William E. “Joe” Potter was an engineering and logistical planning genius, which is why Walt Disney recruited the retired United States Army major general to oversee the early construction of Walt Disney World in Florida. In this role, Joe ably guided the Herculean task of transforming 300 acres of Florida land into the Magic Kingdom, while also preserving the area’s ecology and beauty.
As former president of Walt Disney Attractions Dick Nunis recalled in 1988, “Joe was a man Walt Disney was very fond of. Without Joe Potter there would be no Walt Disney World today.”
Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on July 17, 1905, Joe graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the National War College in Washington D.C. During World War II, he directed logistical planning for the invasion of northern France, an operation nicknamed “Red Ball Express.” After the war, he served in Washington, D.C. as assistant chief of engineers for Civil Works and Special Projects.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Joe to serve as governor of the Panama Canal Zone. In that role, he was responsible for governing a community of over 40,000 people, as well as services including education, military, public health, medical care, fire and police protection, and the postal system. At the end of his tenure as governor, and after 38 years with the United States Army, Joe retired in 1960. In his long career, he had been decorated with the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, and the Croix de Guerre
Soon after his “retirement,” he became executive vice president of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, charged with construction of the federal and state attractions. These included 26 state pavilions and the $17-million United States pavilion.
During this time he met Walt Disney, joining the Company in 1965 as its vice president of Florida Planning. In that role, Joe oversaw construction of the Park’s entire infrastructure; this included underground utilities and sewer, power, and water treatment plants that were considered revolutionary at the time. He also developed drainage canals for the entire property, which were known as “Joe’s ditches.”
At the time of his second “retirement” in 1974, Joe was serving as vice president for EPCOT Planning and senior vice president of Walt Disney World Co. In this role, he was responsible for construction, operation, and administration of the entire Florida project. He also served as president of the Board of Supervisors of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which was formed by the Florida Legislature to provide the public services necessary for the tourist and residential population at Walt Disney World. To many, Joe was known as “Mister Disney” because of his liaison work between the park and surrounding community during the 1960s and 1970s.
Joe passed away on December 5, 1988, in Orlando, Florida. One of the ferries that transports Walt Disney World guests across the Seven Seas Lagoon to the Magic Kingdom was later re-christened the General Joe Potter in his honor.