Disneyland & Disney World Through the Years
In 2018, about 87 million people visited the "Happiest Place(s) on Earth" — Disneyland in Anaheim, California and Walt Disney World in Orlando.
The parks are two of the most sought-after vacation destinations in the world, with Walt Disney's beloved cartoon characters starring in live shows, parades and all-ages rides where passengers step into their favorite movies.
It's almost hard to believe that such a phenomenon began not that long ago, when Walt Disney debuted his first attraction in 1952. Here, we take look at the history of the parks since that first fateful day.
1952: A Dream Come True
In 1952, inspired by his daughters riding a merry-go-round at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, legendary cartoonist and movie mogul Walt Disney first gathered his crew of artists to create an amusement park where children and their parents could go and have fun together.
Reminded of his visit to the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, Disney wanted to create a permanent Midway and Fair.
By 1954, he was working closely with Orange County officials in California to make his dream a reality.
1955: Disneyland Opens
Constructed on a former orange grove, Disneyland officially opened in Anaheim, California on July 17, 1955. It cost $17 million to build, the equivalent of about $162 million today. Walt had to borrow against his life insurance and sell vacation property to help bankroll the project.
The park included 35 rides spread across Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland and Fantasyland. A local newspaper referred to it, rather awkwardly, as "160 acres of World's Fair and Arabian nights for the delight of American children."
1955: Opening Day Highs and Lows
Disneyland's opening day has become the stuff of legend.
Interest was intense from the get-go; a "New York Times" story reported that 15,000 had lined up to enter before 10 a.m. on that first fateful day.
In addition, Walt arranged for the opening to be broadcast on ABC, with much fanfare to drum up interest. The unveiling was co-hosted by Ronald Reagan (then a popular actor, not yet the U.S. president), and celebs like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra made appearances. Some 70 million Americans tuned in.
Behind the scenes, things went less smoothly; some rides didn't work, hot concrete melted into sticky tar (the temperature hit a sweltering 100 degrees) and several thousand non-invited guests made it in with counterfeit tickets. None of this was enough to thwart the park's early success, though: It took just seven weeks for attendance to exceed 1 million people.
1959: Futuristic Transportation Debuts at Disneyland
Always a dreamer, Walt Disney followed up his theme-park opening with the unveiling of electrically powered trains running along concrete tracks. When the million-dollar monorail debuted at Disneyland's Tomorrowland on June 14, 1959, it became the first train of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
The monorail was designed by the same German engineers who would later build the Seattle Center Monorail. When Disney World opened several years later, it included its own extensive monorail system.
1965: Florida or Bust
During a business luncheon on Nov. 15, 1965, Walt Disney announced that Florida would become home of his next amusement-park project, Walt Disney World. The Disney organization had acquired more than 27,000 acres of land at a cost of about $5 million to house the planned attractions.
Sadly, Disney passed away on Dec. 15, 1966, and was unable to see his project through completion.
1970: Disney World Gets Closer to Reality
This photo shows the construction of Main Street USA at Disney World, an area evoking turn-of-the-century America with its Eastern seaboard architecture.
The street was part of Phase 1 in the construction of Disney World, featuring what was described as a new “Magic Kingdom amusement theme park similar to California’s Disneyland, five related resort hotels and an entrance complex.” This initial phase covered 2,500 acres and was also called a "Vacation Kingdom."
1971: A Castle in View
On July 7, 1971, Cinderella's Palace — built to surpass the height of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland by more than 100 feet — was nearing the end of construction in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World. Its inspiration? Germany's Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria.
1971: A World Opens to the World
Walt Disney World celebrated its grand opening with a dedication ceremony and a parade down Main Street on Oct. 25, 1971. Of course, Mickey Mouse was there.
Similar to Disneyland but more expansive, the park included Liberty Square, Fantasyland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland and Frontierland. Favorites like The Haunted Mansion, Mad Tea Party and It’s a Small World were there to entertain guests from day 1.
1980: Disneyland Celebrates 25 Years
By 1980, Disneyland was welcoming 11.5 million people a year. To celebrate 25 years of fun, a Disney special aired on ABC on March 6, following a young boy on his first visit to the park. Celebrities like the Osmonds and Michael Jackson made appearances.
Disneyland honored the special occasion by giving fans and guests a chance to visit the park for 25 straight hours.
1971: The Monorail Debuts at Disney World
When the monorail first opened at Disney World, it stopped at the Transportation and Ticket Center, Disney's Polynesian Resort, the Magic Kingdom and Disney's Contemporary Resort.
Today, the monorail system at Disney World carries 150,000 riders per day.
1982: Epcot Opens
Walt Disney envisioned Epcot as the heart of Walt Disney World, and his brother, Roy, attempted to make that dream a reality. Alas, Roy passed away in 1971, over a decade before the park was finished.
Epcot stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and was originally conceived by Walt to be a city for people to live, work and play in. Developers decided to remove the "live" element, and instead created Epcot as a permanent World's Fair.
When it opened on Oct. 1, 1982, the park included a World Showcase with pavilions showcasing cultures from around the world and Future World, meant to show off the latest in science and tech. Both remain staples today. (And yes, the "golf ball," aka Spaceship Earth geosphere, has been there from the beginning.)
1982: All-Inclusive Tickets Are Introduced
Originally, Disneyland and Disney World charged an admission fee, then required guests to purchase and present coupons to ride individual attractions, as they would do at a fair. Smaller rides, such as Main Street Vehicles, cost an "A" ticket, while the biggest rides, like Space Mountain, demanded an "E" ticket.
By 1982, both parks eliminated the attraction coupons and charged a single, all-inclusive entry fee.
At Disneyland, that price was $12; Disney World was slightly higher at $13.25. (In case you were wondering, inflation can only account for so much of today's much-higher rates — in 2019 dollars, these prices equate to about $32 and $35, respectively.)
1986: Disney World Toasts to 15 Years
Celebrating its 15th anniversary, Disney World aired a party and parade live on ABC on Nov. 9, 1986. The bash involved 40 characters and inventive floats, including one featuring a small-scale crystal version of Cinderella's Castle.
Both Disney World and Disneyland gave out prizes to guests every 15 seconds. One of those gifts? A brand-new red Chevrolet Cavalier convertible.
1989: Bringing Hollywood to Florida
Expanding with its third theme park, Walt Disney World wanted to add some of California's flair to the Orlando area, opening Disney's MGM Studios on April 29, 1989. Stars including Better Midler and Kevin Costner attended the opening festivities.
The 135-acre park features attractions centered around film, television, theater and more from the Golden Age of Hollywood — it even includes a replica of the famous Chinese Theatre as its centerpiece.
The park was renamed Disney's Hollywood Studios following licensing agreements with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 2008.
1993: A Visit from a Real-Life Princess
At just 8 years old, Prince Harry experienced the fun of Disney World with his mother, Princess Diana, in 1993.
Diana, William and Harry were not the first royals to visit. Walt himself escorted Morocco's King Mohammed V to Disneyland in 1957, and Belgium's King Baudouin in 1959.
Other royals to visit the theme parks included Japan's Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko in 1960, Monaco's Prince Rainier III with Prince Albert and Princess Caroline in 1967, Japan's Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako in 1975, Great Britain's Princess Anne in 1984, Princess Beatrice and the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson in 1991 (and eventually Eugenia in 1995), and a host of others throughout the years.
1996: Disney World Turns 25
Another celebration went off in full Disney style when Disney World converted Cinderella's Castle into an 18-story pink birthday cake on Oct. 1, 1996 to celebrate its 25th birthday. The park mimicked its California counterpart by hosting a 25-hour party.
1998: Animals Strike the Kingdom
Rightfully opening on Earth Day — April 22 — the fourth theme park added to Disney World in 1998 was one dedicated to animal conservation and the environment. Walt Disney had championed both during his lifetime, and the new park provided 580 acres of land for live animal exhibits and safaris.
Disney's Animal Kingdom remains the largest theme park in the world, and yet with its dedication to its animals, keeps park noise, lights and entertainment to a minimum.
1999: Welcoming in a New Millennium
The Walt Disney World Millennium Celebration took place from Oct. 1, 1999 through Jan. 1, 2001, focusing on the possibilities of the future.
Appropriately, Epcot served as the main home of the fete. Within its walls, the new Millennium Village was added to feature countries not included in the World Showcase, and a nightly parade showcasing a "Tapestry of Nations" was introduced.
2001: California Adventure Arrives
Expanding its attractions in 2001, Disneyland opened Disney California Adventure Park, a 72-acre park celebrating California's culture. The park features miniature versions of the best the state has to offer, from historic landmarks to its natural terrain, wrapped around rides, stores and restaurants.
Low attendance inspired Disney to rethink its strategy, and by 2007, an expansion of the park was announced.
2012: Cars Land Zooms In
In its efforts to drum up interest for California Adventure, Disney opened its cartoon-inspired Cars Land, named and designed after the hit movie "Cars." The expansion added 12 more acres of fun and cost $1.1 billion, opening June 15, 2012.
The park's revamp actually took place over the course of five years, beginning in 2008 and ending with Cars Land's grand opening. Most of the park's new features rely on characters that come from Disney's $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios, with attractions designed around "Toy Story," "Monsters Inc." and "A Bug's Life."
2019: Admission Skyrockets
Admission into Disneyland was just $10.75 in 1981, when additional tickets had to be purchased for attractions. in June 1982, all-inclusive tickets were just $12 for a full day in the theme park.
Over the years, the price has steadily climbed, doubling to $25.50 by December 1989.
By June 20, 2005, tickets became $56, doubling yet again.
In January 2019, ticket prices changed to reflect a sliding scale, increasing on peak dates and ranging from $104 to $149.
2019: A Galaxy Far, Far Away
Inspired by the "Star Wars" films, which Disney bought the rights to from Lucas Films, Disneyland opened its newest "land" this year on May 31. The 14-acre Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge replaced outdated areas of the park, and generated feverish coverage. Interestingly, though, it's so far been a victim of its own high expectations. An attendance dip at Disneyland over the summer is being partly attributed to people being scared away by the prospect of massive Galaxy's Edge crowds.
Walt Disney World's version will open at Disney's Hollywood Studios on August 29.
2019: Disneyland Today
Today, Disneyland's four themed "lands" are filled with five times more rides than when the park first opened.
One million visitors in 1955 was an impressive feat, but these days Disneyland welcomes more than 28.5 million people per year to its main park and California Adventure.
Disney World Today
Disney World has truly become a world of its own. From its humble offerings of two hotels in 1971, it currently features 29 hotel choices and a campground.
By 2014, all four of its theme parks were listed in the top 25 most visited theme parks in the world — with Magic Kingdom taking the top spot.
In 2018, the theme parks welcomed more than 58 million visitors: The Magic Kingdom had 21 million visitors, Animal Kingdom welcomed 13.5 million visitors, Epcot saw 12.5 million visitors and Hollywood Studios received more than 11 million visitors.