Why we should remember the day Walt Disney World Resort in Florida welcomed its first guests
It now attracts millions of visitors a year, but Walt Disney World Resort in Florida has always been a hit, ever since its opening in 1971. John Wills looks back on the resort's fascinating history
When did Walt Disney World Resort in Florida open?
On 1 October 1971, Walt Disney World Resort in Florida admitted its first visitors. On that opening day, around 10,000 people paid the $3.50 admission fee, purchased a $4.25 coupon book valid for seven rides, and dined on hot dogs at 45 cents each. “We need a place like this because of the world situation,” one Floridian motel owner explained, “a place where we can come and relax and forget about all the bad things.” And a parent from Tampa Bay confided: “Let’s face it, I’m going to be back here whether I like it or not – the kids will see to that.”
Three weeks later, Roy Disney formally dedicated the resort to his late brother Walt, announcing his hopes: “May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and new knowledge to all who come to this happy place.”
When did plans begin for Walt Disney World?
Plans for Walt Disney World dated back to the 1950s. The success of Disneyland Resort in California, which opened in July 1955, fuelled ideas for a scaled-up development on the east coast. Dubbed the “Florida Project”, designs for a new entertainment complex in the Sunshine State were initially built around Walt’s idea for an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” (EPCOT) similar to the “white city” designs of World Expositions. (Indeed, Disney provided exhibits for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.)
In 1963, Disney viewed potential sites, settling on an area of swamp between Orlando and Kissimmee. To avoid unwelcome media attention and land speculation, Disney used fake investment companies to buy vast tracts of land at competitive prices. Following Walt’s death in 1966, his brother Roy oversaw the construction of the resort, prioritising the Magic Kingdom, a version of Disneyland.
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Walt Disney World is arguably the most visited place on Earth – a 20th-century eighth wonder of the world
The enduring success of Walt Disney World Resort
Following that 1971 opening, the corporation added EPCOT in 1982, Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) in 1989, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998. Now boasting more than 200 merchandise stores, 36,000 hotel rooms, a security force, a fire department and a power plant, Walt Disney World is more akin to a city than a theme park. With the Magic Kingdom alone attracting 20 million visitors each year, Walt Disney World Resort is arguably the most visited place on Earth – a 20th-century eighth wonder of the world with $100 ticket prices.
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The continued success of Walt Disney World, and the Disney brand more broadly, testifies to our mass fascination with fantasy and play. Disney champions the child within us all, a toy in one hand – and several dollar bills in the other.
John Wills is a US historian at the University of Kent, and author of Disney Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2017)
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
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