October 1 kicks off an 18 month long event celebrating 50 years of Walt Disney World at the Orlando theme park resort. Since its inception Walt Disney World has been growing and changing to meet the needs of visitors and allow for new innovations to make a way into the parks. Walt Disney once said, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” That same sentiment is true of Disney Parks around the world, and now it’s truer than ever at Walt Disney World, where EPCOT is currently undergoing a multi-year transformation and Disney’s Hollywood Studios just completed a large revitalization.
The authors of the upcoming book A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth shared some insight into the history, business strategy and some interesting facts about Walt Disney World over the past 50 years, and as the vacation resort looks to the future.
During the planning phase and what WED Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering, called “Phase One” of the “Florida Project,” which would later become Walt Disney World, the teams looked to Disneyland Park as an example for creating and opening Walt Disney World. “The whole concept of a vacation hub centered on a theme park adjacent to resort and hotel amenities, as seen in the combination of Disneyland Park and the original Disneyland Hotel complex in Southern California. It’s still in evidence today as seen in the ‘Magic Kingdom Resorts’ on the Seven Seas Lagoon and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground,” said Tim O’Day. Once the Florida resort opened it took on its own personality, culture and attributes that made it distinctive from the Disneyland Resort.
One design feature inside Disneyland Park and Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World that are the same are the hub and spoke guest flow model, which is now used at multiple theme parks around the world. The design was originally conceived by Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers when they were designing Disneyland Park. The design allows people to have a point of orientation where they can see all the major paths in the park lead back to the hub, which at Disneyland Park and Magic Kingdom Park is the end of Main Street U.S.A.
“It’s not unlike the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris. This same design continues to work extraordinarily well, and helps eliminate the sensation of being lost, at EPCOT (think of the circular layout of Future World and World Showcase), Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and even portions of Disney’s Animal Kingdom,” said O’Day. Now, 50 years later, Walt Disney World continues to use this simple design to help the resort to be an easily accessible and immersive experience.
The element of “the show” extends to resort hotels
At Disney Parks around the world the element of “the show” is carefully done. The show is anything that guests can see or experience inside the parks. Since opening in 1971, Walt Disney World has continued to expand and change “the show” from the moment guests first arrive at Walt Disney World to the moment they leave.
“Even though each of the initial resort accommodations represented a disparate theme, they logically extended the ‘show’ of the Magic Kingdom beyond the gates of the park in engaging ways,” said Kevin Kern. For example, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort is an extension of Adventureland, Disney’s Contemporary Resort is an extension of Tomorrowland and Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa is an extension of Main Street U.S.A. Since 1971, when Walt Disney World consisted of just Magic Kingdom and a few hotels, the resort has since expanded this idea of a hotel extending the show of a theme park. “The narrative and thematic extension of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park with Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, for example, readily comes to mind as a primary and more recent example,” explained Kern.
One place that is as iconic at Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World is the A-frame main building at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Guests often recall riding the monorail to the resort and through the resort as kids and now their children do the same. “The sensation of entering its mammoth Grand Canyon Concourse via sleek monorail has never been replicated anywhere and remains a wholly-singular Walt Disney World experience,” said O’Day.
Walt Disney World hotels are not merely a place to sleep in the eyes of the company now, or over 50 years ago. “Building upon the lessons learned in Anaheim with the Disneyland Hotel complex, Walt’s brother and business partner, Roy O. Disney, oversaw a talented cadre of Imagineers, designers, craftspeople, and urban planners who understood that in order to create a true getaway, any new attempt at an immersive hotel experience needed to do just that – get guests further away from the outside world,” said Kern.
Looking to the future, hotel experiences like Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser will set a new precedent in what a hotel can be. The two-night vacation experience will fully bring guests into the world of Star Wars with highly themed rooms, tasks to undertake while on board the Halcyon, and even a “shore excursion” to Batuu at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. “We’re hard-pressed to even try qualifying it as a hotel – it’s really elevating the concept of ‘placemaking’ in groundbreaking ways that are so much more than ‘just’ accommodations,” said Kern.
EPCOT and looking to the future
When EPCOT was first conceived by Walt Disney it was meant to be an actual community that people lived in at Walt Disney World. The space would serve as a showcase for new technologies and new systems for the world to see. While the EPCOT Walt Disney envisioned never came to fruition, many of its forward thinking ideas did find a home across Walt Disney World. “Whether you look back to the innovative unitized steel construction for the Contemporary or Polynesian Village Resorts, the introduction of the Utilidors and remarkably efficient Central Energy Plant for the Magic Kingdom, or the world’s first 100% electronic phone service, these original prototype systems provided all the public services of a major city—from major developments in computer controls and utilities to substations and even wastewater reclamation,” said Steven Vagnini.
EPCOT is currently undergoing a multi-year transformation that still lines up with its original purpose to entertain, inform and inspire guests, but in new ways. EPCOT will have four neighborhoods, World Discovery, World Celebration, World Nature and World Showcase. Each area will have a distinct feel, and some are even getting new restaurants and attractions. For instance, in World Discovery the Space 220 restaurant recently opened and Disney fans can continue to look forward to riding Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. In World Nature the upcoming interactive experience Journey of Water, Inspired by Moana, will allow guests to play with “personality-filled water” and learn how to protect the natural resource.
“Beyond EPCOT, Walt Disney World continues to showcase its commitment to building a brighter future with the help of new technology, including at a 270-acre solar farm, completed in 2019, that generates enough renewable clean energy to operate two of our four theme parks annually, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50,000 tons per year,” said Vagnini.
As Walt Disney World looks ahead, it also should remember the business decisions and technology of the past that put the vacation capitol of the world on the map. A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth is available for purchase starting September 28, 2021 online and at Walt Disney World.