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Bob Foster and the Founding of a Disney Kingdom

posted on November 22nd, 2013 by Steven Vagnini, Archivist, Walt Disney Archives


“Well, that’s the place – Florida,” Walt Disney reportedly decided on a flight from New Orleans to Burbank, Calif. on November 22, 1963 – 50 years ago today. Walt and a group of company executives had just toured east coast sites in an effort to find the best location for a “Disneyland East.” But those words confirmed Walt’s choice for his “whole new Disney World.”

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Those words would also change the fate of Disney legal counsel Bob Foster, “Disney’s Official Clod Kicker” who was charged in April 1964 with scouting for land that would eventually become home to the Walt Disney World Resort. I recently visited with Bob at his home office, taking moments to admire the surrounding framed sketches of the hotels in Lake Buena Vista (a city that he named).

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“I was asked to go into the hinterlands and, in a quiet manner, surreptitiously buy a piece of real estate – somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 acres,” Bob remembered of the initial assignment. He would spend more than 18 months spearheading the acquisition of what ultimately amounted to 27,443 acres of land – a property twice the size of the island of Manhattan!

Adopting the pseudonym “Bob Price,” he took extra measures to prevent inquisitive residents from realizing that Disney was the “mystery industry” purchasing the large tracts of Central Florida land. “On my trips back to California, I would visit my mother in Kansas, which required a stop in St. Louis,” Bob told me with a grin. “At least on a couple of occasions, I did not conceal that I was flying to that city. So it was not surprising when McDonnell Aircraft, headquartered in St. Louis, was soon identified, ‘on reliable authority,’ as being the mystery industry!”

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At 8 a.m. on October 24, 1965, Bob and a colleague stepped into the lobby of an Orlando hotel to meet General Joe Potter. Joe turned to face the pair, holding before him that day’s issue of The Orlando Sentinel, which featured the banner headline, “We Say: ‘Mystery’ Industry is Disney.”

“Breakfast was a solemn affair,” Bob remembered. “I called [then-Vice President] Card Walker so that he could inform Walt and Roy and prepare for Monday’s onslaught of phone calls. Before hanging up, I couldn’t resist reminding Card that I had been going to Florida for over a year and kept it quiet … then Card sent his people with me, and overnight, the news gets out!”

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In the end, the property that would become Walt Disney World Resort was purchased at an average price of $180 dollars an acre – an incredible feat considering that shortly after the announcement was made, a nearby acre sold for more than $300,000! While much work was still ahead for Bob and his colleagues – namely, the mammoth effort to establish the Reedy Creek Improvement District – there was relief that the Disney property was secured.

Now, what if 50 years ago, Walt had instead chosen Washington, D.C., for his east coast enterprise? What a different world this would be!

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Filed: Disney History, Walt Disney World Resort

7 Comments 2 Replies

1

Jeffrey from OH on November 22nd, 2013 at 11:33 am

It is funny how natural Florida seems as the perfect choice now after all of these years. Thanks Walt et al for a great plan.

2

Kenny on November 22nd, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Among the several dummy corporations used to buy property in Florida without people tying it to Disney, by far my favorite company name was M.T. Lott Co. Real Estate Investments (say that first part out loud). Ayefour Corporation was another good one (as the property is near the I-4 highway).

Compass East Corporation and Bay Lake Properties, Incorporated are all well and good, but I love that a couple of the corporation names were plays on words, like something you would see on the mausoleum outside the Haunted Mansion.

 

Steven Vagnini on November 22nd, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Hi, Kenny: “Ayefour Corporation” is one of our favorites, too! Bob shared with us some additional names of the corporations, which included Latin-American Development and Management Corporation, Madeira Land Company, and Tomahawk Properties. He also shared how attorneys Paul Helliwell and real estate consultant Roy Hawkins helped to name and manage them. Most of the names can be seen on a window on Main Street, U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom, where former Disney CEO Donn Tatum is honored as president of “M.T. Lott Real Estate Investments.” :)

3

Skip from FL on November 22nd, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Welcome to the blog Mr. Steven!

4

Jason on November 23rd, 2013 at 7:59 pm

I simply love the story of the founding of Walt Disney World.

5

Jeffrey on November 24th, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Sam Gennawey’s book “Walt and the Promise of Progress City” goes into considerable detail on the research and selection of the site. It’s interesting to think of how Walt Disney World would be if Walt accepted proposals to build on the NY World’s Fair or the (never built) DC World’s Fair. The book is worth a read if you’re interested in how Walt and his secret team worked on the plan.

6

Theresa on November 25th, 2013 at 9:47 am

Is there a authorized Disney book about the history and development of WDW? Also, if Walt chose DC instead of FL, I would have laughed.

I was raised in Florida and I now live outside of DC. WDW wouldn’t be open year round because of the cold weather plus I don’t think DC could handle the traffic.

 

Steven Vagnini on November 28th, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Hi Theresa:

Jeff Kurtti’s book, Since the World Began: Walt Disney World – The First 25 Years (Disney Editions, 1996), written on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Resort, is an excellent book about the evolution of Walt Disney World up to that time. Many of the biographies on Walt and Roy Disney also talk about the early development of the Florida Project. Have a happy Thanksgiving! :)

7

Johnathan on November 30th, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Great article Steven! Thanks for sharing and keeping the stories alive!

7 Comments