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It's a tale of great mystery: How Disney came to Orlando

26 September 2010 by Orlando Sentinel - Joy Wallace Dickinson

Intrigue. Master spies. Secret meetings. They seem like unlikely ingredients for the beginnings of "the happiest place on Earth," but the story of how Walt Disney World came to Florida has all of them.

Author Chad Emerson will talk this week at the University of Central Florida about the saga that brought Disney World to Florida — including the amazing acquisition, piece by piece, of a 43-square-mile parcel twice the size of Manhattan.

Emerson is a law professor at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., where his areas of expertise include law concerning land planning, intellectual property and amusement parks. He's also the author of Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World, published this year.

'All anyone in town was talking about'

It's been 45 years since the Sentinel reported on its front page that a mystery buyer represented by Miami attorney Paul Helliwell had acquired about 9,700 acres from Bronson Inc. in Osceola County.

All in all, the unknown land buyer had at that point acquired about 30,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties, the article concluded.

Who was buying the land? It "was all anyone in town was talking about" that summer of 1965, the late Sentinel columnist Charlie Wadsworth said in a 1988 interview.

The Sentinel's Emily Bavar would break the story in October 1965, but Wadsworth and his "Hush Puppies" column had been on the track of the "mystery industry" for almost a year, he said.

"It seems almost every day there was a new lead of some kind to follow . . . at cake sales, symphony openings, cocktail parties, everywhere," Wadsworth recalled.

The speculation produced rampant rumors that the secret buyer would be revealed as Howard Hughes or Boeing aircraft or the Rockefeller family. Even the first legal secretary hired for the mystery company, Julia Switlick, didn't know who her employer was.

"I was worried I might be working for the communists," Switlick said in a 1988 interview. "In those days, just saying someone was a communist was the worst thing you could do."

Masters of secrecy

Switlick need not have worried about communists, although the Disney team's covert maneuvers may have been even more secretive than those used by clandestine cells. Key players in the story had backgrounds in espionage.

Disney adviser William Donovan, who has been called the father of U.S. intelligence, was head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II, as Emerson writes in Project Future. (Rollins professor Rick Foglesong describes the Disney team's secrecy, too, in his book Married to the Mouse, published by Yale University Press in 2001.)

One of the team's rules was that nobody at Disney could talk to anyone in Orlando, period.

Emerson became absorbed in the story while he was researching an academic article and realized it had potential for readers outside legal journals.

"There are so many secretive and spy-like maneuvers, all legal, but very interesting and intertwined," he told an interviewer earlier this year.

One of the most interesting for Emerson involved a large parcel of land that's now the site of much of Epcot. Brothers Jack and Bill Demetree owned the surface rights to the land, but Tufts University in Boston retained the underground rights, in the hopes the land might contain oil or phosphorous.

In the end, the negotiators for Disney secured a deal with Tufts, but without that deal, "Disney World probably wouldn't exist in Central Florida," Emerson says.



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