How much do we really know about the early days of the Florida Project? We often hear the same few fun facts about buying swamp land under fake names and how a female newpaper reporter outed Walt and his plans to expand to Central Florida. How many of us knew that Walt's "City of the Future" was predicted long before he announced it?
Let's start with Disney's first (serious) search for a "second Disneyland" site back in 1964.
18 months before the official Florida Project announcement (November 15, 1965).
2 years, 8 months before Walt Disney’s death (December 15, 1966).
7 years, 6 months before Walt Disney World Opening Day (October 1, 1971).
Where to build "Eastern Disneyland"?
Real estate agents, hired by Walt Disney Productions (now called The Walt Disney Company) begin their secret search for a second Disneyland site.
This second property is often referred to as “Eastern Disneyland” at this time.
- East of the Mississippi River
- Warm weather
- Easy access from large Midwestern and Eastern cities
Note: The 1964-64 New York World’s Fair, with for Disney-designed attractions, was about to open. Disney attractions were about to be tested on an “East Coast audience”.
Early Fall 1964
Rumors of a "Mystery Industry" have already begun.
The first serious rumors begin to spread around Central Florida about land sales taking place in Osceola County.
Additional rumors begin about the buyer wanting land in Orange County as well.
Disney is already one of the leading suspected buyers, more than a year before the official announcement.
Notes: It is often stated that Emily Bavar, the reporter for The Sentinel Star (now The Orlando Sentinel), was the first to publicly predict Walt Disney Productions as the “Mystery Industry” buying all the land. Bavar’s newspaper articles on the matter weren’t released until October of 1965, many months after the Disney rumor was widely circulated in Florida.
Charlie Wadsworth, the unofficial humorist regarding the “Mystery Industry” summarizes many of the rumors his column called “Hush Puppies”.
Wadsworth lists Disneyland along with Volkswagon, Chrystler, Ford Motor, McDonnell, Hercules Powder Company, Republic Aviation, Lockheed, and others.
Some land conservation advocates begin to fight against the idea of land development for this area, not to protect wildlife as much as to protect deer hunters. It was reported that conservationists claimed that the attorney of new owner of this land would have to notify hundreds of deer hunters that deer hunting would no longer be permitted on this land. The story stated, “This won’t be easy, because some of the people he’ll have to tell are second and third generation hunters here.”
At this point, 47 transactions have been made by Florida Ranch Lands, Inc. on behalf of the unidentified buyer.
According to Florida Ranch Lands, approximately 27,258 acres have be acquired so far at an average price of less than $200 per acre.
Those Fake Names
The land is acquired by Miami interests through three corporations (secretly formed by Disney):
- Bay Lake Properties (Named after the lake east of what would become Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.)
- Ayefour Corp. (Named after nearby Interstate 4 or I-4.)
- Latin American Development and Management Corp
Note: Additional corporations were formed and used at later times (yes, many are listed on an upper story window on Magic Kingdom's Main Street). Most were formed in Florida, at least one in Delaware. In late 1966 these were merged into one corporation called the Compass East Corporation.
Disney is once again mentioned in Wadsworth’s “Hush Puppies”.
Rockefeller and Howard Hughes are now suspected buyers. For a time, the Disney speculation weakens. In Miami, Hughes is considered to be “running well out in front (of all suspected buyers), about 3 to 1.”
The rumors have been spreading to other states by now. A “reliable” source at an air base in Rapid City, South Dakota states, “It is accepted general information here in Rapid City, SD, that Douglas Aircraft is the ‘mystery industry’ moving to Orlando.”
June 25, 1965
Real Estate deals have supposedly concluded.
Two more transactions for sizable pieces of land scheduled to close within hours.
Approximately 30,000 acres have already been purchased.
Paul Helliwell, the attorney out of Miami, representing the mystery buyer, makes it clear that the buyer (Disney) is entering "Phase 2" of the development. This includes planning and engineering as well as determining possible use of the land.
Jock's Happy Corner
The “Jock’s Corner Rumor” adds to the Disney suspicion. Floridians Jock and Fern Lowery owned and operated Jock’s Corner (Or Jock’s Happy Corner?), a small country store near what is now Lake Buena Vista and Downtown Disney. Men associated with the mystery project often stop at Jock’s Corner for a cold beverage. Jock claims, “They would tell me they were from California, but that’s all they would say, and you couldn’t pick up a thing listening to the conversations they made among themselves. I know, because I tried to overhear some of them.”
Side notes (Thanks to Passport to Dreams Old & New): Walt Disney himself visited the store at least once. Jock and Fern’s daughter remembers:
"I came home from school one day, and Momma said, ‘You'll never guess who we waited on today — Walt Disney,'" Wagner said. "We couldn't believe it. We'd see him on TV every week, and Momma was starstruck.”
Jock’s property was never intended to be part of Disney’s Florida Project. The Lowerys did sell their place in 1967 and treated themselves to an early retirement. Their store was purchased by a man named Johnny Speakman who then called the store Johnny’s Corner.
Personal note: I met my wife at the opposite corner of this intersection at a church service held in what was then called the Sheraton Safari Hotel. After Sunday School I introduced myself. An hour later she invited me to her first performance that Wednesday where she was starting her new role as Belle in Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage at Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios). I was a Graphic Designer at Disney at the time.
More land continues to be purchased, despite earlier suspicions that the acquisition had concluded.
June 29, 1965
Wadsworth reports what appears to be another clue supporting the Disney theory. A realtor and banker named S. Merle Heasley received a chart from a Winter Park broker who represents approximately 900 acres near the mystery land. The 900 acres are outlined in yellow. The land already purchased by the mystery buyer is outlined in black. A black arrow points to the blackened area and is marked: “Disney’s property.” The chart was provided to Heasley by John A. Reisinger Jr., a real estate broker who is convinced Disney is the mystery industry.
A "City of the Future" is predicted.
Two days later, a Sentinel article is released describing more of Reisinger’s theory: “Disney might put in a nuclear powered city of the future type of attraction.”
Some believe the mystery industry will be a several companies, not just a single organization.
Manned Orbiting Laboratory rumor gains traction. Could the mystery land be used to build an MOL? It’s proximity to Cape Kennedy makes the rumor sound plausible.
General Electric is now added to the list of rumored land buyers. They are being considered for the MOL project.
"Mr. Disney's Gold Mines"
Bill Clapp, the Florida Power Corp. President meets with Disney's Financial Vice President. Clapp has been trying to convince Disney for years to come to Florida. The financial V.P. insists Disney "has no interest in coming to Florida at this time." He also tells Clapp that "one Disneyland is enough". Clapp is told, "As long as they can make movies like Mary Poppins they're not going to sink any money in Florida or anywhere else." Clapp concludes, "Movies such as Mary Poppins are making Mr. Disney's gold mines glitter these days."
Note: Most Disney employees at the time were unaware of the "Florida Project", including many members of upper management. Disney's Financial Vice President was likely to have been in the loop (not verified), but many other company leaders were making similar denials, believing they were telling the truth.
September 20, 1965
Governor Burns mentions the name “Walt Disney”.
The Florida Governor, who has worked closely with Disney representatives for some time now to make the Florida Project a reality, mentions that he has a meeting scheduled with Walt Disney. While at a news conference in Orlando, the Governor makes it clear that his upcoming meeting with Disney in Tallahassee has nothing to do with the mystery project. He will be meeting with Disney to discuss Florida’s expanding TV and movie industries.
October 13, 1965
"Leisure World" Rumor
The latest strong suspicion floating around Florida claims the mystery development will be one involving a planned community of residential homes. It is suspected (but for only a short time) that the development will be similar to Bob Winn's "Leisure World".
Disneyland Rep Spills Some Beans
An Orlando resident, attending a meeting with "some important people" in Anaheim, strikes up a conversation with a Disneyland representative. Upon learning the man is from Orlando, the Disneyland rep says, "Is that so? We just bought 30,000 acres of land over there."
The "Bavar Revelation"
"Woman journalist", Emily Bavar, meets with Walt Disney in California along with 5 other newspaper reporters to discuss events surrounding Disneyland's 10th Anniversary. After catching Walt off-guard with her sharp questions about the mystery industry in Florida, she wires a story to her employer claiming Walt Disney to be the mystery land buyer. The Sentinel publishes Bavar's story but gives her store no more emphasis than any of the other rumors published thus far.
October 21, 1965
After returning form California, Bavar writes a second, more elaborate article. The Sentinel, feeling they underplayed Bavar's first article, publish both a postscript called "Editors Note" and the second article. The postcript reads:
Emily Bavar, Editor of Florida Magazine (a subset of The Sentinel), just returned from a visit to Disneyland at Anaheim, Calif., near Los Angeles, where she personally interviewed Walt Disney and was his guest along with five other newspaper writers from Birmingham, Montgomery and Ft. Lauderdale, is firmly convinced the so-called ‘mystery industry' to be located on the $5 million 30,000-acre tract between Orlando and Kissimmee, is to be a second Disneyland. Or rather a similar development to the famous Anaheim attraction, but one, perhaps with a new name and entirely new theme.The Sentinel printed such a prediction from her Sunday Morning, wired from Disneyland. But after her return home, and after interviewing her, editors of The Sentinel are convinced that her Sunday story was “underplayed”; that it did not have the importance or impact it should have had and that the new project is really going to be a new type of entertainment built by the world's greatest cartoonist, movie producer, showman and world's fair exhibit maker.After talking to Mrs. Bavar, The Sentinel is convinced the mystery industry's author, architect and builder is Walt Disney and that he will spend upwards of $30 million on it.
(To be continued.)
Source: The majority of this post comes from a rare book, "Florida's Disney World" by Leonard E. Zehnder, published in 1975.