“I don’t believe there’s a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities. But where do we begin… how do we start answering this great challenge?” -Walt Disney
Contrary to what many people think, Walt Disney’s EPCOT was never meant to be a theme park. It was Walt’s dream to build a new city; a working, thriving, environmentally-advanced community where 20,000 people would live and work. It was created to be a multi-level community with electric transportation serving as the primary mode of transport to and from work, shopping, school, church and recreation. Walt planned for EPCOT to be a healthy, thriving prototype city — and the hub of Disney World — with the intent that when people visited, they would see how efficient and wonderful a working community such as this could be.
Unfortunately, Walt’s EPCOT was never realized because funding and permission to start work on his Florida property wouldn’t be granted until he agreed to build the Magic Kingdom first. Walt died before the Magic Kingdom opened and the Walt Disney Company decided not to take on such a huge undertaking as running a city. Although Walt’s EPCOT was never developed, his ideas for this Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow were phenomenal in my opinion and I wanted to share them with you today.
In trying to figure out Walt’s motivation for beginning the idea of EPCOT, I have formed the opinion that much of his motivation was related to family. In the early 1960s, Walt was enjoying the experience of watching his grandchildren grow up. He began to worry, though, about what kind of world they would inherit. It was obvious how America’s neighborhoods were becoming hectic, dirty and more dangerous. This was highly contrary to Walt’s perfect world at Disneyland, where everything was controlled and remained clean, happy and safe. Walt wanted to expand this successful idea.
Walt did not only care about building a model city, he also researched building better, more efficient housing. He really cared about this and I have to wonder if it was for very personal reasons. As most of you probably know, Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, had a home built for their parents near the Disney Studios in Burbank as soon as they realized the large profits made from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They were so happy to do that for their parents. Unfortunately, faulty construction of the gas furnace, coupled with unsuccessful attempts by Studio technicians to repair the problems, would take the life of Walt’s mother, Flora, less than a month later when she died of asphyxiation caused by the faulty furnace. I can’t imagine the heartbreak one must feel having experienced such a tragedy. When I was growing up it was always my dream to grow up to have lots of money and buy my parents a new home. I am sure that many people have had the same dream and Walt was actually able to make his dream come true, only to feel the devastation of losing his mother because of it. Please know that I state these sensitive personal facts with the utmost respect, I do not presume to know what Walt felt in his heart nor thought in his mind, I only know how I would have felt. From all I have read, Walt would never talk about it. Still, I have to wonder if this weighing on his mind was one of the reasons he devoted so much time to studying about better ways of doing things, like building homes with the most advanced energy sources thus bypassing heating systems with any danger of carbon monoxide, when he developed his idea of a brand new community.
Forward twenty-plus years, when Disneyland was thriving, Walt began reading a lot about planning and development of communities. He also surrounded himself with Imagineers and engineering experts to try to build a better city. In fact, during his final trip with his family on the cruise for he and Lily’s 41st anniversary, Walt studied materials on urban planning. Two of these such publications were the book entitled, “The Heart of Our Cities” by Victor Gruen (published in 1964) and the May 1960 Horizon Magazine article, “Out of a Fair, A City” by Ada Louise Huxtable.
Walt had a very clear vision for EPCOT. It would be built in the shape of a circle (in a hub and spoke pattern). In the center, there would be businesses and commercial areas where its citizens worked, as well as schools, churches and recreational complexes around it. Residential neighborhoods would be along the perimeter. Transportation would be provided by WEDway people-movers and monorails. Automobile traffic would be kept underground, leaving pedestrians safe above-ground. Walt described the community in detail: there would be no slums because he wouldn’t allow them to develop; there would be no land owners and, thus, no voting control; people would be renting houses rather than buying them and he would make sure the rent was moderately priced; there would be no retirees because everyone who lived in EPCOT was expected to work to keep it alive; it would be a glass-domed city with perfect weather conditions at all times; there would be no car-clogged streets, no traffic jams, no traffic cops, no traffic lights and no traffic.
Walt Disney made presentations for the Florida legislators when he was trying to acquire permission to build his Disney World. I found these videos from freedogshampoo on YouTube entitled “Walt Disney’s Original Plan for EPCOT – Part 2” and “Walt Disney’s Original Plan for EPCOT – Part 3,” and they are so interesting I had to share them. I hope you will watch them too as his vision will blow you away. Especially interesting are the demonstrations from time mark 3:50 on in Part 2, as well as all of Part 3. I hope you will find his plans as fascinating as I did. It is amazing to me what Walt the visionary was able to see in his mind in the early 1960s when what today might be possible was completely unfathomable by most back then.
Walt’s EPCOT was designed to stimulate American corporations to come up with new ideas for urban living. Walt was quoted as saying, “EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are emerging from the forefront of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed. It will always be showcasing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems.”
I wonder what the world would be like now if Walt’s vision of EPCOT had been realized. I wonder if the idea would have spread to the cities in which you and I live. I wonder if there is anyone on Earth who could accomplish such a feat besides Walt. Somehow, I doubt it.