As Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary approaches on October 1, 2021, this series will attempt to determine one addition per decade which drastically impacted Disney Parks vacations going forward.
By 1971, Disneyland Resort was in the throes of its teen years. Having already gone through much change itself, it was now ready to welcome a new member of the family, a little sister, if you will. Walt Disney World came along just after Disneyland’s sweet 16.
As children often do, these two assumed the stereotypical firstborn and youngest child roles. From its very inception, Disneyland was a determined overachiever, but that only served to make Walt Disney World unwilling to sit in the shadow of the one who came before it. It immediately endeavored to prove that it was its own unique locale, vastly different from its older sister. The park had learned from its sibling’s mistakes and was ready to grow in entirely new ways.
Not long after the opening of Disneyland, it quickly became apparent that the property’s size would be an issue going forward. Walt Disney learned from this and acquired an immensely larger property for his “Florida Project.” He extolled the possibilities of those 43,000 square miles in his now famous quote, “Here in Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland: the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all of the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.”
Instead of the hemmed in existence of Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney World was free to become “The Vacation Kingdom.”
The Vacation Kingdom of the World
While it could be argued that the very creation of Walt Disney World in 1971 should be considered the most influential addition of the 1970s, that generality would gloss over the truly unique experience that Walt Disney, Roy Disney, and their Imagineers hoped to create in central Florida. The now iconic black, D-shaped souvenir book, The Story of Walt Disney World, opens with the following statement, “For years, Walt Disney had envisioned a whole new world of entertainment…a completely new kind of vacation and recreation wonderland…an entire community designed for total family enjoyment.” This idea was central to all they hoped to accomplish with the East Coast destination, and it found its realization in “The Vacation Kingdom of the World.” This was what would set it apart from its predecessor.
Even though several items in the original master plan for Walt Disney World never came to be (i.e., a real, working Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), much of what was necessary to provide an all-encompassing vacation destination was available in the first few years. While Walt Disney World included a family-focused theme park like its older sister, it expanded its offerings to include…
- Two resort hotels: Disney’s Polynesian Village and Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground with the Tri-Circle-D Ranch, Pioneer Hall, and the Wilderness Line train
- White sand beaches and water recreation in the form of boating, surfing, swimming, etc.
- Nighttime entertainment such as the Electrical Water Pageant and fireworks
- Outdoor recreation including volleyball, shuffleboard, archery, nature hikes, badminton, croquet and more
- Two championship golf courses: The Palm and The Magnolia
- Fine dining in a number of sit-down restaurants as well as entertainment at the Top of the World Restaurant and a luau at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort
- Treasure Island bird and botanical sanctuary in the middle of Bay Lake
- Numerous onsite shopping opportunities
- The American Beauty Shoppe hair salon
- Banquet halls and convention facilities
Each of these offerings served to entice guests to do more than visit a theme park for just one day and depart. Instead, Walt Disney World was to be a place of play, relaxation and enjoyment for anyone of any age or stage of life. It offered up everything that could be desired from a vacation.
This is the enduring legacy of the Walt Disney World of the 1970s, and the influence of “The Vacation Kingdom” can still be felt today.
While the yearnings of vacationers have changed over the decades, Disney has not failed to rise to the challenge as it continues to expand its opportunities. Some have come and gone (The Disney Institute), others have evolved (Lake Buena Vista Shopping Center–Disney Village Marketplace–Downtown Disney–Disney Springs), some speak in quiet ways (hula lessons, yoga, painting classes, trivia night), and others are bold and adventurous (marathons, Wild Africa Trek, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser). But all of these experiences combine to form the Walt Disney World that confidently forged its own path. They all comprise “The Vacation Kingdom,” and it has the ability to speak to all travelers if only they are willing to explore it vast lands.
Image and photographs from the author’s personal collection.