An army of real estate agents fanned out over central Florida, working on behalf of a mystery client. They bought thousands of acres, sometimes offering as little as $100. Who was the buyer? They couldn't tell anyone. In fact, they didn't really know for sure.
Then, a newspaper figured it out. The governor held a press conference to get in front of the story.
The buyer was Walt Disney, 50 years ago this month, and that's how the story of his most ambitious creation broke--"the greatest attraction in the history of Florida," as he called it.
Walt Disney World opened 44 years ago today. I guarantee you begged your parents to take you there when you were a kid. Now Disney is old school, one of those entrepreneurs whose legacy has been around so long we hardly notice it. If you dig deep, however, you can take a lot of inspiration from his story. Here are some of the most surprising and interesting facts:
1. He grew up poor.
We have no shortage of Horatio Alger tales in America, but Disney's story was the real deal. He was the fourth of five children, and his family had very little money--which is why they bounced from Chicago to a Missouri farm to Kansas City in search of a living. Two of his older brothers ran away when he was just 4, sick of the constant work and deprivations. Still, Disney persevered, in part because of the support of the family's neighbors.
2. If not for his neighbors, there'd be no Frozen.
Or Pinocchio, or Lion King for that matter. When he was just a child, one of Disney's neighbors hired him to draw pictures of the man's horse. He also became friends with a boy named Walter Pfeiffer, whose family had been in vaudeville and theater and who introduced Disney to the world of the movies. Without them, he might never have developed his interest in animation and art to begin with.
3. He lied about his age to join the military.
Disney certainly had a spirit of adventure. He was 16 years old when the U.S. entered World War I, but he claimed to be old enough to serve and attempted to join the U.S. Navy. When he was turned down, he tried unsuccessfully to join the Canadian armed forces. Finally, he was accepted as a Red Cross ambulance driver--the same job Ernest Hemingway had. Disney trained with fellow enlistee Ray Kroc, the future founder of McDonald's, although the war ended before he made it overseas.
4. His first studio went bankrupt.
Back in Kansas City after the war, Disney landed a job at an art studio working on print advertisements. He and a co-worker left to start their own commercial company, and he ultimately wound that business down to start another studio focusing on animation, called Laugh-O-Gram. None of these businesses were big financial successes. Although Laugh-O-Gram's cartoons were popular, the company eventually went bankrupt. Maybe there's some alternative universe in which Kansas City winds up being the center of American entertainment--but Disney headed to Hollywood.
5. He created Mickey Mouse as a result of a bad business deal.
Disney's new California studio worked on an animated series called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which was distributed by Universal Pictures and became very popular. However, instead of increasing Disney's production fee, his client tried to get him to take a pay cut, and when the dust settled, Disney had lost the rights to the popular character. Disney started work on another animated character: Mortimer Mouse. His wife suggested renaming him Mickey, which sounded happier.
6. He had to mortgage his house to create his first epic movie.
Disney's studio primarily created cartoon shorts that were to be shown before feature-length films, but he started to think about doing a full-length, animated movie. Almost nobody else thought this was a good idea. His brother (and business partner) Roy Disney objected, and Hollywood wags referred to it as "Disney's Folly." The cost approached $1.5 million--but when the movie, Snow White, was released, it was hailed as an "authentic masterpiece" by Time magazine and brought in $8 million. (That's about the same as $134 million today.)
7. He still holds the record for the most Academy Awards and Oscar nominations.
Disney had a string of acclaimed animated hits after Snow White in the early 1940s, including Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. He had a few misses as well--we could write an entire separate column about Song of the South--but ultimately, he won 22 Academy Awards and was nominated 59 times. Both marks stand as records.
8. His studio went to war during World War II--and he almost lost everything as a result.
With the dawn of the Second World War, the European and Asian film markets disappeared, and when the U.S. entered combat, Disney's studio went to work creating training and propaganda movies for the U.S. Army. Disney's business suffered, also because many of his key employees were drafted into the military. It wasn't until 1950's Cinderella that his studio fully recovered.
9. He considered his first giant theme park success a major disappointment.
In the late 1940s, Disney began to think about building physical places to attract families. His idea for the original Disneyland reportedly came after he visited a theme park in Oakland, California. Still, he came to see this first creation as a disappointment. Instead of the park he envisioned, The New York Times reported, he was "heartsick" to realize he had created an environment full of:
... seedy hotels, garish advertisements, vistas of the wrong sorts of people. ... How was he supposed to fashion a flawless dream environment, with urban blight as the backdrop? For that, he needed control over the entire context of the park. Not a land, in other words, but a world.
10. He included a hidden memorial to his father within Disneyland.
One of the windows in one of the buildings on Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland reads, "Elias Disney, Contractor." It's an ironic reference to Disney's father, given that for most of Disney's childhood, the family was forced to move repeatedly looking for work and economic security, and that the date in the window--"Est. 1895" predated Walt Disney's birth by six years.
11. Walt Disney World was named to ensure he wouldn't be forgotten.
Unlike the California park, which is called Disneyland, the Florida creation includes Disney's first name in its official name. The reason is that Disney died in 1966, and Roy, who postponed retirement to oversee construction, insisted that his brother's first name be included, saying:
Everyone has heard of Ford cars. But have they all heard of Henry Ford, who started it all? Walt Disney World is in memory of the man who started it all, so people will know his name as long as Walt Disney World is here.
12. Half a century after Disney's death, Walt Disney World is still the most-visited vacation destination resort anywhere.
About 52 million people visit Walt Disney World every year. That's more than two and a half times the population of Florida itself.