November 23rd, 2013 2:22 PM by Karyn Smith
Fifty years ago, Walt Disney chose Orlando as the location for his new magic kingdom. But it almost didn't happen in Florida, and even after making his decision, Disney kept it a secret for almost two years.
Walking through the Walt Disney World exhibit at the Orange County History Center, Sara Van Arsdel explains "The Day We Changed" happened 50 years ago, in November 1963, as Walt Disney flew over the 27,000-plus acres in Orange and Osceola counties that would eventually become the home of his "Florida Project."
But that project might never have happened, if not for nearly two years of secret deals.
"Boy, I really don't know. I can't even think of what this might be like if it hadn't been for Walt Disney," said Van Arsdel.
Piloting his own plane after a scouting trip to Ocala, Disney's vision for the future of his company -- and for Central Florida -- began, and so did the secret land deals to create Walt Disney World.
"That's one of the big mysteries!" Van Arsdel said. "He had all of these companies that were buying the land. He was trying to do it so that the price wouldn't go up."
To avoid being overcharged, Disney used dummy corporations to buy up portions of land totaling 27,443 acres -- companies with exotic-sounding names like the "Latin-American Development and Management Corp.," "Reedy Creek Ranch Inc.," and "Ayefour Corp." Say that last one aloud, and it sounds like "I-4."
Finally, in 1965, someone caught on, and the Orlando Sentinel broke the news that the mystery industry buying up so much swamp land in Central Florida was, in fact, Disney.
But had Disney not taken that fateful flight over Central Florida 50 years ago, the so-called "Florida Project" might have ended up in New Orleans.
Disney had also eyed the Big Easy as a possible theme park location, and even began purchasing property in New Orleans, but ultimately chose Orlando after politicians in Louisiana demanded too much.
Another city where Disney could have created his World was St. Louis. Though he didn't envision a theme park near the Gateway Arch, Disney's original vision of EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, could have been built indoors in various downtown buildings.
"What they were talking about was a downtown restoration, and the Disney effort would be indoors in a couple of downtown buildings," said Dr. James Clark, a historian at the University of Central Florida. "Walt quickly realized that it was not his vision, which was to build a city of tomorrow, not an amusement park."
Ultimately, thanks to one flight over Central Florida, Walt Disney chose here to build his dream, a dream that would change the Orlando area forever.