How Disney World Has Changed

With the newly minted Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge gracing Disney World with Droids and Cantinas, and a whole host of upgrades due before the park's 50th anniversary in 2021 (including an exciting Epcot makeover and a Ratatouille-themed Pixar ride), it appears that change is on the horizon for America's favourite theme park.

But as impressive as these developments promise to be, they are far from the only changes that the team behind Disney World can reminisce about when the park reaches its half centenary. From its steady expansion to its world-class theming and technological advances, the history of Disney World is a fascinating one - and one that encompasses a story of ambitious beginnings and an auspicious future.

A shiny new era is tip-toeing nearer

When Walt Disney embarked on what became known as The Florida Project in the early 1960s, the backbone of Orlando's economy lay in military bases and orange groves, and the surrounding countryside was most famous for its lush swamplands. Despite Walt Disney considering both Tampa and Miami in his quest to create the East-coast sibling to his original Disneyland in California, he eventually settled on central Florida, and began a secret mission to buy thousands of acres of land.

This decision - made both to reduce the competition from other seaside attractions, and to avoid the worst of Florida's hurricanes -- transformed the city of Orlando forever. Disney World opened in 1971 (sadly, five years after Walt passed away) with the Magic Kingdom and four hotel resorts -- all pulled into existence by the vast efforts of Disney's architects, builders, and imagineers. While much smaller than the park we know today, the extent of this project was vast -- involving miles of drainage canals, the evacuation of entire lakes, and 400 million dollars of investment.

The impact of having Mickey Mouse for a neighbour on Orlando's topography, economy and population was truly extraordinary. Tourism is now the keystone of the region's economy, and Orlando has more theme parks and entertainment attractions than anywhere else in the world.

A hundred thousand things to see

While the original (and endlessly charming) iteration of Disney World has a special place in many peoples' memories, it simply doesn't compare to the scope of what's on offer at the location today.

For one thing, the selection of accommodation that visitors can choose from has expanded to account for every budget, preference and taste. Disney World may have opened with the Contemporary, Polynesian Village and Fort Wilderness Resort (an ensemble which already feels rather comprehensive!), but there are now over 25 resorts to choose from -- as well as a plethora of off-site hotels and Orlando villas near Disney specifically catering to visitors to the park.

Considering how Disney World has grown, it's no wonder that its guests need more places to stay. When Disney World opened, Magic Kingdom was its only theme park, but this was joined in 1982 by EPCOT -- aka the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Originally envisioned by Walt as an innovative planned community, he was ultimately unable to spearhead the project. With the new directors deciding that they, quite understandably, didn't want the responsibility, it eventually materialised as a World's Fair-style celebration of human achievement.

Seven years later, Disney's Hollywood Studios appeared, and in 1998 Disney's Animal Kingdom was opened. Themed entirely around the natural environment and animal conservation, this park combined traditional attractions with an extensive safari and zoo. But the Disney imagineers haven't stopped there, with a variety of new lands (such as The World of Avatar) sprouting up in recent years.

Now I'm here, blinking in the starlight

To the delight of Star Wars fans everywhere, The Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and revitalised the franchise with the conflicted villany of Kylo Ren, swashbuckling heroics of Rey and adorable antics of BB-8 -- and Disney's Hollywood Studios now features many attractions from a galaxy far, far away.

From Captain Phasma leading her Stormtroopers in the March of the First Order to the Starspeeder 1000 where guests can blast off for a trip around the galaxy, Star Wars is quickly becoming a key feature of the Disney pantheon. Walt Disney could never have imagined that an epic space opera first released over ten years after his death would one day be a part of his company's empire, but it may not be long before we all consider Star Wars as quintessentially Disney as Mickey Mouse himself.

Come on and lift your glass

Walt Disney was highly conscious of maintaining a family-friendly image both for himself and his brand (which has perhaps most famously manifested itself in the studio's ongoing attempts to obscure Walt's heavy smoking habit), and believed that serving alcohol in his parks could undermine this wholesome ideal. For over forty years, you couldn't find alcohol in any of Disney's US theme parks.

This began to change when, in 2012, the Be Our Guest restaurant in Fantasyland put alcohol on its drinks menu -- and in 2018 it was announced that all table-service restaurants inside Magic Kingdom will follow suit. While unlikely to change much in the day-to-day running and experience of the parks, this does represent a significant shift for the Disney brand, and perhaps reflects a growing understanding that it isn't only children and families who enjoy Disney World, but childfree adults too.

It's up to you how far you go, if you don't try you'll never know

When it comes to advancements in theme-park technology, Disney World is a true innovator. This is particularly evident in its transport, which combine a sense of fun with seamless efficiency to create the best experience possible.

If you consider how many of the USA's cities lack a cohesive public transport system, the ever-improving network of monorail, buses, and even ferries in Disney World is truly impressive. Required to manage an area that's roughly the size of San Francisco, the team behind Disney World are constantly devising new ways to get their guests from point A to point B, with a Skyliner gondola ride and autonomous vehicles currently in the works.

But it isn't only in transport that Disney World has deftly integrated developing technologies into their park experience. The My Disney Experience app gives visitors a fantastic planning tool which allows them to make restaurant reservations, select their FastPass+ preferences, view PhotoPass photos, check showtimes and park operating hours, place mobile orders at counter-service restaurants in the parks and more. With so many things to do at Disney World, this has been a hugely helpful addition to the park experience.

Who's the super success? Don't you know? Can't you guess?

Disney World was always viewed fondly, and was considered a success from its inception. However, one notable change lies in the fact that this success has gone from comfortable to unprecedented -- with Walt Disney World becoming both the brand's flagship and the most visited vacation resort in the world. With an average annual attendance of more than 52 million, this Orlando theme park has become a staple of American culture, and one that shows no signs of waning in its fame or popularity.

In 1971, admission to Disney World cost $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for juniors under age 18, and one dollar for children under twelve -- with the adult ticket price being the equivalent of around $21.70 today. This has risen well above inflation to around $129 (depending on the season), but then everything else about Disney World has expanded too.

With a proud history of innovation and creativity, and a fearless approach to embracing the future, it appears that exciting things are waiting just around the river bend for Disney World -- and we can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Photos: Image of the castle by stinne24 from Pixabay

Photo of monorail by Heather Maguire on Unsplash

This post was written by Top Villas, travel experts and fans of all things Disney, who help people experience this quintessential aspect of American culture through their luxury Orlando villas.

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August 26, 2019

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