EPCOT and the Heart of Our Cities – Part Two

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Features, Samland

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Published on January 22, 2014 at 2:00 am with 9 Comments

Join us for Part Two of SAMLAND’s look at Walt Disney’s original plans for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow or EPCOT for short. Before continuing on to Part Two below, please read Part One EPCOT and the Heart of our Cities (if you haven’t already done so).

As the book, The Heart of Our Cities opens, we find Victor Gruen on a trans-Atlantic cruise. He was reflecting upon the fate of our cities. Gruen noticed that a cruise ship is a city with everything planned with an emphasis on function, comfort, and convenience.


As Gruen suggests, “One of the primary purposes for a city is to bring together many people so that, through direct communication with each other, they may exchange goods and ideas without undue loss of energy and time.” Walt wanted to take this idea one step further. At EPCOT guests would be invited to participate in his experimental community and to take the lessons learned back home with them.

Gruen said a city that is functioning properly gives one “free choice” to be “sociable” or to be private. To express your “human gregariousness” while meeting others or “the chance to disappear.” This is the freedom granted to everyone visiting the theme parks. How else can you explain people wearing silly hats?

To illustrate the cellular concept, Gruen compares a city to the human body. In a human, a healthy heart is one that shows high cardiac output. For a city, the central business district is the heart and it must demonstrate “high vitality”. Vitality is measured by the ability of primary functions to perform successfully and without strain.

A healthy city is one with an “infinite variety whose buildings and structures form, between them, spaces of differing size and character, narrow or broad, serene or dynamic, modest or monumental, contrasting with each other by virtue of varied treatment of pavement, landscaping, and lighting.”


The only way to achieve “high vitality” is to ensure that the secondary or “utilitarian” functions are also working well. These utilitarian functions include sewer systems, the telecommunications networks, our power supply, and our transportation systems.

In EPCOT, the central business district would be oriented toward the needs and scale of the pedestrian and feature a signature hotel, convention facilities, shops, restaurants, and Disney-style attractions. All public areas would be highly detailed and heavily themed. New Orleans Square in Disneyland may have set the standard for Disney design. Like the theme parks, all secondary functions were going to be hidden from the public’s view.


Two ways to objectively measure the success of urban spaces is to use what Gruen described as “Appearance” and “Atmosphere”. Appearance is the “sum total of the physical and psychological influence of an environment on human beings.” Atmosphere is the “small-grained variety and diversity” that elevates a space from acceptable to exceptional.

To measure Appearance, note the “degree [you] feel enabled to live undisturbed, unmolested, and free of interference.” As you move through a space, pay attention to how comfortable you are, how you feel, and are you being inspired.

Atmosphere is about function. As noted author Jane Jacobs said, the “main purpose is to enliven the streets with variety and detail.” She adds, “The whole point is to make the streets more surprising, more compact, more variegated and busier than before – not less so.” Atmosphere does not come about because of showy architectural statements. Architect Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details” and for many, this is what is referred to as the “Disney difference”.

EPCOT was going to be built on undeveloped land so Walt was able to avoid one hurdle facing modern cities, which was incompatible adjacent land uses. For example, Main Street USA represents an idyllic town around the turn of the last century. Everything is clean and in its place. The reality was cities at that time were rather brutal places. People used to live next door to stockyards and factories.

So in 1916 the City of New York enacted the first zoning code with the objective to create a separation between incompatible uses. Often the unintended consequence of these land use regulations is to create lifeless cities where the uses are so widespread that they are connected only by getting into your car and driving from one pod to another. Both Walt and Gruen knew this had the effect of sapping the vitality out of our city centers.


At EPCOT, the industrial areas would be located in their own pod and connected by the monorail. Walt and Gruen were strong advocates for separating all mechanical and utilitarian functions away from the public realm. As he had done with other projects, Gruen proposed placing the Fair’s truck traffic and utilities underground and building the show buildings on the second level. Walt would propose the same idea for EPCOT and it would finally be tested at the Magic Kingdom.

Using Disney nomenclature, Walt called the public realm “onstage” where Appearance and Atmosphere would create a seamless show. Hidden “backstage” are the utilitarian functions, away from the guests.

Gruen was frustrated by the lack of progress in the development of new public transportation technologies. He commented that millions of people go to Disneyland to ride a monorail that is being promoted as the transportation system of the future but the technology had been around since the 1890s. Solving the mobility problem is where Walt would make major improvements upon Gruen’s design. Transportation systems are one of Walt’s passions and specialties. For EPCOT, he proposed to use monorails, PeopleMovers, and electric vehicles to move people around.


How we move people and goods around has a huge influence on the design and function of our cities. A vibrant urban space must have the right balance between pedestrian spaces, buildings, private open spaces, access, and the appropriate transportation systems. Many downtowns suffer because the balance is out of whack and too much land is given over to the private automobile and not enough land is dedicated to people.

Gruen’s solution was to align transportation technologies along a scale of gradation of movement. At each increment, there are certain transportation systems that can enhance the pedestrian experience or make you feel miserable. If the match is done right, the environment will “promise comfort, convenience, and calculated visual pleasure.” You will enjoy a positive experience. If the match is not right, the environment will feel unsafe and you will be on edge. You might say it is the difference between walking in a theme park and walking through the parking lot on the way to the theme park.

In reviewing drawings of EPCOT, I used Gruen’s scale of gradation of movement and I learned a great deal about what life in the city would have been like. In Gruen’s book, he provides many suggestions on how to mix uses, preserve the integrity of the public realm, and hide the vital services that keep the community alive.

Another breakthrough in my research came when I interviewed Harrison “Buzz” Price. Buzz worked on feasibility studies for the project. He was able to provide firsthand confirmation on project details and the application of these urban design principles.


Buzz said it all begins at the center. At the heart of EPCOT would be a world-class resort hotel with conference facilities combined with the transportation center. This combination would create a critical mass of activity that would energize the edge uses.


Starting from the hotel and transportation center, and radiating out toward the edge, is what Gruen calls a Pedshed. A Pedshed is the “desirable walking distance” that a lazy walker, on a one-purpose trip without interruption, will walk. If the walker can sit, shop or eat, it distracts them and they can go longer distances. The length of a Pedshed is determined by Appearance and Atmosphere, as well as climate and topography.

EPCOT would have a large Pedshed because of the highly attractive and completely weather-protected environment. A typical guest would easily walk up to one mile or 20 minutes with these conditions. Imagine a network of storefronts like New Orleans Square in Disneyland or the international pavilions at Epcot under one roof to distract the guests.

The theme parks are within the next gradient of the scale. A guest will walk up to a half-mile or ten minutes if you provide a highly attractive environment where the sidewalks are protected from sunshine and rain.


Next, we have the conditions found in many cities. If the central business district is attractive but not protected from the weather and people are exposed to the elements this limits the desirable walking range to less than a quarter of a mile or five minutes of walking. Degrade the environment even further with unattractive spaces like parking lots, garages, or a traffic-congested street, and you limit your range to only 600 feet or two minutes of walking.

Within the Pedshed, Gruen suggested slow moving people carriers like moving sidewalks. Walt’s solution to extend the Pedshed at Disneyland and enhance the guest experience was to use horse-trolleys, fire trucks, the omnibus, and other vehicles.

The common perception was EPCOT would be a city under a dome. This seemed very ambitious and would be very expensive. According to Buzz Price, the actual architecture was going to be much more conventional and predictable. At the center, the transportation center and hotel would be connected to the themed retail and dining districts by a covered pedestrian boulevard. Each highly detailed facade disguises an ordinary industrial building. Once again, think of New Orleans Square in Disneyland.

Once guests pass through the retail areas they will come to another pedestrian boulevard, which connects to the high-density residential apartments. The apartments are typical structures but residents would have been given a choice of views. They could look down at the indoor pedestrian boulevard or outside to a greenbelt that separates the central city from the low-density neighborhoods.

Gruen struggled with a way to move people between one to two miles and that is the next link in the scale of gradation of movement. For many, this is too far to walk but it is an inefficient trip in a car. He recommended electric mini-buses and taxis. Instead, Walt would use his PeopleMover to connect the hotel complex and transit center to the residential areas. Another benefit would be the overhead PeopleMover tracks could define the edges of the themed retail districts.


For trips of two to five miles you need different transportation technologies. Gruen liked fixed rail systems and larger buses. Walt preferred the monorail. His system would run north to south to include the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, the Industrial district, the gateway transportation center, and the jetport. The monorail is perfectly suited for this challenge.

Gruen continues with recommendations for longer distances. During the planning for EPCOT, the focus was on automobiles, buses, and airplanes. Motorized traffic would have been diverted below EPCOT, out of view of the residents and visitors.

Continental and intercontinental visitors would typically arrive by airplane. One of the most unusual ideas proposed for EPCOT was Walt’s proposal for a radial jetport. This unique configuration for the terminal promised greater efficiency in moving planes in and out of the terminals.

Interestingly, Walt Disney World was on the leading edge of air transportation technology with its STOLport. STOL is an acronym for Short Take-Off and Landings. Walt Disney World’s STOLport was part of a regional network. For a short while, Shawnee Airlines operated a 19-seat de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft with service between Walt Disney World and the Orlando International Airport. The runway still exists today but it is no longer used as an airport.


One sharp contrast between Gruen and Walt was the outer core of residential units. Gruen stated that “the space-devouring detached single home was not considered as suitable” and he was an advocate of clustered attached homes that shared common open space. Walt was not convinced and showed suburban-style single-family residential units. Buzz Price confided that, “Walt wanted a place for his friends to live.”

The Gruen plan for his post-fair city contained enough detail to convince the Washington DC executives to back his proposal. He did a lot of work on the development of data tables that help determine appropriate residential densities from the core to the outer edges of the community.

So I come back to my initial question; would EPCOT have worked?

During my conversation with Buzz, I asked him if the project would have worked. After all, nobody else alive today knew as much about the EPCOT project. He was in the room with Walt. Without hesitation he said, “Absolutely yes”. Buzz added, “Walt would obsess over a problem”. He reminded me that EPCOT was not revolutionary but evolutionary. Walt was going to use true and tried architectural technologies, creatively blend the land uses, arrange them in a way where the hotel and day guests are coming from one direction and they would meet the residents coming from another direction. Everyone would interact in a beautiful, comfortable, and inspiring public setting.

Buzz concluded by saying that, “EPCOT would have been more famous than Walt Disney World”.

The article above is based upon a segment Sam Gennawey contributed to a new book on the subject of Disney World. ”Four Decades of Magic: Celebrating the First Forty Years of Disney World“.


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About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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  • coneheads

    I too am fascinated by Walts interest in urban planning and the original EPCOT concept. However some of the ideas not really reated to infrastructure concern me about the viability of the idea. It is my understanding that there would be no ownership of apartments or even the single family homes, they would essentially be assigned according employment (station?) in the community. I suppose that means that without employment there one could not move there. I’m just not sure that would fit most Americans ideas of owning ones home and freedom to live where one wishes.

    The other issue in my mind is the idea of a technology incubator involving the cooperative efforts academia and different corporations to advance technology and quality of life. Maybe that would have worked in the fifties (although I have my doubts) todays corporations use the Art of War and Machiavelli as guidelines for business practices and the idea of cooperation among them is not realistic. Corporations may be people but they certainly aren’t citizens with common goals and desires of their fellow citizens at heart. Not to be preachy but corporations do not recognize borders or see themselves as citizens of any country

  • FerretAfros

    It’s really neat to read some high quality analysis of the EPCOT ideas from somebody that really understands planning. While I don’t think that the designs would have worked for all people, I have no doubt that it would find enough of the right people to make it a success

    I’ve always heard the Mies quote as “The devil is in the details”. I wonder where it got switched along the way

  • Klutch

    I would like to see at least some of these concepts used in future developement. I like living in the suburbs. But I hate that I must get in my car and drive to go anywhere. There’s always a big buffer between homes and places where people work.

    As much I love cars, I also like good public transportation. Too bad most public transportation focuses on moving people around within a city and not moving people from where they live to where they work. Denver actually did this with their light rail system. The ridership is far beyond any predictions. Imagine that. And, as far as I know, the dreaded fear of downtown riff-raff riding the light rail to hang out in upscale suburbs has not happened.

  • billyjobobb

    I think it’s funny that Walt was fascinated with transportation, building the monorails, etc.

    And the default transportation at Walt Disney World is a bus? Or that with all this effort put into urban planning, the resort now is so spread out? I wonder how it would have turned out had Walt been younger when he started this plan, and lived longer?

    • coneheads

      Excellent point billyjobob, the resort turned out to be pretty predictable. I would say though the original plan for resort layout was all integrated with either peoplemover or monorail. It wasn’t until many years later that the resorts saw the expansion that is still going strong and I suppose all the supporters of the original plan were long gone and the beancounters rule the Kingdom.

  • Big D

    Man, I really wish they had built this just to see how it would have worked. Maybe it would have been a spectacular failure, but I doubt it. It is definitely for a certain type of person who doesn’t care about things like owning their own home, but I would think that the kind of people Walt would have employeed to help engineer our future would be the kind of people who wouldn’t care so much about things like that. Sadly, today’s Disney will never do something like this, and we have to rely on China for this kind of innovative thinking instead (look up Masdar City which will have it’s first phase open next year).

    • jkh1978

      Isn’t Masdar City in the UAE?

  • Country Bear

    Great articles Sam. I found them interesting and enlightening.

    The dreamer in me would like to say that I think this would work. It would require unprecedented commitment from The Walt Disney Company (which it would not get at this point). But the principles are sound. There are also questions about corporate involvement (I think Coneheads comments above address it perfectly). I imagine the cost to live here would be exorbitant at best. It would likely make more sense if it was a Disney employed community and operated as more of a “company town”, which is probably not so far-fetched.

    During my last tour of the Utilidors, the cast member was asked whether Disney continues to build them in new parks and the answer was “No”. It was explained that the cost of building them is too high to justify them, and they have the land to not have to do that. I assume that’s why the current Epcot theme park has roads that connect all the buildings from behind to service them. So I can’t imagine a city the size of EPCOT being able to justify the expense of all the underground services. Heck most communities can’t even justify burying power lines, never mind roads.

    The only matter that I can not envision is the concept of shopping in the central core and not having a car to take your purchases back to your home. I can’t imagine myself with a flat screen TV or a microwave oven taking it home on a PeopleMover (as much as I would love to do that!). I think people have evolved into expectations and habits that would be hard to break at this point in time. I suppose there could be special delivery services to address that but I see an added cost and hassle/frustration for the residents in these cases.

    A very interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

    Thanks for this Sam.

    • WorldLover71

      Those of us who live in inner cities and do not have cars do this type of thing every day. There are occasions when it would be nice or convenient to have a car but most of the time it is quite easy to do without. As a general rule, people are very adaptable.