Orlando was the county seat of Orange County, but it wasn't citrus groves that prompted Disney's secret aerial reconnaissance. During his flyover, he focused on a wasteland southwest of Orlando where alligators outnumbered people. Porous limestone underlay the vegetal muck. What passed for dry land was speckled with shallow, brown-watered catchments, some the size of station wagons, others the size of suburbs. "That's it," Disney proclaimed, pointing down to the future site of what he dreamed of creating in this Florida wilderness: Epcot, America's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Over the next two years, with the collusion of Orlando's top leaders, Disney secretly acquired more than 25,000 acres (10,000 hectares). People were glad to sell dirt cheap. This sludgy terrain was useless for agriculture. It was far from Florida's beaches. It was hot and muggy most of the year, yet it got so cold during central Florida's brief winters that deep freezes periodically killed the citrus crop.
Who would want to vacation in such a place? Disney was certain most Americans would, once he worked his marketing magic on them. By the 1960s, all over America, suburbs were replacing old neighborhoods. Malls were driving Main Street out of business. There was hardly a new ranch home or split-level that didn't have a TV antenna on the roof. Disney realized that in the coming decades shows like The Mickey Mouse Club, not climate and geology, would determine what the majority of Americans would consider a safe and enjoyable place to take a family vacation. That day, flying over central Florida, Disney decided that he, not reality, would define what constituted the Magic Kingdom in the minds and spending habits of millions of Americans in the years to come.
The interstate highway system, started by the Eisenhower Administration as part of the Cold War defense effort against communism, was already crisscrossing America. Disney chose Orlando because it was at the confluence of two of the most important of these new thoroughfares, what today are Interstate 4 and Florida's Turnpike. There was also a deeply personal reason he located Disney World there—the same one that still lures people to Orlando today. In Florida's boggy, buggy, empty midsection, Walt Disney perceived a second chance.
His original theme park—Disneyland, in southern California—covered fewer than 300 acres (120 hectares). It soon was ringed with the suburban blight that its success inevitably attracted—motels, strip malls, copycat amusement parks. Disney never forgave himself for not making Disneyland big enough, but in Florida he hoped to rectify that mistake. He set out to create an Adventureland where nothing was left to chance. Arriving visitors would not be permitted to choose their own parking spaces; smiling Disney characters would do that for them. In this new, bigger, better Magic Kingdom, water could not be the tannic brown common in central Florida. So Bay Lake was drained, the sludge removed, and clear water pumped into the resulting lagoon. Even dry land would be turned into another Disney illusion: As you traverse the theme park, you are actually walking on the roof of an immense, underground control building from which the operation is run, staffed, and supplied.