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After 50 years, Walt Disney World still casts a spell on Florida

In 1971, the entertainment resort complex opened its doors in Lake Buena Vista, ushering in an era of remarkable financial growth in the state. And five decades later, its magic continues to boost tourism and the economy.
The newly painted Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is seen with the the crest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the theme park Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
The newly painted Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is seen with the crest celebrating the 50th anniversary of the theme park. Photo: The Associated Press

On Oct. 1, 1971, Walt Disney World in Orlando opened its doors, ushering in an era of princesses, pixie dust, and extraordinary economic growth in Florida. The theme park's golden jubilee, celebrated this month, marks five decades of innovation and record-breaking expansion that has shaped the state’s economy and success.

When he was 3 years old, Randy Fitzgerald, a first-year law student at the University of Miami, waltzed down the idyllic Main Street in Magic Kingdom Park with his sights set on one thing—Cinderella’s Castle. 

“I was just absolutely gobsmacked,” Fitzgerald recalled. “I couldn’t believe we were at Disney, inside the castle, and all the princesses were there.” 

Fitzgerald and his family would annually make the trek down from Virginia to visit Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista. Like millions of U.S. families, his trips reign as his favorite childhood tradition. Fitzgerald highlighted the parks' grandeur and Main Street's timeless and historical facade with an air of nostalgia, remembering vividly how he cried the first time he said goodbye to Mickey Mouse.

Randy Fitzgerald at Magic Kingdom as a child (left) and as an adult (right).
Randy Fitzgerald at Magic Kingdom as a child (left) and as an adult (right). Photos courtesy Randy Fitzgerald

Now, Fitzgerald’s love for Disney has transferred into his adult life: He is an annual pass holder. He still visits the parks once a month, and attended Magic Kingdom’s 50th Anniversary celebration on Oct. 1. 

"Disney is something that is a very big passion of mine. Being there and being a part of that celebration was very emotional," he said. Fitzgerald's passion for Walt Disney World extends beyond his park visits. During his undergraduate career, he was required to author a thesis to complete his degree. His chosen topic of interest? The impact of the Walt Disney Company on Florida's political economy. 

The nearly 80-page paper includes a robust analysis of the history and significant economic impact Walt Disney World has had on Florida’s tourism industry. Indeed, the resort spans about 27,000 acres, making it the largest theme park in the world. And Disney World Resort properties boast more than 30,000 hotel rooms, 409 wilderness cabins, 799 campsites, and 3,293 Disney Vacation Club units. 

Alex Horenstein, an associate professor of economics in the Miami Herbert Business School, explained how Walt Disney World’s growth changed the landscape of Florida’s economy. 

"Disney World attracts around 50 million tourists a year and generates more than 70,000 jobs directly, making it the biggest single-site employer in the U.S.," he said. "The millions of tourists visiting Disney World not only spend money at the resort but also across the city and the state of Florida." 

Eastern seaboard architecture of turn of the century America is being recreated in Main Street U.S.A. at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom theme park in central Florida, Nov. 1970. Aerial view shows progress of development, scheduled to open in October. Phase 1, which covers 2,500 acres, is a total "Vacation Kingdom," including theme park, similar to Disneyland in California. (AP Photo)
An aerial view shows the progress of Main Street development at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom theme park in November 1970. Photo: The Associated Press

In Orlando alone, more than 300,000 people lived in the city when Walt Disney World opened. Now, it is home to more than 2 million residents. What’s more, in 2019, the economic impact from the tourism industry in Orlando resulted in more than $73 billion in "business sales impact" for 17 sectors of the city’s economy, according to the Orlando Business Journal. While additional attractions have arrived in the area following the opening of Walt Disney World, its four theme parks continue to generate the most revenue and visitors in the area. 

The ripple effects from Walt Disney World Resorts are undoubtedly felt across Florida, including Miami, Horenstein added. Through South Florida's international airport and the robust tourism industry itself, people visiting Disney historically pass through Miami and engage in economic activity.

Horenstein remembers his first visit to the U.S. as a child. At 11 years old, he and his family arrived in Miami from Argentina before visiting Walt Disney World. “I remember being amazed by the parks and thinking how much better they were than anything I could have imagined,” he recalled. 

Despite the magnitude of Walt Disney World’s impact during the past 50 years, the magic will multiply because the park already has announced plans to continue expanding and improving in the coming years.