About This Episode
The Orlando Guy acknowledges Chad Denver Emerson, author of “Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World” (Purchase: https://www.amazon.com/Project-Future-Inside-Behind-Creation/dp/0615347770/), which served as the foundational research and blueprint for this episode.
Examining the History of Orlando would not be complete without discovering how Walt Disney World came to Orlando. It might surprise you to know that Orlando was not Walt’s first choice for building an East coast project.
After researching and considering proposals from New York, St. Louis, Kansas City, Palm Beach and Marceline, Disney finally decided to build in Orlando, Florida. The history of Walt Disney World and the history of Orlando are eternally intertwined after the announcement was made on November 15, 1965. Since that date, Orlando was forever changed and the modern era of Orlando becoming a major metropolitan city and becoming the theme park capital of the world began. This Walt Disney World documentary will answer the question: How did Walt Disney World come to Orlando?
If there is one word that has become synonymous with Orlando, it is Disney. The theme park giant elicits the most love and derision from both visitors and residents. But how did it come to be in Orlando? Almost unknown to the millions of guests that visit Walt Disney World annually is that the park sits in the middle of two cities and a district completely governed and controlled by Disney. So great was the impact of the announcement and development of Walt Disney World on Orlando, that locals refer to their past as BD before Disney and AD after Disney. We will examine the story behind the coming of the mouse on this episode of the history of Orlando.
Even though the announcement of an east coast project for Disney was made in the mid-1960s and did not open until the early 70s, the idea for an east coast venture had its genesis in 1959.
When Walt Disney opened Disneyland on July 17th, 1955, the success of that park quickly invited solicitations from cities all over the United States and the World for Disney to build a similar enterprise in their neighborhoods. Exporting the Disney brand to the East coast made sense, and Walt’s interest was piqued as studies showed that an exceedingly small percentage of visitors to Disneyland came from East of the Mississippi. As always, Walt’s dreams were bigger than his brother Roy Disney, head of financial operations of the company, could fund.
Walt had hired many creative people to design, build and expand Disneyland, produce his television shows and animate his movies, but to keep these people on staff, and to realize his never-ending creative ideas, including an even bigger dream he had for the East coast, required some creative financing. Walt and Roy found the answer by developing attractions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Disney built the fair’s headlining attractions, including, “It’s A Small World” for Pepsi Cola, “Carousel of Progress” for General Electric’s “Progressland”, “Magic Skyway” for the Ford Motor Company, and “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” for The State of Illinois.
With seed funding in place to finance existing projects at Disneyland and to help with the exploration of a bigger dream, the search began in earnest to find a home on the East coast for a project so massive in scope, it was code-named: Project Future.
Starting in 1959, Walt Disney began considering expanding his dreams to other parts of the country. Orlando and Central Florida were not the first locations on his list. Many proposals were offered to Disney. One of the earliest sites Walt considered was the New Jersey Meadows, but the proposal required to find a way to control the weather and was quickly scrapped as investors feared the cost was too great.
In the fall of 1963, Disney visited Niagara Falls to consider a collaboration with the Canadian liquor company Seagrams for an attraction located at the Seagram Tower. Rumors circulated about an attraction at the base of the tower – perhaps a version of Rocket to the Moon or a seasonal Circle-Vision theater. But the idea was shelved.
If there was any state that should have been a natural fit for Disney to extend its empire, it was Missouri. It made sense. Walt spent his most formative years in the state – both in Marceline and Kansas City Missouri. In fact, there were three different proposals Walt considered.
Walt’s friend, Joyce Clyde Hall, known as J.C. Hall, founder of the Hallmark greeting card company wanted to develop a joint venture at Signboard Hill in Kansas City. The attraction would center around nature and include an international-themed village; an idea the Disney Company would return to years later. Walt signed on as a consultant, but his involvement never moved beyond the discussion stage. He did give J.C. one piece of advice based on his experience in California – buy enough land – an idea that would become crucial to Project Future.
By the late 1950s, an early idea of Walt’s nearly came to fruition. During a visit to Marceline Missouri, Walt discussed having an attraction on the old family farm with a city booster and local businessman named Rush Johnson. The strategy they took would have great implications on how Walt would conduct business in Florida later. The strategy was one of complete secrecy and anonymity. Rush would form a non-profit corporation to shield Disney from being identified as the buyer and purchase the farm and surrounding land; then sell it to the Disney Company. Unfortunately, a feasibility study showed the venture would not be profitable and Rush Johnson later gave the land to his daughter as a wedding gift.
One project in Missouri came the closest to being approved. In St. Louis, the waterfront was in the process of renovation. The St. Louis Gateway Arch and a new baseball stadium were being built, and Walt Disney was asked to produce a film to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city. Disney countered with an even bigger idea.
Walt suggested a multi-story indoor attraction near the waterfront that would include a circle-vision theater, restaurant, early rides similar to Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, as well as banquet and convention facilities. A feasibility study showed that there was merit in the idea. Two issues arose; however, that derailed the project moving forward.
One issue was the sale of alcohol. Walt Disney said his involvement in the project would, like the majority of Disneyland, preclude sales of alcohol. St. Louis project backers responded that no project would be approved without their sales. At a dinner party, August Busch Jr. proclaimed that Disney’s views on alcohol sales were foolish, which offended Walt. Eventually, it was decided that sales of alcohol would be permitted in designated areas only.
But there was second issue that ultimately prevented the enterprise from progressing – that of cost. Disney demanded that his company would be sole builder and operator of the attraction. Complete control over the company’s destiny would become a common requirement for all projects from then on. Disney; however, only wanted to commit financially to design and operational services. He wanted the city of St. Louis to pay for the building of the project. The city replied if Disney wanted ownership of the attraction, he should shoulder the project cost, but with incentives from the city.
By June of 1965, the project in Disney’s home state of Missouri was all but dead. The price tag of around 50 million dollars was too steep – not because Disney didn’t have the means or could not find the sponsorship, it was because no one knew that at that very moment, nearly one-thousand miles away, millions of dollars were being committed to purchase land for a more ambitious project – in Central Florida.
The Florida Project
One of the major obstacles with the proposed sites in New Jersey, New York and Missouri, was weather. And so, Disney began in earnest to look at Southern states like Georgia, Alabama and Florida for a potential site for an east coast operation. Having an attraction with year-round availability was key.
Walt had actually been considering Florida as a home for a Disney venture as far back as June 1959 when RCA, hoping Walt would move his television show to their NBC network, approached Disney for a collaboration along with Banker’s Life and Casualty founder, John D. McArthur, to build a “Community of Tomorrow” in Palm Beach, Florida; which included a 400-acre theme park and a town center for 70,000 people. Discussions fell apart in a subsequent meeting to finalize a deal after Roy Disney requested more land than originally agreed from McArthur and RCA grew wary of the cost.
In 1961, Disney commissioned a research study of vacation markets in Florida. The findings showed that Ocala, Florida was a prime location for a Disney attraction. What the study failed to consider; however, was that upon completion, the brand-new Interstate 4 and Florida turnpike would cross in Orlando.
Walt’s search for a home continued through the early 1960s, and as fate would have it, the decision on where to build a new Disney attraction would come on the very same day as one of the most tragic events in American political history.
Choosing Central Florida
Sunday, November 17, 1963 Walt Disney and a group of company officials who were instrumental in the development of Disneyland embarked on a plane tour of the country in search of potential sites – the feeling was growing that a final decision needed to be made. The team boarded an unmarked plane which helped them keep a low profile on their mission. At the time of the trip Walt was still considering proposals from across the country. The tour began in St. Louis, then moved on to Niagara Falls and the Washington D.C. area where the team surveyed potential sites.
On Thursday, November 21st, 1963 the entourage landed in Orlando and travelled to Ocala to survey the area. The next morning, Friday, November 22nd, 1963, the team travelled back to Orlando and Walt instructed the pilots to visit other potential locations. The flight took them over Central Florida down to the Florida Keys, then back north to Fort Meyers, Saint Petersburg and finally to Tampa. Afterward the group flew over the Gulf of Mexico and landed in New Orleans arriving at 6:30pm. It was only then; they heard the news.
On the subdued flight back to California, Walt informed the team that he had selected Central Florida to build the Florida Project.
Upon selecting Central Florida as the preferred site for a new enterprise – a new project codenamed Winter was commissioned to survey the State of Florida for the new East Coast development, contrasting Ocala and Orlando as potential sites. A shell company named Burke and Burke was set up to act as a potential investor, ensuring the utmost privacy as Disney wanted to avoid a rush in land speculation. The study concluded that Orlando offered greater potential for the development of Project Winter. The next step was to investigate the availability to acquire potential properties – if possible large tracts of land. Disney’s efforts to purchase large tracts of land without disclosing its identity would remain an integral part of the project.
To do so, Disney set up several shell corporations under the umbrella of Compass East – a Disney owned Delaware corporation who would act as buying agents through which the company could acquire the land from Summer 1964 through Spring of 1965.
SUPER: Latin American Development and Management Corporation; Bay Lake Properties, Inc.; M.T. Lott Co.; Tomahawk Properties; Retlaw
Knowing that obtaining significant tracts of land would invite unwanted scrutiny, Disney employed the tactic of using purchase options – instead of buying the land outright at first – to delay filing the legal paperwork, if possible, while land acquisition was ongoing. By the early Summer of 1965, most of the land that would encompass the original 27,400 acres had been purchased – all for just over five million dollars, or less than two hundred dollars an acre. Speculation began in earnest that large corporations such as Ford, McDonnell-Douglas, Hughes Aircraft, and Boeing were behind the land acquisitions.
Sunday Florida Magazine editor and Orlando Sentinel Star reporter, Emily Bavar, published a story speculating that the massive sales of contiguous land tracts were being procured by Disney. Only a few days later, the Sentinel published its famous headline proclaiming, “We Say: ‘Mystery’ Industry Is Disney.”
With the land secured and the secret out, Disney was free to begin earnestly making the project a reality. Disney allowed Governor Hayden Burns, who had been kept in the dark, the honor of making the official announcement on October 25th, 1965 at a Florida League of Municipalities Conference. The official press conference announcing Disney World would wait until November 15th held at the Egyptian Room of the Cherry Plaza hotel in downtown Orlando.
Disney Press Conference
Even though the press conference was long on excitement. Details about the project were still sparce as most of the final decisions and approvals had yet to be made by Walt. A significant hurdle to making the final decisions on the size and scope of the project were predicated on Disney’s need to have complete control, and more importantly the authority, to move forward with little interference from the counties that would be impacted by the venture.
Disney’s land was in both Osceola and Orange counties and in 1965 Florida counties wielded a lot of power due to their taxing and regulatory authority. Disney’s concern due to the vast scope of Walt’s ideas was that the regulatory red tape would kill the project before it could be started. To solve the problem, Disney took advantage of a Florida special district law to create a new super district, named the Reedy Creek Improvement District that was superimposed over two cities – Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (later to be renamed Lake Buena Vista). The powers of the district and municipalities would enable Disney to self-govern the regulatory requirements to build and maintain the project and the authority to issue municipal bonds to help fund the infrastructure improvements to the land. Osceola and Orange counties would benefit from not having to support the infrastructure improvements and reap the benefits of the additional taxes from the tourist boom.
But there came an even bigger hurdle to overcome. One that would threaten the very future of Disney World – the death of Walt Disney.
Death of Walt Disney
On December 15th, 1966 Walter Elias Disney died following a brief battle with Cancer. The death of Disney World’s charismatic and inspirational leader reverberated through the company.
The passing of Walt Disney was especially hard on his older brother and business mentor, Roy Disney.
Diane Disney Miller
Roy Disney postponed his retirement to see the project through to the end. One of his first acts was to rename the project Walt Disney World so that no one would forget it was Walt’s dream. Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971. The entire month of October was promoted as “Preview Month” with the official dedication scheduled as a three-day event from October 23-25, 1971.
After the dedication, Roy was found in a boat on the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of the Magic Kingdom. He was asked why he was not in the park attending the festivities. He replied, “Today is Walt’s day. I want them to remember my brother.”
When NBC aired the Grand Opening of Walt Disney World on Friday October 29, 1971, Roy sat next to his wife Edna in their house in Orlando’s Bay Hill and wept. Roy went back to California, never to return to Florida. On Monday night, December 20, 1971, just weeks after the dedication of Walt Disney World, Roy Disney died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He had been asked why he chose to complete the Florida Project, Roy replied, “I didn’t want to have to explain to Walt when I saw him again why the dream didn’t come true.”
And that is the story of how Walt Disney World came to be in Orlando.
People occasionally challenge me with the question: “Richard, what’s so great about living in Orlando?” My answer may surprise some. For me, Orlando’s birth as a modern American metropolis – the kind mentioned in T.D. Allman’s article from episode 1 of this series – can be traced back to that press conference on November 15th, 1965. That was the date that everything changed. But by itself, the presence of Disney is not the reason why Orlando is so great. You see, compared to the long histories of other cosmopolitan American cities like New York, Chicago, or Miami – if you consider that November date as the birth of modern Orlando, we are but a teenager; still dreaming about our future. That makes living in Orlando right now, the most exciting time to be here. And just like a teenager, swirling around a giant waterslide at Disney’s Blizzard Beach, we plunge into the cool invigorating waters of change, excited to be alive, and upon emerging, scream: “let’s do that again!”