A magic kingdom that never was
Tracking down the rumor that Disney World scoped out Santee, S.C., as a building site
There’s an old rumor in South Carolina that Walt Disney World was almost built in or near the town of Santee, S.C.
The rumor started making the rounds again last week after Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley invited Disney World to relocate from Florida to her home state. (This was a media stunt based on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis beefing with The Mouse, and it is 100% not going to happen.)
The old Santee rumor kind of makes sense. I-95 was being built through Santee at the time when Disney was looking to build its East Coast amusement park in the 1960s, the swampland in the area would have been cheap to buy, and the state government would have licked Walt Disney’s loafers to make it happen. I’ve never seen the rumor substantiated though.
So, let’s see about that.
Did Walt Disney consider South Carolina?
I’ll cut to the chase: It seems likely that the Walt Disney Company considered South Carolina for Walt Disney World, but I haven’t seen proof that the state in general, or Santee in particular, was ever a serious contender.
My new Twitter friend @RmJack13 shared the strongest evidence I’ve seen so far. It’s a September 1971 article by Coy Bayne in The State, Columbia’s daily newspaper, about the grand opening of Walt Disney World in Florida.
“The $400 million Disney World — which once eyed South Carolina — covers 27,000 acres and will employ 7,000,” Bayne wrote (emphasis mine).
The article explained how Disney had been hush-hush about its land purchases in Florida, fueling speculation as early as 1965 when developers secretly working for Disney started buying up land near Kissimmee.
“The same ‘developers’ were said to have looked at South Carolina and Charles Ridgway, Disney World Publicity Manager, confirmed this in a recent interview,” Bayne went on. The article didn’t specify which part of South Carolina was under consideration.1
And then there’s this, from a 2017 TV news report about a new concert venue opening in nearby Bowman, S.C. It’s a quote from Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young:
"Years and years ago, Walt Disney and Disney World wanted to locate in Santee, South Carolina," Young said. "The mentality of us not wanting that there had Disney World to locate in Florida and not Santee."2
That’s the only public official I’ve seen mentioning the Santee angle. I emailed Young last night asking for more details. I’ll keep y’all posted if I hear back.
In considering the Santee rumor (or the Sumter rumor, or the Myrtle Beach rumor, depending where you grew up), it’s worth considering the scope of Disney’s midcentury operation. Walt Disney was an icy-veined weirdo and one of the most famous men on earth in the 1960s. The original Disneyland in Anaheim, California, was so popular after opening in 1955 that Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev nearly started an international incident when he was denied entry to the park for security reasons.
Walt, for his part, called Disneyland “my baby” and once said to an interviewer, “I would prostitute myself for it.”3 Like I said, strange dude.
Shortly after opening Disneyland, Walt Disney was getting restless to open a second park, which he conceived of as a sort of utopian city, on more open land with fewer neighbors to get in his way. Here’s a partial list of places Disney either considered building or was invited to build his second attraction, according to biographer Neal Gabler:
St. Louis, Missouri
Aspen, Colorado (Walt looked into buying land to build a ski resort)
Kansas City, Missouri
Niagara Falls, New York
Secaucus, New Jersey (it would’ve been near the Turnpike)4
I’ve read a few biographical accounts of Walt’s search for cheap and unencumbered land, and none mentioned South Carolina even in passing. That doesn’t mean the Santee story isn’t true. In fact, Disney’s land buyers were so cloak-and-dagger about their project (they code-named their work “Project X” and scooped up land on the cheap through hundreds of anonymized LLCs) that even if they did buy or survey some land in South Carolina in the ‘60s, it might be hard to tell from public records.
I searched the archives at newspapers.com for any further mention of Disney in Santee or Orangeburg County, and all I could find were passing references like this one from a 2003 letter to the editor published in The State:
Ask the folks around Santee about Disney World and how our state could be different had some businessmen, now no longer in business, been able to look forward.5
Santee never took off as a tourist hotspot, despite its golf courses and its location at the crossroads of I-26 and I-95. It sits on the shore of Lake Marion, a manmade lake with a sunken ghost town at the bottom.
I visited Santee once with a high school friend who painted hotel rooms there as a summer job. It’s a quiet place with fireworks stands for tourists coming from states where fireworks are illegal, surrounded by some real natural beauty if you stray from the interstate a bit. My friend took me to get lunch at Lone Star BBQ, a former general store from the failed railroad town of Lone Star, S.C., that was, implausibly, picked up and relocated to Santee to house a restaurant. We sat and listened to some bluegrass pickers on the porch, and that’s the first time I learned to love the banjo. It was no Disney World, but it felt a little bit like magic to me.
Jacques Derrida coined the word “hauntology” to describe what it’s like to be haunted by lost futures. I picked up the word via the punk critical theorist Mark Fisher and am probably misusing it, but I do feel slightly haunted when I read various states’ stories (true or legendary) about the Disney park that got away. What if Walt Disney had plopped down EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom in Santee, or St. Louis, or Secaucus?
I can imagine the crumpled blueprints overlaid on the abandoned outlet mall in Santee, hovering like ghosts.
I’m not what you’d call a “Disney adult,” but I have kind of a sick fascination with the place. Here’s something I wrote in the first year of the pandemic about Walt Disney World:
I’m waiting on a couple of sources for future newsletter issues. One is a followup piece about the uncontrolled growth of K-12 classroom sizes since the Great Recession; the other is about the consumer data that Food Lion has been collecting on my household since I started shopping there circa 2008. Stay tuned for more about that.
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Coy Bayne, “Disney World To Open Oct. 1,” The State, Sept. 16, 1971, https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-state-disney-world-once-eyed-south/123991738/
"30,000 capacity concert venue opening this spring in South Carolina," WYFF 4, Feb. 21, 2017, https://www.wyff4.com/article/30000-capacity-concert-venue-opening-this-spring-in-south-carolina/8959803.
Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Vintage, 2007), 564.
Ibid, 573, 603.
Venning Morrison, "School start date decision may mark shift in power," The State, Jan. 13, 2003, https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-state-disney-world-santee-rumor/123955589/.