Nowadays, Florida’s Walt Disney World—the most popular theme park destination on the planet—cultivates its global image through heavyweight marketing, synergistic sister brands, and a veritable army of loyal fans who praise the resort in all corners of social media.
But it wasn’t always that way. In the mid-1960s, when Walt Disney was secretly buying up parcels of land for his yet-to-be-built “Florida Project,” neither Walt nor a single one of his employees would go on the record to confirm the theme park kingdom was in the works. It fell to the Orlando Sentinel, the local newspaper of the modest citrus-industry farm town nearby, to piece together what was about to happen to the community.
On October 20, 1965, the paper’s low-level “girl reporter” (yes, that’s how journalist Emily Bavar was credited on the front page) was dispatched to grill Walt Disney himself. She correctly deduced the Mouse’s imminent arrival in Central Florida.
“I sat beside [Walt Disney] at lunch and was certain I was ruining his lamb chops as I turned the conversation … to Central Florida,” wrote Bavar. “He knew the average annual rainfall, he was familiar with present and proposed highways, he knew there would be a large labor force as work on Cape Kennedy tapered off. … The Central Florida acreage had to be Walt Disney’s. That’s what I told my editor when I called from the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.”
Pictured above: Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle under construction on July 7, 1971, less than three months before the grand opening