Photos: Walt Disney World at 40

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  1. 40 and fabulous

    Fireworks explode above Cinderella Castle as dancers and Disney characters perform while taping a segment of "Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade" at the Magic Kingdom on Dec. 3, 2010, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The 40th anniversary of the opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort will be celebrated in 2011. (Mark Ashman / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Star power

    Musical artist Yanni, right, plays the piano as the "Yanni Voices" perform an arrangement of "O Holy Night" at the Magic Kingdom on Dec. 3, 2009, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Yanni was taping a segment for the "Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade" holiday TV special. (Mark Ashman / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'I'm going to Disney World!'

    Tom Brady, quarterback of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, signs autographs at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom on Feb. 2, 2004, one day after leading the Patriots to a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers. (Gene Duncan / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The first 25 years

    First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to a crowd as Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner applauds Oct. 1, 1996, during the rededication of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World on the 25th anniversary its opening. (Tony Ranze / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Royal fun

    Prince William, right, grimaces after he and friends of the royal family finish their ride on Splash Mountain Aug. 26, 1993, at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Harry Soames, left front, was the prince's companion on the three-day vacation. Other passengers are unidentified. (Bob Pearson / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Celebrating two decades

    The 20th anniversary rededication ceremony of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 1991 brought legions of Disney cast members onto Main Street, U.S.A. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A world-class welcome

    Roy O. Disney, brother of Walt Disney, is joined by the beloved Disney character that started it all, Mickey Mouse, in welcoming the first guests to the grand opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Oct. 1, 1971. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cinderella's future home

    In 1971, a blue-spired castle -- destined to become one of the world's most-photographed buildings -- rose in central Florida as the iconic centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom, which opened on Oct. 1, 1971. In the 40 years since guests first strolled down Main Street, U.S.A., Walt Disney World Resort has blazed brave new entertainment trails based on its founder's fertile imagination and vision that the resort would forever continue to evolve. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
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By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 7/15/2005 8:10:23 PM ET 2005-07-16T00:10:23

Before 1955, Anaheim was covered in orange groves, family vacations usually didn’t have themes, and amusement parks didn’t have the most upstanding of reputations.

Then along came Walt Disney and his imagination. He looked at the orange groves and saw a headquarters for all his dreams. He examined family vacations and detected an opportunity to make them more cohesive, more wondrous and more fun. He saw that the traditional amusement parks around the United States were either boring or dilapidated or both.

With one massive and unprecedented experiment, Disney created Disneyland, which in turn changed the face of the family vacation forever.

Perhaps no better witness to that history exists today than Ron Dominguez. On Disneyland’s Day One, he was a ticket taker at the main gate. When he finally retired 11 years ago, he was executive vice president of Disneyland.

“There was some apprehension in the community,” recalled Dominquez, whose family was one of 17 that sold its land to Disney in the early ‘50s for the Disneyland site. “Amusement parks weren’t known to have the best atmosphere around the country. Some of the employees were a little on the seedy side.

“Walt’s idea was totally different when he started Disneyland. He wanted cast members in costume. He wanted cast members to be friendly. We went through orientation and learned friendly phrases to greet people with. We took a ‘customer is always right’ attitude.

“That skepticism began to change quickly. People realized this was a totally different type of operation.”

Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty's Castle
AP file
Sleeping Beauty's Castle in the center of the original Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. The castle has been the most recognized feature of the famed Southern California theme park.
When you think of the typical American family of the 1950s, you probably don’t picture it embracing any concept that was radically different from the norm. Disneyland was a colossal exception. It altered the American vacation experience, mostly by adorning it with a theme to make folks feel at home.

Walt Disney had a built-in advantage in that effort. He made his fortune with animated films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Bambi” and “Fantasia,” among many others. When it came time to build Disneyland, he simply enlisted his already popular characters and put them to work in the new park.

The result? Adults and kids who came to Disneyland felt an immediate connection, a familiarity and friendliness. “It was about immersive storytelling,” noted Duncan Wardle, currently vice president for press and publicity at Disneyland. “The heritage of Disneyland comes from the movies, and it’s still there today.”

Wardle travels often, especially in anticipation of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, and remembers meeting a tough, middle-aged businesswoman about a year ago in New York. He showed her a picture of an old attraction called the “House of the Future” and noted her reaction: “I looked at her face, and she transformed into a 6-year-old right in front of me.

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“It’s amazing. We were in New York at a meeting. Everybody was over 35, and everybody there had a memory of getting on a plane or getting in a car and coming to Disneyland.”

That ability to make sure people come back again and again is one of Disneyland’s greatest strengths, and the reason it welcomed its 500 millionth guest in January 2004. Paul Lasley is a veteran travel writer and commentator for KABC and National Public Radio who was raised in Southern California and remembers his parents’ dropping him and his brother off at Disneyland “almost every summer day.”

“It’s evolved in many ways,” said Lasley, who has premium season passes along with his wife. “The variety and the number and complexity of attractions is part of the success. It reflects the evolution of Southern California. It’s become a more sophisticated place.

“But no matter how it changes, Walt’s vision of the park as an escape from the outside world remains. That’s always been the attraction of Disneyland — that when you walk through those gates, you’re in another world.”

That world, of course, is a lot different now than it was in ’55. “We had four lands: Adventureland, which was strictly the Jungle Cruise,” Dominguez said. “Frontierland, with Mark Twain and the stagecoaches and mule packs. Fantasyland, with Peter Pan and Mr. Toad. And Tomorrowland, which was always the toughest to develop because you’re yesterday before you know it.

“But we also had things like an exhibit about bathroom fixtures to talk about the future of bathrooms and products.”

Disneyland has since progressed from offering a rudimentary depiction of an Abraham Lincoln figure in “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” to an incredible Buzz Lightyear robot inside the current Astro Blaster attraction. The park has transitioned from a one-time entry fee of 90 cents or so, to a book of tickets, to a computerized Fast Pass dispenser system that helps limit waiting time on rides.

Advances in technology certainly have altered Disneyland’s attractions, but the essential experience remains the same. It’s a family thing. In fact, in Wardle’s opinion, Disneyland helps solidify the bonds of family while at the same time breaking down some of the barriers.

“If people ask me why a Disneyland vacation is different than any other, I would say it’s because not only do people come together as a family, they stay together throughout the course of the day,” he explained. “We’re in a world where the media is fracturing our attention spans, children going to baseball or soccer practice, they’re on the Internet and watching TV at the same time. Everything is competing for time with your children. Even when you go to the beach together, usually the adults do one thing and the kids another.

“People come to Disneyland and spend time together. It’s the great leveler. Children don’t see their parents as schedule enforcers. Parents have a chance to become children again.”

It all starts with a feeling of being welcome. “One of the genius things about Disneyland,” Lasley said, “is that every generation comes back and brings their kids and grandkids. The minute a kid walks up and gets a hug from Mickey, that kid will be a fan of Disneyland for life.”

Well, for 50 years at least. And counting.

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