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Keeping Walt’s Vision of EPCOT Alive

October 1st of this year marked the 35th Anniversary of EPCOT’s opening day. Since there’s a lot out there on the web to help us relive or discover that landmark day in Walt Disney World history, I am going to stick to my mission statement and explore how one part of the redefinition of EPCOT’s mission statement still may carry some of Walt’s original ideas for what he called “The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”. For those who would like to learn about or explore some of the Park’s background which Walt had imagined and planned, take a look at my previous posts The Unfulfilled Promise of  E.P.C.O.T. which offers Walt’s original vision for EPCOT and The Legacy of Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T where I look at the parts of his plan that are still evident throughout Walt Disney World.

I’m not sure that we can find any of the actual prototyping that the Community WaltWDW-Water-078 hoped would lure big thinkers to EPCOT and encourage the development of life changing creativity. It’s still has the vestiges of a community in the World Showcase. Visitors can interact with ambassadors from different countries who still bring a touch of far off places to the permanent world’s fair. Granted, they are mostly involved with selling something or showing us to a table and serving food. But, I’ve found it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the expat Cast Members who are usually happy to talk proudly about their home country and what it’s like to spend an extended time in the U.S. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can, if you take the time, immerse yourself in the culture, art and products of 11 different countries.

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Disneyland Small World dedication

Walt didn’t pass up an opportunity to remind us we lived in a larger world, filled with different people. The Disneyland opening ceremony of It’s a Small World featured over 50 foreign consulate representatives along with children wearing the traditional dress of many countries. Some of these children helped Walt pour water collected from every ocean plus major rivers and bodies of water from around the world into the flume, truly symbolizing the attraction’s theme of global unity. That message was re-affirmed at EPCOT’s opening ceremony  with a special “International Ceremony of the Waters”. Cultural representatives from 29 nations traveled to Epcot from around the world. Each one brought with them a container of water from their nation and poured it into the Fountain of Nations.

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EPCOT Fountain of Nations dedication

While the future of EPCOT is still up in the air and will continue to be redefined by 21st century Disney management and Disney Imagineering, I would be hard pressed to call EPCOT a view of tomorrow. That would have required more attention to the club coolexperimentation Walt had hoped would result in something that would change or improve people’s lives. The only real experimentation going on at EPCOT is trying Coca Cola products at Club Cool. That and Disney working on new things to keep visitors coming to the Park while they complete construction on new attractions in an effort to redefine the Park’s story.

However, I believe that Walt and the WED staff of the sixties and seventies, would not be unhappy with one growing part of EPCOT – the festivals that have become annual occurrences. Walt’s vision of EPCOT was shaped by his turn of the century birth and early 20th century life experience. It was filled confidence that science could solve many of the world’s problems.  Nascent space travel programs, the eradication of terrible diseases like polio were in the news every day, as were problems of poverty, hunger and a desire to move up the economic and social ladders in cities, here and around the world. Walt’s life was certainly defined by his generation’s versions of those changes and issues.

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Herb Ryman Concept Art

It does seem, though, that Walt’s original vision of a community that would attract industry and people to solve problems, educate and improve the world by developing and testing new applications of science and technology is giving way to Park that uses technology, some of it created by the Disney company, to entertain. But, that spirit to open people’s eyes to possibilities for a better world is in full display at the three annual festivals that lure thousands to a park that some would ordinarily have passed on (“Too much walking”, “So many attractions are closed”, “The attractions are so old” “Nothing new to see”).

F&W logo

The oldest one is The EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival. F&W expands the on the menus of the permanent World Showcase restaurants and adds culinary offerings from additional countries, including Belgium, Australia, Brazil, Greece, India, Ireland and others. Visitors get the chance to sample foods from around the world without reservations, big meal prices or long time investments. Themed offerings like Brewer’s Collection, Cheese Studio, Chocolate Studio, or Coastal Eats, make it possible to sample and learn more about culinary, ingredients, beverages, styles and regions. The festival features more than 100 inventive chefs from many countries and the Disney World property, exposing us to ingredients and preparation techniques we might not have had an opportunity to try. As someone who loves to cook, I’ve come back from the Festival or seen reviews of dishes, ingredients or techniques that I can incorporate into my own cooking. Food has become an ambassador, perhaps encouraging or inspiring some to guests to visit other places in the world.

epcot f&w

2015

Flower-and-Garden-Festival-2017The same spirit of invention and education can be seen at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The Festival promotes the beautification our world. It’s also an opportunity to teach existing, new and innovative ways to translate professional landscape ideas and techniques to our homes and gardens. I would say anything that helps to reduce the destruction of green areas of our fragile planet is good for the Earth and good for us, its inhabitants. No one who visits Disneyland can miss the importance flowers, trees and other landscaping played in Walt’s vision for a modern them park. At the earliest stages of Disneyland construction, the team started planting, to insure Walt’s vision of a beautiful park would be realized on opening day.

Walt Disney World was an even bigger job to tackle, since much of the parks are built on what was once swampland. At WDW, trees and greenery are used to separate and keep the theming in place. Trees at the Wilderness Lodge, for example, keep guests glimpsing, close by, non-wilderness sites like the Future World architecture. In the Festival Center they present, they have a section called Horticulture Heritage which gives guests a peek into the importance Landscape had and has at The Magic Kingdom. To put a bow on things, Garden Rocks, a mini music festival, runs concurrently. Natural beauty and music are good ways to get us to disconnect from our devices and use our senses to rediscover the world around us.

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EPCOT_FestivaloftheArts_STYLEGUIDE_111416The most recent addition to the EPCOT is the Epcot International Festival of the Arts.  First presented in January 2017 it featured pieces from Disney historical artist Mary Blair and Herb Ryman art of Epcot, to current Disney artists Joe Kaminski and Costa Alavezos. I think it’s great that guests are being introduced or reminded of the artistic legacy that helped to build the entire Disney empire. Guests are not only surrounded by incredible visions, they’ll watch the creative process live. New art is created and revealed each weekend, so guests can look forward to a new experience every time they go. Other presentations include music and food. Study after study has shown how important the arts are to children and our overall happiness. Since 2018 will be only the second year of this Festival, I’m sure much will change as it has for the other two, more mature events. I would expect, given the planning and thought that Disney puts into all of its projects, that the Arts Festival will offer guests more reasons to visit EPCOT. This is the only EPCOT festival that I haven’t had the chance to experience for myself.

arts fest art

We’ll never know whether Walt’s original vision and purpose for EPCOT would ever have been realized. Recent and announced changes will continue to take the park in new directions that indicate movement away from the prototype community Walt had hoped to create. The Disney organization still l has a lot of work ahead to re-imagine the Park so it remains relevant and popular with guests. Walt had hoped that the Magic Kingdom would help to pay for the development and operation of his Community of Tomorrow, which was where he wanted to focus time attention and the financial means of the Disney Company to change the way we live. That lofty goal will need to be replaced by a more traditional Disney theme park that needs to attract guests and their vacation dollars in a park with unique entertainment value. There has been a recent flurry of announcements about changes to EPCOT including an update to Mission Space, a new ride based on Ratatouille, and replacing The Universe of Energy with a Guardians of the Galaxy coaster. There have been hints and rumors at more changes. I look forward to seeing the new park succeed.

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Walt presenting “The Florida Project” 1966

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Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event

D23-logo-official-fan-clubAs a Gold charter member of the D23 Disney Fan club I longingly read accounts of the many member events in California and Florida. Tours of the Disney Studios, Walt’s office, lunch with Imagineers are all things I’d love to do. But, since I live in New York it’s not practical. The D23 organizers have done some wonderful events in NYC. Just last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for the 25th Anniversary showing of Beauty and the Beast at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, where Angela Lansbury sang. Before that the Fanniversary tour landed in NYC with highlights from the Disney archives.

As good as those events were, D23 they cooked up a whole day of fun and interesting experiences for 40 lucky Gold Members this past week in NYC. They called it, “D23 Behind-the-Scenes Experience: Magic in Manhattan & More”. And more it was!

We began the day by joining the rest of an enthusiastic audience at a taping of ABC’s The chew openingChew at studio near Lincoln Center. For my wife, Jackie, and I, it was our first experience at a television taping. We were surprised at how small the set space was, and how many people it takes to create a one hour television show. Cameramen, stage managers, food stylists, cooks, stage hands, sound engineers, a DJ, and lighting technicians were everywhere. As wed23 chew set 3 waited, the 5 stars made their way onto the set, introduced by the comedian, R.C. Smith, who kept us laughing the entire morning as he got us warmed up and taught us how to clap and laugh on cue. Finally, Clinton, Carla, Michael, Mario and Daphne sat down to tape the four segments of a show called Simply Perfect Sweets. They are very relaxed, chatting among themselves while reading segments from the teleprompter, all the while having stage managers waving time warnings in front of them. At the end of each segment, dozens of people appear from doors and behind set pieces, like an ant army, to clean up, add new food ingredients, move cameras, apply makeup, shift lights and more. R.C. kept d23 chew set 2our energy up as we hungrily watched the front row of “tasters” sample the dishes that were prepared by the hosts. Meanwhile, Mario, Clinton and Michael chatted with members of the audience. If you watch the show, you’ll notice that Clinton has a different jacket on for the last segment. He and Executive Producer Gordon Elliot were admiring a coat, worn by an of the audience member, so he exchanged it for the one he was wearing for the last segment. Following the taping, we watched Clinton and Carla do promo spots for use by other ABC programs. Then we took a group photo with the stars.

 

chew photo

d23 event snackAfter giving us some much needed snack bags and a gift bag from The Chew, we boarded a bus for our trip to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Ford23 chew bag those of you who are not aware, Walt Disney and his WED Imagineers created four of the most popular pavilions for the 1964-65 NY World’s Fair. It’s a Small World debuted at the Pepsi pavilion, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln was the standout at the Illinois pavilion, GE’s Progressland featured the Carousel of Progress and for Ford Walt created the Magic Skyway. At the Park, we were introduced to Mitch Silverstein, Gary Miller and Stephanie Bohn, volunteers who working to preserve the iconic NY State pavilion (made even more famous by its role in the MIB movie). Mitch ny state towersand another volunteer who happens to be a Disney World guide, took us for a tour of the fairgrounds, pointing out the locations of the Disney designed attractions and telling stories about the fair.

For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip. Walt took advantage of the work at the Fair to push his WED geniuses to invent and perfect much of the technology that continues to be the backbone for many of the Disney theme park attractions. I’ll start with Mr. Lincoln, the invention that ushered in the age of Audio-Animatronics. There are now thousands at Disney and other theme parks around the world. The boat ride through Small World, was a precursor to Pirates of the Caribbean, Frozen Ever After and Living with the Land entertaining thousands of people in a day. And the ride system that guided cars through the Magic Skyway, eventually became the People Mover with similar systems still in use at the Haunted Mansion and Spaceship Earth. As important to Walt, three of the attractions, Carousel, Small World and Mr. Lincoln were added to Disneyland while many of the Audio-Animatraonic figures from Skyway, were re-purposed for other Disneyland attractions.

COP then and nowsmall world then and now

Because of our schedule we didn’t get to the Ford or Illinois locations. We ended our tour of the historic fairground with a very special opportunity to go inside the NY State pavilion. The structure is still in a bad state of repair, hence the hard hats we are all wearing in the picture. You can learn more about the pavilion preservation effort here.

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D23 Unisphere cropped

After a final picture in front of the iconic Unisphere,  we re-boarded the bus and were given the second very special D23 gift, these limited edition reproductions of photos and postcards from the World’s Fair.

d23 vintage postcards

Our next stop was a well needed lunch at Trattoria Dell’Arte in Manhattan, where we enjoyed a three course meal. We also received our third gift, an event inspired picture containing 23 NY/Disney related images and a copy of the special event restaurant menu.

We took the quiz on the bus to guess what the icons represent. If you want to know what all the icons stand for in the image? The answers are here.

d23 event credentialWe took a short bus ride to the Times square area, where we received our next present, a newly designed earhat with the familiar I Love NY logo. We all put them on and took the picture below. With about 30 minutes until our final tour leg, we took our D23 event credential into the Times Square Disney store for a little 50% off shopping spree.

D23 Times Square.jpg

At 4:00 we re-assembled in front of the New Amsterdam Theater. Taylor  told me that this D23 event was inspired by the 20th anniversary of Disney’s re-opening of the theater after a lengthy restoration. On the theater marquee was a special message welcoming D23 Aladdin (1)our group.  Inside, sitting in the front rows of the orchestra where we were treated to a historical overview of the theater from it’s opening in 1903, to its long time use by the Ziegfeld Follies, then a slow decline, along with the rest of 42nd street, in the 1970s, then the theater’s closure and, finally, it’s rebirth as a Disney managed theater. We were led onto the stage, which is now hosting the Broadway version of Aladdin. The many complex workings of automated sets, trap doors and shown walls were explained and we saw many famous visitors who have signed their names on the theater’s walls.

Our next theater stop was a room Ziegfeld used at the back of the orchestra section. In the room, were props and costumes from many of the Broadway shows that Disney has produced, including Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, Little Mermaid, Aida, Lion King and Newsies. We could touch and try on whatever we were found interesting. Some of the popular pieces were the $7,000 dollar lion king masks and props from Mary Poppins.

The day ended with a wonderful cocktail reception in the lower part of the theater where there was wine, beer, soda and delicious tapas. Our final gift, was an Aladdin playbill signed by the cast.

d23 signed aladdin

I can’t say enough about the logistics managed effortlessly by Tyler and Jen Marie. Even with the difficulties of keeping track of such a large group, NYC traffic and the many different stops during a very long day, they remained up-beat, personable and, most of all, fun. Everyone in the group, some had traveled from as far as California, were all great fun. We traded stories, talked about our Disney interests and enjoyed each other’s company during our NYC road trip. My thanks to Tyler, Jen Marie and the D23 organization for putting together one of the most interesting and enjoyable days my wife and I have had in Manhattan.

Have you attended a D23 event? What was your experience like?

Since I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Disney effect on the NY World’s Fair, I’ll use next week’s post to dig deeper into the four attractions that, for many, have become symbols of the historic Fair years.

The Legacy of Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T.

Last week in my post The Unfulfilled Promise of E.P.C.O.T. , I theorized about how Walt’s plans for E.P.C.O.T. (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) could have been realized. Unfortunately, Walt died weeks after completing a 25 minute film which outlined his ambitious plans for the immense tract of land Disney had acquired in Central Florida. Following Walt Disney’s death, Roy Disney, his older brother and the long time financial wizard of the Disney company, committed to completing at least a part of his brother’s Florida dream, the theme park section of the property. Walt had agreed to use the theme park to fund future development of the Community of Tomorrow.

original 1967 Epcot modelUnfortunately, without Walt’s stewardship and charismatic leadership, the Company decided the City of Tomorrow was was unmanageable and the EPCOT part of the project became what it is today, the second theme park in Walt Disney World, dedicated to technology in “Future World” and the “World Showcase”, a kind of permanent world’s fair. While many would view Walt’s early Epcot logoE.P.C.O.T. vision of a working community, showcasing American ingenuity as unfulfilled, Walt’s ideas and hopes for a showcase of innovation have had lasting impact on cities and people in general, as he had hoped.

The agreement Disney negotiated with the state of Florida gave the Disney Company municipal control over everything that would go on inside the resort’s 25,000 acres. The entire “City” is overseen by a Disney controlled RCIDgovernment called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Walt Disney World is said to require an equivalent level of supporting infrastructure like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, with populations of around 300,000 people

In the broadest of definitions, Walt Disney World itself is a City that fulfilled some of Walt’s idea about how to improve urban living. Many of the services a municipality provides are managed and carried out centrally. The efficient WDW transportation system moves guests, employees and contractors without additional cost from one location to another. Since all activities are centrally managed, transportation can be moved as service demands change, even during peak usage periods. I’ve lost track of how many times an event in NYC can disrupt the very well run NYC subway system or street traffic, even when it is known in advance, like a presidential visit or Christmas tree lighting.

One of the most recognizable symbols of Walt’s E.P.C.O.T. and the WDW today is the sleek, quiet Monorail which made its debut at Disneyland in 1959. It was a fixture on the Disney World property from opening day, connecting the Magic Kingdom to the Ticket and Transportation Center and the original 2 hotels, The Contemporary and The Polynesian. The Disney World system was extended to connect to EPCOT Center when it opened in 1982. The original E.P.C.O.T. design would have leveraged the monorail to a much greater extent too efficiently move people across the longest distances in the City. The Disneyland system was one of the earliest modern monorails in the world. But, many years after it’s adoption by Disney, Monorails continue to be employed in a variety of environments, both public and private, around the world.

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Unlike the city of NY Robert Moses helped to create in the 1960s, Walt imagined a city where people were more important than automobiles. So, he designed his City with an underground transportation center that would separate regular car traffic and Side_Diagram of epcot designmaintenance traffic from the living, working population. He then directed the early designs of Disney World to include “backstage” areas of the parks and hotels. The backstage includes tunnels that run under the Magic kingdom called Utilidors. The
mmutilidorsUtilidors reduce the impact of regular maintenance on visitors and do away with unnecessary car traffic throughout the Magic Kingdom. One of Walt’s motivation for the E.P.C.O.T. underground levels and the “Utilidors” under the Magic Kingdom were primarily to solve an atmospheric and image problem. He hated that a costumed cast member from one Land, say dressed for FrontierLand would be seen walking through FantasyLand in Disneyland. Cast members in the Magic Kingdom can move, invisibly, from one part of the park to another. But the underground labyrinth also improves basic “city” functions such as the movement of material, goods, personnel, garbage and provides storage that ordinarily would take up valuable on-stage spaces. Similar underground systems are used throughout the world to hide power, trash removal and other infrastructure support systems.

One of the ways Disney makes use of Utilidors is for trash collection. Most of us take its collection for granted. In fact, it is one of the most pressing and difficult tasks a city undertakes. Anyone who has lived through a garbage collection strike can attest to how quickly uncollected garbage becomes visually unappealing, smelly (especially in warm weather) and a safety issue. Then there are the inevitable health related consequences that can quickly become epidemic if not properly addressed. The logistics of moving huge trucks efficiently through crowded urban areas, creates its own set of problems for city dwellers. What city car driving, residents are not impacted by alternate side of the street parking rules that enable trucks to remove huge amounts of trash from normally crowded streets quickly. Finally, there is significant cost in manpower, equipment and associated maintenance, and fuel.

The Disney engineers took their cues from Walt’s philosophy of removing auto traffic from populated parts of the city. A Swedish Automated Vacuum Assisted Collection wdw avac(AVAC) system literally sucks trash at speeds of 60 mph from various points in the Magic Kingdom underground through the Utilidors. Fleets of vehicles far from the guest areas transport trash where it is either recycled or put through solid waste processing. Following the success at Disney World, this same system was installed in two other US locations. One is on Roosevelt Island in NYC, which was designed in the 1970s, about the same time Walt would have been working on E.P.C.O.T., as a similar “utopian” city. The roughly 12,000 residents of the island benefit from the same invisible, quiet, odor free system that moves waste throughout the Magic Kingdom. The third location is a residential tower in New Jersey, also installed in the 1970s. Other systems have been in use in Barcelona and Stockholm.

One look at some of the concept art for E.P.C.O.T. and you see Walt wanted his City to be beautifully green. Attention to landscaping was one of the design elements that turned Disneyland from a fair full of rides into what we now know as a theme park. And it green epcot overheadwould have been another way to make the E.P.C.O.T a better place to live than most of the cities then and now. New York City may have Central Park, but Disney parks are literally covered with natural greenery and flowers, including elaborate topiaries and natural pictures. Walt would have been immensely proud and encouraging of the Living with the Land attraction at EPCOT. Farming demonstrations of different growing techniques fit with his ideas for making E.P.C.O.T. a living laboratory. A variety of growing techniques including high density fish farming, vertical produce growing, Aeroponics and pest management lab are in use. Tons of food grown in the greenhouses are served at restaurants in the park. Teaming with the US Department of Agriculture and NASA on several projects was exactly the kind of Public/Private partnership that Walt had hoped would spur real innovative, practical invention.

Each Florida Disney park has its own systems that centrally monitor everything in each park. Under Cinderella castle, systems monitor everything from lighting systems, stage curtains, fire protection, security and power systems and attraction queues. Through a Digital Animation Control System (DACS) it also controls and synchronizes the movements of hundreds of audio-animatronic figures in the attractions. It’s not hard to draw direct lines between this approach, adopted when the Magic Kingdom opened and the building management systems that are part of every new commercial design or have been retrofitted into older buildings. Centralized systems require less manual management, improve energy efficiency and security. This same approach is taken by most city police departments that have deployed security cameras. I would be surprised if every major theme park in the world doesn’t make use of these kinds of systems, whether for attraction control or for security.

Walt’s last planned project would have far exceeded anything he had tackled before. It’s been interesting to learn that the Florida Project and E.P.C.O.T. was intended to do more than just entertain and make money. Walt was taking his can-do attitude and visionary ingenuity along for what would have been an exciting and, perhaps, world changing ride. I’ve touched on a few obvious areas where his ideas about how to improve cities were executed to the benefit of many people. Next time you take a monorail in an airport or comment on the cleanliness of a Disney theme park, remember, it may have all started with a mouse, but it ended with a man who had vision and a desire to make the world a better place.

Epcot spaceship earth

EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth geodesic sphere

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