The history of Walt Disney World and its opening 50 years ago

Walt Disney World opened in Central Florida on October 1st, 1971, after years of anticipation. Thousands of guests entered Magic Kingdom, the first park to open at the resort, and were greeted with fun and fantasy around every corner.

In the 50 years since, the Florida resort went on to open three more theme parks, two water parks, dozens of resort hotels, and a massive retail, dining, and entertainment district.

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It all started on November 15th, 1965. According to Disney, this is when Walt Disney and his brother, Roy O. Disney, officially announced the plans for their ‘Florida project’ in a press conference held in Downtown Orlando. Almost a year later, on October 27th, 1966, Walt Disney filmed an outline for his Florida plans, including details on Walt Disney World’s location.

"We have a perfect location in Florida, almost in the very center of the state. In fact, we selected this site because it is so easy for tourists and Florida residents to get here by automobile," Walt Disney said. "Our Florida land is located partly in Orange County and Osceola County, between the cities of Orlando and Kissimmee."

He explained that "the important thing is that the Disney World is located just a few miles from the crossing point of Interstate 4 and Sunshine State Parkway: Florida’s major highways carrying motors east to west and east and south to the center of the state."

Left photo from Walt Disney World, Right photo from Getty Images

Unfortunately, visionary Walt Disney passed away just a few months after filming, on December 15th, 1966. His brother, Roy, would go on to lead the company’s Florida project.

It was not until May 30th, 1967, that groundbreaking kicked off. On this day, Roy O. Disney named the project ‘Walt Disney World’ to ensure that the world would always remember his brother’s dream, the theme park company said.

After years of waiting, Walt Disney World Resort opened on October 1st, 1971. Disney said that this first phase included the Magic Kingdom park, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.

While the park was officially opened on the first of October, it was reportedly not until October 25th, 1971, that Disney held its grand opening and dedication ceremony.

Roy O. Disney was in attendance and read a dedication plaque aloud with Mickey Mouse at his side.

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Roy O. Disney with Mickey Mouse by his side (Photo from Walt Disney World)

"Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and the life of Walter Isias Disney and to the talents and the dedication and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that’s made Walt Disney’s dream come true," he said. "May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and new knowledge to all who come to this happy place. A Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn together."

A dedication parade followed, featuring 5,000 performers lead by Mickey Mouse playing the world’s largest bass drum at the time, the theme park company said. It also included a performance from a 1,076 piece ceremonial marching band.

Magic Kingdom has been expanded several times since its opening, including the introduction of several new attractions and its ’New Fantastyland’ area. It is also home to most of the resort’s ‘After Hours’ events like ‘Disney’s Boo Bash’ and ‘Disney Very Merriest After Hours.’

RELATED: Disney announces 'Very Merriest After Hours' event: How to get tickets

Epcot was the next park to open at Walt Disney World Resort.

Walt Disney had previously described the project as "the most exciting and by far the most important part of our Florida project — in fact the heart of everything we will be doing in Disney World — will be our ‘Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow.’ We call it ‘Epcot.’"

He explained that "Epcot will take its queue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed. That will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems."

It officially opened to the public on October 1st, 1982, with five ‘Future World’ pavilions — Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy, World of Motion, Journey Into Imagination, and The Land — and nine ‘World Showcase’ pavilions, representing Mexico, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, France, United Kingdom, and Canada, Disney said.

Over the decades, Epcot has added two more World Showcase pavilions and several other attractions. It is currently undergoing what is said to be the "biggest transformation of any Disney park in history."

Disney said that several new attractions, restaurants, and experiences will open in the coming years. All of them are united by four neighborhoods that are currently under construction: World Showcase, World Nature, World Discovery, and World Celebration.

For example, World Discovery will have the new ‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind’ roller coaster, World Showcase will debut a new ‘HarmonioUS’ show, and World Nature will open an exploration trail called ‘Journey of Water,’ Inspired by Moana.

epcot transformation disney

Disney announced in August 2019 that the park would undergo the "biggest transformation of any Disney park in history" over several years, bringing in new attractions, restaurants, and experiences. Eventually, Epcot will be unified by four neighborho

The next park to open at Walt Disney World Resort was Hollywood Studios, formerly known as ‘Disney-MGM Studios,’ on May 1st, 1989. The park offered parkgoers several major entertainment attractions and a behind-the-scenes look at movie-making.

Since opening, Disney's Hollywood Studios has brought in several exciting experiences based on popular entertainment franchises. For example, ‘Toy Story Land’ and ‘Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’ both include multiple attractions, shops, and restaurants for guests to enjoy.

In the same year that Hollywood Studios opened, Disney said that they opened their first water park, Typhoon Lagoon, on June 1st. It featured a 95-foot-high mountain, eight water slides, and a 2.5-acre wave pool. It was not until April 1st, 1995, that Disney’s Blizzard Beach debuted with a winter theme and a 12-story waterslide.

Disney's Typhoon Lagoon and Disney's Blizzard Beach (Photos from Walt Disney World)

The final Walt Disney World theme park, Animal Kingdom, officially opened on April 22nd, 1998, which was actually Earth Day.

Disney said that this is the resort’s largest park and home to about 1,800 animals representing 200 species. At the center of it all is the ’Tree of Life,’ which features more than 300 carved animal images.

Animal Kingdom now includes several major lands: Africa, Asia, DinoLand U.S.A., Discovery Island, and Pandora — The World of Avatar. Inside are exhilarating adventures for all ages and include many popular attractions, like ‘Expedition Everest,’ ‘Dinosaur,’ and ‘Avatar Flight of Passage.’

Another major experience at Walt Disney World Resort is Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney. The groundwork for the retail, dining, and entertainment district reportedly began on March 22nd, 1975, with the ‘Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village.’ This featured 28 shops and four restaurants and evolved over the decades into The Marketplace at Disney Springs.

‘Downtown Disney' was officially reimagined into ‘Disney Springs’ on September 29th, 2015, after three years of changes. Disney said it features "four neighborhoods" themed to Florida towns of the early 20th century.

Present-day, Walt Disney World Resort includes four theme parks, two water parks, more than two dozen resort hotels, Disney Vacation Club properties, Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, 63 holes of championship golf, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Disney’s BoardWalk entertainment enclave, and Disney Springs.

Looking ahead, a new era of Disney magic kicked off on October 1st, 2021, with the resort’s 50th anniversary celebration, dubbed ‘The World’s Most Magical Celebration.’ Festivities will go for 18 months as new experiences will debut throughout the entire theme park resort.

Watch FOX 35 Orlando for what’s to come during Disney’s 50th anniversary celebration.