By now, most people have heard the story of how Walt Disney initially came up with the idea to open a theme park. When he took his daughters on daddy-daughter trips to amusement parks around Los Angeles, he sat on a bench while Diane and Sharon rode rides and lamented the lack of activities for the entire family. The original idea for a small “Mickey Mouse Park” across the street from the Disney Studios has grown to two huge resort destinations in the United States, one in Europe, and two in Asia with a third coming soon.
Aerial photographs show us in a fascinating way how much the American parks have grown over the years. Take Disneyland in Anaheim, California, for instance. The original Disney theme park opened in 1955 on 160 acres near sleepy orange groves and is now 300 acres in the heart of Southern California’s bustling metropolis.
The photo below contrasts Disneyland in 1955 with today. Notice how undeveloped the area around the park was, and compare it to the urban sprawl that even in the late 50s bothered Walt and led him to build Walt Disney World in Florida. You can also see how the parking areas have moved to make room for hotels and additions to the park – including a whole new theme park, Disney’s California Adventure, which we’ll look at next.
Disney initially built Disney’s California Adventure Park on 67 acres at the southern end of the Disneyland property in 2001. The company retooled the park and expanded it six years later. The photo below shows the growth of the park between 2003 and today. While the growth may not look that drastic, you can notice in particular the growth in the southeastern part of the park as well as the major expansion of the Grand Californian Hotel at the center left of both images.
Not long after Disneyland opened, Walt grew frustrated with the tacky shopping mall and motel culture that grew up and surrounded his theme park, and he looked to the east for his next big venture. The company acquired just over 27,000 acres in near Orlando in central Florida in 1964 and 1965 (to learn how, read Chad Emerson’s wonderful Project Future book) with the goal of building Walt’s next park and model city. Though the model city never became a reality, Walt Disney World did, with the Magic Kingdom and the resorts that were part of Phase One opening in 1971.
The photo above contrasts the Magic Kingdom area – the northernmost end of the now over 30,000-square-mile property, as it looked during construction in 1969 with how it appears today. Obviously the construction is complete, as are multiple expansions, parking areas, and even the Walt Disney World Speedway (with its hidden-Mickey pond) just south of the Seven Seas Lagoon.
In 1982, EPCOT Center (now just Epcot), Walt Disney World’s second theme park opened. This park took a much different tone than either Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom. Dedicated to Walt’s vision for his model city, EPCOT Center has served as what the company calls a sort of “permanent world’s fair,” half dedicated to visionary ideas for the future and half dedicated to the cultures of the world today. The image below contrasts Epcot during its construction in 1981 with today. At the time of the photo on the left, the company still had a lot of work to do, but you can see Epcot in all its glory today on the right.
Since Epcot’s opening in 1982, Disney has built two more parks at Walt Disney World: Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 1989 and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998. The resort in Florida boasts two dozen hotels, a campground, an entertainment district, and even a planned community south of the Walt Disney World property. This once-unspoiled acreage has truly become the world’s premier vacation destination, and I’m sure if Walt could see it today, he would be proud.