When the brilliant illustrator and animator Walt Disney devised the world’s first theme park, California’s Disneyland, he left himself with no control over the hotels and restaurants that quickly engulfed it, preventing growth and erasing profits Disney felt were rightly his. Determined not to let that happen again, the Disney corporation secretly bought up 27,500 acres of central Florida farmland, acquiring by the late 1960s a site a hundred times bigger than Disneyland. With the promise of a jobs bonanza for Florida, the state legislature gave the corporation the rights of any major municipality (via a special jurisdiction called the Reedy Creek Improvement District), empowering it to lay roads, enact building codes and enforce the law with its own security force.
Walt Disney World’s first “land”, the Magic Kingdom, opened in 1971, and was a huge success. Unveiled in 1982, the far more ambitious Epcot represented the first major break from cartoon- based escapism – but its rose-tinted look at the future received a mixed response at the time. Partly due to this, and to some bad management decisions, the Disney empire (Disney himself died in 1966) faced bankruptcy by the mid-1980s. Since then, the corporation has sprung back from the abyss, and steers a tight and competitive ship that encompasses broadcast networks, publishing and movies – as well as a substantial merchandising arm. It may trade in fantasy, but when it comes to money, the Disney Corporation deals in the real world.