County wasn’t big enough for both Walt Disney, John D. MacArthur
By Carlos Frias
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sherman Adler found it surreal enough to be a 20-something driving around rural Palm Beach County in a dusty old pickup truck with John D. MacArthur and Walt Disney.
But it wasn’t until he watched the two American titans of industry and entertainment strip down to their boxer shorts and splash one another in the Intracoastal Waterway one afternoon that he knew he had witnessed something he would never forget.
“They were like two peas in a pod. Both creative. They loved nature,” remembers Adler, of Palm Beach Gardens, at the time an ad sales executive at NBC, which had lured Disney and his TV show away from ABC.
Adler was part of a three-day scouting trip that Disney took with insurance and real estate tycoon MacArthur of his vast north county properties more than 40 years ago – a trip that, if it had gone another way, might have brought Disney World here instead of Orlando.
But as much as Disney and MacArthur had in common, they also shared something else – a certain wariness of the other’s business acumen – that probably scotched the deal from ever happening.
Palm Beach County wasn’t big enough for both Walter Elias Disney and John D. MacArthur.
And Disney’s dream was bigger.
Disneyland in Anaheim had been a monumental success, but his vision was to build a sprawling park of unbroken fantasy. In California, people left Disneyland and spilled out into streets where small businesses had cropped up like mushrooms, or Disney cast members could be seen taking a cigarette break. Disney wanted to preserve the fantasy he created at the park – and the dollars of its visitors.
“He learned in California that you want to own everything as far as the eye can see,” Adler said.
So Disney set off to find a site for a new Disney World, closer to the East Coast, so it would not draw dollars from Disneyland. At first, it looked like he had settled on St. Louis, where a contract was being drawn up in partnership with Augustus Busch, the patriarch of the Anheuser-Busch beer company.
Everything seemed poised to place Mickey ears under the Arch when Busch made a comment about selling his beer at Disney World.
Although Disney was no teetotaler, he believed beer had no place in the wholesome image he was trying to create in the “happiest place on earth.” So the deal fell through. To this day, beer is not sold in the Magic Kingdom, the first of the Disney World parks.
Out of St. Louis, into Florida
Word of that blowup reached the ear of MacArthur, who invited Disney to take a look at more than 320 acres he owned in north Palm Beach County, along what is now PGA Boulevard and PGA National.
Disney called Adler, who for years had been trying to convince Disney he should take his entertainment business to the East Coast, where the time zone made doing business easier, and to Florida, in particular, a right-to-work state.
“What do you know about this ‘Black Jack’ MacArthur?” Disney asked him, and went on to invite him to join Disney and MacArthur for their meeting.
Adler was set to take a two-week vacation to Alaska that August for salmon fishing. But without his bosses at NBC knowing, he took a flight to West Palm Beach.
There, he saw two kindred spirits immediately hit it off: Disney, who had grown up on a farm in Missouri, and MacArthur, who had grown up poor, the son of a Baptist preacher. MacArthur was rooted to his past and still lived in a two-bedroom “shotgun shack,” remembers Adler, whom Mac-Arthur would eventually hire away from NBC to become his executive assistant, council and a sort of consigliere.
They were also highly driven, competitive spirits. On a tour of the Intracoastal, near what was Layton’s Fish Camp and Bait shop in Riviera Beach, after having cold drinks at the surfside, MacArthur asked Disney if he liked to swim. MacArthur then stripped down to his boxers and jumped into the ocean.
“Walt, not to be outdone by this so-called naturalist, takes off all his clothes except his shorts and jumps in,” Adler said.
MacArthur had some of the theatrical flair of his playwright brother, Charlie, of The Front Page fame. Author Nancy Kriplen, who wrote a definitive biography of MacArthur, The Eccentric Billionaire, remembers hearing one story of someone walking in on him in the kitchen frying bacon in the nude.
“He very much liked to do things that shocked people,” Kriplen said. “He liked the idea of swimming in the nude.”