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Disney World celebrates 50 years today: Here's what has changed, and what has stayed the same

October 1 2021
12 min read
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Editor’s note: Walt Disney World hosted the author to showcase the complex’s 50th-anniversary festivities. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by Disney or any other entity.

As the sun rises over Disney’s Magic Kingdom today, the theme park celebrates a significant milestone: 50 years of making magical memories.

From Oct. 1, 1971, to today, hundreds and hundreds of millions of guests have left their everyday problems and lives and walked down Main Street U.S.A. and into the worlds of Fantasyland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland and Frontierland.

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For 50 years, children of all ages have heard the Dapper Dans harmonize their tunes, waved at Mickey Mouse, watched the parades, flown with Dumbo, driven the cars of the Tomorrowland Speedway, twirled in teacups at the Mad Tea Party, had a sweet treat from the Ice Cream Parlor, experienced the backside of water on the Jungle Cruise and closed the day with memories of fireworks above Cinderella Castle.

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Crowds at Main Street of Disney World in 1972. (Photo by Jonathan Blair/Corbis/Getty Images)

The exact jokes told and scenes displayed on the Jungle Cruise vary, the make-up of the parades shifts and the technology of the evening shows press on, but those anchors of the experience are still there.

In fact, one of the rarities in the world of entertainment that makes Disney World so special is that not only do things change, but they also stay familiar. When speaking with former Walt Disney Imagineer, Tom Morris, who not only worked on famous Disney projects for many years but was at the Magic Kingdom on its opening day as a guest, he described the Magic Kingdom as a place that evolves over time, much the way you’d experience in a grand city such as Paris or Venice.

Morris described Disney as a slow evolution that allows you to appreciate the things you remember and pass them on while still developing new favorites.

And in fact, all of those opening day offerings mentioned at the Magic Kingdom -- along with dozens more -- are still captivating and entertaining guests five decades later. That’s a stark contrast to Orlando’s other major theme park, Universal Studios, which opened in 1990 and only retains one opening day ride from its beginnings just 31 years ago: E.T. Adventure.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

The realities of today are, of course, very different from the ones in the era in which Walt Disney thought up the dream that became Disney World. But while he couldn’t have known exactly what would be on tap for the world in 2021, he knew the parks would forever need to push onward. While he was speaking about Disneyland at the time he said this, Walt famously stated that the parks would never be completed and they would instead “continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

Luckily for all of us, imagination -- and the Disney experience -- are still growing. And here on this 50th anniversary, here’s what is new to the Magic Kingdom and Disney World at large, and what continues to captivate in much the same classic way it always has.

There’s so much more to do

Walt’s dreams were grand and Disney World was never small -- but it has substantially grown.

What started as one park with a little over a dozen attractions and two resort hotels when it opened in 1971 is now ... something the size of San Francisco.

The Monorail at Walt Disney World, Florida in 1971. (Photo by Bettman/Getty Images)

Disney World comprises four theme parks with nearly 60 attractions, two water parks and, depending on how exactly you count, a couple of dozen resorts and more than 300 restaurants, snack shops and lounges. Oh, and then there is Disney Springs, which is really a massive destination all unto itself.

You could spend an entire week of vacation at Disney World and still not come close to experiencing it all, which is exactly the point. Sure, there are guests who take what is truly a “once in a lifetime” trip to Disney World and that checks the box nicely for them and they are done.

But then there are the others. The annual pass holders, the once-a-year guests and the ones who fly in multiple times per year to experience the events, the races, the festivals and even changing seasons in the park. Disney World is now a place you can return to over and over again and never reach the bottom of the list of things to do and experience.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

It costs more

There’s more to do, see, eat and experience than in 1971, but it’s also going to cost you a lot more in some ways for that privilege than it used to.

On opening day, adult tickets cost $3.50. Adjusted for inflation that is around $24 today. However, one-day adult tickets to Disney World aren’t anywhere near $24. The prices now range based on the date you pick but start at $109 and go up to $159 for single park tickets -- you’ll pay more to park hop.

But while it costs more today than it did decades ago, it’s also an apples to Florida oranges comparison as the 1971 price only got you in the door. If you wanted to ride the attractions, that cost more. While there were different options available, according to AllEars, an 11 Adventure Book comprised 11 total tickets to ride attractions that were rated A to E in ascending order of popularity and cost $5.75.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

If you bought that number of attractions, but in today’s dollars you’d have been in for about $62, which is still just half the cost of a one-day ticket now but it’s roughly the per-day price if you bought a pass to the parks for an entire week.

Of course, not every family can come to Disney World for a full week and no matter how you slice that apple, there are families that now can’t swing that budget for a trip to the most magical place on earth. By our estimates, a budget trip to Disney World for a family of four can easily cost around $3,200 while a middle-of-the-road trip for that same family is likely to cost about $4,800.

The rides are much more advanced -- and thrilling

When it came to moving attractions at the Magic Kingdom in October 1971, here’s a sampling of what you had to pick from:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Snow White’s Adventures
  • Mad Tea Party
  • Grand Prix Raceway
  • Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
  • it’s a small world
  • Jungle Cruise
  • Hall of Presidents
  • Haunted Mansion
  • Dumbo the Flying Elephant
  • The Skyway
Crowds waiting in line at Disney World in 1972. (Photo by Jonathan Blair/Corbis/Getty Images)

As you can probably figure out, none of those were rollercoasters. Rollercoasters certainly existed in 1971, in fact, Disneyland in California had thrilled with the Matterhorn since the 1950s. Luckily, Disney World didn’t have to wait too long for its first legit thrill as Space Mountain debuted in 1975.

Disney World hasn’t gone the route of parks such as Universal Studios and constantly pushed for fastest, biggest, steepest type of rollercoaster, but it now offers a more diverse set of attractions that appease the youngest guests and those looking for something like Avatar Flight of Passage, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Rock’ n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Expedition Everest and soon -- Tron Lightcycle Run and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.

(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

And in that way, the park can grow with you now in a way that it couldn’t in its early years.

How you wait for rides evolves

For Disney World’s first 28 years, if you wanted to ride an attraction, you waited in a line. But even that was actually an advancement in theme park design over predecessors.

Former Imagineer Tom Morris shared that one of the first innovations at Walt Disney World was being entertained while you were in line with some immersive queues that helped make the time pass quicker in your mind.

But in 1999, Disney changed the way days at the theme park were planned when it introduced FastPass, first at major attractions at Animal Kingdom (which had just opened the year prior), and soon across all of its four Florida theme parks.

(Photo by Sean MacEntee from Monaghan, Ireland. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Those looking to minimize waits for big rides would walk very quickly to the paper-dispensing FastPass machines outside of the attraction queues to get the FastPasses ticket for that ride.

The paper tickets would have a printed one-hour window when you could return and take the shorter FastPass queue for that ride. That paper-based system was retired in 2014 and replaced by the FastPass+ service, where you could book three FastPasses for the day in advance and then add more through the My Disney Experience app throughout the day once those were used -- no more speed walking around the park to collect paper tickets.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Then, with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the Rise of the Resistance attraction, Disney changed the game again with virtual queues for its most popular attractions. This kept people out and about in the park, shopping, dining and experiencing other attractions instead of filling hours of their day waiting for one marquee ride.

While Rise of the Resistance just paused its use of a virtual queue, the new Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure attraction in Epcot is now the newest ride at the park and relies on a virtual queue.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

But the pandemic prematurely retired FastPass and it didn’t return when the parks reopened. Soon, iGenie+ and Lightning Lanes will replace it. It will no longer be free to use the “Lightning Lane” and it will be part of a paid offering that is expected to launch very soon.

And even the MagicBands are evolving into MagicBand+ that will launch soon and interact with the park in a more immersive way.

But a classic never tires

The variety of attractions, the shows, the price and how you spend your time in the park has changed a lot in 50 years -- and likely will only continue to evolve in the coming decades. But while I only started visiting Disney World around the 20th anniversary, after dozens of visits, I’d argue that the Disney of today is more the same than it is different when it comes to the things that count. The legacy cast members and Imagineers I spoke with over the last few days tend to agree.

In fact, themes that came up repeatedly were the notions of “timelessness” and that good service for guests never goes out of style.

A day at the Magic Kingdom is still going to involve hearing upbeat music while walking down Main Street U.S.A., which is designed to remind you of a simpler era. There will still be ice cream and other sweet treats sold by helpful cast members. There will still be an American flag flown near the park entrance until 5 p.m. each day, when it comes down with a patriotic ceremony the way Walt would want it.

You can visit the 999 happy haunts in the Haunted Mansion, spin til you’re sick on the teacups, fly with Peter Pan over Neverland and remind yourself that it is indeed a small world (or actually, maybe skip that one). There will be waving characters, bands and parades and tired little ones as the evening fireworks conclude.

Disney World in 1972 (Jonathan Blair/Contributor/Getty Images)

Sure, some things have certainly changed across 50 years at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. But what makes it special beyond just a fun day out is how it has managed to stay both relevant to today’s guests while allowing those same guests to make emotional connections to shows, attractions, snacks and even smells that they revisit year after year -- and eventually share with the next generation and thus the cycle begins all over again.

When speaking about the “Florida project” that would become Walt Disney World, Walt Disney said, “There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” For the last 50 years, that has been true.

And from what we know about new things to come at Disney World, that should continue to be true tomorrow as Disney World speeds toward “infinity and beyond” while keeping the traditions and simple wonders that create the timeless smiles that got them to today.

Featured photo by (Photo courtesy of Disney Parks)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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