Disney World at 50: What would Walt think?

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T1018CHAPEKIGER_C_HR [credit: Disney/Paul Morse]
Disney CEO Bob Chapek, left, and executive chairman Bob Iger rededicate the Walt Disney World Resort in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom Park on the eve of the park's 50th anniversary. Photo Credit: Disney/Paul Morse
Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

What would Walt Disney think of his World at 50?

That was one of the questions that occurred to me as I toured Walt Disney World on the eve of its 50th anniversary on Oct. 1.

Is it still fun, friendly and clean — the basics that Disney laid out for his managers to strive for? I found it to be so.

Is it unique? Walt Disney World has competitors in the theme park business, but when you think of the amusement parks that existed pre-1971 when Walt Disney World first opened its doors, none of them are more than regional attractions. Walt Disney World is a legitimate international destination. The only things really like it are the other parks that bear the Disney name around the world.

• Related: Grading the 50th anniversary upgrades at Disney World

Has it kept up with the times? In the Magic Kingdom, the nostalgic Main Street and patriotic Liberty Square haven't changed in 50 years, but the other "lands" have all evolved, and Walt Disney World itself has added three new parks: Epcot in 1982, Disney's Hollywood Studio in 1989 and Animal Kingdom in 1998.

The fireworks spectacles that Disney was so fond of have grown ever more elaborate and sophisticated over the years.

I think Disney would be amazed by the technology that his company has brought to bear on the idea of an amusement park. From animatronics to image projections to 5-D rides with motion, water effects and scents, there's something to marvel at around every corner.

Walt loved the future and the technology associated with it. Disneyland's monorail was just one example of something way ahead of its time. Added in 1959 after the park opened, it was the first to operate in the Western hemisphere.

Disney World, too, has its monorail, one that stops not just at but inside the Disney-owned Contemporary Resort to pick up passengers bound for the Magic Kingdom; it also offers stops at the Grand Floridian and the Polynesian Village resorts. Transportation all over Disney World and to and from Orlando Airport is one of the things that would have filled Walt with pride. If only big city transit systems could operate as seamlessly!

But perhaps the thing Walt would have been proudest of was having dreamed big at the start, enabling 50 years of quality growth.

Disney and his team had the foresight to buy 30,500 acres of swamp, scrub and orange grove in 1964 and 1965.  Only a fraction of it would be needed to open the Magic Kingdom and two nearby hotels six years later.

Tom Stieghorst's Dispatches from Disney World's 50th:
Remy's Ratatouille Adventure: Fast-paced and cute
A look at Epcot's new Space 220 restaurant

But now, the acreage accommodates four theme parks, two water parks, 28 Disney-owned hotels, 150 shops and restaurants at Disney Springs, four golf courses, the ESPN Wide World of Sports amateur sports complex and more. The town of Celebration, with 7,500 residents, rose on land originally part of Disney World, fulfilling Walt's dream of building a prototype community of tomorrow, although in a different style than he intended. (Disney's idea was a futuristic, radial city with big buildings and a transport hub in the center. Celebration is more-low rise, more suburban, and the architecture is classical rather than futuristic.)

• Related: Disney World presenting after-hours fun for the holidays

Disney is recognized as America's premier showman, rivaled perhaps only by P.T. Barnum, whose three-ring circus is all but dead in the modern world. While Disneyland and the early animated films will always be the font of Disney's creative reputation, it is Disney World that may have cemented his reputation with the public.

Sadly Walt didn't live to see his vision realized, dying of lung cancer in 1966. His brother Roy completed the park.

Current Disney executive chairman Robert Iger paid tribute to the pair at a rededication ceremony at Cinderella's Castle on Sept. 30.

"I know from walking through this park countless times over the years," Iger said, "watching it evolve, seeing the smiles on people's faces, hearing their laughter and feeling their excitement, that Walt Disney World really is what Walt and Roy hoped it would be, and much, much more."

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