The Surprising Truth About How Walt Disney World Came to Be

Ever wonder how Walt Disney World came to be? With a much different start than Disney’s first namesake theme park, Walt Disney World has a surprising origin story. Discover how the top-secret operation went from being a rumored atomic energy lab to the Walt Disney World we know and love today, ahead.

USA entrance of Walt Disney World Resort.

Walt Disney created his East Coast theme park because he wanted more control. | Manakin/iStock/Getty Images

Disney wanted more control

Despite his first theme park success, Disney felt he wanted more control over the land surrounding Disneyland. That combined with the growing business around Disneyland — which were not owned or operated by Disney — led Walt on a quest for bigger and better.

A top-secret operation

In addition to wanting more control, Walt Disney wanted the entire purchase and plans for the park to be top secret. Even the real estate agents that closed the deal did not know their client’s identity.

Disney purchased the land for $5 million cash

Considered one the most significant land deals in Florida at the time, Disney paid for the land Walt Disney World now sits on with $5 million cash. The purpose of the deal was initially top-secret, but in 1965, Orlando residents finally found out the fate of the 30,000 acres after Walt announced Disneyland 2.0.

Many believed NASA purchased the land

Because of its size — and significant land deal — many residents thought NASA bought it or it was for an atomic energy lab. That said, rumors were put to rest after several promising stories broke about plans for an East Coast Disneyland. In fact, one of the stories was so insightful, it pushed Walt Disney to announce the deal earlier than he originally planned to.

Walt Disney World Resort marked its 45th anniversary

Magic Kingdom was the first theme park at Walt Disney World. | David Roark/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images

It all started with the Magic Kingdom

Today, Walt Disney World is home to a variety of theme parks such as Animal Kingdom and Epcot. But, back in 1965, only one theme park was underway. The Magic Kingdom — a replica of Walt Disney’s first theme park, Disneyland — was the first Walt Disney World theme park. After that came Epcot in 1982, Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 1989, and Disney’s the Animal Kingdom in 1998.

It took 6 years to build

Despite already having experience with one theme park, construction of the Magic Kingdom took six years to complete. The resort opened on October 1, 1971, and was Walt Disney’s only theme park for over ten years.

Walt Disney died before the park opened

A year after announcing the future East Coast Disneyland, Walt Disney passed away. He never got to see his dreams of a bigger, better — read: more controlled — park come to life. His brother Roy, who was about to retire, stepped up to the plate and postponed his retirement to help oversee the construction.

The original hotels are still in operation today

Today, Walt Disney World is home to 27 themed Disney Hotels. However, at the time of its opening, there were just two: The Contemporary Resort and Polynesian Village. Both hotels still operate today.

Walt Disney World is an actual city

In addition to building a theme park, Disney initially had plans for an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” or “EPCOT.” In a nutshell, the prototype was going to serve as a test bed for innovations in city life. In order to make it happen, the company had to lobby the government of Florida until it created a so-called “special government district” just for Disney. Today, Walt Disney World is an incorporated city called Reedy Creek Improvement District.

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