Thinking of walking from the Magic Kingdom to Epcot? Think again!
People, especially those who haven’t been to Walt Disney World in many years, always tell me how huge WDW really is. In reality, most people don’t realize how much land WDW actually covers. In fact, it is about 80 times the size of the entire nation of Monaco, twice the size of Manhattan, and the same size as San Francisco, California! So when you say WDW is huge, you’re not kidding!
The Walt Disney World Resort is made up of 47 square miles of land…or about 30,000 acres. Only about 1100 acres of that land is dedicated to the 4 theme parks. In fact, with only 7,100 developed acres, there is plenty of room for expansion!
But how (and why) did Disney buy all that land?
In the early 1950s, Anaheim, the home of Disneyland, was a sleepy little town, surrounded by nothing but acres and acres of orange groves. Originally, Walt Disney wanted his new 8-acre theme park to be built near his Burbank studios, but he soon realized that such a small space would not be enough. So, he purchased more than 160 acres of orange and walnut groves in Anaheim near the Santa Ana Freeway interchange and Harbor Boulevard, and built his “Magic Kingdom” within its borders (while moving 15 existing homes in the process). Today, Disneyland encompasses less than 300 acres, which includes Disney’s California Adventure and additional hotel properties. Relatively speaking, all of Disneyland could fit inside Epcot.
Unfortunately, Walt Disney didn’t buy enough land around Disneyland, and soon after the park opened it was surrounded by tawdry hotels, tourist gift shops, and restaurants. His dream of a fully contained theme park for families was now tainted with views of billboards and fast food restaurants. Walt promised that if he ever built another theme park, he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. He would be sure that they could control the surroundings, which would include camps and first-class facilities for recreation and lodging.
In the early 1960s, Walt and a team of Imagineers, including his brother Roy and General Joe Potter (can you find his name anywhere in Walt Disney World?) embarked on a top-secret effort, known simply as “Project X” (later known as “Project Florida”) to tour the nation in search of a new location for a second theme park. First of all, they were looking for a lot of land…cheap! Second, they wanted it to be close to a major city, with good weather and excellent roads and infrastructure. Reportedly, when Walt’s plane crossed the intersection of I-4 and Route 192 in Florida, he knew that he had found his location.
But how is Walt Disney going to buy thousands of acres of land without landlords holding out for exorbitant prices? the not Something like. Walt Disney created dozens of “shell” corporations, with names like “MT Lott” (get it? Empty lot?), the “Latin American Development and Managers Corporation” and the “Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation” to buy up apparently worthless. of land ranging from swamps to cattle pastures. By May 1965, significant land purchases had been recorded in Osceola and Orange counties (just southwest of Orlando), though no one realized (or suspected at first) that Disney had anything to do with it. One of the first purchases included 8,500 acres owned by Florida State Senator Irlo Bronson.
In late June of that same year, the Orlando Sentinel reported in an article that more than 27,000 acres had recently changed hands. Speculation began that big corporations like Ford, McDonnell-Douglas, Hughes Aircraft, and Boeing (since the Kennedy Space Center was located nearby), like, yes, even Walt Disney. However, in October, Orlando Sentinel reporter Emily Bavar, confirming her suspicions after several negative responses from Disney employees, broke the story that it was Walt Disney who had secretly been behind the purchases of all these lands. . Of course, once it was revealed that Disney was behind the purchases, land prices went up over 1000%! That is part of the reason why Walt bought his first acre of land in Florida for Walt Disney World for $80.00 and his last for $80,000.00!
Disney quickly scheduled a press conference and confirmed the story. With the Governor of the State of Florida and his brother Roy by his side, Walt described the $1 billion project that would become Walt Disney World. In exchange for providing such a boost to the area’s economy, the creation of thousands of jobs, and improvements to Central Florida’s environment and infrastructure, Disney received permission to establish its own charter government, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. This quasi-government gave Disney the ability to create its own building codes, do its own zoning and road and bridge planning, and create its own residential community, among other advantages.
When Walt Disney purchased the 47 square miles that would become the Walt Disney World Resort as we know it today, it was nothing more than desolate swamp, scrub forest, and groves. To transform this area into the number one vacation destination in the world, large amounts of Earth had to be moved. Also, since much of central Florida is essentially “floating” on a body of water, an overwhelming challenge presented itself. Disney had to transform this land, while balancing the needs of the environment and the ecology of the area. If any part of the water supply were damaged or removed, it would have caused a massive ecological imbalance in the region.
The first thing Disney did was set aside a 7,500-acre Conservation Area in 1970, which would never be built on. This would preserve the cypress trees and provide land for the natural inhabitants of the area. Second, they developed an engineering marvel by creating a system of more than 55 miles of canals and levees to control water levels. Disney Imagineer John Hench designed this network of canals to blend in with the natural landscape, rather than being built in straight lines. The mechanism that controls the water levels is fully automated and does not require monitoring and requires little maintenance. Quite impressive, considering the property is about twice the size of Manhattan!
Currently, the two municipalities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista are home to Walt Disney World. These two towns are run by Disney employees who live on the property in a small group of “backstage” houses. Although the permanent residential population of these cities is very small (population 20 in 2003), it is home to millions of families who, for a brief period, call Bay Lake “home”.
Over the years, Disney purchased an additional 3,000 acres, bringing the total size of Walt Disney World Resort to more than 30,000 acres. Less than a year after the formal public announcement that it was, in fact, the Disney Company that had purchased all of that land near the intersections of major highways US 192 and Interstate 4, he declared, “Here in Florida, we have something special. I never enjoyed at Disneyland… the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to house every idea and plan we can imagine.” With only about 1/4 of the entire property developed, it seems he was right.