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Gearing Up to Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary

A Series Celebrating The Most Magical Place On Earth

As we move into February of 2021, time is going fast, and before we know it the biggest celebration at Walt Disney World will be underway! Anniversaries are always a major event, and we know from the past that no one celebrates grander than Walt Disney World!

We are not yet sure of the exact date that the celebratory fan fare will begin, (although the park opened on October 1, 1971) but I know I am looking forward to it and sure you are too. So, in the meantime, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and see just what went into creating this “Most Magical Place”, not only the logistics but the inspiration, innovation, and yes, risk taking!

Disneyland in Anaheim was a major project, ground breaking even, during it’s time. Walt had experienced many hurdles, but with a vision and a passion that could not be tamed, he built a theme park like no other. Although Disneyland was a true fantasy and “The Happiest Place on Earth”, Walt’s vision of a theme park ‘world’ would not be able to come to fruition at this location. So it was not long after the “completion” of Disneyland, that Walt and his team began buying huge sections of land in Central Florida, under assumed names, as not to raise suspicion. Walt had looked at other areas for his newly imagined park, such as Niagara Falls, New York City and even West Palm Beach, which almost became a reality. But weather conditions up north and the competition of the beaches, took Walt Disney up in his private Gulfstream again, and it was then that he laid eyes on over 12,000 acres of land in Central Florida, owned by cousins who were itching to get rid of land that had given them nothing but headaches.

With the mineral rights owned by Tufts University, Walt had purchased the land from the Demetree family but had to use his business sense and accrued wealth from Disneyland and other ventures to purchase the mineral rights, which he did pretty easily. However, he could see that, even though this was a lot of land, he needed much more to make his vision a reality and did not want to end up in the same situation he encountered in California. So, buying under shell corporations he acquired over 40 acres of land, mainly to keep it under wraps so landowners would not raise prices on very inexpensive farm and swamp land. The companies had names like the ‘Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation’ and the ‘Latin-American Development and Management Corporation’. One was even called the M.T. Lott Co., which is exactly the kind of tongue-in-cheek name you’d expect from Walt. Did you know that these companies have been immortalized in some of the windows on Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom?

Walt and his team managed to keep it hidden for almost two years but the news was broke in 1965 by a young journalist named Emily Bavar, when she was told by her boss at the Sentinel-Star (later the Orlando Sentinel, shout out to you!) to ask Walt if he was the mystery buyer.  She was later quoted as saying that Walt looked like she had thrown a bucket of water in his face with her questions. Although he tried to evade the question with comments about the lack of local traffic, and the swampiness of the area, it was apparent that he knew far too much about the land for someone who was so adamant that he wasn’t interested in it. So the story broke on October 21st, 1965 under the headline: ‘Is Our “Mystery” Industry Disney?’ with a follow up three days later. The jig was up and the land prices went from $200 an acre to about $80,000. But while Walt might have wanted even more land than he already got, he managed to purchase a total of over 27,000 acres. To reiterate, that’s 47 square miles, the size of San Francisco, twice the size of Manhattan, and larger than the entire country of Monaco! Walt had found his Florida Project.

On March 11, 1966, these landowners, all fully owned subsidiaries of what is now The Walt Disney Company, petitioned the Circuit Court of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which served Orange County, Florida, for the creation of the Reedy Creek Drainage District under Chapter 298 of the Florida Statutes. After a period during which some minor landowners within the boundaries opted out, the Drainage District was incorporated on May 13, 1966, as a public corporation.

However, Walt Disney knew that his plans for the land would be easier to carry out with more independence (he liked to be in control). Among his ideas for his Florida project was his proposed EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which was to be a futuristic planned city (and which was also known as Progress City). He envisioned a real working city with both commercial and residential areas, but one that also continued to showcase and test new ideas and concepts for urban living. Therefore, the Disney Company petitioned the Florida State Legislature for the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which would have almost total autonomy within its borders. Residents of Orange and Osceola Counties did not need to pay any taxes unless they were residents of saud district. Services like land use regulation and planning, building codes, surface water control, drainage, waste treatment, utilities, roads, bridges, fire protection, emergency medical services, and environmental services were overseen by the district, and the only areas where the district had to submit to the county and state would be property taxes and elevator inspections (yes, elevator inspections!) The planned EPCOT city was also emphasized in this lobbying effort.

On May 12, 1967, Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. signed the following statutes to implement Disney’s plans:

  • Chapter 67-764 created the Reedy Creek Improvement District;
  • Chapter 67-1104 established the City of Bay Lake; and
  • Chapter 67-1965 established the City of Reedy Creek (later renamed as the City of Lake Buena Vista around 1970.)

The most amazing and inspiring qualities of Walt Disney to me was his ability to see the ‘long game.’ Walt was not intrigued or even drawn in by the “get rich quick” or hurry up to get it done with the now-known FOMO (fear of missing out) mentality. He was a true imagineer, a creator extradonaire, knowing even in those conceptual stages that this was going to be a theme park that would live on well past himself, growing and re-inventing itself to keep up with the times and bring joy and laughter to generations to come. The challenge was not only to transform this land, but Disney had to do it while balancing the environment and ecosystem of the area. Disney took this massive challenge head-on as they first reserved more than 7 thousand acres of land as a Conservation Area, which would never be touched. Second, their engineering genius developed an automated water level control system to manage the network of more than 55 miles of canals to keep water levels in check which required no monitoring and a very little maintenance. This took insight, foresight, patience and yes, time, as he had to handshake and sometimes stand firm on making sure that red tape was cut and enroads were paved.

Today, we have seen acres of solar power built which now light up and energize not only the parks at Walt Disney World but the resorts as well. Conservation and care of the animals at Animal Kingdom have expanded into conservation efforts and funding of endangered wildlife all around the world. Through those early efforts, Walt Disney was building a foundation of what this “world” would be built on, something not just for his gain in his lifetime, but to make a difference in the lives of those that visit and the entire world as a whole. Just like anything that we do in life, it is worth doing right, it takes time. One of my favorite quotes by Walt Disney is:

“Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see it they will want to come back and see you do it again and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”

Aerial view of WDW property in 1967

Ground broke officially for the Magic Kingdom, the first park to open at Walt Disney World along with two hotels, on May 30, 1967. Much of the first phase was mapping out roads and setting up necessary utilities that would be needed moving into the main construction phase at full speed in 1969. The park officially opened after three years, on October 1, 1971 to over 10,000 guests and 23 attractions. I sometimes wish that I could have been on that plane with Walt Disney as he flew over. Him thinking, the castle “I think I will put Cinderella Castle right there” and me thinking, OMG, this is really happening!!

Through the next few months, leading up to the 50th anniversary, we will highlight just some of the truly groundbreaking achievements and creative genius that went into building “The Vacation Kingdom of the World.” So come along and I would love to hear from you on your experiences in the parks and if you were there on opening day.

Spokesmayne; Orlando Sentinel; Disney Parks Blog; Walt Disney World Archives; D23