The Walt Disney World Resort opened to the public on October 1st, 1971. It immediately transformed the Florida economy and the theme park industry worldwide. However, Disney World did not spring up over night. Documenting the business decisions that led Disney to Florida as well as the myriad of legal issues the formation of this project encountered is Chad Denver Emerson’s Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World.
Wanting to learn more about this book, Emerson allowed me to interview him for Scifipulse.
Nicholas Yanes: It is clear from the passion in Project Future that you are a fan of the Walt Disney company. What is one of the best memories you have of enjoying a Disney product?
Chad Denver Emerson: We’re big fans of the theme park experience. Disney’s attention to detail and immersive story-telling really raises the bar.
Yanes: What was the inspiration for wanting to write Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World?
Emerson: The project started as a law review article examining the unique regulatory structure that the Florida legislature created with the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Both then and now, it was such an uncommon approach to developing such an uncommon project. The results tend to speak for themselves though on how an entire city and state were transformed by this visionary legislation.
Yanes: As an academic, I was deeply impressed by the research conducted for this book. What were some of documents or archives that you had to work the hardest to gain access to?
Emerson: There were several legal documents that, because they originated from a federal court matter, were key to tracking down. I eventually discovered them at the National Archives regional office in the Atlanta area. Finding those documents really made the project doable.
Yanes: From the exploration of potentially building in St. Louis to the in depth examination of the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Project Future is filled with information about Walt Disney World that I had never known. While doing research for this project, what were some facts you learned about Disney World’s creation that took you by surprise?
Emerson: I was surprised at how many different locations and different types of projects he considered for his East Coast sequel to Disneyland. Had he selected St. Louis or New Jersey or Palm Peach, Walt Disney World may very well have never happened since he passed away prematurely.
Yanes: Once I got to the year 1965 in Project Future, I remembered that Walt Disney passed away in 1966 and found myself reading knowing that I’m about to be emotionally punched in the gut. In regards to the specifics of your book, what are some of the ways you think Walt’s passing impacted the development of Disney World?
Emerson: Roy Disney ends up being the hero for bringing his brother’s vision to reality. Roy had always been the more cautious of the two but, once Walt passed, he became the advocate who guided the company through the incredibly complex process involved in building and opening Walt Disney World. The fact that he passed away just weeks after the grand opening of the Magic Kingdom is almost a story that Hollywood would have had a hard time writing. It was poignant, sad, and inspirational all in one.
Yanes: I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve visited Disney World, but I didn’t realize just how much land it covered until I read your book. Do you think a project of this size could currently be built in Florida, or anywhere else in the United State?
Emerson: The complexity and secrecy would almost certainly prevent it. Had the Internet been commercially used back then, it would have stopped the land compilation in its tracks because it would have allowed reporters and other curious minded people a much easier route for determining who the mystery company was that was compiling so much land.
Yanes: With the amount of effort that went into creating the legal infrastructure Disney needed to build Disney World in Central Florida, what do you think government officials and business leaders could learn from Project Future?
Emerson: Don’t be afraid to innovate even in the most complex ways. Like anything, there are some valid criticisms about the entire Reedy Creek approach, but without it, a project like this simply would not have happened. The Florida legislature and the Governor’s office at that time took a huge risk—and it ended up transforming their state into an international vacation destination.
Yanes: Thinking about how far the parks have come, what do you think are Disney World’s biggest challenges currently? For instance, do you think the increasingly congested Florida highways could ever discourage people from visiting Disney World?
Emerson: One of the biggest challenges is their heavy reliance on air travel for guests to visit the park. Air travel is the most prone to oil prices, outside threats, and even weather. Significant events in all of these areas have hit the resort hard within the last decade or so. Increasing regional visitors and creating environments where more local visitors attend the park (as is the case at Disneyland) seem like two key ways to diversify their exposure to potential air travel challenges.
Yanes: Project Future was published in 2010. Since its release, have you come across any new information you wish you could have included in the book?
Emerson: As a matter of fact, we’re beginning a new project called the “Project Future Archives” that will include much of the original research as well as new content. We’re aiming for a Winter release but it may be pushed back to the Spring travel season.
Yanes: Finally, what is the one thing that you hope everyone who reads Project Future takes away from it?
Emerson: That the vision of Walt and the dedication of Roy changed how people across the world vacation and have literally created indelible memories for millions of people in the last 40 plus years.
To learn more about the creation of Disney World, feel free to purchase your own copy of Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World.