Tucked away in nearly hidden corners of the sprawling Walt Disney World resort are two of the unlikeliest spots you could imagine: two fully incorporated cities, not shown on any publicly distributed property map, hidden in plain sight. Has a company town been this mysterious since the days of the atom bomb production in Oak Ridge, TN? What are these cities, why do they exist, and who lives there? We’ll dig through Disney history to provide some little known facts about these most interesting of communities.
1. Where they are
The cities are known as Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. If you are familiar with these terms, it is probably because they are used to refer to much more heralded parts of the Walt Disney World resort. Bay Lake is the big natural lake around which the Magic Kingdom, Contemporary Resort, Wilderness Lodge, and Fort Wilderness sit. Lake Buena Vista is the official mailing address city for Walt Disney World, and is also part of the old name for what is now the Downtown Disney Marketplace.
To understand the purpose of the two cities, it is necessary to understand what Central Florida was in the 1960s, when Walt Disney decided to build the Florida project there. The majority of Walt’s 25,000 acre purchase was swampland and wetlands deemed uninhabitable by locals. The nearest power lines were 15 miles away and the counties that shared a border inside the property could not possibly meet the site’s water needs. Taxpayers did not want to shoulder the sizeable expenses involved in developing the property.
Disney worked with politicians in the state capital of Tallahassee to develop a highly unusual and innovative solution. By creating a special taxing district known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), Disney alone would take on the responsibility of development costs. RCID would also serve as a sort of county government district, handling its own building codes, fire rescue, zoning issues, utilities, emergency medical services, and so forth.
There was just one problem. Unwilling to give the corporation complete autonomy, state lawmakers insisted that RCID could not take on certain duties such as police protection that are typically handled at the city or town level. So an agreement was reached for Disney to found two cities whose residents would be empowered to make certain decisions.
Remember, at this point the Florida project was still expected to include a strong residential component, with thousands of people living and working inside the futuristic city of Epcot. So at that point, stocking the new project with a few startup residents was hardly an outlandish concept. Thus, the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista were born, alongside the Reedy Creek Improvement District, in 1967.
2. Their size
Walt Disney passed away in 1966, before plans were finalized, but his brother Roy immediately stepped in to ensure that the Florida Project was completed. Unfortunately, neither Roy nor anyone else in the new Disney leadership team could quite figure out how to pull off Walt’s ambitious futuristic city. Initial opening plans coalesced around the Magic Kingdom, and the final 1982 version of Epcot was a much scaled-down theme park version of Walt’s greatest dream.
But what of the cities that had been created by state law? They were an essential part of the Disney government, and couldn’t simply be dismantled. So they were allowed to remain, frozen in time. Each city consists of a neat and tidy, but tiny, mobile home park. Residents own their homes, but pay nominal lot rent to Disney. According to a May 2015 article in the Orlando Sentinel, the combined population numbers just 44, with each family charged $75 per month for its lot. They have access to a private, gated fireworks viewing location on the banks of Bay Lake.