Friday 12 December 2014

Carving a Magic Kingdom out of Florida Swampland

JFK in Dallas, Texas circa 1963 courtesy

It took 9000 construction workers, cost $400 million and eight years to build.  Today, over 52 million tourists visit Disney World each year, the busiest amusement park in the world.

On November 22, 1963, while President Kennedy travelled that fatal motorcade route through the streets of Dallas, Texas, Walt Disney was flying in an airplane above central Florida, mapping out a location for his new amusement park.  I have often wondered why he didn't choose a location in southern Florida, where the temperatures are warm even in the winter time.  But southern Florida was likely too pricey and too developped.  There would be no room for expansion as was the problem in Anaheim, the location of Disneyland.  Walt Disney's official explanation was that Orlando was located near Interstate 4 and Sunshine Parkway, making it easily accessible by car to people all over the state.

Why did Walt choose the east coast?  Surveys had shown that only 2 % of visitors to Disneyland hailed from east of the Mississippi River.  Therefore, there was no question that the new park would be located in the eastern United States.  Walt had briefly considered Niagara Falls, but its frigid winters would have prevented his park from being open year round.  Therefore, he centred his search on the southeastern part of the country.

Florida swampland courtesy

Walt's choice did save him money:  the Florida swampland only cost him $180 per acre.  In 1964, under false company names, he purchased 27,400 acres of swampland 12 miles south of Orlando. Speculation was rampant as to who had purchased so much land in central Florida.  Finally, one Orlando newspaper announced "We say our mystery industry is Disney".  In 1965, Walt held an official press conference announcing Project Florida.  Within days, the swampland skyrocketed to $1000 per acre and within months to tens of thousands of dollars per acre.

Walt assembled a team of architects and engineers whom he dubbed "imagineers" to execute his plans for Disney World.  The team broke ground in the Fall of 1969, bulldozing endless acres of cypress and pine trees.  The construction workers built 50 miles of levees and canals around the property.  They drained water from areas where they planned to construct the park. They removed 7 million cubic tons of dirt for the Seven Seas Lagoon which was used to build the foundation for the Magic Kingdom.

Walt had sketched a design for Disney World which was similar to Disneyland:  a wheel configuration with spokes.  The hub of the wheel would be the Cinderella castle.  The spokes of the wheel would be the streets leading to the various lands:  Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, etc.  Walt's inspiration for the wheel-like design had come from the town of Goderich, Ontario where his grandparents had lived.


The Cinderella Castle, patterned after Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, Germany, was built to sustain hurricane winds.  Plans for the castle even included an apartment for Walt and his family, which they never used as Walt passed away before the castle was built.  Buildings sprung up along Main Street USA, inspired by Walt's childhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri.  From there, construction began on the various "lands".

Main Street USA courtesy

Walt Disney World officially opened on October 1, 1971 (see my post "Flying Elephants and Mad Tea Parties" at While Walt never got to see the finished product, his brother Roy was present for the festivities.  To think that the Imagineers carved the Magic Kindgom out of seemingly useless swampland.

Disney World's opening day October 1, 1971, courtesy

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