The Ratcatcher Reprise
State of the Union: An extended history of Disney’s attempt to court, capture, and exert public powers they should not have.
On Monday, The American Conservative published my exclusive interview with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about his war against Disney. Some spicy quotes about the Governor’s view of economics—“What is a free market?”—as well as some statements that hinted DeSantis has some paleoconservative leanings—“We’re a distinct country. We have a distinct people, and that needs to mean something”—garnered the most attention.
But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Every one of those quotes is ultimately in service to the central question of sovereignty the governor and I explored in Tallahassee on Tuesday last week: “Who is to be master—the people’s duly elected representatives, or a private enterprise?”
TAC Managing Editor Jude Russo put it this way in a tweet, “Economic questions are weak tea compared to political questions, especially the only really consequential political question: Who is sovereign?”
I offered a brief history of how Disney came to have such broad powers in “The Ratcatcher,” but I now want to offer an expanded version of that history because it further demonstrates how corporations—even those run by people who are pro-America and pro-family like Walt Disney—attempt to court, capture, and exert public powers they should not have. Some of what follows have been stripped from my original piece, some will be new information.
In 1958, Walt started considering a larger project out east. Disneyland had welcomed about ten million visitors since it opened three years prior. The park was a massive success, and Walt felt personally victimized by it. Financial constraints meant Disney could not initially buy as much land as it wanted, however, and once the park opened, real estate prices in the surrounding area soared as kitschy themed hotels and other attractions moved in.
The goal for Walt’s next project was to prevent a repeat of the Anaheim situation by buying up a ton of land, in Walt’s own words, “something between 5,000 and 10,000 acres,” to insulate the park and ensure total control over the area.
The mission was top secret. If their plans somehow got out, property prices would likely skyrocket as they did in Anaheim. Disney’s Florida dream would be dead and buried before they even broke ground.
But before Disney could start buying up property, Walt needed some potential sites. He contracted the services of Buzz Price, an economist who helped Walt choose the location for Disneyland, to determine the ideal location for this new, massive undertaking. In 1961, Price made his recommendation: somewhere in central Florida.
After hearing various proposals for various tracts, Walt decided he’d travel out to survey the central Florida landscape himself. Before flying home to California, Walt ordered their plane to fly low above the areas they surveyed. While circling the area, Walt saw something that caught his attention: the intersection of the Sunshine State Parkway, Interstate 95, and Interstate 4. “That’s it,” Walt reportedly exclaimed. The roads gave access from every direction, and connected with major arteries all the way up the eastern seaboard.
Walt and the team's excitement was quashed when the plane landed to refuel in New Orleans. There, the group found out that JFK had been assassinated in Dallas. The rest of the trip was spent in complete silence. As they prepared to land back in California, all Walt managed to say was, “Well, that’s the place—central Florida.”
Walt and Roy didn’t waste time plotting how they’d acquire their desired plot. Five days after returning from the Florida trip, Walt and Roy called a meeting with their most trusted executives. Among them, Robert P. Foster, Disney’s assistant secretary and legal counsel who would ultimately spearhead the land acquisition effort.
But how was one of the most famous companies in America, led by one of the nation’s most famous men, going to purchase thousands of acres and not raise eyebrows? Conveniently, key figures on Disney’s land acquisition team had counterintelligence experience and connections, which they used to obscure the company’s presence in Florida. It wasn’t the first time Walt, ever the anti-communist, found himself in league with intelligence operatives.
The group put in place strict procedures to obscure the company’s presence in Florida. Written memorandums to update involved parties on their progress were avoided as much as possible. When they were needed, each copy of a memo was numbered, assigned, returned, and then accounted for by the distributor. When operators in Florida had to check in with Disney headquarters in California, calls were rerouted through New York to disguise Disney’s involvement.
Subscriptions to papers in Ocala, Orlando, Lakeland, Tampa, and Kissimmee to keep tabs on local happenings ordered by Foster and others were never taken out in their own names. They’d order subscriptions using aliases, initials, nicknames, or the names of their secretaries. The papers were never mailed to home or work addresses. They all went to post office boxes.
Walt, Roy, and Foster got on with assembling Disney’s land acquisition team. At the 1964–65 World Fair in New York, Roy connected Foster with some of the company’s legal representation from the New York-based firm Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine. One of the firm’s founders, General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, is also considered the founding fathers of the CIA. He headed the CIA’s predecessor, the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), during much of World War II.
Since Donovan had passed on, Foster met with Irvine. The pair decided a plan for Foster to be able to operate in Florida without revealing his ties to Disney. Initially, they thought they’d say Foster represented a client of the law firm, but, with a little digging, one could still uncover that the firm represented Disney. Rather, they contacted another friendly law firm Burke & Burke. The firm agreed to allow Foster to claim he was associated with Burke & Burke to keep his dealings secret and take his calls, so far as it was “nothing that would embarrass he firm.”
Irvine and Foster needed someone who knew Florida better than they did. Though Donovan had passed away, some of his old OSS subordinates and colleagues had gone on to become lawyers as well. In April, 1964, Irvine set up a meeting between Foster and Miami-based attorney Paul L.E. Helliwell who worked under Donovan at the OSS.
A sanitized CIA document said Helliwell was the OSS’s “chief of special intelligence in China,” and was involved in other intelligence operations throughout the region, such as in Japan, Burma, and Indochina. As Helliwell worked on securing the land for Disney, Helliwell was also “‘deeply involved’ in financing a series of covert forays between 1964 and 1975 against Cuba by CIA operatives working from Andros Island, the largest of the Bahamian Islands,” according to the CIA document.
At the beginning of the meeting, Foster tried to obscure the purpose of courting Helliwell’s services, telling him half-truths about his client. Helliwell was suspicious, and almost walked out when Foster decided to level with him. With the knowledge that Disney was the client, Helliwell instantly accepted the offer, and looped in Roy Hawkins, a real estate consultant with forty years of experience in Florida.
As the group of Florida-based operators explored their options for purchasing a big tract of central Florida, they came across the Demetree family farm. The farm was close to Interstate 4 and the turnpike. More importantly, it was 12,400 contiguous acres.
One purchase, and Walt would have more land than he originally asked for.
Getting it for him, however, was not going to be easy. As the team researched the land, they encountered a few big problems. First, from 1911 to 1913, parts of the land had been divided into five-acre tracts and sold under the name Munger Farms in the back of newspapers nationwide. What’s more, the Demetrees did not own the mineral rights to the land. That was owned by Tufts university.
The team started negotiations with the Demetrees, unbeknownst to them that they represented Disney, and entered into a six-month option on their property. If they could get the mineral rights and enough of the Munger parcels, then they’d make the full purchase of the Demetree land. The Munger Farms problem would take the land acquisition team from Montana to Texas to Rhode Island and almost everywhere in between. As for the mineral rights, conveniently enough, Helliwell had a helpful OSS contact. On Tufts's Board of Trustees was a vice president of First National Bank of Boston. It just so happens that an old friend from the OSS served as the bank’s president. All it took was a few calls, and Tufts sold the mineral rights for $15,000.
Walt got the Demetree land, but it still wasn’t enough. As Aaron Goldberg simply explained in his book Buying Disney’s World, “Walt wanted more land, so Walt got more land.”
The team's gaze turned towards 8,000 acres of property owned by Irlo Bronson Sr., a state Senator and a fourth generation cattle rancher, just south of the Demetree land. Bronson told Hawkins that he had a deal to sell the land to a local veterinarian when the vet was able to do so. Bronson changed his tune, however, when the state decided it was going to forcibly acquire his land for $45 an acre, less than half the per-acre price the land purchasing team offered. If Bronson was going to be forced to sell, it wouldn’t be to the government, and it certainly wouldn’t be at that price.
When Bronson informed Foster, Helliwell, and company of his current predicament, Helliwell discovered he had yet another useful connection. The state’s attempt to purchase Bronson’s land was being run through the Outdoor Recreational Council. Helliwell had a friend on the council, and the Council’s blitzkrieg against Bronson all of a sudden slowed then disappeared altogether. The Bronson property was theirs. And soon thereafter so were a few other properties Disney ended up fancying.
By spring of 1965, Foster, Hellliwell, Hawkins, and the team had managed to purchase over 43 square miles, which is twice the size of Manhattan, for about $5 million. The per acre cost was under $200.
Foster would later explain in meetings how the team managed to accomplish their secret mission. According to meeting notes uncovered by Goldberg in his book, the property was acquired by five Florida-based shell corporations: Reedy Creek Ranch, Inc., Bay Lake Properties, Inc. Tomahawk Properties, Inc., Aye Four Corporation, and Latin American Development and Management Corporation. All five of those companies were owned by Compass East Corporation, based in Delaware, which borrowed money to own these subsidiaries from Walt Disney Productions.
On the plane back to California after the November 15, 1965, press conference announcing Disney was building an attraction in Florida, Walt’s attorneys and advisors started to ask him about the state’s involvement with their future plans. The best course of action, they advised, was to establish their own municipality.
Walt didn’t like the idea, however, because Jules Stein, the head of Universal Studios, regularly complained to Walt about how creating Universal City was a mistake because dealing with Los Angeles County was such a pain. When they implored Walt it was the only thing to do, Walt lashed out. He needed more convincing.
As planning got underway, Disney established a think-tank of sorts for the Florida project. The attorneys and experts he brought in found that Florida Statute Chapter 298 allowed for the creation of a drainage district via district court approval, which would enable Disney to drain and redirect water using canals and build other infrastructure, like bridges, to make the property more accessible. What got Roy Disney excited about the prospect of a drainage district, however, was that it could sell bonds to fund its work.
Disney’s bid to establish the Reedy Creek Drainage District was approved in May 1966, but the brain trust realized they needed more power if the project was to unfold and operate as planned.
Their attorneys and experts said Disney needed the authority to build and maintain roads, parking structures, and other transportation systems. It also needed more power over the area’s water, sewer, and public utility systems, as well as some eminent domain rights codified into state law for drainage and water systems. That’s not all: Disney wanted exemptions from state statutes, county ordinances, the state utilities commission and other regulations on land use, building codes. Disney also wanted to seek more financial powers, such as the ability to issue bonds and securities and levy its own taxes, among other things.
More than anything, Walt wanted total control; he agreed with the plan. As the attorneys grappled with the legalities, Walt did what he did best: envision the future. He made what would become known as the EPCOT film, detailing his plans more concretely than ever before for the Florida property, and showed it to his team.
Less than two months later, on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney died.
Roy, the numbers nerd, would have to fill in the shoes of his imaginative little brother and sell his vision to the state’s people, its representatives, and the press. In February 1967, Disney hosted a press event at the Park West Theater in Winter Park, Florida. After the EPCOT film played, Roy stood where his brother would have stood just a few months prior: in the spotlight.
“Wasn’t that a dream?” Roy asked the audience. “It cannot be done without the help of you people here in Florida…we must have a solid legal foundation before we can proceed with Disney World…. This foundation can be assured by the legislative proposals we are presenting to the next session of the Florida legislature.”
On April 19, 1967, Disney’s legislation was officially introduced in the Florida House and Senate. Disney played the EPCOT film again, on both the House and Senate floor. By mid-May, the 481-page piece of legislation was signed into law with minimal changes from Disney’s suggested language.
There are meaningful distinctions between public and private power, both in domain and essence. But our current arrangements between government and corporate America have increasingly blurred those lines. Akin to how Congress yields vast amounts of legislative authority to the executive branch and administrative state, the administrative state often passes its executive burden to contracted corporations. In exchange, corporations are endowed with powers they should not hold.
The result is that "American life is shot through with coercion: what we suffer as workers and consumers in the marketplace,” my TAC colleague Sohrab Ahmari, author of the forthcoming book Tyranny, Inc., told me. “We are told we can't challenge this coercion, precisely because it's 'private,' yet it has eminently public consequences and is made possible by, and often done in collusion with, government. This is the greatest threat to American liberty today."
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“It goes back to the Founders,” DeSantis told me in our interview. Without “any accountability, what ends up happening? [Disney] governed in a way that alienated a lot of people.” Abusing an arrangement like the one Disney had with Florida is “human nature,” the governor claimed.
Indeed, the Founders had concerns about corporations claiming public power, Thomas Jefferson among them. In an 1816 letter to George Logan, Jefferson wrote, “I hope we shall… crush in it’s [sic] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and to bid defiance to the laws of their country.”
Walt gave the world a corporation. The founders gave us a Republic, and my impression is the Ratcatcher is simply trying to keep it.