Below you can find information on topics, mostly focused on a 1965 - 1995 date range, arranged in the following order:
* WDW Planning & Construction
* WDW Transporation
* The Magic Kingdom
* WDW Resort Hotels
* Lake Buena Vista
* EPCOT Center
* Miscellaneous WDW
* WED Enterprises
Note: What follows is a compilation of 30-plus years of writing about WDW, a heinous amalgamation of hard facts, rude opinions and speculatory nonsense pieced together by someone who grew up with (and in) the resort, and who drank when proofreading his own work. It is in no way suitable for reading as a single piece, although you are at liberty to read it any way you like.
THE SUPER EARLY STUFF: 1958-1966
In 1958, once it was clear that Anaheim California's Disneyland (which opened in 1955) was a financial success, Walt Disney hired Harrison "Buzz" Price's Economic Research Associates to begin evaluating locations for another Disney project in the eastern United States. Disney put substantial time and effort into a mid-1960s plan for a park in St. Louis called Riverfront Square, but before and during that time he was looking at Florida as a likely location for his next venture. He commissioned two additional reports in 1959 and another in 1961, the result of which was that Ocala would be the ideal site, with Orlando coming in second. After yet another report in 1963 elevated Orlando to the top of the locations, and immediately following a meeting in St. Louis where Walt was verbally insulted by the head of Anheuser-Busch over Disney's refusal to consider the sale of alcohol at Riverfront Square, Walt flew over Central Florida that November and set the wheels in motion for what would becomes Walt Disney World.
By mid-1964, the exact location and plots of land that Disney would purchase (using fake company names and operatives with CIA backgrounds, chief among them Paul Helliwell) had been decided upon, with the center of the site being about 15 miles southwest of Orlando. Three major parcels for the site were tied down by August and a year later there were less than 300 acres left to secure out of the final count of 27,443. Orlando had been a quiet citrus and cattle town for most of its history, with some tourism activity related to its location through which people headed south toward Miami, southwest toward Cypress Gardens, northwest toward Silver Springs or, at its own doorstep, Gatorland. But now it was ablaze with rumors regarding who was purchasing all that property. The names and theories thrown out for consideration ranged from the Hercules Powder Company, Ford Motor Company and Boeing. Why so much land, and why the secrecy? The guessing game was intense and often zany, with Orlando Sentinel columnist Charlie Wadsworth hot on the trail of any lead or source that might reveal the identity of his "mystery industry." Disney did make the list of potential buyers in the mix, but was not a prime suspect. Not, at least, until Emily Bavar got involved.
On October 17th, 1965, Bavar, an Orlando Sentinel reporter, printed her firm belief that Walt Disney Productions had purchased the land. She and other reporters from across the country had been invited to visit Disneyland on the occasion of that park's tenth anniversary. During a Q&A session with Walt, she asked if he was behind the Florida land purchases. She said he was shocked by the question and that his answer belied a detailed knowledge of the region's details such as annual rainfall and tourist visitation even as he told her Central Florida was not the kind of place he'd want to locate an attraction. Bavar, referring back to Walt's response years later, said "he wasn't a very good liar." Although few took her story seriously at first glance, within a couple days her editors decided to make her educated guess a front page headline. On October 24th, Florida Governor Haydon Burns confirmed in a public announcement that he'd received official word from Walt Disney: his company was in fact the owner of 43 square miles of land near Orlando.
Walt Disney might have chosen Central Florida not entirely as the result of research, but also out of a bit of sentimentality. His parents, Flora and Elias, had been married in Kismet, Florida in 1888. Kismet no longer exists but was located in north Lake County, in the Paisley area. Although their parents moved to Chicago before Walt and his brother Roy were born (respectively in 1901 and 1893), the two visited relatives just north of Orlando periodically... decades before Disneyland itself was even built.
As far as history has recorded, however, the first and only time that Walt Disney actually set foot in the city of Orlando was November 16, 1965, when he, Roy and Burns held a press conference in the Egyptian Room of the Cherry Plaza Hotel on the shores of Lake Eola. While it seems from the standpoint of revelations that Walt and Roy hadn't expected to be attending this type of event at such an early date in the project's lifespan, Walt did make mention of plans to equal or top the amount of investment that he had made in California. But he also stressed that he had too many possible ideas for what might materialize in Florida for him to list off and that it was all preliminary. Between Governor Burns and the reporters, you can see in videos of the event that everyone just wanted to hear Walt say he was going to build another Disneyland (something they could wrap their heads around in terms of scope, size and concept), but Walt didn't cave to the pressure. No concept art was presented at the time and the best verbal indicator for what the thousands of interested parties could hope to see Walt Disney Productions develop in Florida was a unique, family attraction that might include a model community.
Try to imagine being the governor of Florida when all of this was happening and, immediately afterward, when the announcement has passed and Walt has returned to California to begin the long process of assigning form to what he will build in Florida, when all the heated speculation as to the owner of the land has concluded and when your entire state is recovering from the biggest announcement to be made there since the advent of television. And now, time for peaceful reflection? Nope, because now you're being deluged with all sorts of inquiries about every single possible aspect of Disney coming to Florida from every conceivable governmental or business interest from all corners of the state, wanting connections, influence, assurances or special insights when you are in fact in possession of not much more information on Walt Disney's plans than the average reporter was during that press conference. Inquiries ranging from the mundane to the borderline insane. That probably sucked. Anyway, among the images here you'll find some correspondence that speaks to exactly what Governor Burns was contending with during that time period (the one about legalized bullfights is a gem).
Meanwhile, Walt Disney, fresh off A) giving the world a deliberately vague introduction to the biggest and most expensive project his company has ever planned to tackle and B) the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair... for which he had produced four original shows... coming to a close, had a lot on his mind regarding what's next.
Of course there were ideas Walt had for Florida by November 1965 that he just wasn't ready to share with anyone outside his organization. Plenty of concepts that he had overseen for the development of not only Disneyland and the World's Fair, but also Riverboat Square in St. Louis and a proposed Mineral King ski resort in Sequoia Valley, California provided him with more than enough content to build two entire theme parks if he so desired without the need for a single "new" proposal. He had already made mention, however, in the Orlando press conference how his team was incredibly capable of coming up with amazing concepts and executing them quickly (he cited It's A Small World, designed for Pepsi-Cola's and UNICEF's World's Fair presence, as an example of something that went from "gag sessions" to opening for the public in a mere eleven months). Some of the concepts that former Disney animator Marc Davis devised, in his then-recent reassignment to the position of Imagineer with WED Enterprises (Walt's acronymical theme park design firm), for Mineral King and Riverboat Square would find themselves marked for Florida quickly, primarily a musical show with animatronic bears and a Lewis & Clark Expedition boat ride. Walt really liked both concepts, which certainly helped move them forward, and had other Florida-specific entertainment elements in mind. But he was also thinking about something much bigger than a ride or even a theme park. Walt Disney was thinking about a city.
Almost everyone who's familiar with Walt Disney World has heard about EPCOT (in all caps), as opposed to Epcot the modern-day theme park, and that it stood for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, Walt Disney's name for a futuristic city he wanted to build in Florida. But very few people know exactly why Walt Disney spent the last two years of his life increasingly focused on plans for a city, or how he caught that bug so feverishly so late in the game. I don't know either. I THINK I do, though, so this is where I insert my personal theory that the 1964 New York World's Fair caused Walt Disney to take a hard left turn from designing things with city-like aspects to them, or designing things that complemented cities, to actually wanting to build a city. More pointedly, I think when Walt Disney first rode General Motors' Futurama II in 1964, he stepped off the ride a little bit of a changed man. His organization had put together four dynamic presentations for the Fair but had not really tackled the subject of the future there (beyond postscripts), and the future was something of immense interest to him. And here he saw it done by another company in a dramatic style that he himself might have employed: bright, bold, colorful and underscored with a sweeping soundtrack. Even though the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland was about to undergo some major upgrades back in California, none of them were as amazing in scope as that General Motors show. It's weird to me that no one has even suggested this in a book (before I first posted it on Widen Your World in 2014), because if you read Steve Mannheim's Walt Disney and the Quest for Community (2002), which is as detailed a work as you're going to find on Walt's urban intentions, you'll learn that Imagineer Richard Irvine remarked upon the strong impact Walt Disney felt the original (1939) Futurama exhibit had on the public. And here, decades later, Futurama's sequel ends with an extravagantly detailed, animated and fully lit model of a future metropolis, to which the Progress City model that Walt has his team building in 1966 (for the 1967 relocation of the original Carousel of Progress to Disneyland) bears so much resemblance that one could not rationally think of it as coincidental. Especially given that there is no actual record of Walt expressing any desire to build a city, or a neighborhood, or a model of city, prior to the 1964 World's Fair. In fact, the one book on city planning that Walt's colleagues and his daughter Diane said he carried with him was Victor Gruen's The Heart Of Our Cities, which was published in 1964. Imagineer John Hench stated in Mannheim's book that Walt had been following Gruen's work for years, but there's no practical evidence of that sparking any ideas in Walt's mind for a city of his own at some earlier date. I'm always going to believe that the credit for what Walt did next is due to Futurama II, because it is the most conspicuous potential missing link between the well-documented ends of a chain.
It's fundamental to this matter, however, that Walt Disney be given 100% of the credit not just for going beyond plans for a model and launching into the process of actually making such a city come into existence (as far as he could take it personally), but for demonstrating throughout his life the kind of drive, flair and passion for experimentation and risk-taking that is essential to human progress. And it was definitely a risk for him to stake his reputation on something that unprecedented after 40 years of defining and refining family... for him to mark EPCOT as the centerpiece of his entire Florida vision. At the time of its construction, Phase One of Walt Disney World was built around the notion of EPCOT falling into the middle of the works a few years later. Of course, it didn't happen the way the company mapped it out. The dichotomous theme park that appropriated the EPCOT acronym in 1982 shared very few physical or conceptual qualities with the idea after which it was named and whose space on the property map it ended up occupying. And the explanations given for this over the years have been as varied as the range of rough drafts that broke EPCOT down into a bankable enterprise instead of the incredible, far-reaching gamble originally envisioned by the "world's master showman."
Disney had been involved in matters of space planning, crowd flow and infrastructure for decades leading into the 1960s. The Disney Studios, the CarolWood Pacific Railroad, Disneyland and CalArts were some obvious examples where his hand could be seen in the development of real-life environments which would be inhabited, whether for a few hours or a full career, by real-world people. If you look at where Walt's attentions were in terms of his early 1960s project workload, he was literally into a little bit of everything (animated films, bobsled rides, live-action musicals, submarines, treehouses and World's Fair attractions - nearly all of which have become iconic). Even after the World's Fair and the November 1965 Florida press conference, he was involved in the development of many future attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion, as well as films like The Jungle Book and The Happiest Millionaire. His top project, though, was given special attention and treatment. Walt set up a separate team of designers behind a locked door at the studio to work on nothing but the utopian guts of his Florida Project, to plan the conversion of Herb Ryman's painting from canvas to blueprints to steel.
In October 1966 he made a film, also entitled "EPCOT," in which the basic principles and designs of this community were outlined.
Florida's Disney Decade, 1981TV Special produced by Walt Disney World for broadcast in Central Florida
Walt Disney and the Quest for Community by Steve Mannheim, 2002
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