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Florida Guide > Disney General

Walt Disney World - A potted history

All of the kids in our family, and I include us parents in that description, adore the Disney theme parks. They are pure fun and total escapism from the stresses and strains of daily routine.

However, as we walked around the colourful streets and amazingly well constructed sections of each park, we often wondered just how something so amazing was ever conceived. I thought you might be interested in just how Walt Disney created such a splendour. Here’s a 'potted' history of just how the magic came into being.

Amusement parks in the early 20th century in the US were generally quite rough in appearance and did not last very long before getting closed down or becoming financially insolvent. Walt Disney, who had already succeeded to fame with the introduction of the most famous cartoon character in history - Mickey Mouse - had a vision of a small park where parents could take their children for a day of fun and excitement. His first plans for this in the Burbank area of California were unsuccessful. Land in this area was tight and the vision did not have any funding. The Disney Studios were also hit fairly hard in the 1940’s as they were used by the armed forces to produce training films and promotions. These films were needed for the sale of bonds to raise money for the government.

In the early 1950's with the war over and the arrival of television, the Disney Studios went from strength to strength. In 1953 Walt Disney had created a plan to finance his dream, … and the construction of Disneyland in Anaheim California began. This was completed in just one year – could this be achieved nowadays?

Walt Disney said for many years that there could only be one Disneyland. However the location of the park soon became highly developed leaving the potential for expansion limited. I was unable to discover who, but someone planted an idea in Walt Disney’s mind about creating a whole new park that was not constrained in the same way as Disneyland in California. This got Walt thinking and once he realised that by creating a park far enough away from California it would not to be a threat to Disneyland, he started to plan.

Walt commissioned his 'Imagineering' department to build four attractions for the New York World Fair. This was to act as a test to see if there was enough interest in East USA. If successful the attractions could be moved to a permanent location. The four attractions were Progressland, It's a small World, Great Moments with Mr Lincoln and Primeval World. Suffice it to say the Fair was a huge success!

Walt Disney had foreseen this and had started to purchase vast amounts of land in Central Florida in the early 1960's forming a plan to build Walt Disney World. Sadly Walt died on 15 December 1966 and did not see construction start. Instead Walt's brother Roy took charge of the company and set about constructing another Magic Kingdom. This included many of the attractions from California including Pirates of the Caribbean plus brand new ones like Space Mountain (since added to Disneyland in California). After Disney World opened Roy Disney retired and passed the reins to Card Walker who headed the company until 1984. During these years there was little expansion at the park until Michael Eisner became the new Chairman.

From this moment onwards the complex grew and grew taking advantage of the massive amount of land and superb Floridian climate. In 1981 EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) was opened. The original idea was for this community to contain true inhabitants living their daily lives. This obviously did not happen but the park is themed on all those areas that affect our daily lives such as environment, transport, energy and technology.

1989 saw the opening of Disney Hollywood Studios. Themed to give the look and feel of studios throughout the 30's onwards this is a personal favourite of mine.

The newest of the parks, and another favourite, is Animal Kingdom which opened its gates in 1998. This park is themed on zoology and includes real wildlife living in their natural surroundings.

Under the control of the current President Meg Crofton, Walt Disney World continues to expand with new ventures and new rides such as the recent Everest attraction at Animal Kingdom. (This has become a favourite in my family!) Areas such as Downtown Disney, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon lagoon are also part of a continuous improvement plan providing additional and diverse entertainment. Quite often these areas will host concerts and events that continue to attract large audiences. Cleverly many of these are ‘characters’ from Disney programmes like Hannah Montana and Raven.

So, when you're next walking down Main Street or riding a newly introduced attraction, spare a thought for how it all began. I wonder just what Walt Disney would make of everything now. I'm sure he'd be suitably amazed and impressed!

Author: Denise and Nigel Taylor (Villa link: click here)
Other articles by this author: click here

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Page added on: 30 January 2007
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