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"Project Future" reveals the many sidetrips that Walt took on the road to Disney World

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"Project Future" reveals the many sidetrips that Walt took on the road to Disney World

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At this past weekend's Destination D event, Tim O'Day - as part of his "Disneyland:  The Happiest Place in Pop Culture" presentation - screened a clip from "A Hole in the Head." Which was this 1959 Frank Sinatra film, where Ol' Blue Eyes played Tony Manetta. Who was the owner of this unsuccessful hotel in Miami who hopes to turn his fortunes around by building "... a Disneyland" in Florida.

Which (in the context of this Frank Capra-directed movie, anyway) is presented as sort of an off-the-wall idea. The type of thing that a guy could only dream up if he had (you guessed it) "A Hole in the Head."

Now where this story gets a trifle bizarre is -at the exact same time that this Sincap production was being released to theaters (i.e. June of 1959) - Disney executives were actively contemplating building something just like this in the Sunshine State. Just 71 miles away from where Tony Manetta wanted to build his Disneyland-in-Florida.

Copyright Ayefour Publishing. All rights reserved

As Chad Denver Emerson recounts in his excellent "Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World" (Ayefour Publishing, February 2010) ...

... One of the earliest indications of Walt's interest in Florida occurred at a June 1959 meeting in Burbank, California, with NBC executives. The executives had scheduled the meeting hoping to persuade Walt to partner with NBC in developing a theme park in New York ...

... Walt declined to participate in the New York theme-park project because of concerns about a short operating season and the cost of acquiring land in the area. Yet his decline did not represent the end of his work with NBC. That same year, he and NBC discussed developing a project in the Palm Beach, Florida area in land owned by John D. MacArthur, an eccentric billionaire who made much of his money by starting the Bankers Life and Casualty Company. With this wealth, MacArthur had purchased huge tracts of land in North Palm Beach County.

Disney's specific interest in a Florida resort became particularly focused when Buzz Price conducted two Florida-based studies in 1959, one related to the recreation market in Florida and another related to the feasibility of developing a Disney resort in Palm Beach. The original Palm Beach proposal involved a venture between Disney, MacArthur, and the Radio Corporation of America [RCA], at the time owned by NBC. Walt conceived of more than just a version of Disneyland on the east coast. Instead, building on his growing interest in cities and urban development, the Palm Beach project called for a "Community of Tomorrow," which included a four-hundred-acre theme park and a town center for seventy thousand people.

So you have to wonder about how all those Disney executives & attorneys thought when - right in the middle of all their super-secret negotiations with NBC, RCA and MacArthur for Walt's "Community of Tomorrow" project - "A Hole in the Head" pops up in theaters. With Frank Sinatra's character going on & on about how "... a Disneyland" in Florida just couldn't miss.

You wanna hear the really bizarre part of this story? Because of this whole building-a-Disneyland-in-Florida subplot in "A Hole in the Head," Walt actually goes out of his way to see this United Artists release. Disney then walks away from this Frank Sinatra film raving about Keenan Wynn's performance in that picture (Wynn plays Jerry Marx, an old crony of Tony Manetta who's now this big-time promoter Miami. Sinatra's character in the picture goes to see Marx at the grand opening of his new Miami Beach hotel. With the hope that Keenan's character can then put up the $5,000,000 necessary to turn Manetta's Disneyland-in-Miami dream into reality).

(L to R) Tommy Kirk, Keenan Wynn, Fred MacMurray and Leon Ames in "The Absent-
Minded Professor." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And then the next thing you know, Walt's hiring Keenan to appear in all sort of pictures for Walt Disney Productions. Playing Alonzo P. Hawk in 1961's "The Absent-Minded Professor" & 1963's "Son of Flubber," and then - after Walt's untimely passing in December of 1966 - playing the same sort of greedy financier in 1972's "Snowball Express," 1974's "Herbie Rides Again" and 1976's "The Shaggy D.A." And Wynn got all of these parts because Disney liked what he saw when he went to go see "A Hole in the Head." A movie which could have potentially blown his own plans to build a Disneyland-in-Florida right out of the water.

Anyway ... Getting back to "Project Future" now:  Emerson does a great job of digging down deep and unearthing all sorts of seldom-told tales about Walt's East Coast adventures. Including that time in 1963 when Disney toyed with the idea of building an attraction of sorts right at the edge of Niagara Falls. This proposal ...

... came from Seagram's, the well-known liquor company. The idea involved a Disney role in developing tourist attractions at Niagara Falls. The irony of this proposal was that Walt himself had almost completely banned the sale of alcohol at Disneyland. Nevertheless, his interest in an attraction at Niagara Falls was serious enough that he visited the Falls in August of 1963 and met with local officials about the potential project. Traveling on a Beechcraft plane the company had recently purchased, Walt arrived in Niagara with his wife, Lillian; his brother, Roy;  and Roy's wife, Edna.

Seagram Tower circa 1963

They checked into the Hotel Sheraton Brock and that evening joined city officials for dinner at the home of a local business leader, Paul Schoellkopf. The next morning, Walt met with Franklin Miller, Major of Niagara Falls, and received a bird's-eye tour of the Falls from an observation tower. At the top, autograph-seeking fans surrounded Walt, and he obliged many of them before being whisked off on an elevator for the trip back down. The excitement surrounding Walt's visit was so intense that a woman squeezed into the elevator to meet him, leaving her husband and children alone at the top of the tower. The behavior more typically experienced by a rock star or movie icon was now being shown to Walt.

While he denied considering a second Disneyland in Niagara, Walt did confirm he was negotiating to participate in another type of project on the Canadian side of the Falls. He would not give any more details, but news reports linked his interest to an expansion of the Seagram Tower, a local attraction which was opened in June 1962 as the brainchild of several area business leaders by C.H. Augspurger from Buffalo, New York.

Designed by the Canadian architecture firm of Horton and Bell, the tower was located on a nearly two-acre parcel overlooking Niagara's Horseshoe Falls. It was there that the parties discussed Disney's involvement in developing a "moon trip" attraction on the tower site.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

"What sort of 'moon trip' attraction?," you ask. I actually asked Buzz Price (i.e. The Disney Legend who sadly passed away last month at the age of 89) about this project once. And as Buzz explained this project to me, Walt was considering building a clone of Disneyland's "Rocket to the Moon" attraction at the Seagram Tower. So that honeymooners could then take a simulated trip to the real thing during their visit to the Falls. But sadly (because - according to Price - Disney & Seagrams could never agree on what an appropriate licensing fee for this Tomorrowland favorite should be), the Niagara Falls version of Disney's "Flight to the Moon" never quite made it off the launching pad.

That's the real fun of "Project Future." Chad Denver Emerson has waded through that massive pile of legal filings & news clippings which illuminates Walt Disney Productions' nearly decade-long search to find just the right spot to build an East Coast Disneyland on. And then Emerson weeded out all of the dry, deadly dull stuff.

And as a direct result, what you're left with is this 204-page paperback that does a pretty nifty job of walking you through that search. Illuminating the various pitfalls that Walt & his team encountered along the way (EX: How the deal to buy all of this land just outside of Orlando almost fell apart in July of 1964 when Tufts initially seemed reluctant to sell off the mineral rights to one particularly crucial piece of property that the University owned). Not to mention all of the cloak-and-dagger intrigue that Disney officials indulged in while they were putting together this nearly 27,000 acre parcel of Central Florida swampland.

Copyright United Artists. All rights reserved

In short, if you're a Disney history buff, you'd have to have "A Hole in the Head" to not enjoy reading "Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World."

Your thoughts?

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  • Am I the only person on this site that still reads really-for-real books on Disney? :)  Anyway, I agree about "Project Future", Jim. It's an interesting look at the pre-history of the World, and provides some insight into what projects Disney might have developed in the East and what kind of legal hoops that Disney had to jump through to make the resort a reality.  

    After reading this book, I'd recommend reading "Married to the Mouse" by Richard Folgelsong. It makes a good companion piece to this book; where Emerson's book talks about disney's relationship with outside officials prior to the World's opening, "Married to the Mouse" talks about how things have been between them since, and how - like it or not - they need  each other to keep things going.

  • Nice story and interesting connection with "A Hole in the Head" and the Florida Disney project. Just in the interest of accuracy, though, it should be pointed out that Keenan Wynn's appearance in this film was not necessarily the reason Walt Disney chose him for "The Absent-Minded Professor," since Wynn was a very visible and prolific actor in early television, particularly in the much-watched "Requiem for a Heavyweight," which also featured his father, Ed Wynn, in his first dramatic role. So while it's a very viable theory, it may not be fact that "A Hole in the Head" was such a landmark in this way, though it did give the world the song, "High Hopes."

  • As a resident of Palm Beach County (I drove RCA Blvd just last week!), I had heard the stories of Walt looking at Palm Beach Gardens land (which the MacArthur Foundation held until a few years ago, during in the real esate b boom) - and the story here was the lack of roads (I-95 didn't exist then - but then again, to get to WDW, you had to take 192 throu Kissimmee!) and he didn't like the competition of the Gold Coat beach for the tourists!

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