Disney and Orlando: Creating the Happiest Place on Earth

For better or worse, Walt Disney World is an integral part of Orlando's economy and culture.

It’s a known fact America has a love-hate relationship with The Mouse, as Walt Disney World is called by anyone who has lived in greater Orlando for a month or longer. We even managed to invent a term -- "Disneyfication" -- to describe all things artificial and homogenized. Yet there is little doubt the world’s most famously manufactured fantasyland helped shape today’s Orlando.

Nearly four decades after the creator of Mickey Mouse decided to build an entertainment behemoth in the middle of Florida’s swamps, this ever expanding franchise is Florida’s top employer, with about 65,000 people on payroll. With 40 million plus visitors a year, Disney World has its own independent government (the Reedy Creek Improvement District), fire department, emergency services and water treatment plant. Besides its four major theme parks, Disney has two water parks, 20-plus themed hotels, several golf courses and countless restaurants and other recreation options.

"Had Disney never put down roots in Orlando, the region today might not look much different than Ocala or Lakeland,” said Sean Holton, a longtime former reporter and editor at the Orlando Sentinel who calls Orlando home. “And as far as shaping the destiny of the state of Florida as a whole, it's safe to put the arrival of Disney right up there with the invention of air conditioning and Castro's overthrow of Batista in Cuba in 1959."

Planting the Seed in Florida

It all started in 1971, when Magic Kingdom, the first of Disney’s four major parks and its most popular to date, opened its doors to the public. As the story goes, Walt Disney wanted to expand on the success of Disneyland, a franchise built in the mid-1950s in Southern California. He felt the area had become crowded with unsightly businesses that had sprung up as a result of the park’s popularity. Wanting control of a much larger area he could design and manage, he set his sights on central Florida, where land was plentiful and where Interstate 4 and Florida’s Turnpike, two important transportation arteries, promised needed access.

Quietly, and to avoid rampant speculation, Disney began buying land using "dummy corporations," with a large chunk of those purchases taking place in the mid-1960s. Interestingly, Disney World is not in the city of Orlando proper, but rather straddles parts of Osceola and Orange County. It wasn’t until 1965 that Disney officially announced plans for the site, which included the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (known now as EPCOT), a futuristic city where people could work and play in a kind of technological state of perfection. EPCOT did not open until 1982, followed by Disney’s Hollywood Studios (1989) and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (1998).

Reinventing Disney for Multiple Generations

With admission currently set at $75 per adult, these four parks are Disney’s moneymaker, but Disney World is so much more. The park complex, for instance, hosts baseball spring training and race car driving events. More socially adventurous happenings have also proven popular. Though not officially sanctioned by Disney, thousands of gay and lesbian visitors converge at Disney for several days of fun and enjoyment during Gay Days in June each year. Other entertainment options, such as a high-caliber circus performance "La Nouba, by Cirque du Soleil," sit "on property" in nearby Downtown Disney on a permanent basis.

Disney’s business genius, no doubt, lies in the company’s ability to reinvent itself, to keep adding attractions, revamping old favorites and doing away with what ceases to appeal. An example of that took place in September, when Disney announced the shutdown of Pleasure Island, an open-air club bazaar favored by single young adults, with plans to turn the area into a more family-oriented place with greater dining options. New attractions include Disney’s American Idol Experience, a daily singing competition held at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. All this despite a recession that has set other local theme parks scrambling to attract customers and freezing projects while they weather the economic storm.

Lorena Bravo, an Orlando resident who takes her family to Disney whenever they visit the area, said she loves the company because it’s “clean, safe and well run.” But Bravo, 36, said Disney’s sheer size also has a downside. “Yes, it’s beautiful, entertaining, it creates lots of jobs, but at the same time it gives Orlando so much of a corporate feel. ... It makes me wonder whether it’s prevented smaller places from succeeding. Places that could give this area a homier, more unique personality.”

Regardless of how any individual may feel about the Mouse, the appeal and power of Disney World remain: this is not just the "happiest place on Earth," but the largest corporation in Orlando and the most frequently visited park in the world. Even those who may not favor its cookie-cutter design, controlled atmosphere and high souvenir prices will inexplicably walk away with bags full of trinkets and giddy children in tow.

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