The CIA Spies Behind Disney World’s Secretive, Fake Cities

By Alex Hanton on Wednesday, July 8, 2015
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“Over at our place, we’re sure of just one thing: everybody in the world was once a child. So in planning a new picture, we don’t think of grown-ups, and we don’t think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall.” —Walt Disney

In A Nutshell

Paul Helliwell and “Wild Bill” Donovan were two of the most notorious spies in American history, adept at setting up front companies and running disinformation campaigns. Which is exactly why Walt Disney hired them to help him build Florida’s Disney World. In a classic piece of corporate subterfuge, Helliwell and Donovan helped Disney build two fake cities that would grant him total control of the local government.

The Whole Bushel

By the late 1950s, it was clear that theme parks were the future of Disney. The company’s first park, California’s Disneyland, had saved it from bankruptcy and was soon generating huge profits. A second location was only logical, and Walt Disney himself soon had his heart set on Florida. (A probably apocryphal legend claims that he initially wanted it in St. Louis but changed his mind after feeling insulted by local Budweiser executives.) But there were challenges to be faced: Disneyland was such a huge money-spinner that local landowners were sure to jack up their prices once they heard Walt was sniffing around for a second space. Additionally, Walt was furious that cheap hotels and businesses had sprung up around his California location, ruining the ambiance. In Florida, he wanted to be in complete control.

To help him achieve that, Walt turned to two of the most notorious spies in American history. William “Wild Bill” Donovan was the founder of the OSS, the World War II–era spy agency that eventually morphed into the CIA. As such, he has a serious claim to be the founder of modern US espionage. By the late ‘50s, Donovan had been unceremoniously retired from government service and was heading up his own law firm, which Disney quickly hired.

He also hired Paul Helliwell, an incredibly shady figure who ran CIA front operations in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean and who usually shows up in the various conspiracy theories about CIA drug trafficking. Helliwell’s job was to use his CIA experience to set up a number of shell companies, which would be able to buy land in central Florida without anybody realizing it was really being bought by Disney.

That part of the plan went off without a hitch, with Helliwell snapping up land for as low as $80 an acre while Donovan’s law firm ran a disinformation campaign to prevent anyone working out who was really behind the purchases. When word finally got out that the land was for Disney, the price ballooned up to $80,000 an acre, but by that point the space for the park had been acquired at an average of just $200 an acre. But Disney still needed to make sure he completely controlled the land—and that meant getting the government out of the picture as well. Luckily, Helliwell had a solution.

The CIA man advised Disney to set up “puppet governments” in the form of two fake cities. Since nobody actually lived in the area, Disney would just need to place a couple of hand-picked employees in the cities to totally control the local government. This was probably illegal and arguably unconstitutional, but with the aid of a compliant state legislature, the cities (Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista) were duly incorporated. They still exist today, with a combined population of 44 people, all of them Disney employees, or retired employees, or the children of employees. The citizens elect officials and decide what ordinances to pass, but “if they didn’t vote Disney’s way regularly, you can be sure they wouldn’t be Disney employees or living on Disney property much longer.” By controlling the cities, Disney controls local government, making Walt Disney World a magical kingdom indeed.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Veryhuman
The Daily Beast: How The CIA Helped Disney Conquer Florida
Theme Park Insider: Walt Disney And The Beginning Of His World
The Orlando Sentinel: Walt Disney World’s City Residents Help Keep Resort Running
Spartacus Educational: Paul Helliwell