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Progress City Library – Project Future, The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World

It’s been a busy year here in Progress City so perhaps it’s not surprising that we’re just now catching up on our critical reading material from 2010. Of the Disney park-related books published this year, few made as big a splash as Project Future, The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World by Chad Emerson. Detailing the behind-the-scenes wrangling that led to the site selection and real estate acquisition for Walt Disney World in the 1960s, Emerson’s tale is a fascinating look at a subject that has to this point remained sadly under-documented.

Emerson, a faculty member at the Faulkner University Jones School of Law, is a long-time observer of the theme park industry and he was therefore able to draw on several years of interviews with key players in the “cloak and dagger” maneuvers of Disney’s agents in Florida. These contributions, by individuals like Robert Price Foster, Tom DeWolf, and former Governor Claude Kirk, provide a sense of what went on in those mysterious secret meetings as Disney slowly purchased its 27,000 acres in Central Florida.

The story of Disneyland-East, though, began long before Disney’s land purchases in 1965. Walt had planned eastward expansion as early as the late 1950s, and during subsequent years a number of sites for new projects were considered from Miami Beach to Niagara Falls, St. Louis, and even Marceline, Missouri. These projects are covered in Project Future, along with reasons for their abandonment.

After selecting Central Florida for the new Disney resort, there remained the matter of finding suitable contiguous plots of land and persuading the owners to sell – all without disclosing the buyer. Emerson covers the entire process, including several difficulties along the way that one might not even consider when thinking about how to secretly buy 40+ square miles of Florida swamp and ranch land. Even after purchasing the land, the project’s fate remained uncertain unless Disney could convince the Florida legislature to grant them special powers to govern their property. While the details of special district legislation and drainage governance don’t naturally lend themselves to riveting narrative, Emerson keeps things moving and doesn’t get bogged down along the way.

The story of Walt Disney World’s secret land purchase is pretty well known to fans, but until you see the entire story laid out one really doesn’t comprehend just how crazy a process it was, and just how close it came to falling through on many different occasions. When viewed in context, Walt Disney World’s creation can really be seen as having stemmed directly from Disneyland’s success and the events of the 1964/65 World’s Fair; likewise, it’s also apparent that the complicated legal wrangling behind the project was intended to lay the foundation for Walt’s EPCOT – a real, working city of the future.

Emerson tells the story in a fairly straightforward journalistic style, and the story moves quickly. Unfortunately, the book lacks citations or footnotes, which is a buzzkill for nerds like me, and the lack of an index makes reference use difficult. There is also the occasional editorial oversight; most are insignificant but some are notable.

Hopefully Emerson’s book will be the first in a new wave of Walt Disney World scholarship leading up to the resort’s 40th anniversary next year. There’s still a lot to be said on the subject. Thankfully things are off to a good start, with this well-sourced look at the resort’s mysterious beginnings.

Project Future, The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World – 189 pages, softcover. Published by Ayefour Publishing. $14.95. Available in print and for Kindle.

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Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, Tail In His Hat…

When veteran actor Leslie Nielsen passed away last weekend, most tributes focused on his later career in a series of spoofs and slapstick comedies. Some mentioned his earlier career as a dramatic actor and leading man, but none that I saw covered his connection to Walt Disney. My first thought upon hearing the news was of The Swamp Fox, the eight-part serial that aired on the Disney anthology television program between 1959 and 1961. Having grown up in the age of Airplane! and The Naked Gun, it was surreal to discover that Nielsen had once portrayed the very serious Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion – and even crooned a bit on the theme song!

Any rundown of Nielsen’s career that I could provide would pale in comparison to the story by Jeff Kurtti on the Walt Disney Family Museum’s Storyboard blog. Kurtti covers not only Nielsen but also the other Frontierland heroes that Disney filmed in an attempt to re-capture the Davy Crockett magic. I encourage you all to check it out and to leave a comment – we could use more scholarship about this era in the Disney canon.

For those of you who have missed out over the years, some of Nielsen’s Tory-fighting antics can be found on YouTube.

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Walt’s Scrapbook – The Beachcomber, August 1941

Walt sketches a friend in Miami Beach, August 13th, 1941 (AP Photo)

Perhaps it’s fitting that, with Walt & El Grupo now out on DVD, we pause before we head South America-way to make a stop in Miami Beach, just like Walt did in 1941.

The above photo was taken at the Pancoast Hotel in Miami Beach on August 13th, 1941. That day, nine of the Disney staff would head off for Brazil, with Walt and his party following on Friday the 15th. Maybe our high-waisted mogul was working the rust off of his sketching skills as he prepared to draw Mickey and other characters for adoring audiences in South America?

The Pancoast Hotel, in better days

The Pancoast Hotel, designed in the then-popular Mediterranean Revival style by architect Martin L. Hampton, was built in 1923 and catered primarily to the wealthy. During World War II it, and the other large oceanfront hotels in Miami Beach, would be taken over by the government to serve as barracks for the Army Air Corps. After returning to civilian use in 1945, and having fallen out of architectural vogue, it was demolished in 1953 and replaced by the Seville Hotel.

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A Very Samland Christmas

Our neighbor in urban planning, Sam Gennawey at Samland, is holding a holiday fundraiser for a worthy cause. Check it out

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Buy These Movies…

A trio of must-see Disney related documentaries hit stores tomorrow, and I consider them to all be mandatory purchases for those interested in the company’s history and art. Over the next couple of days I’ll be providing full reviews for each, but I wanted to encourage everyone to check them out immediately (that’s the short review). See them however you can, but I will note that if you order through my links I get a tiny kickback. The documentaries are:

Walt & El Grupo – Directed by Ted Thomas, this is the story of Walt Disney and a band of artists and filmmakers from his studio as they travel to South America in 1941 to battle Nazis. Figuratively speaking. There’s lots of archival film and audio, and as a bonus the DVD features the entire uncensored version of Saludos Amigos (on DVD for the first time).

the boys: the sherman brothers' story – Directed by cousins Jeff and Gregg Sherman, this documentary details the secretly contentious relationship and career of Richard and Robert Sherman, the most prolific and successful Disney songwriters of all time. Shocking and intimate, the film is full of Disney luminaries and reminds one just how much amazing work these two men produced.

Waking Sleeping Beauty – Directed by veteran Disney producer Don Hahn, this acclaimed documentary chronicles the rise of Walt Disney Feature Animation in the 1980s and early 1990s. Told with archival video, interviews, and shockingly candid participation by Michael Eisner and Jeff Katzenberg, this is the tale of how Disney animation rose from near-collapse to glory, only to run apart at the seams in an explosion of ego.

So that’s your mandatory viewing for the rest of the week. You shall not regret it. And don’t forget that also arriving tomorrow are Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as Warren Spector’s long-waited Epic Mickey for the Nintendo Wii.

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