On October 1st, 1971, ten thousand guests entered Magic Kingdom eager to see how Walt and his team of Imagineers transformed swampland into the most magical place on earth. They were greeted by Mickey Mouse and the world’s largest bass drum.
What had Walt dreamed up? A magical land dubbed “The Florida Project” and later renamed Walt Disney World with just one theme park, two resort hotels, two golf courses. Walt didn’t live to see his dream come true, but he certainly left his legacy.
Today, the park that bears his name boasts more than 40 square miles of property, four theme parks, two water parks, more than two dozen resort hotels, a Disney Vacation Club, a campground, a championship golf course, ESPN Wide World of Sports, two entertainment districts, and more entertainment than you could ever fit into one vacation.
Today, Disney World kicks off The Most Magical Celebration as it enters a new era. We can’t forget our leader and ultimate dreamer of dreams, Walt Disney!
Let’s take a look at some significant moments in Walt Disney World History.
In 1965, Walt and Roy Disney publicly announce their plans for Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Less than a year later, Walt outlined his plans for the Florida Project including his dream for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Walt passed away two months later.
On May 30th, 1967, the official groundbreaking ceremony started construction on the would-be resort. Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother, delayed his retirement to see his brother’s dream through. At this time, he officially named the project “Walt Disney World” so his beloved brother would have a living legacy.
In 1970, the Walt Disney World Preview Center opened in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. This was the first location guests would visit when they arrived on property. The Preview Center featured scale models and artist renderings.
On October 1st, 1971, Walt Disney World officially opened to the public. Phase one included Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Resort, and an innovative transportation system called the monorail. The resort also featured a centralized computer network and other groundbreaking systems to support guests and attractions.
In 1973, just a little more than two years after opening, Disney expanded with a new hotel known as Shades of Green and a new attraction – Pirates of the Caribbean.
In 1974, The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue premiered at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. What started as a fun pastime for college students turned into the longest-running dinner show in American history.
On January 15th, 1975, Tomorrowland expanded with Space Mountain and Carousel of Progress, which is now the record-holder for the longest-running stage show in American theater.
On March 22nd of the same year, Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened with 28 shops and four restaurants. This area is now known as The Marketplace at Disney Springs.
On June 7th of that year, Walt Disney World Resort celebrated America’s bicentennial in a big way! America on Parade had 50 floats and more than 200 performers. It stands as the largest daily parade ever staged in a Disney park.
Less than a month later, the WEDway PeopleMover (now the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover) opened in Tomorrowland.
On July 14th, preliminary plans for EPCOT were announced.
In 1976, the first water park in Disney World, Disney’s River Country, opened next to Fort Wilderness. This park was hugely popular and inspired Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach.
On October 1st, 1981, the Tencennial Celebration began with new entertainment in Magic Kingdom. Later that year, the EPCOT Preview Center opened on Main Street, USA.
Also on October 1st, 1981, EPCOT opened with five Future World Pavilions including Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy, World of Motion, Journey Into Imagination, and The Land. There were also nine World Showcase pavilions including Mexico, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, France, United Kingdom, and Canada.
Also in 1983, the Walt Disney World Christmas Parade was broadcast live from Magic Kingdom on ABC. This parade became a holiday tradition and now includes parades and performances in both Disney World and Disneyland.
Later that month, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa opened. On October 1st of that year, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort also opened.
On May 1st, 1989, Disney*MGM Studios, now Disney’s Hollywood Studios, opened as an east-coast movie production center. The same day, Pleasure Island opened in Downtown Disney. It closed in 2008 to make way for Disney Springs.
On June 1st of the same year, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon opened as Disney’s second water park. It featured a 95-foot high mountain with eight water slides and a 2.5-acre wave pool.
In November 1990, the first phase of the EPCOT Resort Area opened with Disney’s Yacht Club Resort and Disney’s Beach Club Resort. Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotels will open a year later. All of these hotels are within walking distance of Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
In 1995, Disney’s Blizzard Beach opened as a wintery water park with a 12-story drop down the high-speed waterslide, Summit Plummet.
Also in 1995 on Earth Day, the Disney Conservation Fund was founded. To date, the fund has directed $100 million to support nonprofit organizations to save wildlife, inspire action, and protect the planet.
On July 15th, 1995, Disney’s Wedding Pavilion opened on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon between Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Resort. Today, Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings and Honeymoons offers a wide range of nuptial and honeymoon planning around the globe.
In 1996, the Disney Institute opened with more than 60 interactive programs for guests seeking fun, self-enriching vacation experiences. In the years to follow, The Disney Institute became well-known for training and professional development to help organizations be more successful in business and best practices of Disney parks and resorts.
Also in 1996, Disney’s BoardWalk Inn and Villas opened in the EPCOT Resort Area.
On October 1st, 1996, Walt Disney World celebrated its 25th anniversary with a year-long celebration. Cinderella Castle was decorated as a giant birthday cake during this celebration!
In 1997, ESPN Wide World of Sports opened with multiple outdoor playing fields, a fieldhouse, and a ballpark. It has expanded over the years and now hosts several major sporting events including the Invictus Games and the 2020 NBA restart.
On April 22nd, 1998, Earth Day, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened. The 500-acre park is Disney World’s largest; it is home to around 1800 animals from 200 species. The Tree of Life, the park’s icon, features more than 300 intricately carved animal images.
Later that year, Fantasmic! premiered in Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the newly-constructed Hollywood Hills amphitheater with more than 50 live performers, massive sets, and a brilliant display of lights, lasers, fireworks, and water animation with a rousing soundtrack.
In 1999, Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park expanded with the Asia section including Kali River Rapids and Maharajah Jungle Trek.
Also that year, EPCOT kicked off the Millennium Celebration. This 15-month event included the debut of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, which ran for 20 years.
In 2001, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge opened as home to more than 200 animals. The resort boasts one of the largest collections of African art in the United States.
On October 1st of the same year, the 100 Years of Magic celebration launched to celebrate Walt’s 100th birthday. There were new parades in all four parks. Disney’s Hollywood Studios installed a massive 122-foot-tall Sorcerer Mickey hat and Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream, where guests can walk through the life of Walt Disney.
In December 2004, Disney’s PhotoPass launched offering guests professional photos during their Disney World Vacation.
2006 was also The Year of a Million Dreams at Disney World and Disneyland. A new “Dream Squad” randomly selected guests to win a variety of prizes including priceless “dream come true” experiences like a one-night stay in Cinderella Castle Suite.
In 2011, Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Resort, a luxury residential community welcomed its first residents. This community was designed by Disney Imagineers and is similar to Walt’s vision for EPCOT.
Later that year, New Fantasyland opened in Magic Kingdom. This 26-acre expansion was the largest ever for the park and included Be Our Guest restaurant and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train among other things.
In 2013, MagicBands and the MyDisneyExperience mobile app launched for all guests. This innovative technology streamlined the resort experience.
On September 29th, 2015 after three years of reimagining and lots of construction, Downtown Disney officially became Disney Springs. This retail, dining, and entertainment district is a popular destination for Disney guests and local residents.
In 2016, a 48,000 panel, five-megawatt Mickey-shaped solar array debuted near EPCOT as part of Disney’s effort to use go green and be self-sustainable.
On May 27th, 2017, Pandora – The World of Avatar opened in Disney’s Animal Kingdom completing the original vision of the park with “imagined” animals. The new land featured two attractions, dining, and retail locations.
On June 30th, 2018, Toy Story Land opened in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In this land, guests shrink to the size of toys and get to explore Andy’s backyard.
On August 29th of the same year, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This 14-acre immersive land invites guests to experience their own Star Wars stories in two new attractions and an epically themed land.
Just one month later, Disney Skyliner graced the skies of Disney World as a state-of-the-art gondola system connecting EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, and Disney’s Pop Century Resort.
On December 16th of the same year, Disney’s Riviera Resort opened as the newest Disney Vacation Club property. The Skyliner also had a new station at this resort.
Also in December of 2019, another solar facility went online generating enough renewable, clean energy to operate two of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks.
On March 4th, 2020, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios as the first ride-through attraction in a Disney Park dedicated to Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
On October 1st, 2021 – TODAY! – The World’s Most Magical Celebration begins in honor of Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary. This 18-month long event will feature new experiences at all four theme parks and beyond with shimmering EARidescence.
I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing: that it was all started by a mouse.
Are you a fan of Disney History? Check out this comprehensive look back, and tell us your favorite moment in Disney History!