and truly deserves the title of the happiest place on Earth.

The Grand Floridian Resort on Seven Seas Lagoon.

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