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CONVERSATIONS: As Disney celebrates 50 years, a look at the theme park’s environmental legacy

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Disney World Magic Kingdom Castle on 7/9/2020

Photo: Allison Varney

Disney World kicked off it’s 50-year anniversary earlier this month. 

There’s no doubt the so-called Happiest Place on Earth has changed the landscape of Central Florida.

WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green talked with Audubon Florida’s Charles Lee about the theme park’s environmental legacy, beginning with the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

Lee says the preserve was a mitigation project coinciding with an expansion of Celebration–a planned Disney community–a new concept at the time.

CHARLES LEE: Most of the mitigation that was going on in the 1980s and early 1990s was very experimental, and its success varied widely from place to place. Some of the mitigation that was happening was futile and useless.

AMY GREEN: What has Disney World gotten wrong when it comes to the environment, or in what other ways has Disney World affected the environment beyond the theme park’s borders?

CHARLES LEE: One of the things that Disney did that was novel at the time was to craft a situation where they had control of what would go on inside the boundary of the Disney property. And that, along with the planning, really resulted in really unparalleled, in terms of the amount of preservation that was achieved within the Disney tract and the most modern land-use planning designs of the era: building a new city, which of course Walt Disney had envisioned as a prototype “community of tomorrow” beyond the theme parks. And I think Disney was largely true to that concept inside of its boundaries.

The difficulties from Disney always were what happened outside the Disney fence line. Because unlike the careful design and control that happened on the Disney tract itself, what happened in Orange and Osceola counties, along International Drive and other locations, was just a free-for-all of uncontrolled development, very poorly managed by the local governments.

AMY GREEN: What else could Disney World be doing now, as central Florida is facing a growing slate of environmental problems, most notably climate change?

CHARLES LEE: A lot of Disney’s environmental efforts have been in the direction of sustainability that would deal favorably with climate change. There’s a tremendous amount of the energy in the Disney complex, which is generated by solar. There’s a very large portion of the energy that is generated by the conversion of solid waste to energy. And so there — and this is not a new pursuit of Disney — the solar and the generation of electricity, using renewables, is something that has been going on for quite some time within the Disney boundary.

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Amy Green

About Amy Green

Reporter and Producer

Amy Green covers the environment and climate change at WMFE News. She is an award-winning journalist and author whose extensive reporting on the Everglades is featured in the book MOVING WATER, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and podcast DRAINED, available wherever you get your podcasts. Amy’s ... Read Full Bio »