In early 1965, cartoonist, filmmaker, and visionary entrepreneur Walt Disney began quietly purchasing large tracts of land in Central Florida.
Inspired by the success of his theme park Disneyland in Anaheim, California, Disney wanted to develop his original idea more fully by creating an expansive vacation destination on America’s east coast. Attracted by Florida’s temperate climate and already established tourist trade, Disney decided to build his new “Magic Kingdom” in the center of the state, near Orlando.
By October 1965, Disney had acquired nearly 43 square miles of Central Florida land. Nearby residents speculated wildly that a huge industrial plant or some secret government installation was being built in their backyard.
The following month, Disney held a press conference in Orlando announcing his plans to develop Walt Disney World. It would be a much larger version of Disneyland, and unlike the California property; Walt Disney World would have room for further expansion.
Also explained were plans for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, a city celebrating world culture where research to benefit humankind would take place.
Disney died in 1966, before seeing his dream for the property realized.
The Disney Corporation continued, opening Walt Disney World in 1971. The project had a profound impact on Florida that continues today. The expansive collection of Disney owned theme parks, attractions, and hotels have made Central Florida one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Long before Disney came to Florida, the state was marketed to tourists as a place where fantasy could become reality. Disney wanted to perfect that idea of creating a new reality for visitors.
“Florida, for a long time has represented this kind of transcendent place,” says Cher Krause Knight, author of the book Power and Paradise in Walt Disney’s World. “In the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, there was a lot of marketing of Florida as a restorative place where you could regain your health, regain your youth. You would live not just a longer life, but a better, happier life by coming here.”
Disney had some personal ties to Florida. His father worked briefly in the state and his parents were married in Kissimmee, just miles from where Walt Disney World would be constructed.
There is an apocryphal story that while Disney’s brother Roy was visiting Cypress Gardens, he was so amazed by Dick Pope’s Florida theme park that he called Walt on the telephone from an office there. Walt Disney was not yet in the theme park business, but Roy reportedly encouraged him to consider it.
“He had been thinking about it, though,” says Knight. “We know that as early as the 1930s he had drawn up some plans and ideas. He wanted to do a small theme park on his (film studio) back lot in Burbank, but he was having difficulty with the city officials there. By the ‘40s and into the early ‘50s, he started to get really interested in other themed environments. There were some places he thought did it all wrong and others that did it closer to right, but he thought that he could perfect it.”
Disneyland was Disney’s first theme park, built in 1955. His park in California was quickly surrounded by urban sprawl, which Disney did not like. To perfect his theme park concept in Florida, Disney made sure that he acquired enough property to insulate his fantasy world.
“If you come to the Florida property, once you enter Disney’s property proper, it’s a bit of time before you actually start hitting any of the attractions or theme parks,” says Knight. “The highways are of different quality in terms of maintenance as soon as you get on the Disney property.”
The Disney Corporation even created its own government in Florida called the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
“It’s really unprecedented,” says Knight. “We don’t really see any other private corporation that’s been able to officially be endowed with those sorts of powers. They have within their rights the ability to build both their own airport, and a nuclear power plant.”
Today, Walt Disney World is the most visited theme park on the planet, bringing more than 50,000 tourists to Central Florida every day.