There have been no proclamations or parades, but 1963 is the anniversary of the two events that changed Orlando, and Florida.
Sixty years ago, the Florida Legislature created the University of Central Florida and Walt Disney selected Orlando as the site of his new theme park.
Orlando has never been the same, with the population increasing tenfold.
In 1955, the state had three public colleges: the new Florida State University (it had been the Florida State College for Women), the University of Florida and Florida A&M University for African American students. The postwar baby boom meant that 125,000 students would be graduating from Florida high schools by the early 1960s, and many would be looking for a state college. The state was not prepared.
Florida began creating colleges — the first was the University of South Florida in 1956 — and then what became UCF in 1963.
The Legislature created a university but did not pick a site, only deciding it should serve an area from Flagler County to Fort Pierce — nine counties.
UCF was designed to serve the booming space industry and it was assumed the new school would be built close to Titusville, the site of the space center.
Officials in Brevard County failed to step up, while Orlando leaders saw the opportunity. They lobbied hard and won the prize. Orlando had a university, but no campus. The Legislature failed to come up with the money. To make sure Orlando kept the school, 89 residents came up with $500,000 (the equivalent of more than $5 million today) to buy the land. Even then, there was no money to start construction.
Fortunately, for Orlando, attorney Charlie Gray was owed a political favor by Gov. Haydon Burns and decided to cash it in for the proposed school. Burns pushed through legislation to repay the 89 residents and appropriate $7 million for construction (the school had been promised $11 million).
There was a battle over the name. Three possible names were chosen: University of Central Florida, Florida Central University and Central Florida University. The state rejected the three and chose Florida Technological University. A dozen years later, it became UCF. At one point, there was an effort to create a regional campus of the University of Florida — University of Florida at Orlando — which would have made the initials UFO.
The football team was created in 1979 — of the 65 teams in the Power 5 football conferences today, UCF is the youngest.
Walt Disney began to think about a second attraction soon after Disneyland opened in 1955. Surveys showed that fewer than 5% of the visitors came from east of the Mississippi.
Disney was not only unsure of where to build; he was undecided about what to build. He began reading books about city planning and was considering building a city of tomorrow. EPCOT is closer to his dream than Disney World.
Sites in Niagara Falls, St. Louis, and in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., were considered and rejected. According to Rollins professor Rick Foglesong, Walt came within a dozen hours of picking St. Louis before changing his mind.
Finally, he settled on Florida. Palm Beach County was a serious contender, but Disney wanted more than the 3,000 acres John D. McArthur offered.
That left four possible sites: One on the west coast near Bradenton; a second in Volusia County near Daytona; Ocala and Orlando. Disney rejected Bradenton and Daytona because he did not want to compete with a free attraction — the beach.
That narrowed it down to Ocala and Orlando. Walt Disney knew the Ocala area well. His ancestors once lived in Lake County — his parents were married in Kismet, now a ghost town within the Ocala National Forest.
Ocala was an early favorite and Walt told associates about the times he would visit his aunt in Paisley in north Lake County, and travel to Ocala.
Walt drove to Ocala and looked at land, but Orlando emerged as a favorite site. In November 1963, Disney borrowed a Grumman Gulfstream and flew to Tampa. Disney liked the plane so much that three weeks later he purchased his own Gulfstream, which became known as “The Mouse.”
The following morning, he flew over Orlando and when he arrived at the spot where I-4 (which was still under construction) crossed the Florida Turnpike, he said, “That’s it.”
Recently, Key West author Scott Atwell uncovered the Disney flight logs from that day, and they tell a strange story of what happened after Walt said, “That’s it.” He planned to spend the night in New Orleans, but instead of heading directly there, he took a long route via Miami and Key West.
The long route may have been to fool anyone trying to predict Disney’s moves. Disney executives were worried their site would be discovered and land prices would soar. Throughout the land purchase phase, executives took circuitous routes to Orlando. One executive flew through St. Louis so often — he wanted to visit his mother on his way to Orlando — there was speculation McDonnell-Douglas (now part of Boeing) was the Orlando land buyer.
During the taxi ride to their New Orleans hotel, they saw people crying and asked the driver to turn on the radio. They learned that during their flight, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
James C. Clark is a senior lecturer in the UCF history department.
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