Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary: Its Evolution Experienced By A Walt Disney Imagineer – Part 1

In honor of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, reviving some of the Vacation Kingdom’s milestones through the eyes of a former Walt Disney Imagineer and licensed themed entertainment Architect. This is part one of a two-part synopsis.

WDW Master plan Art
Early Walt Disney World Master Plan – Image courtesy the Walt Disney Company


It was early on a warm summer morning. The fog was hugging the open fields and underbrush of the Central Florida landscape along both sides of World Drive as my family and I drove towards a unique place, a place that would change me and my life forever.

The sun was barely peaking over the tall Southern Pines and lanky palm trees as we drove down World Drive heading towards the Magic Kingdom toll booth. I was a young boy of only four years of age. The year was 1979. Though I had been there prior, back in the summer of 1976, this was the first trip to Walt Disney World I actually have early, faint memories of.

Back then, while driving down World Drive, we always turned on the Walt Disney World AM radio station that provided daily information for Guests arriving at the then only theme park at Walt Disney World. We knew once we heard that radio station we were close to an incredibly unique and magical place. I distinctly remember boarding the original Mark IV Monorails – the express route – to the Magic Kingdom. As we slid across the bench seats of one of the original Mark IV’s, the air conditioning felt cold after making our way through the warm, humid Florida morning air from the Magic Kingdom parking lot to the Transportation and Ticket Center.

As the monorail slipped through the towering Contemporary Resort our family’s excitement kept building as we caught brief glimpses of the Magic Kingdom park in the distance through the windows of the Contemporary Resort monorail station. As our forward motion whisked us through the Grand Canyon Concourse we emerged out the other side of the A-framed, Welton Becket designed resort to be greeted by the distant gold spires of Cinderella Castle shimmering in the morning sunlight.

As our monorail descended down out of the Contemporary Resort Disney’s master voice over host Jack Wagner spieled about our arrival at the park eventually moving slowly past the main entry of the Magic Kingdom park. There, below a Second Empire themed train station, were the gates to a magical place and the true beginning of my day. Little did I know then, it was the start of a life-long history with this theme park, and others, that would extend into my adulthood.

I’ve had the privilege – being born just at the right time – of experiencing Walt Disney World in nearly all ages and means possible. I’ve experienced it as a toddler in stroller, a young boy, a teenager, as a young adult at Grad Night and Night of Joy, as a daily paying Guest, an Annual Pass holder, a college student working at the Magic Kingdom as a Cast Member, an adult, as a single bachelor, as a husband with my wife, and eventually as a Walt Disney Imagineer who helped create the largest expansions to the Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme parks. Needless to say, I’ve experienced Walt Disney World throughout nearly all of its 50 year history in some form or fashion.

Walt Disney World amazed me as a child, not only for its cool shows and attractions, however for me it was also like walking through an architectural history book of nearly every style of architecture one could imagine. Though as a young boy I didn’t know I would eventually become a licensed Architect, I do remember being amazed at all the unique structures, buildings, and landscaping and asking myself time-and-time again, “how in the world did they create all of these amazing designs?”

All of the inspiration I soaked in during my numerous visits prior to studying architecture in college, were a catalyst for me deciding to become an Architect in high school and were a driving force for me wanting to become a Walt Disney Imagineer. Eventually, later in my life, all of that inspiration culminated in helping design new amazing theme park architectural projects as a Walt Disney Imagineer that would inspire future generations.

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A Fete of Engineering

The transformation of Central Florida ranch land and swamps into the Vacation Kingdom of the world while preserving its natural surroundings is a case study in itself. Much like its predecessor park Disneyland in Anaheim, no one had ever built anything to the scale of Walt Disney World in Florida prior to its formal announcement in November of 1965. Several sites – in and out of the State of Florida – were considered for a Disney theme park expansion outside of California. In the end, however, 27,443 acres of Central Florida land was chosen for several reasons. At that time, over 20 million tourists visited Florida each year with 80 percent of those traveling near or through Central Florida. The ‘Florida Project’ would attract a different demographic of tourists than Disneyland since, at that time, 93 percent of Florida’s visitors lived east of the Rocky Mountains.

The original master plan created by the then named WED Enterprises – the precursor company name that would eventually be called Walt Disney Imagineering – had a plethora of amenities which would be of interest to day-trippers, those visiting Walt Disney World for a week or so, and permanent residents in its future – never fully realized – planned community of tomorrow (EPCOT). The early master plans included:

  • A vacationland with themed resorts, a theme park similar to Disneyland, a campground and water recreation facilities
  • An ‘airport of the future’ offering private and commercial commuter services
  • An industrial park that would showcase the glory of American owned and created industries
  • The community of Lake Buena Vista, a planned ‘second home’ community with motor inns, garden apartments, and a thriving commercial center
  • An advanced transportation system carrying Guests and residents around the vast acreage
  • EPCOT a planned community that Walt Disney envisioned showcasing and communicating imaginative new concepts for the future

After approximately three years of Disney’s Imagineers studying their new purchased land, the topography, the grading, how to preserve the land while managing the high water tables and existing water features; the team would eventually locate Phase One – a $400 million (a cost of ~ $2.7 billion in 2021), 2,500 acre development – in the northwest corner of the 43 square mile land grab. This location, which was one of the highest portions of the overall property, would eventually house the first theme park – the Magic Kingdom – and its surrounding themed resorts and back of house support facilities.

Future site of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom park – Image courtesy the Walt Disney Company

With the Florida Project, Walt Disney wanted to address some of the Show stoppers that plagued Disneyland in California. The incorporation and design of the Magic Kingdom’s Utilidor – a subterranean “Utility Corridor” network of tunnels and support spaces placed directly under the new Magic Kingdom theme park would address many of Walt’s concerns. However, to create a commercial grade basement in Florida where the water table is high and the swamps can be deep would require one of many engineering marvels Walt Disney World demonstrates.

To create the Utilidor beneath the Magic Kingdom, Walt’s Imagineers solution was to build the network at roughly the existing grade – well above the high water table beneath the surface – placing the Guest levels of the new theme park 10 to 15 feet above the lowest portions of the Utilidor and existing grade. To achieve this would require millions of yards of fill dirt. Sourcing the fill dirt required the creation of a 1 mile square 10 feet deep, 200 acre man-made lake out in front of the Magic Kingdom. This new man-made lake – at the time the largest private construction project in American history – would not only be the source of the massive quantity of fill dirt it would also create a water feature Walt loved and saw as a unique amenity for the Florida expansion and would become a part of the larger water management system to keep Walt Disney World from flooding. This new water management system would eventually also include 55 miles of man-made canals with 22 automatic float gates to maintain the desired water levels around the property.

As you can imagine, no municipality or county in Florida at this time was savvy enough to oversee and issue permits for site development of this scale and provide building permits for castles, faux trees, themed structures, etc. To address this massive issue, the Walt Disney Company gained unique permission from the State of Florida to establish its own district and government capable of handling the city-like infrastructure issues Walt Disney World would require.

That district and governing body would be called the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) named after the actual Reedy Creek that runs through the western portion of the WDW property. RCID has the ability to levy bonds, administer building and construction permits, they handle all of the trash and recycling in the district, they have their own Fire Department and 911 call center, they maintain and improve many of the major roadways around the WDW property, they generate and sell power to WDW, provide chilled water, reclaimed water, they oversee the storm water management within the district and they provide and maintain main line utilities serving the various theme parks, resorts, and Guest areas around WDW.

The Early Years

Not to sound like a grandparent, but back in those days Walt Disney World was much different than as we know it today. Prior to the opening of EPCOT Center in the early 1980’s, there was one theme park, the Magic Kingdom, and only a handful of themed resorts on property. The Golf Resort (now called Shades of Green) opened in 1973. Roughly a month after the grand opening of WDW in 1971 the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground opened, and in 1975 Disney’s Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village (now called Disney Springs) opened at the edge of Walt Disney World’s property miles away from the Magic Kingdom Resort area.

The lone Magic Kingdom theme park residing in the northwest corner of the WDW’s 40+ square mile property, resided at the terminus of the then singular, main Guest roadway World Drive. At that time, only two Magic Kingdom resorts resided “on the monorail beam”, both designed by the famous architecture firm Welton Becket & Associates, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort and Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Guests arriving at the Magic Kingdom parking lot were ushered to the TTC (Transportation and Ticket Center) where they had two options to make the mile long journey to Magic Kingdom’s main entry. They could either take the Stanton Island themed Ferry Boats or the express monorail line directly to the MK.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Attraction Magic Kingdom – Image courtesy Jerry Berger

During the early years, WDW Guests purchased books of tickets valid for the varying levels of thrills its attractions and shows offered. The famed A through E-tickets, now used as theme park thrill level nomenclature in the theme park design business, allowed Guests to experience varying types of attractions and experiences throughout the Magic Kingdom park’s six distinct themed areas.

Guests, during the inaugural year of the Magic Kingdom could experience many things, however several of the modern day attractions in that park did not exist that year. For example, the famed Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Adventuerland and Space Mountain in Tomorrowland did not come about until 1973 and 1975 respectfully. The Walt Disney World Railroad Frontierland train station didn’t open until 1972 with the adjacent Tom Sawyer’s Island not welcoming Guests until 1973. Over in Tomorrowland Guests wouldn’t be able to experience Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress and the People Mover (now called the Tomorrowland Transit Authority) until 1975. On the horizon, in the coming decade, Guests will be presented with a whole new take on the future.

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The Expanding 1980’s

If you had to sum up Walt Disney World in one word, with regard to the 1980’s, I would say the word ‘expansion’ would be at the top of the list. Though several milestone and iconic attractions and shows were added to Walt Disney World’s Phase One development in the Magic Kingdom and beyond, they paled in comparison to the expansive capital expenditure and expansion the 1980’s would usher in, beginning with a reimagined concept originally planned for WDW.

Walt’s original planned community of tomorrow – a utopian city that originally would have been located near the geographic center of the 27,000 plus acres – would fade into the history books and be replaced by Walt Disney World’s second gate (theme park) EPCOT Center (now called Epcot).

Opening on the eleventh anniversary of the Magic Kingdom’s inaugural day, EPCOT Center greeted its first paying Guests on October 1, 1982. EPCOT Center was Walt Disney World’s second major expansion to the Vacation Kingdom, one that would be nearly twice as big as the Magic Kingdom park and though not the planned community where individuals could live and work; it would utilize some of the original concepts of a permanent world’s fair-like place that showcased and celebrated future technology – located in ‘Future World’ and celebrated and demonstrated select cultures and peoples from around the world located in ‘World Showcase’.

EPCOT Center was a massive, 300+ acre, ~ $1.3 billion expansion to Walt Disney World (a cost of ~ $3.7 billion in 2021) that outside of its berm would also add new roadways and exit ramps to WDW’s internal highway system and new themed resorts would be created and added in its general vicinity such as the iconic Architect Michael Grave’s designed Swan and Dolphin Resort in the late 80’s during what was later dubbed the (Michael) Eisner Era.

I distinctly remember going to EPCOT Center the summer of 1983 during a family vacation. At the time, the new theme park felt huge and seemingly un-Disney as it was devoid of any Disney characters or Disney IP (intellectual property). As a kid, while it was cool to see a new theme park and have an extra few days to spend at WDW, for me the park was somewhat boring as it felt like I was back in school being forced to learn. That said, I was greatly inspired by the amazing new architecture Future World offered and the park’s iconic engineering marvel, the 15.5 million pound Spaceship Earth geosphere. At that point in time, no one had designed and built a near perfect geosphere that was occupiable and free-floating twenty plus feet off the ground, much less a permanent geosphere that would house an attraction taking Guests through a brief journey though the history of mankind’s advancement of communication.

Later in life, as I got older, I would appreciate EPCOT for what it was and how risky it was for Disney to build its most expensive theme park (at that time) in the United States that was unlike anything previously conceived in theme park history.

EPCOT Center – Image courtesy the Walt Disney Company

In July of 1985 Walt Disney World would welcome its 200 millionth Guest only to be surpassed less than a year later in March of 1986 when it welcomed its 500 millionth Guest to enter any Disney park. At the end of the 1980’s Guests were provided even more new resorts such as the Wing Chao designed Grand Floridian Resort on the west shore of the Seven Seas Lagoon in 1988 on a site the early WDW master plans called for an Asian themed resort. 1988 also ushered in several new attractions at EPCOT Center such as the Norway Pavilion, EPCOT’s nighttime show ‘Illuminations’ and the EPCOT resort area welcomed a new themed resort, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort.

Walt Disney World capped off its major expansion plans in the 1980’s with the opening of a third, ~$500 million (a cost of ~ $1.1 billion in 2021), theme park; the 135 acreDisney-MGM Studios (now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Outside of its berm Disney would also add new roadways and exit ramps to WDW’s internal highway system and new themed resorts would be created in its general vicinity, such as the iconic Architect Michael Grave’s designed Swan and Dolphin Resort in the late 80’s.

While the Magic Kingdom’s main theme (concept) is ‘Magic’ and EPCOT Center’s was ‘Discovery’, the new Disney-MGM Studios theme park would be ‘Cinematic Action’. This originally conceived half-day theme park would provide Guests a backstage pass onto working sound stages and studios, giving them an inside glimpse of the history of cinema, old Hollywood, and how movies and animation were created. It immersed Guests into active film and television productions.

At the close of the 1980’s Walt Disney World would welcome its 300 millionth Guest, it now had three theme parks, a new 56 acre water park Typhoon Lagoon opened, Pleasure Island – Disney’s adult only nighttime entertainment venues – opened, multiple new attractions at EPCOT Center and the Magic Kingdom were added, the iconic Architect Robert A. M. Stern designed Disney Casting building opened, and Disney announced the creation of two new theme hotels the Dixie Landings and Port Orleans Resort.

The opening of the Disney-MGM Studios was a breath of fresh air. My brother and I went several times during its opening year and we welcomed its fresh new experience, that again, was a completely new and different type of Disney theme park. The early history of the Disney-MGM Studios warrants its own discussion due to its rival park and opening with Disney’s new major, Orlando competitor – ‘down the street’ as we used to say at Imagineering – the Universal Studios Orlando theme park that opened roughly the same time as Disney-MGM. Both Studios parks offered a similar overall theme – backstage insight into movie and television production – but in general the two new Studios theme parks in Orlando were physically and literally miles apart in their approach to storytelling and both would play a key role in my personal theme park history and theme park design career later in my life.

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