The happiest place on earth, explained by the numbers.
There’s no place on earth like Disney World. To call it merely “big” is like saying Warren Buffett is “financially comfortable” — such an understatement that it’s almost inaccurate. It’s far and away the largest and most visited theme park on the planet, welcoming tens of millions of visitors every year.
Walt Disney’s original vision wasn’t to turn Florida swampland into an amusement park so much as to create a shining model of future cities. While that plan was never fulfilled, its influence is evident in the sheer scale. Disney World currently lists more than 280 attractions and more than 380 restaurants, bars, lounges, food trucks, and stands. It has four golf courses and a 9,500-seat baseball stadium. It even has its own movie theater.
Here’s how big Disney World really is.
This empire has welcomed masses of Disney-goers since opening day on October 1, 1971, when the park saw just 10,000 or so visitors. In 2022 — half a century later — over 47 million people made the pilgrimage despite rising admission, lodging, and dining prices. The most fervent fans visit Orlando practically every chance they get, even running marathons and throwing weddings (sometimes several weddings) there. The introduction of “Disney adult” into the internet lexicon has made clear that Disney World isn’t just a vacation but a lifestyle.
Disney World has only gotten more expensive over the years, and it may be especially out of reach now, with so many Americans tightening their wallets amid high inflation. Rather than forgoing a Disney visit altogether, families are booking shorter trips. Sue Pisaturo, founder of the Disney vacation planning firm Small World Vacations, says that her agents are booking more five-night trips, instead of seven-night ones, with families spending an average of $4,000, not including airfare. Midrange and value resorts at Disney are seeing more interest than a luxury, high-end one like the Grand Floridian.
“In order to even go to Disney World, you almost have to be at a certain level of income,” Wolfe says. If Disney continues to increase prices at a higher rate than inflation, “you’re going to continue to see people priced out.”
These hefty price hikes have worked for the company’s bottom line — after a few shaky years, it’s now making more money from its theme parks than it did before 2020.
Disney travel planners and experts tell Vox that the price of food in particular has swelled. “Food gets a price hike about twice a year, with the big price hike coming in October,” says A.J. Wolfe, founder of the Disney Food Blog. During the pandemic, Disney World’s popular dining plan was put on pause, and the company only recently announced that the money-saving option would return in January 2024.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Disney World created Central Florida’s booming hospitality industry. Today, Orlando — also home to Universal Studios and SeaWorld — is one of the hottest tourist destinations in the US. But the industry’s profits haven’t translated to prosperity, or even economic security, for many of the area’s workers and residents.
Tales of Disney World employees experiencing homelessness are disturbingly common, especially as the Orlando region’s housing prices keep rising. Jessica, a former performer at Disney World who asked that we use only her first name to protect her privacy, says that housing insecurity was common among her colleagues — and it was something she experienced, too.
“There was a significant amount of time where I was employed working full-time hours and I was actually homeless, living in my car in the Magic Kingdom parking lot,” she tells Vox. She worked multiple jobs during this period to try to stay afloat, and claimed that, at the time she worked there in the 2010s, Universal and SeaWorld paid more.
The story of Disney World is in many ways the story of Florida. The theme park is built to be a seemingly boundless Garden of Eden — the happiest place on earth, nestled within the Sunshine State — but the reality is a lot stormier.
Sources: Reedy Creek Improvement District, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Walt Disney World Resort, Walt Disney Company annual reports, AECOM, Disney Food Blog, AllEars.net, TouringPlans.com, Retro WDW, Small World Vacations, Services Trade Council Union, MIT Living Wage Calculator, National Low Income Housing Coalition