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Oral History Interview with Tom E. Lewis, Jr.

Tom E. Lewis, Jr. Architect, Attorney, and United States Air Force Colonel (retired). Mr. Lewis came to Orlando during the Vietnam War to serve as Director of Programs for McCoy Engineering Programs. He was instrumental in starting Orlando’s first POW-MIA association. The architectural work of Tom Lewis can be seen in our community as he developed the expansion of the Tangerine Bowl, the Sheraton Twin Towers (Universal area), and State Office buildings downtown. His public service leadership at the local government level includes serving as Chairman of the Zoning Commission and Vice Chairman of the Planning Board. Mr. Lewis served at the state level as Assistant Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation and Secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs. Tom Lewis brought his outstanding public service expertise to Walt Disney World where he served as Vice President of Disney Development Company for Community Development. He led the development team for Disney’s world renowned town of Celebration.

LISTEN  Part I  (22:06)  

My name is Tom, I use the middle initial “E” for my dad. I was born at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia on April 2, 1939.

And is that where you grew up?

I grew up part of the time in Atlanta, in Ansley Park, and my dad was a lawyer there and then he became a judge. And we moved to a little town south of Atlanta, Griffin, which was close to the area where he was going to practice law and do his judgeship.

What type of law did your dad practice?

Contracts, insurance, some personal injury, wills, estates. He didn’t do what I later did in my life which was real estate and construction and so forth. But he did almost everything else but that. He was a general practitioner… The judgeship was almost at the time we moved to Griffin and he was a judge there for, I don’t know 25 years, 30 years, and passed away. He and my mom are buried in Griffin.

What did your mom do for a living?

She was a housewife. I grew up in a generation that women, God bless them, they worked harder than men, but their work was contained basically in the home. So she was a housewife and raised four kids.

What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?

My parents were Presbyterian, we were Presbyterians. I grew up as a Presbyterian. It was get up and go to Sunday School and church. And either go out somewhere or occasionally come home or go to someone else’s house and have dinner. My folks raised me with a great appreciation of my religious upbringing.

Where did you go to school?

I graduated from Griffin High School in 1957. I had an appointment to go to the Naval Academy and reported to the Naval Academy in June of 1957. And you had already a few months earlier taken a very stringent physical exam in order to be accepted. And then when you reported, they gave you another little quickie: eyes, ears, teeth, you know, whatever, exam, weight. And I did not pass the eye exam. And this was a time where they had a large waiting list for the Naval Academy and therefore they did not have to accept someone who wasn’t just perfect with the physical stuff. So there I was in June of ’57 and no where to go to college. I didn’t apply anywhere else because I was going to the Academy. And my high school football coach and principal had connections at Georgia Tech. And they got me in Georgia Tech that summer having never applied to it earlier. So I went to college at Georgia Tech and then graduated and entered the Air Force on graduation.

How did you decide to enter the Air Force?

Well, I wanted to be in ROTC. My dad had been in the Navy, that was part of the motivation for going to the Academy. I wanted to serve. Somehow I was born with service in my blood. So I wanted to serve. I had a little bit of a bitter taste for the Navy because of what had happened. I was not going to be in the Army. Our congressman, Jack Flynt, Congressman Flynt was a close friend of my dad’s and when this all happened, he called me when I was up in Annapolis and said, “I’ve talked to the people at West Point and absolutely they want you at West Point. They’ll take you today.” I told my dad, he called me, I said, “I don’t want to be in the Army, dad. So let’s find somewhere else.” And I wasn’t going to do Army ROTC. I picked Air Force ROTC.

What did you do in the Air Force?

I had a wonderful – between active duty and reserves, I was in the Air Force almost 29 years. And the life in the Air Force just was wonderful. 12 years of active duty. It brought me to Orlando, to McCoy Air Force Base. I had great opportunities. We lived in wonderful places. Colorado Springs was the last place we lived before we came here. I had an opportunity to be command architect for 14th Aerospace Force then which gave me chances to oversee projects in Alaska and Asia. And also, you have to do a remote tour in the Air Force which means your family’s not going. Usually one year. And my remote tour was on a missile crew out in the Pacific in a little island called Johnson Island which was just a little teeny piece of land about halfway between Honolulu and Okinawa. And that was right before coming to Orlando.  

“A God event brought me to Orlando…”

My assignment from JI was to come to McCoy Air Force Base here in Orlando. I am a constant believer through my life that God plays a very important part in your life. And that was a God event that brought me to Orlando, Florida and that took me to JI.  So I’ve had dozens of those events that I know there was a direct intervention from above.

What was Orlando like when you came here?

I don’t know the exact population, but the city was probably a little over 100,000 people and the region was probably under 5,000 people. I was telling Cynthia this morning as we drove down here, that the tallest and only essentially “high rise building” in Orlando at that time was the Orlando Utilities Commission which is at the south end of the main street in Orlando. There really wasn’t anything else. The First Federal Building which is at the other end across from the new court house and all was built later. So then we had kind of two buildings in there. The old CNA building was built later which was at that time the Barnett Bank building in downtown. So the downtown – there wasn’t really any tall buildings at all. It was very sleepy. The traffic was, you know, we had some traffic, but it was quiet. Our first three years here we lived at McCoy. Actually the name of the street we lived on was Lewis Place. I didn’t have anything to do with naming the street. That’s the house they gave us: 8282 Lewis Place. When we left the Air Force in 72 we moved to Maitland. So we did live in Maitland a couple of years and that’s essentially where I started my practice. I was living in Maitland, but the region, the region was quiet. Seminole County was basically rural. Sanford was a great little small town. Winter Garden was just Plant Street. The downtown area was kind of a real neat little historic area. But it was a quiet place, a quiet place.

You were instrumental in starting the first POW-MIA Association here in Orlando. Did you do that while your were at McCoy or later?

Yes. I was at McCoy and I was there for three years. I was in the Civil Engineering Squadron. I was an architect. That was the place they put me. I was Director of Programs for McCoy Engineering Programs. And I read or heard about there being three wives here whose husbands were POW’s; and started to research it some and realized that one of my closest friends from Georgia Tech, ATO, was also a prisoner of war. And that was the motivation I think, to meet those wives, hear their story. There were a couple of other guys here in town: One was Tom Ferguson, that wasn’t the name he used on the air, KIS – WKIS. He was one of the real outspoken pundits on the air then. Had met them, he’d learned about it. And then an insurance guy with Penn Insurance Company, Dick Eckstein, also met – through that and the three of us started an organization called: “POW – MIA: Don’t Let Them Be Forgotten”.

POW – MIA: Don’t Let Them Be Forgotten Association

It was just a wonderful experience. We met their kids. We met other kids. We spent time with them locally doing things. We took them to Gainesville to football games. And Doug Dickey was the coach of the University of Florida at that time, and he would come out after the game and he would spend time with these kids. People were wonderful once they learned of it, and thought of it. It was just so wonderful. And, I guess, the last event that we held for them… was we held a golf tournament at the old Cypress Creek Golf Club the Monday after the Disney golf tournament. And we had planned it because we had all these pros, leading professional golfers in the world would play in the Disney tournament. It was so much fun for them. And I was a sponsor of the Disney tournament so I got exposed to some of them. And so, Monday we figured some of them would stay over for this cause. And a whole bunch of them did and we had a great tournament out there. Raised, for us, a significant amount of money: 35,000 or 40,000 dollars. 

Scholarships for the Children of POW – MIA Service Personnel

We used that for scholarships for these POW kids when they got – I mean these kids were two, three, and four, and seven years old – so it was a long time before they were going to be in college. And I had to keep up with that money and try to make it earn a little interest. And 10 years later, 15 years later, we were giving out that money. We gave it all out over a period of a couple of years to a number of these kids. That was just a wonderful experience for all of us. We did things as a family with my children and my great wife. It was a wonderful experience. Another God event. I absolutely know that He was responsible for exposing me to that and giving me a chance to pay back those guys. Orson did come home. He spent six years in a cage in Hanoi. Ann Browning was one of those three women and Tommy Browning did come home right as we were leaving the Air Force. He came home and so many of them did. And so many more of them have come home recently with some of the negotiations with North Korea. I’ll be happy when they all come home. I think there’s a few remains that are still over there.     

After you left McCoy you started your practice?

Yes, I worked with another architect for about a year and a half, close to two years. And at McCoy I had been privileged enough, I was an officer that wanted to get involved in what was going on at the base itself. We had a mayor, Carl Langford was Mayor of Orlando at that time, and Carl was a big military supporter. Loved to come to that base, feel like part of that base. And so, I had gotten to meet him and he had a group of community business people that were his primary supporters. And so, sometimes they would come to these events we had out there. So I was starting to feel like part of this community. And it was a tough decision to get out. We talked about it over the years, recently, well if I’d stayed in the Air Force our life would have been different. I was a captain in the Air Force. I had been promoted to major early. They called it “below the zone” if you got promoted early. We had an assignment to go to Wiesbaden, Germany, which would have been a great experience for my little kids, four years in Germany. I decided to get out because of this community and started, was working, with another architect in Winter Park. And then decided March 1, 1974, I established my own practice. I moved my office to the office building in – it was called Florida Center at that time. It’s now Universal World so to speak. But it was next to the Sheraton Twin Towers and that was the only thing in that entire area there, the Towers and that office building. And we were in that office building on the fourth floor. It’s real interesting to see how that area has exploded with Universal.

You were involved in developing and expanding a lot of areas like Sheraton Twin Towers, and Tangerine Bowl, and State Office Buildings downtown. 

Yes. I opened my practice there and Mayor Langford had appointed me to the Board of Appeals which is sort of the lowest board that dealt with issues regarding houses and planning and zoning and so forth. And so, I was spending a lot of time participating on that board. I started my practice there. I mentioned Blaire Culpepper to you earlier and Blaire was president of the Barnett Board of Winter Park and we had become friends. I met him at some chamber event, maybe. He was going to be chairmen of it. And I met him and he loaned me the money to open my practice – $5,000. And I was hoping I could pay him back. We did, on time. And so, he helped me open my business there. My first work was involved in some in what was going on in Florida Center, a residential project down there called Cypress Woods that actually we moved into around the mid 70’s. And again, other people that I met – it actually started with Carl Langford, I guess. 

Tangerine Bowl Expansion

If I had to do a pyramid of my life in the Orlando community, Carl would, I guess, be at the top of the pyramid. And Blaire would certainly be near the top and Egerton van den Berg, Leon Handley would be near the top. And so, we had formed, we wanted to do something at the Tangerine Bowl. It was just a little stadium, most of the area, the seating and all, was like bleacher seating. So we got our legislators to pass a bill in the legislator that formed the Orange County Civic Facilities Authority. And the members of that authority, Charlie Rex was chairman of it, I knew some of those people. So they put out an ad for architects to oversee this expansion, and they had already eventually picked a contractor.

State Office Building  

So we ended up getting selected and that, and the new state office building. We’d been selected by the state completely unknown, new firm. Somehow we got selected for the state for the office buildings that are on the other side of the interstate just north of the old Federal Courthouse. The Florida A & M College Law School is sitting in an area where two more of those buildings were supposed to be. There was supposed to be four of those buildings at one time. Two of them are there today. And so that was some income. And the Tangerine Bowl was some income. And so, that kind of got us started. The old Board of Adjustments  is part of how I got started in public service.       

LISTEN  Part II  (21:08)

Would you tell us about your growth management experience, did that happen with your architectural work? 

Well, you know, I credit Blair with part of that and Carl Langford with the other part. I went from the Board of Adjustments to be chairman of the Zoning Commission and vice chairman of the Planning Board. And I don’t remember when that would have happened, I guess, around the time of opening my practice. And those were very, not that I was, but  those entities were very important commissions or entities of city government. Disney had just opened and the place was exploding at that point from Disney. And International Drive was starting to happen. It was exciting. It was an exciting time. And we were getting all of these zoning applications to change zoning from agriculture, citrus trees to high multistory motels and retail. And so, I really gained a lot of local government experience in the issues of planning and zoning. I won’t say that, that had a lot to do with my experience in state government. Blaire had become chairman of the Orlando Board of Chamber of Commerce. He put me on the Board and I was vice chairman of the Education Committee with the Chamber. Tom Brownlee was our Director of the Chamber at that time, long time.

Advisor for Bob Graham

And the legislature, which it did so often, was going to rewrite the way school districts got their money. And Orange County, like every other school district, felt like they were being cheated and all the other school districts were making out. So we chartered an airplane, we flew to Tallahassee, and the guy that was heading up in the Florida Senate, the Education Committee , and was kind of responsible for dreaming up this new funding concept was Bob Graham. So I met Bob Graham, really because of the Chamber and because of Blair. And the governor, well future governor, he was a great guy. We became friends through that and in 1977 or so when he decided to run for governor, I joined a group. There was probably a dozen of us in the beginning, they were going to be advisors he called it; which meant raise money. I had no idea what it was like to be in a political campaign and have to raise money. But it was fun and Graham became governor and I went to Tallahassee when he took office. And I spent two years in the governor’s office as a cabinet aid and part of the legislative team lobbying the legislature. And that was interesting, sometimes a lot of fun.

Assistant Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation

And then the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa that leads to St. Pete got hit by a barge and collapsed… a Greyhound bus went off the bridge, several cars went off. I mean it collapsed. And so, the state was trying to figure out what to do with that bridge and the Florida Department of Transportation was responsible for making the recommendation of what to do. The governor had some ideas about it. It didn’t make sense to repair this old, low narrow bridge, but DOT was kind of headed that way. So he sent me to DOT in August of 1981, I believe, and my purpose there was to be sure we were getting a sound recommendation from the department and they were just coming off of the old road board. Billy Dial was on that old road board, that’s why we have I-4 going through downtown. And so, I spent three years, four years at DOT, 81-85. Shortly after that I was assistant Secretary of Department of Transportation and at that time there was only one assistant secretary.

Secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs

In 1985, the then Secretary of DOT retired. And so, I had a chance to become Secretary of DOT. And the other option, I think probably being an architect and maybe having a little of that local experience, the other option that the governor had in mind was the Department of Community Affairs. We had just passed Florida’s growth management legislation, the first version of it. And he really needed somebody to go there to begin to implement that legislation. So I decided to go to DCA and was Secretary of DCA for a little over two years. And during that time, we promulgated the rules that basically said how local governments throughout Florida had to prepare their comprehensive plans. And at that time the agency was the approval authority of those plans which, that whole concept just made local governments livid when all of a sudden they were under the approval and control of some agency of state government.

Development at Walt Disney World

So Bob left in early ’87 to become a United States Senator and I was ready to leave DCA. And I had a friend, Bob Allen, who was the Disney liaison with the state agencies, state government. And so he came to see me one day while I was at DCA and he said, “You know, what are you going to do when you leave here?” I said, “I don’t have any idea. I don’t even know if I’m going to stay in Tallahassee.” He said, “You need to come back and go to work for Disney. They’re putting together a development company and the new leadership, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, they’re very serious about doing development. And you’ve got all this transportation experience. You’ve got all this growth management experience. And they’re going to need new interchanges to do this. And their comp plan is going to be a real challenge because we haven’t done anything for a while and now we’re talking about doing huge things at Walt Disney World.”

Director of Residential Development at the Disney Development Company

So I went down and interviewed with Peter Rumble who was the president of Disney Development Company, DDC. And there were only three or four people working for DDC at that time and Rumble offered me a job and told me in part what I was going to be doing. And so, February the 6th, it was a Friday, I was Secretary of DCA, Community Affairs, and Monday, the 9th I was the Director of Residential Development at the Disney Development Company at the Sunbank Building in Lake Buena Vista Village. And that was the start of a little over 18 years with Disney. And what a great – next to the Air Force or along side the Air Force, clearly one of the great experiences of my life.

As Director of Residential Development for the Disney Development Company then that means you worked on the development of Celebration, right?

I did. It wasn’t names that then. That was the job Rummel hired me for. He described it as “the biggest damn planning assignment you will have ever had.” And that was a phone call I had with him. He was in Paris negotiating the deal for Disneyland Paris that was what we called it in the beginning. And I was in Tallahassee one night, late at night. It was early morning in Paris, late at night here. So I was the first person hired that would be involved in non-resort, non-theme park development for Disney. And what a ride! That was an “E” ride which is how Disney used to classify their rides. Space Mountain was a “E” ride. This project was an “E” ride.

Vice President of Disney Development for Community Development

So shortly after coming there I became vice president of Disney Development Company for community development. And we were just starting to figure out what we were going to do with 8,000 acres on the southern end of the Disney property. And it was a really exciting time!

How did you come up with the dream of Celebration? Did you call the American Planning Association and ask for a prototype small town community plan?

Well, the first thing that happened was, Peter Rummel, who was our president, had a background in community development. He had worked with Charles Fraser doing Hilton Head and Amelia Island and some of the developments Mr. Fraser was doing in the Caribbean. A lot of experience. And he had been at Arvida. And so, Disney was just coming off the fight of a group of people that wanted to take over Disney, a corporate raid of Disney. Saul Steinberg and a couple of other California people that were going to take over Disney. And as a part of fording that battle, Disney had brought in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells as the new leadership. Also, part of the attraction for the corporate raiders of the Disney Company, the value they saw in the Disney Company was two fold. Disney, all the wonderful classics: “Snow White”, “Sleeping Beauty”, when the first time they had issued those films, they had then locked those films in the vault at Disney headquarters. And they were sitting there. They’d been sitting there for 20, 30 years. So these guys, the corporate raiders, Steinberg, they saw real value in releasing all those films again.

Disney and Arvida

The other asset they saw was huge value was Walt Disney World. Disney had 32,000 acres roughly here, that they had put together in the sixties. 18,000 roughly of that was developable. The rest of it is wetlands or conservation lands. Of the 18,000, they had developed about 2,000 and had no plan for the rest of that land. So these guys saw a huge asset in these 16,000 approximately acres surrounding the Magic Kingdom. And EPCOT was just opening at that time. So Michael and Frank bought Arivida. Arvida was a community developer. It had been started by Arthur Vining Davis, who was head of Alcoa Aluminum. And that’s how Arvida got it’s name: Arthur Vining Davis, part of its initials. So Disney had bought Arvida to give Disney some real estate experience because Disney was just cartoonists, animators, and people like that. They knew how to do a Magic Kingdom. They had no idea how to develop land in general. All we had out there was the Contemporary Hotel, and the Lake Buena Vista Golf course. And the hotel, that’s now the military center that’s there. We had like 1800 rooms on the property. And we did have Magic Kingdom, and EPCOT had just opened. So Eisner and Wells took Arvida and said, “We need to take Arvida and make our own development company.” Peter Rummel had come from Arvida so he had all this experience.      

Disney land north of 192

First thing that happened, we had to figure out of all the land we had, how much was going to be needed for our core business which was not developing towns. It was hotels, theme parks, back of house support space. And so, we spent, I spent the first six months or so, eight months on a task force. I represented the development company. The Walt Disney World people on it, corporate California people on it. And we were going to figure out, did we have enough land to do our core business. and that was a very interesting process. And through that process we said, “You know what, we have enough land north of 192.” 192 was a major road. I don’t think it was even four lanes then that separated the bottom 8,000 acres from the top 24,000 acres. We have enough land north of 192 to serve what we project is the final buildout of Walt Disney World. 

Disney land south of 192

So that left this land south of 192. What are we going to do with that? Our leadership was asking. I remember when we had the meeting with them. And this had been about the fourth time we had sat with Michael and Frank telling them, “Okay here we are. We got this land south of 192. There’s three things that we can do with it. We can sell it. Now if we sell it are you guys going to put any restrictions on it? Are you going to let hotels go there?” “No.” “Are you going to let theme parks?” “No.” “Are you going to let gift shops?” “No.” “Are you going to let restaurants?” “No.” “What do you think that land’s going to be worth?” “Nothing or very little.” So selling didn’t make any sense. The second was holding. We’ll do something with it… we’ll figure out what to do later on. So I’m there and I say, “Michael, we can’t do that.” I had just had two years at the growth management agency in state government then part of passing the laws. I said, “It’s going to get tough to develop in Florida every day, something new is going to pop up. The state is controlling these local governments. It’s integrally involved. I passed the rules up there and the rules are tough. You don’t want to hold land because it’s value is going to drop every day.”

“We started a process, this was ’87, of planning what a town would look like…” 

So the third option is to develop it. What are we going to develop it for? We’re not going to – Walt Disney’s going to stop essentially at 192. What are we going to do? So, I think it was Peter that maybe said, “You know EPCOT.”  Walt had all these ideas about an Experimental Prototype Community and we can build upon some of those cornerstone principles that Walt laid out. And Peter Rummel has vast community development experience, great experience in putting together a term to do that. So we would like to pursue a plan for a community. Gosh, I remember it because they said it so many times… “Well, that’s not our business. We’re entertainment business. We’re in the resort business. We don’t do communities or towns.” “Well, just give us a chance and let’s see. And we’ll talk to you.” “Okay.” They had enough to worry about with what was going on north of 192. So we started a process, this was ’87, of planning what a town would look like.       

LISTEN  Part III  (15:10)

Engaged Market Analyst Robert Charles Lesser…

And first we engaged a market analyst, Robert Charles Lesser, out of California. And we hired Lesser to research this market in Florida so to speak, in Central Florida, and give us a residential development program that he thought made sense over a ten year period. So for the next ten years, 1990-2000, give us this program and the residential side of it would sort of dictate what the retail, commercial side of it would be. So he gave us this program, it was like six or 7,000 units, residential. And here was the phasing, you could do so many in this year, so many in this year. So we had a program. Then we had to engage planners. Michael Eisner, he was a frustrated architect, and he loved to get involved in selecting architects. And he loved to get involved in the actual architecture of what we did, of what everybody did: hotel people, theme park people, movie people. It didn’t matter. So he was much involved in selecting the first people that we picked to look at planning this town: Andres Duany, Charlie Gwathmey, and his partner Bob Siegel, Edward Durell Stone, who was really a landscape architect, and Bob Stern, Robert A. M. Stern, one of the leading architects. 

Plans Presented

So we held a competition with the four of those people. We gave them that program and we said, “Tell us what you would design to incorporate this program. Here’s your land.” We brought them down here. We walked on the land. We went in a helicopter on the land. We went in a car on the land. And finally, Bob Stern said, “I’ve seen enough of this land. Please don’t do anymore of this land.” So that was after several days of keeping them here. So, I guess, it was maybe two months or so, the summer and early fall of ’87 they developed their plans. So in mid fall, late fall, early November of 87, we had a meeting with Michael and Frank and the four guys presented their plans. Or the four teams. There were more than guys, there were also gals involved in it. They presented their proposal. One of them, Stone, his proposal was a typical post World War II suburban development: a lot of curvy roads and a lot of cul de sacs and just the standard stuff. Lots all along the golf course. It was beautiful, magnificent. But it was, you know, traditional, post WWII. The other three in various iterations proposed doing more of a traditional town development: grid street system, roads ended on some point, a park, a public building, lots that had alleys behind them, lots that houses were close to the street, close to the sidewalk.

One Consensus Plan

And so, Michael particularly, but both of them they liked pieces of each one of those. Andres Duany and his partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk were becoming the New Urbanism, TND architects. They had done Seaside. They were involved in Windsor. They were doing other things. Theirs was the most precise to that theme. But Stern and then Gwathmey, Siegel had things. And then Mike looks at Peter and me and he says, “Well, let’s take these three plans and develop one, a consensus plan. You all get with these guys and figure out, you know, make them work together, whatever.”  So we’re thinking these guys and ladies are international architects and planners. They are high competitors. This is going to be like taking General Motors and Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler and putting them in a room and say, “Come out with one car.” Which you could never do. But we undertook it. So I spent a lot of December 1987 in New York trying to get these three firms to talk to each other, work together, share your ideas if you want a chance to work with us you got to do this. And they did. And so we had a consensus at that point.

Disney Focus Groups

So the next thing was to figure out – before we got to Michael and Frank – was this plan any good? Disney surveys and polls people, its guests, more than any entity in history, I’m sure. So what did we do? We had these attractive, handsome young people that would be out in the park and they would introduce themselves to a family and so forth. “Hey,”  “Yes, I’m from Chicago.” And they would say, “Would you participate in a very short 90 minute focus group about something Disney is thinking about? And, in turn, we’ll give you a free meal for your family at France in EPCOT.” Most people will say, “Sure, yeah, we’ll do that.” So we had all these focus groups over at EPCOT and these people they all had a time assigned. They would come in and we had a narrator person that was running the focus group, a professional who knew what she was doing; and that would explain, Disney is developing the possibility of developing a town on some of its property. And they describe the town, and whatever. And then they put two plans up on the wall. One was called Plan R and that was Ed Stone’s plan: post WWII. The other was Plan T: that was the consensus traditional plan. And so, they’d talk about all of these images and plans. What do you like and what you don’t like. And it’s interesting that we did about ten of those things and the predominant theme that was most popular was Plan R, was the non traditional plan. The majority favored it. More than a third of this group favored Plan T. “Yeah, I love that. That’s kind of the way I grew up…”

Refine the plan…

So we came out of that, we analyzed that. We felt like there was a market, a pretty good size market based upon that feedback. Then in April of 1988, we went to Michael and Frank and we showed them the consensus plan. They knew already that we had a plan and that we were focusing it. But we presented it to them, presented the results of the focus group. And that meeting started like several of a handful of meetings started with them. One of them, and they’d switch, would say, “Why are we doing this? We’re not in the community town business. We’re in the resort business.” Same thing they had said a couple of years earlier. And we would explain the three options: a lot of land, here’s what you want – to develop it. “Oh yeah, I remember that.” And we presented the plan. And they gave us the go ahead to go the next step which was: refine the plan. But true Disney, Michael says, “I want you to take that plan and give it to two other firms. Jack Robertson, Cooper Robertson, eminent New York City firms. And SOM, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, they had a planning partner: Marilyn Taylor, who was a fantastic planner. “I want you to take that plan and work with them.”

Copper Robertson and SOM, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill

So we took that plan and over the next six months or so we worked with SOM and Copper Robertson. Jack Robertson at that time was Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. So he was a hardline traditional architect. And, Marilyn Taylor was a hardline outstanding community planner. She could, you know, go either way. So they worked on it and they changed it and they did this and they did that. About six months later we went back to Michael and Frank and showed them the Master Plan III for this town that Skidmore and Cooper Robertson had done. And they said, “Okay, now we’re making progress.”

Master Plan III and the Department of Transportation

One of the things that had happened that effected that Master Plan III was we had worked an agreement with the DOT to bring the Greeneway from the airport to Disney. And the location of that Greeneway was to bring it in to Celebration. So they had to now – it was called the Southern Connector Extension at the time, but I think it’s now the Greeneway. They had to figure out are we going to have this multi-lane toll road going through the north end of this town? How do we accommodate that? So they made adjustments to accommodate that. The plan that showed them that resulted in that III iteration had the Beltway, had the Beltway Connector in it. So they liked it. They had some feedback on it and Michael says, “Okay, we’re going to do the final plan now. This is Master Plan IV.” And I want Bob Stern and Jack Robertson. So he picked one from the former group and one from the current group. They became the final developers of that Master Plan.    

Master Plan IV: Bob Stern and Jack Robertson

So that was one of the most interesting planning processes I had ever seen. I think, I know I contributed to it as an architect and so forth. And I was managing that effort. I then managed the final production. But I was also able to look at things and figure out, is this going to violate some rule that passed the DCA? Let’s be sure that when we go to Osceola County, we know how this fits within growth management and the goals and vision of growth management. And we did. And so, we finally  got the go ahead on the Master Plan. And Stern and Robertson were the authors of the final Master Plan.

Creative Tension

Sorry I talked so long, but that was a wonderful dynamic process. A typical Michael Eisner. And it produced a fabulous end result. Michael had a concept called “creative tension” and what he would do, a movie, a theme park, what are we going to do with this land? He liked getting as many people, as many smart, creative people in a room and everyone of them had an idea. It might be different. But out of that creative tension, would come the best ideas. And we went through creative tension for two years, I guess, trying to figure out what the plan for that land was going to be.  


LISTEN  Part  IV  (20:21)

When you see it now and it’s representing Walt Disney World, but also our country in a way, how do you feel when you see it?

We spent the night in the – I still call it the Celebration Inn – it’s the Celebration Bohemian Inn. Richard Kessler who has developed wonderful hotels around, is a good friend of mine – I hate the name – Bohemian doesn’t fit in the town of Celebration. But the hotel is still very nice. We could take that sign down. So we had a wonderful night there on Tuesday night. Had dinner at the Town Tavern, one of my favorite restaurants. And rode around a good bit the next day. With three exceptions, I feel like it’s exactly – it’s 25 years later from when we started the actual construction – 1994. It’s when we got the land permits, land approvals. With the three exceptions, it’s exactly what I had in mind. It looks like a mature town. The architecture is still in large part good shape. The streets, all those little four inch, five inch oak trees that we put in in 92 to 94 to 96, they’re all three feet in diameter; canopy streets, the trees reach over the streets. It’s exactly.

“The three exceptions…”

AMC Theater

The three exceptions, because I know you’re going to ask me, what are the three exceptions? One is the theater closed and it closed a number of years ago, the cinema. Again, it’s right in town center. It’s very visible with it’s two arches going up. AMC still has a lease on it. When we negotiated with them way, way back, we put them on a lease for a fairly long time, 30 years maybe, 35. They still have the lease, but they closed it, I think, probably 10 years ago. Because I guess they didn’t feel there was enough market in that area for something. It’s not a 15 screen theater that everybody builds now. It has three, I believe. Some churches use it on Sunday, but basically it sits there. It’s condition is deteriorating  a little bit because I’m sure they’ve done minimum maintenance on it. That’s one.

Exploding price of homes…

Number two is it’s very expensive to live there. And we have this concept of being a community that met a multitude of culture backgrounds, a multitude of incomes, backgrounds. Would there be wealthy people in estate homes? Yeah. Would there be foreign cultured teachers in the school that lived in the apartments, the town homes? Yeah. Disney’s touch, our touch, ended up fairly soon exploding the prices of the homes there. And now, they have exploded even more over these years. And so, that was kind of a let down that it got too expensive. 


And then the third is education. We had great plans for the K-12 school. We worked with nationally recognized experts in education. Walt’s words about his experimental community: “It would always be a state of becoming.” Education was really important to him. A lifetime of learning. And so, I mean it’s now, I think the original school is maybe elementary and middle school. And then, they built a new high school on the southern end. It’s typical education now. With us it was very different. You know the interesting thing was, it is the way it is now because that’s what the parents wanted. These potential residents of Celebration, they were extremely drawn to all the stuff when we said, “This is not your typical, traditional town. This town is always going to be in a state of learning. Our education system is far reaching. We’re really out of the box.” And they loved it. And that’s what brought them here, that’s why they paid the money. When they got in the school it wasn’t like the school in Indianapolis or Belleville, IL that they had come from. There’s no report cards. You had a session with the parents each six weeks. There were no walls. You know the seniors were in the cafeteria with the third graders. Well, we wanted that because we wanted the seniors to get to know and mentor the third graders. Well, the parents just, well, they revolted, I guess, and said, “No, we don’t want this anymore. We got to have report cards. We got to have walls.” So that was the devolution of the school that brought it back to a more regular place. 

“I’m really proud of that town…”

So those are probably my only three disappointments, but other than that, I’m really proud of it. I was the first person hired to do it. I was involved in every aspect of it. And we had great consultants. We had a great team: Todd Mansfield, Don Killoren, and Chris Corr, and Kris Wilhem, just a fabulous group of young people that were cast members. We were all cast members of Disney, but we were real estate developers. I’m really proud of that town… I was the first person that did it and probably the only community developer for a while on our staff. You don’t want to load up with a bunch of people and then Michael and Frank say, “We’re not going to do that, that’s ridiculous. We’ll start filming movies down there.” So we waited for a couple of years, almost three, to build a staff until they said, “We’re going to do it.” So we had built it with the brightest people that we could find in specialties of marketing or community organizations or project development. We had people that focused on those specific areas. I got to focus on all the areas…


I love the library. I remember when Neil Schweizer did it. And this town, the dreams of many people from the 70’s and 80’s you now visibly see in this town. The mayor has done a fabulous job being a champion for new projects. The performing arts center which is a wonderful entity. Dr. Phillips Foundation was involved then and the Amway Center… The project along I-4, I think, is fantastic, too. Once its done we’ll see how it works with the toll roads in the middle…

Interstate 4

I made several trips to Orlando on DOT matters. I had this idea, I said, “You know what, all the time I was chairman of the Zoning Commission we didn’t know how to deal with traffic along I-4 and the effect it had on development in the city. And the parking lots that we had and parking was a problem in some areas. And I said… “We ought to buy back I-4 from the Federal Highway. Let’s figure out the then value of I-4. Let’s buy it back. Let’s figure out what they paid for it when it was done. Give them their money back, no appreciation. Original cost. Let’s buy it back and put a toll on it. I think it was the following morning Bill Frederick, who was a very close friend of ours, and our kids kind of grew up together, he calls me. “You got Mayor Frederick on the line.” “Okay, I’ll be happy to talk to Bill.” “Hey, Bill.” For the first three minutes I was having a hard time understanding what he was saying because he was hollering at the top of his voice. But, the bottom line of the message was, there’s no way you’re going to put a toll on I-4 through my town. And I will fight you tooth and nail. I will go to the governor. I’ll go to everybody I know.The legislature and that will not happen. You need to drop, forget that idea.” I said, “Frederick, that was just an idea, thought I had mentioned. You’re my dear friend and we’re not even going to start looking at it. Now I understand you’re position and I’m so glad to hear from you. I just love you to death.” And I hung up the phone and I said, “I need to forget that.” That was probably in 1972. So we here we are 46 years later and they’re putting a toll on I-4 out here through downtown… 

Growth Management

Governor Graham was the champion of that. He believed in it. And the development community they didn’t know what the heck it was going to mean for development. Local governments – the last thing we need is the state telling us what to do. But our state – and it’s been weakened some over the last ten years. But I remember “The Orlando Sentinel”…  got a Pulitzer Price for a series that they did about growth management and how the state was growing at 1,000 residents a day, 365 days a year. [1988 Pulitzer Price for editorial writing awarded to Orlando Sentinel associate editor Jane Healy, for six editorials on mismanaged growth beginning with “An Orange Going Sour”, 11/1/1987.]  We’re now growing at 1,000 residents a day and yet growth management has been weakened. Below probably where it is. I don’t know what the next 50 years are going to be like or the next 20. Local governments are now really in control. At the time we passed growth management many local governments didn’t even have zoning ordinances. They weren’t doing anything. It was really time to do it. However 20 some odd years later, they were doing a better job. A good job. So it was time to give them – they’re now in charge of the DRI program and all the major growth management laws. 

The next 50 years…

I won’t be around to see how this place looks 50 years from now, but I bet it will be just as exciting and just as dynamic and just as beautiful as it is now. 

Interview: Tom E. Lewis

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: July 27, 2019

Place: Orlando Public Library

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Growth Management, Pulitzer Prize

Growth Management, Pulitzer Prize

Tom E. Lewis

Tom E. Lewis

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Tom E. Lewis - Part I

Tom E. Lewis - Part I

Tom E. Lewis - Part II

Tom E. Lewis - Part II

Tom E. Lewis - Part III

Tom E. Lewis - Part III

Tom E. Lewis - Part IV

Tom E. Lewis - Part IV

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Comments to “Oral History Interview with Tom E. Lewis, Jr.”

  1. Dan Kirby, FAIA, FAICP says:

    Remarkable interview with a person that was involved in so many major projects in Central Florida. I had known about Mr. Lewis for years but only parts of the story. Thanks for bringing it all together and preserving his story for future generations.

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