Folks, I have a tale for you. This is a story about CIA agents, backroom deals, and the old “I’ve got some swampland in Florida to sell you” gimmick. There are savvy lawyers, greedy politicians, and nosy reporters. This, my friends, is the story of Walt Disney World.
Several sites had been proposed for “Disneyland East”; St Louis, New York, Washington D.C., and Palm Beach to name a few. Walt Disney and his scouting crew flew over these sites in his newly acquired private plane, but they each had their drawbacks: not enough available land, inhospitable climate, too much financial risk. On November 22, 1963, Walt and his team flew over Orlando. Seeing the well-developed network of roads, including the planned Interstate 4 and Florida's Turnpike, Walt was intrigued. Optimism was high until they stopped to refuel the plane on the way back to California. There they heard of President Kennedy’s assassination.
I don’t know what was going through Walt’s mind on that ride home. Maybe he pondered man’s mortality and decided there was no time to waste. Maybe he decided that now, more than ever, America needed the hope and optimism of Walt’s City of Tomorrow. What I do know is that by the time they landed, Walt’s mind was made up. Central Florida would be Mickey’s new home.
As I’m sure you all know, one of Walt’s biggest regrets was the tourist corridor visitors were forced to endure as they entered Disneyland. Since he didn’t own the surrounding land, he couldn’t stop the string of tacky shops and motels that clustered around his pristine park. That was not going to happen in Florida. To create the buffer zone he needed, or better yet, to have the area become the model city of his dreams, Walt was going to need a lot of land.
If you know that Disney has an interest in your land, odds are you’re going to try to get top dollar for it. We saw this just recently when rumors spread of a new theme park in China. The people in the target area started doing crazy improvements to their homes (planting trees, adding lean-to shanties) to try to raise their property values and drive up prices. Therefore, Disney had to operate in complete secrecy. For help, they turned to former CIA agent Paul Helliwell.
Paul L.E. Helliwell was born in 1915. He was a lawyer before he joined the United States Army during the Second World War. Later he was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) where he served under William Donovan (who was later Walt’s lawyer; it is a small world, after all). In 1943 Colonel Paul Helliwell became head of the Secret Intelligence Branch of the OSS in Europe. In 1947 Helliwell joined the Central Intelligence Agency. In the 1960’s Mr. Helliwell was amongst other things, a Miami lawyer. This man had connections, and knew how to keep a secret.
Disney’s target area contained three large tracts of land connected by scores of smaller ones. A key piece, some 12,400 acres, was held by a motivated seller. The reason for their motivation soon became clear. Although the owners, Jack and Bill Demetree, owned the surface rights to the land, the mineral rights belonged to Tufts College in Boston, who refused to sell. Apparently, they thought all of that Florida swampland had the makings of some great Primordial soup, and might be the next big oil hot spot. After a marathon of heated and fruitless negotiations, all hope seemed lost. Then our former CIA agent Helliwell had a closed door meeting with Tuft’s trustees. At the end of this meeting, they agreed to sell the mineral rights for about $6 an acre.
Even the smaller properties presented some challenges. Have you ever heard the expression: “If you believe that, I have some swampland in Florida I want to sell you”? Um, apparently, that’s exactly what happened. In 1912, The Munger Land Company began selling tracts of useless swampland to gullible northerners via mail order catalogs. All of these property owners had to be tracked down and convinced to sell.
By means of his dummy companies (Ayefour Corporation (a pun on Interstate 4), Tomahawk Properties, Reedy Creek Ranch, and Bay Lake Properties), Disney continued to purchase land behind the veil of secrecy. By mid-October of 1965, however, the gig was up. Orlando Sentinel reporter Emily Bavar asked Walt if he was buying land in central Florida. Walt listed all of the reasons he wouldn’t be interested: there was no other tourist industry or high population areas near-by, the average rainfall was significantly higher than in Southern California, etc. Bavar walked away thinking that for all of Walt’s alleged lack of interest in the area, he sure knew a lot about it. She convinced her editors, and on October 24, 1965 their headline ran “We say: ‘Mystery’ Industry is Disney”.
Florida governor Haydon Burns was ecstatic. He was ramping up his re-election campaign and insisted on being present for the big announcement. On November 15, under a big banner that read “Florida Welcomes Walt Disney”, Walt confirmed that Disney would be building another theme park, similar to, but much larger than, Disneyland. Now all Disney had to do was transform alligator, snake, and insect infested swampland into the vacation capital of the world.
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