It all started with a Mouse…and an Improvement District.
When it is clear out you can see fantasyland on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover, the view below should be pretty familiar. A slow-moving respite from the heat or the manic energy of the younger members of your group. Despite its promised reputation as futuristic and modern, the Tomorrowland section is beginning to look highly retro. Soon the towering dark cover of Space Mountain consumes the tram and you enter the darkness, the power section of the famed ride. It’s the oddest sensation of the Magic Kingdom experience, sounds of rushing roller coaster carts and screaming voices can be heard in the echoing distance, while you still remain in a largely muted setting. Away from the noise and buzz of the park down below, you can hear the beating of your own heart as the darkness only grows past the inner working of the famed ride.
Then you see it, the main reason for Disney coming to Florida, the whole purpose of this vast amusement park, and the last ambitious goal of Walt Disney’s life. A dream that would drive the entertainment empire into pushing Florida’s legislative branch to the very limits of its powers. Gifting the Disney brand an unprecedented level of control over nearly forty square miles of central Florida. The glittering model of Progress City comes into view of the tram, this model along with a brief documentary hosted by Disney himself, is all that remains of the great creator’s dream of a “Community of Tomorrow.”
The model, which is described in the attraction as: “Walt Disney’s dream for an experimental prototype community of tomorrow,” is actually an important piece of Disney history. It originated at Disneyland park and was previously a piece of that park’s Carousel of Progress from 1967-1973. In that version of the attraction, the final holiday gathering scene offered a glimpse of Progress City off in the distance through the windows behind the Audio-Animatronics figures. Afterward, guests would head up to the carousel’s second floor, where they could explore an entire 6,900-square-foot model of the city. The Progress City you see on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover route is a portion of that model.
Once exiting the people mover, many visitors can be forgiven for not fully grasping the significance of the handsome model they had just seen. But, make no mistake, this model and the concept it represents is what led to the creation of an improvement district, one that has finally resulted due to the efforts of our Republican Governor and legislature into one of the biggest political bombs now facing the sunshine state.
It is impossible to overstate how much excitement and enthusiasm the average Floridian displayed by the news in the early 1960s that Disney was coming to Florida. Everyone in state government worked tirelessly to make the development take place and elected officials were tripping over themselves trying to gain access to the famed entertainment icon and his Hollywood associations. Governor Hayden Burns, elected in 1964 to an abbreviated two-year term spent most of his time in the office working towards three main goals. Building new costly and unnecessary roads, which the young lions of the legislature like Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles killed, running for re-election on the success of the roads, he lost the primary; and bringing Disney into town. While he failed miserably with the first two objectives, there was no way anyone was willing to prevent a Florida-based theme park.
After the success of Disneyland in California, Walt Disney began planning a second park on the East Coast in 1959. He disliked the small independent businesses that had sprung up around Disneyland and wanted control of a much larger area of land for the new project. While brainstorming the idea of a Disney World, Walt stated that the major difference between the two parks was going to be “a blessing of size.” The ambitious resort would all have to be self-contained, with natural barriers that would make it difficult to enter without paying or developing nearby. It didn’t take long for the Disney team to zero in on the sunshine state. Walt flew over the Orlando-area site, and many other potential sites, in November 1963. Seeing the well-developed network of roads, including the planned Interstate 4 and Florida’s Turnpike, with McCoy Air Force Base (later Orlando International Airport) to the east, he selected a centrally located site near Bay Lake.
The Disney Empire had been stretched thin by the early 1960s and did not want to pay for the Florida real estate under the same conditions as they were done in California which is massive price increases by developers the moment the first Disney purchase was made. He used multiple shell companies to buy up land, at very low prices, that eventually turned into 43 square miles twice the size of Manhattan, which would eventually become the Reedy Creek improvement district. These company names are listed on the upper story windows of what is now the Main Street USA section of Walt Disney World, including Compass East Corporation; Latin-American Development and Management Corporation; Ayefour Corporation (named for nearby I-4); Tomahawk Properties, Incorporated; Reedy Creek Ranch, Incorporated; and Bay Lake Properties, Incorporated.
At a massive public rollout attended by Governor Burns, Roy, and Walt Disney, along with a ten-minute promotional video including animation from Snow White, the new Disney Park was announced. Quickly questions were raised about the logistics involved with such a massive theme park. How would Disney get the funding for the land purchases necessary? Would Disney or the State Government maintain the general roads and utilities that bordered the proposed site? It didn’t take long for the general public to realize that their questions had already been announced years ago, that the planning stage of the resort was long over, and that public input was not desired.
On March 11, 1966, these landowners, all fully owned subsidiaries of what is now The Walt Disney Company, petitioned the Circuit Court of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which served Orange County, Florida, for the creation of the Reedy Creek Drainage District under Chapter 298 of the Florida Statutes. After a period during which some minor landowners within the boundaries opted out, the Drainage District was incorporated on May 13, 1966, as a public corporation. Among the powers of a Drainage District was the power to condemn and acquire property outside its boundaries “for the public use”. It used this power at least once to obtain land for Canal C-1 (Bonnet Creek) through land that is now being developed as the Bonnet Creek Resort, a non-Disney resort.
Now with the land secured and enough financing to ensure that Walt Disney World would open entirely debt-free Roy Disney and the company‘s general counsel Dick Morris began work on the next phase of the Florida Project. A full-on charm offensive on the Florida legislature. The companies’ appetite for expansion had grown with the eating and it was an absolute necessity. It would be an arduous task to get approval from a majority of the Florida house and senate for what they were planning. But there was nothing else they could do, the sheer size of functions that would have to be operated on daily at the parks required a separate electrical and sewage system from that of Orange County. The sheer volume of water distribution providing electrical power to all the different main streets, rides, amusement parks, and hotels would have stressed any of the existing authorities.
Despite Walt’s early reluctance towards undertaking such a project, Bob Foster the person responsible for all the land purchases on the project profoundly disagreed
“Without a municipality, Walt Disney World could never have been built. We would’ve had multi-layers of governmental influence building permits and inspections zoning matters both local and state.”
In short, it would’ve been a costly logistical nightmare. So the task at hand, convince the state government to relinquish almost all governing power of a sizable portion of Central Florida in exchange for all the new revenue Disney World would bring them. In 1967 after careful study and planning Foster presented Roy Disney with a memorandum for the Ready Creek Improvement District.
Every stone was checked it was an ineffective plan to circumvent governmental interference during the entire construction process and then they continue operating of the park. “Are we asking too much of them?” said Roy during the meeting he wanted to make sure that they were asking above and beyond what private companies usually obtain from state governments when they come to the state
To relieve Roy of his Midwestern guilt the company conducted a commissioned Survey of all the southeastern states and their policies of governmental incentives for industrial development. The inevitable conclusion was that the state of Florida would be conceding in the short term a bit of power and the massive legislation now approaching almost 500 pages when it would be presented to the lawmakers would require a bit of innovative critical thinking on their part to swallow some of the things Walt Disney World was asking for. However, the state could then expect a true financial windfall unprecedented in the state or the region’s history.
Yes, Disney was breaking new ground and effectively changing every rule in the book on zoning and permits and construction requirements in the Sunshine State. Disney was asking for complete and total autonomy and not subject to revision, ever. But still despite everything despite effectively giving Disney the rights to control and maintain their own government their own small country complete with police fire departments utilities environmental control and even taxing. The legislature after establishing committees to look into the legislation soon realized that they would be fools to pass on this opportunity. It didn’t take long for the legislature to be completely swept off their feet by the magic of Disney.
But then there was one other political problem the company had to face. When Walt Disney first made the announcement that he was going to create a Walt Disney World in Central Florida he had been in communication with then-governor Hayden burns who was profoundly enthusiastic about the project. Before being elected to an abbreviated two-year term as governor Hayden Burns had enjoyed a long tenure as the mayor of Jacksonville. Helping the bustling metropolis in its efforts to attract new business. The notion of a Disney theme park in quiet central Florida was a dream come true for Burns and he quickly became the Florida Project’s greatest ally in state government. There was just one problem in 1966 he didn’t get his party’s nomination for reelection.
In the end, the state would elect Governor Claude Kirk, the first Republican to hold the office since reconstruction. A businessman by profession Claude Kirk was not a fan of any part of the Burns agenda. There were fears within Disney that Kirk would stall or even terminate the project in the creation of the improvement district. However, after doing some digging, the Disney team was able to assess how best to win Kirk over. He adored attention, they showered him with it. He enjoyed traveling and loved the glamor of Hollywood, they arranged a trip to Disney for him and the state’s new First Lady. Most important to Claude Kirk, it needed to seem like a major victory for Claude Kirk. Disney arranged an impressive bill signing at the Governor’s Mansion.
On May 12, 1967, Governor Claude R. Kirk Jr. signed the Reedy Creek Improvement Act, adding the following Florida statutes to implement Disney’s plans
Chapter 67-764 created the Reedy Creek Improvement District;
Chapter 67-1104 established the City of Bay Lake; and
Chapter 67-1965 established the City of Reedy Creek (later renamed the City of Lake Buena Vista around 1970.)
According to a press conference held in Winter Park, Florida on February 2, 1967, by Disney Vice President Donn Tatum, the Improvement District and Cities were created to serve “the needs of those residing there”, because the company needed its own government to “clarify the District’s authority to [provide services] within the District’s limits”, and because of the public nature of the planned development. Yes, it was a difficult pill for the state legislature to swallow, but swallow they did, and the rewards were far lasting and generational.
But, as you can see in the People mover, Walt’s dream was just a bridge too far. A new phase of the Florida project was already in the works, but it was to be another theme park and not a showcase city of tomorrow. Epcot, even more so than the Magic Kingdom, would help define an entire age of Florida government. Each new ride would be a huge showcase for the state, and from its retro designs to its attraction towards immerging technology, it was a perfect symbol of 1980s Florida.
Yet, as we have seen by the 1990s, the crest of the wave had evaporated as a new spirit in Florida government was about to take hold. One that still hasn’t let go and has managed to undo many of the hard-earned gains of the 70s and 80s. Even taking aim at the most well-known entertainment symbol of the Sunshine state, Disney itself.
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Thank you for this, I thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing. I wish the governor would just stop his nonsense. The Walt Disney World Corporation forever changed Florida, for the better. The Magic is still there for all of the visitors and the State of Florida reaps many monetary rewards. Thank you Roy ad Walter Elias Disney!
There was no mention of both Burns and the Florida legislature being notoriously corrupt. Disney was just another corrupting force that reinforced corporate rule over Florida under the Pork Chop Gang, Ed Ball, St. Joe Paper, the DuPont Corporation, and allies.