Forty years ago, Walt Disney World was born out of a dream and built to be a legacy. Inspired by Walt Disney’s vision of a place where people could see the potential of humanity and created after his death by his brother and his people to honor that dream, Walt Disney World has always been a place with a foot in the past and a foot in the future. It has welcomed hundreds of millions of guests, generated trillions of memories, and inspired dreams without number.
As the Florida Project turns 40 this month, I find myself realizing how deeply Walt Disney World is a part of my life, a part of my memories, and a part of my dreams for what I’m going to do…someday. No, I don’t remember all 40 years of its existence, but there is no doubt that it has left a legacy with me and inspired so many dreams – some of them dreams come true. So as Walt Disney World turns 40, I celebrate with it, in honor of the past and in hope for the future.
Although I know that my parents brought me (I have the pictures to prove it), I have few memories of my earliest visits to the Magic Kingdom. As a child, I was a shy soul with a sometimes overly vivid imagination, and I doubt that the “magic” of the park seemed quite magical to me. My earliest gift from Walt Disney World was the opening of EPCOT Center.
Disney World gave me a legacy of learning. Having grown up in a family so focused on education, the new park provided remarkable opportunity for interactive experience. I spent hours in Future World, riding Horizons (the underwater colony was my favorite), playing in the glass pyramid of Journey into Imagination, and glued to the glass of Sea Base Alpha. I played with the touch screens of Communicore and watched the rotating pyramids of the screen at Universe of Energy. EPCOT Center fed my love of knowledge in a way that no other place did, and it presented it in a way that fascinated me and opened my mind to new experiences.
Disney World gave me a legacy of beauty. I remember sitting in our hotel room after a long day’s visit, writing in my journal, trying to explain how Illuminations had affected me. I remember my frustration that I couldn’t put the beauty into words, that the wonder was too great to fit onto the printed page. I had already fallen in love with the beauty and wonder of the Pennsylvania countryside, but Disney introduced me to something more, something brighter and more theatrical, something so big and grand it made me ache with a longing I couldn’t put into words.
Disney World gave me a legacy of longing. When I knew we were going to Disney, I spent hours hunched over our guide book, reading every description, choosing what I wanted to do most, studying the colored maps. I dreamed of the things I wanted to do that my parents wouldn’t pay for – King Stefan’s Royal Banquet Hall, the Diamond Horseshoe Revue, staying at the Contemporary Resort that I had glimpsed on Monorail rides. I knew we’d be taking the ferry boat out to the car at lunch to have dried-beef sandwiches in the hot Florida sun, but I couldn’t help reading and dreaming…and believing that someday I might get to do those forbidden things.
Years later, as an adult, I returned to Walt Disney World briefly, but the magic was missing. I stayed at the Contemporary, and it was little more than a hotel, with staff who were abrupt and disinterested. I visited the parks, and few employees went out of their way to bring me magic or wonder.
But then, one day at Downtown Disney, a cast member at Mickey’s Pantry took the time to make a magical moment. She re-awakened that half-forgotten legacy of learning, beauty, and longing. She made me want to go back and remember the place that had marked my childhood, and when I returned, my husband at my side, I found new magic.
For me, Walt Disney World at 40 is a place thick with dreams and wonder. It is not an aging antique too rooted in its past to appeal to new generations. It is a place that reconnects adults willing to listen with the dream of a man dead before its gates opened – it reminds us that dreams can come true and that humanity can have a chance at a better tomorrow.
Looking back over my years at Walt Disney World, I’ve come a long way from that shy, awkward little girl who ran away from Mickey so many years ago. I have a rich legacy from my memories of Walt Disney World, but I have an abiding love for the parks that pushes toward the future. I am still learning – now from the amazing detail of World Showcase and the constantly miraculous denizens of Animal Kingdom. I am still finding beauty in the parks – moments that are too beautiful, too precious to put into words. And I am still longing. These days we always eat in the parks, not in the parking lot, and I’ve been able to sample so many wonderful experiences, but there are always new dreams, and always people willing to make those dreams come true.
But perhaps the greatest new gift Walt Disney World has given me is the delight of sharing the magic. I have priceless memories - my mom in her last months of life, still laughing like a little girl on Soarin’; my husband’s lips touching mine just as the first shell of Illuminations detonated behind us; having other guests line up to have pictures taken with my friends and I in our Jedi Robes at Star Wars Weekends – but those memories aren’t over. I’ve been able to share the magic of Disney with others – friends who understand the miracle of finding Home again, finding a place where you belong, and you are free to be yourself. I’ve been able to share the magic with you – readers on a blog that focuses on celebrating magic and wonder.
Walt Disney World was dedicated as a “happy place” where joy and inspiration awaited guests. Four decades later, those simple words still describe it best. October represents the 40th Anniversary of the park, and that wording perhaps says it all. This is not a birthday for Walt Disney World; it is an anniversary, a celebration of the relationship that the physical realization of Walt Disney’s dream has had with all of us yesterday, today, and into tomorrow.
Is this an anniversary of your relationship with Walt Disney World? Has it touched your life?