Disney World History

Discover the Fascinating History Behind Walt Disney World Resort

On October 1, 1971, Walt Disney World Resort opened to the public with great fanfare. Today, the park continues to add exciting new features and is bigger and better than ever before. Disney hosts over 50 million guests per year and lays claim to the most visited vacation resort in the world. They are obviously doing something right! But as popular as Disney World is today, most people are unaware of its past: Walt Disney’s original vision, what Disney World looked like when it first opened, and when new theme parks, water parks, resorts, and features were added to the mix. Let’s take a step back in time and examine the Disney World history that made this resort what it is today: the most magical vacation destination on the planet!

Disney World History Timeline

Years in Review: Major Events, Openings & Closings
Disney World Theme Parks (Opening Dates)

 -Magic Kingdom (October 1, 1971)

– Epcot (October 1, 1982)

– Disney’s Hollywood Studios (May 1, 1989)

– Disney’s Animal Kingdom (April 22, 1998)

Disney World Water Parks (Opening Dates)

– Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon (June 1, 1989)

– Disney’s Blizzard Beach (April 1, 1995)


  • Walt Disney announces his “Florida Project” to the press


  • Walt Disney dies at the age of 65 (lung cancer)


  • Construction begins at Walt Disney World Resort


  • Palm and Magnolia Golf Courses: opened
  • Disney’s Contemporary Resort: opened
  • Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort: opened
  • Magic Kingdom theme park: opened
  • Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground: opened
  • Roy O. Disney dies at the age of 78


  • Disney’s Village Resort: opened


  • The Golf Resort: opened


  • Discovery Island: opened


  • Walt Disney Village Marketplace: opened


  • Disney’s River Country water park: opened


  • Walt Disney World Conference Center: opened


  • EPCOT Center theme park: opened


  • The Golf Resort is renamed to The Disney Inn and expanded


  • Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa: opened
  • Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort: opened


  • Pleasure Island (Downtown Disney): opened
  • Disney-MGM Studios (precursor to Hollywood Studios): opened
  • Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park: opened


  • Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club resorts: opened
  • Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resorts: opened


  • Disney’s Old Key West Resort: opened
  • Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter: opened
  • Disney Vacation Club (DVC) is initiated


  • Bonnet Creek Golf Club: opened
  • Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside (previously named Dixie Landings): opened


  • Disney’s Wilderness Lodge: opened
  • Disney’s All-Star Music Resort and Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort: opened
  • U.S. Department of Defense purchases The Disney Inn and renames it Shades of Green


  • Disney’s Blizzard Beach water park: opened
  • Disney’s Wedding Pavilion: opened
  • Walt Disney World Speedway: opened


  • EPCOT Center is renamed “Epcot”
  • Disney’s BoardWalk Inn and Disney’s BoardWalk Villas: opened
  • Disney Institute: opened


  • Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex: opened
  • Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort: opened
  • Downtown Disney West Side: opened


  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park: opened
  • DisneyQuest: opened


  • Discovery Island: closed
  • Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort: opened
  • WDW closes for Hurricane Floyd (Sept. 15th), the first day to close in its history


  • The Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge: opened


  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge: opened
  • Disney’s River Country water park: closed
  • WDW closes for the 2nd time in its history due to the September 11 terrorist attacks


  • Disney’s Beach Club Villas: opened
  •  Shades of Green: closed for renovations


  • Disney’s Pop Century Resort: opened


  • Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa: opened
  • Shades of Green: reopens after renovations
  • WDW closes for the 3rd time in its history due to Hurricane Charley (Aug. 2004)
  • WDW closes for the 4th time in its history due to Hurricane Frances (September 4 & 5)
  • WDW closes for the 5th time in its history due to Hurricane Jeanne (September 26)


  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas: opened


  • Disney-MGM Studios changes its to name to Disney’s Hollywood Studios
  • Pleasure Island (Downtown Disney): closed


  • Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort: opened
  • Treehouse Villas: opened


  • Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Resort: opened


  • Disney’s Art of Animation Resort: opened
  • Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland Phase 1 expansion: opened


  • The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa: opened


  • Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland expansion Phase 2: opened


  • Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows: opened
  • Downtown Disney is renamed Disney Springs and expansion begins
  • Walt Disney World Speedway: closed


  • Construction/expansion is completed at Disney Springs
  • WDW closes for the 6th time in its history due to Hurricane Matthew (Oct. 7th)


  • Pandora – The World of Avatar (Disney’s Animal Kingdom): opened
  • Copper Creek Villas & Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge: opened
  • DisneyQuest is permanently closed and replaced w/ the NBA Experience
  • WDW closes for the 7th time in its history due to Hurricane Irma (Sept. 10 & 11)


  • Toy Story Land (Disney’s Hollywood Studios): opened


  • Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Land (Disney’s Hollywood Studios): opened
  • The Disney Skyliner gondola system begins operating


  • Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway (Hollywood Studios): opened
  • WDW closes for the 8th (and longest) time in its history due to coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic
  • WDW hosts the NBA’s coronavirus “competition bubble”
  • NBA Experience (Disney Springs): closed


  • WDW celebrates its 50th anniversary
  • Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure (EPCOT): opened
  • Space 220 Restaurant (EPCOT): opened
  • Disney FastPass is replaced by Lightning Lane and Genie+


  • Disney’s Magical Express (airport transportation): ceased operation
  • Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser: opened
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind (EPCOT): opened
  • WDW closes for the 9th time in its history due to Hurricane Ian (Sept. 28 & 29)


  • Florida officially disbands Reedy Creek Improvement District and implements a new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, sparking a protracted legal battle between Disney and the State of Florida (vote to disband occurred in 2022 but took effect in 2023)
  • World Celebration neighborhood (EPCOT): opened
  • Journey of Water inspired by Moana (EPCOT): opened
  • Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom): closed
  • Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser: closed
  • TRON Lightcycle/Run (Magic Kingdom): opened
  • Luminous – the Symphony of Us fireworks show replaces Harmonious at EPCOT
  • Happily Ever After fireworks show returns to Magic Kingdom, replacing Disney Enchantment

From Disneyland to Disney World Resort

Walt Disney Envisions “The Florida Project”
History of Disney World

Walt Disney World Resort is the flagship resort of Disney’s worldwide corporate enterprise, and by far its largest and most visited park. However, it’s Disneyland that holds the honor of being the first Disney park to open. No history of Disney World is complete without first mentioning the influence that Disneyland (and the rest of Disney history) has had on it.

Disneyland’s Early Success

Walt Disney first conceived of Disneyland in the late 1940s after visiting Griffith Park in Los Angeles with his daughters. The concept was simple: build a destination where adults and their children could go to bond and have fun together.

Although he was busy with his film company Walt Disney Studios, at the time, Walt realized that a movie studio didn’t offer much to visiting fans and began to conceptualize an amusement park near the Burbank studios for guests to visit.

The concept was to be named Mickey Mouse Park, and span 8-acre across Riverside Drive.

Construction of Disneyland began on July 16, 1954, and was opened one year and one day later (July 17, 1955) to much fanfare. It cost $17 million to complete the project.

Walt Disney Looks to Expand in the East Coast

After the early success of Disneyland, Walt Disney began to think of expanding beyond California.

Only 5% of Disneyland’s visitors came from east of the Mississippi (where 75% of the USA population lived) so it made sense to look eastward.

In 1963, Walt Disney flew over a landmass in Orlando, Florida which appeared to have a network of well-developed roads.  He chose a site near Bay Lake to begin the construction of his new theme park.

Soon the Walt Disney World Company would begin to acquire 30,500 acres (48 sq mi) of land by using various dummy corporations to avoid land speculation claims.

Construction Begins

Walt Disney World Resort history

After amassing land in secrecy, the plan – known as “The Florida Project” – was revealed to the public in late 1965.

The new theme park was heralded by Florida’s governor Haydon Burns as “the greatest attraction in the history of Florida.”  Walt Disney’s original vision included a planned-community concept  – called “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” (EPCOT) – to serve as a testing ground for new urban innovations.

Walt Disney fell ill and died of circulatory collapse (lung cancer) on December 15, 1966, as the construction of the project was underway. Unfortunately, he would not live to witness the opening of Walt Disney World Resort.

Without Walt overseeing the construction, the Walt Disney Company abandoned the experimental concept of a planned community in favor of building a resort that closely resembled Disneyland. This early construction led to the 1971 opening of Magic Kingdom, Disney World’s first theme park.

Walt Disney World Resort Opens

Magic Kingdom history

After Walt’s death, his brother and business partner Roy O. Disney was now in charge of overseeing the first phase of construction.

During this time, the first roads were laid and then Magic Kingdom theme park, the Contemporary Resort, and Polynesian Village were completed.  Two golf courses  – Palm and Magnolia – were also built next to Magic Kingdom and opened in Sept. 1971. Magic Kingdom was soon to follow, officially opening to the general public on October 1, 1971. Fort Wilderness opened just one month later.

At the dedication ceremony, Roy O. Disney announced that the resort would be known as “Walt Disney World” in honor of his brother. Roy wanted Walt’s name to be recognizable as the man who started it all in much the same way that Henry Ford’s name and legacy are synonymous with Ford automobiles.

In 1971, admission prices to Magic Kingdom were $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for kids under 18, and one dollar for children under twelve years of age.

Walt Disney World Resort’s History through the Modern Times

Disney World opening dates


After Walt Disney’s death, his plans for an experimental planned community were abandoned by the company because they determined that running a city would be too complex of a task. However, the general concept behind the project was designed into Disney World’s second theme park, EPCOT Center.

EPCOT Center opened in 1982 (renamed to just EPCOT in 1996) and incorporated several of Walt’s ideas including the promotion of modern innovation through edutainment attractions (Future World) and showcasing a world nation’s exposition (the 11 countries of World Showcase).

Some of the urban planning concepts from Walt’s original EPCOT plan would later be integrated into the planned community of Celebration, Florida.

Hollywood Studios

Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989 as Disney World’s third theme park. The park was initially developed to include both a theme park inspired by show business (film, television, music) and a fully operating production studio for film, television, and animation production services w/ a backlot.

The theme park was re-named Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2008 and began to phase out the “studio-like” attractions in order to focus on the attraction development and immersive theming of Hollywood-inspired stories.

Animal Kingdom

Disney’s 4th theme park, Animal Kingdom, opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998. The park is dedicated to animal conservation and the natural environment, a cause Walt Disney himself was passionate about.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is unique in that the theme park features traditional attractions while also showcasing hundreds of species of live animals.

The park is accredited by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums which certifies they meet the standards in research, education, and conservation.

Blizzard Beach & Typhoon Lagoon Water Parks

Typhoon Lagoon opened in 1989 as Disney World’s first water park. It boasts one of the world’s largest outdoor wave pools. Blizzard Beach is the sister water park to Typhoon Lagoon and opened in 1995.

Most of the park’s attractions are located on top of Mount Gushmore. See our Typhoon Lagoon vs Blizzard Beach comparison page for more information.

Pet Policy

On October 18, 2017, Disney announced a new pet policy that allowed guests to bring dogs to Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. 

We hope you have enjoyed reading our History of Disney World page.

For more useful Disney World information, we encourage you to review additional pages on MagicGuides like our Walt Disney Quotes, Stroller Rentals at Disney WorldDisney Transportation Map, and Disney World Tips and Tricks articles.

If you need help planning and booking your magical Walt Disney World vacation, then please contact our friends at The Vacationeer. Their services are always helpful and totally free of charge!  Click HERE for a free, no-obligation price quote.

Thank you for reading our page, and we hope you have a magical Walt Disney World vacation!