There are thousands of theme parks worldwide, but Walt Disney World in Central Florida is still one of the most visited. This is the first theme park that Walt Disney created across thousands of acres of land. The story behind the purchase of such a vast amount of land is still a secret to many as it was to everyone in the 1960s.
It all started when Walt Disney thought of building a Disney-themed park in the US. Walt Disney Productions started its search for land that would be well connected to other US cities and close to a large population. The search ended when Walt Disney flew to a site in Orlando, Florida in 1963. It was a centrally located site with ample road networks. The only drawback was that the amount of land that Walt Disney wanted to purchase was not available at the site. If the news of Walt Disney Productions buying a large piece of land became public, landowners and speculators would have wasted no time increasing the prices. The planning and execution of purchasing the land was accomplished in secret. The idea was to buy the land through dummy corporations without revealing Walt Disney’s name. Walt Disney Productions’ attorney, Paul Helliwell, played a crucial role.
Helliwell met Billy Dial, the president of First National Bank of Orlando, requesting assistance for landowner negotiations. He introduced himself as the representative of a client who wanted to keep his identity a secret until the purchase of the land was finalized. The purpose of the purchase was revealed as an investment towards a huge industrial project. Realtors soon approached landowners for different tracts of land in Orange and Osceola Counties. The negotiations led to around a hundred dollars per acre. After 6 months, the first purchase was recorded for 8,380 acres of swampland. The following day, the Orlando Sentinel published the news, stating rumors of a big industrial investment in Orange and Osceola Counties.
To keep the identity of Walt Disney a secret, most land transactions were handled in cash to reduce the paper trail. Dummy corporations like Latin American Development, Management Corp., and Reedy Creek Ranch Corp. were created as the buyers of the land. The Magic Kingdom at Disney World has stores on the main street whose windows still display the names of these companies. This helped settle the rumors that were making the rounds after the first purchase was made public, but not all. Later in May, a newspaper published another story dismissing the rumors, stating that Walt Disney planned to purchase land on the East Coast.
The second purchase was closed by another dummy corporation, Florida Ranch Lands. It involved 47 landowners. With that, Walt Disney Productions had purchased a total of 27,400 acres of land for over $5 million from 51 landowners. The average price for each acre stood at $182 at the end of the purchase. Walt Disney finally decided to make the official announcement in November 1965, revealing himself as the owner of the land that would soon be turned into a Disney-themed park.
Unfortunately, Walt Disney passed away a year later, leaving the responsibility of the theme park on his brother Roy. Roy Disney executed the project with perfection at the cost of $400 million. The much speculated and talked about Disney World was opened for the public on October 1, 1971.