Disney World at 50, and the city that rose around it

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — By now, the opening day stories about Walt Disney World are well known to the theme park’s fans, such as 10,000 first-day guests, two resort hotels and $2 lunches.

Through the years, the park expanded, with developments detailed by traditional news outlets and eventually, fan blogs and podcasts.


As the 50th year of the parks begins, attention is also being paid to the city that grew up around it.

READ: ‘Eyewitness News Celebrates 50 Years of Magic Presented by AdventHealth’: How to watch

Walt Disney World changed Orlando from a small inland city to a global tourism icon. The downtown skyline towers over the metro area and is visible from the top of the Majesty Building 10 miles away. The rural swamp around it is now subdivisions, highways and a massive airport. The population has exploded.

“We’re the second fastest growing metropolitan area in the country as of the last census,” Orlando Economic Partnership CEO Tim Guliani said. “People come here and have a great experience as a visitor. And then the story goes, they come back and look what it’s like to live here.”

While the resorts now employ tens of thousands of people — making them the nation’s largest single-site employer — Guliani said the economic driver has been lesser-known businesses that help keep the parks operational.

READ: Here’s when Disney Genie officially launches

Laundry services, food distributors, even stroller rentals – all provide jobs and tax revenue, helping the city grow further. UCF provided college graduates ready to enter the banking and technology world, causing white collar jobs to become the area’s top type of employment within the last year.

As jobs moved to the area, leaders say Disney provided crucial support to keep employees entertained. The Lake Eola stage and a theater inside the Dr. Phillips Center bear Disney’s name because of the company’s financial support. It’s also credited with helping the Amway Center get off the ground.

“Without Disney, none of that would have happened,” Giuliani said.

READ: Indoor character experiences, other live entertainment returning to Disney World this fall

What will Orlando look like 50 years from now? No one knows – just as no one knows what the city would be without the company. Defense, citrus and space companies come to mind, but those are just guesses.

Nor will anyone know what the price of lunch will be during an outing at Magic Kingdom.

READ: ‘I remember how magical it made me feel’: Channel 9 reflects on 50 years of Disney magic

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