Did Disney World REALLY ever consider coming to North Carolina?
There's been a longtime rumor that Walt Disney himself was thinking about turning our state into the Happiest Place on Earth. Or not! Anyhow, I looked into it.
Since we’re talkin’ bout Disney in North Carolina right now, here’s a tip from a Rabbit Hole reader:
Growing up, I heard multiple times that Disney originally wanted to put its park off I-95 in Fayetteville bc it’s half way between NY and FL. But the local leaders didn’t want it. Seems like the kind of thing whose veracity you could determine.
Disney is a company that was built on a dream. So before we get going, close your eyes and imagine: FayetteDisney. Imagine being able to see the EPCOT ball from the Iron Mike statue. Think about families wearing Mickey ears mingling with soldiers from Fort Bragg/Liberty on Hay Street after payday. It is a bold vision, that.
But was there any possibility of this dream coming true?
We’re Gonna Get Some Mouse Houses
This historical rumor is topical since this week, Disney announced that it’s going to be building a housing development in Chatham Park, near Pittsboro. It’ll be called Asteria (a nod to North Carolina’s aster flower), and it’ll be full of Disney-inspired touches and activities.
In all, 4,000 homes will be built in what Disney’s calling a “Storyliving” community. What does that mean exactly? A press release says Disney imagineers will design a neighborhood “infused with the company's special brand of magic,” which is both vague and inspiring! More specifically, homeowners will be members of a club that’ll likely have a rec center, pools, a restaurant, tennis/pickleball courts, trails, fire pits, and other stuff. Also:
The club will feature enrichment programming only Disney can deliver. Some of the experiences under consideration include storytelling dinners inspired by Disney tales, lessons with Disney artists and family fun days with Disney-themed activities.
Would you like to have dinner with Mickey Mouse and argue with him over barbecue, knowing that he is a mascot and cannot verbally respond to you? Had you even considered that to be a possibility before now? I, reader, had not.
Anyhow, home sales are supposed to begin in 2027. Who knows how much they’ll cost. Props to Disney for making the splash image for Asteria look like the cover of an issue of Our State magazine that I’m very familiar with (I’m in the kayak on the far left).
Would Disney World Move Here? Probably Not!
This is not North Carolina’s first dalliance with Disney. Earlier this year, some North Carolina lawmakers introduced “Mickey’s Freedom Restoration Act” after Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis got into a spat. The bill would have created a committee to explore ways to bring family amusement parks to economically distressed counties in North Carolina. You know what happens to a bill like that? It gets a ton of headlines and simultaneously gets referred to the rules committee where nobody looks at it ever again. It also allows people like me to write engagement-chasing question prompts, and allows you, the public, to write snarky tweets.
What Sheri’s referring to here is the Carolina Crossroads, a big ‘ol hunk of land right off of I-95 in Roanoke Rapids, up near the Virginia line. The whole thing was supposed be be a music-themed entertainment complex, complete with an amphitheater, RV campground, hotels, store, and a water park. Carolina Crossroads even went so far as to buy Elvis’s favorite roller coaster from a theme park in Memphis.
The crown jewel was the 1,500-seat Randy Parton Theatre, which was named for and managed by Dolly Parton’s brother. The city of Roanoke Rapids borrowed $21 million to build and run the place, but things went south very quickly. From the Carolina Journal:
Parton took control of the theater when it opened in March 2007. He was to be paid at least $1.5 million a year to manage and perform, with the city including a house and cars in compensation. His band would perform there and other country acts would be scheduled, based on information CJ obtained from the contract city officials initially signed in secret with Parton.
More than a month after Parton took over the theater, his band hadn’t played, no other acts had been scheduled, and no revenue had come in.
Randy Parton was accused of being drunk when he and his band took the stage that December, and within months, the city booted him out and took his name off the venue. It had been bleeding money up to that point. There were a few shows after that, and it did turn turn a small profit, but later it hosted internet sweepstakes and held some banquets, and that was about it. The roller coaster was given back to the theme park in Memphis. In 2018, the city sold the theater for $3 million, but still owed something in the neighborhood of $15 million as of 2021, according to the Carolina Journal. It’s pretty much closed today.
But long before that, in 1994, North Carolina tried to shoot its shot to lure a Disney theme park to the same area. Back then, Disney had been trying to build an America-themed amusement park (along with homes and hotels) in Northern Virginia. Immediately, people were upset about it for a laundry list of reasons. Traffic! The whitewashing of history! Tax incentives! Its location up the road from the sacred Manassas battlefield! David McCullough, the legendary and beloved historian, was pissed. Plus, Euro Disney had just opened, and things weren’t going well there. The company gave up on “Disney’s America” in September 1994.
But! North Carolina was eager to make Virginia’s loss into its gain. Almost immediately, state lawmakers shouted about their interest in the park to anyone who’d listen. One guy found a private telephone line for Michael Eisner and started sending him unsolicited faxes. “I am convinced that Disney knows where Halifax County is,” the head of the Halifax County economic development commission said at the time. He mentioned the area’s history—the Halifax Resolves were signed there on April 12, 1776, a date that’s depicted on North Carolina’s flag (which is kinda meh). He also said it was a good location, right off of I-95, still a few hours drive from D.C., but not close enough to Orlando to complete with Disney World. The officials said they eagerly awaited a call from Disney.
Nothing much happened, though. Disney just gave up on the idea altogether, and Roanoke Rapids had to settle for being the hometown of Will Ferrell’s parents.
What about Disney World going to Fayetteville, though?
So here’s the thing. There’s a whole digital economy out there dedicated to Disney news, rumors, and travel tips (seriously, when I made the Away Message podcast, I put it under the “travel & leisure” category, and nearly every podcast in the top 50 was related to a Disney theme park). So even little things can catch fire and show up on SEO-craving corners of the internet. Hence, there was a rumor that Disney was looking to build a theme park in Brunswick County after somebody started buying up parcels of land there in 2006. A local TV station noted there was nothing to it, and Disney said it had no plans to build a new theme park in the United States (Although, technically Frying Pan Tower is outside of the U.S., just saying).
That said, there are a lot of people who say that Walt Disney himself was looking to build Walt Disney World in their town back in the 1960s. Apparently this is a big urban legend in Santee, South Carolina, so much so that occasionally local media and officials will allude to it in passing. "Years and years ago, Walt Disney and Disney World wanted to locate in Santee, South Carolina," an elected official in Orangeburg County said in, ahem, 2017. "The mentality of us not wanting that there had Disney World to locate in Florida and not Santee."
A writer namedtook a long look at the Santee rumors earlier this year and couldn’t find any hard evidence. It’s worth reading this story for the background, though.
Disney biographer Neal Gabler said there were a number of places that reached out to Disney about building the theme park in the 1960s. Others did get a look from Walt himself, including St. Louis, Kansas City, Aspen, and Seacaucus, New Jersey. When Disney did choose Orlando as its eventual site for Disney World, it started a bunch of shell corporations to quietly buy up huge chunks of swampland and orange groves. Hence, it would be hard to turn out any big Disney real estate moves from the 1960s from public records. A scan of old newspapers from the era didn’t turn up any hints that Disney was considering Fayetteville, or North Carolina at large, for its biggest project to date. The only item that did come up: Some North Carolina businessmen, led by Lt. Governor Jim Gardner, built a big ‘ol motor inn and conference right next to the entrance to Walt Disney World. Called, wait for it, Carolando! But less than a year into the project, Gardner’s company ran into financial problems, and sold it all to Hyatt. It was renamed the Hyatt Orlando, and existed until 2012 when it finally closed for good. It’s still there but abandoned, and is now mostly fodder for ruin-seeking photographers.
So here’s the thing. I’m not not saying that Disney looked at building Disney World in North Carolina back in the 1960s. But there’s just no way to definitely prove it (or, at least no way for me to prove it). Sorry! In Fayetteville, at least, the only stars you can wish upon are on the shoulders of the people who run the army base. All I can say is: Gawrsh.