10 best things to happen to Walt Disney World since Oct. 1, 1971

News 6 is counting down before Disney World's 47th birthday

There's a case to be made that Oct. 1 should be a Central Florida holiday. That one day transformed our area, not once, but twice.

You see, Oct.1 1971, was the date handpicked by Walt's Disney's brother, Roy O. Disney, for the soft opening of a dream called Walt Disney World and its signature theme park, dubbed "The Magic Kingdom" (after a marketing tagline used for Disneyland in California: Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom).

The term "soft open" is appropriate, because for the company in those days, Oct. 25 was the big deal: the Grand Opening Gala held in time for a broadcast TV special  to be edited together for Oct. 29. Oct. 25 was the day Roy Disney read his famous dedication speech with Mickey Mouse by his side in the Town Square of Main Street, U.S.A.

Nevertheless, the gates were thrown open to the masses on Oct. 1, even with the Contemporary Resort still a construction zone, with white and blue-collar workers together tossing sod "green side up" to get the grounds ready for guests. So Oct. 1 is the official "birthday" celebrated for the entire resort and the world's most popular theme park.

If you're wondering: Why Oct.1? There are two equally important reasons: It marked the start of a new fiscal year for Walt Disney Productions, and it marked one of the slowest times of the year for tourism in Florida. Better to open when it's quiet and get the kinks out before the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. 

So, as Walt Disney World marks its 47th birthday and Epcot marks its 36th, News 6 is counting down with:

The top 10 best things to happen to the Magic Kingdom since 1971

1. Fort Wilderness (1971) 

Although intended to be ready from day one, Fort Wilderness opened a few weeks late. Having a campground gave guests more options (and more price points) to stay inside the magic. It was and is immersive, with amenities that were way before their time, including extensive nature trails, and its own Tri-Circle D Ranch.

Events like the nightly campfire movies add to the theme and also are just a lot of fun. For a time, Fort Wilderness had its own railroad to transport guests around its grounds. Sadly, the engineering of the train was flawed from the start, and this unique addition ended in 1980.

A more permanent addition, Pioneer Hall in 1974, cemented Fort Wilderness as something unique and gave birth to the longest-running dinner show around: the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. It is still running, with mostly minor changes to the show and the menu. 

2. River Country (1976)

A Bicentennial addition to WDW, first daughter Susan Ford dedicated River Country in June of 1976. If it were still operating today, "the Ole' Swimming Hole" would feel more like it should be an oversized pool area for Fort Wilderness than a full-fledged separate ticketed attraction.

But River Country was, arguably, the first water park in the world (beating Wet n Wild by more than a year), and it was certainly the first themed water park. That makes it the predecessor of not just Disney's Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, but also SeaWorld's Aquatica and Universal's Volcano Bay. River Country still sits abandoned behind walls; however, its pools were filled in a year or so ago due to fears of Zika virus. There are rumblings construction will soon start on something new there, most likely a Disney Vacation Club resort.

3. The Disney Village Marketplace (1975) 
If you were to go back in time to visit what is now Disney Springs, you would barely recognize the place.

First opened as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village in 1975, it was a quaint shopping and dining district emphasizing everything except for the kind of souvenirs that pack the World of Disney store today. It was meant to have a whole different (and more adult) vibe than a theme park. There were high-end clothing shops, a very odd gourmet grocery shore, and Cap'n Jack's Seafood Restaurant and Bar.

The original idea was this would be the gathering place for retirees, snowbirds and corporate types who would actually live on Disney property in a town called Lake Buena Vista. The firsttown homes for that development were built, along with Tree House Villas. It was meant to be a first step toward building EPCOT -- Walt Disney's utopian city of the future.

Reality often gets in the way, though. People living at WDW would mean people able to vote at WDW, potentially blocking Disney's control of its government of, by and for Disney: The Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Most of the 1975 buildings still remain  as the Marketplace section of Disney Springs. Without this development, we would not have had Pleasure Island (R.I.P.), the West Side or any of the districts of Disney Springs. 

4. The 1-Day, 1-Park Pass (1981) 
When The Magic Kingdom opened, guests paid a nominal admission price ($3.50 for adults!). If you wanted to ride  a ride or see a show, though, nearly all of them required a separate ticket.

"A" tickets were for the simplest rides (like the Main Street vehicles), while E-tickets were for the top-tier attractions ("20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "It's a Small World," "The Mickey Mouse Revue," "The Haunted Mansion," etc). The term E-Ticket is still shorthand industry-wide for the best of the best.

There were very definite advantages to the ticket system (each ride brought in revenue, paying the cost of their upkeep and upgrades), but Disney started phasing them out in favor of the 1-Day, 1-Park Pass in 1981. Why? Epcot Center was coming, and nearly everything built for it was seen as an E-ticket -- or close to it. The 1-Day pass also directly led to park-hoppers and annual passes.

5. EPCOT Center instead of E.P.C.O.T. (1982) 
It all started with a dream... and then a painting.

Shortly before EPCOT Center claimed to "Begin the 21st Century" a couple of decades early, Disney Parks chief Dick Nunis told Orlando Magazine: "We are still haunted by a painting." He was talking, of course about the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a Waltopia envisioned by Walt Disney himself.  

E.P.C.O.T. was the primary reason Walt Disney wanted to snap up 27,000 acres of swampland straddling Orange and Osceola counties. It was his passion in his last days and was the big pitch behind insisting the state legislature let his company have its own government. It was to be a place where people actually lived and worked a life they couldn't anywhere else.

The idea captured the public's imagination. Then Walt Disney died, and so did E.P.C.O.T. 

I think it is for the best. Don't get me wrong, I would have LOVED to see it built and see it succeed. But would you want to live in a place where a company comes in and tears out your appliances every few months to test something new? Walt Disney's successors didn't give up on the idea right away, hence Lake Buena Vista, but without their visionary founder, they ended up building something both derivative and completely unique.

EPCOT Center was more than a permanent World's Fair. While some of the opening day attractions echoed those Disney's Imagineers built for New York's 1964 World's Fair, they were also a bold attempt at what we now call "edutainment." 

In 1982, Future World and World Showcase also felt like two natural parts of a unified, well-thought out, master planned idea. For its time, it really was cutting edge: touchscreens, hydroponics, smart homes, computer controls and the first modern personal computers were showcased there to inspire the average public.

EPCOT Center also featured the first modern 3D film ("Magic Journeys" ) and cutting edge animatronics. Most importantly, it proved imagineers could design something besides another "Magic Kingdom." Without  EPCOT Center, there would be no Disney's Hollywood Studios or Disney's Animal Kingdom, no Tokyo DisneySea or even Disney California Adventure. 

I just wish the very  necessary changes and updates over the years all captured the same quality and spirit I felt in 1982.

6. The Grand Floridian (1988)   
One of Michael Eisner's first bold moves was to push forward a vast expansion of Disney-owned hotel rooms. In many ways, Walt Disney World is now a hotel company that runs theme parks. In addition to being insanely profitable, the hotels also capture guests' attention (and their money) on Disney property.

None of that would have happened had The Grand Floridian Resort and Spa not been the same kind of success The Polynesian and Contemporary were from the start. There were plans for several other themed resorts before The Grand Flo and Eisner, but an overly cautious Disney Board of Directors canceled them, due first to a tourism downturn caused by the Arab oil embargo and then later to focus on EPCOT Center.

The Grand Floridian was also the first attempt at luring ultra-high-end clientele, as seen now at the Four Seasons and Golden Oak. The hotel's Victoria and Albert's remains one of the most acclaimed and most expensive restaurants not just in Walt Disney World, but in the whole state. 

7. 'Ohana & The California Grill (1995) 
World Showcase and Victoria & Albert's started the trend, but 'Ohana at the Polynesian and The California Grill at the Contemporary launched a wave that led to Walt Disney World being known as a destination for foodies.

The idea began, in part, with Eisner griping about the quality and lack of variety of the food served in The Magic Kingdom and the resorts. The success of these two restaurants proved people would pay for quality, and they do it in very different ways.

'Ohana focuses on the family (makes sense, given the name) with its all-you-care-to-eat skewers of grilled meats and salads, while California Grill, with a trendier-than-thou menu focused as much on presentation as on flavor.

Both restaurant concepts replaced dated 1970s counterparts with something that still feels fresh today. Both also were among the first in Florida to showcase on-stage kitchens.

8. The Year 1989
If you were to pick one year between 1982 and now, I'd argue 1989 was the one that shaped Walt Disney World into what we know today.

That one year saw the opening of Disney-MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios), featuring working film and television facilities and a theme park to challenge Universal before it could even open, Typhoon Lagoon to take on Wet n Wild and Pleasure Island (targeting downtown Orlando's then-trendy Church Street Station).

1989 also saw the opening of a dedicated Casting Center, the Crossroads Shopping Center (now no longer Disney-owned and soon to be demolished for an I-4 expansion) and the last major old-school Epcot pavilion: the Wonders of Life. The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin complex started opening very early in 1990, connecting the Epcot and Studios areas and opening up a vast swath of real estate for hotels and (later) time-shares. 

9. Universal Studios Florida (1990)
While Universal's opening was an unmitigated disaster, full of broken rides and angry customers, it quickly grew into a serious threat to Disney's dominance in a way Cypress Gardens, Circus World and even SeaWorld Orlando never could.

Universal took its next, bold step in 1999 with the opening of Islands of Adventure, the first of its own themed resort hotels, and CityWalk (to challenge Pleasure Island and the rest of downtown Disney).

Universal had started to catch on to how Disney plays the game, and while that bet was slow to fully pay off, a certain boy wizard came along in 2010 and changed that overnight. The theming of Islands of Adventure, especially, had always been above par in most places, but the quality and popularity of the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter (now Hogsmeade) was a game changer for Universal, Central Florida and the theme park industry.

Diagon Alley proved it wasn't a fluke. The gauntlet was thrown down. The popularity of these new additions to Universal has in many ways -- directly and indirectly -- caused Disney to start building major new additions again.

The "common wisdom" for years was that theme parks were a mature business, and there was not much room to grow attendance. Potter showed that wasn't true, and it is a big reason early plans for what was first called "Star Wars Land" were thrown out and a much bigger and bolder version is being built now (no X-Wing spinner ride here).

Disney's Animal Kingdom

10. Animal Kingdom (1998) 
After 20 years as "Nahtazoo," the fourth of Disney's Florida theme parks to open is now second only to the Magic Kingdom in terms of attendance, if we can believe the latest industry estimates. That happened with Pandora: the World of Avatar which was open for less than a year.

While in some ways a reaction to yet another potential competitor (Tampa's Busch Gardens), Animal Kingdom's success came largely because its creative team delivered on a unique vision for a different kind of theme park. Remarkably, two decades later, it may be the best Disney theme park in the world at retaining and organically building on its initial vision.

Every major addition (outside of Dinorama) has upped the quality: Asia, Expedition Everest and Pandora. That newest, Avatar-inspired addition still feels like it could have been there from day one.

One key reason: The park's imagineer-in-chief from conception to present remains the remarkably talented and passionate Joe Rohde. If only Epcot had a similar architect. The park's signature ride, Kilimanjaro Safaris, was a game changer in animal attractions (although the early poaching story line was quite a bit too heavy-handed).

For my money, Africa is the best and most immersive themed land of any park in the U.S., if not the world (in case you're wondering, Disneyland's New Orleans Square would be my No. 2) thanks to well-thought-out expansions like the new theater for Festival of the Lion King. I hope the recently-announced renovation of Rafiki's Planet Watch will keep my favorite park's winning streak going.

About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.