Walt Disney World: It all started with Anaheim

While Disneyland may have all started with a mouse, the Florida Project grew out of lessons learned in California

Walt Disney points to a map of Anaheim, CA as seen on the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 (Disney)

BAY LAKE, Fla. – Disneyland was officially announced to the world with the debut of a weekly anthology series of the same name.

First broadcast on ABC-TV on October 27, 1954, Walt spelled out his dream for a place where adults and children could have fun together. By the time of that broadcast, Disneyland itself was already on a crash course construction schedule, opening almost exactly one year to the day of its groundbreaking: July 17, 1955.

"The Disneyland Story" Introduces Walt's plans in Anaheim on the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 (Disney)

In that debut broadcast, itself born of a deal that helped make Disneyland a reality, Walt detailed how the park’s four cardinal realms would inspire distinct types of broadcasts each Sunday evening: Adventureland was “True-Life Adventureland” after his famed nature documentaries.

Adventureland was one area featured on both the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 and the park in 1955 (Disney)

Tomorrowland previewed a science-factual future yet to come that helped fuel excitement for NASA, formed four years later.

Tinkerbell Introduces Tomorrowland on the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 (Disney)
Tinkerbell Introduces Frontierland on the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 (Disney)

Frontierland introduced us to some of the pioneer spirit, including Fess Parker singing the Ballad of Davy Crockett for the first time. In just a few months, that character’s debut would make Parker world-famous and lead to a huge national rush on Coon Skin hats (sadly made with real racoon pelts) but that evening it was there because of Realityland: the broadcast was running short and needed some filler that didn’t cost much.

Fess Parker singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" on the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 (Disney)

When it came time for Fantasyland, Uncle Walt first showed the nation “Brer Rabbit and the Laughing Place” from Song of the South, a story featured (for now) in Splash Mountain -- even if the movie itself is buried deep in the Disney Vault.

Guests ride the Splash Mountain attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., Friday, April 30, 2021. The iconic theme park in Southern California that was closed under the state's strict virus rules swung open its gates Friday and some visitors came in cheering and screaming with happiness. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
A clip from "Song of the South" helps illustrate Walt's plans in Anaheim on the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 (Disney)

The animation of “Laughing Place” is as brilliant as the source material is problematic, but after the chuckles, Walt pulled out a giant storybook and got serious. He told a nation of rapt viewers: “During the last few years, we’ve ventured into a lot of different fields. We’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with a lot of wonderful people. I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing: that it was all started by a mouse. Now that’s why I want this part of the show to belong to Mickey. Because the story of Mickey is truthfully, the real beginning of Disneyland.”

"The Disneyland Story" Introduces Walt's plans in Anaheim on the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 (Disney)

But the Florida Project we know as Walt Disney World has its origins almost the moment Disneyland opened in a forlorn little berg in Southern California that hardly anyone had heard of before: Anaheim. Walt had a brilliant analyst named Harrison “Buzz” Price help him decide where to make his dream of a different kind of a park come true. Price also helped negotiate the final price of $879,000 for 160 acres of orange groves on Ball Road. The sale was announced in May 1954. How Walt regretted that’s all the land he could afford.

A shot of a nearly undeveloped plot of land that became Disneyland in Anaheim, CA as seen on the Disneyland TV series in October, 1954 (Disney)

Understand, much as Snow White was labelled “Disney’s Folly” until its 1937 debut to rapturous applause and ticket sales, Disneyland was such a gamble, even his devoted brother Roy initially said no. To make it happen, Walt himself sold one of his two homes and hocked his life insurance policy for a 16.55% stake (he also personally financed and owned the Disneyland Railroad and, later, the monorail). ABC agreed to invest $500,000 for a 34.49% stake because they were so desperate for the TV hit they knew Walt would deliver (He actually delivered three: Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro before relations turned gargantuanly bad). Likewise “Little Golden Books” publisher Western Printing and Lithography Co. took a 13.8% stake for the right to use Cinderella and the rest in book form. Eventually, Roy Disney ponied up enough for a 34.48% stake for Walt Disney Productions. Though the details of the initial investment dealings later led to a severe strain in the family, it was the last time Roy ever doubted his brother’s ideas.

Disneyland’s debut in July 1955 was widely -- and is now universally -- known as Black Friday. People were using counterfeit tickets and a loose fence to sneak in. A recent plumber’s strike meant there were relatively few drinking fountains ready (Walt -- given the choice in last-minute plumbing priorities -- famously said customers could buy Pepsi but they couldn’t pee in the streets). Women’s high-heel shoes sunk into newly-laid asphalt. A very real natural gas leak near Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride could have literally blown up Sleeping Beauty Castle. Guess what? None of that mattered. The same day, Disney and ABC pulled off a then-revolutionary 90-minute broadcast of the park’s openings with live locations scattered throughout the park, including hosts like Art Linkletter and a lesser-known B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan. The real-life flaws didn’t matter. It was a TV smash sensation and so was Disneyland.

Actor Ronald Reagan was co-host of the live broadcast of the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955 -- long before becoming governor of California or President of the United States (Disney)

Success had its downsides, however. The partnership of investors, not to mention the outside vendors brought in to run stores and restaurants, stymied Walt’s ability to grow and expand what was supposed to be his own private sandbox. The exact details and sources of these immense frustrations are left to the myths and legends, but all accounts agree Walt was furious at the lack of total control, and for having to share the near-instant boatload of success.

Despite the pre-opening chaos of 1954 and 1955, Walt had the foresight to have a neighbor (and Lone Ranger & Lassie producer) named Jack Wrather lease 30 acres and build The Disneyland Hotel. It opened three months after the park. But that decision, too had disadvantages.

Blight and confusing competition surrounding Disneyland in 1985. (Disney)

Soon the orange groves of Anaheim gave way to an urban blight of hotels, restaurants and tacky souvenir shops that is most similar to Central Floridians as U.S. Highway 192 in Kissimmee. Walt and Roy both regretted not controlling the land -- and profits -- surrounding Disneyland. Even though CEO Michael Eisner succeeded in buying out the Wrather family (and buying back the right to build Disneyland-named hotels) in 1988, there are still entanglements to this day that influence what happens around Walt’s original theme park.

A Map of the Anaheim Resort and The Disneyland Resort as seen on a city planning document (Anaheim, California)

For instance, to clear up some of the aforementioned blight, Disney and Anaheim entered into a public/private partnership to create The Anaheim Resort and The Disneyland Resort areas, as of 1996. Now the immediate blocks around Disney’s investment appear much more as Imagineers would have wanted from the start. Limitations of that agreement led to decades of strained ties between Anaheim City leaders and The Walt Disney Company. Disney tried to hit the reset button last year amid the disastrous pandemic closures, in hopes of winning more flexibility for the future of the Disneyland Resort, complete with policy papers, zoning forms, applications, and a promise not to seek government funds “this time.”

Concept art aimed at winning over Anaheim so Disney can have more design freedom; something not needed in Florida thanks to The Reedy Creek Improvement District (Disney)

Time will tell if this new approach will work. Know where any of that will never be an issue? Florida. When deciding in 1963 to pursue an East Coast Disneyland, Walt and Roy learned from all of their frustrations and mistakes. Not only did they obtain 27,400 acres for roughly $5 million, they insisted on a government of, by and for Disney from the Florida Legislature: The Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Sign and lushly-landscaped pathway lead to the Reedy Creek Improvement District Headquarters on Hotel Plaza Blvd, Walt Disney World (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Disney now sets its own building codes and zoning. I’ll soon go into the reasons, powers and brilliance of the RCID, but for a moment look at just the land cost: at $879,000 for 160 acres, Disney paid roughly $5,493.75 /acre for orange groves in Orange County, California. In Orange and Osceola counties, Florida, they paid roughly $182.48 per acre. Talk about the blessing of size. But that land was meant for much more than to keep the hotels of U.S. 192 from coming close to the castle. Walt had a far grander dream in mind.

Painting of EPCOT the city, ca 1965 (Disney)
Disney 50

To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.

We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.

Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!


About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.