When people think of Orlando, Disney World is almost universally the first thing that comes to mind. People all around the world know about Disney World, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations around.
Go back to the 1960s and earlier, and that was not the case. Orlando was barely on the map before Disney World, and it was hardly a spot for people to come and visit on vacation. That all changed, as other major attractions followed Disney’s lead to capitalize on the tourist dollars coming in.
Why did Disney choose Orlando for Disney World? Below is a look at the history of the entire Disney complex, and how Central Florida became a hub for international tourism.
After seeing the success of Disneyland in California, Walt Disney knew that he would eventually like to expand. In the 1960s, the vast majority of visitors to Disneyland hailed from the West Coast. It quickly became a popular tourist destination in California, but with 75% of the United States population living east of the Mississippi River, the park was missing out on a lot of potential tourism dollars.
That meant finding a second location for Disney parks, and once word got out, there were plenty of cities pushing for that opportunity. Everyone saw the type of impact Disneyland made on Anaheim, and Walt Disney World could evolve into something bigger.
Cities and areas considered
It is hard to believe now, but two cities that received a lot of initial consideration were St. Louis and Niagara Falls. St. Louis felt very established as a city at the time, and its central location made it enticing to capture the Midwest travelers. However, part of the reason why their bid fell apart came down to such a strong push from the Busch family and their insistence on alcohol sales. They believed that no park would survive without a heavy focus on serving alcohol, and Disney took a more family-friendly approach at the time.
Walt Disney did not have anything against selling alcohol at the parks, and there are plenty of places now to grab a drink anywhere on the campus. However, the way Busch pushed for a more adult-oriented park did not sit well with the Disney executives when looking at different locations.
Niagara Falls was already an established tourist destination near the East Coast, but Disney was very afraid of how many months out of the year the park would need to close due to weather. Not only did this end up ruling out Niagara Falls, but pretty much any other city in the north.
A few other cities received consideration, but it became apparent that Florida was the main focus area for Disney when looking at weather, the cost of land, convenience, and many other factors. Even with all that in mind, Orlando sat as a bit of an underdog at that time.
Miami and Tampa seemed like the two logical big cities to draw in Disney, but there were a couple of factors that swayed Disney away from them. The biggest concern is a chance of a direct hit from a tropical storm or hurricane. Although any major structures in Florida need prepared for intense storms, it felt like a huge risk to invest that much money into something close to the coast.
Land was also more expensive in these establish cities, whereas Central Florida did not have a major city at the time. Areas like Orlando, Ocala, and even Cocoa Beach had a reputation, but none fell under the category of a major hub.
Ocala pushed hard for a chance to have Disney, but the final decision was to go with land located just south of Orlando. The decision changed the city forever, and no one is quite sure just how much of an impact it could have possibly made elsewhere.
Why Orlando Won The Bid For Disney World
A lot of cities wanted what would turn into Disney World, but Orlando ultimately became the final choice. For an area that did not particularly push for the attraction as much as other cities, it was a bit of a shocker once formal announcements were made. However, there are a few major reasons why Orlando became the home to Disney World.
The convenience factor
The relatively new construction of I-4 and the Florida Turnpike was a selling factor when looking at Disney World spots. The Central Florida region was not exactly easy to get to before the construction of these two major highways. All of a sudden, Orlando opened up to drivers coming from Florida. Not only that, but snowbirds coming down from anywhere in the north felt connected.
The international airport was also starting to grow, making this an area with a lot of potential for visitors. It was a little closer to access for those coming from the north, and it was still a pretty easy trip for visitors coming from Miami or Tampa. The park is right in the middle of Florida, but the expectations were always to be much bigger than just a state park.
The majority of the land Disney World sits on today was not exactly in demand at the time. It was mostly swamp land and farm property, which meant that bidding on the land would not cost nearly as much as so many other potential locations. Even though Disney World is though of as part of Orlando, it is actually outside the city limits and in the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.
Disney wanted to build a bigger complex than Disneyland so that they could dictate a lot of the businesses surrounding the area. At Disneyland, a lot of non-affiliated Disney properties sprung up and took some of the money away. This is why even in the very beginning, Disney focused on acquiring as much land as possible to build a bubble that offers everything visitors could ask for.
Far enough off the coast
It might seem like it would be intriguing to have Disney World right on the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, but Florida is hit with tropical storms and hurricanes relatively frequently. No one can predict whether an area will get a direct hit or not, but Miami, Tampa, and other coastal cities might deal with direct hits.
Disney has closed in the past due to hurricanes. The closures would be much more frequent if it was located closer to the coast. Storms die down significantly once they hit land.
Sunshine 12 months out of the year
It might be somewhat of a marketing ploy, but Florida is officially known as The Sunshine State. There are plenty of storms during the summer months, but this is a place to escape colder weather not only for people in United States, but international travelers as well.
Early Secret Planning
There was a lot of motivation for Disney World to planned out in a bit of secrecy early on. Not only does a massive project take years to all come together, but over 30,000 acres of land was needed to pull things off. That meant closing deals with many different landowners, and if it leaked out, the price for this mostly swamp area would skyrocket.
They were able to pull off most of the land acquisition with relative ease, setting up dummy corporations to close deals. Once they had the land under contract, the project became so large that local news outlets were starting to take notice. While there was speculation on what exactly was being built, it was eventually narrowed down to a potential Disney Park on the east coast.
Sure enough, on October 15th, 1965, the attraction eventually named Disney World received a formal reveal by Walt Disney. In his first speech on the resort, he boldly claimed that it would be the greatest attraction in the history of the state.
The Evolution of Disney World
When Disney World first opened its doors in October 1971, it was just the first phase of what has evolved into a vast entertainment complex overall. Just how much has the park evolved over the years? Here is a short timeline of how much things have changed over the last few decades.
Initial opening in 1971
Magic Kingdom was the first park to open in 1971 officially. Also opening at the very beginning was the Contemporary Resort Hotel and Polynesian Village. This gave visitors two outstanding resorts to stay at while visiting from anywhere in the world.
The only other Disney operated businesses open right at the beginning were the Palm and Magnolia Golf Courses, and Fort Wilderness. With plenty of plans in the works, a few smaller additions would continue popping up in the 1970s to give visitors more and more options.
After years of relying on one main theme park, EPCOT Center opened its doors exactly 11 years after Magic Kingdom in 1982. The original plan was to have an experimental planned community for people to actually live in. However, those plans fell apart shortly after Walt Disney’s death in 1966. They changed everything a bit to showcase modern innovation still, but make it more of an attraction-based theme park. On top of that, they decided to have a world showcase as part of the park.
The most recognizable feature of EPCOT is Spaceship Earth, and although it is going through some changes right now, it is still one of the most visited theme parks in the entire world. More importantly, it officially turned Disney World into a multiple day vacation destination for visitors coming from anywhere.
EPCOT turned into a success, and it did not take long for a third theme park to go from simply a concept, to reality. Disney-MGM Studios Park officially opened in 1989, and it is now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The plan was to have not only a theme park based on show business, but an actual operating production studio as well.
The modern look of Disney’s Hollywood Studios does not have too much related to being a working studio, as it has lately focused on adding new and exciting attractions connected to some of the most memorable movies under Disney’s umbrella. Star Wars: Galaxies Edge and Toy Story Land are just two new areas that have launched at the park.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios kick-started a hectic time for Disney World in general. Almost every year, multiple new features were launched in Central Florida for visitors to experience. From resorts to water parks, Disney World started solidifying themselves as the most popular tourist destination in the world.
Disney understood the complexity of building a fourth theme park that shared many of the same qualities of a typical zoo. The result was the largest theme park in the world to this day, as the Animal Kingdom covers 580 acres of land for visitors to explore.
The park is unique compared to the other three in that there are no fireworks at the end of the night. Plates, straws, cups, and more are biodegradable. Also, a lot of the attraction schedules revolve around the animals themselves. The park had humble beginnings, but it is now the second most popular theme park at Disney World behind Magic Kingdom.
Present Day Disney World
In the last few years, the most notable additions to Disney World has been Downtown Disney evolving into Disney Springs, and the addition of Star Wars-related attractions and character meet and greets around the complex. They have continued to grow little by little each year, holding down the distinction as the most visited vacation resort in the entire world. In any given year, annual attendance sits at around 60 million people under normal circumstances. The effects of the 2020 coronavirus outbreak have hurt those numbers overall, but the resort continues to be a ticket in demand.
There is always speculation surrounding Disney World and what they might have planned next, but there is not too much information out there at this time. There are always a lot of rumors about the possibility of a fifth theme park, but any chance of that happening has been severely impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, Disney will likely continue to strengthen what they already have and expand in that way for now.
Is Orlando the right place for Disney World?
Now that Disney World has been well-established for around 50 years, it is unfathomable to have Disney World anywhere else. Did they make the right decision at the time?
There is no perfect location in the United States for an outdoor park on the East Coast. For the park to be open 12 months out of the year, it pretty much rules out any location in the north right away. Most of the major cities in Florida are warm enough, and the same goes for some spots in Georgia and perhaps the Carolinas.
Cities like Atlanta, Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami all would have probably had plenty of success with Disney World in their own right. Out of all the solutions, Atlanta might be the best alternative location for Disney World. They are off the coast without having to deal with any hurricanes, and they are a huge city that is extremely easy to get to by car or plane.
It gets a little cooler in the winter months in Atlanta, but the park would most likely be able to stay open most of the time. Of course, Disney World is not about to move anytime soon, so it is more of a fun way to speculate than anything else.
All in all, Orlando seems like a perfect spot for Disney World. The extreme heat and humidity in the summer can be tough on visitors, and the pop-up showers are not ideal either. However, park visitors still enjoy plenty of sunshine throughout the year, and it makes people always feel like they are on a true vacation.