Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Walt Disney World Resort’

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.

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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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Parades do More than Just Block the Path to Splash Mountain

When you search your memory banks, there are events that immediately come to mind. Certain birthdays, weddings, special anniversaries, even deaths are big markers on the Macys-Paradetimeline of our lives. They all involve a change in life – a year older, permanently adding or losing someone in your life. There are other lesser life changing events that happen many times throughout our lives that don’t register as quickly or at all. Until now, it hadn’t registered to me, that parades have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. You may ask (and you’d be justified) “With all of the important things going on in your life, hurricanes, nuclear threats, daily breaking political news, and missed dentist appointments, why have you fixed your keen eye on parades?”

elephants in nycMaybe, like Walt, I yearn for simpler times. I’ve watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade either on TV or in person for so long, that it could almost be a guest at the holiday table. The Rose Parade has been the kickoff to many a New Year’s day of college football. The town I live in has parades for everything from St. Patrick’s Day to Gary Pride Day and almost every other holiday of the year. My kids marched in those parades as part of school bands. I watched them march in those same bands for the NYC Columbus Day parade. I’ve been fortunate enough to actually watch the now defunct Ringling Brothers circus parade into NYC, complete with elephants.

st ferminI recently was on hand for the annual Festival of St. Fermin parade in Pamplona, Spain the week before the running of the bulls. There have been Halloween parades, Christmas parades, Mermaid parades (an annual Coney Island event), Easter parades and even Renaissance Faire parades. I’m fairly certain, with the possible exception of the Mermaids, that most of you could come up with a similar list. Yours might even be longer.

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Broadway and Films have featured parades as part of their overall message of happiness, rebirth and possibilities:

Barnum’s “Come Follow the Band

Hello Dolly’s “Before the Parade Passes By

The Music Man’s “Seventy-Six Trombones

Easter Parade” in the film of the same name

Disney’s Aladdin’s “Prince Ali

And nothing makes you want to march more than a Sousa military march

the-american-circus-parade_oxq6paWalt grew up in an era where travelling circuses where a common form of entertainment. He would have seen and possibly followed the circus parade into town designed to drum up interest before setting up tents just outside of town. And in keeping with his “let’s go back to a happier time” theme and knowing everyone loves a parade, Walt had a parade on opening day at Disneyland in 1955.

The parade was replete with several military marching bands, antique cars, knights, frontier and Native American horsemen, costumed and face characters, children, horse drawn carriages, covered wagons and streetcars, Autopia cars, and floats. Just like the circuses of old who used the parade to highlight what visitors would see, much of the Disneyland opening day parade was designed as a preview to highlight the four lands that guests would see during their Disneyland visit.

Most of us like surprises, even during out Disney Theme Park visit. But our days usually include a struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy or equilibrium. Our lives are often full of chaos these days. So, there’s something comforting about knowing that every day at 3 and then later that evening there is a Disney theme park parade. The parades entice us to slow down, grab an ice cream cone, cotton candy or a hot dog, listen for the announcements and wait for the music to start or the lights to dim along the parade route. I find that even if the parade temporarily blocks my path to get somewhere in the park, once the music, floats and characters is passing, I’m not that unhappy or frustrated. I settle in and enjoy the show. I have enjoyed some Disney parades more than others. But they all include a catchy tune, like

Remember the Magic

Spectromagic

Paint the Night

The Main St. Electrical Parade

Festival of Fantasy

Aside from the inevitable march of the parade forward, the floats, characters, dancers all create vignettes that tell a story in the minute or so it takes for them to pass by us and our attention is drawn to the next. It feels a little like the picture books I read to my kids. The page turns and we take in the new picture and get ready for the next part of the story. You can feel the legacy of Walt as he reminded his directors and Imagineers that without a good story, a parade is nothing more than moving noise.

It’s nice to know that when we escape to a Disney Theme park here in the U.S. we can count on a parade, twice a day, like clockwork. The floats are magical, the dancers create beautiful pictures and our we get to see some of our favorite Disney characters in a new or familiar setting. And unlike the parades in your hometown, you don’t need to get up early then spend the better part of the morning waiting. And you don’t have to worry about traffic being snarled for the who day while you try to get home. The Disney people have the parade thing down to a science. The parade ropes go up and come down almost by magic.

I’m not sure there’s any other show, with the exception of evening fireworks (which by the way are sandwiched between the two even parade showings. Coincidence? I think not) which draws as many people to watch There are some people who will forgo attractions and other events in the day, just to get a good spot on Main St. Live shows have come and gone, but the parades march on.

With all the chaos and tension in our world’s today, I have a suggestion. Go find a parade. Follow it or be in it. If you can’t find one, start one of your own. I’m certain you’ll get people to join in. Either way I think it will, at least, temporarily, transport you to a time when the only concern you had on your mind was whether the next pack of baseball cards would get you the last player on your favorite team or maybe what color t-shirt you should wear with your favorite jeans. It is possible, that without any of us being aware of it, Disney parades, or maybe any parades keep our world in balance.

Imagination in Disney Theme Parks

walt carousel benchWalt always said that he built Disneyland so an average family could all have fun together, instead of the parents watching from a nearby bench, as he had done with his daughters. The attractions Walt created in the first decade of the park from the Main St. USA entrance, to Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland and, of course, Fantasyland were designed, primarily, with the idea of imaginative play. Have the changes to the parks that have occurred over the decades stayed true to his original vision? Or has time made it necessary for the Disney company to alter course to meet the demands of modern visitors?

Contrary to urban legend, on opening day Disneyland’s attraction list was modest, consisting of about 12 attractions, the Disneyland band, a movie theater, shooting gallery, a horse car, musical revue and the Castle. But for a 1950s audience, the park was like opening a play chest full of costumes, props and toys. What kid in that era didn’t want to pretend to be a heroic Davy Crockett fighting Indians or an adventurous explorer discovering the unknowns of the deep jungle, fly like Peter Pan or Dumbo or drive a car. Adults could happily ride with their kids and then the kids could join their parents in experiencing idealized versions of the past by riding a steam powered train, gliding on a Mississippi riverboat, relive your childhood on a magnificently restored 19th century carousel where every horse was a jumper or shoot like a western marksman.

With the introduction of the Matterhorn in 1959 Disney introduced the first themed, steel roller coaster to the theme park world. But Walt, who had wanted a Disneyland coaster matterhorn 1959from the start, still managed to have his cake and ate it too. The Matterhorn’s tubuler track and nylon wheels combined with reaching a height of only 80 feet (modern coasters go well over 255 feet) made for the kind of family friendly attraction that fit, what he believed, (and magically seemed to know) his guests wanted. While the theming and zooming in and out of the mountain make for a highly stylized view of the Iconic European Alps, it was a departure from what most 50s Americans would have imagined they might ever do.

Alice8-58The family friendly, imaginative play theme continued through Walt’s lifetime with the additions of Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Alice in Wonderland and the Sailing Ship Columbia, peaking perhaps, in the early 60s. Walt began to take advantage of technological advancements accelerated by WED’s work for the 1964 NY World’s Fair. (See my posts Walt Disney Goes to the Fair and Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event for more Disney Fair info) And we can see Walt’s attention turning more toward the future as guests were treated to a new form of transportation when the Disneyland Monorail took off in 1959. Even today, many visitors (and the Disney Company) consider the Monorail an attraction.

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VP Nixon & family help Walt Disney dedicate the Monorail at Disneyland June 1959.

Aside from the Monorail, the rest of attractions which Disney had direct input into: Enchanted Tiki Room; The Disneyland Story presenting Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln; It’s a Small World; and finally Pirates of the Caribbean, all could and still are enjoyed by all guests, from the oldest to the youngest. Pacific island theming was very hot in the 60s, with tiki bars serving Mai Tais everywhere and Hawaiian shirts in every man’s closet. Perhaps more than previous attractions, music now played an important part in the overall design as Walt continued to create a movie-like experience for guests.

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In the decades after Walt’s death Walt Disney World opened and the attractions at the two U.S. parks haven’t always matched. But, in general, attractions like Space Mountain, Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure/Dinosaur, Splash Mountain, as well as the newer Soarin’ versions, in my opinion, demonstrate an approach which is still steeped in Imagineering theming and storytelling. But the emphasis is on thrills and a more immersive feel with little room for individual imagination. We experience the attractions without necessarily having to use our own imaginations to be entertained. In some cases it’s all about the thrills, in attractions like Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest and California Screamin’. Theme parks and amusement parks continue to up the ante on thrill rides, so, it follows, that in order to keep customers who want to feel an adrenaline rush, Disney had to offer those options to their guests.

Family style entertainment still has a place in the U.S. theme parks, plussed (Disney style enhancement) by 3D projections in attractions like Muppetvision and Toy Story Midway Mania. Sometimes 3D is combined with other sensory surprises found in Mickey’s Philharmagic and It’s Tough to be a Bug. Animatonics have seen their share of added pizazz  through computer animation seen in Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Radiator Springs Racers.

avatar bustFinally, with the opening of Pandora and the imminent unveiling of Star Wars Land, Disney is taking theming to new levels of immersiveness. Not only are there new attractions in these mini-parks, but, instead of just entering into the story of the attraction starting at the queue, we are plunged into that story from the moment we enter the Land. The theming encompasses everything around the visitor, food, costuming, and, in the case of Pandora, flora. During the Star Wars Land announcement at the 2015 D23 Expo, Bob Iger joked that they were looking for future park employees who could speak a variety of alien languages. I’ll bet that if it were possible, Disney would be all in.

It’s my opinion that Disney keeps an ear to the ground, listening for changes in theme park entertainment to compete with other park operators.  But, they also have an eye on a public that demands more thrills and expects technology to play more than a supporting role in attractions. With the commercial availability of virtual reality gear, it may only be a matter of time before we’re all strapping on goggles and headsets for future attractions.

As the U.S. Disney parks continue to grow and change, we still see the spirit of Walt’s family oriented approach in rides like Toy Story Midway Mania, the upcoming Toy Story Land, Voyage of the Little Mermaid and the continued popularity of attractions like Small World and Peter Pan’s Flight. Not everyone can take advantage of every attraction anymore. But that doesn’t mean adults or children have to sit on a bench and watch. There’s more than enough to keep everyone happy and entertained during a vacation stay.

I don’t like to refer to audience sophistication, because, in the end we all want to be entertained, whether through thrills, scares, laughs or surprises. But because we have so much entertainment, literally, at our fingertips, Disney has had to meet our expanded expectations. And we always want more. How many of you don’t think twice about seeing a movie in 3D? How many of you have young children who turn up their noses at the carousel or Dumbo?

My children loved to play pretend, using their imaginations to turn their bedroom into a Buzz Lightyear rocket ship or do the twilight bark with their stuffed animals. And Walt certainly gave those early Disneyland visitors the same opportunity, albeit, with a little more pizazz. I think flexing our imaginations and dreaming helped create generations of inventors, strivers and dreamers that built companies like IBM, Ford, Apple and Google and made our country the envy of the world. I hope that having our entertainment fed to us rather than having to work for it a little will not lead us to be a country that sits and waits for things to happen instead of making magic.

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You’re Not a Villain if you take a Disney Vacation

mrtoad_detailI was in a restaurant the other day for the first time and on the inside cover of their wine list was an explanation for their approach to wine offerings. It begins with the following: “Ever been to Disneyland? Welcome to our version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (or splash and swirl mountain, if you prefer)”. A little further along, they talk about changing the way traditional wine lists are formatted. Toward the end of the page, they finish with “Remember, it’s just like Disneyland (without the long lines)”. On the one hand, the restaurant clearly wants its wine list seen as singularly inventive, ground breaking, fun and memorable, the waywalt watching painter many people viewed Disneyland. Whoever wrote this was a Mr. Toad fan, so probably someone who likes Disney theme parks enough to pick an attraction that had a large fan base. But, then after some explanation about how make the best use of the list, including some tips (take a look at it before coming in, ask the server for recommendations, let the server choose for you, or forget the wine and order scotch), the writer felt it necessary to cover the other half of the world’s view of the Happiest place on Earth, by making references to attraction lines. If you read my post What’s with you and the Disney Thing?, I’d say the writer has not come to terms with his or her inner Disney fan.

castle costWhen I hear other people talk about their Disney theme park vacations, some of the first comments they often make are related to three different complaints. First up is “It’s so expensive” (often followed by a “you know what I mean” look or a sigh). I’ll admit, a Disney theme park vacation is not going to be cheap. I do, however, believe one should think in terms of what value for your money. Even If you don’t stay at a hotel on the Disney property, you are getting an extremely immersive experience chock full of just about every vacation option you can think of, (with the exception of the actual ocean), all as close a short car or bus ride.  Here in NY a movie ticket will cost me $13 for about 2 hours of entertainment, including endless previews, commercials, not including snacks, A ticket to the Bronx Zoo is $37 and is limited to walking and watching the animals. I’ll let you do the math. And that doesn’t include all of the free activities that you can take advantage of once you are inside the park.

Wherever you roam within a Disney theme park, you can be assured of a consistently high quality of customer experience. There’s no surprise when playing round of miniature golf that the course will be clean, well managed and, of course, perfectly themed. Every interaction whether it’s an attraction that starts with a themed, often, covered queue or a restaurant, perhaps with characters, or character meet and greets, is handled with the highest quality and attention to detail. As the inventor of the modern7-guest-service-guidelines theme park, Walt always insisted on the highest levels of customer service at Disneyland. It all started with calling the employees Cast Members. Walt believed that a theme park visit should feel like going to a show or a movie. Once a Cast Member is “on stage” each guest interaction is handled with a smile and an honest desire to add to the your vacation’s enjoyment. That tradition continues today. Every time you interact with a cast member, you’re not only treated like a valued customer, but made to feel you are somehow special. Many of us have experienced an unexpected magical moment, like a fastpass, a free pin or help finding a lost item.

06_ParksBlog_BigTop_MerchDisplaySecond complaint is that Disney is too commercial and geared towards kids. Let’s put that first part into context. Every vacation spot in the world is a commercial undertaking. If, by commercial, those people mean that it’s all about Disney. Well, yes, it is. That’s why people would go to Disney parks, instead of some other vacation option. And, having souvenirs with those much loved characters is no different than being upsold a scuba excursion or Hawaiian Luau. And unless you’ve been kidnapped, blindfolded and released without your consent into Disneyland, I don’t think I’ve seen too many unhappy adults at Disney parks. (Unless they are they proud parents of an over tired, over stimulated child who should have been given a rest earlier in the day). Even if you’ve never seen a Disney movie, there’s plenty to enjoy that’s geared aswalt watching painter much for adults as it is for kids. You can play golf, laze about in a water park, be pampered at a Disney hotel or enjoy a world class meal. In addition, there is a growing number of rides that have height restrictions and are not designed for the youngest amongst us.

The restaurant’s wine list comment about the lines is the third most related complaint in my unofficial survey. I sympathize with those who spend the bettecastle fireworksr part of their Disney theme park vacation on line. However, I believe some flexibility and planning can do a lot to reduce the waits while improving the overall quality of one’s Disney vacation experience. Anyone who books a Disney vacation during a peak attendance period, should be resigned to some lines. If you can avoid those times (there is plenty of advice and statistical analysis on expected crowds across the many Disney fan sites), then, by all means, pick a less obviously busy day or days. Expecting an empty park during school Easter break or between Christmas and New Year’s is like expecting a private showing of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center any day in December.

Even if you can’t or can go any other time, I find it rather amazing that many of the same people who complain about costs for Disney vacations, do little or no planning. People will scour the internet for the cheapest airfares, hotels and rental cars. But not doing any planning at all for your time in Parks is just asking for lots of waiting, extra walking, planning-ecardmissed experiences and an overall cranky group of people. If you don’t want to do the planning, there are websites that will help you do it. Some will even ask the age range of the people in your group, whether you want to minimize walking or waiting, hours you want to spend in the park and will consider historical crowd levels to give you a good chance of having an extremely enjoyable time. You can even build in breaks, meals and other special Disney park experiences like parades and fireworks. And there are many well reviewed travel agencies that specialize in planning and arranging Disney vacations from the parks to cruises to Disney adventures. So, don’t stop your planning at plane fare and insure that your hard-earned dollars translate in a vacation that you don’t regret taking.

A Disney vacation is not everyone’s cup of un-birthday tea. Just as climbing Everest or a week of some city’s oldest churches is not going to be at the top of everyone’s list for leisure activity.  Sure, there might be situations where you might not get the best spot for watching a parade, the highly prized meal at Be Our Guest might elude you or keeping everyone in your group happy means that you don’t get a second ride on Splash Mountain. And there are some extras that are beyond many people’s budgets, like the Chef’s Table at the Napa Rose. But, there are so many other options, I defy anyone to say that there aren’t enough options to make your vacation fun and leave you feeling you’ve gotten good value for your money. With some planning, some thought about what’s most important to you and a little flexibility you’ll not only have a great time, but also experience the unexpected magical pixie dust that makes you feel like you too can fly.

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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

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 .

wdwresortmap

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.

walt_disney__s_original_epcot_by_nhojsenrab-d537mt8-750

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.

Green belt 750

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.

industrial_complex_bw-750

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)

Testing the Disney Magic, Part 2

In my previous post, Testing the Magic Part 1, I explained my challenge to the Disney Company. Unable to go to the theme parks, could I still get my Disney magic fix by only going to WDW resorts and having dinner? So in the final analysis, how well did the Disney magic hold during these visits to Disney Resorts and Restaurants?

On the plus side:

  • The high quality Disney service was no different. From the gate security to the front desk personnel who answered our questions we felt very well taken care of.
  • There was plenty to entertain us in all 3 locations. A ride on the Monorail got us pretty close to the action. And there’s very little that can beat seeing African animals up close (if you get the chance, check out the night vision glasses option near the pool). And you’d be amazed what a pleasure it is to take a boat ride from the Boardwalk to the Yacht and Beach Clubs on a warm evening and wander through the resorts without feeling rushed to be somewhere. Finally, watching Disney fireworks is always a treat. Nobody does it better night after night. WDW Monorail
  • Having a car means no complex combinations of busses and Monorails to get from resort to resort.
  • From the time we entered the resort until we left; there was no question we were in WDW. Theming, cleanliness, music and atmosphere were all around us.
  • Resort specific and Disney World souvenirs can be had at Resort gift shops. You can still take home a piece of WDW, and some of the items can only be found in the resorts.Wishes from Poly
  • Since we were not exhausted from a day of attraction hopping, we could relax, enjoy our meal and take in our surroundings.
  • We could explore and enjoy Deluxe Resorts even if we didn’t or couldn’t to pay the price

 

On the minus side:

  • Disney has homogenized some of its menu items. For example, we noticed that the special cocktail menu was the same at all the restaurants, even the bar at AKL. Part of the fun of trying different restaurants was having the whole experience be unique to the location.
  • There are many great restaurants that require a park admission to enjoy.Skinny-Mojito-and-Mojito-600x461
  • Unless we wanted to pay a high taxi fare, a car was required.
  • As with all offsite hotels, the magic ended when we left the Resort or restaurant.
  • There’s so much fun food not found in the Resort restaurants like Turkey legs.  Dole Whips can only be found at the Poly. You’ll only find fancy caramel apples in the Magic Kingdom and  hand dipped ice cream sandwiches are only available at Beaches and Cream. You won’t see a giant cinnamon rolls unless you’re in AK and there, no real exotic choices like Restaurant Marakesh or Akershus or experiences like the Living Seas or San Angel Inn.
  • Some rain forced us to find cover just before Wishes started. Fortunately, it stopped long enough for us to find a good spot to sit. And For some reason, we could not hear the Wishes soundtrack from the Beach at the Polynesian. It did detract from the experience, but I would still do it again.

Over all I think Walt would be pleased at how welcome we felt at WDW, even outside the parks. One of his biggest regrets when building Disneyland was not having any control over what the “neighborhood” became once you left the park.  He said he was planning WDW because he wanted to do it better. Better is a relative term and Walt set a very high standard for himself and his projects.  He carried over all of the good he achieved with Disneyland, but was able to take advantage of WDW’s size to create a cushion of magic around the theme parks in the form of shopping and resorts. There’s a smile on every Cast Members face and they go out of their way to make your “stay” enjoyable. We were never once asked if we were staying at the resort. A lot has been written about how the Disney parks were (are?) different than anything the public had experienced. Walt himself said he was creating a different kind of entertainment. The Disney Company continues to fulfill the promise of Walt’s entertainment vision, without becoming a stale money making machine. Don’t get me wrong, it makes a lot of money. But in the final analysis, I’d say that even a trip like this seemed to make it easier to part with my money without feeling ripped off.

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