Walt Disney World is one of the most visited places in the world. With its four parks, two water parks, shopping district and hotels the massive resort sprawls across 40 square miles of Floridian land just west of Orlando. And for those of you who are wondering just how big 47 square miles is, think of it this way: Walt Disney World is teh same size as the city of San Francisco!
Today we’re going to go over the story about the day Walt Disney found the land that would later become Walt Disney World. Here is how it all started……
Building Walt Disney World: Arial view of WDW in 1971
All around the world, Nov. 22 is commemorated as the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But another event occurred on the same date that eventually became the most important date in Orlando history: November 22nd was the day that Walt Disney found the land that would eventually become Walt Disney World.

Building Walt Disney World: Finding the Sweet Spot

The story begins in the 1950s, very soon after Disneyland opened in California. With the immediate success of his first park, Walt Disney was soon being asked when and if he would open a second Disneyland with many people suggesting (or asking for) a park on the East Coast. Disney demurred, saying he still needed to work on the California site. But what folks didn’t know is that his second was already on his mind.
Early guest surveys showed that just 2 percent of the guests at Disneyland came from East of the Mississippi, making the eastern United States a fertile market for Disney. Thus began five years of false starts and feigns as Disney searched for the perfect place to build his newest park. Walt Disney first considered building in Niagara Falls, which was, at the time, one of the leading tourist destinations in the nation. However, when he mentioned the idea, he was told if he picked Niagara, then the park could only be open a few months a year.
Next, a site outside of New York City was considered, but was also rejected because of the weather and because Walt thought there was too much competition for the entertainment dollar in the area. Washington, D.C. was considered, and remained in contention until nearly the end. St. Louis appeared to be in the lead, but that area’s geography clashed with what Walt had in mind.  And in the middle of the mix, three Florida sites emerged.
The first was an area around West Palm Beach that nearly became reality. The second and third were near Tampa, so in mid-November, Disney flew in to explore the sites, but nothing was standing out as the perfect place. On Nov. 21, 1963, Walt drove to Ocala to explore additional sites there. He had been there a number of times growing up, his parents had lived in Paisley before he was born, and he had returned as a youth to visit relatives.
For those of you unfamiliar with the area outside of the parks, Paisley is about equal distance between Ocala, Orlando and Daytona Beach. However, local families usually headed for Daytona Beach or Ocala when they needed a trip to the “big city.”  Ocala had some advantages over Daytona though, including the highway system. The turnpike came within a few miles, and two other major highways passed through the town. U.S. Highway 301 was a major north-south route before the interstate was completed, stretching from Delaware to Sarasota. And U.S. Highway 27 stretched from Miami to Canada. Land in Ocala was cheap and plentiful, and the elevation was a few feet higher, which meant the land was not as swampy.
Still not completely satisfied, Walt drove back to Tampa, with one final site to inspect. But Walt was looking for perfection, so the next morning he boarded his private plane and headed for Orlando. He flew over the coastal areas in his Gulfstream, but it just convinced him of what he already knew: he did not want his park built near the coast. He was worried about hurricanes, but his primary concern was that the free beach would be a strong competitor for tourists.
He then turned towareds Orlando, flying low near the intersection of the turnpike and Interstate 4. The land was owned by Bill and Jack Demetree, two cousins who had formed a development company. They had started in Jacksonville, then moved their headquarters to Orlando just a couple of years earlier.
The Demetree cousins were reluctant owners of 12,400 acres. They had bought the land, but through one of those complicated land deals that always seem to happen in Florida, the mineral rights for their land were owned by Tufts University. That meant that there was almost nothing the Demetree cousins could do with their 12,400 acres. They certainly could not build anything. And, they had a $90,000 payment coming due on what had become nothing more than a huge hunting camp.
Walt Disney looked out the window of the plane and said, “That’s it.” 
Walt knew that secrecy would be the key to his project, so he didn’t land in Orlando that day, and he didn’t fly straight back to California either. He decided to land in New Orleans where he was told of President Kennedy’s death. So one of the greatest tragedies in US history shares the date with the birth of ‘The Florida Project’ that changed the fate of central Florida.
Keep Reading about how Walt acquired the land in Part 2: Purchasing the Magic

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