'It's Disney World': Florida family recalls selling land to Walt Disney

As we will soon celebrate 50 years of Disney magic, FOX 35 is taking a look back at what Central Florida was before the theme park resort changed the region and how one local family actually sold land to Walt Disney prior to the resort's opening.

Walt Disney and his brother, Roy O. Disney, were said to have announced their plans for Disney World during a press conference held in Downtown Orlando on November 15th, 1965.

"After taking a look at the land this morning, I say we are starting from scratch. We have many things in mind that could make this unique and different than Disneyland," Walt said. "To have this enthusiasm on the part of our whole organization and on the part of the people of the state of Florida really is a good start."

A year later, he filmed a video outlining his plans for the Florida project, including details on why Central Florida was a perfect fit.

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"We have a perfect location in Florida – almost in the very center of the state," Walt explained. "Here in Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland – the blessing of size. There is enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine."

At the time though, so much of Central Florida was just wetlands. The population of metro Orlando in 1960 was just about 200,000 people. It has grown to be more than ten times that and the city is so much more than wetlands now.

FOX 35’s John Brown actually spoke to the Demetree family, who were the original owners of a massive piece of wetlands that Walt Disney purchased for his Florida theme park project.

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"12,500 acres. My father, with a group of businessmen, decided they would spec some land," Mary Demetree said. "After they spent a year making mortgage payments on it, they said, what the hell did we buy this land for?"

Walt Disney saw things that others could not though. Land in this area of Central Florida was the first thing he needed to buy and the land owned by the Demetree family was one of the first properties bought by Walt, Mary explained.

"The reason it was one of the first ones is because Walt Disney literally was flying over the land looking at Ocala. And when he came over to Orlando, he saw the wetlands on our property and said that's ‘Tom Sawyer's Island,’" she said. "So, what was lemons for us was lemonade for Walt Disney."

When the Demetree family was approached about their land, they were ecstatic. However, the family had no idea who was buying it because everything was dealt with through attorneys. Mary said her dad eventually started wondering who was making the purchase.

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They finally learned it was Walt Disney thanks to a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel.

"The newspaper sent a reporter out to Anaheim and said, ‘don't leave Anaheim until you crack this story, we think it might be Disney,’" Mary said. "I didn’t even realize the depth of what was happening until the morning of opening up the newspaper."

She said that, "Dad was going ‘I’ll be damned. I’ll be damned. It’s Disney World.’ And I remember he ran into the kitchen. I can remember, I said to my mother, ‘It’s Disney! It’s Disney.’"

The land went on to become part of the Walt Disney World Resort, which officially opened to the public on October 1st, 1971. The first phase of the resort included Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.

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Walt Disney World Resort will celebrate 50 years of operations with a celebration called ‘The World’s Most Magical Celebration.’ It will kick off this Friday and go for 18 months as new experiences debut across the entire Florida resort.

For more of what you need to know about The World’s Most Magical Celebration, check out ‘What to expect during Disney World's 50th anniversary celebration’ by FOX 35.

In addition, watch FOX 35 Orlando for the latest theme park updates.