For hardcore Disney fans like me, October 1 is a special day, one that we hold as high as the birthday of a relative or dear friend. It’s the day Walt Disney World opened, marking the culmination of Walt Disney’s greatest dream—one that he did not live to see.
Even marginal followers of Disney history know the origin story of Walt Disney World, but I’ll summarize it here for the uninitiated. Walt and Roy Disney were thrilled with the early success of Disneyland, but one factor took them aback: the urban blight that quickly enveloped the area surrounding the park. Walt vowed that, if he had another chance to build a park, he would build again on enough land to control not just the areas where guests would visit, but the surrounding area as well.
Throughout the early ’60s, Walt and his team looked for the right idea and place to build a new venture, and the 1964-65 World’s Fair demonstrated that Disney entertainment would play well on the East Coast. Walt and his Imagineers decided on Central Florida as what would become his biggest and boldest project. (Check out the last chapter in my book, Football, Faith, & Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South, for details about the fascinating secrecy behind Disney’s purchase of the 43 square miles of land that would become Walt Disney World.)
In October 1966, Walt revealed his ambitious plans for the “Florida Project” in the famous E.P.C.O.T—plans which included the stunning concept of a futuristic city in which Disney would partner with other corporations to test innovative new products. Walt’s passing two years later would scuttle the Progress City idea for good, but Roy Disney would take up the mantle of finishing what his brother started. The first phase of Walt Disney World—the Magic Kingdom, the Contemporary Resort, and the Polynesian Village—opened October 1, 1971.
So much would follow in the ensuing years—three more theme parks, a campground, a shopping village, water parks, more resorts at just about every price point. Over the last 45 years, Walt Disney World has certainly fulfilled its namesake’s dream as a destination resort where the whole family can have fun. The early slogan for the resort was “The Vacation Kingdom of the World,” and even though we don’t see that slogan too much these days, it’s as true today as it ever was.
What keeps guests coming back again and again to Walt Disney World (and the other Disney Parks worldwide)? There’s a level of excellence that Disney fans have come to expect, of course, but nobody pays attention to details in theming and style like Disney does. The constant “plussing” of the parks—to borrow the Imagineers’ parlance—means that there’s something new for guests year in and year out. Walt Disney World is a truly immersive experience from the time guests first drive underneath the Welcome sign to the time they leave.
So is Walt Disney World facing middle age? Longtime guests can count on classic attractions and wonderful traditions to remain the same. New experiences await every year as well. But, in some ways, the resort is showing its age. For instance, Epcot (which also celebrates a birthday on October 1) needs some love from the Imagineers, with a couple of sorely dated attractions suffering from neglect. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is suffering a little right now too, but this is a temporary condition due to the construction of Star Wars Land.
Walt Disney World remains Walt’s crowning achievement and lasting legacy, and it will continue to dazzle and excite guests for years to come. New fans will become enthralled with all that the Vacation Kingdom of the World has to offer, while returning guests will always feel at home there. It’s not always perfect, but I believe it’s just about everything Walt Disney—and Roy Disney—dreamed it would be.
Happy 45th Birthday, Walt Disney World. My family will celebrate with you in two weeks.