History of the World, Part V

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

Swamps. Lots and lots of swamps. And lots of trees. And a water table just below ground level. And a weed-infested lake. Turn it into the “Vacation Kingdom of the World.” Doesn't sound like an easy task, does it? But that's what the Imagineers faced when they started site preparations to turn Disney's 43 square miles of land in Florida into Walt Disney World.

When we left off last time, Walt had died, but Roy had continued the project, lining up both the Reedy Creek Improvement District-enabling legislation and the financing (through convertible debentures) for the project's construction. Now, let's talk about transforming the inhospitable terrain into the most popular hospitality destination in the world.

Early on, some of the Disney financial staff had pushed to have the Magic Kingdom built near the intersection of I-4 and U.S. 192 in order to make it easy for people to get to the park and to avoid having to drain and fill all of the land to reach the back of the property. Dick Nunis went to Roy O. Disney and told him that Walt's plan was to put the park in the back to draw people into the property, and that preparing the land at the start was essential. Roy backed Walt's plan, deciding to locate the Magic Kingdom where Walt had put it, in the far northeast corner of the property.

First, though, back to the beginning.

Back in October 1965, a month before Walt held the press conference to officially announce the project, planning began on the site. Water control and drainage studies were done. Trees and brush were cleared on 300 acres in the northwest corner of the property. By August 1966, outside engineers had created a detailed water reclamation management plan for the property.

Once the Reedy Creek legislation was passed by the Florida legislature and signed by Governor Kirk, true work finally commenced on May 30, 1967, with actual construction beginning two years later in April 1969.

The work began with the site prep, led by General Joe Potter who—through his experience commanding huge projects for the Army Corps of Engineers—had the necessary expertise to transform the land from wetlands to a verdant resort.

Crews built 47 miles of canals and 22 miles of levees. They installed 24 water control structures—double-ballasted, non-powered flow control gates that could regulate themselves without intervention. They built the canals not in grids, as was customary at the time, but conformed them to the natural landscape to look like rivers and streams, a choice championed by John Hench.

Work also began on Bay Lake. The 406-acre lake was choked with weeds and algae, which were so thick that the water was opaque, even at the surface. An adjacent 185 acres of wetlands were deemed unusable, so they decided to dredge it and create another body of water to extend Bay Lake, creating Seven Seas Lagoon. They built a water bridge to connect the two bodies of water.

The Seven Seas Lagoon dredging provided more than seven million cubic yards of earth, which they used to raise the ground at the theme park site an average of 14 feet. On that site, they built a network of offices, corridors, and utilities, then backfilled with the earth from the lagoon. They would build Magic Kingdom theme park on top of this site. The lagoon, dredged to an average depth of 10 feet, would provide a buffer between the parking area and the theme park, a blessing that had been unavailable at Disneyland because of a lack of land.

Meanwhile, Bay Lake's 3.5 billion gallons of water was completely drained with pumps. A layer of muck eight feet deep was removed from the lake bed, revealing thousands of tons of white sand. The discovery of the sand allowed the construction team to serve two purposes at once. Not only did they clear the bottom of the lake and make it safe for boats and swimmers (for a time), but the sand was removed from the lake bed, cleaned, and used to line the 4.5 miles of beach surrounding the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake. Once the lake bed had been cleared, they refilled the lake with cleaned water and stocked it with 70,000 fingerling bass.

General Potter oversaw the construction of all utilities and public works, including a power plant, sewage treatment plants, maintenance shops, food distribution center, the largest laundry facility in the world, utility infrastructure, and the roadways. Potter was also named president of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which allowed him to create a streamlined submission-and-approval process for all construction designs.

Potter also created a new phone company, Vista-United Telecommunications, to manage the new telephone and data communications infrastructure. Vista-United would be the first phone system to use underground cabling, the first to use fiber optics in a commercial venture, and the first phone company in Florida to implement an Emergency 911 system.

They built roadways to handle traffic around the property. A four-lane highway brought guests from U.S. 192 to the Magic Kingdom toll plaza, and to the resort hotels. Other roadways went to production areas, assembly plants, and other “backstage” facilities.

They also created a tree farm north of the Magic Kingdom area to accommodate the trees being acquired from around the globe, as well as the trees being relocated within the property, before they were replanted elsewhere on the property. Nearly 1,500 trees were relocated on the property, and over 60,000 plants and 800 varieties of trees were acquired, moved, acclimated, and transplanted all over the property by October 1970. By the time the resort opened a year later, the tree farm was moved to the southeast corner of the property to make way for more maintenance facilities behind the park.

While General Joe Potter was overseeing the public works throughout the property, Admiral Joe Fowler was overseeing the private works, such as the hotels and theme parks. We'll start talking about that next time.