Ask McGehee

Is it true that Walt Disney visited Mobile to consider it a possible site for Disney World?

The following caption is from a 1957 newsletter in which this photo appeared: Mr. and Mrs. Walt Disney of movie and TV fame pose in a wrought iron frame on a balcony of the Bellingrath Home. This ironwork came from the old Southern Hotel, which once stood in Mobile. Photos courtesy of Bellingrath Gardens and Home

Yes and no. In 1957, Walt Disney and his wife Lillian stopped in Mobile to visit the Bellingrath Home, which had opened to the public just a year earlier amidst much fanfare. At the time, it was Mobile’s star attraction. It would be well into the next decade before the arrival of other tourist attractions such as the battleship USS Alabama and various museums.

Years later, many speculated that Disney’s trip through Mobile had been due to his interest in finding a location for a second theme park. History has proven this to be highly doubtful. Disneyland in Anaheim, California, had only been open for a little over a year at the time. Six years later, Disney discovered that only 5 percent of the visitors jamming the gates were traveling there from east of the Mississippi.

In November of 1963, Disney flew over central Florida, scouting a location for his planned Disney World. The area was undeveloped and would soon be linked by interstate highways that were under construction.

Eventually more than 25,000 acres were purchased under the names of various dummy corporations to prevent sellers from realizing the plan. Many small landowners happily sold swampy tracts for as little as $100 per acre.

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In April of 1965, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel got suspicious and reported that the real buyer was Disney. Although Disney denied it, the investigation continued until the creator of Mickey Mouse admitted the truth in October of that year.

Construction of the park began in 1967, a year after Disney died from complications of lung cancer. Disney World opened in 1971 and today attracts an astounding 52 million visitors a year.

Numerous cities from New Orleans to Niagara Falls have often repeated the urban myth that Disney looked at their areas for a potential development site, but these rumors are as false as believing he was considering Mobile for the next Disney playland.

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