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Top 40 Magical Events at the Walt Disney World Resort During the First Four Decades


chad emerson

By Chad Emerson   Published by kind courtesy:

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Events #40 through #1

#40    Debut of One Man’s Dream attraction at Hollywood Studios: October 2001

This interactive attraction debuted as part of Disney World’s 100 Years of Magic celebration that honored the centennial anniversary of Walt Disney’s birth.  Located in Hollywood Studios, the attraction brought together what was, at the time, the largest ever collection of Disney memorabilia for general public display, including several exclusive items to the attraction and several items that had never before been displayed at the Walt Disney World Resort.

#39    Opening of Disney’s Port Orleans resort:  May 1991

This massive resort opened in May 1991 as a moderate-level offering that combined two distinct options, one with an Old South theme and one with a disney magic kingdom fireworksFrench Quarter theme.  Originally configured as two separate resorts, the two venues merged in 2001 into a single resort.  In addition to being one of Disney World’s largest resorts, Port Orleans was the first (and currently only) moderate-level resort that offers an alternative to bus transportation—in this case, water shuttle service to Downtown Disney via the “Sassagoula River”.  One of the resort’s most popular features is the Ol’ Man Island swimming and recreation area that includes what was then the world’s largest transplanted live oak tree.

#38    First Walt Disney World Marathon:  January 1994

Now consisting of an entire Marathon Weekend that includes a full and half marathon together with health exhibits and shorter races, the 1994 debut of the Walt Disney World Marathon set in motion what is now a yearlong roster of running events at the resort.  These have included team events like the Expedition Everest Challenge, 10k and 5k races, and even a 13k race themed to the Tower of Terror. In addition to a scenic run throughout the Disney World property and parks, marathon participants also receive special Disney-themed medals for what is considered to be one of the country’s fast-growing and most successful marathons.

#37    Debut of Cinderella’s Castle Suite at the Magic Kingdom:  October 2006

As part of the Year of a Million Dreams celebration, Disney World completed a previously unfinished apartment in Cinderella’s Castle and began to award select guests the “dream” of staying the night in the castle suite.  Composed of an elaborate sleeping area, seating area, and bathroom, suite guests are treated to all the luxuries one might expect from staying in such an iconic castle.  Suite guests were also treated to a special dinner, parade and fireworks viewing, and exclusive after hours access to the Magic Kingdom.

#36    Opening of Disney’s Wide World of Sports:  March 1997

When Disney originally purchased its thousands of acres of land for the Florida Project, much of this land included wetlands.  In the mid 1990s, Disney began to reclaim over 200 acres of this land for the construction of this massive sports complex that offers venues for over 15 different sports.  Since opening in March 1997 with an Atlanta Braves spring training game (in what was then known as Cracker Jack Stadium), the facility has grown to include two large field houses as well as a track and field complex and numerous other playing fields.  Now known as the ESPN Wide World of Sports, the facility also hosts a large restaurant (originally an Official All Star Café) and is home to the ESPN Innovation Lab and an announced 100 lane bowling facility that when completed would be one of the world’s largest.

#35    Premiere of La Nouba at Downtown Disney:  December 1998

Long known as one of the world’s most creative companies, Cirque du Soleil selected Disney World as the home for its first permanent show at a theme park resort—a partnership that brought two of the most innovative entertainment companies together at the Downtown Disney district.  Housed in a sweeping white structure, La Nouba roughly means “to party”—a name that is well-deserved as the show has been performed over 5, 000 time since its debut.  With an original cost of over $40 million dollars, the theater was Cirque’s first ever permanent and free-standing structure.  While Cirque would later partner with Disney for the permanent ZED show at the Tokyo Disneyland Resort, La Nouba remains one of the company’s most popular shows and one whose acrobatics and mesmerizing music appeals to guests of all ages.

#34    First Grad Nite at Walt Disney World:  June 1972

The idea of a celebration for high school seniors first arrived at Disneyland with the original Grad Nite in 1961.  The popular event expanded to Disney World soon after the resort opened and continued the tradition of a safe and clean evening for students to exclusively enjoy the park and special entertainment.  If mimicry is a sign of success, then Grad Nite should be consider one as Universal later started an annual Grad Bash and even Disney itself copied the concept with the Disney's Eighth Grade Jam aimed for graduating middle schoolers.  Unfortunately, after nearly 40 years, Disney World recently announced it was discontinuing the annual Grad Nite event that had found a home in the Magic Kingdom every year since its introduction (except for a 2009 move over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios).

#33    Debut of Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom:  October 1992

There’s not much that can stop the Walt Disney World Railroad from completing its entire circuit around the Magic Kingdom but the E-ticket Splash Mountain did just that during construction in 1992 as its huge size necessitated an entirely reconstructed train stop in Frontierland.  For most though, this highly immersive cross between a dark ride and log flume has been worth it as Splash Mountain remains one of Disney World’s most popular rides even as it nears its 20th Anniversary.  Themed to Disney’s animated Song of the South film, Magic Kingdom’s Splash Mountain was actually the second version of the ride following the original version at Disneyland.  However, the Disney World version is often considered an improvement generally based on its 10 minute length and whooping 9+ acres in size (compared to the roughly 2 acres of the original). 

#32    Debut of Main Street Electrical Parade at Walt Disney World:  June 1977

Like Splash Mountain, the Main Street Electrical Parade actually premiered at Disneyland in 1972.  This parade was inspired in several ways by the Electrical Water Pageant which debuted at Disney World in 1971.  In many ways, the Electrical Parade was a land-based version of the Electrical Water Pageant with brightly-lit floats amazing Disney World guests on a regular basis beginning in 1977.  Currently one its third engagement at Disney World, the parade offered guests one of Disney’s most memorable lines:

"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Walt Disney World proudly presents our spectacular festival pageant of nighttime magic and imagination. In thousands of sparkling lights, and electro-synthe-magnetic musical sounds: the Main Street Electrical Parade!"

#31    First Candlelight Processional at Epcot:  November 1994

Every Christmas season, Epcot’s American pavilion is home to one of the holiday’s hottest tickets:  the Candlelight Processional.  This popular performance uses a large choir, orchestra, and a celebrity narrator to retell the traditional Christmas story.  While the event is free, the America Gardens Theater often fills up for the multiple performances on many days.  This popularity has led to one of Epcot’s best selling dinner events known as the Candlelight Processional dinner where guests reserve a meal at one of Epcot’s restaurants and are guaranteed a seat at that evening’s performance.  Filled with emotion and splendor, the Candlelight Processional remains one of the most inspiring moments each year at Disney World.

#30    Opening of Downtown Disney:  September 1997

In 1975, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village debuted with artisan craftsmen and proposed residences right on Disney World property.  Though the residences never came to fruition, the shopping village eventually expanded into a massive outdoor entertainment area that included Pleasure Island, Disney’s West Side, and Marketplace under the banner of Downtown Disney.  Home to one of the world’s largest House of Blues, first theme park-based Cirque du Soleil, and only-remaining DisneyQuest indoor theme park, Downtown Disney has become the resort’s evening activity hub as guests swamp the heavily themed restaurants and shops, including the world’s largest Disney merchandise venue.

#29    Debut of Expedition: Everest:  April 2006

Though Central Florida is extremely flat, Disney’s chunk of real estate is filled with a host of mountains including Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Mount Gushmore.  The largest of all mountains though can be found at Disney’s Animal Kingdom where Expedition Everest rises up to 200 feet above sea level.  Until the roller coaster opened, many considered Animal Kingdom lacking a signature thrill attraction.  This Yeti-themed coaster changed that as it combined a heavily-themed queue with a mysterious tale of a mountain train ride gonmagic kingdom castle walt disney 40 years celebratione haywire.  With a unique design that includes a switch track where riders go both forward and backward at different points in the ride, Expedition: Everest has breathed new life into Animal Kingdom (even if its famed Abominable Snowman animatronic—one of the largest ever—remains frozen because of engineering issues).

#28    Opening of Disney’s Wedding Pavilion:  July 1995

For many Disney fans, the opportunity to be married with a view of Cinderella’s Castle in the background is a dream opportunity.  Situated between the Polynesian and the Grand Floridian resorts, Disney’s Wedding Pavilion includes a large chapel, preparation rooms, and an iconic photo spot where the Castle is perfectly framed under an archway next to the Seven Seas Lagoon.  The pavilion also includes Franck's, a wedding planning venue inspired by the Father of the Bride movies.  Home to some of the resort’s best views, the wedding complex remains the most popular spot to get married at Disney World.

#27    Opening of River Country:  June 1976

Long before the days of watercoasters and summit plunges, River Country opened as Disney World’s first waterpark.  Nestled next to Bay Lake in the Fort Wilderness campground, River Country was themed as an old fishing hole (think: Huck Finn) with a few gentle thrills, inner tube river, and Upstream Plunge, one of the largest recreational pools at the time.  With Goofy playing a prominent role in the park’s marketing, River Country is considered by many to be one of the amusement industry’s first immersively themed waterparks.  The park closed in 2001 after a long history that included highlights such as the All American Water Party where Disney characters flooded the park for this special July 4th themed event.

#26    Debut of the Disney Institute: February 1996 

Few Disney World creations have generated as much debate as the Disney Institute.  Originally conceived as an immersive learning environment focused on adult vacationers interested in unique educational experiences, the idea of replicating a Chautauqua-type venue at a theme park resort never met the company’s expectations.  Tracing its physical roots back to 1985 and “The Village Resort” (and arguably back to early 1970s plans to built a residential community across the lake from what is now Downtown Disney), the Disney Institute as a resort closed in 2003 and was converted into the Disney Vacation Club’s Saratoga Springs property.  Though many wonder why Disney introduced the concept, the fact remains that the Disney Institute programs and curriculum remain popular today as the division continues to offer corporate training and other courses both on and off Disney World property. 

#25    Opening of Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground:  November 1971

Debuting less than two months after Disney World’s grand opening, Fort Wilderness represented Disney’s unique effort of combining camping with a heavily themed environment.  Fort Wilderness offered an early (and less expensive) alternative to the original Disney World resorts while also providing long-lasting entertainment options like the  Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, Mickey's Backyard BBQ, and a free nightly campfire and sing-a-long with Chip ‘n Dale.  The resort was also once home to the Fort Wilderness Railroad—a 3.5 mile steam engine route within the campground.  Fort Wilderness eventually expanded to include cabins for those interested in a non-camping experience.
#24    Opening of the San Angel Inn:  October 1992

The debate about the best restaurants in Disney World is endless and immune from consensus.  The debate about the best setting for a restaurant at Disney World is not nearly as extensive though.  Near the top of this list for many is the San Angel Inn at the Mexico pavilion in Epcot.  Inspired by a 300 year old monastery turned restaurant in Mexico, Epcot’s San Angel Inn is located in the dimly lit interior of the pavilion with the most prized seats being those along the waterway that provides the path for the slow boat ride attraction.  Using forced perspective and other tricks of the trade, Imagineers designed a restaurant that places guests at the foot of a faux volcano whose distant eruption never ends.  For many, the food is almost an afterthought to the immersive environment that the San Angel Inn has offered Epcot guests for nearly twenty years.

#23    Opening of Disney’s Vacation Club Resort:  December 1991

The generically named “Vacation Club Resort” debuted just before Christmas 1991 as Disney’s first foray into the time share market.  With over 700 rooms, the resort offered some of the largest rooms at Disney World and was available for use by vacation club members and rental by non-club members.  Though it was always themed to a Key West setting, the resort was subsequently renamed “Old Key West” and remains the home of “Olivia’s”—one of the most popular restaurants at any of Disney’s vacation club resorts.  With boat service to Downtown Disney and spacious living space, Old Key West has a loyal following of guests who regularly return each year to where the entire Disney Vacation Club got started.

#22    Premiere of 100 Years of Magic Celebration:  October 2001

#21    Removal of the Epcot Wand:  September 2007

This Magical Event is unique among all others on the list as it represents the only one centered on the closing, rather than opening, of an attraction.  As the millennium neared in 1999, Walt Disney World prepared to celebrate the event throughout its theme parks.  One of the biggest examples of this was a large Mickey arm and wand that was constructed over the Spaceship Earth attraction.  Originally intended as a temporary icon for the Millennium Celebration, this 25 story creation, inspired by the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia, did not close with the rest of the celebration.  Instead, it continued on until 2007 when then Epcot Vice President Jim MacPhee announced that the wand would be removed and Spaceship Earth would be restored to its original form.  Legions of Disney fans celebrated this long awaited retirement of the infamous wand.

#20    Debut of Turtle Talk with Crush:  November 2004

For many, the idea of a classic Disney attraction involves a grand, groundbreaking “E” ticket offering.  This idea was challenged though with the development of Turtle Talk with Crush.  Originally located in a small theater at the Living Seas pavilion, the attraction opened to little fanfare and media publicity early on.  Yet, it was not long until Turtle Talk became a quick hit with Disney guests—so much so that Disney moved it to a larger theater at the Living Seas and replicated the attraction at its parks across the globe.  Consisting of a roughly 10 minute movie-based experience, Turtle Talk allows guests to interact in real-time with a projected image of Crush that is voiced by a live actor using a series of hidden cameras.  The seamless nature of the presentation caused many guests to wonder “how did Disney do that?”—one of the greatest compliments that a purveyor of Magic could receive.

#19    Debut of Tower of Terror:  July 1994

Unlike many theme parks, Disney has typically leaned toward using its own creative properties when developing attractions rather than licensing the properties of others.  Fortunately, Disney made an exception when it paid to use the Twilight Zone franchise for this 199 foot attraction in the Hollywood Studios theme park.  Consisting of one of Disney’s most elaborate and creative queues ever built—a queue literally littered with Twilight Zone references throughout—the Tower of Terror takes guests on a thrilling ride through a haunted hotel in the Hollywood of yesteryear.  The magic of the attraction is not limited to its immersive theming though as the ride’s autonomous guided vehicle technology allowed Disney to take the classic concept of a vertical-only drop riwalt disney with mickey mousede and give it a groundbreaking horizontal motion into the Fifth Dimension and “beyond the deepest, darkest corner of the imagination, in the Tower of Terror."

#18    Premiere of Wishes:  October 2003

Replacing a classic Disney attraction can be a challenging experience for both the guests who have grown to love it and the creators assigned to replace it.  That’s exactly the scenario Disney faced when it decided to close the 30+ year old Fantasy in the Sky fireworks at the Magic Kingdom.  This challenge was met with flying colors (pun intended) though when the Steve Davison-designed Wishes fireworks show took to the sky in the Fall of 2003.  Narrated by Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy, the show combines fireworks with lasers, lights, and castle projections to show that Disney can create a new classic when retiring the old.  So popular has the emotional Wishes presentation been that it has been modified for special Halloween and Christmas versions as well as a version exclusive to Disneyland Paris.

#17    Opening of the Disney Golf Resort:  December 1973 

When Walt Disney first developed the master plan for his Florida Project, he envisioned more than just themed parks and resorts.  Instead, he contemplated a wide variety of vacation and daily living experiences (even to include an airport and industrial park).  One of the first steps in this direction was the opening of Disney’s Golf Resort just off the monorail line near the Polynesian Resort.  Originally only a building servicing the adjacent golf course, Disney added resort rooms to the complex in 1973 and later supplemented those with 150 more rooms in 1986 while renaming it the Disney Inn.  With its decidedly understated theming (and famous Magnolia Restaurant with its even more loved French Fried Ice Cream), Disney’s Golf Resort provided a glimpse into the Disney World that Walt intended—one where fantasy did not always trump well-designed and well-considered reality.
#16    Premiere of the Food and Wine Festival:  October 1995

Over the years, millions of guests have enjoyed flavors from around the globe at the various countries of Epcot’s World Showcase.  Since 1995, these opportunities have grown exponentially each fall during the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.  While the original version started off much smaller than the festival’s current scale, the event provides visitors the chance to not just enjoy additional items from the existing countries but to also try new items from a host of “temporary” World Showcase nations.  From Singapore Shrimp Cakes to Belgian waffles, nowhere else in the whole wide world of Disney can you enjoy such a diverse amount of food, dessert, wine, and other beverages.  Add in an annual Eat to the Beat concert series and a menu full of special events (within this special event), and its easy to see how the Food and Wine Festival has transformed a historically quiet time at Disney World into one of the year’s most anticipated set of dates.

#15    Opening of Treasure Island:  April 1974

Treasure Island?  Look on a Disney World guide map these days and you won’t find a single reference to this attraction.  That’s despite the fact that this small 11 plus acre island is one of the main reasons that Walt Disney selected Orange and Osceola counties for his Florida Project.  As history recounts, Walt noticed the island and surrounding Bay Lake during a plane trip in 1965.  Until then, this small island had served as everything from a hunting site to a homestead.  Never in its history though had it ever served as an animal-based attraction filled with themed trails and an aviary.  That is, until it debuted in April 1974 as a guest destination accessible only by boat.  Though its name would later change to Discovery Island and, in 1999, it would officially close on its 25th Anniversary, Treasure Island will always remain one of the original reasons that Walt Disney located Disney World where it is today.

#14    Opening of Pleasure Island:  June 1989

While last week’s Treasure Island represented a real island inside a real lake, the debut of Pleasure Island was just the opposite.  Neither a real island nor located in a real lake, Pleasure Island’s 1989 premiere provided one of Disney World’s first forays into the nightlife scene.  While the resort had previously offered evening shows and bars or lounges, Pleasure Island created a new nighttime destination with different themed clubs, outdoor entertainment and an adults-only environment.  Whether this was a good thing for Disney World will be long debated but it did represent a major play by Disney for a younger crowd as well as more local guests than ever before (so much so that it would serve as the inspiration for Universal Orlando’s popular CityWalk complex).  Though it still exists in name, all of the Island’s original resorts (including the much-loved Adventurers Club) have been closed and replaced with a variety of dining and retail options.  While rumors abound about a reinvented Pleasure Island, no complete details have been revealed.  Nevertheless, for the one place at Disney World that celebrated New Years Eve every night, we have but one thing to say—“ Kungaloosh!”

#13    Debut of the WEDWay People Mover:  July 1975

When Walt Disney envisioned the future of transportation, he saw cities filled with a variety of different options.  While monorails might provide longer distance transport, within closer areas, Walt conceived of a system where smaller, open-air connected vehicles delivered people to their destinations.  This idea was first evidenced by the PeopleMover attraction at Disneyland.  In 1975, Disney introduced an advanced concept at the Magic Kingdom.  Instead of the wheel-based PeopleMover at Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom version debuted with linear synchronous motors that smoothly propelled guests throughout the Tommorrowland Transit Authority lines that included a trip into Space Mountain and past an early E.P.C.O.T. diorama.  Indeed, riders paying careful attention to the diorama could witness Walt’s original PeopleMover idea moving residents throughout his city of the future.

#12    Opening of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village:  March 1975

One of the grandest legacies never realized at Walt Disney World was the permanent addition of extensive on-property residential units.  Indeed, Walt’s vision of creating a real working city—filled with real people in real homes—was never fully developed at his Florida Project.  Even so, a lasting remnant of that vision debuted in March 1975 as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village.  Early master planning called for the area now generally known as Downtown Disney and the Saratoga Springs Disney Vacation Club resort to anchor the first of several different residential developments centered on this area of Disney World property.  While the grand plans for this residential community, one that would be serviced by monorails and PeopleMovers, did not come to fruition, Disney did build the Shopping Village with the goal of using it to service these once anticipated residents.  A variety of legal and economic hurdles interrupted these plans, though, and the shopping area was renamed the Walt Disney World Village in 1977.  The Village was originally comprised of shaded paths surrounding relatively unthemed buildings (at least as compared to the Magic Kingdom area of the resort) that housed a variety of artisans and small shops.  Though the Village area is generally filled with Disney-themed merchandise now, many of the trees and several of the early shops remain today—harkening back to a time and place never fully realized at the Walt Disney World Resort.

#11    Premiere of Tapestry of Nations:  October 1999

Though Disney World has long been know for parades, many of the most popular ones have been found in the Magic Kingdom.  That permanently changed, though, when the Millennium Celebration revealed to guests one of the most unique parades ever assembled in any Disney park:  The Tapestry of Nations.  Comprised of a haunting, ethereal score by Gavin Greenaway, larger than life puppetry by Michael Curry (who also designed the puppets for Disney’s Lion King Broadway production), and the iconic Sage of Time character, every night for nearly 18 months, the parade brought guests to the World Showcase promenade.  Here, the lights would dim and a message of unity and peace would cascade throughout the promenade.  This near perfect theme park experience would be capped off by Illuminations—making an evening at Epcot during those special months, one of the most memorable ever in the history of Disney World.

#10    Premiere of Illuminations:  January 1988

Few lines resonate as emotionally with Disney World guests as the famous opening to one of the world’s most successful nighttime performances:

Good evening, on behalf of Walt Disney World, the place where dreams come true, we welcome all of you to Epcot and World Showcase. We've gathered here tonight, around the fire, as people of all lands have gathered for thousands and thousands of years before us; to share the light and to share a story. An amazing story, as old as time itself but still being written. And though each of us has our own individual stories to tell, a true adventure emerges when we bring them all together as one. We hope you enjoy our story tonight; Reflections of Earth.
Together with flame-filled torches, lasers criss-crossing the Sky, and the “Globe”, Illuminations represents one of the greatest examples of theme park storytelling and craftsmanship ever to grace any park. 

#9    Opening of the Boardwalk:  July 1996

Until the Boardwalk area debuted, Disney World had never offered an entertainment and hotel destination that was seamlessly integrated with theme park options.  The Disney marketplace area offered entertainment and lodging but no theme park while the Seven Seas lagoon area offered resorts and a park but not a centralized entertainment district.  This all changed with the Boardwalk area that included five different resorts (Boardwalk Inn, Beach Club, Yacht Club, Swan, and Dolphin) that were connected around Crescent Lake by path, boat, and—of course—surrey bike.  In addition, all of this was connected by boat or path to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios (and, if you were really in the mood to walk, by monorail to the Magic Kingdom).  The entire arrangement allowed guests to experience multiple resorts, theme parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues without ever having to access a single car or bus—a design innovation that continues to make the Boardwalk area one of the most unique and popular places in all of Disney World.

#8    Opening of Hollywood Studios:  May 1989

As the 1980s ended, Disney was in a fervent race with Universal to see who could open the first movie-themed park in Central Florida.  Though both resorts would open such a park, Disney’s version won that race as it opened both a theme park and working entertainment studio on over 100 acres.  While opening day found capacity crowds filling the park, controversy ensued regarding whether the MGM-branded park offered a “full day” experience of attractions and shows.  Later, the television shows, movies, and animation production would almost entirely shift away from the park.  Left behind, though, would be some of the resort’s most popular attractions including the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Star Tours, and Toy Story Midway Mania. 
walt disney world magic kingdom castle under construction
#7    Debut of the Monorail:  October 1971

Probably no Disney attraction is as famous for its foreign-language script as its English counterpart.   That is, except for the Disney World monorail and its now famous “Por favor manténgase alejado de las puertas” admonition to stand clear of the closing doors.  At nearly 15 miles, Disney World’s elevated system transports millions of guests on routes that circle the Seven Seas Lagoon and venture directly into Epcot.  Indeed, there are few lesser known but thoroughly magical moments than riding the Epcot monorail between Future World and the World Showcase during Illuminations—giving you a sensation that you could almost catch the fireworks in your hand.  From the early Mark IV to later Mark VI versions, nearly every Disney World guest—though they might not admit it—has secretly wondered what it would be like to captain Disney’s “Highway in the Sky” for just one trip around the World.

#6    Opening of Animal Kingdom:  April 1998

Theme parks with animal attractions had existed long before the Animal Kingdom (think:  Busch Gardens).  It was not until the opening of Disney World’s fourth park, though, that an entire theme park experience revolved around all aspects of the animal world.  With an emphasis on real animals from different continents, the original plans also included Beastly Kingdom—an unbuilt realm filled with fictional creatures.  While that concept may now finally be realized with the addition of AVATAR-land, the impact of the Animal Kingdom even extends to other theme parks such as Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure.  It is there that, legend says, several of the original Beastly Kingdom attractions that never were built ultimately found a home in the form of the former Dueling Dragons roller coaster, among other rides.  Though the Animal Kingdom started sparsely and grew slowly, it has now evolved into one of the most lushly landscaped and intricately detailed theme parks in the world.

#5    Debut of Pirates of the Caribbean:  December 1973

Housed in a fictional Spanish fort, Disney World’s version of the last ride that Walt ever worked on did not originally open with the park.  Indeed, alternative plans were in place for the Magic Kingdom to receive its own originally-created iconic dark ride.  Cost issues and fans clamoring to experience “Pirates” soon won out, though, and Disney’s Imagineers reconceived this classic Disneyland attraction.  While offering several different scenes and a different ride route, the Magic Kingdom version has allowed millions of guests to Walt’s Florida Project to realize that “dead men tell no tales”.  We can certainly salute that with a hearty “Yo-Ho”!

#4    Opening of the Polynesian Resort:  October 1971

While Walt purposefully avoided building Disney World near the beach (in order to reduce vacation competition), he didn’t hesitate to bring the beach to his resort.  Though several other WDW beaches exist (at places such as Fort Wilderness and the Grand Floridian), none are so grand as the sand that defines the coastline of the original Polynesian Village.  It is there that guests can enjoy daytime sun and evening fireworks, just outside the longhouses named after famous Pacific destinations.  Yet, the Polynesian is not limited to exterior beauty as the Grand Ceremonial House offers lush landscaping, and cascading waterfalls.  Over the years, this Pacific-themed retreat has served as the preferred vacation home for guests from throughout the world.

#3    Opening of the Contemporary Resort:  October 1971

Known by fans simply as the “Contemporary”, this original Disney World resort has become legendary for a variety of reasons.  From the modular rooms built off site and installed into the then innovative A-frame structure to the Mary Blair mosaic, the Contemporary has won the hearts and favor of many Disney guests.  Yet, more than any other feature, one stands out above all others when it comes to the wonder of the Contemporary—the amazing views.  Whether it is the light-filled atrium with a monorail quietly whisking by or the colors of Tomorrowland vividly enjoyed from the rooftop terraces, these amazing views define the Contemporary.  From nearly every angle, visitors can enjoy unprecedented views of the thousands of acres that Walt originally acquired for his Florida Project. 

Indeed, for many, a Disney World rite of passage is when you first watched the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the top of the Contemporary.  Pure magic for the last forty years.

#2    Opening of the Magic Kingdom:  October 1971

Surprised?  Some might suggest that the Magic Kingdom at #2 must be an oversight.  While the Magic Kingdom is the centerpiece to today’s Walt Disney World Resort, we will see next why one thing stands before it.

Still, this is not to neglect the importance of WDW’s original theme park.  The sister park to Disneyland built upon its predecessor in several ways including its larger size, overall attractions, and of course that source of great debate—its much larger castle.  Regardless of how you feel about castle size, the Magic Kingdom has brought many great things into the lives of millions of guests.  Whether its the exhilarating walk down Main Street or a quite stroll on the back path between Tomorrowland and Mickey’s Toontown Fair, the Magic Kingdom really can be all park to all people.

Utilidors.  Partners statute.  Splash Mountain.  Cinderella Suite.  Dole Whips.  Hall of Presidents.  Big Thunder Mountain.  All of these—and many more—define what many consider to be the most magical theme park in the whole world.

#1    Opening of Epcot:  October 1982

epcot disney world resortWhy Epcot at #1 instead of the Magic Kingdom or another famous event or attraction?  The answer to that question is really quite simple. 

Epcot as a concept (and to some degree as a theme park) represents the main reason that Walt Disney decided to build his Florida Project in the first place.  While some within the company sought to better tap into the huge Eastern U.S. audience for a Disney theme park experience, Walt’s primary reason to go east was not to build a sequel to Disneyland.  Sure, he bought his best creative powers into the nascent Magic Kingdom plans prior to his December 1966 passing.  This is not a surprise as he hardly possessed the ability to do less than his best.  But, the vision in his mind for the Florida Project was a real place in an ideal form. 

By the 1960s, Walt had mastered fiction.  He now sought to firmly imprint his creative genius on the non-fiction challenges and opportunities that life presented.  Epcot would define why Walt looked east.

Did the opening of the Epcot theme park realize that vision?  Certainly not as, even in its most realistic sense, it presents a fictional place.  Even so, there is no theme park in the world that comes near Epcot in its scope or focus.  Despite being one of the most visited theme parks in the history of the world, no person or company has ever really attempted to replicate Epcot and its timeless reach. 

While this is not necessarily the legacy that Walt sought to leave, it is, nevertheless, the grandest of legacies from the first forty years of the Walt Disney World Resort: Epcot is unique among all theme parks on Earth.

Happy 40th Anniversary to the Happiest Place on the Planet.


Images: Kind courtesy Disney

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