Actually, most people don’t realize how much land Walt Disney World actually encompasses. In fact, it’s about 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 Walt Disney World is huge, you ain’t 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 devoted to the 4 theme parks. In fact, with only 7,100 acres developed, there’s quite a lot of room for expansion!
But how (and why) did Disney buy up all that land?
Back in the early 1950s, Anaheim, the home of Disneyland, was a quiet little town, surrounded by nothing more than acres and acres of orange groves. Originally, Walt Disney wanted his new, 8-acre theme park to be built near his Burbank studios, but soon realized that such little space would not be enough. So, he purchased over 160 acres of orange groves and walnut trees in Anaheim near the junction of the Santa Ana Freeway and Harbor Boulevard, and built his “Magic Kingdom” inside its borders (while moving 15 existing houses in the process). Today, Disneyland encompasses fewer than 300 acres, which includes Disney’s California Adventure and additional hotel properties. Relatively speaking, all of Disneyland could fit inside of Epcot.
Regrettably, Walt Disney did not buy enough land surrounding Disneyland, and soon after the park opened it was surrounded by tacky hotels, tourist gift shops and restaurants. His dream of a completely contained theme park for families was now tainted with views of billboards and fast-food restaurants. Walt vowed that if he ever built another theme park, he would not make the same mistake twice. He would be sure that they could control the surroundings, which would include campgrounds, and first-class facilities for recreation and accommodation.
In the early 1960’s, Walt and a team of Imagineers, including his brother Roy and General Joe Potter (can you find his name somewhere in Walt Disney World?) embarked on a super-secret endeavor, known simply as “Project X” (later known as “Project Florida”) to scour the nation in search for a new location for a second theme park. First and foremost, they were looking for a lots of land… cheap! Second, they wanted it to be near a major city, with good weather and great highways and infrastructure. Reportedly, when Walt’s plane crossed over the intersection of I-4 and Route 192 in Florida, he knew he found his spot.
But how does Walt Disney go and buy up thousands of acres of land without the landowners holding out for exorbitant prices? He doesn’t. Sort of. Walt Disney set up dozens of “dummy” corporations, with names like “M.T. Lott” (get it? Empty Lot?), the “Latin-American Development and Managers Corporation” and the “Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation” to purchase seemingly worthless parcels of land ranging from swampland to cattle pastures. By May of 1965, there had been major land purchases recorded in Osceola and Orange Counties (just southwest of Orlando), although no one realized (or suspected at first) that Disney had anything to do with it. One of the earliest 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 over 27,000 acres had recently changed hands. Speculation began that large corporations such as Ford, McDonnell-Douglas, Hughes Aircraft, and Boeing, (as Kennedy Space Center was located nearby), and, yes, even Walt Disney. In October, though, Orlando Sentinel reporter Emily Bavar, having her suspicions confirmed after various non-responsive answers from Disney employees, released the story that it was Walt Disney who had been secretly behind the purchases of all of this land. Of course, once it was revealed that Disney was behind the purchases, the prices of land jumped more than 1000%! That’s partially 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 $400 million dollar project that would become Walt Disney World. In exchange for bringing such a boost to the area’s economy, the creation of thousands of jobs, and improvements to the environment and infrastructure of central Florida, Disney was given permission to establish their own, autonomous government, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. This quasi-government gave Disney the ability to create their own building codes, do his own zoning and planning of roads and bridges, and create his own residential community, among other perks.
When Walt Disney purchased the 47 square miles that was to become the Walt Disney World Resort as we know it today, it was nothing more than a desolate swampland, scrub forests, and groves. In order to transform this area into the number one vacation destination in the world, massive amounts of Earth had to be moved. Additionally, since much of central Florida is essentially “floating” on a body of water, a daunting challenge presented itself. Disney had to transform this land, while balancing the needs of the environment and ecology of the area. If any part of the water supply was damaged or deleted, it would have caused a massive ecological imbalance to 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 cypress trees as well as provide land for the area’s natural inhabitants. 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 into the natural landscape, rather than being constructed in straight lines. The mechanism that control the water levels are completely automated, and require no monitoring and little maintenance. Pretty 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 cities are governed by Disney employees who live on the property in a small cluster of homes “backstage”. Although the permanent residential population of these cities is very small (population 20 in 2003), it hosts millions of families who, for a brief period, call Bay Lake “home.”
Over the years, an additional 3,000 acres was purchased by Disney, bringing the Walt Disney World Resort‘s total size to over 30,000 acres. Less than one 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 U.S. 192 and Interstate 4, he stated;”Here in Florida, we have something special that we never enjoyed at Disneyland . . . the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” With only about 1/4 of the entire property developed, it looks like he was right.