100 Walt Disney World Vacations: 47 Years of Disney Travel with Mike Belobradic
Looking Back on 47 Years of Magical Walt Disney World Vacations
100 Walt Disney World Vacations: A Lifetime of Memories
In March 2019, I celebrated my 100th Walt Disney World vacation.
100 vacations to Walt Disney World over the past 47 years, each time spent onsite at a Walt Disney World resort property.
This is not something that I ever set out to do. In fact, the first 25 to 30 of those were as vacations with my parents. One hundred Walt Disney World vacations does not happen overnight, especially when you consider that I do not live in Orlando; nor do I live in Florida, or even the United States. I am a Canadian who has been traveling to Walt Disney World on a regular basis since the Resort first opened its doors. This post is all about how this came to be.
For the record, this number does not include vacations to other Disney destinations. Other Disney destinations that I have visited include Disneyland Resort in Anaheim (currently at 10 times), Disneyland Paris (currently one time), Disney’s Vero Beach Resort (currently nine times) and Disney Aulani Resort (currently one time).
My Dream for Walt Disney World Vacation #100
For the past several years leading up to my 100th Walt Disney World vacation I have been tagging my social media posts with #WDW##. My 100th journey happened in March 2019: #WDW100.
My 100th Walt Disney World was a big milestone for me.
When people ask me why I go so often, I tell them that for me, Walt Disney World is like a vacation home — somewhere you would go two or three weeks each year. Still, there is something new to see and do each and every time that we visit. While many find that had to believe, it is true — even after nearly five decades of Walt Disney World vacations. That’s part of the allure, power and magic of Walt Disney World. But there’s much more to it than that, as you’ll see as you read this post.
My home base for my 100th Walt Disney World vacation was the Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, in March 2019. It would have been nice to have booked the Royal Palm Club in a Theme Park View Room (Room #4407 is my favorite) or perhaps a Bora Bora Bungalow (Bungalow #2 is my favorite). Of course a night in the Castle Suite would have been the ultimate way to celebrate such a personal milestone, don’t you think? After all, we Disney folks are dreamers, if nothing else.
During my 100th WDW vacation, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with Gabrielle Russon of the Orlando Sentinel to talk about my life of growing up Disney.
In this post I go back to the beginning of my lifetime of growing up Disney.
From 0 to 100 in 47 years:
A Lifetime of Walt Disney World Vacations
The 1960s: Pre Walt Disney World
My journeys to Disney theme parks actually began before Walt Disney World even existed.
My late father, Judge Jack Belobradic, was the original Disney traveler. Before Walt Disney World opened in 1971, my father would take our family from our home in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. My very first Disney vacation was to Disneyland Resort in the summer of 1966. I was four years old at the time and Walt Disney was still alive and running the show. Standing in front of the gates of Disneyland Park is one of my very first memories. I can still recall the magic and wonder that I felt looking up at the entrance to Disneyland Park right before we entered for the very first time.
That visit did it for me. I was hooked on Disney theme parks.
Although I didn’t know it as a four-year-old boy, my life had just started down a path that would forever involve the magic of Disney vacations.
Just how big an impact it would have, I could never have imagined. That story was yet to be written. So read on as a lifetime of Walt Disney World vacations begins to unfold. A lot has changed since 1971 and I have been there every step of the way.
The 1970s: The First Decade of Walt Disney World
When the Orlando Sentinel finally broke the news that Walt Disney had been secretly securing land in central Florida for his next theme park adventure, few Canadians were happier than my dad.
Suddenly, the prospect of regular annual Disney vacations became that much more doable. My dad was a big camper (he loved his Airstream), so the idea of making an “easy” drive to Florida sure beat the cross-country treks to Disneyland in California that he had done. Not to mention that when he heard about Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground and that he would be able to camp onsite at Walt Disney World, that only added an extra dose of magic and Pixie Dust.
Camping at Walt Disney World was pretty much his most favourite thing in the world to do.
As a lawyer in private practice at the time, my father managed his own schedule. So, spending two or three weeks each year at Walt Disney World quickly became our reality.
And so it began.
My very first Walt Disney World vacation occurred in March of 1972, just six months after Walt Disney World opened its doors to the world on October 1, 1971.
Every year — usually in March to coincide with our Spring Break (I have three sisters) — we would pack up our car and trailer and head down to Florida. Throughout the 1970s we spent two to three weeks per year at Walt Disney World Resort, mainly staying in Fort Wilderness Campground. What a magical place it was back then. The 1970s was a different era in every respect. Walt Disney World was a far more relaxed and uncomplicated destination. The entire resort consisted of Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park, Fort Wilderness Campground, Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Village. That was it.
Going in and out of the park did not require elaborate touring plans. You didn’t have to line up to meet characters and it was all-in-all a pretty happy-go-lucky place to be. Our biggest challenge in those days was trying to figure out how we were going to get more E tickets so that we could ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea again (our Disney ticket books would run out of E tickets first). Speaking of which, the E ticket rides were pretty much the only time that you would encounter lines at Walt Disney World in the way that we know them today. So some things haven’t changed in that regard.
But the magic was very real for a young boy whose life of growing up Disney was about to go into overdrive. I was 10 years old when I made my first trip to Walt Disney World and I have never looked back.
Spending multiple weeks each year at Walt Disney World Resort obviously meant that I got to know the park and resorts extremely well, right from the start.
We would spend a lot of time at each resort property: lunching at the Outer Rim or Coconino Cove at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, or sipping virgin frozen strawberry daiquiris by the original volcano pool at Disney’s Polynesian Village. We had a “private” beach of white sand nearby, which is where Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and the Wedding Pavilion now stand. Everyone swam in Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon and we really didn’t have a care in the world. There were water ski shows with Disney characters, luaus on the beach and round-a-bout boats that you could rent. The Electrical Water Pageant — complete with its original soundtrack (later re-purposed for the Main Street Electrical Parade) — became an instant tradition.
At Fort Wilderness, I had my own sense of discovery. There was so much to see and do.
Some of my favourite memories of those early days include evening canoe trips to Marshmallow Marsh, free-wheeling train rides around the campground (the tracks are barely visible today), finding wildlife in its natural habitat (and reporting dangerous critters to the Disney Cast Members — I found a pit of dangerous snakes once), the lawnmower tree, waiting for the milk truck to come around your loop with some groceries, fishing in the canals and eating the fish, and swimming at the beach (which was later moved to the other side of the boat launch).
Fort Wilderness was a magical place, straight off of the pages of a Mark Twain novel.
I could write volumes on my early years at Walt Disney World, as they are forever etched in my memory. In fact, at one point I was asked to be in a Disney promotional video that was being shot for “The Vacation Kingdom of the World.” (Certain Cast Members get to know you as a regular when you visit frequently, so I was invited to be in the promo film). Of course, my mother had to sign a release for me to take part, but skimming across the water on Bay Lake in a mini speedboat for half a day (and being filmed by Disney having fun) was a pretty good way for a kid to spend an afternoon!
The 1970s saw a few new developments at Walt Disney World that always kept things exciting.
In 1974, Treasure Island opened on Bay Lake. Since it was right in front of Fort Wilderness, we spent a fair bit of time there. It was later renamed Discovery Island and ultimately closed with the prospect of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park on the horizon. In 1975, I was super excited when Space Mountain came online. With Astronaut Gordon Cooper giving us the safety instructions and the RCA Home of Future Living as the exit entertainment, Space Mountain was an instant hit with me. The same year, we got another fun new addition as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened, also in 1975. To this day, I have one sister who still refers to what is now called Disney Springs as “The Village.”
The year after that, River Country opened (1976). This was the original Disney water park and once again, it was immediately on the doorstep of Fort Wilderness Campground. I can’t even count how much time I spent there on hot Florida afternoons. In 1977, the short-lived name of Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was changed to the Walt Disney World Village, likely in an effort to reinforce the brand.
The 1970s were precious years for me at Walt Disney World. It became a place where our family got closer and going there made me feel a sense of warmth, closeness, happiness and good times. That is probably what became ingrained in me as a kid and why I value Disney vacations so much to this very day. When people wonder why I would possibly want to go to Walt Disney World so many times, the answer probably lies in what Walt Disney World represents for me. It’s not just a theme park or a holiday destination. Walt Disney World represents everything good about life—which is exactly what Walt Disney dreamed of creating in his theme park environments.
In many ways, I still miss the early years of Walt Disney World. Everything was small and contained to the Magic Kingdom Resort Area. It all just felt right. But with the 1980s on the horizon, changes were coming to Walt Disney World. While my dad was quite excited about this, my sisters and I didn’t necessarily have the reaction that he thought we would when he broke the news to us about what was to come.
The 1980s: Walt Disney World Expands for the First Time
The 1980s represented a decade of great change for Walt Disney World. It was about to expand beyond its original configuration, which would forever change the face of the Most Magical Place on Earth.
One fun story that my sisters and I like to talk about is when my father first alerted us about a big change that was coming to Walt Disney World: a whole new theme park called EPCOT Center was coming.
While us kids spent a lot of time riding horses, swimming, going to the Magic Kingdom, riding the monorail, renting boats, going to the campfire show and so on, my father loved to ride his bicycle around Walt Disney World. He would leave in the morning and be gone for half a day — venturing far beyond the confines of Fort Wilderness Resort.
One day he came back quite excited and was telling us that he’d just visited the Preview Center for a new park to be called EPCOT Center. He told us that EPCOT stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow and he went into great detail about how this park would be enormous compared to the Magic Kingdom. He explained how it was going to be educational and bring science and learning to Walt Disney World.
Now, I’m not quite sure what reaction he was expecting from his kids, but I’m pretty sure that the quizzical looks and scowls on the faces of his four children were not the reactions that he was expecting to see. “Science and learning?!” we asked. “Who wants to go to a theme park about learning?! Will there be any rides there?” My father probably realized that he hadn’t done a great job of describing the mission of EPCOT (although, in fairness, the Imagineers were probably still trying to figure it out for themselves, since Walt had passed away before he could bring his true vision to reality).
Still, when EPCOT Center opened in 1982 it added a new element to our yearly stays at Walt Disney World Resort. I even recall that I liked World Showcase probably more than I ever admitted, especially the cool Eiffel Tower that you could never actually reach.
EPCOT wasn’t the only Walt Disney World Park to open in the 1980s. Before the decade was done, Disney-MGM Studios Park would open its doors, featuring the major attraction of the Tower of Terror. There were a couple of years in the mid-80s that I would miss entirely in terms of Walt Disney World vacations because I was going to school overseas in France. This was before EuroDisney was open, so I definitely missed my Disney fix. No worries, however, as I would more than make up for those lost years later down the line by having a few years where four annual visits evened out my overall average.
Before the 1980s ended, the Walt Disney World Village expanded and took on the new name of Disney Village Marketplace (1989), which included the ill-fated Pleasure Island area of nightclubs. There was always something new to see and do and when I turned 21 in the mid-80s, this opened up a whole new fun side of Walt Disney World. Suddenly I was able to sample many of the fun Disney cocktails that I had always envied and I could enjoy the lounges and bars that dotted the resort hotels and Pleasure Island (at least I got to have some fun there before it closed).
The 1990s: My Family Grows, as Does Walt Disney World
Even as I grew older, Walt Disney World never lost its magic or appeal.
I still very much enjoyed going on rides and visiting attractions and I appreciated many of them much more than I had when I was younger. I met my wife Erin during the 1990s and so it was at this time that I introduced her to the Disney life as part of the Belobradic clan (and our now extended family, as my older sisters had begun to have children of their own). Our extended Disney family was growing, and with it the magic grew even stronger. My youngest sister had even managed to become a full-time Cast Member by this time. She began as a cultural representative in the Canada Pavilion at Epcot and was eventually hired on full time within the transportation area of Walt Disney World (she was Captain of a Friendship).
Towards the end of the 1990s, Walt Disney World got its final major addition to date, with the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park in 1998. I have to admit that I really didn’t care much for Animal Kingdom when it first opened. I found its narrow pathways too confining and muggy on steamy Florida days and it just didn’t feel “Disney enough” for me. That would change over time though — especially when Expedition Everest opened nearly 10 years later. Nowadays I like Animal Kingdom Park quite a bit; it has won me over.
The biggest thing that happened for me in the 1990s was that I had finally flown the coop and moved out on my own. I was doing well working on my career and this meant that I was now free to enjoy Walt Disney World from the upscale travel perspective that I truly loved. While my father enjoyed the freedom of his Airstream (and I did too), I was already a luxury traveler at heart and much preferred the ability to stay in Disney Deluxe Resort hotels.
Now that I was working in a steady job (and I got married in the 1990s), my life as a luxury Disney traveler hit full stride. For over 20 years now, all of my Disney vacations have been exclusively in Deluxe Disney Resort Hotels. Other than Fort Wilderness in the early years, I have never stayed in a Disney Value or Moderate hotel, preferring the upscale Disney travel life and Club Level accommodations in particular.
The 2000s: The Birth of Our Daughter Ushers in a New Generation of Belobradic Disney Travelers
With the dawn of the 2000s, Walt Disney World took on yet another resurgence for me. Could this get any better? You bet.
In 2008, our daughter Amelia was born and suddenly I was able to share everything that I loved about Walt Disney World (and all Disney vacations for that matter) with a child of my own.
Right from the start, Amelia has grown up Disney. In fact, she is well ahead of my curve because Walt Disney World didn’t open until I was 10 years old. As I write this, Amelia is 10 years old and she has already had 25 Walt Disney World vacations. Plus, I fear that I have spoiled her a little because all she knows is Deluxe Disney and Club Level accommodations – with the Royal Palm Club at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort being her go-to favourite. The signs that she was a luxury traveler were pretty clear when, at just under three years old, she was standing on our balcony (room 4407) at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort watching Wishes! and she said: “I want to live in the Grand Floridian.”
My sentiments exactly – although I have to admit that the Bora Bora Bungalows at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort are pretty amazing as well.
By the way, for the record we both very much miss Wishes! Happily Ever After just isn’t the same. Saying goodbye to Wishes! was a sad moment for us and Amelia literally had tears in her eyes when she watched the show for the very last time.
Since Amelia was born, my annual count has kicked fully back into high gear, with an average of somewhere between two to three annual visits to Walt Disney World Resort (and on occasion, up to four times in a year). There’s nothing like watching your own child discover the magic and wonder of Walt Disney World all on their own.
One of my very favourite memories so far with Amelia was when she was 2.5 years old and she was meeting Minnie Mouse at Camp Minnie-Mickey at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. “Minnie, you’re so soft!” she said. I have to admit that it melted my heart — and the hearts of everyone around us (it probably would have saved Anna from Hans). I made it a point never to force Disney on Amelia — making sure to ask if she actually wanted to return each time that we went. She did. Fortunately, she truly loves Disney and is the ultimate Disney traveler already at only 10 years of age.
The 2010s: I Finally Decide to Join Disney Vacation Club
In 2012, I finally took another big plunge and joined Disney Vacation Club (DVC). It took us a long time to make this decision. The big thing that held us back was that we loved staying in Club Level at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort so much that we didn’t want to give that up by joining DVC. But the economics of DVC are hard to beat if you travel there as much as we do — especially if you stay exclusively in Deluxe Disney Resort hotels. When they announced the DVC addition at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, that was a big plus for us. Today we have three DVC home resorts: Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, Bay Lake Tower and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Resort.
2012 was also the year that I got my Travel Advisor licence and began putting together custom Disney Travel packages for luxury travelers who wanted to experience the finer side of Disney travel. I had spent so many years promoting the merits of Disney vacations to friends and colleagues, that my wife suggested that I should get my travel licence and at least get paid for what I was doing. It was truly a labor of love. After nearly 50 years of regular travel to Walt Disney World, I understand Disney vacations like few others. There is no substitute for this kind of experience and I wanted to share that with others.
I created custom Disney vacation packages for a few years, but ultimately that business would morph into my current Luxury Disney Travel Blog: The Finer Side of Travel. I no longer sell travel packages, focusing instead on providing unbiased and unfiltered Disney travel advice through my blog to upscale travelers who want to experience the very best that Disney has to offer.
On a related note, in 2012 I also wrote the definitive guide to luxury Disney travel: The Very Best of Walt Disney World Resort, which focuses exclusively on upscale Disney travel and is currently in its fourth edition on Amazon.
There is nothing more in life that I would rather do than talk Disney vacations. A lot of people ask me why I don’t work for Disney. Believe me, I have tried (so far unsuccessfully) for many years to find employment with Disney. But with only a relatively small Canadian office, I have as of yet been unable to land my ultimate dream job. However, I have not given up on the by any means, and would still love to put my Disney knowledge — along with my professional knowledge — to work for the Walt Disney Company.
The Future of Walt Disney World Vacations
If you have made it this far in my story, thank you for following along on my entire journey. While I tried to keep things brief, distilling nearly 50 years of Walt Disney World vacations into a tight package is pretty challenging.
Listen to Amelia and I on our Disney travel podcast 1923 Main Street: A Dad and Daughter Disney Travel Podcast. New episodes every Tuesday.
Luxury Disney Travel Author, Blogger and Podcaster.