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How Disney's dream of building Epcot, the city, sank in Lake Buena Vista

Jim Hill

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How Disney's dream of building Epcot, the city, sank in Lake Buena Vista

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Deerborn Duck wrote in to ask me about Walt Disney World's real estate development arm:

What you tell me about the Buena Vista Land Company? That name keeps coming up in regards to that Flamingo Crossing complex which Disney is supposed to be building out along Western Way near the State Road 429 interchange. Do you know anything about this outfit?

Flaming Crossing concept art. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Hang on. Let me go dig out some of my old Walt Disney Productions' annual reports. According to the 1972 report, Disney ...

... formed a wholly-owned subsidiary, the Buena Vista Land Company (and then) assigned this organization the long-range task of mastering and managing those Disney properties surrounding the Vacation Kingdom.

Now I realize that few people still use the phrase "Vacation Kingdom" whenever they talk about Walt Disney World. But back in the early 1970s, whenever they discussed that 43-square mile parcel that the Company owned outside of Orlando, Disney execs used to break the property into several distinct chunks.

  • The 2,500 acres which encompassed the Magic Kingdom theme park, Seven Seas Lagoon, Bay Lake and all of the hotels & support facilities was known as the Walt Disney World Vacation Kingdom.
  • The 7,500 acres that had been set aside as wetlands was known as the " ... permanently protected conservation area."
  • And then there was those 3,800 acres in the northwest corner of the property. Which was known as the City of Lake Buena Vista.

Back then, Disney had some pretty ambitious plans for the City of Lake Buena Vista. According to Walt Disney Productions' 1971 annual report, this "recreation-oriented residential community" would have been ...

City of Lake Buena Vista concept art. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

... the site of condominiums, town houses, apartments and country club villas intended to fill the needs of families, retirement and vacation home owners, as well as corporate visitors ... (this) residential community (will) be developed under the leadership of the (Buena Vista Land Company and) could ultimately serve 20,000 permanent residents.

In house, the City of Lake Buena City was a pretty crucial step in the development of Epcot, the city. A walk-before-you-can-run moment, if you will. So what sort of homes was the Company considering building here? According the 1972 annual report, the City of ...

... Lake Buena Vista will offer townhouses, single family dwellings and cluster homes primarily (meant to be used) as second homes and company executive retreats. Some of these dwelling units will be used in a short term basis, with the remainder available for purchase under a form of condominium ownership in which the Company will retain title to the land.

City of Lake Buena Vista concept art. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Does that sound familiar to any of you DVC members out there? Getting back to that annual report now:

During 1972, work progressed throughout the site of the 1,200 acre first phase (of the City of Lake Buena Vista). Lakes and waterways were sculptured, roads and utilities installed. 80 townhouses were completed and leased, and another 53 began construction.

So as of 1972, the City of Lake Buena Vista seemed to be going great guns. But then came the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. And by 1974, after having weathered the huge financial impact that the gas crisis had had on Walt Disney World, Company executives had clearly lost their nerve when it came to tackled ambitious & expensive non-theme-park projects all on their own. Which is why - rather than pressing ahead with the development & construction of the City of Lake Buena Vista (which, let's remember, was supposed to be the jumping-off point of Epcot, the city) - Walt Disney Productions ...

City of Lake Buena Vista concept art. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

... entered into an agreement with the Grant Corporation subsidiary of Santa Anita Consolidated, Inc., (in July of 1974) to study the feasibility of developing an adult retirement community, a complex of vacation towne homes, corporate executive retreats located along the fairways of the Lake Buena Vista golf courses, and moderately priced residential apartments, all on land now owned by Disney.

Unfortunately for Mickey, the Grant Corporation determined that the property was not suited for the type of adult retirement community that Santa Anita Consolidated, Inc. wanted to build at Walt Disney World. And given that this was the chief reason that the Grant Corporation had been looking to get involved with the development of the City of Lake Buena Vista (Because - of course - building a retirement community in Florida was something of a no-brainer. At least when it came to how you'd make money off of a real estate development project like that)... Well, that kind of took the wind out of the sails for this co-development deal.

Again quoting from Walt Disney Productions' 1974 annual report:

Of all the pieces that were proposed for the City of Lake Buena Vista, the one
that came closest to being what the folks at Buena Vista Land Company
originally envisioned was the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Although both Companies remain interested in building the towne house, corporate-executive retreats and residential apartments, the Grant Corporation, which is responsible for financing these projects, has been slowed by the general economic conditions which have hindered residential construction activities throughout the United States. Grant must notify Disney further of its plans for these projects during the early part of 1975.

Meanwhile, the existing Lake Buena Vista Villas and the community's recreational activities are being marketed by the Walt Disney Travel Company under a new corporate Incentive Travel Package.

TRANSLATION: In the three years that the Walt Disney World Resort had been up & running so far, Company officials had - through all of the struggles associated with getting just Phase One of the The City of Lake Buena Vista started -enough of a taste of how difficult running a really-for-real city might be that ... Well, is it any wonder that - by the time Walt Disney Productions' 1975 annual report was published - Company officials were soft-peddling the whole idea of Epcot, the city. And - instead - were floating a revised concept for this project. Where ...

Concept art for Epcot, the city. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

EPCOT's purpose ... will be to respond to the needs of people by providing a Disney-designed and Disney-managed forum where creative men and women of science, industry, universities, government and the arts - from around the world - can develop, demonstrate and communicate prototype concepts and new technologies, which can help mankind to achieve better ways of living.

If you carefully re-read the above paragraph, you'll note that there is absolutely no mention of a city and/or permanent residents. Which was a deliberate choice on Disney's part. Just trying to get that 1,200-acre first phase of the City of Lake Buena Vista built had proven to be such a trial for Mouse House officials that - from here on in - the Buena Vista Land Company was going to concentrate on non-residential projects like Flamingo Crossing. Which - thanks to the continuing credit crunch - has also proven to something of be a challenge for modern-day Walt Disney Company officials.

Mind you, during Michael Eisner's architecture patron phase, the Walt Disney Company did try and build a city of sorts in Central Florida. But subsequent to founding the town of Celebration, Mickey deliberately divested itself of most of the Company's control over this community. Supposedly because of the number of WDW old-timers who allegedly reached out to Eisner's office, telling Disney's then-CEO that " ... you really don't want to go through what we went through in the early 1970s while we were trying to get Phase One of the City of Lake Buena Vista built."

So this is probably why you haven't heard of the Buena Vista Land Company before, Deerborn Duck. This was an arm of the Company that was created back in the late 1960s / early 1970s in an effort to turn Walt's ambitious plan for the Florida property into a reality. But as Company officials slowly backed away from the idea of building Epcot, the city, and wound up with Epcot, the theme park, instead ... Well, the Buena Vista Land Company went from being this organization that put together site plans for cities-of-the-future to becoming the arm of Disney that selected the best possible sites for hotels, restaurants and shopping centers out along Western Way. Such is life.

And speaking of ducks ... Sometime JHM correspondent Shelly Valladolid is launching her new Fab Rocks site over at WordPress with a full week of Donald Duck-related stories. So if you'd like to learn some more about that foul-tempered fowl, be sure and go check Shelly's site out.

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  • I'm glad you eventually corrected "Flaming Crossing" to "Flamingo Crossing" by the end of your article.  Flaming Crossing sounds too similar to Flaming Cross and that has a pretty negative stereoptype.

  • Just out of curiosity, is Flamingo Crossing really actually going forward at this point, or is it now one of those "we're not really going to be serious about this project until somebody ponies up some money" things like Hyperion Wharf?  It seems like the only development that's really happening is the ultra-expensive housing

    and Four Seasons near the former Eagle Pines golf course.

    Sorry if I'm coming across like I'm being nitpicky, Jim, but are you sure the City of Lake Buena Vista was supposed to be in the northwest corner of the property? I thought that was where the Vacation Kingdom was, and Lake Buena Vista was going to be roughly where Downtown Disney and Saratoga Springs are now.

  • Great bits! I love back story research like this. Possibly unrelated: Do you happen to know if the bunker-like buildings on Maple Loop in the extreme NW corner of the property are remnants of this project? Or is this where they do some of the extreme magical moments research projects?

  • That street looks like it is firework storage area. if you look close you can see 4 poles around each building and tractor parking areas  with wires attached. this is most likely for lightning protection. plus each area is fenced in

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