Building the most magical place on earth was no fairy tale. Learn the story behind the creation of Walt Disney World. In 1964, when Walt Disney and his brother Roy decided to build a second theme park in the Florida swamplands, they kept it super hush-hush. Why? Well, if word got out that they planned to buy up lots of land, the price would have skyrocketed. So the Disneys cleverly covered up their trail, avoiding the Orlando airport and even using made-up names, like Walt and Roy Davis, for their flights. The deception worked. In covering the history of the "Most Magical Place On Earth," Joan Holub takes readers both behind the scenes and underneath the park (there are secret employee-only tunnels that form one big circle under the Magic Kingdom). Loaded with fun facts, this book is a great companion to Who Was Walt Disney?
Joan Holub is the author of several Who HQ books, including What Was the First Thanksgiving?, What Was the Gold Rush?, Who Was Marco Polo?, and Who Was Babe Ruth?
Where Is Walt Disney World?
It was 1964, and someone was buying land in Central Florida—a lot of land, for cheap. Much of it was cow pastures or swamps. Land like this was nothing special and only cost about $180 an acre. Who would want so much of it? Maybe a big business was coming to Florida and bringing jobs. Rumors flew. Would it be Ford? General Electric? NASA?
On October 24, 1965, a local newspaper called the Orlando Sentinel solved the mystery. It blasted this headline: “We Say: ‘Mystery’ Industry Is Disney.” This was great news. Everyone knew about the famous Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, on the West Coast of the United States. Walt Disney must be planning to build an East Coast Disneyland, too!
This turned out to be true, sort of. In fact, Walt Disney and his brother Roy had decided to build a bigger version of Disneyland in Florida. There would be lots of changes. The official name would end up as Walt Disney World® Resort, commonly called Disney World for short.
Back in November of 1963, Walt had chosen Central Florida for the new theme park. The area had sunny weather, with average temperatures in the 60s in winter and 80s in summer. It was near the crossing of Interstate 4 and Florida’s Turnpike, and there was a regional airport about a half hour away. Getting to Disney World would be an easy trip by car or airplane.
However, if anyone had guessed what Walt was up to, land prices would have soared sky-high. Many people knew what Walt looked like from the TV show he hosted on ABC. So he and Roy, who were business partners, had to be clever. They didn’t personally contact landowners and ask to buy their property. They had other people do that. Besides the Disney brothers, only five others were let in on the plan, which they called “Project X” or the “Florida Project.”
Using made-up company names like Tomahawk Properties, they quietly began buying land. If Walt or Roy went to Florida during this time, they used fake names like Walt and Roy Davis. These initials (W. D. and R. D.) matched the ones that were monogrammed on their suitcases.
Such tricks worked—for a while. That was lucky, because after the news got out that Disney was the buyer, land prices in the area shot up to $1,000 an acre. In all, the company had bought about 27,440 acres (forty-three square miles) in Florida by then. That’s almost twice the size of Manhattan in New York City!
There was no doubt about it. Walt Disney was thinking big!
Chapter 1: Walt Disney
Walter Elias Disney was born more than one hundred years ago on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up on a farm near Marceline, Missouri, with three older brothers and a younger sister.
Walt was a boy with imagination and talent. He would gaze up at the clouds and imagine them slowly changing from one animal shape into another. Once, he got in trouble for painting pictures all over the outside of the family’s white house with black tar.
In Marceline, most people figured he would become an artist because he drew all the time.
He and his brother Roy, who was eight years older than Walt, were good friends. Their family didn’t have much money, and their father was strict. Roy was almost like a second dad to Walt sometimes, making sure he got a toy or some candy on his birthday.
Growing up on a farm, the brothers learned the importance of hard work, and they never forgot it. Walt fell in love with trains when he got a summer job selling snacks and newspapers to passengers.
Much later on, Walt even built a small train in his backyard for his family. All his life, he remained a kid at heart.
As a boy, Walt was always drawing—even in the margins of his schoolbooks to turn them into flip-books. In high school, he took art classes at night. During World War I, Walt drove a Red Cross ambulance he decorated with cartoons.
He dreamed of making films and doing new things with animation. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood, where he and Roy began the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. Today, the official Disney Fan Club is called D23. D for Disney and 23 for 1923, because that year was an important turning point.
Walt Disney won many honors, including thirty-two Academy Awards, the most ever in history. One of his honorary awards was in 1932 for the creation of Mickey Mouse! Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the very first full-length animated musical film. It was a huge success. The golden award Walt received for the film included seven little statuettes to represent the dwarfs.
Over the next five years, Disney created more classic full-length animated films, including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Of course, he would go on to do much more.
Walt married Lillian Bounds, an animator working for his company, in 1925. He liked to take their two daughters, Diane and Sharon, to ride a merry-go-round in Griffith Park near the famous Hollywood sign. As he waited for them on a nearby bench, he wished there was a place that had entertaining activities for both the young and the young-at-heart. This wish would eventually spark the idea of creating a theme park.
Amusement parks had been around for a long time. Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, opened in 1843, with fabulous gardens and two amazing mechanical attractions—a roller coaster and a carousel. Luna Park (1903) and Dreamland (1904) opened at Coney Island, New York, when Walt was a little boy. Their attractions introduced visitors to foreign or imaginary lands. You could ride an elephant from India or blast off on a pretend trip to the moon, or go on a gondola ride called Canals of Venice.
But no one had ever built a theme park that was all about cartoon and fairy-tale characters, until Walt.