Has anyone else ever noticed that there are somehow no mosquitoes in Florida’s Walt Disney World? How is that even possible when Florida is full of swampland? Well, it turns out that there is a story behind the reason the Happiest Place On Earth is mosquito-free. So put away that insect repellent, because that won’t be necessary for this Disney story. Hate mosquitoes? Get ready to feel satisfied.
A Mosquito-Less World
Each and every year, an average of 58 million people visit Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. That means there are thousands of bodies that move through the park every single day. But somehow, not a single one of those hot-blooded visitors is likely to get any mosquito bites.
But how is that even possible? Anyone who lives in Florida will say that mosquito bites, especially during Disney’s high season in the summer, are an inevitable part of existing in this swamp land. So how does The Happiest Place on Earth avoid all of those miserable bug bites? Turns out there’s actually an intensely strange story behind it.
Wanting To Expand The World Of Disney
Walt Disney opened his first Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California, and as a grand innovation, it was an immediate success. In its first year open in 1956, 10 million people visited Disneyland. By 1970, an astounding 100 million people had visited Disney’s park. But Walt Disney noticed a huge opening when it came to the future of his theme parks.
When surveying the visitors to the California attraction, Disney researchers noticed that only 5 percent of the people who came to Disneyland had traveled from beyond the Mississippi River, even though at the time 75 percent of America’s population lived in that area. For Disney, this was a strong sign. He had to build a park on the country’s East Coast.
A New Park In Florida
With so much potential on the East Coast, Disney and his park planners knew that it was time to expand his theme park world to the other side of the country. Planners had envisioned a location whose weather would be able to host visitors during any season, and picked Florida as Disney’s next home.
The planners also knew that millions of people would be traveling into Florida to get to the new park, so they accounted for every detail. Disney picked land that was large enough to basically create an entirely new city, but was close enough to an established city to make it easy for tourists to make the trip. Somehow, they had to keep the entire thing a secret.
“The Florida Project”
At first, the plan for another Disney amusement park was one of the best-kept secrets in the country. The park was given the secret code name “The Florida Project” throughout the 1960s so that only those closest to its construction would know of its existence.
Disney himself took a front seat to planning the whole park, and his vision was much different than what can be found in Florida today. For example, the businessman planned the Epcot area, and it was Disney’s dream that Epcot would be a utopian city of the future that would always be changing as it tested new technology. Disney had huge plans for the site, but quickly planners began to notice some even larger issues.
A Massive Undertaking
In order to achieve everything that Disney had in mind for this new site, the Disney company bought up 25,000 full acres of land near Orlando, Florida. The plot was as big as the entire city of San Francisco, and its land mass was twice as large as that of Manhattan.
Every square inch of that land was planned. Disney himself even watched people in his California park and noticed that they would walk about 30 paces with trash before trying to dispose of it. In his new park, he demanded a trash can for every 30 steps. Yet despite such meticulous planning, one problem threatened to ruin the park before it even began.
Noting A Huge Dilemma
Disney had never planned on using all 25,000 acres of his park for rides and other amusements. Instead, he wanted to keep 50 percent of it untouched, acting as a nature reserve to protect the beautiful Florida scenery that surrounded the park. But that created other issues: as planners surveyed the area, they noticed something that could potentially chase away visitors, and it needed to be addressed quickly.
Every time that anyone visited the land, they left covered in mosquito bites. The swampy area that Disney had purchased was a breeding ground for the blood-sucking insects, and workers left itchy and uncomfortable. No one would want to spend their vacation among these pests, and Disney knew he had to solve this problem before the insects began sucking away his investment.
The Man Who Would Save Disney World
Major General William “Joe” Potter was an engineering expert and graduate of MIT before he moved on to become the governor of the Panama Canal Zone. But only a select few know that this same man was the hero who ended up saving Disney World.
But how did a former major general and governor become involved in a secret theme park in the middle of Florida? And what does this have to do with mosquitoes? That all started with one meeting that would turn into the job that would change Potter’s life, and the life of this yet-to-be-born theme park.
A Fateful Meeting
Before he had anything to do with Disney, Potter was governor during a time when the Panama Canal Zone was facing a massive malaria problem caused by mosquitoes in the area. To combat the spread of the disease, Potter became an expert in pest control, and was able to get a handle on this issue before it got out of hand.
In 1964, Potter decided to bring his expertise to the World’s Fair in New York City. He was sure that there were other people bound to be in attendance who would benefit from learning about how to control a mosquito problem, but he never guessed that one of them would be Walt Disney himself.
Hired On The Spot
Potter found himself talking to Disney during his visit to the World’s Fair, and the two got along right from the start. But something changed when Potter began talking about his mosquito work in the Panama Canal Zone. Potter’s work immediately caught Disney’s attention.
Disney began asking more and more questions, trying to learn every detail about his anti-mosquito measurements. Did they work? He never thought that Disney would be so into the ins and outs of pest control. As Potter explained, Disney told him about a mysterious Florida project, and hired him on the spot for one of the largest undertakings in the world.
Ridding The Park Of Mosquitoes
Almost immediately after the World’s Fair came to an end, Potter’s work with Disney began. The massive theme park sitting on top of a swamp would be a gigantic project, and it would nearly take a miracle to rid it of mosquitoes. But to start, Potter focused on the park’s standing water.
Disney was surprised to learn that Potter’s methods were not focused on killing the mosquitoes themselves. Instead, he wanted to stop them before they were even hatched. He wanted to create an environment where mosquitoes would not want to lay their eggs, and that started with taking a look at all of the park’s water sources.
A Swampy Mess
Still water was known to be an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, and there sure was a ton of that on the swampy, newly-purchased Florida property. Potter’s first order of business was draining those swamps, getting rid of the wetland to make room for dry, stable areas for building.
To do so, Potter built ditches throughout the park that were able to transport the water elsewhere. The sites were nicknamed “Joe’s Ditches,” and can still be found today throughout Disney World. But not all of the water was able to be removed completely. Now, there stood another problem for the nearly impossible task.
Constantly Flowing Water
For the swamp areas that could not be completely drained, Joe’s Ditches helped to make sure that the water was at least constantly flowing in a certain direction. Mosquitoes, he knew, loved to lay eggs in still water. So Joe tried to invent a system whereby still water simply would not exist in all of Disney World.
Today, guests may not even notice these measures. But anyone who is paying close attention can easily see that every single water source in Disney includes constantly flowing water, even if that means spotting a fountain in a small pond. Yet despite it all, even those measures were not enough to completely rid the park of mosquitoes. The work was far from over.
More Than Just Water Sources
When Disney World first opened its doors in 1971, it was known as Disney’s first full-scale vacation resort. That meant that beyond the rides and the fountains, there were also two hotels, and tons of gifts shops and restaurants. However, as far as Potter was concerned, that meant there were also tons of potential places for mosquitoes to breed.
Draining the swamps and creating flowing water sources would not be enough. For Potter to fully eradicate the mosquito problem, every single building in the entire park would have to be built just as he instructed. But how exactly does one build a building that would repel mosquitoes away?
Building An Anti-Mosquito Zone
When it would rain in the area that would soon become Disney World, water would collect and pool just about everywhere, especially on top of buildings, creating the perfect places for mosquitoes to lay their eggs. Instead “all the buildings are built so that the water flows right off of them,” according to a book on the Park’s history.
“They made every building there curved, or designed in a way so there’d be no place for the water to catch or sit there,” the book’s author, Christopher Lucas, explained. “The architecture is really appealing to the eye, but it also serves a purpose: it makes it less conducive to mosquitoes.” Still, Potter said just these steps would not be enough.
Planting Away Pests
Disney was so committed to making sure his park was mosquito-free that he invested millions of dollars into Potter’s pest control. He knew that with such a huge mosquito problem, no one would be able to really enjoy the park he had created. So preventing mosquitoes went into every single detail, even the landscaping budget.
Every plant in Disney was placed there for a purpose. Potter selected plants that would specifically be less likely to create pooling or standing water, whether on their leaves or at the base. No plants were placed near water sources. Don’t believe it? Check it out: to this day, guests will not see any water lilies on the property, which Potter said were mosquito-havens. But other measures were taken below the surface.
Deep Below The Surface
Potter had successfully managed to transform the land where Disney World was built into a place that had nearly no mosquitoes. But no matter how much planning had gone into the gardening and architecture, that was not enough. Even underneath the constant-flowing water, Potter wanted to take an extra step to keep the insects away.
In every manmade river that was flowing through the park, Potter instructed that specific fish species be placed inside. But the wildlife was not there for aesthetic reasons. “They also stock-fill those places with minnows, goldfish, and a type of fish called mosquito fish that eat the larvae,” Lucas wrote. Then, together with Disney, Potter came up with yet another idea to keep the mosquitoes away.
A Mosquito Spray That No One Notices
All of Potter’s steps were aimed at making sure that mosquitoes were neither bred nor hatched on the Disney property. But what about those mosquitoes that, like so many of the theme park’s visitors themselves, fly in from elsewhere? Potter had a plan for that too.
Disney was committed to preserving the environment as much as he could, and that meant that he was not in favor of using harsh chemicals for insect repellents. Instead, Potter proposed using liquid garlic! The garlic spray would repel mosquitoes, but it would be so faint that visitors would not even notice that the grounds were sprayed. And for anyone who thinks that this trick is weird, wait for what happened next.
The Secret Chicken Project
From the swamps to the buildings to the plants, animals, and natural insect repellent, Potter took every single step that he could think of to rid the park of any mosquitoes. But his last step was by far the most bizarre, and involved the use of chickens.
From his work in the Panama Canal Zone, Potter had learned that chickens are not affected by mosquitoes, even if the insects were infected with diseases like malaria. Because of this, chickens were placed in secret areas of the park, where they would undergo routine blood work for mosquito-born illnesses. This way, park managers could ensure that any mosquitoes that made it into Disney World were not infected with harmful viruses. Was the plan foolproof?
By the time that Disney World opened its gates in 1971, Potter had transformed the area from an insect-ridden Floridian swampland to a mosquito-free theme park. Every single detail had been accounted for, and Potter’s work had been a success. His work was so successful, in fact, that most visitors would not even notice the steps taken or the lack of mosquitoes — and that was the whole point.
Without Potter, the creators of Florida’s Disney World would have surely completed the project, but it might not have had nearly the success that it sees today. Instead of leaving the park incessantly itching, visitors leave Disney World smiling. And since Potter’s death in 1988, the amusement park has made sure that Potter’s name is not forgotten.
Continuing Potter’s Legacy
Today, Disney World still uses all of Potter’s measures to keep the park mosquito-free. While his name may not be widely known, anyone taking the ferry into Magic Kingdom might notice his name inscribed on the famous ferry boats. In 1997, Disney’s managers named Potter among the Disney Legends, an honor bestowed on the people who made Disney what it is today.
Nowadays, Potter’s legacy remains with every single tourist who has set foot in the famous park, whether they are aware or not. According to Disney World’s former president, “Joe [Potter] was a man [whom] Walt Disney was very fond of. Without Joe Potter, there would be no [Disney World] today.”
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