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.
Unfortunately, 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 E.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 government 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.
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 maintenance 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
Utilidors 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 (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 would 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.