“When some future generation studies the history of Florida," Gov. Claude Kirk said on May 12, 1967, "three events may well stand out above all others: the discovery of Florida by Ponce de Leon; the magic moment when Henry Flagler brought the railroad to Palm Beach and opened South Florida for development; and the equally magic moment when Walt and Roy Disney decided to make Florida their second home." On Oct. 1, 1971, 40 years ago this weekend, Disney World opened. Our state has never been the same. Uncle Walt's Magic Kingdom pulled the cultural pulse of this awesome peninsula in from the beaches and up from Miami and turned so much Central Florida citrus and swamp into 27,000 acres of irresistible unreality.
1. Calvin Trillin, on Nov. 6, 1971, in the New Yorker
The first thing I did at Walt Disney World was to take an oath not to make any smart-aleck remarks. A Disney public-relations man had told me that attitude was everything. So I placed my left hand on a seven-Adventure book of tickets to the Magic Kingdom and raised my right hand and promised that there would be no sarcasm on my lips or in my heart.
"And do you further swear or affirm," I asked myself, "that you will not concoct any of those theories about how Disney World may reflect the escape fantasies of American Society or about how Disney World may be the symbol of the Final Plasticization of All Life, or any of that kind of thing?"
"I do," I replied. "I certainly do. We're just going to have a good time."
2. Elayne Rapping, in November 1995, in the Progressive
“It is no accident that Disney's central ambassador is a neutered, hairless, civilized rodent — by nature the filthy scourge of every slum in the developed world. Disney is quoted as saying proudly, on more than one occasion, that "Mickey is a clean mouse." But I could not help thinking, while touring Mickey's empire, of the New Yorker cartoon in which a bunch of scraggly, highly unclean urban rats peer at a framed oil painting of the Great One in a museum and mutter, "Yeah, but what has he done for his people?"
3. Carl Hiaasen, in 1998, in Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World
The absolute worst thing Disney did was to change how people in Florida thought about money; nobody had ever dreamed there could be so much. Bankers, lawyers, real-estate salesman, hoteliers, restaurateurs, farmers, citrus growers — everyone in Mickey's orb had to drastically recalibrate the concepts of growth, prosperity, and what was possible. Suddenly there were no limits. Merely by showing up, Disney had dignified blind greed in a state pioneered by undignified greedheads. Everything the company touched turned to gold, so everyone in Florida craved to touch or be touched by Disney. The gates opened, and in galloped fresh hordes.
4. Anne Hull, on Nov. 28, 1999, St. Petersburg Times
In the early 1960s, Walter Elias Disney took a plane ride over Florida. When he passed the vast area of scrub land south of Orlando, he pointed and said, "There."
Disney quietly paid $5.5 million for 27,000 acres, and the bulldozers and the hammers set to work.
As a native child of Central Florida, I grew up in the advancing shadow of the mouse ears. What did we do before Walt Disney World opened, replacing our perceptions of joy? We lived inside our own kingdom.
Our childhoods were barefoot. We rode ponies into the orange groves, past the NO TRESPASSING SIGNS on barbed wire fences. The sweet evidence lingered in our hair, on our clothes, but we risked punishment every time and kept returning to the dark shade of the citrus trees. …
Now, when I see the cars stretching for miles around Lake Buena Vista, especially in the winter months, I wonder what bargains have been made between parents and children who hung their hopes on Disney World, that bright mecca.
5. Richard Todd, in May 2002, in the Atlantic
As you travel across the big interior of Disney World by bus, on Disney's own system of divided highways that evoke the barren stretches of interstate America, you are apt to think of the ways in which this place resembles the country that spawned it. It is like us in its love of broad sentiment and bright colors and violent movement — it has helped to teach us those things, hasn't it? It is like America in its celebration of democracy, or at least an aspect of it — democracy as leveler, enemy of pretension. And it is like America in that when, as is so often the case, any one place proves disappointing, you think the best must lie ahead, so you move on.
But it's not America, as I could tell because of the way I felt when I crossed the border into the real thing. Would "free" be too strong a word?
6. John Jeremiah Sullivan, on June 8, 2011, in the New York Times Magazine
The strangest thing that happened was the very last thing that happened. As we were leaving the park, on the evening of the last day, it began to rain a monsoonlike rain. You'll have to believe me when I say it was exceptionally violent.
The next morning, I said to one of the bellboys at the hotel, "You guys probably get weather like that a lot, huh?" He said, "No, we don't." It was as if a black spaceship had swooped down and blocked out the sun. Sheets of wind were tearing through. Lightning continually exploded just above our heads.
The tram-caravan kept having to stop, which made it only scarier, as if they had driven us out into the open in some sacrificial way, as target practice for an offended storm god. Also it was disturbing to see the clockwork perfection of the Disney machine threatened that way. It hinted at a larger underlying weakening of something.
The tram we were riding in was open on the sides and covered only by a plastic canopy. We were exposed and getting blasted. But we had Disney ponchos. Shell had made us all buy them — at a gas station, so possibly they were knockoffs. But they worked, and by sitting close together with all of them spread, we could make a tent. It must have looked very weird. On the other hand I'm positive that every other person on the tram wished they were under it with us, and I'm pretty sure at one point we did have some other people's kids.
Underneath, in the dark, the children were loving it. Mimi and Flora screamed in terror every time the thunder boomed, but their terror was full of joy, and afterward there was laughter. And it was wonderful to be able to cover them. We had the solution for this, barring a direct strike.
Later, when asked, Lil' Dog said that this had been his favorite ride.
Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.
Excerpts of the best things ever written about the Happiest Place on Earth, 9A
Coming Sunday: A park pioneer recalls the birth of Disney World. In Business