How Disney Became a Nuclear Power

Or: The Mouse Splits an Atom

Jan 11, 2021

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Decades before Aladdin came out in cinemas, Disney released its first film about a genie hiding in its magic lamp. This one did not tell the uplifting story of an urchin who would marry a princess but instead used the genie to explain how nuclear power was humanity’s greatest hope. It was released in 1957 and is titled Our Friend the Atom.

The film begins with Walt Disney juggling a wire model while telling the camera: "The atom is our future." He goes on to say: "We consider it so important we have embarked on several atomic projects."

Disney then introduces his *Chief Nuclear Scientist*, Professor Heinz Haber, who proceeds to use the Arabian Nights and its genie in a lamp to explain Einstein’s e=mc². The whole thing viewed today is slightly surreal. Especially when you consider that Professor Haber, explaining how nuclear power could one-day power Mickey Mouse, is a former card-carrying member of the Nazi Party.

The enthusiasm for nuclear power at Disney did not stop at releasing promotional films. It went much further.

When Walt Disney was planning to build his vast theme park complex Walt Disney World, it was inspired by his lack of control over Disney Land in California. There he had been annoyed by unaffiliated businesses springing up near the park and he decided the estate was far too small for him to enact his dream of a resort. After scouting out various locations, Walt settled on an area near Orlando in Florida in which he snapped up around 40 square miles of prime real estate using various shell companies.

Disney dreamed of having his own town, dedicated to his creations but also humanity’s progress. And that wouldn’t be possible unless he had total control. To obtain this, the Walt Disney Company petitioned the State of Florida to grant the land Walt had acquired a special status as its own municipality. The ‘Reedy Creek Improvement District’ was born, and to this day the district contains all of what is Walt Disney World.

A city council made up of senior Disney employees controls Reedy Creek, elected by the 40 or so residents who live in the area. The district sets its own planning law and building regulations, administers water, electricity and sewage facilities, hires its own fire and law enforcement, and even maintains its own roads. It is in effects its own magic kingdom.

But where does Our Friend the Atom fit into all this?

Hidden among all the Florida state laws granting Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District its powers is a particularly interesting clause, specifically requested by Walt himself. It gives the Disney Corporation unilateral authority to build its own nuclear power plant.

Walt Disney died in 1966, in the early days of the Walt Disney World project and five years before it opened. With his death went his company’s obsession with atomic power. But the law has never been changed, and there is nothing to stop the theme park going nuclear.

It seems unlikely ever to happen though, as the park ended up building a methane power plant instead.

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