10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

With the evident success of Disneyland, Walt Disney quickly began looking for new sites for the second phase of his theme park. The hunt for new ground started as early as 1958, with a focus on places east of the Mississippi where most of his Disneyland guests were coming from (according to market surveys). It wasn’t until November 1963 that Disney picked the location of what would later become Walt Disney World, which later opened in 1971 setting off a multitude of big events in Disney World’s first decade.

With many of locations in mind, Disney settled for a central location in Bay Lake, Florida near Orlando because he was impressed with the innovation of highway structures such as I-4 and the Florida Turnpike. To avoid speculation on a new park, the Walt Disney World purchased the land using pseudonyms for their project such as “Latin-American Development and Management Corporation” and the “Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation.” These names, funnily enough, can be seen above one of the windows in Main Street today as a nod the initial project’s secrecy. However, once a story in the Orlando Sentinel started rumors that Disney was building a new park in Florida, Disney let the governor give the official announcement on October 25, 1965.

Walt Disney passed away from lung cancer on December 15, 1966. He never got to see Disney World materialize, but his brother, Roy Disney, saw to it that his brother’s dream became a reality. The initial days of Walt Disney World’s success have continued throughout the years.

To give you some insight, take a look inside the first ten years of Disney World (1971-1981).

1. Walt Disney World Grand Opening – Oct 1st, 1971

Walt Disney World Gra

Just five years after the tragic death of Walt Disney, Walt Disney World opened its gates. One hundred and seven acres of Florida soil now display prominent Disney characters along with thrill rides and attractions parallel to its California location. Over five hundred cast members welcomed 10,000 guests that day. The first of which included William Windsor, Jr. William and his family traveled from Lakeland, Florida and slept overnight in their cars so that they could be one of the first to enter Disney World’s gates.

This second phase of the Disney theme park project included the Magic Kingdom Park, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Polynesian Resort, and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Opening day attractions ranged from the Walt Disney World Railroad, Country Bear Jamboree attraction, Jungle Cruise, the Mad Tea Party ride, the Grand Prix Raceway, and the Skyway.

2. Swan Boats – 1973

Swan Boats - 1973

Swan Boats were added to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom as a peaceful attraction. The boats circled around a hub within Magic Kingdom and brought them to The Swiss Family Treehouse. Despite its lack of thrills or themed perspectives, the Swan Boats were popular among guests when they were implemented on May 20, 1973.

The attraction started off with twelve Swan Boats, but it was knocked down to eleven when one began being used by employees to help clean the canals. The boats were run on natural gas engines, which ended up being one of the causes for the rides dismissal. By the end, there were only five Swan Boats remaining. Many of the boats had mechanical issues when it was guided on an electrical system. Even though this system was eventually replaced by water propulsion which would help turn the boat, the ride was shut down. Passengers got to enjoy a ride on the swan-shaped vessels one last time in August of 1983 before the boats were dismantled and eventually sold.

3. Pirates of the Caribbean – 1973 – 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

Pirates of the Caribbean - 1973 - 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

One of the most popular Disney World attractions, Pirates of the Caribbean, opened this year on December 15. This ride was not originally planned to go to Disney World as Imagineers thought that Florida’s already close proximity to the Caribbean would not hold the same appeal as it did to visitors in California. However, after expressed disappointment that the ride was not included, Disney was quick to make the announcement that the pirate-themed ride would soon be coming to the Magic Kingdom.

Pirates of the Caribbean - 1973 - 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

Pirates of the Caribbean takes passengers on a boat ride through the town of Tortuga. The grimy town of pirates showcases everything from saloons, jail cells, and canon fire. The ride was turned into a film in 2003 of the same title and starred Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Captain Jack was so well-received, it was announced in 2006 that he would be added to the attractions in every park. Jack Sparrow can be seen in several scenes inside the attraction, with his final cameo showcasing him on a throne covered in treasure.

4. “I Am Not a Crook” – 1973 – 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

“I Am Not a Crook” - 1973 -  10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

Certainly you have all heard the now-famous speech delivered by Richard Nixon on his involvement with the Watergate Scandal. However, did you know that this speech was actually delivered on Disney property? The former United States President held the televised conference at the Disney Contemporary Resort when he gave the speech in 1973 during the Annual Convention of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association. He was sitting inside the  Ballroom of the America’s where he delivered the infamous “I am not a crook” speech.

The Disney Contemporary Resort is one of the two properties that originally opened alongside Disney World on October 1, 1971. Its A-line architecture is a recognizable feature and it is known for its lush gardens. This hotel is also one of the buildings that the Monorail passes through on its way to Magic Kingdom. For a few brief seconds, passengers can catch a glimpse of the dining hall and shops that this resort holds inside.

5. Carousel of Progress Comes to Magic Kingdom – 1975

Carousel of Progress Comes to Magic Kingdom - 1975

Disney’s vision for a nostalgic show focusing on the “great, big, beautiful tomorrow” is perfectly showcased in the Carousel of Progress attraction in Magic Kingdom. The rotating theater was first presented at the Pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and eventually found a home in Disneyland in 1973. The Carousel of Progress was then moved to Magic Kingdom in 1975 where it still remains today.

Some fun facts about this ride include that it is the longest running stage show in American theater history. It’s also the longest running attraction at Walt Disney World Resort and the oldest ride that was touched by Walt Disney himself.  Act I starts in the 1900s, Act II presents life in the 1920s, Act III presents the 1940s, and the final act represents the current or 21st century.  The ride has had to be reworked to include present day inventions and has been reworked at least five times over the years (1967, 1975, 1981, 1985, and 1993).

The Carousel of Progress follows the modern American family as John, the father, reminisces about the past and speaks with enthusiasm about the progress of the future.

6. Space Mountain – 1975 – 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

Space Mountain - 1975 - 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade
Space Mountain taking shape.
Space Mountain - 1975 - 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade
Space Mountain tubular steel tracks beginning to wind through the interior.

It’s said that Disney World is never finished, and new rides such as Space Mountain began to prove just that. On January 15, 1975, Space Mountain became the first indoor rollercoaster ride at Magic Kingdom. Fittingly squared away in a corner of Tomorrowland, this space coaster was originally planned to open in Disneyland but was cancelled due to space and technology expenses, along with the death of Disney.

Space Mountain - 1975 - 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade
Space Mountain opening day at the Magic Kingdom.

However, after Disney World’s success, it was decided that Space Mountain would be added to the park. Disney World was popular among teens and adults, which meant adding a thrill ride would do well at the park. Space Mountain is now located at five of the six Disneyland-style parks around the world.

Space Mountain - 1975 - 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade
Lucie Arnaz and Mickey on Space Mountain opening day in 1975.

With the success of films based on Disney World attractions (i.e., Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion), a screenwriter by the name of Max Landis proposed a movie based off of Space Mountain. It was set to take place in the 1950s retro-future. The premise of the film based around the idea that people would be sent into hyperspace and upon return, realize that they were missing their soul and would turn into monsters. Ultimately, this idea was scraped and the film never came to see the light of day.

7. River Country Opens as First Disney Water Park – 1976 – 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

River Country Opens as First Disney Water Park - 1976 -  10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade
Photo: Yesterland.com

The Walt Disney Company clearly had huge plans for its theme park expansion in Florida. The second theme park was only in its fifth year and had already seen millions of guests on par with Disneyland. The prime location was not taken for granted and on June 20, 1976, Disney added a waterpark to its growing lists of attractions. River Country was themed to represent an old rustic swimming hole. The wilderness-themed water park had rocks, man-made boulders, and a sandy beach. It had a unique water-filtering system that kept clean water running through the park at all times.

River Country Opens as First Disney Water Park - 1976 -  10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

The waterpark eventually closed in 2005, due to the overlapping success of Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. The newer waterparks had more slides, rides, and essentially more attractions than River Country. It is one of only Disney two parks to ever close permanently. It was left as-is and left to deteriorate. However, plans to build Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge was announced in 2018. Construction began on the park in 2019 where River Country was located.

8. Main Street Electrical Parade Starts – 1977

Main Street Electrical Parade Starts - 1977

One of the most well-known events in Disney history started on June 11, 1977. It was the resurgence of the highly beloved Main Street Electrical Parade. This parade has been the influence for every Disney World parade held thereafter. It originally started in 1972 at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It was well-received by guests which prompted its quick succession to Disney World in Florida.

Main Street Electrical Parade Starts - 1977

The Main Street Electrical Parade is a parade held at nighttime. It was created by Robert Jani and project director Ron Miziker who envisioned the parade with its 600,000 gleaming LED lights. The lights are triggered by certain keys to move along with the music and it is all remote-controlled. The floats at Disney World were slightly larger than those at Disneyland, but all held iconic Disney characters that danced on stage. The first ever rehearsal for this parade in California actually resulted in one of the floats crashing into a building in Main Street U.S.A. Even some of the performer’s costumes created sparks.

However, once all the bugs were worked out, the parade became famous. It ran at Disneyland from 1972 to 1996 and at Disney World from 1977 until 2016.

9. Ground Breaks for Epcot – 1979 – 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

Ground Breaks for Epcot - 1979 - 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Dec

The ever-growing Disney World conglomerate began breaking ground for a new theme park in addition to the Magic Kingdom in 1979. Epcot, which is actually an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, was set to be the biggest park yet. Over 305 acres of land was purchased by the Walt Disney Company, which was twice as many acres that Disney World’s Magic Kingdom currently sat on.

Walt Disney always had Epcot planned as a part of the system in Bay Lake, Florida. Though, he originally had Epcot set to be an urban living center, complete with mass transportation systems and a residential neighborhood. Disney called it the community of tomorrow, with his ardor for futuristic planning setting the stage for the industrial location. The Epcot phase was scrapped after Disney’s death in 1965 and wouldn’t be revisited for years to come.

The Walt Disney Company decided to move forward with Epcot in 1979. Before they broke ground, Imagineers had a hard time deciding on a theme for the park. While they wanted to incorporate Walt’s idea of a futuristic community, others thought a representation of different cultures would be fitting. So they decided to mesh the two concepts together.

Epcot would eventually open as a part of the Walt Disney World Resort on October 1, 1982.

10. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad 1980 – 10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad 1980 -  10 Big Events in Disney World’s First Decade
Photo: Imagineeringdisney.com

Another innovative ride, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, was added to Frontierland in Magic Kingdom in 1980. The mine train coaster is located in Frontierland as it depicts the aesthetic of an old mine from the 1800s. The storyline revolved around the ride tells the tale of miners striking gold inside Big Thunder Mountain. Tumbleweed, the small nearby town, soon became industrialized with the wealth from the gold. Mine trains were built to transport workers (a.k.a Disney World guests) to and from the mines. Unbeknownst to them, the land on which they built these mine cars were on Native American grounds. Unsettling these sacred grounds put a curse on the town of Tumbleweed, which results in a flash flood and the town’s complete devastation.

Photo: RetroWDW.com

The ride built inside Disney World’s Magic Kingdom was put on hold multiple times, first from the recent expensive build of Pirates of the Caribbean and again when Space Mountain was constructed. This hesitation actually allowed for the ride to implement better technology later on, making it the first Disney ride to be aided by a computer.

Eventually, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened in 1980.