Florida Governor Claude Kirk and Roy Disney Announce Disney World Project in February 1967
For over four decades, Walt Disney World has been a vacation staple for families around the globe, but it also occupies a unique place in history as one of the most ambitious entertainment projects ever constructed. With four theme parks, dozens of hotels, and millions of annual visitors, the Orlando complex continues to evolve into the future, with new attractions based on Star Wars, Toy Story, and James Cameron’s Avatar currently under construction. Over the years, Disney World has blossomed from its comparably humble beginnings, back when one man’s vision transformed a patch of Florida swampland into what would ultimately become one of the most-visited tourist destinations on the planet.
Celebrate Walt Disney World’s 45th anniversary with a series of images from the project’s construction through its opening day on Oct. 1, 1971, ahead.
Disney World Construction Area in May 1969
Several years after opening his first theme park, Disneyland, in 1955, Walt Disney sought a larger plot of land where he could construct his next project: a bigger, better, secluded slice of property that wouldn’t run the risk of becoming overcrowded by cheap hotels, neon signs, and other tourist attractions that sprung up along the streets immediately outside the California property’s gates. He settled on a location just outside of Orlando, Florida, and purchased more than 40 square miles of land for the project.
Swiss Family Treehouse Under Construction
Though Walt Disney died of lung cancer in 1966, before construction of the Orlando parks was completed, most of the Magic Kingdom’s first phase of construction was overseen by Walt’s brother, Roy. According to local news reports at the time, the project cost around $400 million, which translates to almost $2.5 billion when adjusted for inflation.
In the photo above, construction begins on the Swiss Family Treehouse, a walk-through attraction based on the 1960 Disney film Swiss Family Robinson, in which a family is shipwrecked on an uncharted island after being chased by pirates en route to New Guinea. The attraction still operates in the Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland section, while newer versions of the Swiss Family Treehouse opened in 1992 at Disneyland Paris and 1993 at Tokyo Disneyland. Anaheim’s version of the attraction was converted to Tarzan’s Treehouse, themed after the 1999 animated movie, 37 years after its 1962 opening.
Disney World Under Construction in November 1969
Today, the Magic Kingdom’s layout remains largely the same as it existed when the park first opened in 1971. In the photo above, taken in 1969, the park’s hub-based grid can be seen in the early stages of construction. The hub design, modeled after Disneyland’s (but on a larger scale) was intended to draw visitors into the center of the park, where they could branch off to six themed lands located around Cinderella Castle, the park’s centerpiece.
The park’s hub recently underwent a lengthy refurbishment as a means to expand the area of walkable space in front of Cinderella Castle. It was completed in 2015.
Construction of Main Street U.S.A.
Inspired by the buildings found within Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri, Main Street, U.S.A. serves as visitors’ point of entry into Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. After first opening at Disneyland in 1955, the section is now a staple at nearly every Disney resort around the world. In addition to the Florida and California versions, iterations of the iconic entrance plaza are currently operating in Tokyo (1983), Paris (1992), and Hong Kong (2005). It has even inspired knockoff versions at several non-Disney parks around the world, including the eerily similar entrance plaza at Japan’s Nara Dreamland.
Shanghai Disneyland, which officially opened to the public in summer 2016, is the only member of the Disney Parks family not to include a version of Main Street, U.S.A. Instead, visitors enter the park through Mickey Avenue, which boasts a similar array of shops and attractions found on Main Street at other Disney parks, minus the Americana-inspired architecture.
Construction at Bay Lake
Seven Seas Lagoon, the man-made lake situated just outside the Magic Kingdom’s front gate, connects to the nearby Bay Lake, a natural body of water adjacent to the park’s Contemporary Resort. Between 1974 and 1999, guests were able to reach Discovery Island, in the center of Bay Lake, by boat. The attraction housed several live animal exhibits that included cranes, pelicans, and flamingos.
Contemporary Hotel Under Construction in July 1971
Two original resort properties opened alongside Walt Disney World in 1971: The first, Disney’s Polynesian Village, features 492 rooms and is themed to various islands found throughout Oceania. The second, pictured above, is Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The main hotel’s signature A-frame design houses a stop on the Walt Disney World monorail, the track of which runs through the interior of the building.
The Monorail in October 1971
If you’ve been to the Walt Disney World Resort, chances are you’ve taken a ride on the park’s monorail system. Opening alongside the resort in 1971, the original track layout featured two routes, though it was later expanded to include three lines when Epcot opened in 1982. According to The Monorail Society, the Disney transit system is one of the most heavily used light rail lines in the world, carrying on average more than 150,000 passengers per day, with trains traveling nearly 68,000 miles in a calendar year.
Grand Opening in October 1971
After roughly five years of construction, Walt Disney World officially opened to the public on Oct. 1, 1971. A ticket to enter the Magic Kingdom park cost $3.50 at the time. Today’s prices fluctuate between $97 and $114, depending on the season.
The park opened with six themed lands — Main Street, U.S.A., Liberty Square, Fantasyland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and Frontierland — and several iconic attractions, many of which are still operating today, including The Haunted Mansion, Mad Tea Party, and It’s a Small World.
Opening Day Parade Down Main Street, U.S.A.
Disney World’s opening featured live performances and a parade that included characters from Disney films marching down Main Street, U.S.A. Over 10,000 people reportedly attended the Magic Kingdom’s opening day festivities on Oct. 1, 1971.
Julie Andrews Performs During Magic Kingdom's Grand Opening
Oscar winner Julie Andrews, star of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, performed at the Magic Kingdom’s grand opening ceremony. The resort held a three-day celebration in late October to honor the park’s debut, with other celebrities like Bob Hope, Rock Hudson, Annette Funicello, and Fred MacMurray making appearances as well.