Oct. 1 is the official “birthday” for Walt Disney World.
If you’re wondering: Why Oct.1? There are two important reasons: It marked the start of a new fiscal year for Walt Disney Productions, and it marked one of the slowest times of the year for tourism in Florida. It was thought better to open when it’s quiet and before the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.
The top 10 best things to happen to the Magic Kingdom since opening in 1971!
1. Fort Wilderness (1971)
Fort Wilderness was and is immersive. It came complete with amenities that were before their time. These included extensive nature trails, and the Tri-Circle D Ranch.
Events like the nightly campfire movies and its own railroad set it apart. Unfortunately, the train ended in 1980.
Pioneer Hall was added in 1974. The addition gave birth to the longest-running dinner show around: the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue.
2. River Country (1976)
A Bicentennial addition, River Country was dedicated by then first daughter Susan Ford in June of 1976. If it were still operating today, “the Ole’ Swimming Hole” would feel more like it should be an oversized pool area for Fort Wilderness than a full-fledged separate ticketed attraction.
3. The Disney Village Marketplace (1975)
First opened asa shopping and dining district in 1975, Lake Buena Vista was meant to have a more adult vibe than a theme park.
The original idea was this would be the gathering place for people to live on Disney property. It was thought to be a first step toward building EPCOT — Walt Disney’s utopian city of the future.
The project stalled when reality got in the way. People living at Disney would mean people able to vote at Disney, potentially blocking Disney’s control of its government of, by and for Disney: The Reedy Creek Improvement District.
4. The 1-Day, 1-Park Pass (1981)
When The Magic Kingdom opened, guests paid a nominal admission price ($3.50 for adults!). If you wanted to ride a ride or see a show, though, nearly all of them required a separate ticket.
5. EPCOT Center instead of E.P.C.O.T. (1982)
He was talking, of course about the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a Waltopia envisioned by Walt Disney himself.
E.P.C.O.T. was the primary reason Walt Disney wanted to snap up 27,000 acres of swampland straddling Orange and Osceola counties. It was his passion in his last days and was the big pitch behind insisting the state legislature let his company have its own government.
The idea captured the public’s imagination. Then Walt Disney died, and so did E.P.C.O.T.
EPCOT Center was more than a permanent World’s Fair. While some of the opening day attractions echoed those Disney’s Imagineers built for New York’s 1964 World’s Fair, they were also a bold attempt at what we now call “edutainment.”
In 1982, Future World and World Showcase also felt like two natural parts of a unified, well-thought out, master planned idea. For its time, it really was cutting edge: touchscreens, hydroponics, smart homes, computer controls and the first modern personal computers were showcased there to inspire the average public.
6. The Grand Floridian (1988)
One of Michael Eisner’s first bold moves was to push forward a vast expansion of Disney-owned hotel rooms. In many ways, Walt Disney World is now a hotel company that runs theme parks. In addition to being insanely profitable, the hotels also capture guests’ attention (and their money) on Disney property.
The Grand Floridian was also the first attempt at luring ultra-high-end clientele, as seen now at the Four Seasons and Golden Oak.
7. ‘Ohana & The California Grill (1995)
World Showcase and Victoria & Albert’s started the trend, but ‘Ohana at the Polynesian and The California Grill at the Contemporary launched a wave that led to Walt Disney World being known as a destination for foodies.
The idea began, in part, with Eisner griping about the quality and lack of variety of the food served in The Magic Kingdom and the resorts. The success of these two restaurants proved people would pay for quality, and they do it in very different ways.
8. The Year 1989
If you were to pick one year between 1982 and now, I’d argue 1989 was the one that shaped Walt Disney World into what we know today.
That one year saw the opening of Disney-MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios), featuring working film and television facilities and a theme park to challenge Universal before it could even open, Typhoon Lagoon to take on Wet n Wild and Pleasure Island (targeting downtown Orlando’s then-trendy Church Street Station).
9. Universal Studios Florida (1990)
While Universal’s opening was an unmitigated disaster, full of broken rides and angry customers, it quickly grew into a serious threat to Disney’s dominance in a way Cypress Gardens, Circus World and even SeaWorld Orlando never could.
Universal took its next, bold step in 1999 with the opening of Islands of Adventure, the first of its own themed resort hotels, and CityWalk (to challenge Pleasure Island and the rest of downtown Disney).
Universal had started to catch on to how Disney plays the game, and while that bet was slow to fully pay off, a certain boy wizard came along in 2010 and changed that overnight. The theming of Islands of Adventure, especially, had always been above par in most places, but the quality and popularity of the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter (now Hogsmeade) was a game changer for Universal, Central Florida and the theme park industry.
10. Animal Kingdom (1998)
After 20 years as “Nahtazoo,” the fourth of Disney’s Florida theme parks to open is now second only to the Magic Kingdom in terms of attendance, if we can believe the latest industry estimates. That happened with Pandora: the World of Avatar which was open for less than a year.
While in some ways a reaction to yet another potential competitor (Tampa’s Busch Gardens), Animal Kingdom’s success came largely because its creative team delivered on a unique vision for a different kind of theme park.