E.P.C.O.T. - Walt Disney’s City of Tomorrow.E.P.C.O.T. - Walt Disney’s City of Tomorrow.
A/N: Following the immeasurable amount of fun I had researching Michael Eisner during my gap year, I wanted to write about another part of Disney history. I wanted to revisit the original Epcot. This is what I came up with.
It’s 1959 in Burbank, California. Lawyers and Real Estate experts are analysing the East Coast for a suitable plot of land for the second Disneyland. Just four years earlier, the [then] biggest risk in American Entertainment paid off, barely. Disneyland as a concept was always difficult to prove as a success. Nobody realised that the man behind it all would have bigger ambitions.
Project X, as it was then called, was the plan for the east coast Disneyland. Disney began purchasing land with the use of dummy corporations to maintain anonymity and more importantly, to keep land-owners from ramping up prices. 42 square miles of land was purchased in total. All of which between the cities of Orlando and Kissimmee strategically chosen close to the then-under-construction I-4. It wasn’t until the Orlando Sentinel started giving weight to rumours that the public was aware that it was Walt Disney buying the land. Famously at Disneyland’s 10th Anniversary, Sentinel reporter Emily Bavar asked Walt whether he was buying the land, his reaction to the question was “like someone threw a bucket of cold water at his face.” He dodged the question and the Sentinel later ran a headline story that Disney was indeed the purchaser of the land. Disney had no choice but to confirm it, via the state governor, the following Monday.
It’s important to remember that Walt Disney was, above all else, an innovator. He would never simply repeat something he’s done in the past. Project X would need to be different. Walt was already the biggest innovator in the US at the time, but nobody would expect a leap as big as the one he was about to take.
On a scrap piece of paper, Walt drew a master plan. It looks like doodling, but when paying closer attention, he marked out the land he owned, the theme park (what we know now as Disney’s Magic Kingdom), an airport, housing, transport systems and more. Walt was building a city. Progress City was in motion. Disney and the WED Imagineers began fleshing the idea out. Concept art, maps, building schematics and models were created. This was a vision, not only of a city but a community. It would change the way we work, travel and live day-to-day. The name even changed, it would be called E.P.C.O.T. - Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Walt envisioned E.P.C.O.T. to be a showcase to the world’s cities. An example of what life could be like.
At the heart of the city would be an urban centre. It was a vast 4-storey building with office space, and an international shopping complex (which was designed in a similar way to the World Showcase at the Epcot we know today). But on top of this mammoth of a building would be a 30-storey hotel and conference centre. Not only providing accommodation to tourists but acting as a large employer.
Following the Urban Centre would be the High-Density Housing. There’d be only a few tower blocks at first, providing enough accommodation for the employees of the Urban Centre and the Disney World Theme Park and its hotels.
Surrounding the High-Density Housing would be the Green Belt and Low-Density Housing. In the green-belt would be schools, places of worship, hospitals and other public services. This meant low-density housing would be in close enough proximity towards what the citizens of E.P.C.O.T. would view as essential.
The Industrial Area, above all, was designed to show off to the world what E.P.C.O.T. was working on. Major players in American Industry would have factories, labs and plants here. It was Walt’s aim to persuade them to base R+D in his city and to have companies open up to the public to inspire the inventors of the future. It was a way of trying to make progress faster, not just at E.P.C.O.T. but every city in the world.
Of course, this is no small village. Transport systems were needed. This was no problem for WED, they had already developed/were developing the Skyway fortheMagic Kingdom, the Disneyland Monorail and the Tomorrowland PeopleMover. A monorail would cover the entire property from the Theme Park at the north to the airport on the south. There’d be a PeopleMover system to transport people from their homes and take them straight to the Urban Centre. It was a sustainable way of getting people around quickly and safely. There’d still be roads for cargo and people travelling in and out of town, but the public transport infrastructure would be more than sufficient for most citizens.
Guests who visit the city would enter by plane or car at the far South. They’d be greeted by a host who’d plan every aspect of their trip, from when they’d go to the theme park, so when they’d visit the industrial area and everything in between. They’d have a choice of accommodation. Because this was the late 60s, there were motels for people staying for a short time. The main hotel was the Cosmopolitan in the Urban Centre. But for those looking for the Disney experience, there were several themed hotels surrounding the theme park. Starting with The Polynesian and The Contemporary.
The question that needs to be asked is - would it have worked? When looking at it, I’d consider two major factors. Resource and Leadership.
The former is important because WED was looking to build a functioning city from scratch. Something which had (and still hasn’t) been done before. Where would Disney find enough building materials for a project this scale and how can an (at the time) medium-sized Film production company afford to construct it? Of course, it could be done in stages, starting with the Industrial Area, Theme Park and H-D Housing. But that would mean that the government of E.P.C.O.T. would have to rely heavily on R+D and Theme Park tickets to raise the funds for the city - which is far from sustainable.
On the other hand, Disney had the leadership with Walt until he died in 1966. It’s universally agreed that it would’ve been impossible to proceed without his input. Walt would’ve convinced corporations to support him like he did with Disneyland and the 1964 World’s Fair. He’d get public interest through his television and public persona. Roy O. Disney certainly never had that, nor did Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller.
E.P.C.O.T. as an idea and philosophy works better than it would as a functioning city. I can’t say that even with Walt it could pay off. The Epcot that opened in 1982 embodies everything Walt set out to achieve. It set out to educate, to make people curious and to show off culture. For more than 100m people, it did just that. Even though it’s not what he wanted, you can’t help but think Walt would be proud of that.