The tourism juggernaut that has become the Orlando area and the Disney empire that created it grew mainly from one man — Walt Disney.
Walt wasn’t even from Florida, having grown up mostly in rural Missouri and Kansas City. He liked to draw, and after a few jobs that came and went, he and his brother, Roy, moved to Hollywood to try their hand in the budding animation business.
Their big breakthrough was the first moving sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, that introduced a new character, Mickey Mouse. But did you know Mickey wasn’t Walt’s first cartoon character?
That distinction goes to a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whom Walt created under contract to Universal Pictures in the late 1920s. Oswald went over fairly well, but when Walt tried to negotiate a fee increase to share in the success, Universal’s producer offered him a fee reduction instead. That was the trigger that prompted Walt and Roy to into business for themselves.
The Disney duo did well on their own, not only with animated cartoons but with feature films, too. By 1950s, Disney Studios was the world’s leading producer of family entertainment. That generated money for Walt’s idea to build a family park like no other with rides and attractions where adults and children could “laugh and play and learn together.” He roughed out the plans for California’s Disneyland himself on a business trip to Chicago. Disneyland opened in 1955.
In early 1960s, Walt thought the East Coast should have something like Disneyland, except even bigger. He had staff secretly buy parcels of central-Florida land because it was mostly open, warm all year, and in what was already America’s leading tourism state. The company ended up buying 28,000 acres from 100 different property-owners. Another 2,000 acres have been added since.
Plans for Walt Disney World were announced in 1965, but Walt died in December 1966 of lung cancer. So he never did see the opening of the Florida venue, which opened in 1971 with the Magic Kingdom and two resort hotels.
Walt also had EPCOT – the second of the Florida Disney parks – on the drawing board from the beginning. The name stands for Experimental, Prototypical Community Of Tomorrow. Walt envisioned it as a sample community of the future. Actually, the town of Celebration is closer to that vision than the EPCOT theme park is. If you want to see that, it’s located off Disney property and is an actual planned town (very nice too) with real people living in real houses.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios (original Disney-MGM Studios) was the third park to come along in 1989, and Animal Kingdom is the newest (and biggest) of the four main Disney Orlando theme parks, opening in 1998.