Monday, March 29, 2010
The Lake Buena Vista Story, Part Four: Postscript
So why should we care about Lake Buena Vista, in the end? Americans have never been particularly sympathetic to the creations of just a generation or two past, and it’s doubtful that too many of the people who approved the demolition of the Villas in 2002 saw much value in their outdated design, only in the land they stood on. While it’s true that the Villas were not yet old enough to be considered “cool retro” and perhaps, outside of the Treehouses, most average guests would agree that they were not very memorable, to point out the reasons why those little wooden apartments and condos and townhomes were important we should return to Dick Nunis in that 1982 issue of Eyes & Ears:
“I don’t think Walt ever intended to have a permanent resident population. I think he wanted to have a large tourist population and an area where people from all walks of life could come and learn.
I can remember when we got the final big parcel of our land which included Bay Lake. It was in the summer of 1966, and Walt called me up to his apartment in Disneyland, and he was really happy. He said, “Just think Dick, we own 43 square miles. That’s like getting on top of the Matterhorn and looking 7 miles one way and 11 miles the other. We’re going to be able to have our own Disneyland, our own Knott’s Berry Farm, our own Marineland and a couple of cities to boot.”
In Married to the Mouse, Richard Foglesong recounts how a memo found in the desk of Walt Disney following his death in 1966 pertaining to the development of the EPCOT city had every mention of “20,000 residents” and “voting rights” crossed out in red pen. It was these 20,000 residents that Disney dangled in front of the Florida legislature in 1967 to get their two municipalities – Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (later Lake Buena Vista) approved, as well as a total independence from all local government oversight. Perhaps most erroneous of all, from Florida’s perspective, a small passage in one of the three bills specified that these powers would remain in spite of any past or future legislation, freezing Disney’s powers in time at the moment when Orlando needed Disney most but Disney needed Orlando least (indeed, they had been threatening to pack up and move north to Ocala).
As a result Disney today exercises total control over their two towns through the independent Reedy Creek Improvement District government, with no need to move through the local planning and zoning boards. Disney can spend money and go out tomorrow to start shoveling dirt. This is how The Disney-MGM Studios beat Universal’s opening in 1989 by a year – the same amount of time it took Universal’s construction project to be approved by the local Orlando government.
But this is what made Lake Buena Vista, and all of Walt Disney World, extraordinary, was their total lack of oversight from local governing bodies, allowing their creations to be geared towards maximum effectiveness and aesthetic quality, something no mere housing development outside of the 27,000 square mile Florida property can hope to achieve. In his book Foglesong indicates that Disney likely never intended to build their EPCOT City. I’m not so sure that’s true, but I’m also not so sure that that Lake Buena Vista wasn’t the evolved version of the EPCOT City. For the last several years of Disney’s life WED Enterprises had more or less been doing their own thing, with Disney in a largely ceremonial role. At a 1966 lunch meeting with local Florida policymaker Billy Dial, Dial bluntly asked Disney:
“What would happen to this project if you walked out and got hit by a truck?”
“Absolutely nothing”, said Walt. “My brother Roy runs this company. I just piddle around.”
So the question becomes whether Walt Disney, had he lived another five or ten years, would’ve become just another Lake Buena Vista townhouse owner.
Where it’s hard to prove that the company ever seriously considered building a 20,000 person City of Tomorrow once they got their 1967 charter from the State of Florida, especially one that would’ve required the cooperation of dozens of American companies to make it successful, it is comparatively easy to prove that Disney did plan on building a 30,000 person vacation town. In his EPCOT film Walt Disney calls EPCOT a “showcase for American free enterprise” and accounts of what was planned for his EPCOT city involve errie images of nonpermanent residents with no voting or property rights being shuffled around on Disney controlled peoplemovers and living in houses where things like major appliances are constantly being replaced with the new prototype models by the companies that own them. Who wants to live in a house where you don’t even own your own computer?
But Disney could and did build a substantial portion of their “vacation city” project entirely on their own, using their own land and their own powers. And so in a way, that absurd old publicity line of Disney’s is true - Walt Disney World is EPCOT, it is a demonstration of American Free Enterprise – Disney’s Free Enterprise. Whether Disney knew it or not until a decade or so later, their Reedy Creek charter doomed EPCOT back in 1967. Now they didn’t need the rest of American Free Industry to build their model city. It’s hard to argue that the billions of people who have visited Walt Disney World in the last forty years and found it to be inspiring, artistic and unique wouldn’t attribute that to Disney’s free hand and total control of their kingdom. There is no more compelling argument for the effectiveness of a privately owned and controlled master planned community anywhere in the United States.
Lake Buena Vista was important because it was the one time, the single time, that Disney went out and put down in the soft Florida soil the few steps they took towards accomplishing their city, the stated reason for coming to Florida to begin with. Whether or not the Company ever took Walt Disney’s city concept seriously, they took their mission in Florida as community building very seriously. They wouldn’t succeed in actually opening a residential city and fulfilling their long ago promise to the State of Florida until the city of Celebration would open in 1996, Eisner’s nostalgic version of any anytown America of a half-century before. If one traces the evolution of the concept from Walt Disney to Michael Eisner, a fascinating irony becomes apparent: Disney’s city was forward thinking, revolutionary, fascinating, and scary. Disney’s heirs’ city was modern, ecologically sophisticated, adult and sedate. Disney’s heirs’ heirs’ city was backward-thinking, nostalgic, comforting… middlebrow. But still control-freak. Remember those stories of Celebration residents waiting until nightfall to paint their front doors a forbidden color as a form of protest?
Pointedly, Celebration also required Disney to de-annex their land from the Reedy Creek Charter since it would require residents with voting powers to be a successful draw. This led to a series of ugly public showdowns between residents and majority landowner Disney over the issue of public schools which eventually led to Disney’s removal of their trademark mouse ears from the Celebration water tower and the cessation of internal Walt Disney World promotion of Celebration as a tourism destination.
Lake Buena Vista simply got lost in the fold. But while it’s fun to talk about and think about things like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and If You Had Wings and the Main Street Wonderland of Wax, those lost components are just the nutshell. The real meat of the nut – the chewy center, the real thing – was the entire lost community of Lake Buena Vista, and the tendrils of influence the radiate outward from that development reach into nearly every area of the entire property – it’s the true story of Walt Disney World, impossible to ignore. So never mind EPCOT. EPCOT was a model, a dream, Disney’s El Dorado. Lake Buena Vista was out there, being planned, being built.
It’s still there if you know where to look. The back of the Lake Buena Vista Club still faces a shimmering lagoon… maybe not the one that diners there would’ve enjoyed in 1980, with stands of cypress and moonlight playing across the waves. It faces a golf course, a parking lot, and the back of the House of Blues. But she’s still there, waiting for you, a part of history which has escaped detection, demolition. Walk through her and see if you can guess where that couple sat long ago sipping wine, silhouetted by a 1975 Florida sunset, while a string quartet played their tune.
Go downstairs and walk through her pro shop and adjoining offices, and feel the 1970’s still alive down there. Go find the square patch of grass where once there was a pool, the Clubhouse overlooking her tranquil blue water. Go to the tennis courts, not moved since then, and imagine you’re winding up for a swing in the heart of the river and lake country of Central Florida, out away from it all.
That wooden bridge over Club Lake is still there too, by the way. Walk out across the bridge one foggy morning or breezy evening and tell me what you see. Maybe you’ll see those low little brown bungalows again too. I know I did.
Come find me!
Thanks very much to the following for their help in this article: Michael Crawford, Fee Doyle, Mike Lee, Martin Smith, Steve Russes, George Taylor.
“Chronology of Walt Disney World”, by Ken Polsson http://www.islandnet.com/~kpolsson/wdworld/
“Disney News” Vol. 16 No. 3, Ed. Margaret Lee, June 1981
“Disney’s Village Resort Guest Atlas”, property map, Walt Disney World Co., 1989
“Eyes and Ears of Walt Disney World”, May 1982
Flickr.Com, user “Russes” http://www.flickr.com/photos/russes
“Lake Buena Vista Peoplemover” 1976
“Lake Buena Vista Village News”, Vol. 2 No. 5, June 1976
“Married to the Mouse”, by Richard Foglesong, Yale University Press: New Haven, 2001
Mouse Planet, “Villas at Disney Institute” internet resource. http://mouseplanet.com retrieved Jan 20 2010
“Realityland”, by Davis Koenig. Bonaventure Press: Irvine, CA. 2007.
“Since the World Began”, by Jeff Kurtti, Hyperion: New York, 1996
“Treehouse Villas II: Electric Bugaloo” by Michael Crawford http://progresscityusa.com
Walt Dated World, http://waltdatedworld.bravepages.com/index.htm
"Walt Disney World", promotional magazine, Walt Disney World Co., 1978
"Walt Disney World, 20 Magical Years", hardcover book, Walt Disney Productions, 1991
"Walt Disney World: the First Decade", hardcover book, Walt Disney Productions, 1982
“Walt Disney World Resort Guide”, promotional booklet, Walt Disney World Co. 1977
“Walt Disney World Vacationland”, Vol. 3, No. 2 ed. Jo Jac Bludworth, Spring 1974
Widen Your World, http://www.omniluxe.net/wyw/wyw.htm
"The World News", Vol. 6 No. 5, ed. Barbara Stuart, June 1976
“World Magazine”, promotional magazine, Walt Disney World Co., 1976
…and too many flyers and brochures to list!