Walt Disney World is the most visited vacation resort in the world, but it might not have been that way if Walt Disney hadn’t kept the development a secret in the 1960s. The media and the people of Central Florida had no idea at the time why someone was buying up so much land. Here’s the story of how Walt Disney did it.
Disneyland in Anaheim, California, opened in 1955, and by 1959, Walt Disney Productions began to search for land for a second resort. A low percentage of visitors to the park were from east of the Mississippi, an area where 75% of the population in the United States lived. Disney wanted a park that was close to this population, and he also wanted to have control over a larger land area than he did with Disneyland.
In November 1963, Walt Disney flew over a site in Orlando, Florida, that looked promising as a spot for the new park. It was a centrally located site and had a good network of roads surrounding it. The area also had McCoy Air Force Base, a joint civil-military facility. What possibly solidified the choice for the site was the planned construction of Interstate 4 and its intersection with the Florida Turnpike.
The area was selected as the site for the new park, but what the site didn’t have was any land where it could be constructed. An announcement that Disney would be building a second resort in Central Florida would have caused land prices to skyrocket as land speculators would have swooped in to get in on the action. To ensure this didn’t happen, Walt Disney Productions used dummy corporations to buy up land.
The attorney for Walt Disney Productions, Paul Helliwell, approached Billy Dial, the president of First National Bank of Orlando, to assist him with negotiations with landowners. He also told Dial that he was representing a client who wanted to make a significant investment in the area. Helliwell insisted that the identity of the buyer would have to remain secret until all the land purchases had been made.
Helliwell next set up fake companies such as the “Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation” and the “Latin-American Development and Management Corporation” to be the buyers of the land, and he used a Miami real estate agent named Roy Hawkins to make offers on different tracts of land in the area. Hawkins, in turn, used a real estate company called Florida Ranch Lands Inc. for the purchases.
The plan by Disney was to buy up larger tracts of land first followed by smaller tracts, all without anyone knowing who the company was behind the purchases. Hawkins got in touch with a realty firm in Orlando and expressed an interest in two large tracts of land. The realtors of the firm were sworn to secrecy about who was interested in the land, and they had no idea Walt Disney was indeed their client.
Real estate agents began making offers to landowners in 1964 for different tracts of land in Orange and Osceola counties and were able to negotiate contracts for as little as $107 an acre in some cases. Many landowners were out of state, and some had never even seen the land they owned since it had been acquired through inheritances. Many of the sellers were eager to unload their properties because much of the area was thought of as just swampland. It took six months for Disney to close on the first purchase of land, but they had their start on what would become Walt Disney World.
Many more tracts of land had to be bought, however, without the secret getting out. One way the Disney Company was able to do this was by delaying the recording of first deeds on the properties until they had gotten more land under contract. They believed that once the deeds became public record, everyone would’ve known who was buying the land. The company even made the purchases in cash so there would be no paper trail.
A problem arose for the secret as the acquisition of land began, however. A rumor started to swirl in California that the next site for a park was going to be in Orlando. Helliwell went to Dial to tell him about it, and the pair went to see the man who could have potentially broken the news to the area, the publisher of the Orlando Sentinel, Martin Andersen.
This was where things got a little sketchy. Some say Andersen knew about Disney’s plan long ahead of the meeting and kept it out of the paper, while others say he kept it a secret after meeting with Helliwell to protect the economic bonanza that would come to Orlando. Andersen later said he didn’t know who was buying the land and that he had dismissed the meeting with Helliwell as basically nothing. Either way, the secret remained intact for a short time more.
The first purchase of land was recorded on May 3, 1965, for 8,380 acres of swamp purchased from Florida State Senator Irlo Bronson in a deal made seven months earlier. An article ran in the Orlando Sentinel the next day, but it only speculated on what the property was going to be used for and who might have bought it. Much of the speculation had to do with the location being used for the space program. Later in May, the paper ran another story addressing the Disney rumor directly but dismissed it when Walt Disney denied he was interested in having a park on the East Coast.
After the first purchase was recorded, Florida Ranch Lands, the real estate company Hawkins had been using to make purchases, completed deals with 47 other landowners. In all, the company purchased 27,400 acres for more than $5 million from 51 landowners. The average price of the land after the deals were finished was $182 an acre. But the secret wasn’t going to remain a secret for long.
Disney wanted to make an announcement on November 15, 1965, that he was the owner of the land and that he planned to open Walt Disney World, but a story in the Orlando Sentinel’s Florida magazine on October 21, 1965, pushed up the announcement. The editor of the magazine, Emily Bavar, ran a story that predicted Disney owned the land, and it was going to be the site for a new park.
On October 24th, the magazine went further and ran a story declaring that the industry buying the land had been Disney. The secret was out, and the next day it was announced by Governor Haydon Burns that Disney was building a park. Walt Disney met with Burns on November 15 to make a formal announcement about the new park, which he said would cost around $100 million to build.
Walt Disney died a little over a year later, and the building of the park fell to his brother, Roy. Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971, at a cost of $400 million. It started with the Magic Kingdom and has grown into multiple attractions over the years. The total investment now stands at approximately $3.5 billion.
And what about those land prices Disney was worried about in the first place, and why there had been so much secrecy? Following the announcement about the building of the park, land prices skyrocketed in Orlando, where in some cases the land went up to $80,000 an acre. At that price, it would have cost Disney almost $2.2 billion just to buy the land for his new park.