For years, environmentalists have tried to prevent 3,000 acres of land called Mira Lago, bordering the Disney Wilderness Preserve, from becoming a housing development.
Now, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts has bought the property in Osceola and Polk counties with plans to conserve it. Environmentalists hail the purchase as a triumph. It also signals major growth on the way: In exchange for saving Mira Lago, Disney World wants permission to develop up to 350 acres of wetlands during the next 20 years.
Disney's purchase of Mira Lago, said Charles Lee of Audubon Florida, is "going to be a huge conservation victory for Central Florida." Disney's plans for the property include restoring wetlands, starting controlled burns and controlling nuisance and exotic plants. Disney also hopes to enhance upland habitats for the Florida scrub jay and red cockaded woodpecker.
The wetland acreage Disney wants government approval to develop in return is about the same amount as the resort's total wetland impacts during the past two decades, which included development of Celebration and Animal Kingdom.
"Three hundred and fifty acres ... is a significant wetlands impact in Central Florida," attorney and conservationist Clay Henderson said. "That's a big number for around here."
Disney did not make executives available for an interview. A spokeswoman said the company wants flexibility for long- term planning, including for new roads. Disney has about 12,000 acres of wetlands on its 45 square miles.
Disney is seeking approval from the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its plans. South Florida Water Management District spokesman Randy Smith said regulators want Disney to provide more information on the location of the wetlands it wants to impact. A permit application says they would be across Disney's property to accommodate expansion of theme parks, resorts and "support areas." It does not provide details.
The Disney company bought the Mira Lago site July 31, paying $11.5 million.
The site lies west of the Disney Wilderness Preserve, about 20 miles southeast of Disney World. That nature sanctuary was established in 1992 through an agreement in which Disney bought a former cattle ranch and donated it to the Nature Conservancy. In exchange for that, Disney received regulators' permission to destroy 600 acres of wetlands.
About half of those 600 acres have been impacted so far, Smith said. Disney's newest request would bring the total up to 950 acres of wetlands permitted for development. It's standard practice, called mitigation, for developers to buy and protect an area of land in exchange for building on wetlands elsewhere.
The 12,000-acre Disney preserve, at the headwaters of the Everglades water system, is widely viewed as an environmental success. Land has been restored to near its original state as it was first described by Spanish missionaries. Nature lovers hike and watch birds there.
Next door at Mira Lago, however, a development group called Avatar Properties had the rights to build about 4,000 homes.
Development would have cut off the paths of wildlife. Environmentalists feared having homes nearby would create pressure to cut back on controlled burns that are critical to the preserve's management.
And "the development that was intended would have actually threatened some of the great wetland restoration we've done on the Disney Wilderness Preserve," said Doria Gordon, director of conservation science at the Nature Conservancy's Florida office.
In 2007, Avatar reached an agreement to negotiate possible sale to the Nature Conservancy. But money for land purchases has gotten tight, and the conservancy couldn't afford it.
Though it does not yet have approval for its plan, Disney decided to purchase the land now to lock in the price.
Disney's permit application to the water management district also seeks to add five parcels totaling more than 800 acres to its permit for potential development. The largest piece, almost 600 acres, stretches from the recently-started Flamingo Crossings hotel-and-retail complex near State Road 429 a mile west to Avalon Road.
Disney said it does not have concrete plans yet for that parcel or the other ones around the edges of its property.
The largest parcel — which includes property owned by Reedy Creek for about 20 years — would be a logical site for another theme park, said Duncan Dickson, who teaches at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
Disney's long-range plans for years have allowed for a potential fifth theme park, but the company said it does not currently have plans for a new Orlando one. Instead, Disney is focusing on upgrading and expanding its existing parks.
Throughout the property, industry experts say there is potential for much more development, including more hotels and time share resorts. Even new uses such as office parks wouldn't be out of the question, said John Gerner, founder of Leisure Business Advisors in Richmond, Va.
"As long as it doesn't conflict with the quality and reputation of the brand, pretty much anything is possible," he said.
Check out these photos of the new Exposition Park at Downtown Disney West Side, the permanent home of the four Disney-owned food trucks.
“Guests can always find one or more of the Disney food trucks at this location, with visiting local food trucks joining the fun from time to time” says Darcy Clark, Downtown Disney marketing manager. “With nightly entertainment and extra seating, this West Side location is sure to become a favorite.”
The four Disney food trucks, along with the ESPN food truck, may be there – Namaste Café with flavors from Disney’s Animal Kingdom (think butter chicken and Tandoori spiced shrimp); Superstar Catering with favorites from Disney’s Hollywood Studios like a Margarita Flatbread; Fantasy Fare with Magic Kingdom Park goodies like the corn dog, and World Showcase of Flavors with Epcot tastes from grass-fed beef sliders to Pierogies.
You’ll find Exposition Park between Bongo’s Cuban Café and Starbucks – an expansive grassy area that take advantage of the pretty waterfront. Hours may vary during peak times and special events.
Change the scheme, Alter the mood! Electrify the boys and girls if you would be so kind!
I also love the idea of an area like this that has scalability based on how busy Downtown Disney is. They can bring in more food trucks or set up other offerings or send them away to other locations if there is a demand there. It's just so smart!
^ and ^^, not just F&W, but also Flower & Garden (or Food & Garden, your choice). Other trucks for those that haven't seen the post are: Superstar Catering (Themed to Hollywood Studios), Namaste Café (Animal Kingdom, [Naan & Butter Chicken!]), and Fantasy Fare (Magic Kingdoms around the world), so DL Corndogs! I have seen them rotate some menus at times, so it's always a guess at what you're going to get!
I really like that they bring in non Disney food trucks for a little more variety though. The food truck scene here in CFL is alright, but I do enjoy when the Food Truck Bazaar comes to my area.
But back on topic, I'm excited for the much needed refurb to DTD. Sure it's going to be a logistical nightmare (until that garage opens up), but in the end the "new" things that are going in will be worth it.
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