Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Disney World Trip: EPCOT Is Neither

My wife and I are taking our young daughter to Disney World in Florida for a family vacation later this week. I haven't been there myself for over 25 years.

My own parents took my sister and I to Disney World when we were kids, around 1980 or so, before EPCOT was even open. While we were there, they arranged for me to participate in a special program sponsored by Disney World for "aspiring young artists," the centerpiece of which was a behind-the-scenes tour of the park. Part of this tour was a van trip out to the muddy construction site that was to become EPCOT. I'd never heard of it before. An official-looking man in a hard hat began explaining what EPCOT was all about, while gesturing to various spots on this huge architects' model before him. I left impressed, but also totally confused. What was EPCOT? I remembered him saying it was an acronym for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tommorow." But then he launched enthusiastically into a spiel about living in space in the future. And then something else about growing plants in water, and the potential of solar power. And then there was something else entirely about exhibits featuring different cultures of the world. None of it seemed to go together to me. And why was it called a "community"? There didn't seem to be any plans for anyone to live there. It was just another theme park.

I learned only today that my childhood confusion was actually a reflection of the somewhat schizophrenic evolution of the project, from Walt Disney's 1960s pet concept to a real, multi-million dollar theme park in the 1980s. Walt Disney himself initially envisioned EPCOT not as a theme park at all, but rather as a real, working community of 20,000 people that would serve as a model of happy modern living (and advanced urban planning) for the rest of the world. Though his vision of a "utopia" was both of it's time and of the man, a man notorious after death for driving his employees hard while paying them poorly and ruling his company with an iron fist at odds with his smiling, grandfatherly public persona. ("It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT, there will be no slum areas because we won't let them develop. There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them, and at modest rentals. There will be no retirees; everyone must be employed.") No retirement? Does that sounds like utopia to you?
He even bought huge tracts of land in Florida for EPCOT. But the State refused to allow him to build it until after he had finished his grand theme park and tourist mecca, the Walt Disney World Resort. Walt Disney himself died before construction on Disney World was completed, after which the Walt Disney Company unceremoniously abandoned his EPCOT idea. But it was revived again in the 1970s, albeit in a heavily modified way. It was now to be a companion theme park to Disney World, not a model utopia. Some in the company wanted this new EPCOT to focus on cutting edge technology. Others wanted it to be a showpiece of different world cultures. Ultimately these two entirely different visions were simply pushed together, and EPCOT as it became in reality was finally formed.

EPCOT first opened in October 1982. Embedded below is a 4 minute promotional film from the 1960s wherein Walt Disney himself discusses his original plans for EPCOT. ("A showcase to the world of the American free enterprise system....First the area of business and commerce. Then the high density apartment housing....")

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