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Disney World Celebrates Its 50th Birthday

NOEL KING, HOST:

Disney World is the biggest theme park in the world. Forty square miles of central Florida it covers. It opened to visitors 50 years ago this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALT DISNEY: As you can see on this map, we have a perfect location in Florida - almost in the very center of the state.

KING: That's Walt Disney himself in 1966, nodding to how the park reshaped Florida. And here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Amusement parks have existed for centuries. In creating Disneyland and then, 16 years later, Disney World, Walt Disney came up with something new - the theme park. And it connects deeply with visitors.

Paulette Stinson has been to Walt Disney World some 20 times.

PAULETTE STINSON: We were talking about it. You always get that, like, feeling in your belly when you come through the gates, you know (laughter)? It's exciting every time, no matter how old you get.

ALLEN: When Disneyland opened in California in 1955, it quickly became a big success. But the company soon realized that only 2% of visitors came from east of the Mississippi River. Walt Disney went looking for an East Coast location and eventually settled on Florida.

Rick Foglesong, professor emeritus at Rollins University and author of the book "Married To The Mouse," says the interstate highway system drew him to Orlando.

RICK FOGLESONG: The roads were all-important to the Disney company because they wanted to build a park that would be 10 times the size of Disneyland in California. That meant that they were going to build such a big park they had to import tourists from afar, from down the East Coast, from the Midwest.

MARY DEMETREE: At that time, Orlando was more of a cow town. And literally when you come down Orange Blossom Trail, you could smell the orange blossoms.

ALLEN: Mary Demetree is the CEO of a real estate company her father and uncle founded, - the company that in the mid-1960s agreed to sell more than 12,000 acres of swampy undeveloped land to a company whose identity remained secret. Demetree says even her father was kept in the dark. She says he found out who his buyer was when he saw it on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel.

DEMETREE: I can remember it actually as a child and him saying, I'll be damned; it's Disney.

ALLEN: Nearly a month after the story broke, Florida Governor Haydon Burns held a news conference in Orlando to introduce the man who would remake central Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAYDON BURNS: Walt Disney, who will bring a new world of entertainment, pleasure and economic development to the state of Florida - Walt Disney.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Nice job, Donny (ph).

(APPLAUSE)

DISNEY: Thank you, Governor.

ALLEN: Orlando and Florida welcomed Disney with open arms. At the news conference, Governor Burns pressed Disney for some hint about his plans for the massive site. Disney wasn't giving anything away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DISNEY: Here, after taking a look at the land this morning, I say we are starting from scratch.

ALLEN: Walt Disney died a year later. And it was left to his brother Roy to fulfill his vision. In a move unusual at the time, the company took a careful approach to preserving wetland areas on the site. Building it cost some $400 million. On October 1, 1971, Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom opened and, a few weeks later, held a big celebration and parade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "76 TROMBONES")

ALLEN: The parade was led by composer and playwright Meredith Wilson. And it reprised a hit from his musical "The Music Man." Instead of 76 trombones, the band featured 1,076 high school band members, including trumpeter Terry Lindsey, at that time a high school junior.

TERRY LINDSEY: He led us, so to speak, down, you know, Main Street. But they had conductors throughout Main Street - on roofs, on blocks, on corners - 'cause we couldn't see. You know, we're - we are half a mile from the other end of the band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "76 TROMBONES")

ALLEN: Although Magic Kingdom was the first part completed, until he died, Walt Disney had been focused on what eventually became the second park, EPCOT. In 1966, just weeks before his death from lung cancer, he presented his vision for a city of tomorrow. In a film presentation, he described EPCOT as a planned community that would include a city center, residential, business and industrial areas and interconnected mass transit systems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DISNEY: It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems.

ALLEN: To build the city of tomorrow, Florida's legislature and governor agreed to give the Disney company the powers of a municipality - similar, author Rick Foglesong says, to the powers exercised by Orlando.

FOGLESONG: Police, fire, water, sewer, even the power to build a nuclear power plant or an airport - they were given those powers. And at the same time, they were granted immunities from external regulation.

ALLEN: Disney was given total control of planning and building codes, allowing it to complete construction of Magic Kingdom in just 18 months. Following Walt Disney's death, plans for a city of tomorrow were shelved, and EPCOT instead became another theme park. But the unprecedented amount of authority granted to Disney continues to this day. The creation of Disney World changed Florida, attracting more than 20 million visitors each year. It also changed theme parks and the entertainment industry.

Carissa Baker, an assistant professor who studies theme parks at the University of Central Florida, says Walt Disney pioneered the concept of synergy.

CARISSA BAKER: He creates, I'm sure you know, the "Disneyland" TV show in 1954, which kind of sells the idea of the Disneyland Park. But all of these movies and TV shows that are on the "Disneyland" TV show, of course, were his previous properties. And so now you're kind of tying all this together. I mean, it was pretty genius synergy, I would say.

ALLEN: Baker says Disney World also showed that by adding hotels and more attractions, theme parks could become vacation destinations, a place where families can spend a week or more without ever leaving the Disney bubble.

Matt Jason from New York City said it was his third time at Disney World since he first visited as a kid. He and his family were planning on spending five days there.

MATT JASON: Like, right now, I'm going with my daughter so she can learn to be there and learn to love it.

ALLEN: One memory that you have - favorite one.

JASON: Mickey Mouse - that's what I really knew it of - Mickey Mouse. I mean, I want to take a picture with Mickey Mouse. I want to go chill with him in his clubhouse.

ALLEN: Disney World brought growth and jobs to the area, where over the past five decades, Orlando and other communities in central Florida have seen the downside. Officials have sparred with Disney over costs for roads, police and other services associated with the growth it helped generate. And with the arrival of Disney, Orlando tied itself to a tourist-based service economy.

Rick Foglesong has seen the impact.

FOGLESONG: The average wage in metro Orlando is beneath the state average, which is beneath the national average. That's the legacy of tourism and relying upon tourism as the basis for your economy.

ALLEN: For better or worse, today Orlando, a former cow town and citrus center, is one of America's most visited cities. And that's because of one man and the world's largest theme park.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALT DISNEY'S "WALT DISNEY MEDLEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.