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 .
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.”
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.
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.
First, 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.
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.
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.
Finally, 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:
A WORLD OF TOMORROW: INSIDE WALT’S LAST DREAM (D23 membership required)