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Disney World's 50th anniversary marks transformation of Florida, theme parks

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Disney World's 50th anniversary marks transformation of Florida, theme parks
Roy Disney, Walt Disney's brother, speaks at the dedication ceremony for Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort

ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Walt Disney World Resort's 50th anniversary Friday marks five decades that transformed Florida into a tourism destination for the world and established a new standard for amusement parks.

The now-mega-attraction opened on a Friday in 1971 with "a minimum of fanfare" according to UPI reporting, with more than 5,000 mostly new employees learning to adjust to the crowds and new facilities. Disney held its official dedication Oct. 25.

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By that time, Walt Disney had died of complications from lung cancer, and his brother, Roy, led the ceremonies.

"Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy, and the life of Walter Elias Disney and to the talents, dedication and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney's dream come true," Roy Disney said.

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The Disney company initially bought up 27,000 acres for his Florida development, which was envisioned as a bigger, better version of Disneyland that opened in California in 1955.

When it opened, it included what is now the Magic Kingdom area of Disney World and two hotels -- the Polynesian and the Contemporary resorts, plus the monorail transportation system. Now, there are more than 30 Disney hotels on the property, plus scores nearby.

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Walt Disney envisioned not just a theme park, but an "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" -- Epcot -- a city of 20,000 people with modern amenities.

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While it never became a city, and it didn't happen immediately, Disney World eventually opened Epcot as a futuristic theme park and World Showcase that features pavilions with examples of culture and cuisine from 11 nations.

Disney searched for a location for the theme park for years. The company wanted something in the Eastern United States because visitors from the East were relatively rare in California.

It settled on Central Florida because of available land and the lack of wintry weather.

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Asked in 1965 if Disney World would be like Disneyland, Walt Disney said, "I don't like to repeat myself. I don't like to make sequels to my pictures. I like to make up something fresh, a new concept."

Disney World had 200 security guards for the first day. The Florida Highway Patrol ordered 20 troopers into the area to handle traffic on Interstate 4, the only four-lane artery that led to the attraction, which is 20 miles southwest of Orlando.

"Frankly, we don't know what to expect on that first day," a Disney spokesman told UPI in advance of the opening.

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General admission was only $3.50 per person, UPI reported. The regular price for such a ticket is $109 a day.

Opening day included a surprise perk for the first people in line. Only one turnstile of 32 was unlocked initially, allowing a lucky family or group of guests to enter first.

Disney World added its Hollywood Studios area in 1989, followed by Epcot in 1982 and Animal Kingdom, featuring a zoo and safari, in 1998. Water parks and a nearby shopping and entertainment area, Disney Springs, also attracts a large volume of tourists, many from other nations.

In recent years, Florida visitors have topped 100 million annually, led by Orlando tourism numbers that set a record of 75 million in 2019, according to the state's tourism agency, Visit Florida. That number is by far the most tourists for any city in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a unprecedented blow to tourism in the region in 2020, though. Disney World was closed for more than three months. Tourist numbers in Orlando fell by more than 50% to 35.3 million.

Disney World employs more than 70,000 people. While Disney often hails that employment as a major economic boon for Florida, it has faced criticism for creating a low-wage economy in the region.

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In part prompted by an Orlando Sentinel investigation called Laborland in 2019 and worker protests, Disney World agreed to raise minimum wage to $15 for non-tipped employees by 2021.

Disney announced this year that its 50th anniversary celebrations would continue for 18 months, including special costumes, parades, food offerings and fireworks displays.

The nightly displays include "enhanced lighting, fireworks and immersive projection effects that extend from the Cinderella Castle down Main Street, U.S.A.," Disney said.

Walt Disney World Resort marks 50th anniversary

The fireworks show titled "Enchantment" is displayed for the first time in Magic Kingdom Park during "The World's Most Magical Celebration" at the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort on Thursday in Orlando. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

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