Orlando and Walt Disney's Ancestors

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When people think of Walt Disney World, they immediately think of Orlando, Florida. However, the vacation kingdom is actually located about twenty miles west of downtown Orlando. It straddles both Orange and Osceola counties.

While Walt Disney World recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, it is still a latecomer to Orlando's history that includes some connections to Walt Disney's ancestors. At one point, Orlando was the center of the citrus industry in Florida.

Today, tourists focus on Walt Disney World and other theme parks in the Central Florida area, but the location was always popular for people trying to escape the cold, snowy winters up north and visiting popular roadside attractions. People were riding in glass bottom boats in Silver Springs beginning in 1878. The Bok "Singing Tower" opened in February 1929. Even before Walt Disney World, tourists were enjoying Cypress Gardens, Gatorland, Marineland and many more amusements that had been around for many years.

One of my favorite local PBS television programs is Central Florida Roadtrip, which spends an entertaining half hour each week looking at a particular city or some aspect like the development of the space coast, prominent black athletes who played in the area, haunted Florida or Florida amusement parks of the past (like Six Gun Territory, Paradise Park, Circus World, Splendid China and more). In that same spirit, I thought that today I would take a look at the development of the city of Orlando and the Disney family connection to Central Florida.

A famous photograph of Walt Disney, Roy Disney, Card Walker, and Joe Fowler looking over plans on the site of the future Walt Disney World.

The New World of the Americas was the home of different Native American tribes. The Seminole tribe lived in the Central Florida area.

The Second Seminole War, which spanned the period from 1835 to 1842, began when disagreements arose between the natives and the new American settlers on such issues as land, cattle, and slaves. The undefeated Seminoles eventually accepted a treaty in 1842 that promised them land and peace. One of the fiery Seminole warriors was named Osceola.

In 1838, to protect the local settlers, the U.S. Army built Fort Gatlin southeast of present day downtown Orlando. Many such forts were built in Florida and many cities that grew up around them adopted their names like Ft. Lauderdale and Fort Myers.

Around 1843, a small settlement known as Jernigan had developed northwest of Fort Gatlin along Lake Holden. It was named after the brothers Aaron and Isaac Jernigan who were cattlemen who had come from Georgia and were the first permanent residents of the area. They had acquired the land through the provisions of the Armed Occupation Act of 1842.

Until 1845, Orange County was known as Mosquito County. By May 30, 1850, Jernigan had established a post office, one of the requirements necessary to become an official city.

In 1856, Aaron Jernigan was relieved of his military command by officials "due to notorious acts" and the community decided to change its name to Orlando by 1857, when the post office also officially adopted the name change.

There is mystery and controversy surrounding how the name was chosen, with at least five distinct stories about its origin. One of the most common stories for years was that the name was inspired by an American solider named Orlando Reeves, who was killed while on sentinel duty protecting his fellow soldiers during the Second Seminole War.

A review of military records starting in the 1970s and continuing for a decade turned up no record of Orlando Reeves ever existing. The soldier was also referred to as Orlando Jennings in some accounts but there is no record of his existence either.

Another version had the town being named after Orlando J. Rees, the owner of a sugar mill and plantation north of Orlando in what is now Volusia County. While he never served in the military his nickname was "Colonel," so did someone assume he was a soldier since he may have been killed by the Seminoles with whom he was having trouble?

He carved his name in a tree near what is now Lake Eola. Later settlers assumed the tree was a grave marker. The land around became known as "Orlando's grave" or simply "Orlando" when giving directions.

Yet another variant had a man named Orlando passing through with a herd of oxen to Tampa when he died. His grave was referred to by the locals as "There lies Orlando" when giving directions.

Judge James Speer helped to organize Orange County. In 1856, he was responsible for having the county seat moved from Enterprise to Orlando. The most common version accepted today is that Speer–who loved the works of Shakespeare–chose the name of the hero from the play As You Like It.

A later letter that Speer wrote stated that "Orlando was a veritable Forest of Arden, the locale of As You Like It." The main street through the heart of Orlando is named Rosalind Avenue. Rosalind was the heroine of the play.

Another alternate tale was that Speer named the city after a beloved friend.

Even today, there is still no agreed upon consensus of the actual origin of the name for the city.

A historical postcard shows oranges being picked in a Florida orange grove.

In 1860, Orlando was just another small, sleepy, rural community. Cotton and cattle were the area's primary commodities. With the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, local able-bodied men enlisted in the Confederate Army and slaves ran away, causing the farms to fail.

After the war, the cattle industry was revived with the Orange Blossom Trail used to herd cows to market and later in 1881 to a new train station on Church Street. Cotton was not revived but the fields were used for a new crop of citrus. Orlando became the heart of Florida's citrus industry producing as much as six million boxes of fruit per year.

Because of the cattle industry, Orlando was still very much a Wild West town with gunfights, brawls, and murders commonplace and no one being charged with the crimes.

The Town of Orlando was incorporated in 1875 with 85 residents, 22 of whom were qualified voters. By 1886, the city streets had office buildings, churches, hotels and schools.

In addition, there were some tourists who visited from up north for the nicer weather in the winter time, resulting in Orlando voting to become "dry" in hopes that the lack of alcohol would tame the rowdy cowboys. It didn't. They still found alcohol.

The Great Freeze of 1894-1895 destroyed the citrus crops, forcing smaller growers to sell off their farms to citrus barons, who moved much of the industry further south to places like Lake Wales. Packing plants closed, people lost jobs and more. It would take fifteen years for the city to recover.

In 1902, the city passed its first automobile laws, which included an in-town speed limit of five miles per hour.

Horses and carts parade in Orlando's 1914 Fourth of July parade.

By 1920, the population of Orlando doubled and the town became less rural. The Orlando Public Library opened in 1923 and what is now the Bob Carr Auditorium opened in 1926 as the Municipal Auditorium.

The decade was also known as the Florida Land Boom with out-of-state people snatching up land for the supposed tropical paradise as early as 1911. However, much of that land was overpriced, inaccessible swamp land generating the gag line for comedians: "I've got some swampland in Florida I could sell you".

Hurricanes hit in the late 1920s making it an even less desirable location. In addition, the Great Depression put an end to Florida land speculation.

With the beginning of World War II, Orlando became home to an army base, training facilities, barracks, a military hospital, and airfields.

After World War II, a building boom took place with new suburbs and roadways. In 1956, Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin), built a major aerospace defense plant south of Orlando on Kirkman Road. It became the largest employer in Central Florida.

Ten miles south of Orlando was Pinecastle Air Force Base, which eventually was renamed McCoy Air Force Base in 1958 after Colonel Michael N.W. McCoy.

In 1962, the Orlando Jetport was built on a portion of the air force base. By 1970, four major airlines (Delta, National, Eastern and Southern) used it for scheduled flights.

McCoy Air Force Base officially closed in 1975, but when the location expanded into Orlando International Airport it still retained its former airport code (MCO).

Orlando International Airport is the 13th busiest in the United States and the 29th busiest in the world.

In 1968, the University of Central Florida (then called the Florida Technological University) opened.

A historical postcard of shows oranges being picked in Orlando.

The announcement and later opening of Walt Disney World spurred a construction boom and increased the population significantly as well as bringing major tourism to the area. The city shifted from being dependent on agriculture to focusing on the hospitality industry.

Orlando became one of the world's most popular vacation sites with five of the ten most visited theme parks in the world.

When Walt Disney World was being built, the tallest building in Orlando, Florida was the ten story high Angebilt Hotel. Today, there are buildings as tall as thirty-five stories downtown.

In 1964, a travel writer for Orlando-land magazine, while doing research for possible stories, stumbled into a backwoods hamlet named Paisley on the edge of the Ocala National Forest northwest of DeLand.

While there, he was told an incredible tale that Walt Disney's grandparents had been pioneers in the area and even his parents had lived there. The magazine contacted Walt Disney Productions in Burbank, California to verify the information.

It received back the following reply from Mrs. Madeline Wheeler, Roy O. Disney's secretary for thirty-four years: "His parents did live briefly in that area and his oldest brother, now deceased, may have been born there."

However, that brief response did not even begin to disclose the rich history of the Disney family in Central Florida.

In 1878, Kepple Disney and his family, including his two sons Elias (Walt's father) and Robert, left Canada to seek their fortune in California. When Kepple passed through Kansas, he ended up buying a large parcel of land and set up a farm.

During this time, Elias became very fond of Flora Call, the teenage daughter of a neighbor who lived only two miles from the farm. In 1884, after some very severe winters, the Call family moved to Florida accompanied by Kepple Disney and Elias who both settled in Acron where there were only seven families at the time.

Kepple was not pleased with Florida and almost immediately moved back to Kansas. Elias bought a forty acre farm in Kismet.

Elias eventually sold the farm and tried managing the Halifax Hotel in Daytona Beach, but when attendance dipped after the summer as tourists returned home, he needed to find another source of income. The hotel no longer exists but there is still a Halifax Avenue where the hotel once stood.

Elias worked briefly as a mailman in Kissimmee and finally as an orange grove farmer.

A historical postcard of Lake Eola Park.

Walt Disney's maternal grandparents were Charles and Henrietta Call, who acquired eighty acres for a farm about a mile north of the settlement.

The Call children were Flora Call (Walt Disney's mother); Jessie Call, who married Albert Perkins in 1887; Grace Lila Call, who married William Frary in 1890; Julia Call, who married Lawrence Campbell in 1897; and Charles Jr.

The ladies became active in The Ladies Society of Kismet and the family attended church there. Later, they found that they were actually living closer to Acron.

Flora worked as a teacher in Acron for the first year and in Paisley her second year there. Mr. Call was also a teacher in neighboring Norristown until he died in 1890 after complications from an accident when he was clearing some pine trees.

Walt Disney's parents married in a Lake County ceremony in the Calls' home in Kismet on January 1, 1888. Lake County was formed on May 27, 1887, and issued its first marriage license exactly seven months later for the Disney-Call union.

Elias was twenty-eight years old and Flora nineteen. Their first son, Herbert, was born December 8, 1888.

A frost destroyed Elias' orange crop and he was stricken with malaria, so the Disney family moved back to Chicago in 1889 where Elias found carpentry work building the Columbian Exposition seven days a week at a dollar a day.

Walt Disney's uncle Albert Perkins, who had married his mother's sister Jessie, became the postmaster of Paisley in 1902 and served until 1935. Jessie taught in several Lake County schools and eventually served as principal of Eustis High School. When her husband died, she succeeded him as postmaster and served until 1946.

The story goes that the young Walt and Roy Disney sometimes visited Jessie and Albert in Florida during their summer vacations from school and fished and hunted in the Ocala National Forest. However, neither Walt nor Roy seemed to have discussed any youthful time in Central Florida with their close associates.

Charles was buried in 1890 in Maple Grove Cemetery, located a short distance northeast of Kismet. When his widow, Henrietta, died in 1910, their daughter Jessie had Mr. Call exhumed and buried beside Mrs. Call in Ponceannah Cemetery. They are buried near the back of the cemetery beneath a stone monument that is carved to resemble a tree stump and can still be located today.

The Walt Disney Company felt that this Disney connection was an advantage. If anyone recognized Walt while he was visiting Florida, they could assert that he was just trying to track down his family history as he had done previously in Europe and Ireland.

Of course, Walt didn't use his real name while traveling in Florida. He used the pseudonym "Walt Davis" (and Roy used "Roy Davis") so that his initials remained the same. His niece had married Imagineer Marvin Davis who planned out the layout for Disneyland and later Walt Disney World, so that influenced the choice of the name as well.

The Christmas shop in Liberty Square at Walt Disney World pays tribute to Kepple Disney on a decorated plaque outside the store.