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A Walt Disney World Retrospective: Ten Magical Milestones of the 1970s

October 1, 1971. Roy Disney stood in the beating Florida sun, Mickey Mouse at his side. As expectant faces gazed at him, preparing for what he would say to uphold his brother’s legacy, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company silently acknowledged that, while this newest park, The Magic Kingdom, did not look like what Walt had originally intended, he was sure it would have made him proud. In fact, without Walt Disney’s influence, no one was exactly sure what “The Florida Project” would ultimately look like. It was decided, as explained in the park’s opening day dedication plaque, that The Magic Kingdom would serve as “a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney…and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney’s dream come true.”

The Magic Kingdom was not merely a carbon copy of California’s Disneyland, it was something grander. While Walt’s original west coast park was a charming theme park, The Magic Kingdom was a part of something new: The Vacation Kingdom of the World. Walt Disney World’s first decade, the 1970s, would ultimately reimagine what a resort vacation–for the entire family–would come to look like for the next half-century. Learn more about ten magical milestones in the 1970s below. 


10 – Global Popularity

On October 22, 1979, Mickey Mouse welcomed the one hundred millionth guest to the Magic Kingdom. Eight-year-old Kurt Miller from Kingsville, Maryland, and his family found themselves surprised by the impromptu celebration. This event proved the global popularity of Florida’s first Disney park, giving credence to the argument made in 1971 that Walt Disney World had become the most popular tourist destination in “the Western world.”

9 – Treasure Island/Discovery Island

Walt Disney had always been fascinated with nature, as evidenced by his popular, Academy Award-winning documentaries in the True-Life Adventure series. Recognizing the rich ecological variety of the landscape around and within Walt Disney World, it was decided that Riles Island, situated at the center of Bay Lake, would be converted into a zoological park for guests to explore, complete with an exotic bird aviary and gardens filled with tropical flora. The attraction, which cost a separate admission and was only reachable by boat, was initially themed around pirates when it opened in 1974 and featured a beached ship washed up on the shore, but would be renamed Discovery Island in 1976 when the attraction became more focused on ecology, preservation, and wildlife. This attraction became a relaxing break from the bustle of the Magic Kingdom for many guests, proving that a family vacation to Walt Disney World was more than just rides and characters, but could also be an opportunity for education, appreciation for all things created by nature, and relaxation.

8 – Main Street Electrical Parade

This guest favorite has been a staple at the Magic Kingdom off-and-on over the course of the past five decades. The park’s original nighttime parade debuted in 1977 as a copy of its popular counterpart on the west coast, which began performing at Disneyland in 1972, itself inspired by the Electrical Water Pageant that ran nightly on the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake since October 1971. Notable for its technological advancements (it was powered using nickel-cadmium batteries and utilized a number of radio-activated “trigger zones” to ensure the appropriate music was playing as a float drifted by), the Main Street Electrical Parade was so popular that its successor, SpectroMagic, was directly inspired by it.

7 – The Country Bear Jamboree

An opening day attraction at the Magic Kingdom, the Country Bear Jamboree quickly became beloved by guests old and young alike as they “clapped their hands and stomped their feet” along with the “good ole country rhythm” performed by two dozen animatronics. A holdover from the abandoned Mineral King Ski Resort Disney had planned for Sequoia National Park, the Magic Kingdom’s Frontierland seemed like a great place for Henry, Liverlips McGrowl, Big Al, and the rest of the crew. The attraction was a perfect blend of catchy songs, humor, and Disney artistry that would go on to inspire attractions for years to come.

Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom Park in 1976 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Disney)

6 – Space Mountain

This guest favorite, which opened in 1975, was one of the few early attractions of the Magic Kingdom that had not originated at Disneyland. Almost two decades in development and originally conceived by John Hench and Walt Disney himself, Space Mountain soon gained fame for being the first roller coaster operated by computer and the first indoor steel roller coaster. The popularity of Space Mountain would later inspire two more attractions in the Magic Kingdom mountain range: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain.


5 – Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village

As Walt Disney World became more popular, it quickly became obvious that additional entertainment, dining and shopping opportunities needed to exist outside the Magic Kingdom and resorts. In 1975, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened, offering guests an opportunity to purchase a plethora of items including toys, flowers, and pottery, as well as services such as a barbershop, a pet store, and a post office. While many of the planned offerings and infrastructure, such as Monorail spurs, PeopleMover transportation, and a corresponding residential community, never materialized, over the course of the next several decades, the shopping center would expand, offering entertainment venues and fine dining that would provide entertainment opportunities in the hours after park closing.

Disney’s Contemporary Resort and the Walt Disney World Monorail in 1975 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Disney)

4 – The Monorail

While the Monorail was added at Disneyland in 1959 as an attraction in Tomorrowland, it served a very different use at Walt Disney World beginning on opening day in 1971. Rather than providing a tour of the sights and attractions of the park, the Walt Disney World Monorail instead served as a transportation system, offering guests the opportunity to quickly get from the Magic Kingdom parking lots to the park entrance and from the Magic Kingdom to the Contemporary and Polynesian Resorts. Not only did this futuristic transportation system create a unique experience for guests visiting the Walt Disney World Resort, which allowed the park to become mere steps from their hotel rooms, but it also served as a reminder of Walt Disney’s original plan for Walt Disney World, an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow with clean and pedestrian-friendly transportation systems.

3 – River Country

Walt Disney World’s first waterpark, which invited guests to enjoy an afternoon swimming in a watering hole near the Ft. Wilderness Campground and along the shores of Bay Lake, opened on June 20, 1976. While those staying at the Walt Disney World Resort had been able to enjoy the swimming pools at their respective resort hotels and even bathe in the Seven Seas Lagoon, River Country offered a new opportunity for outdoor recreation. Many a guest fell from the end of the waterslide into a pool or hung from a zip line before splashing into the water below. The popularity of this park would later lead to two other water parks, as well as give guests an opportunity to see aspects of Walt Disney World that existed outside the gates of the Magic Kingdom.

2 – Pirates of the Caribbean

Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean opened in 1967 as one of the signature attractions of the park’s New Orleans Square. However, when the Magic Kingdom was designed, it was determined that Floridians and visitors to Walt Disney World’s theme park wouldn’t be interested in a pirates-themed attraction due to its proximity to the Caribbean. After numerous complaints, it was determined that Disney would create a version for the Magic Kingdom, which opened in 1973 and quickly became one of the most popular and globally beloved attractions.

1 – The First Disney Resorts

Walt Disney World was meant to be a departure from any other resort experience on earth. The goal was to provide a vacation experience unlike any other. While Disneyland was a park often visited by day-trippers and locals, several hotels had sprung up outside the park. Walt Disney recognized when he began planning what would become Walt Disney World that a massive piece of land needed to be required to provide ample space for the amenities a vacation would offer, as well as avoid the outside commercialization of the experience. 

To solve this problem, four Disney-owned and -operated resorts opened during the 1970s: the Contemporary Resort, the Polynesian Village Resort, and the Fort Wilderness Campground all opened in 1971, while The Golf Resort opened in 1973. These four resorts offered luxurious themed accommodations to guests of the Walt Disney World Resort, as well as restaurants and dinner shows, shopping, pools, and outdoor recreation such as golf and water sports. The self-contained nature of Walt Disney World, thanks to the inclusion of resort accommodations located nearby the Magic Kingdom, truly resulted in Walt Disney World becoming one of the world’s premier tourist destinations and would fuel expansion over the course of the next several decades.

More on our Walt Disney World Retrospective:

Click here to learn more about ten magical milestones in the 1980s.

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Andrew Kiste

Andrew Kiste is a high school history teacher and author, whose popular books, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World, Walt Disney and the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, and The Early Life of Walt Disney examine the storied history of both the parks and the Walt Disney Company.
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