Theme Park History: A short history of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
Written by TH Creative
It’s been said that Mr. Walt Disney and those who worked alongside of him embraced a two word mantra: “Plus it!” From production on the Walt Disney Studios’ earliest films to the advent of WED Enterprises, the company’s namesake was aggressive in his admonishment that the creative people behind his productions take their best efforts to the next level. The term “Plus it!” was short hand for “make it better.”
One illustration of the Disney company’s continued commitment to this attitude is weaved into the history of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. For more than 40 years the company has evaluated and refined the Florida park’s daily operation, improving efficiencies and enhancing the themed entertainment experience for its guests.
In fact, after the company’s intentions were revealed, Mr. Disney explained his specific motivations to build the Magic Kingdom. “I'm doing this because I want to do it better,” Mr. Disney said.
Disney started thinking about what would become the Walt Disney World Resort in the early 1960s, but his vision wasn't limited to recreating a "Disneyland East." After researching sites in New York, St. Louis and elsewhere in Florida, Buzz Price (who found the site for the original Disneyland in California) recommended a 30,000-acre site southwest of Orlando. That would provide the space Disney wanted to create an "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow," a modernist planned community that would include abundant hotels and recreation facilities, including a new, larger "plussed" Magic Kingdom theme park. Walt Disney died in 1966, and the "EPCOT" community eventually transformed into another theme park, but Walt's brother Roy saw the Magic Kingdom and several surrounding hotels to completion.
From its earliest days, the Magic Kingdom has stood as perhaps the most iconic production in themed entertainment history. Since it’s opening in 1971, a conservative calculation would conclude that half a billion guests have walked into the park.
While the Magic Kingdom borrows its hub-and-spoke layout from the company’s flagship property – Disneyland – many of the attractions operating on opening day were decidedly “Plus It!” productions. California’s “Submarine Voyage” evolved into the more theatrical “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The single commander in chief featured in California’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” was trumped by an army of animated executives in “The Hall of Presidents.” And while the Florida project included its own editions of “It’s a Small World” and “The Haunted Mansion” the Magic Kingdom also premiered its own original productions of “The Mickey Mouse Revue” and “The Country Bear Jamboree.”
The success of the Magic Kingdom’s attractions found its foundation in an additional exercise in progression. In 1969, the implementation of the Digital Animation Control System (or DACS) used revolutionary computer technology to manage the movements of audio-animatronic characters. An individual character’s movements were recorded on computer discs. This allowed Walt Disney Imagineers to fine tune each figure – further enhancing the quality of a production.
In addition to advancements in the park’s attractions, the day to day operation of the Magic Kingdom stands out as another example of Disney “doing it better.” Certainly any fan of Discovery Channel documentaries is well aware about the (not very) secret “utilidors” traversing beneath the park. The backstage tunnels allowed park personnel, retail goods and other material to move freely -- out of the sight of visiting guests. Another example of the park’s operating efficiency is seen in its AVAC system – a series of large pipes that contained compressed air used to transport trash to waste collection stations outside the park. The fascination with the park’s operation has resulted in the company offering behind-the-scenes visits for park guests.
After it opened, the company continued to tweak the park’s operation. Even minor changes assisted in improving the guest experience. Near the end of the Magic Kingdom’s first decade, the company decided to phase out its signature alphabetized ticket books. Responding to the actions of competing park operators Disney retired its fabled “E-Tickets” – electing to allow free and full access to all of the park’s attractions for a single admission price.
Another “low-tech” inspiration that brought a personal touch to cast member/guest interactions was the distribution of complimentary celebration buttons. Guests visiting the parks on a birthday or anniversary were given a button announcing their name and what they were celebrating. Cast members spotting the buttons would then be able to greet a guest by wishing them a happy birthday – adding a personal connection via a small progression.
While the simple addition of celebration buttons has been a successful progression the Magic Kingdom’s dedication to personal service continues to advance toward a state-of-the-art standard. As the company approached the park’s 40th anniversary, it invested hundreds of millions of dollars to implement Disney NextGen – an operation and guest services system that represents an almost exponential advance in efficiency. From the ability for guests to personalize their vacations at the “My Disney Experience” website, to the opportunities to reduce wait times at attractions via the “Fast Pass-Plus” system, the potential efficiencies produced from Disney NextGen has substantial potential. The technology is supported by Disney “MagicBands” – RFID wrist bands that will supplant the need for paper tickets and allow resort guests to purchase retail items and food.
On a personal level the MagicBands will soon enhance the experience surrounding the company’s popularcharacter greetings. Rather than communicate through silent pantomime, Mickey Mouse will soon be talking and addressing a guest by their name. “Hi Robert! I’ve been looking forward to meeting you! Are you enjoying your day in the Magic Kingdom? That’s swell!”
Considering the Magic Kingdom’s history demonstrates a commitment to “doing it better” it’s unfortunate that Mr. Disney (allegedly) passed away before the park welcomed its first guests. Then again, it seems reasonable to believe that Mr. Disney would not be inclined to let the park rest upon its laurels. Certainly his evaluation of the current state of the most successful theme park operation in history would likely be: “Plus it!”
THCreative is is a member of Team TPI and the author of ‘7097-050719’ – Book One in the Theme Park trilogy.
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What's it like to work in a theme park? Stories from a Theme Park Insider takes you inside the famous tunnels and backstage at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for a look at how theme parks really work, sharing the funny moments and embarrassments that can happen when your job is someone else's vacation.
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