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Posts tagged ‘E.P.C.O.T.’

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.

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EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth geodesic sphere

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The Unfulfilled Promise of E.P.C.O.T.

Walt Disney is appropriately hailed as a genius for his work in animation, film, television and theme park design. In an earlier post, Ahead of His Time . . .Again , I touched on some of the some of the qualities that encouraged many to call Walt a genius (including his own wife Lillian in a 1953 McCall’s article). However, his untimely death may have robbed him of the opportunity to excel in an area for which I don’t think he has been given much praise, but might have been his most important contribution to the world – innovation in the field of urban planning and design. Since when, you might ask, did Disney become an expert in cities? He wasn’t. But he was keenly observant and talked about the problems he saw in the way people lived and worked in 20th century cities. Walt’s genius was not being the best artist or director or architect. The skills that made him successful, among others, were, an uncanny ability as a motivational leader and a savant-like sense of what people wanted and needed. It’s those qualities that may have allowed him to succeed at rethinking the American city where others have failed.

Walt Disney purchased 43 square miles of mostly swamp land, roughly twice the size of Manhattan, in the middle of Florida in the early 1960s. The results of his visionary foresight and the hard work of his surviving brother Roy, is a resort complex that includes 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, more than 25 hotels, shopping plazas, golf courses and the infrastructure necessary to support a city about the size of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati .

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Current Walt Disney World Resort Map Link to map .PDF

Walt Disney World is an amazing accomplishment by any measure. But Walt’s aim was not just to build Disneyland East. In fact what we now know as the Magic Kingdom and its original 2 hotels was intended to be just a fraction of what he wanted to do with all that space. Phase one of the “Florida Project”, the theme park, was going to fund his grander plan — E.P.C.O.T., Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. In his own words:

“EPCOT will be an experimental prototype community of tomorrow that will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”

Epcot drawing

Master Plan drawn by Walt Disney, 1965-66       (c) The Walt Disney Company/The Walt Disney Foundation

Disney, lands of fantasy creator, wanted to take on the complex, often thankless, ever evolving job of solving the problems, many of which persist, inherent in modern cities AND make life better for everyone. In typical Disney fashion, he didn’t want to fix what he thought was already broken in an existing city. He was going to start from scratch. As you can see in the above image, don’t confuse the EPCOT of today or even what it was when it opened in 1982 with what Walt had in mind. In fact, what we now call Walt Disney World was only intended to be one tiny part of the final plan. You can see WDW in the upper left hand corner of the composite image below.

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Map Courtesy of Walt Disney’s Original E.P.C.O.T website,  Disney Master Plan applied to current satellite view of WDW, map by Jack Barnes. Edited by NhojSenrab (c) Google Earth

In my job, over the past eight years, I’ve worked with and around state and local governments across the country. I can tell you from experience, local government is most interested in finding an equilibrium between groups competing for services and attention. Thus, there is little time or money left over for innovation or experimentation. Even if there are resources to try new things which might improve citizens’ lives, the decision making process to prioritize and take all interest groups’ needs, wants and demands into account, typically slows things to a snail’s pace. The result is often a watered down product or service with which no one is happy. How was Walt’s approach going to be different? While there is quite a lot of documentation, including plans, models, a promotional film and Walt’s own words, his death put an end to any chance that his dream might be realized. So, what follows is supposition on my part.

To remove the hectic, disorganized state of cities at that time, Walt was going to put innovation at the forefront of his City experiment. Walt was a true believer that anything could be accomplished, any problem could be solved, if the right amount of focus, imagination and resources were brought to bear. That might sound ridiculously optimistic. But remember, this is the same man who succeeded almost every time the rest of the world had already counted him out. And, in typical Disney style, he wasn’t going to trot out the same old methods, which he knew to have already failed. That’s why I believe he stood a very good chance of being successful at this undertaking. Here’s why.

092712_FS_FromTheArchives_EpcotOrigins_WaltsEpcot_3.1tagFirst, Disney negotiated an agreement with the state of Florida, whereby there would be no permanent residents (voters), just renters in E.P.C.O.T. and the Corporation would function as the governing body. The City would be run by Disney company and could make decisions unilaterally. What, no input from the constituents? Remember, this wasn’t an experiment in improving democracy. It was going to be a living laboratory whose purpose was to find new ways to improve city living. Yes, living in E.P.C.O.T. might was not be for everyone. A requirement for living in E.P.C.O.T. was that all inhabitants had to be employed and responsible to maintain the living blueprint.

Theoretically, only those who saw residency as an opportunity or an adventure would apply. It’s possible that the offers of reduced crime and poverty in this controlled city would be a draw to the right people willing to give up control for guaranteed employment and a chance to work in a very vibrant environment.

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Concept Art for Residential Housing

Second, Disney wanted to spur innovation and advancement through partnership with private industry. In the 1960’s the high cachet, respect and trust for the Disney name would have made it easy to bring in big, corporate sponsors/investors who would have welcomed the association with the Disney name. One of premises of E.P.C.O.T. was to give American industry a free hand to try new things and then have a captive audience on which to test them. Imagine what might have developed in a haven where more Bell Labs, Westinghouses, GEs and idea factories like IBM would have thrived. I think corporate America would have wanted in. The corporate idea factories would undoubtedly have a large pool of highly skilled people from a variety of fields drawn to the dynamic work being done.

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Concept Art for Typical Industrial Park

Third, a successful experiment would have drawn worldwide attention, which would have encouraged the kind of public/private partnerships that are so vital to the development of innovative ideas in urban planning and design. Today the partnerships are often difficult to achieve and so rarely show measurable success. Most involve primarily monetary support from private industry, with much of the planning and execution left to less capable government management. Having a good idea is one thing. Seeing it through requires deep pockets and the option of abandoning an idea that shows no merit. Government, sadly, has neither the money, the political will, or the legal ability to kill a project after it has already been funded.

walt film for epcotFinally, given Walt’s penchant to change the rules of the game as he went along, it is highly likely that E.P.C.O.T. would have gone through many changes, just like Disneyland. However, his firmly held beliefs that the power and skill of American industry could be harnessed to improve people’s lives would have remained a driving force behind whatever would have emerged. In the decades since his death, we have all been touched by achievements in public/private partnerships. Some of them have come from military necessity like GPS and others in the realm of health have materialized through Federal encouragement like improvements in artificial limbs. It’s no secret that private industry will be drawn to projects that have money making potential.

It is not far-fetched to think that the same innovative drive that produced solutions for male impotence or invisible gold fish could have worked as Disney envisioned. E.P.C.O.T. had the potential to positively affect people’s lives in ways we can only now speculate. Certainly, Walt’s track record gives us ample evidence that, as impossible as the task may have seemed, through his visionary leadership and skills as a seller of ideas, it would have succeeded. And since he never promised that the plan would be etched in stone, he would have continued to tinker and improve his plan as it was being created. Here is a link to the 25 minute promotional piece Walt filmed weeks before his death.

Next week, I will continue this exploration of Walt’s E.P.C.O.T ideas and look at, what, if any, ideas have found their way into the Walt Disney World resort and other unexpected places. There is some very good material available to anyone who is interested in exploring this topic in more detail. Here are some links to look into:

The Original Epcot

Esquire Magazine – Inside Walt Disney’s Ambitious, Failed Plan to Build the City of Tomorrow

Business Insider – Walt Disney’s original plan for the place George Clooney’s “Tomorrowland” is based on was a creepy futuristic dystopia

A WORLD OF TOMORROW: INSIDE WALT’S LAST DREAM (D23 membership required)

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