Where the magic began: Walt Disney used code names, shell corporations to buy land for Disney World

Disney spent eighteen months of secrecy to buy up 27,400 acres of mostly swampland.


Along a lonely stretch of Central Florida highway in the Ocala National Forest, tucked in the back of the old Ponceanna Cemetery, are Walt Disney's roots in Central Florida.

An 1880s grave marker for Charles and Henrietta Call marks the resting place of Walt Disney's grandparents.

"Those Disney roots go very deep. And that's something that certainly helped inform his life story," Kevin Disney said.

By 1966, nearly all of the groundwork for Walt Disney World had been laid. For years leading up to this point, The Walt Disney Corporation had been secretly acquiring land, a lot of it, in Central Florida.

"It was a confluence of a lot of land at the right price, with the right people and the right kind of producer behind it that ultimately leads to everything that we get today," Kevin Disney said.

They used aliases and code names, as well as shell and dummy corporations like Project Winter, Project X and Project Future.

If word leaked that Walt Disney was buying up huge tracts, prices would shoot sky-high, dooming the project.

Eighteen months of secrecy to buy up 27,400 acres of mostly swampland.

How was the Disney team able to keep the land acquisition process for Walt Disney World so secret for so long?

"You know, what one way that they did that was they were mystery clients, essentially. And they weren't broadcasting that it was Walt Disney that was purchasing all the land," Kevin Disney said.

On Oct. 24, 1965, the Orlando Sentinel broke the news that Walt Disney was the mystery land buyer in Orange and Osceola Counties.

"Your dad opens up the newspaper, and it says supercalifragilistic expialidocious. And then he said, 'My God, that's what's been going on.' That's what's been going on with these people that have been hiding their names and trying to figure out who were selling this land to," Mary Demetree said.

Mary Demetree's family sold the biggest parcel to Walt Disney, 12,500 acres that became Magic Kingdom and half of EPCOT.

Mary's father, Bill, willingly signed the land deal, happy to be rid of the mortgage payments, pocketing a modest profit.

Three weeks later, at a news conference at the Winter Park Theatre featuring Gov. Haydon Burns, Walt and Roy Disney confirmed the scope of the project, Disney's involvement but very little else.

Disney's clandestine land grab in Central Florida was kept secret for 18 months.

The land then needed to be transformed.

Ten million cubic yards of landscape was moved. Workers dredged 50 miles of canals, making nearly 20,000 of 24,000 acres workable.

Bay Lake, now Seven Seas Lagoon, was drained.

The sand at the bottom was spread along the shores to make beaches. The dirt and muck trucked to be the foundation for Cinderella Castle and the Magic Kingdom, concealing an elaborate tunnel system moving people and goods, elevating the elegant attractions.

At construction's peak in 1970, then "Vacation Kingdom," was the largest project in the United States with over 8,000 workers on-site.

"It's truly a remarkable feat of engineering that they were able to accomplish. And that all stems from the reuse and reclamation of a lot of that land," Kevin Disney said.

Walt Disney World has its own government, rules about zoning, water conservation and flood control, emergency services, exemption from most County and State authority.

But most critical to its success is location.

Back then, in the middle of nowhere.

"It changed everything. And we were in the right place at the right time. And it's been a fun, fun 50 years having Disney right here in our back yard," Demetree said.

On Dec. 15, 1966, Walt Disney died at age 65.

Walt Disney never lived long enough to see Walt Disney World completed.

Jim Payne: Did he say much nearing the end of his life about that or about the legacy of his life's work?

Kevin Disney: I do think later in his life. Something that he was proud of is that the people that he had trained, the cast members that he had brought in were all, you know, in lockstep and in, in working forward toward that same goal. And I think the Walt Disney World project specifically right has his name on it. It says Walt Disney World. That was a choice by his brother, Roy Disney, who knew that this idea, this concept, was something that was unique to him that was unique to Walt and the way that it was executed. Nobody else could have done so who else's name was going to be more fit to be on that front gate than Walt's?

Ironically, Roy Disney would pass away almost five years to the day after Walt, just two months after presiding over the Grand Opening of Walt Disney World.