Walt Disney World Resort


Original 1971 logo
(Walt Disney Productions -The Walt Disney Company)

Initial Construction, 1969-1971

Actual construction began in April 1969. The first task for the Reedy Creek Improvement District was finding a way to drain areas of swampland for construction without damaging the environment. Since the whole Central Florida area basically floats on a body of fresh water, any depletion or damage to one part of this water supply would cause environmental devastation to the region's entire supply.

Over fifty miles of canals and levees were constructed on property to control water levels without losing the supply. Water control structures, such as the French-designed Emile Gate, keep levels under control by automatically floating open when water reaches certain peaks and close when peaks subside. They require no electricity or human monitoring, and greatly reduce the risk of flooding or drought. These canals were the first "themed" illusion on property: they curve through the natural landscape much as a stream would, instead of following the straight lines of artificial canals.

Once they had a way to control and drain whatever land areas they needed for construction, Imagineers in Florida and California began various projects simultaneously. The Disney staff wanted the resort built in two years. They hired an outside group of engineers to oversee construction, but this group said it would take at least five years to complete the project. The Disney staff subsequently let that group go and created their own team.

At the time, Bay Lake was the only natural body of water on property. It was also one of the first areas of property Walt wanted to buy (along with an island in the middle of it, now called Discovery Island). In early planning stages, designers decided to build a man-made lagoon adjacent to it. There would be plenty of space for water recreation, and the lagoon would complement the setting of the Polynesian Village Resort. It could also offer Guests the feel of an exotic journey to the theme park's faraway lands.

Bay Lake was first drained with pumps and its bottom layer of muck scooped out. Next to it, over seven million cubic yards of earth were dug up for the lagoon and used as a foundation for the Magic Kingdom Park. White sand found underneath all the muck was used to line the four and a half miles of beach around the newly created Seven Seas Lagoon. Bay Lake and the 172-acre lagoon were then refilled with water from the surrounding wetland and stocked with more than 70,000 fish.

The concepts of EPCOT moved forward. In the spirit of a self-sufficient city, the resort built its own energy plants, maintenance shops, food center, and laundry to handle the massive needs of Cast Members and Guests. Miles of sewage, water, and electrical lines and pipes were laid, paving the way for future utility plants.

The theme parks and resorts' utility systems were constructed with unique and advanced methods to supply electricity and hot water for heating and cooling. A wastewater treatment plant was built to treat effluent and direct it to a nearby tree farm and golf courses.

A highly advanced computer system was installed in the central energy plant to monitor and control the distribution of power across the property. The system instantly and automatically recognizes any problem occurring in the parks or hotels, and usually adjusts the problem from there. The plant also produces part of the WALT DISNEY WORLD power needs. This is a necessity since thunderstorms are common in Central Florida. If there is a power outage, the resort can rely on emergency power from its own plant.

Another monitoring system was installed to detect smoke, fire, floods, or unusual water flow. It covers more than 3,000 spots across property and automatically alerts the appropriate response personnel if needed.

Most of the support facilities were built north of the Magic Kingdom Park. Central Shops was created to serve as a major center for fabrication, for everything from trash cans and ride vehicles, to signs and ornamental iron and wood work in and around the themed buildings. It is divided into many different areas: the Machine Shop, Metal Shop, Maintenance Services, Electrical, Plumbing and Air Conditioning, Staff Shop, Mill Shop, and Paint Shop. Built next to Central Shops was a dry dock for building and servicing Walt Disney World watercraft.

There was no food distribution center in the Central Florida area large enough to support the volume of the resorts and theme park's Guests, so the Disney company built its own. Almost all food was shipped there before going out to various locations on property. It had its own bakery for breads and pastry items, and a main kitchen for preparing soups and sauces, produce, meat, pizza, sandwiches, and salads. A quality control kitchen allowed chefs to keep recipes consistent throughout property and evaluate menu items going in and coming off the line.

Master Planning for Walt Disney World, 1969
(Artwork by Walt Disney Productions - The Walt Disney Company)

The world's largest working wardrobe, with offices in the park and separate hotels, was assigned to create and perform maintenance on Cast Member and Audio-Animatronics figure costumes. To clean all those costumes, the world's largest laundry facility was constructed. It not only cleans costumes, but resort towels, sheets, and napkins handled by Cast Members and Guests . . . about 100,000 pounds of linen each day.

At the tree farm just a few miles away, landscape designers and horticulturists tended thousands of plants, trees, shrubs, and flowers needed for WALT DISNEY WORLD greenery. The original inventory of trees numbered more than 8,000. Some exotic plantlife comes from as far away as Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and Africa. Many species require three years of acclimation to Florida soil before they are transplanted onstage. Also, about 1,500 existing trees growing in areas destined for development were moved and transplanted in other locations.

Monorail beams, made of concrete with a special polystyrene core to lighten their weight, came by rail from the state of Washington. The monorail trains themselves were constructed in California. Plans already called for two monorail tracks to circle the Seven Seas Lagoon. One would go straight to the MAGIC KINGDOM Park from the main parking lot, the other stopping at the resort hotels around the lagoon also. Future plans called for beams to extend all the way to Lake Buena Vista, where the Disney Village Resort was under development. This particular monorail route never made it past the planning stages.

There were no telephone lines or telephone system on property before it was purchased. The Disney company formed a partnership with the Florida Telephone Company to create a completely new state-of-the-art telephone system. Vista-United Telecommunications was designed to serve resort, park, and administration telephones, as well as transmit computer data and video signals all over property. It became the first totally electronic telephone system using underground cable instead of standard poles with overhead lines. It would be the first to use a fiber-optics system in a commercial venture, and the first in Florida to use the 911 emergency system.

The resort hotels used a method of construction never before implemented. While the hotels' main skeletal structures were being erected, their rooms were manufactured at an assembly plant miles away. Each one was built as a lightweight steel module and completely outfitted with wall coverings, bath fixtures, and mirrors. They were then trucked to the site and individually "plugged" into the resorts' framework with the help of giant cranes.

Theming was key to their design. Walt wanted the entire property to be a themed experience, not just the theme park. The resorts not only had their own individual look, but were specifically planned and positioned as extensions of the Magic Kingdom Park.

The Tempo Bay Resort Hotel became the Contemporary Resort (now Disney's Contemporary Resort) and was placed as a compatible backdrop to Tomorrowland. Disney's Polynesian Resort (formerly Polynesian Village Resort) is an extension of Adventureland. Farther back in the surrounding forests, the campground known as Fort Wilderness (now Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground), named after the fort on Tom Sawyer's Island in Disneyland Park, features the quiet country atmosphere of Frontierland. (The same care used to preserve trees in other areas of development took place at Fort Wilderness as well. Subsequent planning of resort campsites and roads saved fifty percent more trees, including 300-year-old cypress trees).

Further plans included at least three more resorts around the lagoon, with Venetian, Asian, and Persian styles. Space was left open for a large movie theater complex, and a Western town resort near the Fort Wilderness Campground.

On the foundation where the Magic Kingdom Park was to stand, a network of warehouse-sized rooms, hallways, and office space was built, then covered with more dirt. This nine-acre tunnel system, called "utilidors," forms a unique support basement. The Magic Kingdom Park that Guests see is actually the second and third stories. The utilidors provide easy, behind-the-scenes access to utility systems, offices, and storage areas, and also backstage passage to Cast Member work locations.

Master Planning for Walt Disney World, 1969
(Artwork by Walt Disney Productions - The Walt Disney Company)

Located in the utilidors is the nerve center for the park's computer systems. The Digital Animation Control System (DACS) virtually controls everything in the park, from the hundreds of playback recordings in each attraction to the water pressure needed to push various boats through each ride track all of it simultaneously. Computers also control all the projection systems, fireworks, and parade operations . . . even park cash registers.

The Swedish-built Automated Vacuum Assisted Collection (AVAC) was the first waste system of its type installed in the United States. It is an integral part of waste collection for the theme park, intricately linked through the utilidors by pneumatic tubes. Trash is deposited in several collection points around the park. Every fifteen minutes it is drawn through the tubes at speeds up to 60 miles per hour and sent to a central compactor station.

Meanwhile, Imagineers were putting other elements of the Magic Kingdom Park together in California. The park attractions went through months of meticulous planning before actually being built. Each ride and show was given a storyline, with a beginning, middle, and end. Extensive historical backgrounds were researched to bring authenticity to the stories, from Pirates of the Caribbean to The Hall of Presidents. Then, sketches and a script of each scene in order, were drawn up on a storyboard to give Imagineers a visual impression of what the attraction would look like in sequence. With the storyboard and hundreds of sketches as visual guides, Imagineers then crafted scale models of the entire attraction so they could see and experiment with what Guests would see during their experience. Every angle of view had to be taken into account, including what would be seen if Guests turned around.
The models provided a guide for the full-size clay sculptures of animated figures and props. These sculptures were used to create molds for the actual show pieces. As the pieces were fabricated and assembled, audio tracks of voices and sound effects were recorded in studio booths, and background sets were constructed and painted. Thousands of set props, such as old tables and chairs, firearms, window shades, curtains, doors, bird cages, carriages, lanterns, and artificial trees and rocks, were found, purchased, or made from scratch in Imagineering shops. After each attraction building was constructed, the ride system or show equipment was installed. The sets, props, Audio-Animatronics figures, and special effects went in next, followed by the final audio recordings. Finally, each scene's visual and audio effects were programmed to play back in sync, thanks to the massive computers of DACS.

The old-fashioned steam locomotives which circle the park were found in Mexico and refurbished in Tampa, Florida. Paddle-wheelers, ferryboats, and submarines were also built there for the planned naval fleet.

The Magic Kingdom Park would open with six themed lands: Main Street, U.S.A.; Adventureland; Frontierland; Liberty Square, a land originally planned for the Disneyland Park in 1955; Fantasyland; and Tomorrowland. Mickey's Birthdayland was created in 1988 to honor Mickey Mouse's 60th birthday, and eventually changed its name to Mickey's Starland in 1990. In 1996, the land changed again into Mickey's Toontown Fair with the addition of more interactive play areas, character greeting locations, and a kiddie roller coaster called The Barnstormer at Goofy's Wiseacres Farm.

Above-ground construction of the Magic Kingdom Park began in early 1970, starting with Main Street, U.S.A., and the Cinderella Castle. Years of research went into the planning and design of the Walt Disney World signature castle. Imagineers used several French castles for inspiration, among them the Chambord, the Usse, and the Chenonceau. Inspiration also came from the castle in Walt Disney's own film Cinderella.

Since no one had built a 189-foot castle in America, there was difficulty finding craftsmen experienced in the field. There were no local gargoyle or trellis makers in the area, so Imagineering fashioned its own. It took eighteen months to complete. Six hundred tons of steel were used in the framework. Imagineers then sculpted exterior and interior fiberglass walls to resemble solid granite. The ten towering spires, fabricated and finished on property, were then slid into place above the main building and permanently attached (contrary to some myths, the castle cannot be, nor has ever been dismantled in the event of a hurricane). Finishing touches applied to this architectural marvel included the Cinderella mice carved into decorative columns, family crests of Walt's family and friends in the second story stained glass windows, and Walt's own family crest in stone above the breezeways.

Eventually, all the lands came together with their own unique themes. Ordinary buildings were cloaked with intricately designed exteriors and interiors. Details were installed and the final coats of paint were put on. Imagineers used an architectural trick called "forced perspective" to make buildings look taller than they actually are. They shrunk windows, balconies, and even furniture on the second floors and shrunk any third floors even further to achieve the illusion of tall buildings climbing far into the sky. To complete the feeling of being in a three dimensional movie, background music was created for each particular land, as if it was part of any film's soundtrack. In the end, it took more than 9,000 workers to build the world's most famous vacation resort, at a cost of just more than $400 million.

In Lake Buena Vista, the Walt Disney World Preview Center hosted more than one million Guests prior to park opening. For eighteen months, a staff of tour guides used artists' renderings, slides, and film to show what the Vacation Kingdom would be all about. Without question, anticipation for this resort was enormous.