“That's what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Walt Disney was, first and foremost, a storyteller. Storytelling is the backbone of the entertainment behemoth that is the Walt Disney Company. Those stories are not just told through Walt Disney’s movies and television projects, but carefully woven throughout the 25,000 acres that compromise Florida’s Walt Disney World. I've spent a significant amount of time in this world and I can attest that the story is both all encompassing and disorienting. The story is all around you. It takes control of all of your senses. Great effort has been taken to ensure that everything guests see, smell, taste, and hear reinforces the story. However, Walt wanted some stories to remain untold. This is one such story. This is the story of one of the most successful corporate espionage operations in American history.
The Walt Disney Company's dispute with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been well publicized. A major issue in this political battle is Walt Disney World's special “self-governing” status. This writing is in no way an attempt to express an opinion about the controversy. The goal of the writing is merely to tell the story of how this special status was aquired. This story encompasses many difficult to verify details which sometimes change depending on who is writing about those details. It’s a story that takes place in the shadowy world of espionage. Stories from that world are seldom told and the truth of those stories are usually difficult to uncover. I’ve uncovered some of it and put the details together like a puzzle. I hope to tell this story in a brief and digestible way, as correctly as I can.
Once upon a time Walt Disney had a problem. He had revolutionized cinema with the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and had transformed the travel industry with California's Disneyland. Nevertheless, Walt wasn’t satisfied. Market research had shown him that only 5% of the U.S. population living east of the Mississippi River were traveling to Disneyland. He also hated the cheap motels and sundry tourist attractions that had sprung up around Disneyland. Walt needed a second destination that would attract the large part of the country that wasn't traveling to California. He would build a second park and this time he would need to find enough land to make sure that no surrounding businesses would ruin the story he was trying to tell with his new world. Walt needed to find a destination that would achieve these goals. He needed to make sure that no one knew that he was looking to purchase a large plot of new land. If landowners knew that Walt Disney wanted to buy their land, they'd want Walt to pay top dollar. No, Disney needed a lot of land. This land needed to be purchased under market value. He’d need to do this covertly. He’d need help. Help from someone who specialized in covert operations.
“Wild” Bill Donovan was a man who specialized in covert operations. In fact, as the founding member of the Office of Strategic Services, Wild Bill was known as the “Father of American Intelligence”. The predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of Strategic Services was America’s premier intelligence agency during the Second World War. Donovan's operatives spread rumors and propaganda all over Europe and Asia. They launched sabotage campaigns in preparation for Allied assaults on Europe. They recruited spies that provided the intelligence necessary to support Allied war efforts. If Disney needed a covert operative, he couldn't do any better than America's preeminent wartime spymaster.
Acting officially as legal counsel for Disney, Donovan went to work fabricating false identities for Disney representatives to use while inquiring about land. He set up a covert communications network for Disney employees to secretly communicate with each other. When central Florida was decided on for a destination, Bill Donovan set up a series of shell corporations which Disney could use to secretly aquire land. Unfortunately, Donovan had been struggling with failing health for many years. “Wild” Bill eventually succumbed to vascular dementia. His replacement as Disney’s “chief legal counsel” was a CIA officer who completely embodied the Hollywood trope of a shadowy spy.
Paul Helliwell was the former chief of the Secret Intelligence branch of the OSS in Europe. He had set up over 100 “black” bank accounts in 42 countries to support future U.S. intelligence operations. He formed a front supply company to supply Chinese Nationalist forces. Heliwell was instrumental in the creation of Civil Air Transport, a CIA front airline. He set up Castle Bank and Trust in the Bahamas to launder money to support CIA operations in Cuba. He was also actively working with both the CIA and American organized crime to assassinate Fidel Castro. Paul Helliwell knew how to circumvent government regulations. He’d be more than willing to do it for Walt Disney, for the right price.
Helliwell went to work on an aggressive disinformation campaign to obfuscate the identity of the mystery corporation purchasing land in central Florida. When local media started speculating, Paul Helliwell put pressure on local editors to bury any rumors about Disney and instead hinted that Ford Motor Company was the company that had been purchasing the land. He also formed relationships with local bankers and politicians on behalf of Disney. Finally, Walt was ready to announce his intent to come to Florida. In a move meant to ensure political support, Walt let the governor of Florida make the first announcement that Disney was coming to Florida.
By the time Disney's ambitions in Florida were made public, 27,400 acres had been purchased from 51 landowners at the average price of $182 an acre.
On December 15, 1966 Walt Disney passed away from lung cancer. His brother Roy took over the “Florida project”, with Paul Heliwell staying on in a consulting role. Heliwell would use his knowledge of bypassing government regulations to essentially create a private government to run Disney World. Instead of dealing with the two counties that Disney’s land was located in, Disney would create the cities of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake. To govern these cities, a special “improvement district’ would be created. The Reedy Creek Improvement District would provide both cities with police, fire protection, utilities, roads, bridges, drainage, building codes, drainage, and environmental services. The only areas where it would need to submit to the state of Florida were the areas of property taxes and elevator inspections. Voting rights in the district would be limited to landowners and the Walt Disney Company would own all of the land, allowing a handful of loyal Disney employees to live there. The Republican controlled legislature approved the special district and the Governor of Florida signed the Reedy Creek Improvement District Act on May, 12 1967.
At the time of this writing, Walt Disney World has expanded to include 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 31 themed resort hotels, numerous golf courses, and the Disney Springs outdoor shopping center.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District was abolished by the Florida legislature in April, 2022. It will take effect in June 2023.
About the author: P.J. Agness is the founder of Archangel Protective Intelligence, a member of the OSS Society, and an intelligence consultant for Kowala Media. He has yet to successfully secure self-governing status for the home of Kowala Media founder Matt Kowalski. P.J. is the author of the Amazon bestseller Street Level Spycraft.