Recent
Menu
mickey-disney-world-tools

The Story Behind Walt Disney World’s Expansion Opportunity

It’s got big rides. It’s got huge amounts of food and merchandise. It has thousands of Cast Members. And it’s got masses of magic.

Let’s face it, Walt Disney World is just plain enormous.

The Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida is home to 4 theme parks, 2 water parks (Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon), 31 resort hotels, and 9 non-Disney hotels. On top of this, there are multiple golf courses, the popular shopping district Disney Springs, a camping resort, and an array of backstage areas!

It certainly makes picturing how big Disney World is difficult! Most people don’t realize how much land Walt Disney World actually encompasses. But what’s the potential for expansion, and how much land has actually been built on?

disney-world-map

Credit: Disney

Let’s dive into this sizeable Disney vacation destination. The Walt Disney World Resort is made up of 47 square miles, or about 30,000 acres. Hard to get your head around, right? To put it another way, it’s about 80 times the size of the entire nation of Monaco, twice the size of Manhattan, and the same size as San Francisco, California!

Only about 1,100 acres of that land, however, is devoted to the 4 theme parks – Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

In fact, with only 7,100 acres developed, there’s quite a lot of room for expansion! As Walt once said, there’s “enough land to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” He called it “the blessing of size,” something Disneyland in Anaheim, California sadly never had.

sign-disney-world-entrance

Credit: Disney

When Disney World Guests visit Disneyland for the first time, they’re surprised by how close the surrounding buildings are to the Disney Resort. Disneyland Resort only covers a total of 500 acres when combining Disneyland and California Adventure, which is a vast difference from Disney World’s 30,000 acres!

Over the years, of course, the area has rapidly grown from 160 acres back in 1953 to the 500 acres it is today, with many expansions including parking lots, hotels, a new theme park, and the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

The catch? Expansions are limited in the Anaheim Resort because the city grew around its biggest tourist site. Relatively speaking, all of Disneyland could fit inside of EPCOT. Wild, right? Walt just didn’t buy enough land. He vowed that if he ever built another theme park, he would not make the same mistake twice.

Walt Disney Walking Through Sleeping Beauty Castle

Credit: Disney

So, with Disneyland limited in its land size and therefore limiting Walt’s vision, he went big.

And by big, Walt Disney set up dozens of dummy corporations, with names like “M.T. Lott”, the “Latin-American Development and Managers Corporation” and the “Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation” to purchase 27,000 acres of swampland in Central Florida.

By May of 1965, there had been major land purchases reported in Osceola and Orange Counties – although no one suspected at first that Walt had anything to do with it. Large corporations such as Ford and Boeing were initially the prime suspects.

In October, the cat was out of the bag, and prices of land jumped more than 1000%. Walt bought his first acre of land for Walt Disney World for $80.00 and his last for $80,000.00!

mickey mouse hugging kids

Credit: Disney

In exchange for bringing such a boost to the Central Florida area’s economy through the creation of thousands of jobs and improvements to infrastructure, Disney was given permission to establish its own, autonomous government, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

The 1967 act meant that Walt Disney World and other landowners pay for local municipal services like water, electricity, fire protection, and emergency medical services instead of taxpayers. The act involved creating a special taxing district that acts with the same authority as a county government. Local taxpayers – residents of Orange County and Osceola County – do not have to pay for building or maintaining Disney’s essential services.

Of course, recently, a bill was passed aiming to dissolve Disney’s special treatment ruling in the state because of a political fallout with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a move that came from former Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s critical stance on Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill passed in February 2022.

castle-disney-world-walt

Credit: Disney

When Walt Disney World opened back in 1971, it included the main Magic Kingdom site, as well as two golf courses and two hotels –  Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. These areas were all connected by Monorail.

Interestingly, the Magic Kingdom theme park, home to Cinderella Castle, Haunted Mansion, and Main Street, U.S.A, is technically the smallest Disney Park. Disney’s Animal Kingdom covers over 5 times the area that Magic Kingdom does. The actual sizes of the Walt Disney World Resort Parks are:

  • Magic Kingdom: 107 acres.
  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios: 135 acres.
  • EPCOT: 305 acres.
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom: 580 acres.

So, 50 years ago when Disney World first opened, imagine how much empty land would have surrounded the Magic Kingdom. At only 107 acres versus 30,000 acres, it would have definitely lived up to Walt’s vision of entering a “world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”

Walt Disney, EPCOT

Credit: Disney

The 47 square miles that were to become the Walt Disney World Resort were nothing more than swampland, forests, and groves. The Disney team had to move huge amounts of land to create the “Most Magical Place on Earth – as well as transform the area while balancing environmental and ecological needs.

Since much of central Florida is essentially “floating” on water, Disney had to build its Florida vacation destination without affecting the water supply to the region and its animal inhabitants.

And talking of animals, The Walt Disney Company immediately set aside a 7,500 acre of conservation in 1970, which will never be built on. The goal was to preserve the famous cypress trees and provide land for the natural inhabitants of the area. The heart of this project eventually went into designing Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998, particularly at the Conservation Station attraction located in Rafiki’s Planet Watch.

conservation-station

Credit: Disney

So, at a total of 30,000 acres, with 7,500 reserved for conservation and 7,100 already developed (including 1,100 for the four theme parks), it seems that Disney has over 15,000 acres left to expand, build, and create new magical lands.

Will there be a fifth theme park? Has Disney got future innovations coming in the entertainment field? Has returning Disney CEO Bob Iger got something up his sleeve?

All we know is that Walt once said of Florida, “There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” And it seems, over 50 years later, that he was right.

About Melissa Cannioto

Melissa is an author, adventurer, and chatterbox, who has worked at Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris, and Adventures by Disney! A British native, she has traveled the world seeking new experiences, and now resides in Florida with her husband, an Air Force pilot. Find her children's book at @bear.hug.book