When Walt Disney World Resort opened Oct. 1, 1971, there was global interest from fans who couldn’t wait to see what kind of pixie-dust magic Walt Disney had sprinkled over the once swampy, rural Central Florida landscape. The excitement was especially palpable for Central Floridians, where the theme park giant would forever change the landscape and economy.
Fifty years later, the magic and anticipation continue, as Walt Disney World gets ready to kick off an 18-month-long 50th anniversary celebration. It will be the fulfillment of Walt Disney’s dream. During the official dedication in 1971, his brother Roy Disney 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.”
‘The world’s most magical celebration’
Oct. 1, 2021, will usher in a year-and-a-half celebration that will be marked by “EARidescent décor,” golden embellishments to Cinderella’s Castle, new attractions, a nighttime spectacular ‘Harmonious’ show at EPCOT, and a new, stunning fireworks-and-musical show titled “Disney Enchantment.” Other anniversary highlights include:
- Beacons of Magic – an EARidescent glow casting “pixie-dust sparkle” over the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom; Hollywood Tower Hotel at Hollywood Studios, and Spaceship Earth in EPCOT.
- Disney Kite Tails – new entertainment at Disney’s Animal Kingdom that features windcatchers and kites of all shapes and sizes.
- Disney Fab 50 Character Celebration – will feature golden sculptures spread across the four Walt Disney World theme parks, including beloved characters from “Star Wars,” “The Lion King” and more.
- La Creperie de Paris – Along with the opening of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure attraction, the French Pavilion in EPCOT will open a new restaurant, La Creperie de Paris, featuring sweet crepes and authentic French hard cider.
Pre-opening publicity promises an emotional, original song, titled “You Are the Magic.”
For the traditionalists, many of the beloved rides and attractions that were at Walt Disney World in 1971 remain, such as Jungle Cruise, Haunted Mansion, Hall of Presidents, and It’s a Small World.
Mickey’s generation ready to party
For older adults, who were children in the 1950s and 1960s, the celebration is sure to bring plenty of nostalgia. They grew up watching “The Mickey Mouse Club” on TV and going to the movies for the first time to see “Lady and the Tramp” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Many relived those early memories taking their children to visit Walt Disney World after it opened in 1971.
Generations since then have shown that the Disney magic is ageless and timeless.
Walt Disney World was not only a boon to the Florida economy and tourism, it also drew many permanent residents.
At The Villages, there are two clubs for Disney afficionados: Mickey’s Fanatics and The Goofy Villagers. Debbie Winters, president of Mickey’s Fanatics, started her club in 2011 for residents who love Walt Disney World.
Winters told a Daily Sun reporter, “I think they’re stereotyping us, sitting in The Villages in our rocking chairs, waiting to croak. Disney means a lot to everybody. There is no age limit.”
The club has grown to 800 members, with a waiting list of 200 people wanting to join. The Goofy Villagers formed in 2016. Both groups often travel together to Disney in addition to hosting other activities, such as dressing up as pirates.
Cloaked in secrecy
Walt Disney himself has roots going back to a tiny Florida community called Kismet in north Lake County that no longer exists. On Jan. 1, 1888, Elias and Flora Call Disney were one of the first marriages in the recently formed county. They later moved to Chicago where Walt was born.
There is plenty of local folklore about Walt Disney World’s beginning. According to the “Orlando Sentinel,” in 1964, Walt Disney used fictitious companies and “secret deals” to quietly purchase land south of Orlando in what would become Walt Disney World. Most of the transactions are said to have been in cash to avoid a paper trail that would prematurely reveal plans for the large land purchases.
Disney reportedly planned to announce plans for Walt Disney World in November, 1965. But a Sentinel reporter touring Disneyland in California was convinced a new theme park was on the horizon in Central Florida. After additional research, the Sentinel ran a story on Oct. 24, 1965, that proclaimed, “We Say: ‘Mystery’ Industry Is Disney.” The next day, then Gov. Haydon Burns confirmed it.
Cast members for life
It didn’t take long for Walt Disney World to become Central Florida’s largest employer. For the Cold War generation, “the happiest place on earth” was a welcome career opportunity. Original cast members, as Disney employees are called, remember the pride they felt wearing Disney uniforms and working at the Jungle Cruise or “E-ticket” attractions, such as Space Mountain.
Recently, Walt Disney World Resort invited the Class of 1971 original workers to a special gathering at the theme park, where they were given 50th anniversary nametags, service pins and exclusively-embroidered Mickey ears inspired by a vintage collection.
Many belong to a Facebook group titled, “We worked at Disney World in the ‘70s.”
Walt Disney would not live to see the opening of his namesake attraction. He died in December, 1966. His brother, Roy, came out of retirement to complete the project and named the park Walt Disney World “to ensure the world will always remember the man behind this historic dream.” That wish will be realized in spectacular fashion as the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World.