Emily Bavar Spills the Beans

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Emily Bavar Kelly passed away July 2003 at the age of 88. While her name may not be as familiar as animator Ward Kimball or Imagineer John Hench or thousands of others, her story impacted Disney history as significantly as any of the more familiar names.

In fact, as we celebrate the 35th birthday of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, I thought it might be nice if we take a moment to remember her contribution.

As early as 1958, Walt Disney was disappointed that the area outside of Disneyland was littered with cheap, garish shops, hotels and restaurants that capitalized on the success of Disneyland.

Even worse, Walt felt that the surrounding area detracted from the overall guest experience and he sought to find a place with enough land to hold all of his dreams and where he could control the entire experience.

There were many areas Walt looked at for an East Coast location. Some of those areas included Niagara Falls, the Great Smokey Mountains, Washington, D.C. and in Florida itself areas that included Miami, Sarasota, and Ocala. For a variety of reasons, Walt finally settled on land located near Orlando.

Beginning in 1964, Disney through a variety of dummy corporations quietly began buying large tracts of land, sparking speculation about the identity of the mystery buyer. At the time, the average price for an acre of land was roughly $185. Howard Hughes, General Motors, General Electric, U.S. Steel, Boeing, and just about every major corporation was under suspicion as the mystery buyer. There was even a group who believed it was the Mafia buying land in order to hide bodies in the swampland or build a casino.

While this mystery continued to escalate, Disneyland had a major press event.

Instead of one big press event for Disneyland's 10th anniversary in 1965, it was decided to make it Disney's first year-long celebration. Disneyland publicist Charlie Ridgway helped coin the term "Tencennial," which was used on the logo and merchandising. He also coordinated the event.

Groups of about a dozen reporters (since the Disney plane only held 12 passengers) from various regions were flown to Disneyland for the event over the 12-month-long celebration. Starting with the media in New York, reporters were wined and dined, got a tour of the park, and spent some time with Walt Disney.

Eventually, Disney got around to the Florida-Georgia-Alabama region. When several of the larger papers couldn't make the trip, someone suggested including Orlando, a city that Ridgway didn't know. Ridgway did some research and found that local Orlando paper The Sentinel-Star had a respectable circulation, and so they were invited.

They sent Emily Bavar, editor of the newspaper's Sunday Florida Magazine. She arrived in Anaheim with instructions from her bosses to ask Walt Disney if there was any truth to the rumor that he and his company were buying land in Florida. Her first question to Ridgway when she got off the plane was "What's this we hear about Disney buying a lot of land in Florida?"

Ridgway was completely unaware of the Florida Project (or Project X, or Project Winter as it was also known to a very select few Disney executives) and so honestly answered, "Beats me. You'll have to ask Walt tomorrow at lunch."

Walt was not expecting to see a representative from Orlando and was not prepared for the questions. Other Florida reporters on the trip with much less knowledge of the Orlando area ignored the subject as mere speculation and wrote nothing for their papers. (Rumor has it that an Ocala reporter who was also on the trip wired his newspaper a story suggesting Disney was the buyer but that is was somehow misplaced by someone at the paper.)

Emily's first story about Disney being the mystery buyer was wired from Anaheim, California and run in a Sunday edition with no more fanfare or emphasis than any of the dozens of "hot tips" and rumor stories that had previously appeared. It was entitled by the editors, "Disney Hedges Big Question." However, upon her return to Orlando, The Sentinel-Star editors interviewed her and were convinced they had "underplayed" the story and its importance.

Emily quickly wrote another article and this was the famous story that let the mouse out of the bag. In an unusual move, the editors even included a postscript "Editors Note" apologizing for not giving her original story more attention.

I doubt that many Disney fans have read the actual column that exposed the secret, so I am reprinting it here followed by commentary on the aftermath.

Is Our "Mystery" Industry Disney?

Girl Reporter Convinced by Walt Disney

By Emily Bavar Thursday October 21,1965

Orange County's 30,000 acre mystery industry site may turn out to be an aircraft testing ground, an electronics research center or even a washing machine factory.

But I predict nothing so mundane for the mystery site.

I predict it will be an extension of Walt Disney's magic empire of fiction, fantasy and enormous wealth.

In sticking out my neck with such indifference to caution, I'll go even farther and say the ultimate plan for the spread of acreage is something that could be hatched only in the fertile Disney imagination; that it will be worth watching and waiting for.

Before elaborating, let's make it clear I have talked to no one connected with the sale of the property.

I have talked only to Walt Disney who, as I reported Sunday from California, did not say he had bought the property.

But neither did he say he had not bought it.

In his plush, studio offices in Burbank, Walt Disney did not confirm nor deny purchase of the Central Florida land and he adroitly hedged direct questions concerning it.

Whoever bought the land will announce it in time, he observed.

Did Disney know who had bought the land?

Well, you hear a lot of rumors. As a matter of fact, he had heard that he himself had bought it.

When he had had enough of the questioning he courteously explained that announcements of such magnitude must follow established corporate procedure and come from a board of directors.

Disney would not be free to confirm the purchase, he said, even if it were a fact.

And I firmly believe it is a fact.

Land purchases recently recorded in Osceola County reveal that property adjoining and enlarging the Orange County mystery site has been bought by Anaheim, California money.

Anaheim is the site of Disneyland.

Original rumors of the purchase included Disney and then spread to other businesses.

But as Nov. 15 date of announcement of the purchase draws near—when Gov. Burns and officials involved with the sale will be in Orlando to make the joint announcement—I am more and more inclined to return to the early guess that Orange and Osceola Counties are slated to have some kind of a second Disneyland.

I repeat: I have talked to no one involved in the sale.

I have talked only to Mr. Disney. And I sure have talked to him: at a late morning interview in his office, at lunch where I sat at his right and monopolized as much of the conversation as I could: and after lunch in the brilliant California sunshine when Mr. Disney wanted to know how his blue sky compared to ours.

Walt Disney, 63-year-old artistic genius of the Disney empire, may not be an officer of Walt Disney Productions, parent company which produces motion pictures, for theatrical and television distribution and operates Disneyland Park. But he's the brains and the talent behind it even though the business is run by his brother, Roy, president and chairman of the board.

In talking to Disney, it became immediately apparent he had watched the Eastern United States with interest and speculation.

Though he underestimated the population of Florida by several million, Disney was familiar with Florida tourist figures, the activity around Cape Kennedy and the scenic Central Florida area centered by Orlando.

He mentioned Crystal River and expressed a sentimental interest in Daytona Beach where his parents lived early in their marriage.

He offered climate and population reasons why Florida would be unacceptable as a site for an amusement park and then showed how these same reasons could be overcome.

Yet, Walt Disney's plans for expanding his empire would not necessarily stop at another Disneyland.

He indicated as much when I asked him if the New York Fair shows were moving to Disneyland, California.

"Of course," was his quick reply, "There is only one Disneyland." Then almost but not quite as an afterthought he added, "as such."

Walt Disney likes to needle reporters, particularly Florida reporters, with reasons why their state is too hot, too wet, too unpopulous, too remote and otherwise unsatisfactory for a major attraction.

But it is my personal belief that Walt Disney has met and conquered these reasons.

I believe the imagination of the canny artist who rode to fame and fortune on an animated mouse named Mickey is capable of building anything from a park to an entire city in a Central Florida pasture.

Mr. Disney's brand of talent and promotion is not necessarily limited to another Disneyland.

Or, as he put it himself, "as such."

On Sunday, October 24, The Sentinel-Star expanded Bavar's story even more and ran the headline "We Say: 'Mystery' Industry is Disney" and revealed details of the coming project including the fact that Disney was planning on creating two cities. One would be named "Yesterday" and the other "Tomorrow."

General William Potter, who after his work on the New York's World Fair took over the job of handling the Disney Florida project, was staying at the Robert Meyer Motor Inn. When he went down to breakfast Sunday morning, he saw paper's headline and story. He immediately phoned California.

The lawyer in charge of purchasing Florida property under pseudonyms was Robert Price Foster who was in Orlando at that time. When he saw the article, he immediately called Walt, fearing he would be blamed for the leak. Walt reassured him that he himself was to blame and took full responsibility.

The Bavar story was so positive and so convincing that Disney knew they had to take some immediate action to control the story.

After talking with Governor Haydon Burns (who was in bed with a case of pleurisy), Disney chose the following Monday, October 25, in Miami—where Burns was scheduled to speak to the Florida League of Municipalities Convention—to make it official that Walt Disney Productions "will build the greatest attraction yet known in the history of Florida." Burns announced: "Walt Disney has extended to your governor the privilege of making the official announcement that Disney Productions is the mystery industry." The announcement was followed by "wild applause."

The official confirmation to the press came as planned on November 15, 1965 at 2:00 p.m. in the Egyptian Room of the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando, Florida, with Walt Disney, his brother Roy, and Governor Burns. That meeting resulted in confusion, disappointment, and uncertainty in addition to the jubilation of Disney coming to Florida. I will be telling that story soon along with others about the making of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom as part of my celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Magic Kingdom.

In later years, Emily Bavar Kelly remembered that when she questioned Walt Disney in his office about whether his company was buying the land. "He looked like I had thrown a bucket of water in his face. I have never seen anyone look so stunned. He was too surprised, but then he recovered and said 'No.' He was not a good liar."

By the way, the "girl reporter" was 45 years old when she met Walt Disney and filed her story.