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For Disney World’s 50th anniversary, a look back at the Mouse that changed Florida

On Oct. 1, 1971, the Magic Kingdom opened. Florida has never been the same.
Walt Disney World is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The Magic Kingdom theme park and resort opened Oct. 1, 1971, and is now the world's most-attended tourist attraction.
Walt Disney World is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The Magic Kingdom theme park and resort opened Oct. 1, 1971, and is now the world's most-attended tourist attraction. [ JOE BURBANK | TNS ]
Published Sep. 27
Updated Sep. 28

In the early 1960s, envoys were sent out to clandestinely purchase parcels of land across Central Florida. Walt Disney made it official in 1965.

At a packed press conference, with Florida Gov. Haydon Burns and Walt’s brother Roy by his side, Disney announced he was building another Disneyland, though on a much bigger scale.

On Oct. 1, 1971, Magic Kingdom opened at the Walt Disney World Resort. Florida has never been the same.

Related: 10 new must-see attractions opening for Disney World's 50th birthday
Walt Disney stands before a map of Florida and points to the location of "Disney World" proposed for development on a 43-square-mile parcel of land 16 miles southwest of Orlando.  This photo is taken from the last motion picture presentation to be made by the master showman. The year is 1966.
Walt Disney stands before a map of Florida and points to the location of "Disney World" proposed for development on a 43-square-mile parcel of land 16 miles southwest of Orlando. This photo is taken from the last motion picture presentation to be made by the master showman. The year is 1966. [ HANDOUT | Times files ]

Disney World has since become the world’s most-visited tourist attraction. And it’s not a cheap one. On the low end, a five-day visit, including airfare, lodging and tickets, could cost about $3,500 for a family of four, according to the personal finance website GOBankingRates. And that doesn’t include food, souvenirs and other amenities.

At the time, the construction of what at first was called Vacation Kingdom was estimated to cost $500 million to turn 27,000 acres of Florida scrub land into a complete family-oriented vacation center. In comparison, the modern incarnation of Disney is estimated to have spent $500 million for just one area, the Star Wars land that opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios two years ago.

The original project was like nothing ever imagined before in the amusement park industry. It has its own government taxing district and police and fire departments. It has an underground system of tunnels to move workers place to place and transport garbage and dirty hotel linen out of sight of the guests who are there for escapism.

Goofy is joined by Langhorne Wathrurn, center, of U.S. Travel and Gen. W.E. Potter, vice president of Walt Disney World, as construction continues in 1970 on Main Street USA at Walt Disney World.
Goofy is joined by Langhorne Wathrurn, center, of U.S. Travel and Gen. W.E. Potter, vice president of Walt Disney World, as construction continues in 1970 on Main Street USA at Walt Disney World. [ DAN FAGER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Theme park expert and writer Arthur Levine said Disney’s 50th anniversary offers a polarized nation a safe haven. “For a brief while anyway, they can become the America for which Americans long, not the America that exists beyond the manicured grounds.”

This gallery of photos shows the construction and opening of Walt Disney World from the early 1970s and some of the highlights of its 50-year history. Some of these photos have not been published in more than 50 years.

Related: Disney's Magic Kingdom was mapped out by a general you never heard of
In 1971, a blue-spired castle destined to become one of the world's most-photographed buildings rose in Central Florida as the iconic centerpiece of Magic Kingdom, which opened on Oct. 1, 1971.
In 1971, a blue-spired castle destined to become one of the world's most-photographed buildings rose in Central Florida as the iconic centerpiece of Magic Kingdom, which opened on Oct. 1, 1971. [ DISNEY | Disney ]

A modest crowd of 10,000 showed up for the opening day in 1971. The company expected a much bigger crowd and had staffed 5,000 “cast members,” as workers are called, to welcome the first visitors. By 2019, the Magic Kingdom averaged 57,425 visitors per day and more than 200,000 guests total per day at all four of its Florida theme parks.

Mickey Mouse and his gang get a royal parade down Main Street USA at the Oct. 1, 1971, opening of Disney World near Orlando.
Mickey Mouse and his gang get a royal parade down Main Street USA at the Oct. 1, 1971, opening of Disney World near Orlando. [ UPI ]

Admission in 1971 was $3.50, and $1 for children — but it cost extra for rides and attractions. A package that included admission and seven rides cost $4.75 for an adult.

Roy O. Disney, brother of Walt Disney, was joined by the character that started it all, Mickey Mouse, in welcoming the first guests during the grand opening of Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista on Oct. 1, 1971.
Roy O. Disney, brother of Walt Disney, was joined by the character that started it all, Mickey Mouse, in welcoming the first guests during the grand opening of Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista on Oct. 1, 1971. [ Times (1971) ]

Attraction tickets were 10 cents for an A-ticket, which got you a carousel ride, and up to 90 cents for the precious E-ticket for the most popular attractions such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, It’s a Small World or the Haunted Mansion.

Kids ride in a teacup on Oct. 25, 1971, during opening month of the Magic Kingdom. It cost 50 cents for a C-ticket to ride the teacups in the Mad Tea Party attraction in 1971.
Kids ride in a teacup on Oct. 25, 1971, during opening month of the Magic Kingdom. It cost 50 cents for a C-ticket to ride the teacups in the Mad Tea Party attraction in 1971. [ HANDOUT | Times (1971) ]

These days, you don’t have to pay extra for the rides, but the admission price has risen considerably. Tickets to Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot and Animal Kingdom start at $109 for a one-day ticket for ages 10 and older, and they get more expensive during the busy summer vacation and holiday seasons.

One of Disney’s most popular attractions, Space Mountain, opened on Jan. 15, 1975, with astronauts James Irwin, Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper on hand for the dedication. Cooper served on the Space Mountain creative team as a consultant.

Fireworks mark the opening of Space Mountain on Jan. 15, 1975.
Fireworks mark the opening of Space Mountain on Jan. 15, 1975. [ Disney ]

The idea for Space Mountain came from Walt Disney himself, inspired by the jet age of the 1960s. There are now five Space Mountains in Magic Kingdom parks around the globe.

Related: Disney's Space Mountain still evokes the thrill of the unknown

Walt Disney died Dec. 15, 1966, just three months after sharing his plans for EPCOT on TV. It would be 1982 before Disney World opened Epcot. Executives abandoned his dream for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a futuristic city where people would take a monorail to work. Epcot instead turned into a theme park that was more like a world’s fair that celebrated technical innovations.

On Epcot's opening day in 1982, visitors gather under the dome called Spaceship Earth.
On Epcot's opening day in 1982, visitors gather under the dome called Spaceship Earth. [ VICTORIN, FRED | Times (1982) ]

On May 1, 1989, Disney-MGM Studios was the third theme park to open at Disney World. It was meant to be both a working film studio and a theme park that celebrated moviemaking. Almost 20 years later, on Jan. 6, 2008, the park was renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Over the next decade, movie and TV productions dwindled and new attractions opened that reflected more modern movies, most notably Toy Story and Star Wars.

Disney-MGM Studios opened May 1, 1989, as Disney World's third theme park. It was also a working production studio for TV and films. The park's name changed 20 years later to Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Disney-MGM Studios opened May 1, 1989, as Disney World's third theme park. It was also a working production studio for TV and films. The park's name changed 20 years later to Disney's Hollywood Studios. [ Disney ]

On Earth Day, April 22, 1998, a fourth theme park opened at the resort with a zoological theme. Animal Kingdom, built on the western edge of the resort, is isolated from Walt Disney World’s other theme parks and properties, the company says, to minimize external disruptions to the animals. It is the largest Disney park, encompassing 500 acres, enough to fit all three other Disney theme parks inside. There are no fireworks, and the park features traditional attractions while also exhibiting hundreds of species of live animals.

When Disney's Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day in 1998, there was an elaborate "Circle of Life" grand-opening ceremony for a crowd of 2,000, with primatologist Jane Goodall in attendance.
When Disney's Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day in 1998, there was an elaborate "Circle of Life" grand-opening ceremony for a crowd of 2,000, with primatologist Jane Goodall in attendance. [ Disney ]

Today, Walt Disney World contains four of the most-attended theme parks in the world that in 2019 drew more than 58 million people to Central Florida.

To mark its 50th anniversary, parts of the parks have been blinged out with golden touches. Cinderella Castle got a makeover: a glittery new paint job and decorations such as gold ribbons, royal blue jewels and pearls. And there’s a new crest on the castle honoring the 50th anniversary.

A new crest honoring the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World adorns Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park. It joins gold bunting, sparkling embellishments and other new enhancements to the castle leading up to the 18-month celebration.
A new crest honoring the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World adorns Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park. It joins gold bunting, sparkling embellishments and other new enhancements to the castle leading up to the 18-month celebration. [ KENT PHILLIPS | Kent Phillips, photographer ]

Disney has added 50 golden character statues scattered around all four parks. You can find Woody and Bo Peep from Toy Story at Hollywood Studios and Lady and the Tramp on Main Street U.S.A. Look for Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy at Epcot, and The Lion King’s Simba is set up near the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom, hanging out with Timon and Pumbaa.

Bo Peep and Woody at Disney’s Hollywood Studios are two of the “Disney Fab 50 Character Collection” appearing in all four Walt Disney World theme parks in honor of the resort’s 50th anniversary.
Bo Peep and Woody at Disney’s Hollywood Studios are two of the “Disney Fab 50 Character Collection” appearing in all four Walt Disney World theme parks in honor of the resort’s 50th anniversary. [ DAVID ROARK | David Roark, photographer ]