Theme Park History: A short history of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

July 27, 2013, 9:12 AM · 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.

Magic Kingdom

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.

Replies (30)

July 27, 2013 at 8:05 PM · Is this a press release? Why is this on the site? Most of the information is obvious, and the raves about the buttons and Magic Bands are just silly. This feels like a post from the Disney Parks Blog. Disappointing.
July 27, 2013 at 9:24 PM · Dan, I see you've been on the site for well over a year. If you follow it on a regular basis, you'd know that Robert said that there would weekly history posts. And certainly by now, you should know TH.
July 27, 2013 at 10:05 PM · This is, if a history article, is a weak one. I don't want to be negative about anyone willing to write, but if you want to call it a "history" article, cover more than what was here at opening and then nothing else added to the park up to the present.
July 28, 2013 at 9:45 AM · here's the thing..... There is A LOT of history with this park. I would say that this one is harder to write about than Disneyland itself because not many people have covered the Magic Kingdom because its hard to figure out where to start. I love how you opened with the article. The only thing I would of backed off on is the nextgen technology because there are A LOT ALOT A LOT of people who are not feeling so happy about this technology. They feel cheated about it because they feel that the billion dollars going into this technology should have gone into new attraction capital expenditures. I would maybe narrowed in on HOW MUCH the Magic Kingdom has changed throughout its history. If you just look at the map from when it opened in 1971 to now, its really quite amazing how much the park has grown and changed. HECK, you could of done a history of just Tomorrowland in Magic Kingdom. That would have been a great article within itself. So I would just say next time to make more MK fanboys happy, focus more on Magic Kingdom in the 80s and 90s because as of late, MK has not received too much love (BESIDES THE NEW FANTASYLAND(which as Robert has said was all done wrong with not opening it all up at once))..... thank you for this article. It's nice seeing a different POV with this park..
July 28, 2013 at 10:47 AM · I like how TH asserts that NextGen is just another example of "plussing" the parks - and I hope he is right. Anything that helps me streamline my vacation and maximize my in park adventures is a plus. The jury is still out on NextGen, but it is a nice change of pace to read an article with a positive outlook on the technology.
July 28, 2013 at 1:58 PM · It's clear that the writer has a lot of enthusiasm for the Magic Kingdom, and the anecdotes are interesting. But this doesn't read like the rest of the Theme Park History entries, which chronologically chronicled changes and additions to the parks covered, along with changes in management and such.

You don't get a sense of how the park has changed over the years. (i.e. the addition of Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, New Fantasyland,etc.)

July 28, 2013 at 2:01 PM · Forget about plussing, how about maintaining what was already there? Neither plussing nor maintenance has been a hallmark in the last 15 years. The billion dollar Magic Bands have yet to prove that they're worth the investment, and attraction-wise they're only starting to play catch up with Universal.
July 29, 2013 at 8:57 AM · "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."

Disney has been doing everything but the last portion. Themed entertainment is sorely missing from the equation. Whatever the merits of Magic Bands, there aren't enough rides to keep the guests in the parks. No wonder Disney is always selling 3 or 4 day packages. Do they suspect the guests will quickly run out of things to do especially if Magic Bands succeed in getting their guests to their preferred attractions quickly and efficiently. There is no reason to linger in the parks once a ride is ridden.

Increasingly, a trip to WDW almost requires a trip to Universal and SeaWorld especially if you run out of things to do.

July 29, 2013 at 9:05 AM · Last time I visited WDW in 2010, I packed in ten full Disney days - and never once ran out of things to do. Anon, I think you have lost your perspective. You live in SoCal and are surrounded by excellent theme and amusement park options. You need to spend a few summers in Kansas City where your local park is Worlds of Fun and you will quickly regain your appreciation for WDW.
July 29, 2013 at 9:46 AM · James: The last time I visited WDW was 2000. Nothing much has changed since then except for a ton of new DVC timeshare developments and the laughable New Fantasyland, but many things did change at Disneyland Resort. You're correct that I live in SoCal and surrounded by amusement park options, BUT you ignore that Orlando is similarly surrounded by these options. If Orlando has these options, why only go to WDW for 10 days?

It is quite easy to run out of things to do especially if you're a repeat visitor. You don't need to keep going to the minor attractions. WDW is a large complex, but Disneyland has many more rides than the Magic Kingdom and California Adventure has all the DHS rides and more like Carsland. The things you're missing at Disneyland Resort is EPCOT World Showcase and some Animal Kingdom attractions (nevermind the animal exhbits - NATAZOO).

I'm planning a vacation to Orlando in 2014 for 9 nine days. I will surely buy a 5 day park pass to WDW, but I will include Universal in the plan. My focus is Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, Magic Kingdom, and Univeral's Harry Potter and The Simpsons.

July 29, 2013 at 10:08 AM · Wow, so much negativity. I have been to WDW 20 times and always find things to do, whether they are new things or things that I have done before. By the way, always have a great time too.
July 29, 2013 at 10:20 AM · Anon, I am not saying you shouldn't visit other parks in Orlando... of course you should. My point was simply that to me and mine, there was plenty to do at WDW to keep ten days filled to the brim. Our opinions simply differ in that I do not agree most folks will get bored after a few days at WDW. But again, I live in KC, and the closest, good, theme park, Silver Dollar City, is four hours away.

Now, the reasons I personally did not visit other parks during my ten day trip in May of 2010 are two fold:

1) It was cheaper to extend my seven day WDW trip to ten days than to add two days at Universal and one day at SeaWorld. Far cheaper.

2) Harry Potter's opening dates were pushed back time and again, and when I planned my trip there were no guarantees that section of the park would be open. And in fact, the Wizarding World did not open until a month after we had left.

Back to WDW... if you are bored of the parks after just a few days, then perhaps you might be more of a ride junkie than a themed entertainment junkie. Disney and, to a growing extent, Universal are about attractions and experiences, not just rides. If you get tired of the experiences (which include rides, characters, parades, shows, fireworks, and yes, even dining and shopping) then I recommend a visit to Cedar Point or Hershey Park... both of which offer far more rides than what you will find at any one park in Orlando or SoCal.

July 29, 2013 at 10:33 AM · While I disagree that the New Fantasyland is "laughable" (it's not) as well as his contention that Disney has not enhanced the themed entertainment experience for its guests(it has), I'd say Anon Mouse's assessment is pretty much on target.

It seems to me one of the reasons Disney is launching the brand new 'Festival of Fantasy' parade is it keeps guests in the park for a scheduled event that begins mid afternoon and ends late in the day (I read somewhere it lasts 45 minutes.

July 29, 2013 at 11:04 AM · James "if you are bored of the parks after just a few days, then perhaps you might be more of a ride junkie than a themed entertainment junkie."

This is a poor assessment of my post. Assuming that Disney only consists of few rides, all you'll be doing is themed entertainment, which at WDW is also not comparable to the terrific entertainment offerings at Disneyland Resort. For me to be tired of such things, why would I go to Cedar Point or Hershey Park? They are roller coaster parks and I have absolutely no interest in spinning around and around.

WDW critics, myself included, have said repeatedly that they have taken away and not added to the parks. I enjoy Disney entertainment. It's just that at WDW, I ran out of things to do. WDW failed to make a 7 day vacation necessary.

I offered up Universal and SeaWorld as alternatives. They do themed entertainment at the same or superior caliber that Disney offers.

I love it when TH Creative jumps in and offers a weak rebuttal. Thanks a lot. It's great that WDW is offering a brand new parade. 'Festival of Fantasy' is going to the Magic Kingdom. How about the other 3 parks? I guess I can spare 45 minutes just like Disney can manage to spare us a parade (not so cheap I guess). Doesn't change how long I will remain in the WDW parks as it is negligible. On the other hand, that Carsland in California Adventure made a big difference in how much time I spent at Disneyland Resort. I'm still waiting for the Dwarfs ride to open at the laughable half completed New Fantasyland while Universal will soon open the huge Diagon Alley in much less time with two E-Ticket rides, while the New Fantasyland have mere D-Ticket rides.

July 29, 2013 at 12:11 PM · Anon, my comment related to rides was in response to you frequently using them as examples in your posts: "Whatever the merits of Magic Bands, there aren't enough rides to keep the guests in the parks"; "There is no reason to linger in the parks once a ride is ridden"; "Disneyland has many more rides than the Magic Kingdom and California Adventure has all the DHS rides and more like Carsland". It sounds to me like you are all about the rides and as such, Cedar Point has about 75 of them (only 16 are coasters), so it blows even your beloved Disneyland away when it comes to the number of rides. If by rides, you meant attractions or experiences then my apologies for jumping to conclusions.

Regardless, I can only continue to state my opinion as one who is NOT spoiled by frequent visits to DLR. I could go to WDW for a month and still find things to do each and every day. So, while you are entitled to your opinion, I am likewise entitled to disagree with it.

To clarify: I love WDW, DLR, USO, and SWO and I am not trying to slight any of them. I am simply disagreeing with your statement that WDW gets boring after three to five days. That's it.

July 29, 2013 at 12:35 PM · Anon Mouse: "It's great that WDW is offering a brand new parade. 'Festival of Fantasy' is going to the Magic Kingdom.

I Respond: I don't know if it's "great" or not. Rather, with no evidence or inside information, I extended a proposition that it might be a means of keeping people in the parks by presenting a scheduled event. It's not just another attraction but an extended show scheduled in the middle of the afternoon."

Anon Mouse: "I'm still waiting for the Dwarfs ride to open ..."

I Respond: As are millions of visitors -- families with small children who will continue flock to the park.

Anon Mouse: Universal will soon open the huge Diagon Alley ...

I Respond: Well that's just swell! Not sure what that has to do with the Fantasyland expansion, but as a Floridian I think the new Potter attractions will be very exciting!

July 29, 2013 at 12:24 PM · Rao-Stabout writes: "I love WDW, DLR, USO, and SWO ..."

I Respond: Here is some required reading:

July 29, 2013 at 12:43 PM · James: Okay, you're getting way ridiculous. Nonetheless, I'll note that Disney only has attractions. Confusion eliminated. You're buying too much Disney marketing when they are selling us short.

TH Creative: Since you don't know why I cited Diagon Alley, it is merely there to point out the laughable uncompleted New Fantasyland without its marque attraction, the Dwarfs coaster, will compare with the new Harry Potter coaster with its own new land.

There seems to be a lot of confused readers here. I'm not sure if this was intentional. Alright, you win. I give up.

July 29, 2013 at 12:45 PM · Why compare the Dwarf Coaster to the Potter attractions? It seems like they're meant to attract different audiences.
July 29, 2013 at 12:59 PM · Was the New Fantasyland meant to be an answer to Harry Potter? I would think so especially when they changed the direction from a more girly approach to what it is now. I didn't think the dwarf coaster worked to attract more boys since it was based on the girly Snow White movie.

Sorry, the audiences are the same. Harry Potter is a children's book.

A coaster will have a minimum height requirement at both parks. You can't dodge this.

July 29, 2013 at 1:11 PM · Anon, I guess I am going to be even more ridiculous when I point out the obvious: there is a huge difference between rides and attractions. Rides are a subset of the attraction category. If all you want is to ride rides, Disney is not your best bet.

And even if you think I am the most ridiculous person on this planet, I still disagree with your original point. Furthermore, I disagree with your latest point: WDW never sold me short. Not once... well, except for a Turtle Talk With Crush issue, but that was more of a parenting problem, outside of Disney's control....

Anyway, feel free to search for my 2010 Rao Family Adventure discussion thread if you want the details on my ten day, fun filled, WDW excursion - again, only if you want the details.

July 29, 2013 at 1:18 PM · Anon writes: "Was the New Fantasyland meant to be an answer to Harry Potter?"

I Respond: No. The new Fantasyland was meant to take advantage of the enormous worldwide popularity of the Disney Princess franchise. According to Consumer Products Corporation Information Disney Princess products increased from $300 million in 2000 to $4 billion in 2009.

In fact (according to no less a source than Variety) the Disney Princesses were the Number One entertainment franchise in 2012:

"Last year, Disney dominated the entertainment category with 80% marketshare, generating $39.4 billion. Company again ranked No. 1 as the world’s largest licensor, according to the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Assn.

Through its purchases of Marvel and Lucasfilm, Disney now has six of the top 10 franchises in the world: Disney Princess (No. 1), “Star Wars” (No. 2), Winnie the Pooh (No. 3), “Cars” (No. 4), Mickey & Friends."

Anon Mouse: "Sorry, the audiences are the same. Harry Potter is a children's book."

I respond: So an indoor coaster that commences with the car being dropped into a dark tunnel and includes an encounter with the demonic presence of Lord Voldemort plays to the same audience as 'The Little Mermaid?'

Um ... okay.

July 29, 2013 at 1:27 PM · Harry Potter's biggest fans are girls.

Have you seen the girls dress in the school girl uniform?

"the demonic presence of Lord Voldemort plays to the same audience as 'The Little Mermaid?'"

Yawn, compare Lord Voldemort to the Disney villians like Evil Queen, Malificent, and Ursula.

Same audience.

July 29, 2013 at 1:29 PM · "If all you want is to ride rides, Disney is not your best bet."

By definition, Disney doesn't do rides, correct? So I can't do Disney rides, they don't exist. So I'm talking nonsense? Please stop.

July 29, 2013 at 3:22 PM · Of course Disney has rides... remember, they are a subset of attractions. Stop being obtuse just for argument's sake. We can agree to disagree and still be friends.

And, TH is spot on: the 48" height requirement of Gringott's (just a guess based on the 48" requirement of Forbidden Journey) will prevent the ridership of the targeted family demo Seven Dwarves (40" height requirement, maybe?) is seeking. The two attractions can and will co-exist nicely, drawing nice crowds for both parks and both companies.

July 29, 2013 at 3:27 PM · "Same audience?"

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone - PG
Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets - PG
Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban - PG
Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire - PG-13
Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix - PG-13
Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Price - PG
Harry Potter & the Deathly Hollows Part 1 - PG-13
Harry Potter & the Deathly Hollows Part 2 - PG-13

Cinderella - G
Sleeping Beauty - G
Little Mermaid - G
Beauty & the Beast - G
Aladdin - G
Pocahontas - G
Mulan - G

July 29, 2013 at 4:23 PM · James: Getting more ridiculous and obtuse. Keep at it. You love it.

TH: I know you're a 2 year old, but you don't have to complain that you haven't seen Harry Potter yet. I suppose the New Fantasyland is fine for YOU, but you're not yet old enough for Harry Potter.

Yes, the same audience with exception for minimum height standards on those particular rides (ooops, attractions). You will see the same people going to both parks and pushing the same strollers.

A movie rating means nothing to the actual park attractions. Get that!!!

July 29, 2013 at 4:58 PM · Anon Mouse: "I know you're a 2 year old, but you don't have to complain that you haven't seen Harry Potter yet."

I respond: Why are you resorting to personal attacks? Why have opposing perspectives. I don't believe that the Diagon Alley attractions was designed to attract families with younger children the way that the Fantasyland expansion does.

We disagree. But why take a personal shot at me?

July 29, 2013 at 5:13 PM · Because, TH, it is easier to tear down than to build up. Furthermore, name calling is the last defense of a failed argument. I know, cause I do it all the time. TH, you are a poo-poo head.
August 1, 2013 at 11:00 AM · I popped my self some popcorn and really enjoyed this thread!

I'm looking forward to the Next-Gen stuff coming up and especially the Fastpass+ system. Moving from 27 fastpass locations to over 70+ location including parades and firework shows will be great. Also making fastpass reservations online I believe up to 60 days in advance will be great!The only thing that concerns me is the limit of 3 per day for on park only and dialing down how many the pass out per day for each attraction. But I've heard they are already discussing bringing it back up to 4 or 5 per day.

I think there "answer" to Harry Porter World is there announcement of what they are going to do with Star Wars and the rumored Pixar Land expansion at DHS.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive