Walt Disney’s Empty Promise


Arts & Culture

© VIAVAL / Adobe Stock.

If you’ve ever been to Orlando, friend, you’ve been to International Drive. It is the 14.5-mile strip of hotels, restaurants, hotels, time-shares, souvenir shops, lesser theme parks, laser tag emporiums, curio museums, outlet stores, and hotels that’s “as well-known in Boston, England, as it is in Boston, Mass.,” as the line goes. And this is an important point to make. For so very many of the millions of tourists who come to Orlando, this—Disney, Universal Studios, I-Drive, all of it—stands in for America itself. “No matter where you travel in the world, you run into a startling number of people for whom Orlando is America,” John Jeremiah Sullivan has written. “If you could draw one of those New Yorker cartoon maps in your head, of the way the world sees North America, the turrets of the Magic Kingdom would be a full order of scale bigger than anything else.”

International Drive is not Orlando’s main thoroughfare—that’d be Interstate 4, which runs parallel to I-Drive—but as International Drive comprises five hundred plus businesses selling everything from digital cameras to golf clubs, weeklong stays to Argentinian steaks, it is far and away the most vital artery when it comes to Orlando’s economic health. This despite the fact that until very recently, I-Drive was nothing but sand, pines, and palmettos. What happened was an attorney turned developer named Finley Hamilton, who went looking for ways to profit from Walt Disney’s 1965 announcement that he would build a huge new theme park southwest of downtown. On April Fools’ Day 1968, Hamilton paid $90,000 for ten acres of scrubland. This patch of nothing was accessible only by dirt road—but Hamilton figured that Disney-bound tourists would spot his new Hilton Inn from the interstate, take the nearest exit, and drive north on the paved road he would build.

He bought and flipped more acreage along his road in the months preceding Disney World’s opening. “I came up with International Drive,” he later recalled, “because it sounded big and important.” Within a few years, I-Drive included a dozen hotels, two dozen restaurants, and four gas stations, most of which were clustered at the road’s two major intersections. Then the nation’s first water park, Wet ’n Wild, opened in 1977. Just like that, I-Drive went from a place to sleep and eat to a destination in its own right. Arriving not long after were your Ripley’s Believe It or Not!s, your Skull Kingdoms, and the like.

In short, International Drive has developed into a tacky gauntlet whereby families are stripped of armloads of cash on their way to and from Disney parks. It, like Greater Orlando, is premised upon one thing: Uncle Walt’s sloppy seconds.

I hopped on the International Drive Trolley at its southern terminus, so very excited to be aboard a motor vehicle. This being Florida, where fixed meanings are prohibited by the spirit if not the letter of the law—the Trolley I boarded was not a trolley trolley. It was a bus. A bus done up fancy-like in trolley drag, but a bus nonetheless, with slatted wood benches, interior lights sculpted to resemble gas lamps, and a whole honking gaggle of Europeans. Europeans slung with water-bladder-esque purses on the thinnest of straps; Europeans smoking unfiltered cigarettes; Europeans wearing capris hemmed at inspired lengths. Together we rode from South I-Drive to SeaWorld, where the Continental children ooooed at the expanse of parked cars glinting in the sun. We passed an empty municipal bus, which led me to speculate: I bet this is the most used public transit route in the state.

We gathered more passengers outside an outlet mall. Their wrists were braceleted with the woven cardboard handles of upscale shopping bags; their smiles communicated the bliss of completion. We accelerated past the noodly, Lovecraftian slidescape of Wet ’n Wild. Someone dinged the ding for WonderWorks.

In terms of gross economic power, the tourism industry is in the uppermost tier along with energy, finance, and agriculture. Worldwide, it generates $3 billion in business every single day. If frequent flyer miles were a currency, it’d be one of the most valuable on the planet. Why shouldn’t tourism have its own city the way oil has Abu Dhabi and film has Los Angeles?

Orlando is tourism’s pantomime capital. But that’s not all due to Disney. Contrary to Uncle Walt’s founding myth, roadside attractions and theme parks had been dotting city and state long before his arrival. It’s just that their theme was, well, “Florida.” Sunken Gardens and Jungle Gardens dazzled Depression-weary Americans with imported grugru palms, Madagascar screw pines, and the greatest concentration of orchids in North America. Silver Springs, Cypress Gardens, and Weeki Wachee Springs took a similar tack—“Come marvel at Florida’s splendor!”—while adding canny advertising and gimmicks like alligator wrestling to the mix. These “natural” attractions were equal parts organic phenomena and human cultivation. Their grounds had been processed and “improved,” just like the canned and sprayable foodstuffs then appearing on supermarket shelves.

This was midcentury, when a Florida vacation was seen as a marker of middle-class status. What’s more, a Florida vacation underscored one’s support of and participation in the American way of life. You drove your new car to new national wonders like Marineland, where intrepid scientists had trained bottlenose dolphins to perform tricks, and in exchange for your hard-earned money you got the sense that you were combating global communism.

Around the same time, the superhighways were snaking their way into the peninsula. The interstate program—the most expensive and elaborate public works program of all time, mind—was at once a Keynesian economic driver and a geographic equalizer. The impeccable government roads stretched down the Gulf Coast, along the Atlantic coast, and across the gaps in between, buttressing Florida’s sky-high growth like a trellis around a sprout. Tourists no longer had to rely on railroads, bus schedules, or dicey Southern byways while traveling to the Sunshine State. Now, millions of them could pick up and go whenever the mood struck. They could chauffeur their families to difference within a matter of hours, riding the interstates the way aristocrats had ridden Henry Flagler’s trains a generation prior.

This democratization of travel was precisely what Walt Disney observed on November 22, 1963, when he flew over Orlando in a private plane, assessing the area’s potential for his Disney World project. He looked down and saw Interstate 4 intersecting with Florida’s Turnpike, both roads teeming with fast-moving traffic. Not far away from this hub, he eyed a vast stretch of virgin swamp. “This is it!” Disney exclaimed over the roar of engines.

With such a combination of highways and undeveloped land, Disney could build his dreamed-of tourist mecca—America’s “total destination resort,” as his planners referred to it. He bought up 27,000 acres, anonymously and piecemeal, from Central Florida farmers, ranchers, and rural landholders. For $200 per acre, owners were more than happy to sell to one of the five dummy corporations orchestrating Disney’s clandestine “Project X.” In time, the locals noticed that the ground was shifting beneath their feet. Rumors ran rampant as to who or what was purchasing southwest Orlando. In October 1965, one headline in the Sentinel read: “We Say ‘Mystery’ Industry Is Disney.” A year later, Uncle Walt officially announced his plans for a “bigger and better” version of Disneyland in Florida. The Associated Press crowned him “the most celebrated visitor since Ponce de Leon.”

While the Disney saga unfolded, many of Florida’s established attractions were being bled dry by the new interstates, which bypassed their locations along the old roads. Rainbow Springs, Sanlando Springs, Dog Land, Everglades Tropical Gardens, Florida Reptile Land, the Waite’s Bird Farm—they died off. Frog City, Sunshine Springs and Gardens, Atomic Tunnel, Shark World, Bongoland, and—alas—Midget City, too, went under. Times were tough in the early sixties. Perhaps this explains why Disney’s announcement sounded like a godsend to these beleaguered mom-and-pop enterprises. “Anyone who is going to spend $100 million nearby is good, and a good thing,” the owner of Cypress Gardens was quoted as saying.

And he was terrifically wrong. About his own prospects, but also about the size of the investment. Disney promised more than $600 million. He was going to build a Magic Kingdom five times larger than the one he’d created in California. He also vowed to construct a rapid transit system as well as a thousand-acre industrial park and a jetport. “But the most exciting and by far the most important part of our Florida project—in fact, the heart of everything we’ll be doing in Disney World,” Disney said in a promotional film, “will be our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. We’ll call it Epcot.”

Disney claimed that this model city would “take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems. And Epcot will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”

Sound familiar? Like the Spaniards and Flagler before him, Disney was taking his second chance in Florida. His grand design—the reason why he was clearing forests, draining wetlands, remaking the place in his image—was to fashion his idea of utopia. “I don’t believe there’s a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities,” he said. “But where do we begin—how do we start answering this great challenge? Well, we’re convinced we must start with the public need. And the need is not just for curing the old ills of old cities. We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land and building a special kind of new community.”

The way Disney sold it, Epcot would be a working community of twenty thousand. “It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future, where people actually live a life they can’t find anywhere else in the world,” he said. “Everything in Epcot will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who will live, work, and play here.” The idea was to build high-density apartments surrounding a business center; beyond that would be a greenbelt and recreation area; the outermost rings would be low-density residential streets. There’d be “playgrounds, churches and schools … distinctive neighborhoods … and footpaths for children going to school” in Disney’s proposed utopia. A multimodal transportation system incorporating surface trains, a monorail, and a “webway people mover” would render automobiles unnecessary, à la Seaside.

Then came the rub: “To accomplish our goals for Disney World, we must retain control and develop all the land ourselves.” Disney demanded municipal bonding authority, three highway interchanges, and the creation of two municipalities together with an autonomous political district controlled by the company. In effect, Disney wanted his own corporate-controlled state within the state. “A sort of Vatican with mouse ears,” the historian Richard Foglesong termed it. In return, Florida would receive a perpetual stream of visitors, more sales- and gasoline-tax revenue, a long boom in construction and service jobs. “You people here in Florida have one of the key roles to play in making Epcot come to life,” Disney inveigled, like a true confidence artist. “In fact, it’s really up to you whether this project gets off the ground at all.”

And the people of Florida bit.

Though Disney wouldn’t live to see it, he was granted his Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is still “governed” by a supervisory board “elected” by the landowners—i.e., the Walt Disney Company. As described by a former head executive, Reedy Creek “gave us all the powers of the two counties in which we sit to the exclusion of their exercising any powers, and of course it let us issue bonds. We could do anything the city or county could do. The only powers that still reside on us from outside are the taxing power of Orange County, the sales tax of the state, and the inspection of elevators.”

Reedy Creek handles its own planning and zoning. It lays out roads and sewer lines, licenses the sale of alcoholic beverages. Building codes? Psh, Reedy Creek employs the building inspectors. It employs its own fire department. Contracts its own eight-hundred-member security force. Technically, it is within Disney’s rights to build an airport and a nuclear power plant within the Improvement District, if Disney so desires.

But that whole utopian city thing? The enticement that ultimately sealed the deal for the people of Florida? It was all a ruse. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was just another theme park. And though more than fifty-five thousand people work in the Reedy Creek Improvement District by day; and though more than a hundred thousand patronize its stand-alone restaurants, clubs, and theaters every night—Reedy Creek retains a permanent population of about fifty. Most of whom are company executives or their family members.

Walt Disney demanded and received the powers of a democratically elected government, and his corporation ducked the botheration of, you know, constituents. Constituents who might challenge Disney’s top-down plans or even vote them out of power. The constitutionality of this arrangement has never been challenged. I suppose this proves no one minds the arrangement all that much. But I tend to think otherwise. I think it proves that the people of Florida are no different from patsies across time and space: too ashamed to admit when we’ve been had.

“By turning the state of Florida and its statutes into their enablers,” T. D. Allman writes, “Disney and his successors pioneered a business model based on public subsidy of private profit coupled with corporate immunity from the laws, regulations, and taxes imposed on people that now increasingly characterizes the economy of the United States.”

So, huh. I guess Disney did get his “showcase for free enterprise” and his utopia both, in the end.


Kent Russell’s essays have appeared in The New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, n+1, The Believer, and Grantland. He is the author of I Am Sorry to Have Raised a Timid Son. He lives in Brooklyn.

Excerpted from In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida, by Kent Russell. Copyright © 2020 by Kent Russell. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.