If you consider yourself a fan of Walt Disney World history then you have surely seen the Alan Whicker “World of Whicker” Walt Disney World episode. Filmed during the construction of WDW, Mr. Whicker interviews Disney officials as well as Central Florida locals as he investigates the relationship the Orlando/Kissimmee area was about to have with the mouse.
At the 20:25 timestamp, Alan interviews a couple in their beautiful backyard, overlooking a Central Florida lake. My hair stood straight up when I saw the image. A thousand memories suddenly came rushing back to me. Memories that are only unlocked by a long forgotten smell, sound or sight. This was a couple I was incredibly familiar with. I grew up playing in that yard, jumping off that dock into the cool lake, and climbing on the roofs of the boathouses in the background, much to the chagrin of their owners. It was John and Ellie Luff, my neighbors.
John Palmer Luff and his family are as linked to Central Florida history as Walt Disney World or citrus groves. John Palmer Luff’s grandfather, Harry Palmer bought land in Central Florida at the beginning of the twentieth century. The area he purchased happened to be near the current location of the town of Winderemre, Florida, where I grew up. Harry owned a sawmill and needed a more efficient way of moving lumber around. The area happened to be dotted with numerous lakes, but many were not connected. Harry got the idea of constructing canals between these lakes to create a waterway for him to ship his lumber to the sawmill. In the process he created what is now known as the Buttler Chain of Lakes.
John Luff continued his father’s work and in so doing became a central figure for the town of Windermere: managing a general store, being involved in local real estate (even helping my parents purchase the home where I grew up), and being the mayor of the town during the construction of the Walt Disney World Resort. John and Ellie lived in the house John’s father built.
As his house had a large yard with a dock to the lake, it became a central hangout and swimming location for us local youths. However, being an adventurous child between swimming sessions, I would go exploring in their basement* and garage. It was here in the garage that I discovered huge 5×10 foot aerial photographs of the Walt Disney World Resort at different periods of time: 1971, 1982, 1989. As these were the days before the internet and Google Earth, this was the first time I had ever seen an aerial view of the Mouse House.
One day while studying the photos I heard the house’s wooden screen door creak open and with a bang, close shut. John had come in to the garage from the house. “I’ve noticed you really enjoy these aerial photos.” John said to me. “Yeah. I’ve never seen Disney from the air.” I replied. “Most people haven’t.” John went on to tell me about how the town had tracked the progress of the Disney development and would later become the home of many Disney executives and personalities to this day. Over the course of several years I would continue to hear stories from John and other second and third generation Windermerians about Disney.
The stories of John’s that particularly peaked my interest as a child were about the town before WDW as well as the construction of the resort. One story he shared with me was from the days before Central Florida knew Disney was the mystery organization purchasing thousands of acres in the area. I am guessing you are already familiar with the details of the story behind how Walt and company purchased the land that would become WDW under dummy corporations. As John stood there talking to Whicker in the film, his slight Floridian-Southern accent rolling over me again, I could hear the memory of John in my head retelling me a story. The McMurtrey’s were another early Windermere settler family and major land owners in the area. In particular, the McMurtrey’s owned a lot of land in the area of the future WDW resort. One day while out on the McMurtrey land, John and Mr. McMurtrey came across a printed tin sign post along a cattle path. The sign simply read, “Private Property: Reedy Creek Ranch.” The men had heard of this new ranching company, among others, from the land owners and farmers in the area, but this was the first time they had seen a sign indicating the property’s demarcation. The men would later join in the speculation of who could be purchasing the land and for what purposes. I heard this story and others like it from different people, including the McMurtrey’s daughter, during my childhood. Folks reminiscing about the days before Disney’s arrival.
Zoom forward to the year 2000. I had finally gotten my driver’s license and the first place I wanted to go cruising was around the Walt Disney World Resort. Thanks to the internet and the knowledge I gathered from my father, who worked at the resort part time, I began to have an intimate knowledge of the roads and locations across WDW. But after going to the Contemporary Resort for the twentieth time to play in their massive arcade and check out the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks from the roof, my friends and I decided to get more adventurous. We decided to begin exploring the backstage areas of the resort by car, such as central shops, the transportation roundhouse, the tree farm and our latest goal, the Walt Disney World landfill.
However, as many of these backstage areas had guard booths securing them and my car’s employee parking sticker did not grant us access to these more exclusive locations, I had to get creative. Since many of the sites I wanted to visit were on the west side of the Disney property, I focused my search on a way to use the public backroads to the west of the property. The main obstacle was that the majority of the resort was besieged by a system of functional canals that also acted as a natural demarcation for the Disney property. After looking at some maps online, I discovered I could reach some of these backstage locations through some dirt roads off of Avalon Road, a.k.a. State Road 545 and one or two areas where there appeared to be unguarded, dirt bridges across the canals to the Disney property. With a plan in mind I began memorizing all the roads and locations I wanted to visit. My plan of attack.
So one evening my best friend from high school and I set off on our quest. We turned off of State Road 545 on to our first dirt road passing square patches of nothingness. A mile and a half later were reached our first attempted entrance. I slowed down to look for the turnoff. On the top of a small hill we saw it, two cuts in the brown grass that were clearly made by the tires of minimal vehicular traffic. We turned left. As we rolled down the hill we could see the moat-like canal with and a nondescript wood-and-wire fence, so common of the cattle ranches and horse farms of west Orange County. Ahead of us we saw the dirt bridge and a large tin gate. The gate was wide opened. Success!
As we approached the bridge my headlights reflected against something old, dull and metal, it shone back at us through the windshield for a brief moment. “Private Property: Reedy Creek Ranch,” my friend read out loud. In the adrenaline and excitement of “off-roading” on Disney property along with my paranoia of being caught by some Disney security patrol, I quickly acknowledged my friend’s words. “Oh yeah,” I responded. “Reedy Creek Ranch was one of the fake companies Walt Disney setup to buy the land here in Florida.” I drove past, not realizing the historical significance of what we had just come across.
Come back next time as I share what my friend and I discovered that night at the Walt Disney World landfill and a creepy abandoned, outdoor filmset. So Make sure to follow ThanksShanghai on Twitter and like our Facebook page, so you never miss a blog post!
*As their house was built on a steep hill (hills being a rare sight in Florida) they had an exposed first floor facing the lake where that they used for storage. Not knowing what a true basement was as Floridian youths, we called it a basement. If you would like to know more about the Palmer house and its history you can visit this article from the West Orange Times.