Written by C. Christian Monson
It’s a Small World, Spaceship Earth, Splash Mountain and Space Mountain. These rides and dozens of other attractions at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, have become household names with generations of children—in the United States and around the world—creating memories there. Indeed, the name has essentially become synonymous with entertainment, imagination and Americana.
This is in no small part because Walt Disney World is the largest theme park resort on the planet by attendance at around 58 million. In fact, Magic Kingdom, just one of Disney World’s four parks, had more guests in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic than any other theme park on Earth with nearly 21 million. This has made Disney World one of Disney’s most profitable assets. In 2019, Disney’s “Parks, Experiences and Products” segment earned $26.22 billion in revenue, about 38% of Disney’s total revenue. The lion’s share of this comes from Disney World, with estimates that the park earned almost $20 million per day in 2021 even with COVID-reduced attendance.
And on top of millions of visitors, Disney World also has 77,000 employees, more people than live in my hometown. This makes the park basically a city in its own right, which is no surprise considering that it was originally designed as a planned community. Grants of self-government from the State of Florida in addition to the US government actually classifying Disney World as a prohibited airspace zone, a level of protection normally only given to military installations, reinforce this impression.
But how did the Disney company build this city of imagination? It was no small feat.
BEAUTY AND THE BOG
After the success of his cartoon studios and thousands of people writing to ask to visit them, Walt Disney envisioned a theme park where families could come and all have fun together. This led to the development of Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, in 1955. The park was a megaproject all its own, and you can learn about its groundbreaking construction in our post dedicated entirely to Disneyland.
Walt, however, wasn’t satisfied with it, and set his sights on something far grander. The company had discovered Disneyland was not really attracting visitors from the eastern US where 75% of the population lived at the time and started looking for a large amount of cheap land on the east coast to build another park. After taking a flight over the Orlando, Florida, area, Walt Disney was impressed by the wide availability of undeveloped land south of Bay Lake near the planned construction sites of Interstate 4 and Florida’s Turnpike.
However, one of Disney’s biggest problems with Disneyland had been the massive growth and development around the park, which they of course had no control of. To prevent other companies and individuals from rushing in to buy up land next to the future site of Disney World, they used several dummy corporations to buy the land piecemeal. You can still find the names of some of these dummy corporations inscribed on a window above Main Street, USA, in the Magic Kingdom park including “Latin-American Development and Management Corporation” and “Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation.”
Disney held the scope of the project close to the chest, giving it the secret codename of “The Florida Project” internally and hiring real estate agents to purchase the land without telling them it was for Disney. It was not hard to get most of the property because it was primarily swampland and the previous owners were happy to part with it for as little as $100 an acre. Disney then held off filing the actual paperwork to transfer ownership of the land until they’d already bought almost all of it.
Still, despite Disney’s covert planning, curiosity grew about what was going on in the bogs of central Florida. The company denied speculations about their role in all the land grabbing, but Emily Belvar of the Orlando Sentinel ran a story in October 1965 predicting a Disneyland-like park on the property. As a result, Disney told Florida Governor Haydon Burns to go ahead and confirm the rumors. Burns agreed and made an announcement about the project for what he called “the greatest attraction in the history of Florida.”
EPCOT: THE LOST CITY
On 15 December 1966, Walt Disney died from lung cancer before construction began on Disney World. His brother Roy was left in charge of overseeing the plans.
While Roy Disney was adamant about continuing his brother’s legacy to the point that he ultimately renamed the park Walt Disney World, the project actually changed considerably after its designer’s death. Specifically, Walt Disney had envisioned the inclusion of a company town called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, which would be under Disney’s complete control.
To understand the incredible ambition of EPCOT, watch our full post on the subject, but just know that it was planned as a utopian autocratic city, a “living blueprint of the future” with commercial, residential and even industrial centers served by multiple modes of mass transit. Once Walt Disney was gone, though, the company’s board of directors decided the idea was impractical and canceled the plans in favor of the entertainment-focused theme park we know today.
However, one important aspect of the EPCOT idea survived: the part where Disney got its own city. They convinced the state of Florida to create a special district for Disney World known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. This actually included two cities, Bay Lake and Reedy Creek, which were eventually combined into Lake Buena Vista. The special district granted Disney an extensive amount of autonomy and only required them to submit to state authority for paying property tax and admitting elevator inspections. Plus, the district could issue tax-exempt bonds for “public” projects. Having obtained their special status, Disney broke ground on the park on 30 May 1967 and started building the first roads for the Magic Kingdom.
Finally, after a cost of $400 million, Walt Disney World opened on 1 October 1971 with 26 attractions. The Magic Kingdom was finished, but it was the only theme park. Additionally, the Contemporary Resort Hotel and the Polynesian Village Resort were ready for occupants. Just a little over 10,000 people visited on opening day.
While Disney World was a fraction of its current extent, the Magic Kingdom did already have many of its most famous attractions like Country Bear Jamboree, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Haunted Mansion and It’s a Small World. And you could enjoy it all for a pretty good price. Today, a day pass to the park will cost you over $100. Meanwhile, admission in 1971 was $3.50 for adults, which is about $25 adjusted for inflation. Plus, juniors under 18 could get a ticket for $2.50 and kids under 12? Just one Dollar.
101 SQUARE KILOMETERS
Part of the reason admission is so much more expensive now is probably because Disney rapidly expanded the park in the years soon after. For example, in 1982 EPCOT opened. It wasn’t the futuristic city Walt Disney had originally envisioned, but it was a theme park focusing on new technology with famous attractions like Spaceship Earth and the World Showcase. EPCOT alone hosted over 12 million guests in 2019.
Walt Disney World’s third theme park, Disney-MGM Studios, opened in 1989, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer having entered into a contract granting Disney the use of their name and logo. The idea was that the park could compete with Universal Studios Florida, which was under construction nearby in Orlando. It focused on show business and featured attractions designed to give the feel of California’s Golden Age like Hollywood Boulevard and Echo Lake as well as the Great Movie Ride.
Disney and MGM ended up having a bit of a falling out, though. MGM first sued Disney for violating their contract by operating a working film and television studio in the park for Walt Disney Feature Animation. Disney filed a countersuit soon after alleging that MGM’s construction of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas infringed on their rights to the logo and would hurt their family-friendly reputation.
Eventually, in 2008, Disney dropped the MGM name altogether and renamed the park Disney Hollywood Studios. It received over 11 million visitors in 2019 and now has some of Disney World’s most popular attractions devoted to Disney intellectual property including Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, and Toy Story Land.
Disney World’s fourth and most recent park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, opened in 1998. Basically a zoo, it’s the largest theme park in the world by area at 580 acres, more than two square kilometers. With an estimated cost of $800 million, the park’s construction included the planting of 40,000 adult trees and seeds from 37 different countries. 2,600 construction workers also built 60 miles, almost 100 kilometers, of underground utilities in addition to the various buildings and animal holding facilities. With almost 14 million guests in 2019, it’s the most popular park in Disney World after the Magic Kingdom.
On top of the four main theme parks, Walt Disney World includes two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon opened in 1989 and Blizzard Beach opened in 1995. Over the 50 years of operation, Disney has also added extra attractions like ESPN Wide World of Sports, Disney’s Boardwalk and three 18-hole golf courses. Numerous hotels and resorts have opened, too, like the Beach Club Resort, Animal Kingdom Lodge, and Star Wars: Galactic Star Cruiser.
Altogether, the entirety of Walt Disney World as it currently stands covers 25,000 acres. That’s 39 square miles or 101 square kilometers, enough to fit 51 Disneylands inside of it.
Keeping Disney World running has not always been a, well, walk in the park. For one thing, there have been quite a number of incidents. Most commonly, guests have lost consciousness or even died on rides, usually due to previously existing but undiagnosed circulatory or respiratory disorders. However, there have been some more dramatic accidents.
For example, in 2014 a boy was bitten by a snake that fell out of a tree in the Animal Kingdom. The snake was nonvenomous, and the boy was fine, but his great-grandmother had a heart attack and died from the stress of the incident. The family threatened to sue, but Disney denied responsibility because the snake was not one of the zoo’s attractions but rather a wild snake indigenous to Florida. The family never went through with the lawsuit.
Similarly, in 2004, a member of the cast playing Pluto was run over and killed by the Beauty and the Beast float in the Share a Dream Come True parade. A resulting OSHA investigation determined that Disney had employees in restricted areas and fined Disney a whopping $6,300, or something like 20 seconds of the park’s income.
Plus, Disney World has had to shut down a number of times, mainly partial closures for hurricanes, but the whole park also closed down due to the September 11th attacks since the company feared it could be a potential terrorist target. This was the first time Disney World had ever completely closed for an entire day.
Still, not even the full closure for 9/11 compared to the one resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, Disney World shut down completely and did not reopen its doors until July 2020 and then only at 25% capacity. This was then raised to 35% in November 2020.
Restrictions were gradually eased and capacity increased through 2021, but many visitors speculated that the park had still not returned to pre-COVID capacity. This was ultimately confirmed by Disney’s CFO Christine McCarthy who went on to suggest that the park would never return to full capacity, pandemic or not, because the smaller crowds seemed to produce a more enjoyable experience for guests.
The COVID-19 closures were a huge blow to the park’s income, the revenue of Disney’s Park’s, Experiences and Products segment dropping roughly 37% from $26 billion in 2019 to $16.5 billion in 2020. This caused the layoff of 6,500 staff members.
That revenue has returned, but now Disney World may be facing its biggest obstacle yet. In April 2022, Florida Governor Ron Desantis signed a bill that strips the Reedy Creek Improvement District and therefore Disney World of its special status, bringing it back under the control of the Florida government starting in June 2023.
What this will mean for the park as far as taxes, land development and bond issuance isn’t entirely clear, but Disney doesn’t seem to be all that worried. Instead, they’re still expanding the park with additions like the TRON Light cycle Run roller coaster already in testing and the Princess and the Frog Splash Mountain overhaul set to open in 2024.
Disney fans don’t seem to be worried either. Tickets continue to sell out far in advance with around 250,000 people visiting each day. Apparently, neither hurricanes nor pandemics nor new laws can shutter the world’s most famous theme park, and children and adults are likely to keep lining up at the gates to the Magical Kingdom for years to come.
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