October is a big month for fans of Walt Disney World. October is when the Orlando Sentinel announced in 1965 that Disney was coming to Central Florida. October is when the resort opened with its first theme park, Magic Kingdom, in 1971. October is also when Epcot opened, finally, in 1982.
October is also when Beyond the Wisdom of Walt: Life Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth released. In celebration of the one-year anniversary, I want to share an excerpt from my book on Walt Disney World. This is the opening story for Chapter 2, “Learning to Let it Go”.
ABOVE THE CRYSTAL ARTS SHOP on Main Street, U.S.A. in Walt Disney World is a curious window. This, like many of the Main Street windows at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, is a tribute window- Walt’s way of giving credit to the men and women who helped make his dreams possible. This particular pane pays homage to an “M.T. Lott.” Who was M.T. Lott?
What did M.T. Lott ever do for Disney?
M.T. Lott never existed. Further, the window credits M.T. Lott with being in the real estate investment business even though M.T. Lott was never real. This is a fictitious business name, a clever Imagineering word play for “empty lot”, which is exactly what the land where Walt Disney World sits today was back in the 1960s.
What the window really represents is the half-dozen dummy corporations Disney created to purchase the property, in secret, before announcing to the world that Disney was coming to central Florida. Subsidiaries of M.T. Lott include: Tomahawk Properties, Latin American Development, Ayefour (I-4) Corporation, Bay Lake Properties, Reedy Creek Ranch Lands, and Compass East Corporation. Donn Tatum, a Disney executive who served as Disney’s chief executive officer following Roy Disney’s death in 1971, is the real honoree here. He played a major role in acquiring the 27,440 acres, and his tongue-in-cheek tribute reads, “A Friend in Deeds is a Friend Indeed.”
In 1965, it was indeed no secret someone was purchasing large tracts of swampland south of Orlando. Speculation regarding who, and for what, ran rampant in the local media for months. Possible enterprises included an East Coast Disneyland, but most believed it was associated with either the aerospace industry or automobile manufacturing. The Big Reveal came on Sunday, October 24, 1965, when residents in the sleepy city awoke to a banner headline. Splashed across the top of the Sunday edition of the Orlando Sentinel were these words: “We Say: ‘Mystery’ Industry is Disney.” Details were scant, but subheadlines show the Sentinel knew instantly that central Florida would never be the same:
“City to Become Hub for Millions of Tourists, Billions of Dollars”
“Disneyland Produces Fantastic Prosperity”
“City [EPCOT] Housing 10,000 People Will Be Build”
Walt had warned the handful of people within Disney who knew what the company was up to in central Florida that they would lose their jobs if they let word get out that Disney was indeed the buyer. Guess who let the secret slip?
During Disneyland’s Tencennial Celebration, the company treated the press to tours of Disneyland and one-on-one interviews with Walt. Following her tour, Emily Bavar of the Orlando Sentinel asked Walt directly whether he was the one purchasing large tracts of land in Orlando.
“He looked like I had thrown a bucket of water in his face,” Bavar recalled.
Trying to recover, Walt responded, “Why would we want to locate way out in that area?” He then gave Bavar a billion reasons why he wanted nothing to do with Orlando or central Florida.
The world’s best storyteller was also the world’s worst liar. Bavar believed it was Disney because Walt had never actually answered her question and knew way too much about Orlando for a man with no interest in building there.
Once the news broke on October 24, things moved quickly. An official announcement was made the following day, and then Walt, Roy, and the governor of Florida, Hayden Burns, held a press conference on November 15 at Orlando’s Cherry Plaza Hotel. This was Walt’s first public mention of his desire to build a “City of Tomorrow.” Regarding the theme park, Walt reminded the Governor that he always said, “There will never be another Disneyland,” but that they had learned “an awful lot” over the past ten years and looked forward in Florida to “starting from scratch.”
Thanks to Walt’s gaff, prices on the remaining parcels jumped from an average of $183 an acre to $1,000. Disney only needed to acquire 300 acres more, however, so the total purchase price for all the land was about five million. Not bad for land eleven miles long, four miles wide, equal in size to San Francisco, and twice the size of the island of Manhattan.
I’ve never had a secret as large as the one Walt was keeping in 1965. At least not anything that involved 27,000 acres and $5 million. I have, however, done dumb things without the luxury of dummy corporations to help keep them hidden. Have you ever wished that you could start over? Doesn’t the idea of “starting from scratch” sound amazing? But that’s not life. When it comes to dreams and success, “M.T. Lott” is nowhere to be found. Our past isn’t always pretty. Like Walt, our future doesn’t always go as planned. Bad things happen. Sometimes, really bad things happen.
The greatest danger in life isn’t making a mistake, risking a relationship, or losing a loved one. All those things, and more, will happen regardless.
The greatest danger in life is staying stuck. Refusing to move forward.
That’s when you know it is time to let it go.
-Aubrey De Graf