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.