On October 23, 1964, a company called the Ayefour Corporation bought five acres of land southwest of Orlando. That was the first of many purchases made throughout the area by Ayefour and several other corporations that ultimately scooped up 27,400 acres of marshy and generally useless property.
As it turned out, Ayefour was just one of the many dummy companies established by Walt Disney in the early 1960s. The idea was to quietly amass property and avoid land speculation for “The Florida Project,” an attempt by Disney to build a large self-contained theme park and community unblemished by the unseemly commercialism that, in Walt’s opinion, had sullied his original Disneyland park in California.
The “Florida Project” plans called for an amusement park—the Magic Kingdom—and a visionary futuristic city known as the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Although the idea behind the original Epcot proved too ambitious, the Magic Kingdom opened on October 1, 1971, along with two hotels (the Contemporary and the Polynesian), a campground (Fort Wilderness), and two golf courses (the Palm and the Magnolia).
Gatorland, which had pretty much been the main tourist attraction since 1949, was in for some serious competition.
With the opening and instant success of the Walt Disney World Resort, the Orlando area was instantly transformed from a slowly developing metropolitan area in Central Florida to one of the most popular vacation destinations for families on the East Coast. The resort itself has grown over the years to include three more “kingdoms”—Epcot Center (opened in 1982, the park maintained only a few vestiges of its future-city origins), Disney’s Hollywood Studios (originally opened in 1989 as Disney-MGM Studios), and Animal Kingdom (opened in 1998)—as well as two water parks, a sports complex, two shopping districts, and 32 hotels.
Beyond the boundaries of Walt Disney World, the southern portion of Orlando was also irrevocably redefined by its success from an area of orange groves and marshes into the world’s family-fun playground. SeaWorld opened in 1973, and for the next decade and a half, was considered more of a complement than a competitor for Disney’s tourist dollars. With the opening of Universal Studios in 1990, the ante was raised. Disney rushed the opening of its own Hollywood-themed park to beat Universal to the punch, but rather than cannibalizing one another, the big parks managed a sort of critical mass.
Universal’s 1999 addition of Islands of Adventure, CityWalk, and its own roster of on-site hotels and shopping, along with the mid-2000s opening of a water park (Aquatica) and dolphin-interaction experience (Discovery Cove) at SeaWorld, have all proven to be successful in their own ways. And though Walt would likely blanch, the ticky-tacky tourist corridors that have sprung up along International Drive and in Kissimmee cater to the more than 50 million tourists who now flock to the area annually.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition