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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.