Walt Disney World is huge. Not only in the metaphorical, “dominate the American imagination sense’, but in the literal sense. The Walt Disney Company owns more land in Central Florida than they’ll likely ever be able to develop.
Don’t believe us? Well, in the five decades since WDW opened to the public, the company has built four theme parks, three (one defunct) water parks, the entire Disney Springs complex, nearly 30 resort hotels, and a bevy of backstage infrastructure, over half of the land they own is still undeveloped land and at their disposal.
So, why did Disney buy so much extra land in Florida? To paraphrase, it all started with a man… the man in fact: Walt Disney himself.
To understand why Walt Disney insisted on so much land for the Florida Project that would eventually morph into Walt Disney World, one must understand Disneyland. Walt poured his heart, soul, and pocketbook into building The Happiest Place on Earth, buying as much land in Anaheim as he could afford for the theme park. Famously, Walt couldn’t even afford to build an on-site hotel at the time, instead entrusting businessman Jack Wrather with the rights to build the Disneyland Hotel.
Suffice to say, Walt’s money problems quickly evaporated when Disneyland opened to rave reviews and astonishing success in 1955. The Disneyland hotel, which opened a few months after the park, was also a smash hit, and the Wrather Corporation had a successful partnership with Disney until the 1980s, when “the Mouse” acquired the company to gain control of the Hotel property.
However, while Walt and Jack Wrather enjoyed a warm partnership, the same couldn’t be said for the majority of Disney’s neighbors. After the park’s successful opening, land around Disneyland skyrocketed in value, and was quickly gobbled up by entrepreneurs eager to ride Walt’s coattails. All manner of hotels, motels, and tourist traps sprouted up literally steps from the park, many of which didn’t live up to Disney’s standards. Furthermore, much to Walt’s chagrin, these establishments encroached on the park audibly and even visually at times.
As Disney began planning to open a second theme park in the early 1960s, he searched everywhere from St. Louis to New York to find the perfect site. Given what happened in Anaheim, it’s perhaps unsurprising that buying and controlling a large amount of land was at the top of Disney’s list when searching for sites, and in fact was a deciding factor in ruling out several areas. Of course, in addition to the desire to control the land around his park, Walt also had an ulterior motive for looking for such a large piece of land: his dream of the original version of EPCOT AKA the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
This search eventually led to approximately 25,000 acres of land in Central Florida, near Orlando. According to Disney legend, Walt saw the eventual WDW site from above during a scouting flight, and immediately knew that that’s where what-was-then-called simply Disney World (and EPCOT) needed to be built.
Not wanting to call attention to themselves, and in-turn lead to an Anaheim-esque spike in land value, Disney went about acquiring the land somewhat surreptitiously. The company set up numerous dummy corporations (the pun-names of which are immortalized on several Main Street U.S.A. windows at the Magic Kingdom) to acquire different pieces of land.
Despite Disney’s best efforts, rumors quickly began to spread that all of the land was being purchased by one entity, with speculation ranging from Disney to NASA to the Ford Motor Company. Eventually, Disney was exposed as being behind the land purchases by the Orlando Sentinel in the fall of 1965, forcing Disney to reveal their initial plans for Disney World earlier than Walt had planned.
Roughly a year after the news of Disney World was confirmed, Walt spoke about the land purchase in Florida in relation to some of the issues the company had faced with Disneyland:
“The one thing I learned from Disneyland was to control the environment. Without that we get blamed for the things that someone else does. When they come here they’re coming because of an integrity that we’ve established over the years, and they drive for hundreds of miles and the little hotels on the fringe would jump their rates three times. I’ve seen it happen and I just can’t take it because, I mean, it reflects on us. I just feel a responsibility to the public when I go into this thing that we must control that, and when they come into this so-called world, that we will take the blame for what goes on.”
Furthermore, Walt uttered a famous phrase which is still used by Disney to describe WDW to this very day. “Here in Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland…the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” (1966 Forum Special)
While Walt Disney would pass only months later, and many things about Disney World would change (including the name being changed to “Walt Disney World” in tribute, as well as the abandonment of EPCOT’s original incarnation) the concept of the “Blessing of Size” is still a fundamental part of Walt Disney World.
Do you think Walt Disney was right to push to acquire so much land in Central Florida, or did he go overboard? Let us know in the comments below.