In the summer of 1955, a man that started with just a dream and a sketch of a mouse he had done on a train, opened the doors to a real-life fairytale: Disney Land. There was nothing else like it in the world…until the infamous opening of Walt Disney World on October 1st, 1971. Back then, Florida was nothing but trees, marsh, and orange groves. Now, Orlando is one of the tourist capitols of the country, with people from all over the world flocking to see the legacy that Walt has left behind.
My first trip was 20 years after that, close to the anniversary date. I was five years old, and for me, my dream started with a rabbit…Roger Rabbit. He was the first real face character that I saw, and I was overjoyed. Even for a child, I had a point of serenity; this fantastic place where I was transported to turned my reality upside down. As I grew older, I appreciated it in a much more different sense: I learned the history and work of the Imagineers and fell in love with the art of animation. I obsessed over storyboard paintings, classic animated films, and the music of Alan Menken. It consumed my life, and filled the empty place in my heart that family struggles had placed there. I found solace and peace, and every opportunity I could, I would go to the parks with visiting family members. Seeing the castle, riding the Carousel, meeting Mickey and his gang…it always brought things into perspective, like nothing could go wrong here, in the happiest place on Earth.
Seasons change, as did I. Now I’m twenty five, and I celebrate each visit with the love of my life. Now it’s not just the glitter and fireworks of it all, it’s the lessons behind it: learning the struggle and work that Walt put into this place, the history and imagination behind every single ride and inch of the different lands, the inspiration planted in the young minds yearning to leave something magical in their steps.
Today, Walt Disney World turns forty…and it’s just as beautiful as it once was. The new expansion of Fantasy Land, which opens next year (and of which, locals are keeping a close watch) will undoubtedly put that familiar sparkle in everyone’s eyes, be it young or old. Today, I was lucky enough to be a guest of the 40th celebration, and I got to see things that I hadn’t witnessed in years: the horse drawn trolley ringing its bell through Main Street, dancers tipping their hats and swooshing their skirts as they sung those familiar songs of yesteryear, characters signing autographs throughout the park (most of them are secluded to the Town Square Theater and the former Big Top in Toon Town), and vintage designs on available merchandise, guide maps, and buttons. It was a day that memories were not only celebrated, but made.
Unified, it felt shiny and new, as if I were seeing The Mouse for the first time all over again. I felt like that five year old girl again, with a freshly printed pair of Mickey Ears, walking up to Cinderella Castle, feeling that magic envelope me. And I know in the deepest part of my heart and mind, that that was Walt’s intention: to always have the magic inside you.
Happy Birthday, Walt Disney World. You are always a part of me.