Hollywood Flashback: 'Mary Poppins' Success Helped Walt Create Disney World in 1964

Walt Disney Pictures/Photofest

The musical film — a sequel starring Emily Blunt hits theaters Dec. 19 — topped the box office that year (and earned an Oscar for star Julie Andrews), allowing the mogul to buy 27,000 acres near Orlando for his theme park project.

Both the Oscars and the Globes gave Julie Andrews, then 28, best actress awards for 1964's Mary Poppins, but for The Hollywood Reporter, the musical existed on a level that was beyond mere trophies.

To THR, Poppins was "the kind of film that creates not fans but evangelists. Single-handedly, it might well make repeat moviegoing a national habit." Not only would the film be a box office smash, said THR, but "a hardy perennial as popular and welcome as Santa Claus."

THR was certainly right about the box office part. The $6 million production ($49 million today) brought in more than any other film that year with $31 million earned ($252 million today). The musical did so well that by June 1965, Walt Disney was able to buy 27,000 acres near Orlando for his Disney World project. (To put that in perspective, Anaheim's Disneyland covers less than 300 acres.) Andrews' share of the Poppins take was $150,000 — $1.2 million today — that she'd received for playing the lead role.

Disney had faith Poppins would be a success even before it opened. Its August 1964 launch at Grauman's Chinese Theatre was the first Disney gala premiere since 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The debut was a fundraiser for the just-being-established California Institute of the Arts, which Disney himself had conceived. Before the film screened, there was a 15-minute short titled The Cal Arts Story that Disney produced and introduced.

If there was anything to cloud over the joy of Mary Poppins' success, it was that Andrews wasn't chosen by Warner Bros. that year to play the film version of the other role she'd made famous on Broadway: Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. That part went to Audrey Hepburn. Andrews won the Oscar for Poppins, and My Fair Lady won for best picture. Hepburn, alas, wasn't even nominated. Disney's sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, bows Dec. 19.

This story first appeared in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.