Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.

Author:Buzbee, William W.

MARRIED TO THE MOUSE: WALT DISNEY WORLD AND ORLANDO. By Richard E. Foglesong. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2001. Pp. xvi, 251. $27.95.

Richard Foglesong's (1) Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, may not offer the thrills of an entertainment park, but it is an uncommonly good read. In a book focused on approximately four decades of Disney's interactions with Orlando and state officials, political scientist Foglesong tells the tale of how Walt Disney ended up locating his new East Coast entertainment park in Orlando, Florida and what happened in subsequent government-Disney company interactions. Using chapter headings based on stages in a personal relationship's progression ("Serendipity" to "Seduction" through "Marriage," and ultimately, after interim stages, "Therapy"), Foglesong shows that while the relationship had its birth in a mutual desire for economic growth, the government-Disney relationship was also dynamic and at times unpredictable. This work is likely to influence debates on subjects as diverse as federalism, land use, state and local government, public choice, deregulation and privatization of government functions.

Compared to most legal scholarship exploring these subjects, political scientist Foglesong's technique is unusual. Foglesong actually conducted substantial documentary research into the Disney-Orlando story and interviewed many of the key players. Weaving in the fruits of this document review and interview process, the book presents a nuanced picture of this increasingly complex and ultimately souring forty year relationship between an economic powerhouse and its less sophisticated local and state government and business counterparts. Orlando granted Disney substantial governmental authority, thus making the company a rarity as both the predominant business in a city and, in part, its own government. To an extent perhaps unparalleled within the United States, Disney succeeded in controlling both market choices and governmental issues within its approximately forty square mile kingdom.

Whether this story of a business that transformed a sleepy Florida city into the most popular tourist destination in the world offers broader lessons for law and policymaking is a difficult question. Disney's breadth, success and audacity seem beyond category. Justice Cardozo once spoke of the "tendency of a principle to expand itself to the limit of its logic...." (2) Along several different trajectories, the Disney World Story goes well beyond usually anticipated limits. Pushing propositions well past their usual bounds, however, may just reveal the implications of extremity, and not the implications of, for example, partial privatization of government functions or business efforts to externalize costs of new development. At times the reader may yearn for more in-depth political science analysis, but apart from occasional forays into related political science scholarship, Foglesong devotes most of his attention simply to telling the Disney-Orlando story. Like other classics on urban government and growth, such as Caro's The Power Broker, (3) this book's principal value may lie in its rich tale as itself a source of edification, as well as for analysis by Foglesong and others in subsequent scholarship. (4) Married to the Mouse ultimately succeeds due to the insights offered by its blend of historically grounded observations, brief but deft placement of its own analysis within political science literature, and a rich story of several decades of business-government interaction and reshaping of the legal terrain.

This Essay starts by reviewing highlights of Disney World's first forty years, as presented in Foglesong's book and a few other recent accounts of Disney World's growth and operations. It then turns in Part II to closer analysis of what happens to accountability when private and public powers merge as occurred at Disney World. Part III examines this book's methodological approach, contrasting its mode of analysis with prevailing legal scholarship approaches to examination of business-government interactions, particularly in literature on federalism and motivations of state and local governments. The kind of context and history-rich analysis offered by Foglesong constitutes an approach generally missing from legal scholarship. Public law legal scholarship more typically focuses on legal texts or structures or, in scholarship influenced by economic modes of analysis, often seeks to discern the nature of business or governments at various levels based on aggregate, modeled or statistical analyses. Married to the Mouse offers numerous compelling examples of how politics, personalities and historical context influenced both legal developments and the evolving nature of government-business interactions. As generally predicted, a broad consensus in support of economic growth led to the enthusiastic embrace of the Disney World project, but later stages of business-government relationship revealed a thornier interaction as the costs of Disney's growth created burdens and dysfunction. This book's ultimate and most valuable lesson is that people and politics matter. Utilization of assumptions about predictable or inevitable types of business or government actions may be unavoidable, especially when designing or critiquing regulatory regimes, but such assumptions should be leavened with attention to historical detail and context.


    When Walt Disney began to search for a location in the eastern United States for a new Disney complex to rival the West Coast Disneyland, he and his team settled on a location. They attended a festive dinner preceding planned execution of documents committing Disney to its new venture. When the head of the city's leading business questioned Disney's business acumen in planning a tourist destination that would not sell alcohol--"Any man who thinks he can design an attraction that is going to be a success in this city and not serve beer or liquor, ought to have his head examined"--Walt Disney took umbrage (p. 2). As Foglesong recounts, Disney later that evening announced that the deal was off and Disney and his team would leave in the morning (p. 2). The loser? Not Orlando, but Saint Louis, due to the imprudent assertiveness of August (Gussie) Busch Jr. Rather than a revitalized and perhaps burdened Saint Louis, the Disney World team turned its sights to other potential locations.

    Several Orlando business leaders known as the "movers and shakers" had for years sought to create conditions that would lure business and growth to Orlando. Their chief tool was to attract non-local federal and state highway funds for roadbuilding that would make Orlando a key transportation hub (p. 17). Led by Orlando's most important power broker, Billy Dial, and newspaper publisher, Martin Anderson, these business leaders succeeded in their efforts. With the substantial assistance of "politically insulated institutions" such as the State Turnpike Authority and the State Road Board (pp. 22, 23-26), these "movers and shakers" succeeded in attracting new highway links and expansions that passed through Orlando. Neither these local business and political leaders nor the state knew who or what would be attracted to the area, but they felt confident that with new roads, beneficial business growth would follow. (5)

    Despite occasionally strong local opposition to the destruction wrought by the new confluence of highways running through and near Orlando, political deals and the lure of non-local funds succeeded (pp. 27-30). By the time Walt Disney turned his eyes to Orlando, the city offered a near perfect intersection of major, limited access highways that could be used by the millions of planned tourists (pp. 12, 14-15). Foglesong's Chapter Two constitutes a modest antidote to the oft-voiced assertion in legal scholarship and court opinions that with smaller levels of government, greater accountability and sensitivity to local citizens' needs will be found. (6) This first stage in Orlando's growth instead presents business leaders motivated largely by profit and local boosterism who, in turn, used state and federal money and politically insulated state institutions to transform a city's landscape and future. Indeed, little evidence of Disney, state or local government attention to broader desires or views of the citizenry appears anywhere in this story. Instead, citizens were repeatedly disenfranchised by state and local officials who acquiesced in Disney's requests.

    Once Orlando's climate, location and transportation infrastructure were found appropriate, Disney began, through stealth and intermediaries, to acquire land near Orlando (pp. 34-35). Seeking to avoid the escalation in prices and public scrutiny that would accompany public knowledge about Disney's plans, it employed an array of people and devices, among them false identification documents, an assortment of newly created corporations lacking any name link to Disney, two former World War II intelligence agents, and an assortment of mostly uninformed real estate brokers. They rapidly assembled rights to substantial portions of the desired 27,500 acre parcel (p. 49).

    When Walt's brother and later Disney leader Roy Disney questioned acquiring so much property for a venture that would actually use a far smaller area, Walt offered two explanations. First, he preferred for Disney to control not only Disney World's core but also the surrounding areas. He feared the visual clutter and tackiness that already surrounded the California-based Disneyland (p. 46). Walt Disney also recognized the benefits of ensuring that Disney controlled blocks of property in two local jurisdictions, Orange and Osceola Counties. Disney would have "more bargaining power" (p. 46). Disney was ultimately able, within eighteen months, to acquire a parcel twice the size of Manhattan and about the same size as San Francisco (p...

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