“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 the development of the Walt Disney World 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 backward). Each dummy corporation purchased a small portion of the total land, at an average price of $10 per acre. Eventually, at a total cost of approximately one million dollars, 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 1,000 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 laundries, 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 Center 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.
The 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 networks.
Disney is one of the most well known brands in the world. There is no way to cover the entire history here- there is a lot to learn!
The best way to find out about Disney World and Walt himself is to pay a visit to the area yourself. Take the “Keys to the Kingdom Tour” for more intimate details about Walt and DisneyWorld.