By Christian Blauvelt
Updated October 07, 2011 at 09:20 PM EDT
Credit: Disney

This month, the Happiest Place on Earth hits middle age.

Forty years ago, Walt Disney World opened in a tiny Florida town called Bay Lake, about 20 minutes outside Orlando, a place that was just a smattering of orange groves in the middle of nowhere.

Walt Disney had already revolutionized in-person, multimedia entertainment in 1955 with Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., but the space limitations of the park had hobbled his original vision. Not to mention that it still relied upon some old-fashioned assumptions about amusement parks: the park should be open only five days a week; it should be primarily oriented towards kids; and it’s a one-day experience — you show up in the morning and leave at night.

Uncle Walt’s “Florida Project” was going to change all that with a completely immersive environment: not just a Magic Kingdom, but hotels, restaurants, golf courses, a campground, and, eventually, a living, breathing city, codenamed the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (i.e. EPCOT).

Though the now-normally-capitalized Epcot didn’t turn out exactly as Disney himself had imagined it, even he, a man of no small vision, would have to be impressed with the sheer size of Walt Disney World today. What is now a fanciful cityscape of four theme parks, two water parks, and 20 hotels, plus an entertainment district/shopping marketplace that could rival that of any major city, opened on October 1, 1971 with just the Magic Kingdom and two hotels, the Contemporary and the Polynesian. (The latter is the resort where John Lennon signed the legal documents that officially ended the Beatles.)

That’s the Walt Disney World show that director Forrest Bahruth, a 40-year veteran of the park, remembers. In early 1971, he had just left his job as a choreographer on ABC’s variety show This Is Tom Jones, when he first set foot on what would become WDW. “I remember the first time I walked into what is now the Magic Kingdom,” Bahruth says. “There were literally four to five thousand construction workers. It was like an anthill where you could see things going up practically minute by minute.”

Though the park opened on October 1, the biggest celebration came over Dedication Weekend October 23-25, when Bob Hope and the president’s daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, inaugurated the Contemporary Resort, while Music Man composer Meredith Willson (of “Seventy-Six Trombones” fame) led a one-thousand-seventy-six-trombone band down Main Street.

Bahruth also needed a young woman to play the Statue of Liberty, during a pageant promoting domestic travel called “Show Me America.” Surprisingly, it proved difficult to fill the part, so they settled on a young, relatively unknown comedienne who, up to that time, had only landed bit parts on TV. “A friend of ours knew this young woman who was a hysterical person,” Bahruth says. “And her name was Teri Garr. Yep, Teri Garr got her start as the Statue of Liberty at Disney World.”

Other Disney World alumni have since achieved stardom as well, but when I asked Bahruth about how, say, Wayne Brady famously used to play Tigger at the Magic Kingdom before making it big, this was the response: “Christian, we don’t know what you’re talking about. Tigger is Tigger. Wayne may have been a friend of Tigger’s and met him a few times, though.” Needless to say, these are magicians who are deeply committed to keeping their tricks a secret.

And it’s that commitment that still makes Walt Disney World such an exciting place. I first visited on my third birthday in 1989, and though I’ve come back at least once every year since — as a Florida native, it’s my birthright — I’ve never run out of new things to experience there. As a kid, though, WDW also served as a pivotal gateway to pop culture. I first discovered the Alien franchise because of an animatronic Sigourney Weaver on the Great Movie Ride; rode Star Tours years before I had even seen an actual Star Wars movie; got my first taste of the Old West at Frontierland; discovered Michael Jackson through Captain EO; and even received valuable conservation lessons by Ellen DeGeneres on Ellen’s Energy Adventure at Epcot. It’s something I still experience. I’m a David Lynch fanatic, so you can imagine what a thrill it was this past Thanksgiving when no less than Isabella Rossellini (of Lynch’s very un-Disney Blue Velvet) led Epcot’s stirring Candlelight Processional.

Big rival Universal Studios has always had the slogan, “Ride the Movies.” Walt Disney World might as well be a movie — it’s just too big for any screen. No wonder that in his rhapsodic 1971 article about the park for Film Comment, the famously serious-minded film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, after having already likened the artistic achievements of Tomorrowland and the Haunted Mansion to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the oeuvre of F.W. Murnau, respectively, ended with this: “Midnight or so, passing back through the gates and into the cosmic reaches of the Disney parking lot, I look up at a dazzling skyful of stars, every constellation in its appointed place – stars poised and ready like raindrops about to fall. Are they Disney’s too?”

When did you make your first pilgrimage to Walt Disney World? Feel free to share your memories in the comments below.