Ever since Disney World opened in 1971, it's been a beloved tourist attraction. However, building the park once seemed impossible, as Walt Disney faced a mosquito infestation. Find out how Disney overcame this and made it mosquito-free.
A Park With Zero Mosquitoes
There's something incredibly magical about Walt Disney World, from the rides to the characters and everything in between. And on top of that, have you ever noticed that there are absolutely zero mosquitoes?
Well, that's no coincidence. Back when Walt Disney was creating the plans for his iconic theme parks, the entrepreneur wanted to assure his guests that they would never be bothered by these insects at Disney World. So how did he manage to keep the pesks away?
The Man Behind It All
Meet Walt Disney, the man, the myth, the legend, and the mastermind behind Orlando's beloved theme park. Walter Elias Disney was a famous entrepreneur, writer, film producer, and so much more. Walt changed the world of cinematography, as he teamed up with Ub Iwerks and started a small film studio in the 1920s.
Eventually, he moved to California to pursue a full-time career in cinematography, and Walt and his brother Roy made their mark in Hollywood. Disney developed the iconic character Mickey Mouse in the late 1920s, and from there, his career indeed took off. Just about everyone knew of Walt Disney.
Disney Theme Parks
Walt Disney opened his first theme park, Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, in July of 1955. It was an instant success, bringing in millions of people in no time. This led Walt to begin thinking about expanding, and he started looking into opening another theme park.
So, researchers began surveying the park's visitors and noticed that only a tiny percentage of people who entered Disneyland came from beyond the Mississippi River. This brought Walt to the realization that he was missing out on a whole other group of people, and it would be beneficial to build his next park on the East Coast.
Taking on the East Coast
So, Disney and his team began exploring potential locations for the next park on the opposite side of the country. Walt's planners encouraged him to choose an area without snow and with a lot of sunshine so that the park could be open during all four seasons; Florida seemed like the perfect place for Disney's new home.
Walt and his team got right to work, taking every single factor into consideration. Mr. Disney chose a plot of land that was large enough to essentially build an entire city while making sure it was close enough to an already existing town to encourage tourists to visit the park. And the whole project had to be kept a secret.
The Florida Project
For a while, this new theme park went down as one of the country's best-kept secrets. It was known as "The Florida Project" during the 1960s, so many people had no idea what it was all about. The only persons who knew the truth about the project were the ones that were actually working on it.
Disney had a clear vision of how he wanted this new park to turn out, but his ideas aren't exactly reflected in today's Disney World. For starters, Walt dreamed that Epcot would become a futuristic utopian city that would continuously change to stay current. However, his team quickly noticed some significant issues.
Creating a Plan
With all of Disney's plans, there were few plots of land that would fit his needs. He ended up purchasing 25,000 acres near Orlando, Florida, which was nearly the size of San Francisco. This enormous lot would certainly allow Walt to build the city of his dreams, at least he thought.
Every square inch of the land was accounted for in the plan. Disney even observed people in his California park to get a better idea of how to best accommodate his guests. He noticed that people walked about 30 steps holding trash before throwing it away, so he placed trashcans every 30 feet.
Because Disney World is so enormous, Walt also wanted to assure visitors that they'd be able to get around easily, without becoming exhausted after walking from one end of the park to the other. Guests have the option to travel throughout the park in their choice of vehicle.
With several buses, boats, a monorail, and other forms of transportation, anyone visiting Disney World shouldn't have to worry about walking through the thousands of acres. Walt certainly had big plans for this park, but there was one problem standing in his way.
A Crucial Issue
When Disney bought the entire 25,000 acres, he hadn't planned on building the park on every inch of it. Instead, he wanted to set half of it aside to preserve as a nature reserve to protect Florida's beautiful scenery. But as planners scoped out the area, they noticed something that could harm visitors' experience.
Whenever someone visited Walt's land, they wound up covered in mosquito bites, and the entire team knew this had to be resolved first and foremost. The swampy land attracted countless amounts of these bugs and made it unpleasant for workers from the very beginning.
Calling in for Backup
Disney knew that he couldn't continue working on the park until this significant issue was resolved, and he couldn't fix it on his own. And that's where Major General William "Joe" Potter, an engineer and MIT graduate, eventually came into the picture.
Potter was also the governor of the Panama Canal Zone, a job that didn't require extermination skills. So how exactly was this engineer able to solve a mosquito problem? Walt had the construction and structural engineering aspects taken care of, but he later learned that Potter would be his key to success.
Potter Had Experience With Pest Control
During his time as governor of the Panama Canal Zone, Potter faced a major malaria problem, as the area was swarmed with mosquitoes. He was determined to stop the spread of the disease, so he educated himself on proper pest control to put a stop to the problem before it was too late.
In 1964, while serving as the executive vice president of the New York World's Fair, Potter decided to educate others on the importance of pest control after successfully stopping the spread of malaria. Plenty of people came out to the fair and wanted to speak with him, but there was one face he'd never expected to see.
Right Place, Right Time
Potter wound up chatting with Disney at the fair in New York, and these two evidently hit it off right away. Potter began telling Disney about his mosquito prevention plans as governor, and suddenly, Walt was fascinated with what he was hearing. Could Potter be the answer that Disney had been searching for all along?
Disney asked Potter a series of questions to understand more about how he'd eliminated the mosquitoes. Had he actually succeeded in stopping the spread of malaria for an entire community? So, Disney began telling Potter about the top-secret Florida Project and hired him on the spot to join the team.
With zero time to waste, Disney and Potter headed back to Florida to get working on this ground-breaking project. They knew this would be extremely time-consuming, as the park was sitting on top of a giant swamp, and it was far from ready to welcome guests.
Walt knew that it would take a miracle to rid the park of the mosquitoes, so he was open to almost all options. For starters, Potter mainly focused on the park's water system. Disney was impressed when he learned that Potter's plan didn't involve killing the mosquitoes.
Didn't Harm Any Insects
Rather than killing off the insects entirely, Potter looked into other ways of keeping these irritating bugs away. He wanted to find a way to prevent the mosquitoes from even entering the park and make sure that they had no way of getting in once the eggs hatched.
So, Potter needed to make Disney World entirely undesirable for the insects. Mosquitoes looked for a specific type of environment to lay their eggs, so it was time to create the exact opposite. The team began looking into the park's water sources throughout the entire 25,000 acres.
The Swamps Caused More Problems
The park was essentially built on a swamp, which posed even more issues in itself. Still, water makes for the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, and this Florida swamp was just that. So, Potter felt it was crucial to drain all of the wetlands and transform the property into dry land, ideal for building the park.
He did this by digging ditches near the water to transfer it to other areas. These draining areas were called "Joe's Ditches," to honor Potter's much-appreciated work. However, the ditches couldn't remove all of the water, so Walt's team needed to go back to the drawing board.
A Whole New Water System
While the swampy areas couldn't be drained entirely, Joe's Ditches ensured that the water would continuously flow. This alone would repel the mosquitoes, as they needed still water to lay their eggs, such as a pond or the very swamps that filled Disney's land.
So, Potter created a completely new system to prevent still water from existing anywhere in the park. Anyone who visits Disney World today might notice that every water source in the park is constantly flowing, not just for the aesthetics. Even in small ponds, there's some sort of fountain for movement.
More Than Just a Theme Park
Even with the new water system intact, that still wasn't enough to guarantee the absence of mosquitoes throughout Disney World; this was only the beginning. When the park eventually opened in 1971, it was far more than just a theme-park. This piece of land was a full-scale vacation resort.
There were multiple hotels, various gift shops, and several restaurants; Disney World was essentially an entire city. Therefore, Potter began to worry that there were infinite numbers of places that mosquitoes could use as breeding grounds, and this needed to be taken care of as soon as possible.
Much More To Go
While draining the swamps and creating flowing water definitely covered some of Disney World, it wasn't nearly enough to avoid a major mosquito problem. To guarantee there would be no more of these insects, Potter had to design every single building in a very particular way.
He informed Walt and the rest of the team that construction needed to be done exactly how instructed if the park ever had a chance of opening mosquito-free. Plenty of people know how to build a functional building, but how was Potter going to design these structures to repel insects?
Adjusting the Architecture
With the unpredictable Florida showers, the park would collect quite a bit of water anytime it rained, and it formed pools practically everywhere. Especially on top of buildings, these still puddles of water were the perfect places for mosquitoes to lay eggs. So, they had to be built in a way that would allow water to flow off.
"They made every building there curved, or designed in a way so there'd be no place for the water to catch or sit," explained Christopher Lucas, a Disney historian. "The architecture is really appealing to the eye, but it also serves a purpose: it makes it less conducive to mosquitoes."
Invested Millions Into Pest Control
But still, there was much more to do. Disney was completely committed to eliminating mosquitoes in his park, so he invested millions of dollars in Potter's methods. The famous animator knew that if he didn't take all precautionary measures, guests wouldn't have as great of an experience visiting the park.
Pest control was accounted for in the landscaping budget, and every plant he placed in the park served a purpose. Potter only selected plants that were less likely to create a pool or small body of still water, and none of them were put near water sources.
Going the Extra Mile
There's no doubt that Potter went the extra mile with the Florida Project, which would eventually open as the theme park we know and love today. He was able to prevent mosquitoes, but no matter how much planning went into the architecture and landscaping, it seems there was always more to be done.
Potter literally had to keep working below the surface, where the flowing water didn't quite hit. "They also stock-fill those places with minnows, goldfish, and a type of fish called mosquito fish that eat up the larvae," Lucas revealed. Evidently, every aspect of the park was functional, even the fish.
Prepared for Anything
With Potter's determination, he felt there was still more he could do to keep this park mosquito-free. He came to thinking, what about the mosquitoes that flew into the park from other places and didn't necessarily hatch on one of Disney's strategic structures? As always, Potter had a plan.
His first thought was to use some sort of spray to cover the entire park, but since Disney was exceptionally environmentally friendly, the options were limited. "[He] did not want to ruin the environment at all, so they couldn't use pesticides," explained Lucas.
Preserving the Environment
"It'd be easy to just spray the whole thing, but he wanted it to be something natural," Lucas continued. So, Disney and Potter needed to think outside of the box, as they had quite a bit of ground to cover - 25,000 acres to be exact. How does one repel insects without using any chemicals?
Potter came up with an unusual solution: liquid garlic. When sprayed throughout the park, the garlic would repel the insects without disturbing Disney's guests. While it might sound rather odd, Potter's unconventional ideas kept coming, as he explored every possible option to execute the plan.
Secret Chicken Project
If you thought that spraying an amusement park with liquid garlic was peculiar, then Potter's next trick might come as even more shocking. After creating a new water system, strategically placing plants and fish, and spraying garlic, the next step involved live chickens.
During his time as governor, Potter discovered that chickens weren't affected by mosquitoes the way humans were. So, he put live chickens in some secret regions of Disney World, where they would be regularly tested for mosquito-borne illnesses. This way, the staff would know if any harmful insects made it into the park.
From fish to chickens, Potter went above and beyond to eliminate the mosquitoes in Disney World. But did his plan actually work? After years of construction and planning, Potter was proud to say that he'd accomplished what was once considered an impossible mission.
Disney World finally opened its doors on October 1st, 1971, and the Florida Project was revealed as a spectacular theme park. Potter managed to transform a massive southern swamp into a mosquito-free, absolutely magical destination, attracting tourists worldwide.
The Disney Experience
Potter's impressive work was so successful that most guests never even thought about the possibility of mosquitoes during their time at Disney World. And that was the main goal back when Walt first recruited Potter; the disturbance of insects was to be avoided at all costs.
While Disney World's creators might've found a way to eliminate the mosquitoes without Potter, who knows if they would've gone to such great lengths. The people behind the project never had to worry about visitors leaving itchy or uncomfortable as nearly everyone walks out with a smile.
The Rules Must Be Followed
Walt certainly put a lot of emphasis on having a mosquito-free theme park, but he also wanted to keep it as pristine as possible. Hence, he specifically placed trashcans every 30 feet hoping this would prevent people from throwing their garbage on the ground.
Supposedly, Disney also insisted that no concession stands inside the park could sell chewing gum. This was to avoid it falling onto the ground or any of his crucial architecture or landscapes. After all, he'd invested millions of dollars into pest control alone; can you blame him for wanting to keep Disney World clean?
While the project was full of excitement and new beginnings, there was one tragic loss during the whole thing. Unfortunately, Walt Disney passed away on December 15th, 1966, from long cancer. He'd only been diagnosed a month before, but sadly, this was one battle he couldn't win.
This meant that by the time Disney World was completed, Walt was no longer with us. He'd put his everything into planning this park, but sadly, never got to see his dream come to life. Regardless, Walt's legacy will always remain in that park, as well as in his many other projects.
When Disney is in the process of expanding and adding to the park, the team doesn't have to worry about a mosquito issue, even if purchasing new plots of land. They guarantee pest-free territories by adding land sections that are fairly close to the existing property to accommodate Joe's Ditches.
As long as today's architects and landscapers follow Potter's precise instructions, then Disney World should remain the magical, mosquito-free park that so many people look forward to visiting every year. And the more fountains that are built in the park to repel mosquitoes, of course, the more beautiful it becomes.
Potter Saved Disney World
To this day, Disney World still uses Potter's methods to keep mosquitoes out of the park. He might not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking about how Disney World came to life, but he certainly was the missing puzzle piece in the entire operation.
Although Walt never actually got to see Potter's work in place, the visionary knew that he'd chosen the right man for the job. "Joe [Potter] was a man [whom] Walt Disney was very fond of," revealed Dick Nunis, former president of Disney World attractions. "Without Joe Potter, there would be no [Disney World] today."
What started as a seemingly impossible mission became a reality, all thanks to Walt Disney and, of course, Joe Potter. Without their hard work and determination, Disney World may have never opened its doors. So, the next time you find yourself visiting the parks, remember the story behind this magical place.
And let this story serve as a reminder that there's a lot more below the surface than we might realize. In the wise words of Walt Disney himself, "All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them." He certainly pursued his dream and never gave up on it for as long as he lived.