"The Mouse that roared" by Richard Foglesong (2001)


Walt Disney on property, 1965.
(c) The Walt Disney Company

On November 22,1963, Walt Disney and an entourage of his top executives flew from Tampa to Orlando searching for an East Coast Disneyland site. The night before they had checked into a Tampa hotel under assumed names to avoid tipping off the press and stirring up land speculation. Reports Walt had read on "Project Winter," as it was code-named, could take him only so far. Ever the artist, he needed to visualize the possibilities for himself.

Disney was close to selecting an expansion site after considering 13 locations in the eastern United States. An early favorite, Niagara Falls, was rejected because its winter cold would prevent the park's year-round operation. Walt wanted to avoid having a seasonal work force, fearing that carnival-type workers like those in existing amusement parks would corrupt the family atmosphere he sought to achieve. So the search turned to Florida with its natural advantages of sunshine and water.

As the plane circled south of Orlando, Walt looked down, saw the confluence of Interstate 4, then under construction, and Florida's Turnpike and exclaimed: "That's it!" What sold Disney were the roads crisscrossing beneath him which were needed to import tourists from afar to make their business plan work. Florida had fewer residents than the Los Angeles region surrounding Disneyland, yet Walt and his executives envisioned a giant pleasure palace ten times the size of Disneyland. It would not be a Florida theme park so much as an East Coast tourist spa, located in Florida.

From Orlando, the entourage flew west along the Gulf coast to New (|| Orleans, where the members disembarked for the night. During the cab ride to their hotel they learned from the radio that President Kennedy had been shot. It was a fateful day for the nation and, for entirely different reasons, for central Florida. Walt's "that's it" reaction started a chain of events that would transform sleepy Orlando into the world's most popular tourist destination.

If Walt practiced gut decision- making, his brother Roy and others on the Project Winter team were more methodical. Returning from the fig Florida flyover, they commissioned a "Central Florida Study" to compare Orlando and Ocala as potential theme park sites, dispatching William Lund to Florida from Economic Research Associates, the Disney site consultant.

Wanting complete secrecy to avoid triggering a real estate price run-up, they contacted the company's New York counsel, William Donovan, of the firm Donovan, Leisure, Newton, and Irvine. He was the same "Wild Bill" Donovan who directed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA, during World War II. Donovan procured a business card, letterhead stationery, and a phone number identifying Lund as a member of the Burke & Burke law firm, located one floor beneath Donovan and Leisure at One Wall Street in New York.

Arriving in Orlando, the 33-year- old Lund called on two banks and was steered to Florida Ranch Lands, Inc. (FRL), a real estate agency, where he met on December 9,1963, with salesman David Nusbickel. He introduced himself as William Lund from Burke & Burke in New York and told Nusbickel that he represented a major investment trust wanting information on large tracts of land near the crossing of 1-4 and the Turnpike.

The following day, Nusbickel took Lund to see three contiguous land parcels southwest of Orlando: the 12,440-acre Demetree tract, owned by Bill and Jack Demetree; the Bay Lake tract, owned by ten investors; and land east of the Demetree tract owned by Wilson and Carroll Hamrick. Lund spent a third day in Ocala before flying - through New York - back to California.

Thus, when Nusbickel called for Lund at Burke & Burke in New York on December 23, the message was forwarded to Lund in L.A. Similarly, Nusbickel wrote Lund at Burke & Burke on January 13,1964, and Lund wrote back a week later on Burke & Burke stationery, expressing continuing interest in the Demetree property. That was the last anyone at FRL heard from Lund. Meanwhile, Project Winter was moving forward, and a decisive meeting occurred at Disney's Burbank headquarters on January 16. Hanging on the walls were 30 x 40-inch visuals created from charts that Nusbickel had given to Lund. They showed the direction of future growth in Orlando, as well as drive times between major Florida cities and Orlando's many road linkages.

Supported by these materials, site consultant Lund made the case for Orlando. It had the state's best tourist by-pass traffic. It would have a good airport once McCoy Air Force Base was converted to full civilian use. It was larger and faster growing than Ocala with a stronger employment base. And it had several large proper ties available with interesting water features and convenient access. The only negative was Orlando's heavy summer rainfall. But the rain fell in short bursts, said Lund, and "did not disrupt business to any significant extent."

Accepting Lund's recommendation, Disney dispatched general counsel Robert Foster to assemble land for the project.

Secrecy now became imperative, so Foster returned to ex-spymaster Donovan, who directed him to Paul Helliwell, Miami lawyer, former OSS associate and money-launderer for the Bay of Pigs invasion. Helliwell in turn recruited the services of Roy Hawkins, a trusted veteran Miami real estate man who had developed much of Biscayne Boulevard for the
Phipps family.

In short order. Project Winter operatives acquired an option on the Demetree property, bypassing FRL and using Hawkins as the broker. They also purchased an option on a 9,000-acre tract in Osceola owned by State Senator Irlo Bronson. They wanted land in both Orange and Osceola to preserve their future options, according to Foster, who was following Walt's dictum: "Whenever || you deal with government, always deal with two."

The Demetree property posed a problem, because of its many "outs" - individually owned parcels within the larger tract. The land, much of it water-sogged, had been subdivided in 1912 and sold by catalogue to per sons across the country, complicating the task of land assembly. For help they turned once again to Florida Ranch Lands.

FRI's Nelson Boice remembers Roy Hawkins asking for assistance on | getting the Demetree outs. Boice recalls that one thing struck him as strange: Hawkins arrived carrying FRL brochures, which had a distinctive yellow band at the bottom, under his arm. Looking back, the brochures should have tipped him off that FRL's sales work had led - through Lund – to the Demetree purchase. But he had no reason then to connect Hawkins with Lund.

The Project Winter team used dummy corporations with odd names like AyeFour Corporation to make the purchases, which led to media speculation though spring and summer of 1965 about the mystery land buyer's identity. McDonald Aircraft, Hercules Powder, Ford Motor, Hughes Tool, and even the Walt Disney Co. were among the rumored purchasers. To confound sleuths, Disney counsel Foster, who was overseeing the project, avoided flying directly between California and Florida. Since his name had appeared in a Disney annual report, he also adopted a pseudonym when he came to Florida, combining his first and middle names to become "Bob Price."

In mid-October 1965, the Orlando Sentinel identified Disney as the mystery land buyer. Improbably, the Project Winter team had maintained secrecy for eighteen months, while they assembled a 43-square mile parcel for which they paid less than $200 an acre. As for FRL, it had uncovered Disney's identity a year earlier when an FRL salesman recognized Adm. Joe Fowler, chief engineer for Walt Disney Productions, from a photo in National Geographic. Recalls Boice: "We knew, and they knew we knew, but we didn't talk about it." Still, FRL hadn't connected Disney with the mysterious William Lund, nor realized that the FRL sales work actually had led to the Demetree purchase. That connection would become clear through a series of coincidences.

After Disney announced it was coming to Orlando, a group of local officials flew Isto California at Walt's invitation to view Disneyland's impact on Anaheim. Accompanying them to California was Chuck Bosserman, an FRL salesman, who recognized the pilot of the plane, Sim Speer, an avid real estate investor. During the flight Speer gave the delegation a research report on Anaheim-area real estate. The report's author was William Lund, identified as vice president of Economic Research Associates in Los Angeles.

Curious, Bosserman arranged an appointment with the ERA vice president, discovering that he was the same William Lund who had visited FRL in Orlando. Lund told him he assumed they had figured out his connection with Disney. When Bosserman reported this to Boice, the Orlando executive realized that Disney had circumvented FRL on the Demetree property acquisition, approaching the seller through Hawkins. This bit of legerdemain by Disney resulted in a loss of an estimated $242,000 in commission to FRL and raised serious legal and ethical questions.

Boice called Hawkins and asked to meet with Helliwell and him in Miami. Taking his local attorney with him, the FRL president recalls: "We went in and everyone was smiles. We said good morning and what a lovely day it was, and then Paul (Helliwell) says 'Gentlemen, I have been directed not to talk with you," Says Boice: "It was just a complete stonewall."

Boice sued both Walt Disney Productions and Economic Research Associates, alleging that FRL was denied its 10 percent commission on the Demetree property and should have received a full 10 percent commission on the Bay Lake and Hamrick properties. On the day before the trial, the Disney Co. settled for what Boice termed a "significant amount." A stipulation prevents either side from revealing the exact figure.

Secrecy to facilitate a land deal was one thing, but Disney took advantage of the situation, in Boice's view. "They knew, no question about it, that they had an obligation to pay (gig a commission, but since there was all this secrecy, they just did not bother to come up and say 'hey fellows, we appreciate the work you did and here's your commission'.