50 Years of Magic at Walt Disney World: A Timeline of Major Milestones

Mickey Mouse, 1974, Magic Kingdom Parade

The Complete History of Walt Disney World

The magic of Walt Disney World has gone through many changes over the past 50 years and I was fortunate enough to be there for the ride every step of the way. The following is a chronology of some of the major milestones that span the incredible 50-year history of the Vacation Kingdom of the World, aka, The Most Magical Place on Earth.

Relive the Magic of Disney World

The Planning Years

1965

November 15 – Walt Disney and his brother Roy announced their plans to create Disney World in a press conference held in downtown Orlando, Florida.

1966

October 27 – Walt Disney made a film outlining his plans for the Florida Project – including details about Disney World and the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).

1967

May 30 – The groundbreaking officially kicked off construction of what was from that point forward to be known as Walt Disney World Resort. Roy O. Disney (Walt’s brother) officially renamed the project “Walt Disney World” to ensure the world would always remember the man behind this historic dream following the passing of Walt Disney.

1970

January 16 – The Walt Disney World Preview Center opened in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, becoming the first location to welcome guests on Walt Disney World property. It featured scale models and artist renderings for many of the diverse experiences being created for the Vacation Kingdom of the World.

Walt Disney World Opens! 

1971

October 1 – Walt Disney World officially opened to the public. Phase one included Magic Kingdom Park, Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. The resort was a showplace of innovation, featuring a transportation system of monorails, watercraft, trams and motor coaches, as well as a centralized computer network and other groundbreaking systems supporting the many guest offerings and attractions.

October 25 – The Electrical Water Pageant debuted, bringing twinkling lights and a colorful synthesizer soundtrack to become a guest favorite along the waters of Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake.

November 19 – Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground opened, nestled among acres of scenic pine and cypress forest and evoking the timeless beauty of the American frontier.

1973

December 15 – Walt Disney World Resort expanded with a new hotel: The Golf Resort at Walt Disney World, which is now known as Shades of Green. A new attraction also opened, Pirates of the Caribbean in Adventureland. Originally Disney Imagineers thought there would be no interest int his attraction since WDW was so close to the Caribbean. However, they quickly made an adjustment due to guest feedback.

1974

June 30 – The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue premiered at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. Today, it is one of the longest-running dinner shows in American history.

Treasure Island also opened on Bay Lake in 1974.

1975

January 15 – Tomorrowland expanded with Space Mountain and the GE Carousel of Progress also opened. This further enhanced Tomorrowland with the Carousel of Progress currently holding the record for longest-running stage show in the history of American theater.

March 22 – Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened with 28 shops and four restaurants. It has evolved several times over the decades and is currently The Marketplace section at Disney Springs.

June 7 – Walt Disney World Resort honored America’s bicentennial with America On Parade. With 50 floats and more than 200 performers paying tribute to America’s history, people and traditions, it holds the record as the largest daily parade ever staged in a Disney park.

July 1 – The WEDway PeopleMover (now known as Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover) was added to Tomorrowland. It was an exciting addition, as it provided new views along its highway in the sky.

July 14 – Preliminary plans for EPCOT were officially announced.

1976

June 20 – Disney’s River Country water park opened next to Fort Wilderness. The popularity of River Country eventually inspired Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach water parks.

Treasure Island on Bay Lake was renamed and rethemed as Discovery Island.

1977

June 11 – The Magic Kingdom glowed at night as The Main Street Electrical Parade made its first Florida appearance, which followed its 1972 debut at Disneyland Park in California.

1979

October 1 – After years of planning, construction began at EPCOT.

1980

September 23 – Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened in Frontierland, expanding the mountain range at Magic Kingdom Park.

Disney World Seven Seas Lagoon, 1980

Seven Seas Lagoon in 1980 pre Grand Floridian Resort. This was taken on my old Kodak 110.

1981

October 1 – A year-long Tencennial Celebration began, bringing new entertainment to Magic Kingdom Park. Later in the year, the EPCOT Preview Center opened on Main Street, U.S.A.

1982

October 1 – EPCOT opened with five Future World pavilions: Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy, World of Motion, Journey Into Imagination and The Land. It also featured nine World Showcase pavilions representing Mexico, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, France, United Kingdom and Canada.

Disney expands its legacy of work with Make-A-Wish as the first wish is granted at Walt Disney World Resort. Since 1982, more than 176,000 life-changing wishes have been granted for children facing critical illnesses in partnership with more than 250 wish-granting organizations around the globe.

1983

December 16 – The first Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party was held at Magic Kingdom, starting a tradition of popular Disney After Hours events, combining special entertainment and offerings with extra time in the park.

December 25 – The Walt Disney World Christmas Parade was broadcast live from Magic Kingdom Park on ABC. It want on to become a holiday tradition ultimately growing to include parades and performances from both Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort.

1984

May 11 – The Disney Dreamers & Doers program began recognizing young people who demonstrated excellence in their schools, families and communities. Since 1984, Walt Disney World Resort has recognized nearly 14,000 students from public and private schools across Central Florida.

September 7 – EPCOT World Showcase expanded with the opening of the Morocco pavilion.

1986

January 15 – The Living Seas (now The Seas with Nemo & Friends) opened at EPCOT, home to more than 200 species of sea life in a 5.7 million-gallon “ocean” of saltwater.

1987

January 25 – The iconic “I’m Going to Disney World!” commercial debuted. Disney Fun Fact: New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms was the first to shout the now-famous phrase following his team’s Super Bowl XXI victory.

1988

June 3 – EPCOT World Showcase expanded with the opening of the Norway pavilion.

June 28 – Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa opened as the flagship of Walt Disney World Resort hotels. It was followed on October 1 by Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort.

1989

May 1 – Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened with Tinseltown glamour, major entertainment attractions and behind-the-scenes looks at movie-making.

May 1 – The nighttime entertainment complex Pleasure Island opened with a glittering array of restaurants and themed nightclubs. It closes in 2008 to make way for Disney Springs.

June 1 – Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park opened, featuring a 95-foot-high mountain, eight water slides and a 2.5-acre wave pool.

1990

November – The first phase of the EPCOT Resort Area opened with the debut of Disney’s Yacht Club Resort (November 5) and Disney’s Beach Club Resort (November 19). Both within walking distance of the theme park, the collection of resorts significantly expands lodging and convention options.

1991

November – The Disney Harvest program launched. Today this program annually collects more than 823,000 pounds of prepared, unserved food from throughout Walt Disney World Resort for distribution to more than 40 Orlando-area nonprofits served by Second Harvest Food Bank.

December 20 – Disney Vacation Club launched with the opening of its first resort, which is the resort now known as Disney’s Old Key West Resort.

1993

April 23– The Walt Disney Company dedicated 8,500 acres of land purchased at the Osceola-Polk County line to The Nature Conservancy to preserve for future generations as the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

1994

January 16 – The inaugural Walt Disney World Marathon kicked-off, eventually growing into the popular runDisney races.

April 29 – The inaugural EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival debuted. In the following years, festivals dedicated to food & wine, the arts and holidays join the lineup.

June 12 – Disney’s Hollywood Studios expanded with the opening of its first new themed area: Sunset Boulevard. This added more shops, dining and entertainment to the park, along with the haunted thrills of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which opened on July 22.

Walt Disney World Resort continued to expand lodging options as well, with the openings of: Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (May 28), Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort (April 29) and Disney’s All-Star Music Resort (Nov. 1).

The African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida was established with Walt Disney World Resort as a founding trustee. Walt Disney World’s support and sponsorship of the Chamber included hosting its crowning celebration for Central Florida’s most dynamic businesses and entrepreneurs, the Eagle Awards.

1995

April 1 – Disney’s Blizzard Beach water park opened, offering winter-themed fun in a water park setting. The park featured a 12-story drop down the high-speed waterslide Summit Plummet.

April 22 – The Disney Conservation Fund formed to provide support for respected conservation organizations saving wildlife and protecting the magic of nature. To date, the fund has directed $100 million to support nonprofit organizations working with communities to save wildlife, inspire action and protect the planet.

July 15 – Disney’s Wedding Pavilion opened on the shores of Seven Seas Lagoon next to Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort. It was part of a vast expansion of options for weddings and vowel renewals. Today, Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings & Honeymoons offers a wide range of nuptial and honeymoon planning around the globe.

1996

February 9 – Disney Institute opened, bringing more than 60 interactive programs to guests seeking fun and self-enrichment in customized vacation experiences. In the years to follow, Disney Institute evolved into a renowned training and professional-development organization that helps organizations be more successful using business insights and best practices of Disney parks and resorts.

July 1 – Disney’s BoardWalk Inn and Villas opened, along with their lively namesake boardwalk that brought new restaurants and nightspots to the EPCOT Resort Area.

October 1 – Walt Disney World Resort celebrated its 25th anniversary with a year-long celebration, new entertainment and Cinderella Castle decorated as a giant birthday cake.

1997

March 28 – ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex opened. The 220-acre complex included multiple outdoor playing fields, baseball/softball diamonds, a track & field complex, a fieldhouse and a 9,500-seat ballpark. Over the years it grew to encompass two additional fieldhouses, an ESPN broadcast center and even more outdoor playing fields. It has also served as an official training site for various American and international professional teams, as well as host of several major sporting events such as the Invictus Games, the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament and the 2020 NBA restart of the regular season.

August 1 – Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort opened. With 1,900 guest rooms and a 220,000-square-foot convention center, it is the largest of the Disney resort hotels that cater to meetings and events.

1998

April 22 – Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park opened on Earth Day. At 500 acres, it is Disney’s largest park and home to approximately 1,800 animals representing 200 species. The park’s icon, the Tree of Life, is a tribute to nature, featuring more than 300 intricately carved animal images.

October 15 – “Fantasmic!” premiered at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the newly-constructed Hollywood Hills Amphitheater. The larger-than-life show features more than 50 live performers, massive sets, a brilliant display of lights, lasers, fireworks, and water animation all set to rousing music.

1999

March 18 – Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park expanded with Asia, a new themed land featuring Kali River Rapids and the Maharajah Jungle Trek that introduced tigers and other animal species to the park.

October 1 – The Millennium Celebration began at EPCOT. The 15-month event marked the debut of the popular nighttime spectacular, IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, which ran for 20 years. Also new was Millennium Village, celebrating the cultural achievements of 25 countries, and the Tapestry of Nations parade. The celebration also brought pin trading to the forefront for Disney collectors everywhere.

2001

April 16 – Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge opened, featuring spectacular views of lush savannas home to more than 200 animals. The resort is also home to one of the largest collections of African art in the United States.

October 1 – 100 Years of Magic Celebration began, honoring the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney’s birth. New parades debuted in all four parks, a 122-foot-tall Sorcerer Mickey hat become an icon for Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream also opened to take guests on a journey through the life of Walt Disney.

2004

December – Disney’s PhotoPass launched, offering an innovative way to view and retrieve professionally-captured photos online.

2005

May 5 – Walt Disney World joined in the “Happiest Celebration on Earth,” with Disney parks around the world saluting the 50th anniversary of Disneyland Resort in California. Opening as part of the celebration: Soarin’ at EPCOT and the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

2006

April 7 – Expedition Everest opened, bringing new thrills to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park with a truly innovative roller coaster experience.

October 1 – “The Year of a Million Dreams” began at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts. A new “Dream Squad,” randomly selected guests to win an array of prizes. These included priceless, “dream come true” experiences like a night’s stay in the new Cinderella Castle Suite.

2008

January 17 – The first Disney Dreamers Academy event brought 100 exceptional African American high school students from around the U.S. to a four-day, immersive, transformational mentoring experience at Walt Disney World Resort. Becoming an annual event, the free program has since encouraged more than 1,000 participants to pursue their dreams and make a difference in the lives of others.

Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, 2010

Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, pre-bungalows, in 2010.

2011

September – The luxury residential resort community Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Resort welcomed its first residents. Designed by Disney Imagineers, the community offers distinctive neighborhoods, expansive nature preserves and concierge-style resident services.

2012

May 31 – Disney’s Art of Animation Resort opened with a new style of accommodations: Family Suites for parties of up to six people.

December 6 – New Fantasyland opened at Magic Kingdom Park. The 26-acre expansion of the original land initially included three new attractions and Be Our Guest Restaurant. Other phases of the new land included Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which opened on May 28, 2014.

2013

MagicBands and the My Disney Experience mobile app launched for all guests, bringing innovative new enhancements to help guests plan and experience Walt Disney World Resort.

2015

September 29 – Culminating a three-year reimagining of what was previously Downtown Disney, Disney Springs came to life. The retail, dining and entertainment district has continued to grow, encompassing four “neighborhoods” all themed to Florida towns of the early 20th century.

2016

April 12 – A 48,000-panel, five-megawatt Mickey-shaped solar array came online near EPCOT. The facility is able to produce enough power equal to 1,000 residential rooftop systems.

2017

May 27 – Pandora – The World of Avatar opened as an entirely new themed land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. It featured two attractions, dining, retail and instantly-iconic floating mountains.

2018

June 30 – Toy Story Land opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, allowing guests to play with their favorite toys in Andy’s backyard in three attractions.

2019

July 9 – Gran Destino Tower opened with 500-plus new guest rooms along with new dining and convention spaces, completing a multi-year transformation of Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort.

August 29 – Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The 14-acre land invited guests to experience their own Star Wars stories like never before. One of the most ambitious and technologically advanced attractions created for a Disney park, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance opened December 5 inside Galaxy’s Edge.

September 29 – Disney Skyliner took flight. This state-of-the-art gondola system connects EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios to four Disney Resort hotels.

December 16 – Disney’s Riviera Resort opened. It is a Disney Vacation Club property inspired by Europe and imagined by Disney.

December – A new 270-acre, 57-megawatt solar facility went online, generating enough renewable clean energy to operate two of Walt Disney World Resort’s four theme parks annually.

2020

March 4 – Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It was the first ride-through attraction in a Disney park dedicated to Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse.

Cinderella Castle 50th Anniversary look, 2021.

Cinderella Castle 50th Anniversary look, 2021.

2021

October 1 – “The World’s Most Magical Celebration” began, saluting the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort. The 18-month event will feature new experiences at all four theme parks and beyond, with shimmering EARidescent décor.

To be continued…

The magical story will continue, as the magic will never end.

You can read about my own personal history with Walt Disney World as well.

Listen to the Disney Travel Podcast


Get the Latest Disney Travel News Delivered Weekly

Visit the Luxury Disney Travel Blog and be sure to subscribe to be alerted about fresh news posts.

Listen weekly to The Disney Travel Podcast at 1923MainStreet.com.

Visit 1923 Main Street on Patreon to help support the show and get some great rewards and benefits.

Also, be sure to stop by the 1923 Main Street shop to Shop Disney for podcast logo merchandise and a selection of original Disney-inspired t-shirts and more.

For daily updates, follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook to keep up-to-date with the most recent posts.

Mike Belobradic, The Finer Side of Travel™
A Luxury Disney Travel Blog
#LuxuryDisney