Some people just have an eye. Where most would see a rodent, Walt Disney conjured up a friendly mouse named Mickey in gigantic white gloves, red shorts and yellow oversized shoes. And where most people saw a big old piece of swampland, Disney envisioned a massive theme park and unofficial capital for his burgeoning entertainment empire.

Disney already had a namesake amusement park on the U.S. West Coast, but he saw an opportunity to serve a new market with next-level attractions. In search of a location that stayed warm and sunny year-round, he struck gold in Orlando, Florida, USA. The site ticked off some other requirements, too: It was near a major city and airport, close to two major highways and—most of all—absolutely massive.

But the land grab had to be discreet. Prices would skyrocket if others found out what Disney was up to. The company set up shell corporations (including one called “M.T. Lott”) to gobble up land. Still, the Orlando Sentinel ultimately caught wind of Disney’s move, and prices skyrocketed from roughly US$80 to as much as US$80,000 per acre (0.4 hectare). In all, the company would pay US$5 million to buy more than 25,000 acres (10,117 hectares), a space roughly the size of San Francisco, California, USA.

>52 million

Annual visitors to Walt Disney World

“There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine,” Disney said when unveiling plans for the park.

And oh, the plans. Along with all the rides and attractions, engineering teams created more magic amid the swamplands: building a flood-control system spanning 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) of canals and levees that operate automatically without electricity, based on water levels.

Although Disney died midway through the project, his vision was ultimately realized. What opened as a single park—Magic Kingdom—in 1971 is now a sprawling megadevelopment of four theme parks, two water parks, three entertainment areas, and 33 resorts and hotels spanning nearly 39 square miles (101 square kilometers). With more than 52 million annual visitors, Walt Disney World has become one of the most popular tourist attractions on earth. It’s also spawned other Disney theme parks in China, France and Japan, as well as a Disney cruise ship line—proving it is indeed a small, small world.

The secret behind that kind of mega-growth? This is a project that never stops evolving. Here’s a peek inside some of those innovations:

  • Tunnel Vision: Founder Walt Disney always wanted to maintain the mystique of his entertainment brand at theme parks. So during the construction of Walt Disney World, the team built an elaborate tunnel system to ensure staffers who portrayed Disney characters could discreetly move around. The tunnels would come to include offices, wardrobes, a cafeteria, laundry, hairdressers and garbage storage—hiding all the elements that keep the park running so guests could become fully immersed in a “magical” experience.
  • Because flooding risks were rampant amid swampland, the tunnels were built at ground level—and the park was layered on top, covered with 7 million cubic feet (198,218 cubic meters) of soil that came from digging to create a lagoon. In full, the tunnel system covers 392,040 square feet (36,421 square meters).
  • Epcot: Epcot didn’t open until 1982, but it was always part of Walt Disney’s original vision. His goal: build an actual city, highlighting the best of urban planning, where people lived and worked. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, was intended to test new living innovations.
  • After Disney’s death in 1966, the company put the project on the back burner for nearly a decade. Scaling down Disney’s dream, the team was able to combine cutting-edge tech and global culture in a park rather than an actual city. One part of Epcot showcases the world, with 11 countries and their cultures represented in separate pavilions. Another area, Spaceship Earth, with its iconic geodesic sphere, continues to deliver on the original objective to showcase high-tech communication. Skype and Google Hangouts, for instance, debuted at the park well before their global public releases.
  • Animal Kingdom: Opening the US$750 million Animal Kingdom park in 1998 required a menagerie of wild creatures—along with 4.4 million cubic feet (124,594 cubic meters) of dirt, plus groves of mature trees, underground utilities, waterways and structures.
  • Disney also had to build native habitats and train a staff on the unpredictable nature of animals—quite a departure from the highly controlled environments at its other parks. To sell the vision to skeptical C-suite stakeholders, the park’s lead designer, Joe Rohde, brought a live tiger to showcase the awe the theme park could inspire.
  • To ensure an authentic safari spectacle, Rohde and his team traveled throughout Africa, taking thousands of photos to capture, then replicate, rugged environments. The team carved potholes in roads and roughed up boats by applying special paint to depict wear and rust. Thirteen Zulu thatchers from South Africa made handwoven roofs, using grass collected by their families.
  • Disney MagicBands: A victim of their own popularity, Disney’s parks long had a gridlock problem. Just to get in, guests had to wait at turnstiles—both annoying and particularly difficult for, say, parents pushing strollers. The problem extended to getting paper tickets for rides or even handling cash to buy food.
  • So in the age of fitness trackers and smart watches, the company launched a US$1 billion project to introduce high-tech all-access bracelets that served as hotel room key, park admission ticket, virtual payment device and ride pass. The win-win wearable gave visitors a more seamless experience and made it easier for them to spend more. Devoting more than a year to rolling out the bracelets, the project team made changes based on pilot group feedback and helped train the park’s 70,000 employees on the tech and upgrade more than 28,000 hotel room doors.
  • The payoff was immediate. An initial trial showed a 25 percent reduction in park entry time. Bracelet data helps teams fine-tune the customer experience, telling business leaders what someone bought at a gift store or what rides they went on and at what time.