Here’s how Disney, other theme parks played a role in our affordable housing issue

The moment Walt Disney World was announced, the population boom began

BUENA VISTA Fla. – In 1965, when Walt Disney announced he had picked Central Florida for his “Florida Project” that would ultimately be Walt Disney World, the population in Florida was 6.1 million people. Today, it’s more than 21 million people. The population tripling in size of the last 50 years and with the construction of what would ultimately be the largest employer in Florida - came the problems with lack of housing, according to Rick Fogelsong, author of the book Married to the Mouse.

“As I write in my book Married to the Mouse, seldom has the location decision of a single corporation so completely transformed a community as occurred here,” Fogelsong said.

The population growth sparking Fogelsong, the Mickey Mouse even welcomed visitors to the Magic Kingdom on Oct. 1, 1971. Walt Disney World was a large construction project that brought hundreds of construction workers, who in turn needed housing. Vast subdivisions began to open up in Seminole County, apartments built by the dozens along present-day Semoran Boulevard and for the first time condominiums came into the area, historical archives show.

“The population in Orange County was about 350,000 people in the mid-1960s, and by the mid-1970s that had tripled,” Fogelsong said. “You began to see a tremendous boom in apartment construction as well as new home construction in the surrounding area, all in anticipation of what Disney would bring.”

Archives show following Walt Disney’s World opening, Orlando was the “action center of one of the fastest-growing states in the union” and still is to this day. However, with that growth, Fogelsong said came challenges - including the lack of housing.

“It brought with it low-wage jobs and affordable housing challenges that we have here in Central Florida,” he said, adding it hasn’t changed 50 years later. “It really hasn’t because we still have a tremendous affordable housing shortage.”

Fogelsong explains his theory on why Walt Disney World doesn’t build affordable housing.

“There’s a particular reason why Disney can’t build affordable housing. There is plenty of space on the property that they own, where affordable housing can be constructed, but Disney has their own private government,” Fogelsong explained. “And if the company were to build affordable housing, then the people living there would get to vote in the elections of their two cities. Adding just 25 people would potentially enable Disney workers to take control.”

Fogelsong pointed to Celebration, built by Walt Disney World but was ultimately annexed out of the company’s property for this reason.

However Fogelsong said the lack of housing didn’t come with Disney alone, it came with Central Florida becoming the top tourism destination in the world. Other attractions he said bringing in more workers in low-wage positions.

“They are not attributable exclusively to the Walt Disney World company, it’s the legacy of Disney,” he said.

However, it is that legacy that changed Central Florid forever, making a name of what was once little ol’ Orlando.

“We got tremendous growth in employment, tremendous growth in population growth - Disney really put Orlando on the map.”

“Walt Disney World Resort has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations that address basic community needs and are valued by Cast Members who also live, attend school, raise families and thrive in the place we call home,” Disney spokesperson Andrea Finger said.

Finger said any community challenge is a business challenge. She said solutions require partnerships across all sectors.

“Fostering a community where employees can live, work and play is an important element of business success.  We have that in Central Florida, but businesses have to be vigilant about being at the table as issues emerge,” Finger said.

Finger adds time, talent and treasure are needed to address an issue as complex as homelessness.

“More than 100 nonprofits currently address homelessness in Central Florida; each of them can benefit from the support of the business community, so there is an opportunity for all companies—both large and small—to get involved,” Finger said.