As Walt Disney World turns 50 today, people aren’t just celebrating a half-century of family fun and memories. They’re paying tribute to an absurdly ambitious idea that expanded on one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century, while also recreating the concept of the family vacation. Following Disneyland’s lead, Disney World did as much to break down the walls between art, entertainment, storytelling, and education as anything else in American history, creating a one-of-a-kind experience that remains powerful even throughout constant changes. All the while, it was ultimately not as ambitious as it was originally conceived, while still being more ambitious than it ever needed to be.
In the 1960s what is now known as the Walt Disney Company carved out enough land in the heart of Florida to build its own little city-state. They needed the space: Walt Disney World was never just going to be a theme park. From the start, Walt Disney’s “Florida Project” was envisioned as a transformation of not just how people vacationed, but how they lived. Yes, it’d have an East Coast version of Disneyland, to be called the Magic Kingdom, along with hotels, golf, and other recreational activities. It’d also be the home of a planned community where 20,000 people worked and lived, an intricately designed town that hoped to address issues of sprawl, public transportation, and urban decay that were starting to appear in cities nationwide, and created in cooperation with various companies who would open research and development offices in the new town’s center. The “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” as Walt called it, was the latest—and last—major obsession of a man who revolutionized multiple industries in the restless pursuit of his own dynamic vision.
Walt Disney died in 1966, shortly after revealing Disney World’s impending construction to the public. With Walt gone, his original plans for E.P.C.O.T., highly impractical from the start, were shelved and never seriously pursued. Instead the renamed Walt Disney World would take ideas and concepts pioneered at Disneyland and expand them on a grandiose scale, ultimately creating not just one but four unique theme parks, each with its own gorgeous environments and exciting attractions. Instead of a handful of hotels, Disney World now has over two dozen, most of them uniquely themed and designed. Disney World might not be the home of a small city devoted to making groundbreaking technological achievements, but it did revolutionize the way families vacation and have fun together, while also making breakthroughs in immersive art and storytelling. And with Walt’s original E.P.C.O.T. concept being reconceived as the similarly named theme park, it even introduced the public to the technology of the future throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Walt Disney World might not exactly be what Walt himself would have created, but it’s a triumph in its own right, and a crucial part of American culture.
And frankly, it never had to do any of that to be a success.
Disney could’ve simply recreated Disneyland in Florida. Despite a lot of commonalities, the Magic Kingdom was never a carbon copy of the original—it launched with a few notable changes and new attractions, and original plans called for a new cowboy-themed ride in place of Pirates of the Caribbean—but even if it was it would’ve still been an instant success, and a perennial favorite of eastern families who couldn’t justify flying to California for a theme park. Even without the hotels, the golf courses, or the water parks and additional theme parks, Disney World would’ve been an instantly beloved part of many families’ lives, and just as important to our culture as Disneyland itself. It could’ve been built right on International Drive in Orlando, next to any number of tacky gift shops and tourist traps, and Disney World still would have made the company countless amounts of money over the last five decades.
Walt hated to repeat himself, though. (Notice that Disney didn’t start making sequels until decades after its founder’s death.) From the start his plan for Disney World was to do what he couldn’t do with Disneyland, and part of that was buying enough land to make his new resort feel truly removed from the modern world. That’s a big difference from Disneyland, which was quickly surrounded by unaffiliated hotels, restaurants, and gift shops after opening in the ‘50s. Visiting Disneyland today is like finding a private little life-sized toybox in the middle of a generic suburban sprawl that could be Anywhere, USA. And although that contrast is a part of Disneyland’s overwhelming charm (the original remains the most purely charming of Disney’s theme parks), the isolation and remoteness of Walt Disney World is similarly a big part of its charm. You never forget how close the real world is at Disneyland, and that only underscores the wonder of what you’ll find within the park; meanwhile, if you stay on resort at Disney World, several miles away from anything that isn’t owned by Disney, you might forget the real world even exists.
That might sound like escapism to you. That’s definitely a part of the appeal of a place like Disney World. But like nostalgia (another key aspect of the Disney experience), there’s far more to Disney World than mere escapism. Have you ever been to a museum and seen a painting that’s so beautiful, that’s so evocative of an emotion or a time or even an idea that you can’t quite put into words that you feel transported, maybe even transformed, by looking at it? That is what it feels like to visit a theme park when it’s well designed, and no theme parks are better designed than Disney’s.
That sense of immersive, all-encompassing grandeur is the heart of Disney World, and Disney Imagineering as a whole. When you’re in Disney’s Animal Kingdom (at 23 years old, the newest theme park at Disney World, and the most beautiful) and you’re surrounded by sights, sounds and smells that evoke far flung regions of the world that you might never get an opportunity to visit, you’re experiencing a kind of artistry that doesn’t really exist outside of theme parks. It’s not a replacement for the real thing by any means, but it’s a hyperreal magnification of it that ultimately becomes its own unique place, and its own unique piece of art to be treasured and enjoyed on its own merits.
You’ll find that throughout Walt Disney World. From the international tour that is the World Showcase at Epcot, to the intergalactic expedition of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, to the classic Hollywood adventure stories and Western movies evoked at Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland and Frontierland, Disney World, by virtue of its sheer size and scope, offers more transcendent moments of theme park design than any other theme park resort in the world. (I gotta say, though, Tokyo DisneySea comes shockingly close, especially since that’s just one single park.)
It’s these moments that keep people like me returning to the parks over and over. It’s not just a yearning for the past, whether it’s the exaggerated past of Disney’s theme parks or my own childhood memories of visiting Disney World with my family; it’s not a desire to see movies and characters I’ve loved since I was a kid come to life before me; it’s not just the rides, or the shows, or the food, or even the simple relief of not having to go to work or worry about my real life for a few days. It’s how all of that is accomplished in such beautiful, charming, transformative ways, and how so many different artistic disciplines, from architecture to robotics, come together masterfully to tell a story.
Disney World isn’t perfect. There’s a lot I could complain about, both within the parks and within the company that owns them. Today’s not the time for that, though. Today’s a day to remember what makes a place like Walt Disney World special, not just as a fancy amusement park, but as a legitimate work of art that has had a massive impact on our culture and our lives for the last half-century. There might be a half-dozen Disney theme park resorts around the planet, but there’s nothing on Earth like Walt Disney World, and there probably never will be again.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.