Once upon a time the planners at Walt Disney World really did want to follow Walt’s vision and create a place that would show off on how proper urban design can create places that are greater than the sum of its parts. Disney was in a unique position to make this dream a reality due to the way the property is governed.

In June 1976, the planning department for the City of Lake Buena Vista prepared a report that looked at the addition of a mixed use development to compliment the Magic Kingdom and the resort hotels. Lake Buena Vista is one of two cities that make up the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The Reedy Creek Improvement District was chartered by the Florida Legislature on May 12, 1967. The land use powers given to Disney were unprecedented. In the charter, Lake Buena Vista was planned to be a “new town.”

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At the time, it was estimated that the population in the Orlando region would jump from 344,000 people in 1970 to 541,000 people in 1980 and 750,000 in 1990. In reality, the estimates were off considerably. By 1980, the region was home to 804,925 people and and exploded to 1,224,852 by 1990. This growth was due to the shift in Florida tourism from Miami to Central Florida. Walt Disney World was the must-do destination but it was supported by the Kennedy Space Center, Cypress Gardens, Circus World, Sea World, and other attractions. In total, more than 18 million visitors were coming to Central Florida by 1975.

They saw opportunity in this growth and wanted to shift the center of Central Florida from Orlando to Walt Disney World, namely Lake Buena Vista. In a sense, they were not competing with other theme parks. They were competing with the City of Orlando. They had 4,000 acres to play with and the goal was to serve not only the tourists but the local population.

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Location is everything and the new district would be right at the heart of the region’s transportation network. The development was at the crossroads of Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike.  The only way east-west and the primary way north-south. Not bad.  Working through the Orlando Urban Area Transportation Study Technical and Policy Committees in May 1976, Disney made sure they were able to place Lake Buena Vista right at the center of long term transportation planning. Lake Buena Vista would become a major hub in a regional network unlike Downtown Disney’s relatively isolated posture.

The project called for a variety of land uses including “an activity-oriented transient home community,” a unifying transportation system, and distinctive architecture that could be repurposed as needs change. The project would place the most intensive uses at Lake Buena Vista’s borders, adjacent to the surrounding community.

The most innovative part of the plan was the transportation network. At the center of the development would have been a demonstration multi-modal terminal (monorail, taxis, buses, automobiles, electric cars, and pedestrians) that would be connected to the Peoplemover network. This development would represent the “urban” district and consist of parking structures, large scale shopping, and high density hotels and offices.

Along Interstate 4 would be a office park with shopping and dining built around plazas, fountains, and lakes. This would be the “suburban” district. This part of the project would be highly visible and would be designed as a statement for the “environmental” community. This new development was expected to create as many as 9,000 permanent jobs.

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Shops with one of a kind items, craftspeople at work, and outdoor cafes would combine to create the “Village” environment that would dominate another part of Lake Buena Vista. The 32 shops built in 1972 along Village Lake, along with the four existing hotels (Travelodge, the Royal Plaza, the Dutch Inn, and Howard Johnson’s) would be enhanced, expanded, and connected to the office park and multi-modal terminal by new pathways and the Peoplemover.

According to the plan, the long term vision for the project would “perpetuate an image of vitality and excitement and expand upon it to yield a progressive city with coordinated growth.”  Instead of relying on a fleet of diesel buses, WDW planners wanted to create a compact, sustainable city that put public transportation as the preferred method of travel. As stated, “The goal being the elimination of the car for internal city travel.” Visitors could still get around by automobile but in Lake Buena Vista they would also have the option to walk, bicycle, take a horse or drive an electric vehicle. The pathways for those modes would be separated from auto traffic. Guests could also travel on a network of canals and lakes.

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However, the most popular way to travel would probably be the WEDway Peoplemover. With an elevated beamway and virtually no headways, the Peoplemover would have stations at all of the important destinations within Lake Buena Vista. Disney considered the transportation system as a “horizontal elevator.” Unlike the Peoplemover systems at Disneyland (1967) and Florida (1975), this would be a much more sophisticated transportation system. Visitors would press a button and their fully enclosed, air-conditioned car would arrive. They select their destination, press a button, and the car will speed take them directly there without stopping at intervening stations. A barn with extra cars would be a the ready when demand calls. The system would be able to carry as many as 14,000 passengers a day. One of the greatest benefits of the technology is the ability to increase capacity just by adding more vehicles. No new tracks would have to be built or need to acquire new right-of-way. Demonstrating the viability of the Peoplemover via real world experience  was one of the primary motivations for the entire project. For those who want to visit the Magic Kingdom they would just board the Monorail.
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Although the idea of people living permanently within Walt Disney World had been shelved by this time, the project would still focus on creating neighborhoods. These “communities” would attract visitors who share a particular interest. For example, a neighborhood would be based around golf, equestrian, boating or tennis. Within each neighborhood would be a community center. The golf-oriented Treehouse Villas was the first example of this program. Most of the land dedicated to these neighborhoods remains vacant today. The goal was to build as many as 9,000 living units capable of housing 30,000 people. The design of Lake Buena Vista  was to create a city within a park and to let the natural landscape dominate whenever possible.

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For those interested in tennis, that neighborhood would have tennis courts integrated throughout the village. The rustic Western themed equestrian community would take advantage of the Tri-Circle-D Ranch and feature horse trails and horse carriages as the primary way to get around. The farthest northern neighborhood, sandwiched between South Lake and Lake Mabel, would be the aquatics community. Here, visitors will be able to enjoy lakefront accommodations and plenty of water based recreational opportunities. This land is also currently vacant.

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It was the Disney planners goal to create a city center where people could “live,” work, and play that had the critical mass for success and a place where guests and locals would get a taste of the “Lake Buena Vista experience.”

What do you fine folks think of those early plans for the Walt Disney World Resort? Would it have worked for the long term?

 

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Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.