The Lost Joe Potter Interviewby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Originally, I used to get confused between Disney Legends Joe Fowler and Joe Potter. Both had served with distinction in the U.S. military, and both were involved with the construction of Walt Disney World.
Finally, I was able to solve the problem by realizing that Potter prepared the land for building and Fowler was the one who supervised the actual building of structures.
Potter oversaw construction of the Walt Disney World Resort's entire infrastructure. He supervised the building and operation of the underground utilities and sewer, power, and water treatment plants that were considered revolutionary at the time. He also developed drainage canals for the entire property, which were known affectionately as “Joe’s ditches,” and kept the water table constant.
“I went out and got three crackerjack college professors to show me how to do it,” Potter joked in an interview a year before his death. “And then I got me another professor to help put the utilities underground.”
William E. “Joe” Potter was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on July 17, 1905. He died on December 5, 1988, in Orlando, Florida, at the age of 83 of heart failure. He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1997.
He was so highly thought of by the Disney Company for his many accomplishments, that one of the ferries that transport Walt Disney World guests across the Seven Seas Lagoon to the Magic Kingdom was christened the General Joe Potter in his honor.
As former president of Walt Disney Attractions Dick Nunis recalled in 1988 to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, “Joe was a man Walt Disney was very fond of. Without Joe Potter there would be no Walt Disney World today."
During World War II, Potter directed logistical planning for the invasion of northern France, a transportation operation nicknamed “Red Ball Express.” After the war, he served in Washington, D.C. as assistant chief of engineers for Civil Works and Special Projects.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Potter to serve as governor of the Panama Canal Zone. Potter was responsible for governing a community of more than 40,000 people, as well as services including education, military, public health, medical care, fire and police protection, and the postal system.
At the end of his tenure as governor, and after 38 years with the United States Army, Potter retired as an Army Major General in 1960. In his long career, he had been decorated with the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, and the Croix de Guerre.
Soon after his “retirement,” he became executive vice president of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and was responsible for handling with construction of the federal and state attractions. These included 26 state pavilions and the $17-million United States pavilion.
During this time, he met Walt Disney (who had supplied attractions for four pavilions at the fair) who immediately realized that this was the man to be the vice president of his mysterious Florida Project and to prepare the land so it was suitable for construction.
“It didn’t take you long to realize that Walt was a beginner of things, not a finisher,” Potter said, meaning that Walt would spark the initial idea but depend on others to make it a reality.
Potter retired from Disney in 1974 as a senior vice president of Walt Disney World, as well as president of the Board of Supervisors of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. He later was president of Potter, Fowler and Associates Management Consultants and served on numerous civic and business boards, including the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.
“Joe Potter was ‘Mr. Disney’ to the natives of Orlando,” said Buell Duncan, president and chairman of Sun Bank N.A., at the time of Potter’s passing. “He was the bridge between the Orlando community and Disney.”
William Dial, former chairman of Sun Bank, met Potter shortly after he was given the assignment in Orlando in the 1960s.
“I guess he single-handedly handled the relationship between the community and Disney,” Dial said. “He heard complaints, and he handled them. He always was conducting tours. He kept the community fully informed when the place was being built. We’ve lost a great guy.”
To many Disney fans, Potter is pretty much a “forgotten hero” so I thought I would share an interview done with Potter to give a better insight into this remarkable man.
In October 1976, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Walt Disney World, Orlando-Land magazine produced a huge issue (Vol. 30, No.12) recounting the story of Walt Disney World, beginning in 1962 up to 1976. Some of the content had appeared previously in the magazine over the years, but was re-edited for this edition. However, the majority of the issue featured new material, including interviews with people like Dick Nunis, Carl Langford (the mayor of Orlando), Donn Tatum and others including Joe Potter.
Orlando-land magazine writer Sam Rosen talked to Potter and even though Disney University later reprinted (with permission) the entire magazine for use at Disney University, this interview has not been seen by anyone for at least more than three decades.
I now share this “lost” interview with MousePlanet readers where among other things we learn how Disney was responsible for U.S. 192 that so many Disney guests use today to get around.
Sam Rosen: When you first arrived here in Orlando or predating your arrival in Orlando, what was your reaction when the news broke that Disney was coming into this market?
Joe Potter: I knew that we were going to have a project in Orlando many months before I joined Disney in September 1965, and the purpose of joining was to have to do with this project. In October 1965, I came here for the first time with Bob Foster and looked over the property.
SR: What was Mr. Foster’s position?
JP: Mr. Foster was a legal vice president in charge of the acquistion of this property. A very important part of the project.
SR: I’d like you to tell me just now he functioned because it certainly was a great coup. They worked out the acquisition of all this land beautifully.
JP: Well, it was, as I’ve described it before, a real ‘Perry Mason.’ Bob always came here through Kansas City where he had family roots. All the mail and memoranda and things that had to do with the acquisition of the property went through Kansas City so there would be no tag ends of knowledge having to do with the fact that some California firm was purchasing this property. He was given the task of assembling, as Walt put it, about 10,000 acres.
The reason for such a large piece of property was that Walt had been sort of inhibited in his ideas of expansion because he only had 300 acres in California and over a 100 of that was parking lot. He wanted a place here big enough for future expansion and buffered from surrounding lands and activities.
Bob found several pieces of property that large that seemed to fit the bill, but it narrowed down to this area and during the course of the acquisition of 10,000, he found another 10 and another five and several odds and ends of pieces ‘til it added up to about 27,000 acres. Those were purchased, also.
SR: Can you tell me what were the basic considerations for this particular location?
JP: Well, a project such as ours is no good unless people can get to it. So one of the basic considerations was accessibility for large numbers of people. Also, Walt did not want to be on the ocean.
JP: Because the beach is a very attractive thing to people. The beach will use people’s time and he did not want to compete with other activities on beaches. He wanted what he was going to do to be the only attraction in an area. Of course, it fit in fine here.
SR: Did you make studies on potential of draw from particular parts of the country?
JP: Many, many studies. They were made by an organization that Walt was instrumental in starting called Economic Research Associates (ERA). The man who formed that organization had worked for Walt before he formed it. His principal function was to do the economic studies, feasibility studies on properties.
SR: What did they tell you?
JP: They told us that this was a fine place to be. Of course, they didn’t have much to say about the exact location. Walt made that decision but they were able to focus in on the routes that visitors to Florida took when they came into the state, where they stopped, how much money they spent and all that sort of thing.
Of course, we were very fortunate with two major highways, I-4 from the southwest and northeast transiting the property and the Florida Turnpike transiting from the northwest to the south east and both of them serving the Tampa area which is highly populated. It just seemed obvious that this was a very good site because of the pattern.
At that time Florida had about 16 million tourists a year. That has risen to 24 or 25 million and the pattern hasn’t changed immensely except more and more people use this as a destination point rather than just a place that they went through on their way to somewhere else.
SR: In your studies, did you take into consideration the climate of this area?
JP: Climate is conquerable through the utilization of air conditioning. As far as rain and thunderstorms and things like that, they must be accepted. A part of the studies was the incidence of rain and when it happened. Of course, people can be protected from rain by overhang in the design, and the availability of large spaces into which they can go like stores and shops.
SR: During the construction and bringing (Walt) Disney World into being, what were your responsibilities?
JP: I had various functions. One was to establish the government, the Reedy Creek Improvement District. A law was passed by the Florida Legislature that set up the government as practically self-sufficient on the Disney property. In that way, we were able to establish our own building department, develop our own building code, establish our own zoning, and do all of those things that are normally done by a county.
You must realize that at the time Orange County did not have the facilities to examine plans for, let’s say, a castle. No complicated buildings had been built in Orange County so the county, of course, was not staffed to examine plans and conduct the inspections requiring all buildings meet the safety and welfare specifications of those buildings.
We were able to staff our building department with very competent people, and when we had plans that were too complicated, we hired outside people with great expertise on a short term basis to examine those buildings structurally. That was one of my jobs.
SR: Did you get good cooperation from the state, county and city governments?
JP: The cooperation of the county government had to do mostly with county type roads and we got quite good cooperation from them. We got extremely good cooperation from the state in putting in the interchanges on I-4 and improving the then State Road 530 from a two-lane minor use road to a six lane major use road. Eventually that was put into the U.S. system and is called U.S. 192. I can’t compliment the state more than by saying that we got 100 percent cooperation from them in every way.
SR: What about the City of Orlando?
JP: The City of Orlando didn’t have much to do because the boundaries of the city are so far away. Our major concern with Orlando had to do with the airport. In all candor, I am hopeful that plans for a new airport at McCoy will do those things that large numbers of tourists coming by air will require in order for them to be happy in coming here via that method of transportation. Of course, roads will still bring in the major number of people but Orlando is not involved in that problem. That’s our problem.
SR: What were some of the problems that you encountered in your preparatory days?
JP: Meeting schedules. The plan for development was very thoughtfully worked out so that the first things were done first and the next things done next. The major problem that we had to do in the district was to construct and install a system of water control. Our system was based primarily on being able to let floods, when they happened or immediately, through a system of automatic gates, which would shut as soon as the flood had passed.
Through the use of these gates, we were able to keep the ground water at a level that it had before so that the root systems of trees would think that things were just as normal as they always had been.
SR: What is your general reaction today to what has been achieved? Have you realized all your goals? Do you see the realization of what you set out to do?
JP: Oh, yes. It’s worked out the way it was supposed to work. When we plan anything at Disney, it’s examined as thoroughly as anything can be examined, to assure that as we build it or when we build it, that we won’t suddenly get a different idea and find that we could have done it better. We spend an enormous amount of time planning things and dissecting them, ‘committeeing’ them down darn near to death and then finally with approval, building them.
SR: Can you tell Orlando-land what has been developed on EPCOT?
JP: You must realize that I’ve been retired about three years from Disney. They have such marvelous younger people that it’s wrong for a person to hang on, so I retired and I’m not up to date on development anymore.