Walt Disney's EPCOT And The Heart of Our Cities
by, 03-09-2011 at 10:56 PM
As a planning historian, I always want to learn more about what drives different projects. So I have tried to find out the design influence for Walt’s original City of Tomorrow that he was going to call EPCOT. This two part series is an excerpt from a section I wrote for “Four Decades of Magic” a collection of essays by many terrific authors about Walt Disney World.
In 1963, James Rouse, a pioneering real estate developer, when speaking at Harvard said, “If you think about Disneyland and think about its performance in relationship to its purpose, it’s meaning to people – more than that, it’s meaning to the process of development – you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States.” Rouse goes on to say that Walt Disney “took an area of activity – the amusement park – and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, in its functioning for people, that it really does become a brand new thing.”
Walt was no stranger to creating meaningful and functional places. His animated characters seem to live and breathe in believable worlds. He guided the design and development of his animation and movie studio in Burbank as well as Disneyland in Anaheim. His team explored opportunities that ranged from an indoor experience in downtown St. Louis to a mountain village retreat in Mineral King surrounded by wilderness as well as all sorts of ideas for projects on undeveloped land.
At Disneyland, Walt could control what his guests saw as they strolled through his park but he could not control the tacky urban blight that was growing up around the perimeter. Walt was not satisfied. So, like everything else he had ever done, he knew he could do it better and he took out a blank sheet of paper. He wanted to go the next step and take everything that he had learned and transform the urban experience into one of more meaning, comfort, and convenience.
And why not? Even people like Ray Bradbury felt Walt could save the world. When Bradbury asked him to run for Mayor, Walt said, “Ray, don’t be silly…why should I run for Mayor when I’m already King?”
Given complete control, what kind of city could Walt Disney have created?
That was a question I just had to explore. As an urban planner, I wanted to learn about Walt’s influences and the underlying design principles that would guide the development of his city. With that knowledge, I could better understand what life in EPCOT would have been like and if the concept would have worked.
My professional experience has taught me that the built environment comes alive and has meaning when it is created through a combination of clearly understood policies and the use of fundamental design patterns properly applied.
When I speak of EPCOT, I am not talking about the permanent World’s Fair that is at Walt Disney World today. What I am talking about is the city that Walt described to us just before he died. Where people would know that E.P.C.O.T. is an acronym. His dream city of 20,000 residents, that would be built on virgin land, and packed with new ideas in planning, design, construction, and governance.
I started by devouring every book I could find on the subject of EPCOT. Two of the best are Steve Mannheim’s Walt Disney and the Quest for Community (2002) and Chad Emerson’s Project Future (2010). I have read the Disney biographies and listened to Walt’s own words through interviews. The man was like a sponge. He soaked up the best ideas from wherever he could find them and then used his special gift to take those ideas, tie them together, and produce something that is far more valuable then the sum of the parts.
Early on I learned that Walt Disney did not like sequels. He was always looking over the horizon at the next opportunity. However, after the huge success of the Three Little Pigs, theater owners were clamoring for a follow-up. Walt hesitated. He proclaimed, "You can’t top pigs, with pigs.” Nevertheless, he could be practical when necessary and he had ambitious plans for the Studio. He could certainly use the money for those ideas. Therefore, he relented.
Thirty years later, Walt would find himself in the same place. He wanted to build his city of tomorrow and he knew that another theme park could help fund the project. To see if Disneyland style entertainment would work on the East Coast, he worked his way into four pavilions at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. You would think another Disney park would be a no-lose proposition but the failure of Freedomland in the Bronx made Walt pause. He wanted to be sure.
The Disney pavilions were a smash hit and were ranked as four of the five most popular at the Fair. Walt also benefited from the huge investments in ride systems, audio-animatronics, and other technologies paid for by his sponsors.
With Walt’s curiosity about the feasibility of an East Coast Disneyland satisfied, the theme park would become the cash generator that he needed to fund his city. All he needed was enough land so he could avoid a replay of what happened in Anaheim. He always regretted not being able to buy more land around Disneyland he vowed that next time he find enough for all of his dreams.
Walt passed away before his most ambitious dream could be realized. Near retirement, Roy Disney decided to stay and make sense of Walt's ideas. Roy and his team wanted to create something that would make his brother proud. Roy knew the first phase would include an updated Disneyland, resort hotels, campgrounds, and the infrastructure to support long-term development. When the time came to build EPCOT, the plans for a city was scrapped in favor of the theme park.
Magic Kingdom on opening day.
So where did Walt Disney get the idea of building a city come from?
It may have started with the success of Disneyland, which brought an avalanche of offers from other communities looking for an economic boost. His organization looked at projects in Niagara Falls, St. Louis, and his boyhood home of Marceline Missouri. As early as December 1959, Walt was in discussions with billionaire John MacArthur to build a “Community of Tomorrow” in Palm Beach, Florida that would feature a 400-acre theme park and a town of 70,000. According to Harrison “Buzz” Price, Walt and Roy Disney’s go-to guy for feasibility studies, this is when Walt started to obsess about building a city.
Harrison “Buzz” Price was asked by Walt Disney to do the analysis for the perfect location for Disneyland. He went on to advise Walt on virtually every project until Walt’s death in 1966. Buzz’s influence on the theme park business is so profound, he was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Themed Entertainment Association.
By the early 1960s, Walt’s frustration with the area surrounding Disneyland and comments from people such as James Rouse must have stirred his imagination. Plus, building a city is not the sequel to Disneyland but something new. This always excited Walt.
At the beginning, the best information resources available to me was the 1966 film “EPCOT” featuring Walt Disney, the model of “Progress City” featured upstairs at the Carousel of Progress in Disneyland, and various books.
“EPCOT” was filmed on October 27, 1966. Marty Sklar drafted the script. The film begins with a history of Disneyland and the economic benefits to the surrounding community. Then Walt outlines his vision for his experimental city. Walt and the announcer describe the features, advantages, and benefits of EPCOT. Finally, Walt gave a call to action. The film’s target audience was Florida politicians and private industry. Sadly, Walt would pass away two months after he recorded the film.
Another resource was the incredibly detailed model of Progress City at Disneyland. The model was the post show for the Carousel of Progress and it was Walt’s vision for EPCOT. It was located on the second level of the show building.
The first three acts of the Carousel of Progress takes the audience from the turn of the last century to the 1920s and 1940s. The final act finds an audio-animatronics Father and Mother celebrating Christmas. The scene is set sometime in the near future, maybe five years, just beyond the show’s installation date of 1967. They talk about the good life in Progress City. Outside of their floor to ceiling windows, off in the distance, is the EPCOT skyline.
As the giant turntable makes one last turn, guests step on stage and ride a speedramp to the second level. At the top of the ramp was the most massive, detailed model of Progress City one could imagine. It measured 6,900-square feet and contained more than 4,500 buildings and 2,450 moving vehicles. Filled with little details, it was complete with monorails, trains, motorways, and PeopleMovers. It had an amusement park and its own tiki restaurant. As day turned to night, everything would light up.
While walking through the viewing area, we hear Father and Mother from the last act narrate a four-minute tour of the model. Spotlights point out various community features and they tell us how life in Progress City is convenient and rewarding. Today, a small portion of the model can be seen as you ride the Tomorrowland Transit Authority (TTA) in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Much of the detail has been removed and none of the vehicles move anymore. I spent a lot of time staring at this exhibit as a child.
The real eureka moment came when I was on a tour of the Disney Archives. I met Dave Smith when he was the Chief Archivist at Disney. I asked him if Walt was reading any urban planning books at the time of his death. He suggested I drop him a note and he replied almost immediately and said, “Actually, on checking in his office inventory, he had only one book on the subject, The Heart of Our Cities by Victor Gruen.”
Victor Gruen (1903-1980) published The Heart of Our Cities in 1964. Gruen was born in Vienna, Austria. He was trained at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and was very active politically prior to World War II. Gruen left Austria when it was annexed by Germany in 1938. He found his way to the United States and landed in Los Angeles in 1941. He opened Victor Gruen Associates in 1951 and firm continues to practice today.
Gruen designed Northfield Mall near Detroit in 1954. This was the first suburban open-air shopping mall. It was as revolutionary to urban design as Disneyland would prove to be a year later. By 1956, he had put a roof over his shopping mall and opened the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota.
Gruen would become known as the father of the modern shopping mall. This is a moniker that he would come to loath. He was striving for something much more important than just a shopping mall. He grew tired of the cheap imitations of his work that destroyed communities instead of healing them. These experiences and more would lead Gruen to rethink the way urban centers could be formed.
Walt and Gruen redefined the public’s expectations for functional urban space. Mark Howard Moss said, “Both Gruen and Disney were in the dream business.” They knew how to create vibrant urban spaces that had the key ingredients of quality, variety, and surprise. Each man would influence the other.
Gruen believed that there was an underlying cellular nature to a properly built community. If the basic unit of life is a cell, and millions of cells can come together to create an organism, he reasoned that an urban structure based on cells (clusters of mixed-use development) would be the healthiest system. The benefit of a cellular urban organization is that it can be scaled as small as a home or as large as the size of a metropolis.
In The Heart of Our Cities, Gruen mentions Disneyland and finds the park to be an important urban space and an excellent example of cellular urban organization. He states that the park has become, “a social center, a center of national and international tourism”. Nevertheless, he is critical of what happened to the area surrounding the park.
By the 1960s, Walt was also concerned about the area just outside of Disneyland’s gates as well. It was becoming a hodgepodge of motels, restaurants, and other tourist serving enterprises. The look was chaotic and threatening. Gruen studied these “forces that threaten and destroy the city” and how we they produce the anti-city. Gruen argues that Disneyland was a great start but more land use regulations would be needed. Anaheim’s Laissez-faire attitude was destroying Walt’s strong urban center. It would not be until 2001 that a cohesive vision for the area would be implemented through the Anaheim Resort Specific Plan.
Gruen learned from Walt’s experience and tried to find a solution for his next big project. In 1960, a group of local executives called the Washington Metropolitan Board of Trade made a bid with the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) to host a World’s Fair in 1964. They were competing with New York and Los Angeles. The Fair would be in the Washington DC metro area at a location ten miles east near Largo, Maryland.
The Washington DC executives hired Gruen to draft an innovative site plan based on his cellular urban organization. The main Fair buildings would have been at the center of a large property surrounded by an ample greenbelt buffer. “Its most remarkable feature,” according to architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable was, “it is in effect a re-usable plan.” Gruen had proposed to build a prototype community for 100,000 based on his cellular organization and using the Fair’s infrastructure.
The Washington DC team would ultimately lose to Robert Moses and the City of New York due to their superior financial potential. However, Walt Disney would take full advantage of the New York opportunity and the rest, as they say, is another story.
In May 1960, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote an article for Horizon Magazine called Out of a Fair. She reviewed the proposed Washington DC post-fair plan and noted that the vision for the post-fair community “promises comfort, convenience, and calculated visual pleasure instead of the customary catch-as-catch-can arrangement of commercial and national exhibits”.
Gruen’s major innovation was the community’s cellular layout. It featured a strong urban center with adjacent land uses that became less intense and dense as you move away from the center. It would follow a gradient that today would be known as an Urban Transect. The Transect is borrowed from naturalists who describe the characteristics and changes in an ecosystem over a gradient. Urban planners use the same concept of a gradient and apply it to the built environment. The Urban Transect measures a community from the most rural to the most urban. (You can read about this topic in my previous MiceChat article titled Toontown Transect)
After the Fair, the central core of the fairgrounds would be converted into a huge regional commercial center with shopping, hotels, and offices. The proposal included “clusters of buildings on platforms in a park”, which would allow for trucks and other services to be hidden below. The main public areas would be under a climate-controlled roof or dome to protect the pedestrians from the brutal weather.
Surrounding the commercial core would be a ring of high-density residential units. Beyond those homes would be another ring that would blend neighborhood services with lower density attached residential units. Outside of this core are still lower density attached residential units connected by greenways. Finally, the entire development would be “surrounded by parking and transportation facilities ringed, in turn, by an outer area of open land.” He compared this urban form to a medieval castle and city.
Huxtable writes that the post fair plan “is a scheme that would be applicable for any city where sufficient open land is available, and its expert attack on modern planning problems is a challenge to municipal governments everywhere.”
According to Disney biographer Neal Gabler, Walt saw Huxtable’s article and knew about Gruen’s post-Fair plans. Walt was also familiar with Gruen’s The Heart of Our Cities. Working backwards from these influences, it is possible to get an insight into what Walt's EPCOT could have been like.
Join us next week for part 2 of this fascinating journey into the unbuilt EPCOT.
The article above is based upon a segment Sam Gennawey recently contributed to a new book on the subject of Disney World.
In October 2011, the Walt Disney World Resort celebrates its 40th Anniversary.
To commemorate this anniversary, Ayefour Publishing will release "Four Decades of Magic: Celebrating the First Forty Years of Disney World".
For this special anniversary, "Four Decades of Magic" brings together over 20 of
the world's leading Disney experts in a compilation of essays exploring many of
the most magical moments from Disney World's first forty years.
Whether you are a long-time visitor to Disney World or a first time guest, "Four
Decades of Magic" presents an exciting glimpse into the unique moments,
attractions, and people that, over the last four decades, have made Disney
World the planet's leading theme park resort destination. I have contributed a
chapter entitled Walt Disney's EPCOT and the Heart of Our Cities.
"Four Decades of Magic" is now available in both hard copy and Kindle version
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. For the past couple of years he has been the publisher of Samland’s Disney Adventure, a blog dedicated to the history and design of the North American Disney theme parks. Sam is also 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.