It’s a Samland double feature today. First up is the story of how Palm Beach almost became home to Disneyland East. Then we find out more about the legendary science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, and his relationship with the Walt Disney Company.
The success of Disneyland attracted all sorts of opportunities for the Disney brothers. One of the most seriously considered was The City of Tomorrow project in Palm Beach, Florida. As I write about in Walt and the Promise of Progress City, Walt was very disappointed in the way the area around Disneyland had developed. He suggested it was like a “second-rate Las Vegas” and he always wished he could have bought more land. Imagine what the area could have looked like if he had control.
Sometimes, to make a dream come true, a man needs a magical benefactor. For Walt Disney, that could have been John D. MacArthur. MacArthur was an eccentric billionaire who made his fortune in insurance. He had already purchased or optioned about 5,000 to 6,000 acres of land in Florida to the north and west Palm Beach, inland from Highway 95 that he thought would be perfect for a new city. MacArthur was able to gather together Walt, WED Enterprises, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) as part of the deal.
Walt did not want to build just another theme park. He wanted to build a “City of Tomorrow” that would feature advance concepts in architectural design, a tourist resort, and a major attraction like his theme park. According to one study, the objective was “to dramatize the impact of technology on our daily life — present and future — in a world renowned institutional and recreational showplace.”
For Walt and Roy, they needed to know if the project could attract enough people and what would be the impact on attendance at Disneyland. As always, they authorized a study. Tourism in Florida was booming in the mid-1950s. Just like California, winter and summer visitors were just about equal. This was a good thing. Other than the beaches, there was no other major attraction matching the scale of the Disney project. This would make the Palm Beach project the center of Florida tourism.
As for hurting Disneyland attendance, it is hard to imagine today just how much effort it took to travel across the country. Because of this, penetration rate was very low. By 1959, only 2.59% of the population of the continental United States had visited Southern California. Of those, half visited Disneyland. The Park was that big of a draw. It was determined that it would take 30 years to reach all of the population and was no concern that Disneyland East would have any negative attendance impacts on the original.
The theme park would have taken up 400 acres and the city of 70,000 people would take up the rest. Walt was optimistic about the project and had Imagineer Marvin Davis start to play around with master plans and concept drawings. The land use plan would integrate the residential and commercial areas and provide adequate buffers for each.
Walt flew to Florida to talk with MacArthur and they became fast friends. In Walt’s Revolution! by Harrison “Buzz” Price he recalls one particular meeting. MacArthur owned hundreds of ponds and lakes on his property and he enjoyed skinny dipping. They found one lake with crystal clear water and a white sandy beach. Walt declined to go swimming so Price took one for the team. MacArthur told them how he created the clear water and that became the technology used at the Seven Seas Lagoon to create a new lake with white sandy beaches.
Walt and MacArthur made a deal and shook hands. When Roy went to Florida to iron out the details with MacArthur’s people a major problem developed. Roy felt he needed more land and made that request during negotiations. MacArthur was offended and said to Roy, “I have to get the hell out of here or I’ll hit that goddam beagle right in the nose.”
That was not the only roadblock. The four partners could not come to a deal. RCA was coming on hard times and nobody but Walt seemed to get what they were trying to accomplish. But the seeds had been planted for a Florida resort and an experimental community of tomorrow.
Science-fiction author and futurist Ray Bradbury was one of Walt Disney’s personal friends. The two would have lunch on occasion and Walt had a chance to bounce ideas off of someone for whom he had great respect. At one point Bradbury wanted to help Walt out as he was updating Tomorrowland. At lunch with Walt one day, Ray Bradbury asked, “Walt, why don’t you hire me to come in and help you with ideas to rebuild Tomorrowland?” Walt replied, “Ray, it’s no use…you’re a genius and I’m a genius…after two weeks we’d kill each other!” Bradbury was flattered, “That’s the nicest turndown I’ve ever had, having Walt Disney call me a genius.” Bradbury never got to work on Tomorrowland.
One of my favorite essays written by Bradbury in 1988 about Disney is called Why Disney Will Live Forever. He begins with a statement that Walt made to him one day. “Nothing has to die.” After all, as Bradbury suggests, “Just rebuild it. Steamboat America, lost? Carve a river bottom, flood it, and send your Mark Twain paddle wheel down the river-way. Victorian train travel, gone? Nail up a rococo scrimshaw station, steam in the 19th-century locomotive, carry passengers from Civil War territories through African Jungles into A.D. 2000.” Nothing has to die. Just rebuild it.
Bradbury met Walt in December 1963. The two men had lunch at the Studio where Walt began to describe his thoughts about EPCOT in Florida. Both had agreed that a great deal of money and energy was wasted each time a World’s Fair ended and the temporary buildings were torn down. Why not, “On occasion, tear down the wallpaper inside and repaper with new fancies, notions, concepts, ideas dreams?”
This chance meeting is what lead to Bradbury’s first visit to WED Enterprises, the forerunner of Walt Disney Imagineering. Over his visits he came to learn about and respect the personalities that ran the place; Disney Legends John Hench and Marty Sklar. He talked of others he had met including Imagineers Tony Baxter working on a model for the Paris version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. And Harper Goff. Goff loved miniature trains and when he met Walt in a London railroad-model toy store Bradbury said Goff “saw the glazed stare of the amateur locomotive fiend” like himself. Bradbury spoke of Tom Scherman, a huge fan of Jules Verne who grew up building submarines for Disney.
On a visit to Disneyland many years later, Author Ray Bradbury saw a spire on the side of the castle that he described as “a duplicate of the convoluted and beauteous spire Viollet-le-Duc raised atop Notre-Dame 100 years ago.” Bradbury called John Hench and asked, “John, how long has Viollet-le-Duc’s spire been on the side of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle?” Hench replied, “Thirty years.” Bradbury remarked that he had never noticed it before and asked who put it there? Hench said, “Walt.” When asked why, Hench said, “Because he loved it.” Bradbury said it was “something not needed but needed, not necessary but necessary.”
The article was written prior to the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios. After looking at the artwork Bradbury declared, “Here will be Hollywood and Vine as it never was but should have been, with real movie stars on each corner.” He found it “ironic then that while the old Hollywood staggers toward a renovation that will maunder on until 2005, Disney’s Tinsel Town, for the same cost, will long since be up and operating.
He credited WED having “The Disney duchies.” Those are “Men who answer to the motto: In excellentia lucrum. In excellence is profit.” They “show up, ask for carte blanche, no interference from dreamless officials high or low, and proceed to blueprint a city and build a dream.” At the time, projects like the Houston Intercontinental Airport (now the Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport) and a master plan for the site of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Building on the bones that already exist. Nothing has to die.
Come see Sam at the Disneyana Fan Club Collector Expo in Garden Grove on February 17 from 9a to 4. He’ll be selling his book and signing autographs.
If you enjoy reading SAMLAND, you’ll love my book. Walt and the Promise of Progress City. It offers a detailed look into how Walt Disney envisioned the future of communities. Along the way, we explore many facets of a fascinating man. Plus, buying the book helps ensure that I’ll be able to continue bringing you more Samland. It’s a win/win situation.