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.