In 1964, Walt Disney began secretly buying millions of dollars worth of Central Florida farmland. As vast areas of land were purchased in lots of 5,000 acres here, 20,000 there -- at remarkably high prices -- rumors flew as to who needed so much land and had the money to acquire it. Some thought it was Howard Hughes; others, the space program. Speculation was rife almost to the very day, November 15, 1965 ("D" Day for Orlando), when Uncle Walt arrived in town and announced his plans to build the world's most spectacular theme park ("bigger and better than Disneyland"). In a 2-year construction effort, Disney employed 9,000 people. Land speculation reached unprecedented heights, as hotel chains and restaurateurs grabbed up property near the proposed park. Mere swampland sold for millions. The total cost of the project by its October 1971 opening was $400 million. Mickey Mouse escorted the first visitor into the Magic Kingdom, and numerous celebrities, from Bob Hope to Julie Andrews, took part in the opening ceremonies. In Walt Disney World's first 2 years, the attraction drew 20 million visitors and employed 13,000 people. The sleepy citrus-growing town of Orlando had become the "Action Center of Florida," and the fastest-growing city in the state.
Additional attractions multiplied faster than fruit flies, and hundreds of firms relocated their businesses to the area. SeaWorld, a major theme park, came to town in 1973. All the while, Walt Disney World continued to grow and expand, adding Epcot in 1982 and Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios) in 1989, along with water parks; more than a dozen "official" resorts; a shopping, dining, and entertainment district; campgrounds; a vast array of recreational facilities; and several other adjuncts. In 1998, Disney opened yet another theme park, this one dedicated to zoological entertainment and aptly called Animal Kingdom.
Universal Orlando, whose Universal Studios Florida park opened in 1990, continues to expand and keep the stakes high. In late 1998, it unveiled a new entertainment district, CityWalk, and in 1999, it opened Islands of Adventure, a second theme park including attractions dedicated to Dr. Seuss, Marvel Comics, and Jurassic Park. Also in 1999, it opened the Portofino Bay Hotel, a 750-room Loews property. In 2001, the curtain went up on the Hard Rock Hotel, and in summer 2002, the Royal Pacific resort opened as Universal announced plans to add two more hotels to the property in the next decade (plans that have thus far gone nowhere).
SeaWorld, too, got in on the action when it opened its $100-million sister park, Discovery Cove, in 2000. Now visitors have the chance to swim with dolphins even in landlocked Orlando.
While the tourist economy suffered for almost 2 years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and took a battering after a trio of hurricanes touched down in Central Florida in the summer of 2004, the industry has regained much of its strength as the years have passed. Indeed, one unfortunate casualty of the economic slowdown, Cypress Gardens, closed its doors in 2003 (and again, albeit only briefly, in 2008), reopened under new management with a new lineup of attractions, only to close its doors for good in 2009. Taking its place is the world's largest LEGOLAND (which at press time was preparing to open).
Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld, as usual, are in a building mode, albeit not quite as enthusiastically as they were during the late 1990s. All the parks have added new attractions, ranging from Soarin' at Epcot to Universal's Fear Factor Live to SeaWorld's new entertainment and dining district, the Waterfront. In 2005, in honor of California sibling Disneyland's 50th anniversary, Disney World unveiled new shows, services, rides, and attractions. The year 2006 brought with it the addition of Expedition Everest, Animal Kingdom's first real thrill ride. And in 2007, the Cinderella Castle Suite (where lucky visitors can actually stay overnight inside the Magic Kingdom) was unveiled as part of Disney's Year of a Million Dreams celebration. New shows, attractions, and an after-hours Pirate and Princess Party debuted at the parks. Universal Orlando created a permanent home for the Blue Man Group at Universal Studios Florida. In 2008, Disney's Year of a Million Dreams continued, Disney-MGM Studios became Disney's Hollywood Studios, and even more new shows and attractions (including Toy Story Mania and a Disneyesque version of American Idol) debuted. Disney also closed its clubs on Pleasure Island in order to "re-imagine" the district. Aquatica (SeaWorld's eco-themed water park) became the first new park to open in over 8 years.
The year 2009 brought with it an economic upheaval that took a huge toll on tourism in Orlando, leaving the hotels, restaurants, and parks scrambling for business. Despite the slowdown, two new mega-coasters still managed to emerge: Manta, an undersea-themed thriller, debuted at SeaWorld, while up the road at Universal Studios, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a combination rock concert, music video, and coaster ride, opened. Disney kicked off a new year-long celebration aptly named What Will You Celebrate, with free admission (to a single Disney park) as the bonus for guests visiting on their actual birthday. Downtown Disney began adding new shops, restaurants, and smaller attractions, slowly filling the "re-imagined" space where Pleasure Island's clubs once stood. New resorts continued to spring up in and around Orlando (including Disney's Treehouse Villas, Disney's Bay Lake Tower, and the nearby Waldorf Astoria, among others), but a slowdown in construction is expected in upcoming years.
Amid the continuing economic slump, Universal Orlando completed a massive expansion in 2010 as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter made its debut at Islands of Adventure. Disney inspired visitors to give back to the community with the Give a Day Get a Disney Day program, rewarding volunteers with a free day at a Disney theme park for their efforts. Disney's Wide World of Sports became the ESPN Wide World of Sports; the Electrical Parade returned, lighting up Main Street (in the Magic Kingdom) for the first time in almost 10 years; and dining options at Epcot expanded to include a Neapolitan Pizzeria (at the Italy Pavilion) and a Mexican Cantina (at the Mexico Pavilion). New resorts continue to open (the Holiday Inn in the Walt Disney World Resort, Marriott's Lakeshore Reserve at Grande Lakes, the Coco Key Hotel, Element Orlando Convention Center, and the Peabody Tower among them); however, as projected, construction has now slowed to a snail's pace, with not a single resort opening in 2011. Only two resorts, Disney's Art of Animation Resort and the Drury Inn & Suites (on Sand Lake Road), are slated to open this year. The Four Seasons at the Walt Disney World Resort, originally set to open in 2012, remains on the books, but with an opening date "TBD."
With 2011 came signs of a slight upswing in the economy, tourism exhibiting the most visible signs of life. Hotels began filling rooms at a rate not seen in several years (with significant increases over the last year alone). Airport traffic and attraction attendance was on the rise, with tourists (and the theme parks) beginning to once again spend money. Disney began construction at levels almost unheard of in recent years. A major expansion began at the Magic Kingdom -- with the size of Fantasyland to be doubled by the end of this year -- and detailed plans were revealed for a re-imagined Pleasure Island, the abandoned clubs (standing empty since 2008) demolished to make way for what will soon become Hyperion Wharf. Also revealed were details regarding Disney's secretive billion-dollar investment in next-gen technology and experiences -- though sketchy (and slated to roll out over the next several years), plans include bypassing hotel check-in, reserving ride times right from your computer, and a slew of personalized interactive experiences yet to be revealed. In addition, Disney kicked off Let the Memories Begin, the resorts' latest year-long celebration that has park-goers taking center stage, their images projected on Cinderella Castle each night for all to see. Also in 2011, Discovery Cove opened the Grand Reef, expanding its lineup of underwater attractions -- including a walking tour that takes guests (donning diving helmets) along a series of underwater pathways. Even Gatorland got in on the expansion action, debuting a wild zipline experience that takes adventurous guests zipping across the park's preservelike grounds, high above the crocs and gators that lurk in the marshes below.
Regardless, the pace of progress in this ever-changing city continues to move forward -- albeit more slowly than in the past -- and it's a sure bet that these newcomers will be joined by even newer rides, resorts, and shopping and dining experiences in the coming years.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.