Have you ever wondered why there are so many theme parks in Orlando? According to the global attractions attendance report for 2018, eight of the top twenty most visited theme parks in North America are located in Orlando. Not only that, but Orlando boasted over 83 million theme park visitors in 2018. That is an insane number. That is more visitors than all of the other twelve theme parks on that list combined. So how did this become a thing?
The reason why so many theme parks are located in Orlando Florida is that in 1971 a little theme park by the name of The Magic Kingdom opened its gates. The park brought in over 20 million visitors in its first year and has been growing ever since. The theme park’s massive success would allow Disney to open multiple other parks throughout the years. The theme parks at Walt Disney World are so popular in fact that all four parks were in the top five most visited theme parks in North America in 2018. The truth is that it was only a matter of time before other theme parks would begin to pop up to try and get a piece of the action.
Magic Kingdom History
After seeing the success of Disneyland, Walt Disney decided he wanted to build a new theme park. This time he could fix some of the shortcomings of the original park. He knew he wanted the park to be bigger and he wanted the park to be on the East Coast. When looking at the attendance records, Walt noticed that a measly two percent of park-goers were from east of the Mississippi. That is because back in 1971 most of the United State’s population lived East of the Mississippi, making it a bit of a trek to visit. So he decided to look East to build his new amusement park that way he could capture more of the population’s attention.
In his search for the perfect location, he found plenty of lots of land that was for sale in Florida. The problem was that he knew that if he were to try and buy any lot of land that people would charge him an arm and a leg. So Walt, being the businessman that he was, decided to buy the lots of land using “dummy” corporations with names like “Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation” and “M.T. Lott”. No, I’m not kidding about that last one. He really did use that name.
This way he could purchase the land for a reasonable price. And you know what? It worked. At least at first. He managed to purchase 27,000 acres of land without anyone noticing. It took a while, but people began to figure out that Walt was behind the massive purchases. As you can imagine once the word was out the price of land began to skyrocket. Walt started off paying $80 for his first acre of land and about $80 thousand after people knew it was him.
It’s truly is amazing what Walt was able to pull off. In 1971 Magic Kingdom opened its gates and millions of theme park enthusiasts flooded the park. But that would only be the beginning.
Seaworld Orlando History
Seeing the success of Magic Kingdom, SeaWorld decided to open a park of their own in Orlando. They opened their doors in 1973, just two years after Magic Kingdom’s debut, and only a few miles up the road from Disney too. This was actually SeaWorld’s third park. The first being in San Diego California in 1964 and the second in Aurora Ohio in 1970. Let me know in the comments below if you knew that there was a SeaWorld in Ohio because I did not. SeaWorld’s opening had turned Orlando into a multi-day theme park experience.
Three years after opening, SeaWorld was sold to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, a book publishing company. Thirteen years later in 1989, HBJ was suffering some financial troubles and they sold to Anheuser-Busch, the owner of Busch Gardens. Busch was far more well equipped to manage a theme park like SeaWorld. At this point in time, more and more theme parks were popping up in Orlando and the industry was far more competitive than what it once was. Having experience in the theme park business, Busch was able to market SeaWorld aggressively and effectively.
Epcot & Hollywood Studios History
In 1982, Epcot was the second theme park to open in Walt Disney World. The Epcot that we know and love today in not what Walt originally intended. In fact it was much different and not a theme park at all, but a fully functioning city that you could live in. But sadly, Walt died before Magic Kingdom even opened and was unable to see his city through.
The Disney company decided not to move forward with the project as they felt uncertain that they could finish it without Walt’s creative vision. Although we will never see Walt’s vision of EPCOT, many of the themes of a optimistic and technological future are very much a part of the park today.
In 1985 Disney entered an agreement with MGM to use their name and logo for a studio themed park. Disney wanted to create a theme park that would also be able to double as a working production studio. A few films have been made there including Ernest Saves Christmas starring Jim Varney in 1988. Unfortunately, this caused MGM to sue Disney as they believed this violated their contract. Disney would go on to countersue and win. Allowing them to continue to use MGM’s name and logo in any further productions at the studio.
Finally, in 1989, Disney opened MGM Studios theme park. For nearly two decades MGM Studios was one of the cornerstones of Walt Disney World. But on January 6th, 2008 MGM Studios closed its gates. Only to reopen the very next day with a new name, Hollywood Studios. Unfortunately, not much is filmed at the studio theme park these days.
Universal Studios Florida’s History
To say that Universal Studios Florida’s grand opening was a flop would be an understatement. I am not sure the amusement park would still be open today if the internet was as prevalent as it is today. In 1986, Universal announced that they would be building a theme park in Central Florida. And much like Disney’s MGM Studios, Universal wanted a theme park that could double as a fully functional production studio to film television shows and movies.
On June 7, 1990, Universal Studios Florida opened. But the park was missing one thing. Something that every theme park needs. Working attractions. That’s right, on Universal Studios Florida’s opening day almost all of their rides were broken. Rides like Jaws would stay closed for a year before they could reopen it to the public. Thankfully, Universal managed to recover over time to become one of my favorite theme parks to date.
Animal Kingdom’s History
Animal Kingdom is the most recent theme park built at Walt Disney World, opening on April 22, 1998. Disney had been dominating the theme park space in Orlando. They had a bigger aquarium at EPCOT than SeaWorld and MGM Studios matched Universal Studios Florida. The only thing they needed was something to beat Busch Gardens Tampa’s animal park. Animal Kingdom would be Disney’s largest theme park, at over 500 acres, as they would need plenty of land for the animals to roam.
An idea that was being floated around at the time was a land called “Beastly Kingdom”. This land would feature fantasy creatures like dragons and unicorns, but the idea was eventually scrapped. They decided to make Dinoland USA in an effort to create synergy between the parks and their movies. You see, Disney had a movie called Dinosaur in production at the time and a whole bunch of money and investments tied up in it. So they felt that Dinoland USA would be the better bet. But do not fear as another theme park would be built that would go on to use “Beastly Kingdom’s” ideas.
Universal’s Islands of Adventure’s History
In 1996 Universal was looking to make some improvements to their Florida theme park. They would embark on a huge $2.6 billion dollar expansion that would include the creation of a second theme park, three on-site hotels, and a downtown district called City Walk. Once completed, the resort would be called Universal Studios Escape. That only lasted about three years before being renamed to Universal Orlando Resort. Islands of Adventure would feature five themed “islands” around the lagoon including Isla Nublar, Toon Lagoon, Superhero Island, Seuss Landing, and the Lost Continent.
Remember when I mentioned that Animal Kingdom’s scrapped “Beastly Kingdom” would live on? Well, the ideas for that land would actually be used for the creation of the Lost Continent. The rides Dueling Dragons and Flying Unicorns both came from the scrapped Disney land. That is because Universal had Ex-Disney Imagineers working to build the new park. On May 28, 1999, Islands of Adventure officially opened its gates to the public.