Disney's Folio: Project Future

"My fun is working on a project and solving the problems." - Walt Disney

In most accounts of Disney's sojourn to Florida and the development of the company's second park, we hear about Walt Disney's desire to expand to an area with all of the lessons he learned from Disneyland's creation. The stories will detail the covert flights over Florida, the sneaky real estate deals and the sudden announcement that Disney was coming to Florida. Then sadly Walt dies before ground is broken. His brother Roy keeps the project moving forward and Walt Disney World opens in 1971. Walt's EPCOT concept is tweaked by Imagineers from his original "community of the future" idea to the forward-thinking and globally-inspired theme park that we know of today.

But that is a very broad generalization of how Disney came to Florida, typically used for encyclopedic introductions or brief summaries in much larger tomes about Walt Disney World. In Project Future: The Inside Story Behind The Creation of Disney World, author Chad Denver Emerson rectifies that with an exhaustive look at the entire process from Walt's first dreams of the project to the last contracts are signed and the shovels finally hit dirt.

Emerson benefits from focus on the research, analysis and legal wrangling of the project, and keeps to a timeline specifically prior to the opening of Walt Disney World. He isn't trying to tell a grand story for the tourism industry; this is very much a historical account of Disney's foray into Florida.

Project Future starts by detailing Disney's quest eastward for new park locations (and in some variations, not necessarily for what would become Walt Disney World) including Niagara Falls, Kansas City and St. Louis. Eventually the quest heads to Florida and specifically the Orlando area. It really is fascinating reading about the culture of the state at the time. (Especially later on when there's actual debate about the tax benefits of Disney's presence in Florida!) Casual fans might retroactively think that Disney World fit into a perfect location, primed for the lay of this new land. However, that location came to be what it is today largely because of Disney's presence and as such the infrastructure and landscape had to be largely reconfigured to be what is today.

The meat of the book focuses on the spy-like maneuvers the Disney company took to acquire the land needed to fit their proposed project. This included the use of aliases and dummy corporations to avoid the sort of premium that would've been put on properties if Disney was known to be the buyer. The process was a lot more complex, as detailed here, than those aforementioned anecdotal tales often let on.

At the same time, Disney had to contend with sensitive government dealings and the delicate nature of bringing their vision to what was largely a swamp. Project Future features in-depth discussions about the installation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing jurisdiction of the land that Walt Disney World occupies. (Of note: this isn't a Disney-endorsed book and Emerson unfortunately did not have access to Disney's archives. However, he utilized many other reliable sources, including former Disney executives.)

While some may find the book a little dry and lacking pixie dust, Emerson clearly makes great compromises with often complex concepts to make them a little easier to digest for the uninitiated. Still, you'll find a lot of legal goings-on, and not necessarily on a level as compelling as a John Grisham thriller. This was a harsh reality of getting Walt Disney World built as Disney had so many different variables to deal with than they had in getting Disneyland built. The book checks in at under 200 pages though it lacks any photographs or blueprints from the project (in an attempt to keep the cost of the book down). Also, at times (specifically the legal challenges near the end of the book) it is still difficult to wrap your head around the wild details involved in all the lawsuits, land improvements and tax discussions.

Disney has always been hesitant to pull the veil off much of what Emerson discusses here, likely because they have always felt their target audience was only casually interested in the nitty gritty details behind the creation of Walt Disney World. However, that thinking tends to overlook a large segment of Disney's most ardent fans. (You know the ones who run blogs and scour the internet for up-to-the-minute construction photos of the Fantasyland expansion!) Chad Emerson's Project Future nicely fills in that void for those of us looking for more of the real story.

Details about the book, along with timelines and key player information that is featured in the book's appendix, are featured at www.projectfuturebook.com.