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Posts tagged ‘Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow’

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.

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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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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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