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50 years ago, Disney World opened its doors and welcomed guests to its Magic Kingdom

Guests stroll along Main Street at the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World. The park celebrates its 50th anniversary on Oct. 1, 2021.
Guests stroll along Main Street at the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World. The park celebrates its 50th anniversary on Oct. 1, 2021.

Disney World, the largest theme park in the world, welcomed its first guests on Oct. 1, 1971. Over the next five decades the park — which covers more than 40 square miles in central Florida — grew into an entertainment complex that includes four theme parks, two waterparks, golf courses, a shopping destination and 27 resort hotels.

Before Disney World and Disneyland, amusement parks had existed for centuries. But Walt Disney came up with a new concept, the theme park, and it connected deeply with visitors.

"You always get that feeling in your belly when you come through the gates. It's exciting every time, no matter how old you get," says Paulette Stinson, who has been to the park some 20 times.

Disney wanted to capture the East Coast theme park audience

When Disneyland opened in California in 1955, it quickly became a big success, but the company soon realized that only 2% of visitors came from east of the Mississippi River. Walt Disney went looking for an East Coast location and eventually settled on Florida.

Rick Foglesong, professor emeritus at Rollins University and author of the book, Married to the Mouse, says the interstate highway system drew him to Orlando.

"Roads were all important to the Disney company because they wanted to build a park that would be 10 times the size of Disneyland in California," Foglesong says. "That meant, that if they were going to build such a big park, they would have to import tourists from afar, from down the East Coast, from the Midwest."

The grand opening dedication ceremony included a parade down Disney World's Main Street on Oct. 25, 1971.
/ AP
The grand opening dedication ceremony included a parade down Disney World's Main Street on Oct. 25, 1971.

Mary Demetree, a native of the area, is CEO of a real estate company her father and uncle founded. In the mid-1960s they agreed to sell more than 12,000 acres of swampy undeveloped land to a company whose identity remained secret.

"At that time, Orlando was more of a cow town and literally when you'd come down Orange Blossom Trail, you could smell the orange blossoms," Demetree says.

Her father and uncle were uncertain they would ever find a buyer for the property because of all the wetlands. But, as she heard the story, that's one of the things that appealed to Walt Disney when he flew over the area in a private plane.

"He saw that wetland and said, 'Right there is Tom Sawyer's island,'" Demetree says. "And that was the wetlands that they had been complaining about."

There was a lot of speculation in Orlando about the identity of the company that was buying so much land, but Demetree says even her father was kept in the dark. He found out who his buyer was when he saw it on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel.

"I can remember it actually as a child, and him saying, 'I'll be damned. It's Disney!'" Demetree recalls.

Walt Disney envisioned a "community of tomorrow"

Nearly a month after the story broke, Florida Gov. Haydon Burns held a news conference in Orlando to introduce the man who would remake central Florida: Walt Disney. Orlando and Florida welcomed him with open arms. At the news conference, the governor pressed Disney for some hint about his plans for the massive site, but he wasn't giving anything away.

"After taking a look at the land this morning," Disney said. "I'd say we are starting from scratch."

Mickey Mouse and Roy Disney during the 25th Anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World.
Tony Ranze / AFP via Getty Images
Mickey Mouse and Roy Disney during the 25th Anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World.

Walt Disney died a year later, and it was left to his brother Roy to fulfill his vision. The Disneys hired retired Army Gen., William Potter to oversee construction. Charles Lee has worked on environmental issues for decades with Audubon Florida and says Gen. Potter took a careful approach to preserving wetland areas on the site that Lee says was remarkable for its time.

"He designed a highly compartmentalized drainage system that stepped the water down and prevented over-drainage of a lot of the wetland areas," Lee explains.

Building it cost some $400 million. When the official opening day came, Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom held a big celebration and parade. More than 1,000 high school band members, drawn from schools all over Florida, marched and played. The huge band was led by composer and playwright Meredith Wilson, who reprised "76 Trombones," a hit from his musical, "The Music Man."

At the time, trumpeter Terry Lindsey was a high school junior from Lakeland, Fla.

"He led us, so to speak, down Main Street," Lindsey says. "But they had conductors throughout Main Street on roofs, on blocks, on corners because we couldn't see. We were half a mile from the other end of the band."

Although Magic Kingdom was the first park completed, until he died, Walt Disney had been focused on what eventually became the second park, EPCOT. In a filmed presentation in 1966, just weeks before his death from lung cancer, he described EPCOT as a planned community that would include a city center, residential, business and industrial areas and interconnected mass transit systems.

"It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed," Disney said, "but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems."

To build his "community of tomorrow," Disney asked for and received extraordinary authority over the new property straddling two Florida counties. The state legislature and governor agreed to give the Disney company the powers of a municipality. Author Rick Foglesong says the agreement included authority over "police, fire, water, sewer, even the power to build a nuclear power plant or an airport...And at the same time, they were granted immunity to external regulation."

Disney was given total control of planning and building codes, allowing it to complete construction of Magic Kingdom in just 18 months. Following Walt Disney's death, plans for a "city of tomorrow" were shelved and EPCOT instead became another theme park. But the unprecedented amount of authority granted to Disney continues to this day.

Disney World proved that theme parks could be vacation destinations

The creation of Disney World changed Florida, and it also changed theme parks and the entertainment industry. Carissa Baker, an assistant professor who studies theme parks at the University of Central Florida, says Walt Disney pioneered the concept of synergy.

"He creates...the Disneyland TV show in 1954, which kind of sells the idea of the Disneyland Park," Baker says. "But all of these movies and TV shows that are on the Disneyland TV shows were of course his previous properties. So now, you're kind of tying all this together."

Baker says Disney World also showed that by adding hotels and more attractions, theme parks could become vacation destinations, a place where families can spend a week or more without ever leaving the Disney bubble.

Guests ride the Alien Swirling Saucers at Toy Story Land in Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in 2018.
John Raoux / AP
Guests ride the Alien Swirling Saucers at Toy Story Land in Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in 2018.

Matt Jason, from New York City, was recently visiting Disney World for third time since he first visited as a child. He and his family planned to spending five days there.

"Right now, I'm going with my daughter so she can learn to be there and learn to love it," he says.

Disney World brought growth and jobs to the area. But over the past five decades, Orlando and other communities in central Florida have seen the downside. Officials have sparred with Disney over costs for roads, police and other services associated with the growth it helped generate. And, with the arrival of Disney, Orlando tied itself to a tourist-based service economy.

"The average wage in metro Orlando is beneath the state average which is beneath the national average," Rick Foglesong says. "That's the legacy of tourism and relying upon tourism as the basis of your economy."

For better or worse, today Orlando, a former cow town and citrus center, is one of America's most visited cities, and that's because of one man and the world's largest theme park.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Guests gather at the "Partners" statue in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in 2021.
Orlando Sentinel / TNS via Getty Images
Guests gather at the "Partners" statue in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in 2021.