Last page update: January 21, 2017
Almost everyone who’s familiar with Walt Disney World has heard about EPCOT (in all caps), as opposed to Epcot the modern-day theme park, and that it stood for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, Walt Disney’s name for a futuristic city he wanted to build in Florida. But very few people know exactly why Walt Disney spent the last two years of his life increasingly focused on plans for a city, or how he caught that bug so feverishly so late in the game. I don’t know either. I THINK I do, though, so this is where I insert my personal theory that the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, where Walt spent so much time, caused him to take a hard left turn from designing things with city-like aspects to them, like a studio campus or a theme park, to actually wanting to build a city. More pointedly, I think when Walt Disney first rode General Motors’ Futurama II in 1964, he stepped off the ride a little bit of a changed man. His organization had put together four dynamic presentations for the Fair but had not really tackled the subject of the future there (beyond postscripts), and the future was something of immense interest to him. And here he saw it done by another company in a dramatic style that he himself might have employed: bright, bold, colorful and underscored with a sweeping soundtrack. Even though the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland was about to undergo some major upgrades back in California, none of them were as amazing in scope as that General Motors show. It’s weird to me that no one has even suggested this in a book or published article (at least not before I first posted it on Widen Your World in 2014), because if you read Steve Mannheim’s Walt Disney and the Quest for Community (2002), which is as detailed a work as you’re going to find on Walt’s urban intentions, you’ll learn that Imagineer Richard Irvine remarked upon the strong impact Walt Disney felt the original (1939) Futurama exhibit had on the public. And here, decades later, Futurama’s sequel ends with an extravagantly detailed, animated and fully lit model of a future metropolis, to which the Progress City model that Walt has his team building in 1966 (for the 1967 relocation of the original Carousel of Progress to Disneyland) bears so much resemblance that one could not rationally think of it as coincidental. Especially given that there is no actual record of Walt expressing any desire to build a city, or a neighborhood, or a model of city, prior to the 1964 World’s Fair. In fact, the one book on city planning that Walt’s colleagues and his daughter Diane said he carried with him was Victor Gruen’s The Heart Of Our Cities, which was published in 1964. Imagineer John Hench stated in Mannheim’s book that Walt had been following Gruen’s work for years, but there’s no practical evidence of that sparking any ideas in Walt’s mind for a city of his own at some earlier date. I’m always going to believe that the primary credit for what Walt did next is due to Futurama II, because it is the most conspicuous potential missing link between the well-documented ends of a chain.
It’s fundamental to this matter, however, that Walt Disney be given 100% of the credit not just for going beyond plans for a model and launching into the process of actually making such a city come into existence (as far as he could take it personally), but also for demonstrating throughout his life the kind of drive, flair and passion for experimentation and risk-taking that is essential to human progress. And it was definitely a risk for him to stake his reputation on something that unprecedented after 40 years of defining and refining family entertainment… for him to mark EPCOT as the centerpiece of his entire Florida vision. At the time of its construction, Phase One of Walt Disney World was built around the notion of EPCOT falling into the middle of the works a few years later. Of course, it didn’t happen the way the company originally mapped it out. The dichotomous theme park that appropriated the EPCOT acronym in 1982 shared very few physical or conceptual qualities with the idea after which it was named and whose space on the property map it ended up occupying. And the explanations given for this over the years have been as varied as the range of rough drafts that broke EPCOT down into a bankable enterprise instead of the incredible, far-reaching gamble originally envisioned by the “world’s master showman.”
Disney had been involved in matters of space planning, crowd flow and infrastructure for decades leading into the 1960s. The Disney Studios, the CarolWood Pacific Railroad, Disneyland and CalArts were some obvious examples where his hand could be seen in the development of real-life environments which would be inhabited, whether for a few hours or a full career, by real-world people. If you look at where Walt’s attentions were in terms of his early 1960s project workload, he was literally into a little bit of everything (animated films, bobsled rides, live-action musicals, submarines, treehouses and World’s Fair attractions – nearly all of which have become iconic). Even after the World’s Fair and the November 1965 Florida press conference, he was involved in the development of many future attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion, as well as films like The Jungle Book and The Happiest Millionaire. His top project, though, was given special attention and treatment. Walt had a group designers at the studio working on virtually nothing but the utopian guts of his Florida Project, to plan the conversion of WED artist Herb Ryman’s paintings from canvas to blueprints to steel
EPCOT’s signature visual feature was its 30-story hotel structure placed in the dead center of the city’s elliptical layout. This spatial configuration, a.k.a. “the radial plan,” was basically an extension of the hub principle employed to success at Disneyland and was closely related to Ebenezer Howard’s garden city and Victor Gruen’s cellular metropolis of tomorrow – a circular city with businesses and community gathering spots positioned with increased density toward the central point. Everything would radiate out from there like spokes on a wheel. Office buildings, convention centers, the hotel and recreational spaces would sit atop the city center’s roof. Underneath that roof, completely enclosed and climate-controlled, were the transportation center, office space, storefronts and an international shopping area. Along the perimeter of this core would sit high-density apartment buildings, home to some of the city’s workers. Just beyond these structures would be an expansive green belt where community buildings, schools, churches, sports and recreational complexes for EPCOT’s residents would be located. Further out, surrounding the entire development, would lie the low-density neighborhood areas. Here houses would back up against broad parks where children could play safely, free from traffic. The purpose of this city, in Walt’s words, was to “build a living showcase that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world.” It was designed for a population of 20,000 who would live, work, learn and play primarily within EPCOT or other parts of Walt Disney World. And the entire complex would be charged with the daunting task of continually forecasting American urban and home life 25 years into the future. American industries would be constantly updating the technologies in both the commercial buildings and the homes, and those industries would be heavily relied upon as financial partners in the venture.
EPCOT’s transportation system would consist largely of two technologies that Disney had already been using or developing at the time: the monorail and the peoplemover. The monorail would run straight through the center of the city with a station directly below the hotel. In this “transportation lobby,” there would be connecting service to all parts of the community via the peoplemover. This system would radiate from the central lobby on separate tracks to the outer points of the low-density residential areas, with intermittent stations (vs. stops, for the peoplemover never stops). It was projected that residents would only need their cars for making long trips, not for commuting or shopping. While EPCOT contained plenty of roadways, they were all set up to flow effortlessly in counter-clockwise circles, both large and small, as a result of master-planning. Industrial automotive vehicles would be relegated to streets and parking spaces below the center of the city to keep things practical and looking pretty. It was even predicted that “nowhere in Disney World will a signal light ever slow the constant flow of traffic.” What fun would predictions be if they all came true?
As mentioned above, EPCOT was to be the key component of Walt Disney World, the crucial stop on an almost six-mile long stretch of monorail beam that would also visit the theme park area, a 1,000-acre industrial park and a massive entrance complex which in turn connected with a “Jet Airport of the Future.” This was Walt Disney World as envisioned by its namesake. This was the plan he sketched out himself and supervised as it was taken further toward a master plan. But it was only about a year after he made the first announcement that Walt died, on December 15, 1966. This was the beginning of the end for the EPCOT and the “Florida Project” as he saw it.
Yet the public knew little about just how he saw it until February 2, 1967. This was when a film he made about EPCOT the previous October was first seen by anyone outside Walt Disney Productions. It premiered at the Park East Theater in Winter Park, FL, where it was screened for Florida business and government figures. It served as a fantastic pitch, something to not only confirm that the company would move ahead with Walt Disney World and whet the appetites of potential corporate sponsors, but to also pave the way for the Reedy Creek Improvement District legislation that the company would successfully seek to have passed later that year in Tallahassee. This legislation gave the company extensive governmental controls over its Florida property. The film served another purpose that the company would find less desirable in the long run: it cemented certain concepts in the public’s collective consciousness, one of which was the image of EPCOT, this beautiful city Walt had obsessed over and that was not outlined in as vague a set of terms as some in the company would suggest not too many years later.
In late 1967, a massive model of EPCOT debuted as the finale for Disneyland’s Carousel of Progress. The Carousel of Progress was brought to Disneyland for the “whole new” Tomorrowland after a two-year run at the World’s Fair. The model, pictured above and below, was called Progress City during its Disneyland years. When the Carousel of Progress was shipped to Walt Disney World for a 1975 opening, a section of the model came to Florida as well. It was installed as a part of the WEDway Peoplemover and as of 2017 could still be seen today by guests riding the attraction.
After the updated Carousel Of Progress and several other new attractions were unveiled at Disneyland in 1967, the primary concern at WED (the company’s design & engineering arm) was master-planning the first phase of Walt Disney World. This would consist of a Disneyland-type theme park, several resort hotels, a wide array of recreational options, a transportation system linking all of those together and a support infrastructure that would service the same areas. Phase One’s five-year development plan would provide the foundation upon which the company would build the remainder of the “Florida Project.” As late as 1969, what lie beyond Phase One was still projected in basic accordance with Walt’s outline. But it was off in the distance and nothing had been done to further define the plans or set any timetables. By 1970, with the opening of Walt Disney World just ahead, EPCOT, the industrial park, airport and entrance complex were planted firmly in the background. Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 to rave reviews and, soon enough, great attendance figures. Plans for additions to, and the refinement of, the first phase of the project sprang up almost immediately to meet the demands of guests arriving in greater-than-expected numbers. This trend continued for a couple years as the company became comfortable with its Florida empire and reacted to its needs.
During this time, EPCOT was barely mentioned. Careful attention was also being given to the context surrounding the precious few EPCOT allusions that did make it into company publications. The planned development of land at Lake Buena Vista (townhouses, apartments and condominiums) was heralded in the company’s 1972 annual report as a step toward the development of EPCOT – as was the demand for “WED Enterprises to do consulting work in transportation, recreational and city planning” in 1973. A section of the post-show exhibit space in the Magic Kingdom’s Walt Disney Story attraction, which opened in May 1973, had EPCOT city renderings on one wall just as the Disney Story film showed the painting. How it would come to pass, however, was yet to be revealed. All the while, a corner was being turned slowly in Glendale. Around that corner there would be a frequent usage of one particular statement Walt had made: that EPCOT would be a “Community of Tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems.”
On May 15, 1974, Card Walker (then President and chief operating officer of the company) announced to a meeting of the American Marketing Association that Walt Disney Productions would be moving ahead “in a phased program” with the development of Walt Disney’s concept for EPCOT. The company reasoned that Phase One of Walt Disney World was essentially completed ahead of schedule and it was time to turn toward Phase Two. The idea for a World Showcase of nations was introduced – its likely genesis in the International Shopping area concept and of course past World’s Fairs. More importantly, EPCOT was now being considered “from the point of view of economics, operations, technology, and market potential.” While the future phases of EPCOT were left very hazy, Walker did state that the company was not seeking “the commitment of individuals and families to permanent residence.” Rather the company was looking for “long-term commitments from industry and nations.”
Or, in other words, there wasn’t going to be a city. The process of taking Walt’s EPCOT apart and concocting something different with the pieces had begun. WED Enterprises spent about six years tossing ideas around, scrapping many and fine-tuning others. Future World was conceived as the “introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems” part of the project. It was grafted onto World Showcase and EPCOT Center was born. Groundbreaking took place October 1, 1979.
The term “center” in the name of this new theme park, though no longer used today, was a crucial part of the company’s strategy at the time. From the beginning, Walt Disney World was built with EPCOT in mind, and even the development of Phase One had employed a variety of new systems and processes. From the modular construction techniques used in building the hotels to the water hyacinth waste treatment program, Walt Disney World was a sort of testing ground. And now the company purported that WDW was EPCOT and had been EPCOT all along, and EPCOT Center was where the “new materials and new systems” of WDW/EPCOT would be shown to the public. It was a fairly daring rationale to put forth to anyone who remembered Walt Disney’s film or had seen the initial intended scope of Project Florida. But the company was doing just that, straight-faced and free of concessions.
The approach had an inherent flaw about which, strangely enough, journalists failed to question Disney management during EPCOT Center’s construction and opening. It was that while WDW had dabbled in a handful of experimental processes, none of the cornerstone precepts of EPCOT the city had been applied to development of WDW since 1971, and precious few were being built into EPCOT Center itself. On-property transit for employees from parking lots to their work locations was handled by fossil fuel-burning buses rather than clean, electric Peoplemover systems. The majority of connections for on-property resort guests was also handled by bus instead of monorail. The “pedestrian is king” concept never truly caught on. Traffic lights did, of course, catch on… exponentially since working roadways into a constant circular flow was apparently too costly or complicated or both (or, worse, not even a consideration as the resort expanded under the guidance of next-gen planners never versed in the resort’s original goals). And the company’s highly-touted utilidor concept was only employed one more time on property, in EPCOT Center, and only below a small portion of the park’s Communicore area. The Magic Kingdom’s AVAC trash-collection system was never replicated in another park. In short, almost none of those forward-looking concepts that were integral to WDW Phase One and which formed the basis of the weak rationale that “all of WDW was EPCOT” were not carried forward past EPCOT Center’s opening. Kind of sad.
In 1990 ABC’s Chris Wallace interviewed Walt Disney Attractions President Dick Nunis for a Prime Time Live segment on WDW. During their conversation, Wallace asked Nunis about EPCOT, the city that never materialized. Nunis, who had years earlier suggested to Orlando-Land magazine editor Edward L. Prizer that the EPCOT plans Walt left behind were sketchy at best, responded by asking Wallace, “isn’t this a city?” He offered by way of example the fact that thousands of guests spent the night on WDW property every evening, and they were real people. Using Nunis’ logic, guests at WDW hotels had become the citizens of EPCOT, an extension of the theory that WDW was EPCOT. Others within the company, such as Marty Sklar, have offered more straightforward accounts of EPCOT’s end. They assert that Walt’s successors really didn’t know what to do with his city, or how to do it without him. He was the one consumed with the passion for the project, and without his hand in the process the only palatable option was to make something out of it that was in keeping with proven formulas; i.e., turn it into a theme park venture that wouldn’t scare the stockholders too much. Not that EPCOT Center itself was without its own nail-biting observers. Anyone in the company nervous about the park’s prospects for success was, really, just being rational.
That theme park, by the way, became Epcot instead of EPCOT Center in 1995. In dropping the “Center” from the title and changing the acronym to a name, the company exercised some sound judgment in allowing for the difference between EPCOT the city and Epcot the park. In 1996, Disney’s newly developed “town” of Celebration (Osceola County, FL) welcomed its first residents. This planned community has been compared to Walt’s plans for EPCOT by many of the company’s high-ranking officials. Some reasoned that the spirit of EPCOT was being fulfilled by Celebration, 30 years after Disney’s city concept was first introduced. It was and is difficult, however, to reconcile that kind of reasoning with that 1966 painting, with that model or with Walt’s EPCOT film. If Celebration was in any way intended to serve as a stand-in for EPCOT as a community, it didn’t deliver on the basic experimental principles around which EPCOT originally conceived. Some of those who worked with Walt doubted that even he could have pulled off the experimental city. Animator Ward Kimball for one, who was Walt Disney Productions’ preeminent artist/lunatic-in-residence for decades, expressed uncharacteristic reservations about EPCOT’s potential in an interview with my Disney research associate Ross Plesset. The sentiment that “you can’t experiment with people’s lives” has come up on more than one occasion in discussions with other WDP figures. This isn’t true given that governments, corporations and doctors experiment with people’s lives when they decided how much police protection to give a neighborhood, how much medicine to prescribe you or how much they pay you vs. how much fun they make your workplace, but the notion falters for a more specific reason: before Walt Disney died it was already established that anyone living in EPCOT would do so on a temporary basis, most likely for no more than two years. This doesn’t change the fact that it would still have been an exercise in authority, control and human nature, but its intended long-range impact was not to be on individual families but the world at large.
One thing about EPCOT that persists in rearing its impossible head is the assertion that it was going to be a “domed city.” After reading various quick newspieces from the past 25 years and comparing those to Walt Disney Productions actual plans for EPCOT, one would wonder how anyone might believe that the Disney company would cover a billion-dollar city of the future with a translucent dome that would, if built to truly span the city center, represent an engineering feat that shamed the Pantheon just so they could pit air-conditioning technology against the intense greenhouse effect that would result from a massive dome in one of the warmest climates in the USA. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. But there have also been references to this big dome in more scholarly works such as Mannheim’s book. He wrote that Walt’s EPCOT film contains animation depicting a hemispherical dome enclosing the city’s 50-acre core. What the film actually depicts is a close-up … concurrent with the narrator’s reference to the enclosed, climate-controlled city center … of a domed skylight structure built into the city center’s flat roof. Depending on which EPCOT rendering you view, there were twelve to thirty of those around the central roof structure. EPCOT would have been full of domes, but none in the plans had a diameter exceeding about 75 feet. The mere fact that there were a series of these small domes shown on the city center roof makes the notion of a larger dome covering the whole of that roof ridiculous, since it would make the smaller ones superfluous. But this is typical of misinformation about Disney, such as Walt being frozen or John Hench being a vampire, that perpetuates itself indefinitely.
In the end, combining all the rumors, drawings, interviews, rationales and facts of EPCOT yields a perplexing portrait of magnificent ambitions being tempered by cold corporate feet. It’s unlikely that EPCOT will ever go full-scale in anything like its original form, but discussions surrounding just what it would have become if built will likely continue for decades. As for how much of a role GM’s Futurama II actually played in driving Walt to pursue the concept of a future city, no potential answer really diminishes the immensity of what he intended to build. To me it’s just funny that none of his associates ever said, “Oh, yeah, EPCOT definitely started with that GM show.” Because, seriously.