This past weekend marked the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, FL. The park, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, has made a profound impact on Florida and the United States.
The roots of the Central Florida park lie in the evolution of Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, which opened in 1955. The park, which capitalized on the affluence of post-World War II America, quickly became a very popular attraction. In the 1950s, more and more Americans had disposable income and paid vacations and could make the trip to Southern California. Despite this success, though, Walt Disney quickly became disturbed by the seedy hotels and other businesses opening just outside the Magic Kingdom.
As he contemplated a second park, Disney wanted a larger area to develop his ambitions. He quietly purchased a large amount of land in Central Florida and arranged a favorable deal with the state of Florida regarding the region’s governance. This led to his owning nearly 28,000 acres of virgin property near Orlando, giving him the autonomy to build any idea of his dreams.
But Walt Disney, who died in 1966, would not live to see the success of the new park. Walt Disney World had a star-studded opening in 1971 and the differences with Disneyland were notable. The park could not be seen from the surrounding roads, making Walt Disney World a self-contained community unlike Anaheim. At the outset, though, Disney World was a shadow of what it is today, featuring the Magic Kingdom, which was nearly a replica of Disneyland, and a few hotels.
Before his death, Walt Disney contemplated building a model city of the future. This town would have, among other things, a dome to protect it from inclement weather and all types of modern transportation. As the company floundered in the 1970s, Walt’s successors remade this concept of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) into a World’s Fair-type park with a Future World of technology pavilions and a World Showcase of country pavilions. Opening in 1982, EPCOT became the second theme park at Disney World.
The arrival of Disney World changed Orlando and its surrounding areas from a sleepy, rural community, to a modern city with massive suburban sprawl. The area from Tampa to Daytona Beach, known as the “I-4 Corridor” is filled with people who have moved from other parts of the country and the world. This area, with its large number of registered independents, is considered the swing vote in the state of Florida, and because of the state’s Electoral College clout, the country. The growth of Florida, now the fourth-most populous state, would not have been as dramatic without the arrival of Mickey Mouse.
With the company near bankruptcy in the mid-1980s, Walt’s nephew Roy brought in Michael Eisner as CEO, and he led a dramatic expansion of Disney World. Under his leadership, Disney/MGM Studios’ opened in 1989, followed by Animal Kingdom in 1998. Furthermore, the number of park hotels expanded from a mere three in the early 1980s to 24 by 2011. Walt’s dream of a planned community became a reality with the opening of Celebration, FL in the late 1990s (minus the dome, though).
Disney’s growth reflects the globalization of the economy. Today, Disney has parks in Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong and is planning one in Shanghai. None of them would be imaginable without the success of Walt Disney World.
Of course, Disney has its critics who believe it has too much power in its arrangement with the state of Florida. Others believe it is partially responsible for the homogenization of American culture. And some, including me, think t is way too expensive. Still, none of these critiques diminishes the tremendous influence the parks have had on Florida, the US, and the world.