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Disney’s Two Cities: The History of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida easily
sees more than fifty million guests every year. It also stands as the largest single-site employer in the United States, with over 70,000 cast members. It’s easy to liken it to a city because
the reality is that it is a city. In fact it’s two cities and a special district,
and while that’s all boring legislation on paper, it’s one of the most crucial elements
in this vacation kingdom working the way it does. So today I’m going to take a close look
at the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the city of Bay Lake, and the city of Lake Buena
Vista to see how they work, why they were created, and how they shaped Walt Disney World
into what it is today. Alright let’s start at the top. This is Florida. Home to mosquitoes, humidity, and a very strange
super hero. Like most states, it’s comprised of many smaller
jurisdictions called counties. Walt Disney World is here. It sits in Orange and Osceola County, but
mostly Orange. Disney World also sits within a Disney World
shaped special district called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. As you probably already suspect and we will
soon learn, this is not a coincidence. Like Disney, Reedy Creek sits within Orange
and Osceola County, but mostly Orange. Now within that district sits two cities:
the city of Bay Lake and the city of Lake Buena. They both reside entirely in Orange county. So to recap, Disney World spans two cities
and one special district which sits within two counties… in one state. Now… why? Why a special district? Why two cities? The answer: EPCOT. EPCOT was Walt’s baby when it came to the
Disney World project. It was going to be his answer to the many
growing problems in American cities at the time. A fully planned community that would house
up to 20,000 residents who would act as living testers for what could be done with technology,
organization, and most importantly, control. A large part of what made Disneyland such
a success was the carefully controlled design and layout of the park, and the idea was that
same level of control and design would create an equally successful city. On top of that, Walt wanted EPCOT to be a
city of the future, so much so that the first letter of EPCOT is literally “experimental”. That meant experimental layouts, experimental
building techniques, experimental transportation methods, even experimental forms of education
for the kids living there. All of that experimenting sounded really great
on paper, but it would also mean constantly convincing Orange County to go along with
their plans since the county controlled all of that. Unless… they didn’t have to ask the county
to play along. Enter, the special district. Special districts in Florida date all the
way back to the Road, Highway, and Ferry Act of 1822, which was so far back that Florida
wasn’t even a state yet. The general idea behind a special district
is that it’s a governing jurisdiction that gets established to focus on one specific
purpose. So for instance, a special district might
be setup with a focus on mosquito control in the area. They’d be given the powers to create, manage,
and maintain the systems needed to keep mosquito numbers down, and they’d be able to do it
using taxes they had the power to levy or bonds they’d have the ability to issue. The idea was that having a specific board
focused on that one single task would mean it would be executed better than if it was
one of the many different tasks that a general-purpose government like a county, had to worry about. So here comes Disney, figuring that if they
establish a special district for themselves, it’d give them the ability to govern themselves
so that Orange and Osceola Counties wouldn’t have to. It would give them control. So what would that special district be established
for? Mosquito management? Roads? Water management? Waste management? Utilities? Building codes? The answer, as it turned out, was “all of
the above.” The Reedy Creek Improvement District, named
after the creek running through Disney’s land, was unlike any other special district
that came before it. Reedy Creek aimed to control as much as possible. Disney would be able to issue bonds to fund
its development, establish and enforce their own building codes, maintain their own utilities,
and build their own road system. It even provided an open ended freedom to
utilize nuclear power and other experimental forms of power that might be developed later
on. But special districts, by design, don’t
offer powers for everything. So even with Reedy Creek, Disney would still
be dependent on the counties for some matters, unless they formed their own city
while they were at it. During a seminar in June of 1965, which was
called the Project Future Seminar, Disney leadership got together to discuss all of
the plans, issues, and potential solutions that would come with Walt’s Disney World
idea. A city municipality would grant Disney the
power to issue business licenses, build health care facilities, manage communication such
as telephone service, establish a police force, setup a civil court with appointed judges,
and even own and operate a cemetery. Just some of the many things that a city would
typically need. Disney decided to propose two cities. Bay Lake would sit within the northern end
of their property and encompass everything that was going to be tied to the vacation
resort. The city of Reedy Creek would initially sit
towards the south, overlapping with both Orange and Osceola counties. It would cover the area that Walt originally
envisioned for Disney World’s airport and entrance complex. The land in between, reserved for EPCOT and
the industrial park, would be governed by just Reedy Creek, the district not the city. This approach protected them a bit. If something went awry with EPCOT, it would
minimize the impact on the vacation portion of their land and vice versa. It would also free them up to eventually develop
areas of the city of Reedy Creek for residents without having to worry about its impact on
the Magic Kingdom. In fairness, this approach wasn’t a one-way
street either. By establishing the district and municipalities,
Disney would effectively be able to tax themselves in order to pay for and build the massive
infrastructure that a project like Disney World would require, rather than passing on
the bill to the taxpayers of Orange County, which was about a fifth of the population
it is today. This seminar is also where the initial idea
came up to limit voting rights within the district to just landowners. Disney was concerned that if those 20,000
residents of EPCOT decided to vote against Disney’s interests, they’d lose that one
element they held closest to them: control. So instead, they would lease the housing to
EPCOT’s residents, disqualifying them from voting rights in the district. Disney, owning the overwhelming majority of
land in the district, would have all of the voting power, and thus complete control of
Reedy Creek. Now if all of this sounds like a gray area,
that’s because it was. Even at the time, Disney wasn’t fully sure
if this idea had legs. They cited three court cases as precedent
to defend their ability to limit voting rights, but at the very same time another case, Avery
v Midland County, was making its way to the supreme court. And while that case was not a 1:1 comparison
to what Disney wanted to do, it was all about equal voting rights within a county based
on population density. Ultimately the court sided with Avery which
indirectly put a big question mark over EPCOT. It didn’t necessarily invalidate Disney’s
idea, but it was a reminder to them that at some point in the future a resident of EPCOT
might challenge Disney’s way of governing, and they might even win. But it was a bridge to cross another day. In December of 1966 Walt Disney died, and
very quickly the entire Disney World project was up in the air. Without a visionary like Walt to lead the
charge, how could something as unique as EPCOT come to fruition? However just as quickly as the project was
thrown into question, that question was answered, and it was answered by Walt’s older brother
Roy. Roy pledged to move forward with the Disney
World project. The plan would be to start with phase one,
which would include the Magic Kingdom theme park and its surrounding hotels. EPCOT, the city, would have to come later. Now, this is all important because this quick
turn of events really set the stage for the next 50 years of Disney World’s history. In 1966, Walt Disney Productions was nowhere
near the international mega-corporation that The Walt Disney Company is today. Walt wasn’t some numbers-driven CEO looking
to please shareholders. To many he was Uncle Walt, and he was a personality
that a generation had grown up watching on television every week. An unprecedented amount of governmental authority
over private land was about to be requested by a company that the country trusted while
they were still mourning the loss of their beloved boss. On top of that, it was a request that came
with it a promise of making Florida the eventual home of a city of the future that would lure
in industry, tourists, and folks looking to make central Florida their home. So it was no surprise that when legislation
to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District, and the cities of Reedy Creek and Bay Lake
was introduced, it was passed with virtually no resistance. In the wake of Walt’s death, Walt Disney
Productions found themselves with a level of control that would appease most of the
concerns they had when it came to the future of Disney World. Less than three years later, while the resort
was still in the process of being built, Disney once again turned to the state of Florida
to pass legislation moving some things around. Citing a “rearrangement of development activity
and adjustment of our planning activities” which is as vague as it sounds, Disney wanted
to move the city of Reedy Creek from the border of Orange and Osceola County to the northeastern
portion of their land. It was that same year they’d rename the
city from Reedy Creek to Lake Buena Vista, which was a reference to the street that Walt
Disney Studios was located on over in California. To run and manage the two cities and district,
a small select handful of loyal Disney employees would get to live on property in order to
vote. Part of the agreement included a buy-back
clause that gave Disney the right to purchase back that land in the event of the employee’s
termination with the company. So if that Disney employee went rogue and
started voting against Disney, all Disney would have to do is fire them, buy back the
land, and effectively strip that person of their voting rights. When Disney World opened in 1971, Walt had
been gone for nearly five years, yet his dream of EPCOT the city was still around. Prior to the opening Disney created a subsidiary
called the Buena Vista Land Company, which would be tasked with developing the city of
Lake Buena Vista as a sort-of warm-up for EPCOT. However just two months after the opening
of Walt Disney World, Roy Disney passed away. For the first time Walt Disney Productions
wasn’t run by a Disney. In January of 1972, Disney formally announced
their plans for the city of Lake Buena Vista. Those plans included four new hotels, a shopping
center, a golf course, townhouses, apartments, a 10-bed emergency hospital, and a post office. It would represent a fifty-million dollar
investment by both Disney and partnering companies. The initial goal was to reach between three
and four thousand residents within the first five years, with a maximum residency of fifteen
thousand. There was even talk of establishing a Lake
Buena Vista police force once it was fully developed. But now without Walt or Roy steering the ship,
the first signs of abandoning the city concepts began to show. Disney did go through with a lot of those
Lake Buena Vista plans. The Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was
built, as was the golf course, post office, and 27 townhouse retreats. But that’s where the hesitancy came through. Rather than selling the town-homes to people
who would become residents of Lake Buena Vista, Disney instead opted to lease them to corporations,
with the hope that those corporations would use them as employee retreats or for potential
clients. Lake Buena Vista would ultimately never see
those fifteen thousand residents. It didn’t even see the initial three to
four thousand. The shopping village would eventually be known
as Downtown Disney and today Disney Springs. The town-homes built for those first residents
would eventually become the Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa and Treehouse Villas. The Lake Buena Vista golf course would…
well that just remained a golf course. As the plans for residents at Lake Buena Vista
faded away, so too did the plans for a city called EPCOT. The evolution of EPCOT from city of tomorrow
to Disney World’s second theme park could fill an entire video in itself, but the short
of it is that it was eventually designed to be a year-round permanent World’s Fair. It would showcase new technologies from corporate
partners and give guests a cultural taste of various nations from around the world with
international pavilions. There were undoubtedly many long and short
term causes for that EPCOT evolution. The death of its visionary creator. The passing of Roy. The economic woes of the 1970’s due to two
energy crisis’ overseas. Perhaps another reason to add to the list
was the uncertainty. The uncertainty that a means of maintaining control,
which would have been crucial to a project like EPCOT, would not last a challenge. In 1978 and then again in 1983 the city of
Bay Lake was expanded, annexing land that was once set aside for the city of EPCOT. By that point the public had already known
that EPCOT was not going to be the city of the future Walt dreamed of. On paper, that expansion of Bay Lake meant
that any protections the two municipalities offered Disney in their attempt to put a theme
park and city in the same place were gone. Outside of the small group of hand-picked
employees who controlled the cities in Disney’s stead, nobody would live at Disney World. This would be true of the future as well. Decades later when Disney embarked on creating
the town of Celebration, they were careful to de-annex the land from the Reedy Creek
Improvement District, removing any chance of the homeowners impacting their kingdom. It was a precautionary measure they would
take once more when they created Golden Oak, another community, this time tucked right
between Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. These two places are often sold-as and covered-as
an opportunity to live at Disney World, and while it’s about as close as you can get
to living at Disney World, Disney made sure you technically aren’t. Over those years the state has, on more than
one occasion, explored the possibility of revoking Disney’s control through dissolving
Reedy Creek, but it never got anywhere close to happening. The reality is that even though Disney never
carried through with their initial promise of a city of the future, they still contributed
a great deal to the development of central Florida. There may not be 20,000 residents in EPCOT,
but Orange County now has over 1.3 million residents, and it would be foolish to pretend
that Disney didn’t play a big part in that. On top of that, Disney has been pretty responsible
with the powers they’ve been granted, to the point where they haven’t even exercised
most of the ones tied to having a city. There is no Disney police force. No courts with judges appointed by the mouse. No nuclear power plants. Like any other place, it’s not perfect,
but as far as resorts go it’s incredibly safe and well maintained. So really, Florida doesn’t see much of a
reason to take those powers away. Reedy Creek, and it’s two cities, are fascinating. On the one hand, they absolutely played a
crucial role in the development of Walt Disney World. To this day, Disney’s control over their
land has allowed them to build something that truly is one of a kind. On the other hand, they were initially formed
with the goal of making this dream of EPCOT a reality, and in that sense they never fulfilled
their purpose. EPCOT was a concept that required an unmatched
level of control in Florida, and even with an unprecedented level of power, Disney wasn’t
100% sure it would work. It was a big “what-if” in a story filled
with “what-ifs”. We’ll never know how the journey of Reedy
Creek would have differed had Walt not died in 1966, or if they decided to go forward
with EPCOT or Lake Buena Vista despite the uncertainties, or if that means of governing
was ever challenged. We were potentially a few key moments away
from a very different Walt Disney World.

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