No one had more of an impact upon the State of Florida in the 20th century than the legendary Walt Disney.
Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois to Elias Disney and Flora Call Disney. Walt’s father, Elias Disney, was born in the rural village of Bluevale, Ontario, Canada to Irish-born immigrants Kepple Disney and Mary Richardson. Walt‘s grandparents had emigrated to Canada from Gowran, County Kilkenny in Ireland. Elias Disney married Flora Call on January 1, 1888 in Florida near the site upon which Walt Disney World would eventually be built, and they lived for a short time in Acron, Florida, before moving to Chicago.
Walt Disney first achieved fame and fortune in Hollywood, California as an animator and movie and television director, producer and studio mogul. Walt Disney holds unbeatable records for the number of Academy Award nominations (59) and the number of awarded Oscars (26). After achieving unparalleled success in Hollywood during the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, and with his Disney World theme-park in Anaheim, California, which opened on July 17, 1955, Walt Disney turned his sights on central Florida for the most ambitious undertaking in Florida history.
In 1959, Walt Disney began looking for land for a second theme park to supplement Disneyland. Market surveys had revealed that only 2% of Disneyland’s visitors came from east of the Mississippi River, where 75% of the population of the United States lived. Additionally, Walt Disney disliked the tawdry businesses that had sprung up around Disneyland in California and wanted control of a much larger area of land for his new project. Walt Disney flew over the Orlando, Florida area on November 22, 1963. (He had previously flown over Sanford, Florida and had even approached the Sanford City Council to allow him to build his theme park there, but was denied.) Over Orlando, seeing a well-developed network of roads, including the planned Interstate I-4 and The Florida’s Turnpike, and with McCoy Air Force Base (now Orlando International Airport) to the east, Disney fell in love with the Orlando area. When later asked why he chose Orlando, he said, "The freeway routes… they bisect here." Disney then focused much of his attention for the remainder of his life on the "Florida Project”.
To avoid a burst of land speculation, Disney used various dummy corporations and cooperative individuals to acquire the initial 27,400 acres of land. The first 5-acre lot was bought on October 23, 1964, by the Ayefour Corporation (a pun on Interstate I-4). Other dummy corporations were also used with second or secret meanings, including M.T. Lott Real Estate Investments (empty lot). Some of these amusing corporate names are today memorialized on a window above Main Street, U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom. In May 1965, major land transactions were recorded a few miles southwest of Orlando in Osceola County. Two large tracts totaling $1.5 million were purchased, and smaller tracts of flatlands and cattle pastures were purchased by exotic-sounding companies such as the Latin-American Development and Management Corporation and the Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation. After most of the land had been bought, the truth of the property’s new owner was leaked to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper on October 20, 1965. A press conference soon was organized for November 15th. At the presentation, Walt Disney explained his ambitious plans for the site, including the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT.
Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966, before his vision was realized, but his brother and business partner, Roy O. Disney, postponed his retirement to oversee development of the “Florida Project.” On February 2, 1967, Roy O. Disney held a press conference at the Park Theatres in Winter Park, Florida. The development of EPCOT was emphasized in a film that was played, the last one ever recorded by Walt Disney before his death.
After the film, Roy Disney explained that for Walt Disney World to succeed, a special district would have to be formed: the Reedy Creek Improvement District with two cities inside it, the City of Bay Lake and the City of Reedy Creek (now the City of Lake Buena Vista). In addition to the standard powers of an incorporated city, which include the issuance of tax-free bonds, the District would need to have immunity from any current or future county or state land-use laws. The only areas where the district would submit to county and state regulation would be property taxes and elevator inspections. Legislation forming the massive Reedy Creek Improvement District and the two cities was signed into law on May 12, 1967. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that the District was allowed to issue tax-exempt bonds for public projects within the district despite the sole beneficiary being Walt Disney Productions. The District soon began construction of drainage canals, roads and the Magic Kingdom. In addition, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Polynesian Resort, and Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground were also completed in time for the park’s grand opening on October 1, 1971.
Roy O. Disney dedicated the property and declared that it would thereafter be known as "Walt Disney World" in his brother’s honor. In his own words: "Everyone has heard of Ford cars. But have they all heard of Henry Ford, who started it all? Walt Disney World is in memory of the man who started it all, so people will know his name as long as Walt Disney World is here." After the dedication, Roy Disney asked Walt’s widow, Lillian, what she thought of Walt Disney World. According to biographer Bob Thomas, she responded, "I think Walt would have approved." Roy O. Disney died on December 20, 1971, barely three months after the property opened.
The Walt Disney World Resort is now the largest and most visited recreational resort in the world, covering 40 square miles and containing four theme parks, two water parks, 24 on-site themed hotels, and many other entertainment and recreational venues.