Walt’s Florida Project
Walt envisioned a “world” where guests could completely get away from aspects of the day-to-day grind. The idea was based on the realization that vehicle traffic and other non-Disney realities were still visible from the highest rides within the extremely popular Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
To correct this, Walt secretly purchased large tracts of land in Florida that he could combine to create an all-encompassing resort, which he called “The Florida Project.” Walt Disney World is therefore an oasis from the seediness that is often associated with popular tourist areas.
Construction on the “Florida Project” ultimately began in the 1960s. Initial plans included a futuristic city called the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” or EPCOT, which would have been located close to what eventually became Downtown Disney (now redeveloped into Disney Springs). However, those plans were put on hold, and the first incarnation of Walt Disney World was limited to Magic Kingdom and some hotels.
Sadly, Walt Disney died in 1966, but his dream became reality when Magic Kingdom opened in 1971. In honor of the visionary, Roy Disney named the entire “Florida Project” complex Walt Disney World.
Finding the Right Location for Disney’s New World
The company performed market surveys revealing that only five percent of Disneyland’s visitors came from east of the Mississippi River, where 75% of the United States population was concentrated.
Additionally, because Walt Disney did not control the property surrounding Disneyland, and because he disliked the myriad businesses springing up nearby, he was intent on finding property that would provide him exclusive control of the entire project and surrounding areas.
The new development was to be a private haven where visitors could leave the worries of their day-to-day lives. He wanted them to live – if even just during their vacation – in a dream world that could be completely orchestrated.
Walt scoped out several potential properties in the Sunshine State. He ruled out the coastal cities of Tampa and Miami due to the threat of hurricanes and the damage they cause when they first make landfall.
In November 1963, he explored the center of the state. Disney eventually settled on the Orlando-area after he flew over huge swaths of undeveloped land that had great transportation connections.
Walt ultimately selected a site near Bay Lake in the heart of Central Florida. His decision was partially based on a well-developed transportation network, including a location near the intersection of two major highways. Local governments were in the planning stages of Interstate 4, a major interstate highway, and Florida’s Turnpike (toll road system). The McCoy Air Force Base (which later became Orlando International Airport) was located just east.
While most people consider the city of Orlando the home to Disney World, the resort property is actually located in the municipality of Lake Buena Vista, Florida, about 20 miles away.
Through some creative lobbying, Disney was able to form the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Consolidating the new land he had purchased under the jurisdiction of a formal government – completely governed by Walt Disney World – afforded the company rights of an incorporated Florida city.
Disney announced the plans for his revolutionary concept in the late 1960s. In order to keep land owners from withholding their property or trying to sell for more than the property was worth, he set up several companies and aliases to conduct real estate negotiations in strict privacy. The last thing he wanted was for competitors or land speculators to pick up land that adjoined his property and begin causing the problems he experienced in Anaheim.
Ultimately, Disney was able to assemble a total contiguous property of about 43 square miles (27,000 acres!) to form Walt Disney World – about the size of San Francisco (and about one and a half times the size of Manhattan Island)!