Disney World and Its Tangled Web With CIA Ops

By: Diana Brown
Disney World under construction
The first phase of Walt Disney World under construction at Orlando, Florida, covered 27,000 acres (10,927 hectares) in November 1969, at that time the world's largest amusement park. Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Disney World might be the happiest place on Earth, but just like any fantasy, there's a little dark magic hiding under the theme park's shiny exterior. And that's exactly what the guys at Stuff They Don't Want You To Know want you to know about. In the episode of the podcast, "CIA agents to build his famous park.

Disneyland, the first theme park in Anaheim, California, opened in 1955, helping turn around the fortunes of the Disney company. But when Walt Disney envisioned his second park, he didn't stop at just attractions and concessions. He thought he would create a utopian "city of tomorrow" — a planned community for people to live and work. To do that, he needed a lot more land.


Orlando, Florida, was ideal, but Disney didn't just waltz right up to landowners to acquire his acres. Instead, he hired two notoriously shady men: Paul Helliwell, who ran CIA operations in Southeast Asia, and William "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the World War II spy organization that eventually became the CIA. With their help, Disney could not only keep the land low-cost, but also retain total control over it in perpetuity.

First, to get the land as cheaply and discreetly as possible, "Wild Bill" Donovan and his law firm created numerous shell corporations through which the property could be purchased. And he orchestrated a disinformation campaign to keep the locals from determining that it was really the Disney company that was buying it up as fast as it could, otherwise, residents would ask for a lot more money.

Eventually, people were suspicious enough that Walt Disney had no choice but to come clean; he admitted he was building a new park in Orlando. Immediately, the value of the land shot up. The Mouse House had been purchasing land for as little as $80 an acre, but after the announcement that he was building Disney World, the price skyrocketed to $80,000 per acre (yes, per acre!). By then, however, the company had already purchased 27,000 acres (10,927 hectares), and spent an average of $200 per acre, so it still worked in its favor.

But then how could the Walt Disney Company maintain control of such a large piece of property? That's when CIA spy Paul Helliwell came into the picture. His answer? Create phantom cities where the property was located, install a compliant government and just make your own rules.

So the cities of Bay Lake — where the current four theme parks are now located — and Lake Buena Vista, which encompasses Downtown Disney and its surrounding hotels, were created, and handpicked Disney employees moved in to control the voting. Meanwhile a third phantom, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, handled local-government things like waste removal, emergency medical services and fire departments. That meant Disney World was exempt from zoning and land use laws, and public money generated within the theme parks would stay in the business, too. It truly was a whole new world.

But the Disney conspiracies don't stop here: There are also rumors of secret, super-exclusive clubs on theme park grounds, as well as deaths covered up by Disney to keep the reputation of the park squeaky-clean. What other secrets are hidden in this giant wonderland? You'll have to listen to the entire podcast to find out. One thing's for sure, with Matt, Ben and Noel on the case, there will be no Donald Duck-ing the truth.