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In The Beginning… There Was Project Future

Long before the Pueblo Room was a glint in Dick Nunis’s eye, planning was underway for Walt Disney World. Who knows how long Walt had mulled privately over his ideas for a megaproject in the east; but even before the scope of his plans for the Florida scrub became apparent to the public, work was going on at Walt Disney Productions to define what, exactly, this project would be.

The following is an internal memo from WED Enterprises that details a planning meeting for “Project Future” that took place on June 14th, 1965. The meeting allowed Walt to present his ideas to the board members and legal staff of Walt Disney Productions, lawyers and consultants from the state of Florida, and Disney’s legal staff from New York City. This would, in turn, allow the staff an idea of the project’s scope and needs so that they could then begin researching and crafting the necessary legal groundwork. This planning would eventually culminate in the special district legislation in the Florida legislature that led to the Reedy Creek Improvement District and the creation of Walt Disney World.

Walt’s ideas for the property at this point were spelled out only in the roughest brushstrokes, but you can still get an idea of what he was driving at. While some of these ideas were clearly pie-in-the-sky, there are some interesting thoughts here about the underlying ethos of the resort and I leave it up to you to determine how well the company has carried over those philosophies into the modern day. It’s also amusing to see the concerns that faced the early planners, and how those concerns still rear their heads today.

“PROJECT FUTURE” PLANNING MEETING — JUNE 14, 1965

WALT DISNEY

Walt began by emphasizing the need to know “what kind of project would do well” in Florida.

Walt suggested this kind of study, together with our experience at Disneyland, would provide the background to help determine:

(1) What kind of facilities are required
(2) Who we will cater to – the Disney audience
(3) How we can get the tourist to stop for an extended period, and
(4) How big Project Future need be to start.

There would be, Walt said, a lot of things “like Disneyland”; but there would also be a lot new. He pointed to the World’s Fair as an analogy, graphically showing the Disney appeal in the East, and especially the population centers of the East (also a major source of Florida’s tourist market).

Walt expressed concern over the lack of permanent residents in the Orlando area, pointing out that other areas of the country are much better in this regard. Thus, the Florida market poses a different set of circumstances from Disneyland, which draws most heavily on a local California audience.

In terms of the hotels/motels, Walt emphasized the basic requirement to hold the visitor … to keep them in the area for an extended period. While the theme park would be the catalyst, reasonable prices and complete facilities (from trailers to sleeping bag areas) must be provided. He pointed to the skiers as an analogy; they don’t want to spend money for lodging, but they don’t hesitate to spend money for the skiing facilities per se (ski lift, equipment, etc.).

Walt emphasized the need to control the area, so that it does not become the jungle of signs, lights and fly-by-night operations that have “fed” on Disneyland’s audience. By keeping standards high, we can maintain the prestige of the entire area. The Disney motel/hotel facilities, for example, would be priced competitively with anything else that might be built in the area … but would be better places to stay, in every way.

Walt talked in terms of making everything its own attraction and tourist draw … the lake, the motels/hotels, fishing or whatever other facilities. These would each feed the Theme Park … and by offering diverse recreation activities, we could keep people in the area for a longer period of time.

“We’re ready to go!”, Walt said — ready to do the necessary analyzing and studies to determine the facilities required … then on to the Imagineering and finally the engineering.

As to “duplicating” parts of Disneyland, Walt suggested the public would expect it (many people could go to this park who would never be able to get to Disneyland). And Disneyland attractions are proven, engineered and ready to go into this Park.

A major consideration, Walt emphasized, would be to plan more for Rain (we can enclose big enough areas so people can keep spending money even if it rains). Recalling the Houston Dome, Walt commented about how big an area could be enclosed, and suggested there would be far less maintenance under a roof.

The basic point Walt made here is that enclosing means this concept could be built anywhere … even closer to the prime population markets of the East and Midwest. And, therefore, there could even be more than two Disneylands.

As to industry in the Project Future complex, Walt suggested industrial plants — with strong restriction — could be built along the road into and out of the Theme Park area … thus giving industry a tremendous Billboard exposure. (For comparison, see the land values along the Santa Ana freeway.)

Thus, Walt talked in terms of these basic areas:

(1) The Theme Park
(2) The motel/residential areas
(3) The industrial complex
(4) Other recreational facilities – the lake, golf, etc.

And so it began…

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10 comments to In The Beginning… There Was Project Future

  • Fantastic resource.

    Documents like this really make me think that Walt Disney World (or Disneyworld as it would have been called if Walt lived, right?) would have been more akin to Walt’s dream of EPCOT. He would have pushed for things like covered areas and domes protecting us from the world. WDW might have turned out to look like a mall from the late 1960s. It is funny to see that he was thinking about merchandise and spending money way back then!

  • I am obsessed with Walt’s original concept for EPCOT and truly believe it could have worked. The densities of the suburban ring was a bit light but that would have been corrected. Imagine the Mall of America with housing, amenities superior to what any city could offer and the Magic Kingdom in one direction and high-tech jobs at the other end of the monorail. All feed by millions and millions of dollars in sales tax and TOT. I recently asked Dave Smith for a list of the urban planning books Walt was reading at the time of his desk and he has provided that information.

    This memo is great. Thank you.

  • [...] questions Bob Iger’s focus on the franchise strategy. I think they may have something there. Progress City, USA returns to the story behind “project future”, what would eventually …. There’s a whole book about Project Future coming out soon. More details coming as soon as I [...]

  • [...] questions Bob Iger’s focus on the franchise strategy. I think they may have something there. Progress City, USA returns to the story behind “project future”, what would eventually become W…. There’s a whole book about Project Future coming out soon. More details coming as soon as I get [...]

  • [...] questions Bob Iger’s focus on the franchise strategy. I think they may have something there. Progress City, USA returns to the story behind “project future”, what would eventually …. There’s a whole book about Project Future coming out soon. More details coming as soon as I [...]

  • Beef

    I would like to see the real document, I find it hard to believe Walt would say “people can keep spending money even if it rains”

  • George: I’m sure it would be a LOT different – I would love to spend a day in that world. I’m sure it would have been wild.

    Sam: I absolutely agree with you that Walt’s EPCOT would have been doable. Just look at all the developments and construction projects that happen all the time that are of a huge scale and expense – like you said, Mall of America! Or any given mega housing development. EPCOT would have just been better integrated and more forward thinking. And, one assumes, with Walt at the helm more money would have gone to improvements and new technology instead of just padding the quarterly dividend. It was totally doable.

    Boeuf: Marty Sklar put the memo together himself, so unless he was making things up it’s real. I scanned it myself; if you can divine anything from the document itself here’s the page:

    http://progresscityusa.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/WDWphilosophy.jpg

  • I would also like to add that I have never gotten the impression that Walt was averse to making money, just that he wasn’t making all that money to hoard it for its own sake. My impression has always been that he wanted to offer great product at a reasonable price, make a ton of money, and pour that all back into his next big project. I’m sure that after all his business troubles over the years, he knew that if he didn’t bring in the money he wouldn’t be able to make his dreams into reality.

  • Hi everyone,

    This is a great memo. That June 1965 meeting was very crucial in making today’s Disney World a reality.

    I recently published a book “Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World” that covers Walt’s search for an Eastern U.S. project beginning in 1959 in Palm Beach, Florida and continuing through the opening of Disney World in 1971.

    You can read excerpts, follow the Project Future Timeline, and research the key players in Project Future at the book’s official website: http://www.projectfuturebook.com

    As always, feedback and suggestions are appreciated. Thanks, Chad.

  • earl lee louis iii

    Help me to.

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