Designed to supplement Disneyland in Anaheim, California, which had opened in 1955, the complex was developed by Walt Disney in the 1960s. "The Florida Project", as it was known, was intended to present a distinct vision with its own diverse set of attractions. Walt Disney's original plans also called for the inclusion of an "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" (EPCOT), a planned community intended to serve as a test bed for new city living innovations. After extensive lobbying, the Government of Florida created the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special government district that essentially gave The Walt Disney Company the standard powers and autonomy of an incorporated city. Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966, before construction began. Without Disney spearheading the construction, the company created a resort similar to Disneyland, abandoning experimental concepts for a planned community. Magic Kingdom was the first theme park to open in the complex, in 1971, followed by Epcot in 1982, Disney's Hollywood Studios in 1989, and the most recent, Disney's Animal Kingdom in 1998.
Today, Walt Disney World is the most visited vacation resort in the world, with an average annual attendance of over 52 million. The resort is the flagship destination of Disney's worldwide corporate enterprise, and has become a popular staple in American culture.
In 1959, Walt Disney Productions began looking for land to house a second resort to supplement Disneyland in Anaheim, California, which had opened in 1955. Market surveys at the time revealed that only 5% of Disneyland's visitors came from east of the Mississippi River, where 75% of the population of the United States lived. Additionally, Walt Disney disliked the businesses that had sprung up around Disneyland and wanted more control over a larger area of land in the next project.
Walt Disney flew over a potential site in Orlando, Florida – one of many – in November 1963. After witnessing the well-developed network of roads and taking the planned construction of both Interstate 4 and Florida's Turnpike into account, with McCoy Air Force Base (later Orlando International Airport) to the east, Disney selected a centrally-located site near Bay Lake. To avoid a burst of land speculation, Walt Disney World Company used various dummy corporations to acquire 30,500 acres (48 sq mi; 123 km2) of land. In May 1965, some of these major land transactions were recorded a few miles southwest of Orlando in Osceola County. In addition, two large tracts totaling $1.5 million were sold, and smaller tracts of flatlands and cattle pastures were purchased by exotically-named companies such as the "Ayefour Corporation", "Latin-American Development and Management Corporation" and the "Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation". Some are now memorialized on a window above Main Street, U.S.A. in Magic Kingdom. The smaller parcels of land acquired were called "outs". They were 5-acre (2 ha) lots platted in 1912 by the Munger Land Company and sold to investors. Most of the owners in the 1960s were happy to get rid of the land, which was mostly swamp at the time. Another issue was the mineral rights to the land, which were owned by Tufts University. Without the transfer of these rights, Tufts could come in at any time and demand the removal of buildings to obtain minerals. Eventually, Disney's team negotiated a deal with Tufts to buy the mineral rights for $15,000.
Working strictly in secrecy, real estate agents unaware of their client's identity began making offers to landowners in April 1964 in parts of southwest Orange and northwest Osceola counties. The agents were careful not to reveal the extent of their intentions, and they were able to negotiate numerous land contracts with some including large tracts of land for as little as $100 an acre. With the understanding that the recording of the first deeds would trigger intense public scrutiny, Disney delayed the filing of paperwork until a large portion of the land was under contract.
Early rumors and speculation about the land purchases assumed possible development by NASA in support of the nearby Kennedy Space Center, as well as references to other famous investors such as Ford, the Rockefellers, and Howard Hughes. An Orlando Sentinel news article published weeks later on May 20, 1965, acknowledged a popular rumor that Disney was building an "East Coast" version of Disneyland. However, the publication denied its accuracy based on an earlier interview with Disney at Kennedy Space Center, in which he claimed a $50 million investment was in the works for Disneyland, and that he had no interest in building a new park. In October 1965, editor Emily Bavar from the Sentinel visited Disneyland during the park's 10th-anniversary celebration. In an interview with Disney, she asked him if he was behind recent land purchases in Central Florida; Bavar later described that Disney "looked like I had thrown a bucket of water in his face" before denying the story. His reaction, combined with other research obtained during her Anaheim visit, led Bavar to author a story on October 21, 1965, where she predicted that Disney was building a second theme park in Florida. Three days later after gathering more information from various sources, the Sentinel published another article headlined, "We Say: 'Mystery Industry' Is Disney".
Walt Disney had originally planned to publicly reveal Disney World on November 15, 1965, but in light of the Sentinel story, Disney asked Florida Governor Haydon Burns to confirm the story on October 25. His announcement called the new theme park "the greatest attraction in the history of Florida". The official reveal was kept on the previously-planned November 15 date, and Disney joined Burns in Orlando for the event.
Walt Disney died from lung cancer on December 15, 1966, before his vision was realized. His brother and business partner, Roy O. Disney, postponed his retirement to oversee construction of the resort's first phase.
On February 2, 1967, Roy O. Disney held a press conference at the Park Theatres in Winter Park, Florida. The role of EPCOT was emphasized in the film that was played. After the film, it was explained that for Disney World, including EPCOT, to succeed, a special district would have to be formed: the Reedy Creek Improvement District with two cities inside it, Bay Lake and Reedy Creek, now Lake Buena Vista. In addition to the standard powers of an incorporated city, which include the issuance of tax-free bonds, the district would have immunity from any current or future county or state land-use laws. The only areas where the district had to submit to the county and state would be property taxes and elevator inspections. The legislation forming the district and the two cities was signed into law by Florida Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. on May 12, 1967. The Supreme Court of Florida then ruled in 1968 that the district was allowed to issue tax-exempt bonds for public projects within the district, despite the sole beneficiary being Walt Disney Productions.
The district soon began construction of drainage canals, and Disney built the first roads and the Magic Kingdom. The Contemporary Resort Hotel and Polynesian Village were also completed in time for the park's opening on October 1, 1971. The Palm and Magnolia golf courses near Magic Kingdom had opened a few weeks before, while Fort Wilderness opened a month later. At the park's opening, Roy O. Disney dedicated the property and declared that it would be known as "Walt Disney World" in his brother's honor. In his own words: "Everyone has heard of Ford cars. But have they all heard of Henry Ford, who started it all? Walt Disney World is in memory of the man who started it all, so people will know his name as long as Walt Disney World is here." After the dedication, Roy Disney asked Walt's widow, Lillian, what she thought of Walt Disney World. According to biographer Bob Thomas, she responded, "I think Walt would have approved." Roy Disney died at age 78 on December 20, 1971, less than three months after the property opened.
Admission prices in 1971 were $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for juniors under age 18, and one dollar for children under twelve.
Much of Walt Disney's plans for his Progress City were abandoned after his death after the company board decided that it did not want to be in the business of running a city. The concept evolved into the resort's second theme park, EPCOT Center (renamed Epcot in 1996), which opened in 1982. While still emulating Walt Disney's original idea of showcasing new technology, it is closer to a world's fair than a "community of tomorrow". Some of the urban planning concepts from the original idea of EPCOT would instead be integrated into the community of Celebration much later. The resort's third theme park, Disney-MGM Studios (renamed Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2008), opened in 1989 and is inspired by show business. The resort's fourth theme park, Disney's Animal Kingdom, opened in 1998.
George Kalogridis was named president of the resort in December 2012, replacing Meg Crofton, who had overseen the site since 2006.
On January 21, 2016, the resort's management structure was changed, with general managers within a theme park being in charge of an area or land, instead of on a functional basis as previously. Theme parks have already had a vice-president overseeing them. Disney Springs and Disney Sports were also affected. Now hotel general managers manage a single hotel instead of some managing multiple hotels.
The Florida resort is not within Orlando city limits but is southwest of Downtown Orlando. Much of the resort is in southwestern Orange County, with the remainder in adjacent Osceola County. The property includes the cities of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake which are governed by the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The site is accessible from Central Florida's Interstate 4 via Exits 62B (World Drive), 64B (US 192 West), 65B (Osceola Parkway West), 67B (SR 536 West), and 68 (SR 535 North), and Exit 8 on SR 429, the Western Expressway. At its founding, the park occupied approximately 30,500 acres (48 sq mi; 123 km2). Portions of the property have since been sold or de-annexed, including land now occupied by the Disney-built community of Celebration. Now the park occupies 27,258 acres (43 sq mi; 110 km2), about the size of San Francisco, or twice the size of Manhattan.Magic Kingdom, opened October 1, 1971
Epcot, opened October 1, 1982
Disney's Hollywood Studios, opened May 1, 1989
Disney's Animal Kingdom, opened April 22, 1998
Disney's Typhoon Lagoon, opened June 1, 1989
Disney's Blizzard Beach, opened April 1, 1995
Disney Springs, opened March 22, 1975 (Previously known as Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, Disney Village Marketplace, and Downtown Disney)La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil, opened December 23, 1998, and is to close after December 31, 2017.
Disney's Wedding Pavilion, opened July 15, 1995
ESPN Wide World of Sports, opened March 28, 1997
Disney's property includes four golf courses. The three 18-hole golf courses are Disney's Palm (4.5 stars), Disney's Magnolia (4 stars), and Disney's Lake Buena Vista (4 stars). There is also a nine-hole walking course (no electric carts allowed) called Oak Trail, designed for young golfers. The Magnolia and Palm courses played home to the PGA Tour's Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic. Arnold Palmer Golf Management manages the Disney golf courses.
Additionally, there are two themed miniature golf complexes, each with two courses, Fantasia Gardens and Winter Summerland. The two course at Fantasia Gardens are Fantasia Garden and Fantasia Fairways. The Garden course is a traditional miniature-style course based on the "Fantasia" movies with musical holes, water fountains and characters. Fantasia Fairways is a traditional golf course on miniature scale having water hazards and sand traps.
The two courses at Winter Summerland are Summer and Winter both theme around Santa. Summer is the more challenging of the two 18-hole courses.Discovery Island — an island in Bay Lake that was home to many species of animals and birds. It opened on April 8, 1974, and closed on April 8, 1999.
Disney's River Country — the first water park at the Walt Disney World Resort. It opened on June 20, 1976, and closed on November 2, 2001.
Walt Disney World Speedway — a racetrack at Walt Disney World and included the Richard Petty Driving Experience. It opened November 28, 1995, and closed on August 9, 2015.
DisneyQuest — an indoor interactive theme park that featured many arcade games and virtual attractions. It opened June 19, 1998 as part of an unsuccessful attempt to launch a chain of similar theme parks. It closed on July 2, 2017 to be replaced by the NBA Experience.
Of the thirty-four resorts and hotels on the Walt Disney World property, twenty-eight are owned and operated by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. These are classified into four categories — Deluxe, Moderate, Value, and Disney Vacation Club Villas — and are located in one of five resort areas: the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Wide World of Sports, Animal Kingdom, or Disney Springs resort areas.
While all of the Deluxe resort hotels have achieved an AAA Four Diamond rating, Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is considered the highest tier flagship luxury resort on the Walt Disney World Resort complex.The Golf Resort — Became The Disney Inn, and later became Shades of Green.
Disney's Village Resort — Became the Villas at Disney Institute and then Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa. The "Tree House" Villas were decommissioned for a time because they were not accessible to disabled guests. Until early 2008, they were used for International Program Cast Member housing. In February 2008, Disney submitted plans to the South Florida Water Management District to replace the 60 existing villas with 60 new villas. The Treehouse Villas opened during the summer of 2009.
Celebration — a town designed and built by Disney, now managed by a resident-run association.
Lake Buena Vista — Disney originally intended this area to become a complete community with multiple residences, shopping, and offices, but transformed the original homes into hotel lodging in the 1970s, which were demolished in the early 2000s to build Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa)
Star Wars Hotel — planned to be built just outside of the under-construction Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land of Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park.
Disney's Asian Resort
Disney's Persian Resort
Disney's Venetian Resort
Disney's Mediterranean Resort
Fort Wilderness Junction
Guests with a Disney Resort reservation (excluding the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin) that arrive at Orlando International Airport can be transported to their resort from the airport using the complimentary Disney Magical Express service, which is operated by Mears Destination Services. Guests can also have their bags picked up and transported to their resort for them through a contract with BAGS Incorporated on participating airlines. Many resorts feature Airline Check-in counters for guests returning to the airport. Here their bags will be checked all the way through to their final destination and they can also have boarding passes printed for them. Some participating airlines are Delta, United, American, Jet Blue, and Alaska Airlines.
In 2014, the resort's four theme parks all ranked in the top 8 on the list of the 25 most visited theme parks in the world; (1st) Magic Kingdom - 19,332,000 visitors, (6th) Epcot - 11,454,000 visitors, (7th) Disney's Animal Kingdom - 10,402,000 visitors, and (8th) Disney's Hollywood Studios - 10,312,000 visitors.
The Walt Disney World Resort is serviced by Disney Transport, a complimentary mass transportation system allowing guest access across the property. The Walt Disney World Monorail System provides free transportation at Walt Disney World. The system operates on three routes that interconnect at the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC), adjacent to the Magic Kingdom's parking lot. A fleet of Disney-operated buses on property, branded Disney Transport, is also complimentary for guests.
Disney Transport also operates a fleet of watercraft, ranging in size from water taxis, up to the ferries that connect the Magic Kingdom to the Transportation and Ticket Center. Disney Transport is also responsible for maintaining the fleet of parking lot trams that are used for shuttling visitors between the various theme park parking lots and their respective main entrances.
When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, the site employed about 5,500 "cast members". Today, Walt Disney World employs more than 74,000 cast members, spending more than $1.2 billion on payroll and $474 million on benefits each year. The largest single-site employer in the United States, Walt Disney World has more than 3,700 job classifications. The resort also sponsors and operates the Walt Disney World College Program, an internship program that offers American college students (CP's) the opportunity to live about 15 miles (24 km) off-site in four Disney-owned apartment complexes and work at the resort, and thereby provides much of the theme park and resort "front line" cast members. There is also the Walt Disney World International College Program, an internship program that offers international college students (ICP's) from all over the world the same opportunity.
Walt Disney World's corporate culture uses jargon based on theatrical terminology. For example, park visitors are always "guests", employees are "cast members," rides are "attractions" or "adventures", cast members costumed as famous Disney characters in a way that does not cover their faces are known as "face characters", jobs are "roles", and public and nonpublic areas are respectively labeled "onstage" and "backstage".
Since the resort's opening in 1971, Walt Disney World has only closed on seven different occasions, six of which were due to hurricanes impacting the Orlando area. Guests are permitted to stay in Walt Disney World resort hotels during the closure of Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Disney Springs, and ESPN World Wide Sports Complex.September 15,1999: First closure ever of the Walt Disney World resort in preparation for Hurricane Floyd.
September 4 and 5, 1999: Hurricane Frances
September 11, 2001: All four theme parks were evacuated within 30 minutes of operation after the September 11 attacks on the United States. This is the only date in the resort's history to have closed due to a non-hurricane threat.
September 26, 2004: Hurricane Jeanne
October 24, 2005: Hurricane Wilma
October 6 and 7, 2016: Hurricane Matthew
September 10 and 11, 2017: Hurricane Irma