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Walt Disney's EPCOT And The Heart of Our Cities

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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.”

Disneyland today.

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
at Amazon.

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.

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Updated 03-16-2011 at 03:30 PM by SAMLAND



  1. WildForMrToad's Avatar
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    very good, this makes me feel like i know walt
  2. ChrisFL's Avatar
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    Great article so far, can't wait to hear more about it.
  3. cornjob's Avatar
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    since we lived practically next to to disneyland when i was a kid in the 60's, we'd go often. i remember staring at this thing for what seems like hours. it was huge and amazing.
  4. The Shadoe's Avatar
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    I grew up not too far from Southdale -- originally commissioned by the Dayton Hudson Corporation, which now is known as "Target Corporation". Is it a coincedence that this company has always been forward-thinking and modern with retail concepts? I think not...

    What's interesting about Gruen is that he viewed the mall as a way to get away from the 50's suburban mentality, which he hated. Ironic, because now malls are considered to be one of the worst things about the suburbs.

    But Gruen's vision for Southdale was never complete. It was meant to be the "center of the community" and a way to provide a downtown of sorts which suburbs tended to lack. It was meant to be ringed by residences, apartments, schools, etc. Basically, a cleaned up and idealized downtown area.

    Instead, it is ringed by parking lots and expensive boutique stores selling mostly clothing and overpriced garbage (I'm looking at YOU Brookstone!). Hardly the idealized downtown he envisioned.

    I'm not surprised Walt Disney took inspiration from Gruen.
  5. Mousecat's Avatar
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    The original inspiration for the study was due to the fact that in everything else Walt did, he may not have invented it but he certainly perfected it. EPCOT seemed so out of left field I knew there had to be something more. Luckily, between Dave Smith, Buzz Price, and some folks I know at Gruen, I was able to connect the dots. Over the next few months, there will be more on this research. If you have any interest in WDW, I strongly recommend the FOUR DECADES OF MAGIC book. Kevin Yee also contributed along with a stellar cast of Disney historians and bloggers.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures

    Follow me on twitter at Sam Gennawey (samlanddisney) on Twitter
  6. vnormth's Avatar
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    Holy cow...what a copycat Freedomland was!!! A Mark Twain steam boat, a Santa Fe railroad, a moose and indian village along the waters/river...

    take a look: YouTube - Travel Time: Freedomland 1963
  7. better_by_design's Avatar
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    In regards to shopping malls, it's important to note that in denser & wealthier cities, they have started to become more what it sounds like Gruen meant them to be - miniature new downtown / urban cores out in suburbia.

    Examples that are being built include many of the malls that are the hearts of "new urban" designed communities, with a shopping mall, dining, and activities, with apartments & condos built along side and integrated with them.

    Even in some mega suburban cities like Dallas, new malls are being built along transit corridors, allowing them to be easily accessed with or without cars, and which also includes a strong impetus for developers to co-locate condos with the commercial development.

    Personally, I'd rather this happened 50 years ago, but at least in some places the right combination of real estate prices & suburban sprawl (with accompanied highway congestion and commute times) is finally leading developers to see improving the livability of residents as something they can sell & market.
  8. EC82's Avatar
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    I am a huge, huge, HUGE fan of EPCOT Center and the amazing effort Disney put in to creating the park, and I am one of those people who believes that today's "Epcot" is only an echo of the greatness EPCOT Center was capable of achieving. But ... EPCOT Center WAS something that devolved. This constant speculating of what Walt MIGHT have done with EPCOT the city is a bit irritating to me. The concept was not pursued. Yes, the initial film was extraodinary, but I believe very strongly that this one would have been too much even for Walt. It was very interesting to read Ray Bradbury's comment in the Disney Twenty-Three magazine that he didn't like the city concept. And Marty Sklar in that article implied that it would not have been achievable. More than that, imagine how dated and retro EPCOT would have seemed today. Even Celebration is now feeling like it's passe, a concept that didn't work, and that was trying to construct a "hometown" feeling. What would EPCOT, with it skyscrapers and post-modern designs, be?

    EPCOT might have been Walt Disney's undoing, his unattainable vision. But when you get to the core of it and look at the international shopping center, the technology showcases, the transportation ideas ... EPCOT Center was very, very much what Walt Disney might have ended up making of his initial concept. Much like the little park on Riverside became Disneyland, and Disneyland itself blossomed into something Walt probably would barely recognize today, EPCOT the city might well have morphed into EPCOT Center. And I actually think Walt would have been quite proud of what existed from 1982-1996. Though I tend to think he'd be less thrilled with what it has become ... and the same thing can be said for the loud, raucous, garish, Disney-ized version of Walt Disney World as a whole.
  9. danyoung's Avatar
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    I'll never forget, during my first visit to Disney World in 1979, seeing the model of the new park called E.P.C.O.T. in a preview center on Main Street. It was of course a model of the park as it eventually opened in 1982. This was the first time I saw that EPCOT was not going to be the city that Walt had designed. I asked the young CM manning the exhibit what had happened to all of Walt's plans. He just looked at me like I was an idiot, and said that EPCOT was always going to be a park like this.

    I'm really looking forward to part 2 of this article - thanks, Sam!
  10. Circa1966's Avatar
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    Absolutely fascinating...thanks for this incredible information - looking forward to the next chapter! And I too used to stare at the Progress City model when it was at Disneyland for was incredibly detailed and held incredible promise.
  11. Disneykin Kid's Avatar
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    I'm sorry that Epcot the city was never realized - this is just my guess, but the problem with a city showcasing future technologies is that it eventually becomes out of date, and in order to keep it current you have to continually rebuild it. Even though the Epcot model was awesome, I think it definitely had a '60s' style, and it's hard to come up with a classic futuristic look, I might think of Coruscant or Cloud City from Star Wars. Also, I don't think they could have private property ownership, so the people living there would always be renters. It would have been interesting to see what Walt would have come up with though.
  12. Sgt. Tibs's Avatar
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    does this remind anyone else of Logan's Run? I love the past's vision of the future!
  13. PragmaticIdealist's Avatar
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    EPCOT Center was supposed to be just that: the center of EPCOT.

    Walt Disney Productions, in the absence of Walt Disney, understandably believed that creating an interpretive visitors center, which was the most expensive piece of private construction in history when the attraction was built, was a reasonable way to begin to realize the vision Mr. Disney left his progeny.

    When EPCOT Center was completed and opened in 1982, the success of the attraction was yet to be assured. And, as we all know, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were subsequently installed in 1984, and the two of them then commissioned their own master plan for the Florida property that completely abandoned EPCOT in favor of Celebration.

    It should also be noted that the World Showcase section of EPCOT Center was a last-minute addition, which had originally been conceived as a separate project.
    Updated 03-14-2011 at 03:23 AM by PragmaticIdealist
  14. PragmaticIdealist's Avatar
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    In regards to EPCOT, I think many people in the 21st Century look at the proposed 1960's Modernist architecture with disdain. But, I always considered the EPCOT master plan, as it was presented, to be representative of a fairly early part of the planning process. So, I'm sure that a more fine-grained approach balancing Utopian idealism with romantic idealism would have eventually been adopted as the plans were further developed.

    Remarkably, 50 years after its inception, EPCOT, with its relentless subjugation of cars, is a model that should inform the way we build and retrofit cities today.
  15. PragmaticIdealist's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mousecat
    EPCOT seemed so out of left field I knew there had to be something more.
    SamLand's Disney Adventures

    Follow me on twitter at Sam Gennawey (samlanddisney) on Twitter
    If the Disney name is synonymous with creativity, then Mr. Disney's efforts with EPCOT seem like an entirely natural progression to me.
  16. PragmaticIdealist's Avatar
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    Incidentally, imagine EPCOT with its central multimodal terminal combining a monorail system and the WEDway people-mover with high-speed rail service.

    That kind of regional connectivity would have virtually-guaranteed that EPCOT became the core of a robust Central Florida megalopolis.
  17. Marko50's Avatar
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    Wow! Northfield was the first "modern" shopping center? I remember going there in my youth. I lived in the area from '50 (birth) to '60. And I had no idea! (I'm thinking none of my family did, either.)

    And I also used to gaze at Progress City, sometimes till we were kicked out to make room for the next group.