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    Credit: Scott Cook

    Students travel to the Magic Kingdom as part of their Rollins College Intersession course on Disney and the City with political science professor Rick Foglesong.

When you think of great urban planning, theme parks probably don’t spring to mind. But 17 students of Rollins College, a liberal arts school in Winter Park, Fla., know better, having learned about the topic from an unexpected source: Mickey Mouse.

In January they participated in Professor Rick Foglesong’s Disney and the City course. Offered for the last four years, the week-long curriculum gives students the opportunity to explore various Disney properties to learn how these heavily trafficked destinations — tens of millions of visitors enter the parks every year — are designed.

“The Magic Kingdom is something of a dream as far as urban planning goes,” says Laura Cole of the college’s office of marketing and communications. “It has public transportation [the monorail]; a center [Cinderella’s Castle] from which everything else radiates; a Main Street with shops, restaurants, and entertainment; a bustling economy with many job opportunities; and unparalleled coordination, from the music to building heights, color schemes, and landscaping.

“Unlike most theme parks, however, Disney has its own private government with lobbying powers that influence both state and national government.”

The Reedy Creek Improvement District was created on May 12, 1967, when then-Florida Gov. Claude Kirk signed legislation creating a special taxing district to govern 25,000 acres of Central Florida that locals considered remote and uninhabitable.

Today, the area comprises Walt Disney World (which takes up 40 square miles) and the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. Governed by a five-member board of supervisors elected by property owners, the district has the powers of a city and more. In 1971, the Walt Disney Co. gained the authority to “regulate land use, provide police and fire services, build roads, lay sewer lines, license the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, even to build an airport and a nuclear power plant,” Cole says.

Student Liz Guardado noted that Walt Disney World provides “an amazingly abundant amount of real-life lessons that can be applied to real-world settings. However, developers will struggle to recreate this perfect example of urban planning because no one else will have the same power that the Disney Co. had.”