F is for The Florida Project
Blogging Through the Alphabet
Last week we learned a bit about Walt Disney’s dream of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). This week we learn about another, related dream, the Florida Project.
I remember my dad talking about the new park Walt Disney was planning to build on “our side of the country”. We were living in Toronto, Canada at the time and a drive to California was a huge undertaking. We already spent every January in Florida so adding a Disney park to our vacation was a natural fit.
Our First Visit
It would have been sometime in 1970 that Dad took us to visit the welcome center for Walt’s new land. There was a presentation and a gift shop I remember as well as some topiaries outside (my mom loved those). You can learn more about it and see a video on my post, Looking Forward to a Sparkling Vacation, from a few years ago. I got a jigsaw puzzle of Disneyland that day and dreamed of visiting what would be the new Magic Kingdom.
But this is a more recent history of Disney’s Florida Project. Plans for this park began way back in 1959. In fact, I think Walt began planning his World even as he was opening Disneyland.
“When we opened, if we could have bought more land we’d have bought it. Then we’d have had control and it wouldn’t look too much like a second-rate Las Vegas around here.”Walt Disney
Walt was right of course. In setting his sights high for the acquisition of land for his new project in Florida, he ensured space around the park to create a buffer between the tacky tourist shops that pop up around popular locations like Niagara Falls, the Las Vegas Strip, and Walt’s own Disneyland.
History, Google, and the Internet
I have always loved history and what could be more fun than looking at the history of places like Walt Disney World. I remember a lot from my dad’s stories (he had some friends working on the project and would hear things from them about how it was progressing) and from newspaper stories of the time. These days it is so much easier to find whatever information you are after with Google and the Internet I find I can spend an entire afternoon following one trail to another of interesting tidbits. I also follow some of the Disney bloggers and podcasts.
One of my favorites is WDW Radio hosted by Disney expert Lou Mongello. We were listening to one of his podcasts on our drive to WDW this summer where he was joined by Jim Korkis who spoke about his new book,‘The Unofficial Walt Disney World 1971 Companion: Stories of How the World Began’. Jim worked at Walt Disney World for about 15 years and has put together a terrific history of how Florida was chosen.
Listening to these two fellows chat brought memories back of family visits to the water ski shows at Cypress Gardens and visiting Flipper (the famous dolphin) at the Miami Seaquarium. On top of that were the roadside stands where you could purchase oranges and orange trees plus tiny alligators to take home. (I hadn’t realized that Legoland is on the old Cypress Gardens site, it might be fun to stop in and see what the remaining gardens are like.)
So Walt decided on Florida by 1958 and knew he had to keep his identity secret so the prices wouldn’t go crazy as he made his purchases. The cover story in case he was found out was that his parents had been married in Kismet, Florida and had run an orange grove there before the family moved back to Chicago. He and Roy would simply say they were visiting family. (There are some neat stories of him almost blowing his cover when told he looked a lot like Walt Disney!)
By 1965 it was a great mystery of who was buying up all the acres of land. Some people thought it was NASA or Howard Hughes. This was around the same time that Disneyland was preparing for its 10th-anniversary celebration. As she was referred to in an Orlando Sentinel headline, girl reporter Emily Bavar was invited to cover the story but what she really wanted to know was whether Walt Disney was the secret behind these land purchases.
Apparently she asked about Florida and whether the Disney’s were purchasing the land at a press conference and was advised to ask him directly. She had the opportunity to meet and ask him some questions in his office and took it. Well, that let the cat out of the bag for sure. She said Mr. Disney was a terrible liar.
The Big Announcement
It wasn’t long after Miss Bavar asked Mr. Disney her question that news came out officially about the project. In November 1965 Walt and his brother Roy appeared at a press conference with Florida Governor Haydon Burns to formally announce the building of Walt Disney World.
Now things really began to move ahead. No longer was it a cloak and dagger operation of hiding behind a collection of businesses. No, finally Walt could move ahead with his plans. While the Governor hoped the new park would open in a year’s time, even the optimistic Walt himself knew it would take much longer than that to beat this area of swampland, alligators, and bugs into the dream vacation spot of his visions.
A Sad Time
Walt was nearing the end of his life just as his World was coming to fruition. His brother Roy recounted how even in his hospital bed he would talk about this or that in the project as though he had the blueprints spread out above him. Sadly, he lost his battle with lung cancer in December 1966, almost five full years before the Magic Kingdom gates opened to welcome its first guests.
Following his brother’s passing, Walt’s brother Roy took over the project. He decided that opening the theme park first was the best plan so they could get some cash flowing to help the rest of the project. One of the first things he did once in charge was to change the name to Walt Disney World so people would remember it had come from his brother.
We are going to finish this park [in Florida], and we’re going to do it just the way Walt wanted it.Roy Disney
Over the years I can remember hearing stories about Roy pushing against Walt’s ideas. He was the practical one, the dollars and cents man. But when it came right down to it, he was the one who made sure his brother’s dream became a reality.
The following video was broadcast as part of The Wonderful World of Disney (our family always watched on Sunday nights). It showed families what they could expect when the park opened and (I know for our family) got us excited about just how soon we would be able to go for a visit.
So there you have it. A little bit of the history of “The Florida Project”. There is so much more to read and hear about the development of Walt Disney World and all of its parks. I hope you will take the time to visit the links I’ve included.
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