History of Walt Disney World
“My only hope is that we never lose sight of one thing, that it was all started by a mouse.” Perhaps one of Walt Disney’s most famous quotes, this phrase has guided development of the Walt Disney company ever since. Walt was a dreamer, who dared to dream big, with enough chutzpah to bring his dreams to life. Disneyland, the original California park, was groundbreaking in every possible way. Prior to Disneyland’s creation, amusement parks were, by and large, dirty, dangerous places aimed almost exclusively at teenagers. Parents didn’t go on rides, they sat on benches while the kids played. As an animator, Walt Disney had already earned a reputation as a maverick, a rebel genius who was able to sell adult audiences on feature-length cartoons, something his peers had claimed would never work. Disneyland was the culmination of many of Walt’s big dreams, a different kind of park, where parents and children could have fun together. Walt Disney told stories, and Disneyland allowed guests to become a part of those stories. Although its 1955 opening day was fraught with problems, Disneyland was an immediate smash success, welcoming its one millionth guest only seven weeks after opening.
Walt soon realized that he had made one small error when planning Disneyland. He bought only as much property as he needed. With Disneyland’s massive success, suddenly everyone wanted to cash in on the profits. Cheap motels and cheesy tourist attractions began to spring up all around, pinning Disneyland in and leaving no room for future expansion. And even worse, these cheap attractions were visible from some of the high points at Disneyland, such as the Skyway. Always a dreamer, Walt began to dream of a resort property that was big enough to hold all the dreams he could possibly dream, as well as a buffer zone that protected his land of make believe from the encroachment of the real world.
In 1959, the Walt Disney Company began scouting new locations. Although many were considered, it was central Florida that Walt finally decided was the best. At the time, it was a sleepy area consisting primarily of cattle lands, and a lot of them. The existing road system worked perfectly to create accessibility to the proposed site, and the weather was similar to that of Anaheim, where Disneyland was located. Walt began a series of flyovers in November 1963, and on October 23, 1964, the first land parcel was purchased.
Walt knew that if word leaked out that his company was making the purchase, prices would skyrocket. So he created a series of dummy corporations with names ranging from Ayefour (a pun on I-4, the local interstate) to Retlaw (Walter spelled backwards). Each dummy corporation purchased a small portion of the total land, at an average price of 0 per acre. Eventually, at a total cost of approximately million, the Walt Disney Company owned 43 square miles of central Florida. Walt held a press conference on November 15, 1965 to announce what he dubbed “The Florida Project.” Much of the focus was on a project then called “Progress City,” which would eventually evolve into two separate projects, Epcot Center in 1982 and much later, the town of Celebration. As soon as the project was announced, land value jumped to ,000 an acre, proving Walt correct in his earlier predictions.
The new property lay across parts of two different counties, Osceola and Orange. Progress City was to be a utopian city of the future, fully self-sufficient and self-governing. Walt felt that in order to achieve his dreams, he needed control over the property, without having to go through the red tape of approvals from two counties. After much negotiation, the Reedy Creek Improvement District was born, and given eminent domain over its own governance.
Walt Disney himself passed away from cancer on December 15, 1966. Many at the company feared that the Florida Project would never come to pass. But Walt’s brother Roy was confident that the project could go ahead. Roy had been planning to retire, but postponed retirement to step forward and lead the company. Under Roy’s capable guidance, Phase One of the Florida Project, consisting of the Magic Kingdom, two hotels, a campground, golf courses, and a shopping village, plus a monorail for transportation, opened on October 1, 1971. In keeping with the spirit of self-sufficiency, the new resort had facilities for generating its own power, handling all of its own laundry, and even distributing all of its own food. At that time, Walt Disney World also had its own airstrip, granting Shawnee Airlines an exclusive contract to fly guests on commuter planes from Orlando International Airport directly to Walt Disney World. The airstrip has not been used for many years, and is now primarily a staging area for buses.
Roy Disney passed away only two months after opening the new resort. However, operations were taken over by a team that had been personally trained by the Disney brothers, who would lead the resort for the next decade. Growth was rapid in those days, adding additional hotels, attractions, parades, and spectacles at an incredible rate. The park hit capacity and was forced to close its gates for the day only a month after opening, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1971, and building could not happen fast enough to keep up with the ever increasing demand.
On July 14, 1974, the company announced plans to go ahead with Phase II. Progress City, now dubbed EPCOT Center, was to be the centerpiece of the new expansion. However, EPCOT had changed significantly from Walt’s original concept. Rather than a city, EPCOT would be a showcase of ideas, demonstrating the interconnectedness of man through a series of exhibits on the past and future. EPCOT would also feature a global neighborhood, celebrating cultures from around the world.
Ground was broken in October 1979, and on October 1, 1982, EPCOT opened to the public. Opening day was a massive success, with a star-studded dedication ceremony rivaling any red carpet event. The building boom continued as EPCOT added many new attractions over the next two years. Meanwhile, other areas of the resort continued to grow as well.
The Walt Disney Company is, of course, made up of many departments beyond the parks and resorts. The Company continued to develop its brand, adding the Disney Channel cable network in 1983 and the live action Touchstone Pictures in 1984. As the company boomed, issues began to develop with stockholders, who felt that their stocks were seriously undervalued. Several hostile takeovers were attempted, and in 1984 television executive Michael Eisner became CEO of the Walt Disney Company.
The Eisner years were fraught with changes, some positive and some not so good. Eisner guided the company into a new era of branding. He also sought to maximize profits while minimizing expenditures. Two new theme parks were added during his reign, the Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, and Animal Kingdom in 1998. While both parks are highly successful, many long-time Disney fans felt that each park was rushed, and opened in a somewhat incomplete state. Neither park has ever yet achieved the total acclaim of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center (rebranded simply Epcot under Eisner). Pleasure Island, the adult nighttime entertainment district, opened in 1989 to rave reviews, yet the company was never quite happy with it, and continues to this day to tinker with the format. Water parks and new shopping and recreation areas were also added, as were experiments in taking Disney to middle America with the ill-fated Disney Stores and Disney Quests.
Toward the end of his reign, Eisner was captaining a sinking ship. Eisner continued to raise ticket prices while cutting services. Buildings that were once re-painted nightly were cut back to a twice-a-month maintenance schedule. Maintenance suffered in other areas as well, culminating in a well-publicized series of injuries and deaths at both the Florida and California resorts. Custodial services, once the pride of the Disney company, were contracted out to the lowest bidder. Eisner’s most controversial decisions, however, had to do with the rides. Extremely popular attractions, from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Journey Into Imagination were closed despite public outcry. Perhaps nowhere was this disconnect between the company’s CEO and its guests seen more strongly than in the closing of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Despite being a classic, despite costing almost nothing to operate, and despite an enormous fan reaction that culminated in actual in-park protests and heavy media attention, the juggernaut could not be stopped, and the ride was closed. Everything Eisner used as replacements for classics was seen as sub-par, cheap, quick fixes. Both guests and stockholders began to feel cheated by the combination of higher prices and lower quality.
Another controversy involved the closing of Disney Animation. Eisner felt that the time of hand drawn animation had passed. Many of the animators had already left to form Pixar, and by 2004 only 600 animators remained. In July 2005 the last remaining branch of Disney Animation was closed.
The conflict came to a head over Thanksgiving 2003, when Roy E. Disney, son of Roy O. and nephew of Walt, resigned from the board of directors, taking with him Stanley Gold. The two then started a protest group and website, savedisney.com (no longer active), calling for the ouster of Michael Eisner. Many longtime Disney fans jumped on board, creating one of the greatest examples of grassroots protest in Internet history.
Their efforts paid off. In a stunning and historical shareholders meeting, Michael Eisner received a 43.4% vote of no confidence on March 3, 2004. This led to his ouster as chairman of the company, but allowed him to retain his position as CEO. Pressure on Eisner was increased, however, and on March 13, 2005, Eisner announced his intention to step down. He formally separated from the company on September 30, severing all ties and turning down his right to retain corporate perks such as a private jet.
Eisner was replaced by his right-hand man, Bob Iger. Many people, both inside and outside of the company, expressed concern that Iger would simply follow in Eisner’s footsteps. Iger has, however, distanced himself completely from his former boss, and has made attempts to foster a new air of openness and trust within the company. He has held personal meetings with Imagineers both past and present, including Tony Baxter, who spearheaded the original Journey Into Imagination and wants to restore its original theme.
Time will tell, of course, whether Iger has the courage of his convictions. Nonetheless, the mood is guardedly optimistic. In a move that brought the company full circle and instilled confidence, Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, bringing animation back to the company that was originally based on animation in the first place. This move also brought maverick Steve Jobs, of Apple Computer fame and head of Pixar, onto the board of directors, as well as bringing back highly regarded creative wizard John Lasseter into a dual role. Lasseter is now chief creative officer of Animation, as well as head of attractions design at Imagineering. The parks are already looking better, as some badly needed maintenance has been attended to. Iger has big dreams, as did Walt, and it is hoped that his leadership will foster a return to Disney’s roots, when the concept of Show was even more important than the concept of Profit.
Disney’s history has been long and varied, and never without challenges. The company stands, in the early years of the new millennium, poised to welcome the future without forgetting the past. Perhaps Iger, unlike Eisner before him, will never forget “that this was all started by a mouse.”
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