Here's Why We'll Never See Mosquitos at Disney World
| LAST UPDATE 06/01/2021
Disney World is one of the most popular destinations in the world, with an average annual attendance of 58 million visitors. But before opening its doors in 1971, Disney went above and beyond to make the park 100% mosquito-free.
A Mosquito-Free World
When visitors step into one of Walt Disney World's many parks, it's not hard to see why the famous attraction is sometimes referred to as "the happiest place on earth." Guests can leave reality and enter a fantasy land.
From the castles to the rides and the timeless characters, there's no place like Disney. And if it wasn't magical enough already, it's also a world where there are no pesky mosquitos. The absence of these insects is no accident, as Walt Disney made sure his visitors would never leave with a bite or an itch. How did he do it?
Meet Walt Disney
Walt Disney was the creative genius and driving force behind Orlando's famous amusement park. Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago in 1901. The youngster was interested in drawing from an early age and worked as a commercial illustrator by the time he was 18.
Walt later moved to California with his brother, Roy, and the siblings founded Disney Brothers Studio. The creation of Mickey Mouse in the late 1920s marked the beginning of a world-changing career. Walt became a pioneer in the animation industry as he used new technologies to develop his classic films.
The First Park
By the 1950s, Walt and his beloved movies became a household name. In July of 1955, the entrepreneur opened the first of many parks: Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Disneyland was a total hit, and millions of visitors were delighted with the experience.
With the first attraction being such a success, it wasn't long before Walt wanted to add another park. When he learned that very few people who visited Disney Land came from beyond the Mississippi River, the film producer turned park owner had another brilliant idea.
From the West Coast To the East Coast
Walt didn't want only those west of the Mississippi to experience Disney's magic, so he decided to build the second park far from California on the east coast of the United States. Florida was the ideal spot, as it had sunshine and pleasant weather practically year-round.
But finding the land needed for the park was not simple. While Disney Land was a success, the founder had one regret: not buying enough property. Hotels and gift shops not owned by Disney had popped up around the amusement park in California, and Walt wouldn't allow that to happen again.
A Classified Project
So Walt wanted thousands of acres of land to create another theme park, this time separated from the outside world of chain restaurants and tourist shops. The entrepreneur and his team of "Imagineers" set to finding a large territory that was still close to an existing town.
But the endeavor was completely classified. Plans for the expansion were vaguely called Project X and later Project Florida, and only those on the team knew what it entailed. Walt even set up various "dummy" corporations, such as "M.T. Lott," to buy land under unsuspecting names and keep the operation secret.
Under the guise of these non-existing companies, Walt's team bought pieces of land in Florida that ranged from cattle pastures to seemingly worthless swampland. In total, Disney purchased over 25,000 acres near Orlando, which was almost the size of San Francisco!
Walt began planning every aspect of the park, and no detail went unaccounted for. For example, after he realized that visitors in the California location walked about 30 steps before throwing their trash away, Walt put trashcans every 30 feet in the new park.
Walt purchased enough land to hold a whole city, but visitors didn't come to Disney to walk a lot and get tired after only a couple of hours. They came to enjoy the magic and the rides. The enormous new park needed a way for guests to get around easily.
Walt planned for in-park buses and trains to take guests from one side to the other. Today, Orlando's Disney World has buses, shuttles, boats, a monorail, and other modes of transportation for visitors to easily navigate the acres of parkland. But as Walt's plans progressed, one major problem arose.
A Big Problem
Disney never planned on using the entire 25,000 acres for a park. From the beginning, he set aside thousands of acres as Conservation Areas. These areas were not intended for construction but rather to preserve the gorgeous cypress trees and natural inhabitants of the land.
But Florida's natural beauty presented a big con: the swampy land was filled with mosquitos. Every time someone visited the property, they left covered in bites. Walt didn't want his employees, and most importantly the park's visitors, to experience this annoyance.
William Potter To the Rescue
Walt may have been a creative genius, but he had no idea how to get rid of the countless mosquitos on the muddy lands. And this was an issue that had to be fixed before the park could open its doors. So Major General William "Joe" Potter joined the team.
Potter was an engineer with a degree from none other than MIT. Before joining the group of creatives working on the new park, he was the governor of the Panama Canal Zone. So how did this MIT graduate come to successfully rid Disney of its insect issue?
A Pest Control Expert
Walt already had a crew of engineers working on Disney World, so what did Potter bring to the table that made him so crucial to this mosquito problem? Well, his time in the Panama Canal Zone forced Potter to become somewhat of an expert on pest control.
When a malaria outbreak hit the Canal Zone, Potter stopped the spread by controlling the swarm of mosquitos in the area, as the disease is transmitted through these insects. Years later, the engineer spoke about his tactics at the New York World's Fair of 1964.
The Right Man for the Job
It was at the New York World's Fair that Potter and Disney first met. Walt was instantly intrigued when he heard that Potter had beaten a malaria outbreak as governor of the Panama Canal Zone and approached the former leader to ask about the experience.
Potter explained to Walt a little bit about how he had eliminated mosquitos from an entire geographical area. Was he the solution to all of Disney's problems? The man himself seemed to think so - Walt hired Potter there and then and filled him in on the secret Florida Project.
Bye Bye Mosquitos
Not long after the World's Fair, Disney and Potter traveled south to Florida. The men had a lot of work to get done if they wanted to eliminate all of the mosquitos on the thousands of swampland acres. Walt was motivated to make every aspect of the Disney World experience perfect.
With Potter on board, that finally seemed possible. But would getting rid of the bothersome insects mean dousing the theme park in pesticides? Would the problem require years of extermination? Much to Walt's surprise, Potter's plan involved neither of those. In fact, he didn't intend to kill any mosquitos.
An Unexpected Method
So if Potter didn't solve the problem by killing off the insects, how did he make it so that visitors leave the park bite-free? The former governor wanted to get to the root of the issue and investigated methods other than extermination to keep the bugs away.
Potter didn't want to handle mosquitos once they were inside the park - he wanted to deter them from even entering. And if they did pass Disney World's borders, he would assure their eggs couldn't hatch. Potter and his team needed to design the opposite of the insect's desired environment.
More Water, More Problems
Potter began by studying the various water sources on the enormous plot. Considering the land was practically a swamp, there was a lot of water to study - and a lot of water to attract mosquitos. The wetlands provided the perfect conditions for the insect to breed.
So the first item on the problem-solving agenda was to drain the swampy property and turn it into dry land. Potter instructed workers to dig ditches near the water and transfer it to other areas. But the drainage system couldn't move all of the water, and other methods were needed.
Keep the Water Moving
When the ditches, which were appropriately named "Joe's Ditches," didn't successfully dry up all of the lands, Potter brainstormed. He realized that the drainage system did have a benefit: mosquitos need unmoving water to lay their eggs, and the ditches kept the water flowing.
So Potter set out with a new plan to make sure there were no still bodies of water in Disney World. Any area containing the attractive liquid would have to be in constant motion, whether it be a small pond or a human-made lake created for one of the rides.
Much Too Large
The new water system helped, but the future resort was too large to guarantee that just one technique would keep mosquitos away. Perhaps moving water would keep the 160 acres of park in California pest-free, but not over 20,000 acres of Florida's Disney World.
By the time the park finally opened to the public in 1971, it was a resort complete with various hotels, gift shops, and restaurants. Visitors could enter Disney World and have everything they needed at their fingertips. But this also meant countless places for mosquitos to reproduce.
A Long Way To Go
Digging "Joe's Ditches" and making sure all water bodies inside the park were in constant motion helped attract less of the bothersome insects but didn't come close to fully solving the issue. Fighting Florida's natural environment, which attracted plenty of mosquitos, took a lot more.
Potter's next idea was much more intense - he said every structure and building in the resort would have to be built in a specific way to combat the mosquitos. The engineer told Walt that the resort's construction plans needed to be altered if he wanted visitors to leave without bites and itches.
Changing the Buildings
If Disney World was to be totally mosquito-free, the architecture had to be adjusted. Florida experiences plenty of unexpected rain, which meant water would accumulate, especially on the top of buildings, and create a breeding ground for the bugs. The water needed a way to run off of the buildings.
"They made every building there curved, or designed in a way so there'd be no place for the water to catch or sit," explained Disney historian Christopher Lucas. "The architecture is really appealing to the eye, but it also serves a purpose: it makes it less conducive to mosquitos."
An Expensive Project
The park building plans were properly adjusted: there would be no still bodies of water anywhere in the resort, and rainwater would effectively flow off all the buildings. Yet Potter and the Imagineers would have to do even more to prevent a mosquito invasion.
Walt ended up investing millions into Disney World's pest control. There was hardly an aspect of park-building that didn't serve a double purpose to eliminate the pesky bugs. Even the landscaping is no accident - Potter picked plants that wouldn't form small pools of water and kept them away from fountains or ponds.
Going Above and Beyond
But the pest prevention project was never-ending. With thousands of acres of land and a resort that would practically be a city, there were many different terrains and issues to address. Needless to say, Potter went above and beyond to make sure Walt's dream world could become a reality.
Potter had created only flowing water bodies, but what about the deeper lakes on the property? Below the surface, the water stopped moving. But the man had a solution for that, too. "They also stock-fill those places with minnows, goldfish, and a type of fish called mosquito fish that eat up the larvae," Christopher Lucas said.
Still More To Be Done
The techniques so far implemented would successfully prevent mosquitos from laying eggs and hatching new life on the property. But it wouldn't necessarily stop mosquitos coming from other places. The bugs could fly in, bite a visitor, and leave once they couldn't find proper breeding grounds.
How could Potter keep even the outsider insects from coming into the park? He considered his options. Perhaps they would finally use a more standard pest control tactic and spray pesticides all over the resort. But that choice was soon off the table.
Spraying Liquid Garlic
You see, Walt Disney cared about the area's ecosystem and wanted to preserve Florida's natural beauty. Hence the thousands of acres set aside for nature conservation. "[He] did not want to ruin the environment at all, so they couldn't use pesticides," explained Christopher Lucas.
Being eco-friendly made thwarting mosquitos even more challenging. "It'd be easy to just spray the whole thing, but he wanted it to be something natural," Lucas continued. So Potter sprayed the park with a more organic substance: liquid garlic. It was brilliant - mosquitos can't stand the smell!
Disney's Chicken Project
The list of pest-prevention methods had become quite extensive: huge ditches, flowing water, special architecture, strategic landscaping, and liquid garlic. If the Imagineers were surprised by any of Potter's request so far, they were likely more taken aback by his next idea.
While Potter was governor of the Panama Canal Zone, he learned that mosquitoes have a different effect on chickens than on humans. So, he placed live chickens in various hidden parts of the park to be continuously checked for mosquito-borne diseases.
It's safe to say Joe Potter went the extra mile to help Walt Disney make his extravagant theme park completely mosquito-free. It took out-of-the-box thinking, trial and error, and years of planning. Did the dedicated team accomplish what they set out to do?
On October 1st, 1971, Disney World in Orlando, Florida, opened its gates and welcomed its first wave of visitors. Finally, everyone knew what the secret Florida Project was: a breathtaking theme park like no other. And thanks to Potter, a mosquito-free zone amidst the state's swampy land.
The Magic of Disney
When Walt approached Potter at the New York World's Fair, it's likely he didn't imagine that the engineer's plans for pest control would affect nearly every aspect of park building. From the buildings to the gardens, Potter's knowledge greatly influenced how the resort looks today.
Thanks to Potter's dedication, Walt Disney's vision for the happiest place on earth was realized. Guests who visit Disney World never have to worry about bringing mosquito repellent as they enjoy the spectacular rides and meet their favorite characters.
No Littering and No Gum
While making the park pest-free was obviously high on Walt's agenda, it wasn't the only thing the entrepreneur paid careful attention to. The famous animator wanted every single aspect of the park to be perfect, which meant keeping the resort extremely clean and neat.
Walt's desire for a pristine appearance led to the trashcans found every 30 feet inside Disney World; the creator hoped this would discourage visitors from littering. Walt also made sure chewing gum was not sold at any stands or stores, as he knew that would dirty the park's streets.
The Passing of a Legend
While Orlando's Disney World finally opened to visitors in 1971, the genius behind it all was sadly not there to see it. In November of 1966, Walt Disney was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he passed away about a month later, on December 15. His memory lives on in this statue in Magic Kingdom.
Walt Disney went from being a Chicago boy with a passion for drawing to a revolutionizing animator, and finally a visionary for a fantasy land where adults and children alike could make their dreams come true. Unfortunately, the beloved producer never saw his project fully come to life.
Expanding the Park
But Disney World didn't stop growing and changing after initially opening in October of 1971. Even before Walt's passing, there were already plans for expanding the unopened theme park. The Orlando resort is constantly changing, never allowing visitors to get bored.
But even as the Imagineers of today purchase more property or build on the existing land, they need not worry about mosquitos. All the planners and architects have to do is follow Potter's instructions, and guests will continue to leave Disney itch-free.
Not All Heroes Wear Capes
Potter's pest-prevention methods are still implemented in the resort today. As new land is purchased and built on, more of "Joe's Ditches" are dug to create moving water. And as new sections are added to each park, more specially-selected plants are incorporated into the landscape.
Thanks to Potter, millions of people enjoy the magic of Disney every year since 1971. "Joe [Potter] was a man [whom] Walt Disney was very fond of," said Dick Nunis, former president of Disney World. "Without Joe Potter, there would be no [Disney World] today."
"It's Kinda Fun To Do the Impossible."
Walter Elias Disney's motto in life was "Dream, believe, dare, do." That's exactly what the iconic animator did when he envisioned the fantasy world in his films becoming a reality, even if just within the walls of Disney World. But Walt couldn't have fulfilled his vision without his right-hand man.
Mr. Disney once said, "It's kinda fun to do the impossible." He didn't shy away from a challenge and found a partner with that same bravery in Potter. Next time you visit Disney World and find yourself miraculously leaving a Florida park without a mosquito bite, you can think of these two legends.