History of the World, Part II

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

When we last left, Walt had realized that he needed a larger canvas on which to paint his next interactive show, and had determined that the East Coast was ripe for his type of entertainment thanks to the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.

So much to do

While working on the World's Fair exhibits, enhancing Disneyland, and working on his movies and TV shows, Walt was still busy trying to create new entertainment elsewhere. On the heels of creating the entertainment programs for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, Walt decided that he wanted to create a ski resort at Mineral King, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Work began on designing a resort with hotels, dining, and entertainment. Marc Davis designed a show for the resort using outrageous bear characters that put on a musical revue. However, environmentalists were very much in opposition to development in the area. Planning for Mineral King was proceeding along well, but before construction was to begin, after Walt's death, a decision was made to include Mineral King in the Sequoia National Park, removing it from the possibility of any commercial development.

Walt also wanted to create a school where people could learn all aspects of showmanship, from art to music to directing and producing. He engineered the merger of the Chouinard School of Art and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to form the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, now commonly referred to as “CalArts.”

Walt consulted experts on the design of the school's curriculum. He and Roy donated 38 acres of the Golden Oak Ranch spread used for film production. He even considered teaching story himself. He wanted an educational environment that would cross-pollinate among all the arts.

“I want them to be capable of doing anything needed to make a film—photograph it, direct it, design it, animate it, record it, whatever… I want to have everyone in that school come out capable of going in and doing a job… I want it so that if an actor is needed, they can get an actor right out of the school. If a musician is needed, thay can go to the music department and find musicians who can compose music.”

He once told Buzz Price, “This is the thing that I'm going to be remembered for.” Walt believed so passionately in the school that he left half of his estate to the school when he passed away.

Where to build?

Walt had people looking all over the eastern half of the country for an ideal site for his next project. He had two studies done in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with St. Louis, Niagara Falls, and several other locations in the running.

There were actually negotiations in progress with St. Louis, until the reigning head of the Busch family told him that he was crazy to build a theme park in St. Louis and not sell beer.

There would be no more consideration of St. Louis.

Walt decided to find a location in Florida. Land was cheap, the weather was always warm, and more and more people were moving to and vacationing in Florida. However, Walt decided that he didn't want to locate his park along the coast for two reasons: He didn't want to have to deal with hurricanes, and he didn't want people coming to his park in bathing suits.

His team—which included his brother Roy, General Joe Potter (whom Walt met during the construction of the New York World's Fair), and several other members of the inner circle of Walt Disney Productions—started looking at available parcels of land in Central Florida. “Project X” was underway.

After considering three possible sites in Florida, a location on the border of Orange and Osceola counties was chosen in 1964. Dummy corporations were set up and Disney agents, led by Robert Foster, secretary and general counsel for Disneyland, began buying land under phony names. Walt had the team work as quickly as possible, for he knew that as soon as word got out about a massive Disney land acquisition, property costs would go up tremendously.

At one meeting, there was a large parcel of land in Orlando available for about $100 per acre. Walt said, “Buy it!” Roy asked, “But Walt, we already own 12,000 acres. Do we have the money?” Walt replied, “Roy, how would you like to own 7,000 acres around Disneyland right now?” to which Roy immediately responded, “Buy it!”

Foster worked as surreptitiously as possible, flying through other cities so that his travel could not be traced directly back to California. He even made highly visible visits to the World's Fair construction site, only to quietly disappear to Florida the next day.

The three earliest acquisitions would be 12,400 acres owned by a group of Orlando home builders, 1,250 acres owned by an Orlando investment group, and 8,500 acres owned by Florida state senator Irlo Bronson.

The first major problem was acquiring the mineral rights for the 12,400-acre property, which Tufts University still owned after the surface rights were purchased by the Orlando home builders. Mineral rights were important since without it, Disney could not dig underground without permission, and Tufts could tear down any structure to get to the minerals.

After the major properties were locked in, they began concentrating on all of the small outparcels. The acquisitions were tracked on a large map back at WED headquarters in Burbank, which Walt would check daily. By the time they were done, Disney owned over 27,000 acres, which came out to about 43 square miles—about twice the size of Manhattan, the same size as San Francisco, and about 150 times larger than Disneyland.

The secret gets out

There was much speculation in the press about this parcel of land that was being put together by an unknown buyer. Among the rumored buyers were Ford, McDonnell-Douglas, Martin-Marietta, Hughes Aircraft, and Boeing, as well as Disney. On October 24, 1965, the Orlando Sentinel correctly guessed the purchaser's identity with a 72-point banner headline that said, “WE SAY OUR 'MYSTERY' INDUSTRY IS DISNEY.”

Once word got out that it was Disney, prices jumped from $183 per acre to around $1,000 per acre overnight. But by then, Walt had purchased all of his land for a total of just over $5 million. There were several small parcels that they were unable to acquire, but there would be no development on any of those parcels for more than 30 years.

In light of the Sentinel article and the jump in prices, and at the urging of Florida Governor Hayden Burns (in the midst of a re-election campaign), Walt finally agreed to announce the project.

Walt, Roy and Governor Burns held a press conference to announce the Disneyworld project on November 15, 1965, at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando. Walt explained that not only would the project include a theme park, but also a city of the future, parks, resort hotels, and golf courses. There would also be thousands of acres of land committed to remaining forever wild.

The project had started, and Walt had much more work to do. Nobody realized, however, how little time Walt had left to do that work.

Next time: “Walt's Plan”