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Walt Disney’s EPCOT: The City of Tomorrow that Might Have Been

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 6, No. 1.

“Invent your own job; take such an interest in it that you eat, sleep, dream, walk, talk, and live nothing but your work until you succeed.”1 That was Walt Disney’s motto—and exactly how he lived. Passionate about his vision, he persisted until he made it reality, often overcoming seemingly impassible obstacles. In order to succeed in building his entertainment empire, and later his first theme park, Disneyland, Disney made his work his life, an all-consuming, 24/7 state of being. Even in the last years of his life, he ate, slept, dreamed, walked, talked, and lived nothing but his work—but by then his focus had shifted from filmmaking and Disneyland to Walt Disney World.

According to Disney, Walt Disney World was “the most exciting and challenging assignment . . . ever tackled at Walt Disney Productions.”2 However, the Walt Disney World we know today is a far cry from what Disney himself had envisioned. Walt Disney did not intend it to be the world’s largest vacation resort but rather the epicenter of a transformation in urban planning, which would improve domestic living by imbuing it with groundbreaking technology. The heart of Walt Disney World was to be EPCOT, not the theme park that currently bears that name but an actual Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a futuristic city that would serve as a proving ground for the latest science and technology. EPCOT was Disney’s pet project in his later years. Sadly, he passed away before it was completed, and without his passion and persistence, the futuristic city he had envisioned would not come to be. His vision and tenacity, nevertheless, are remarkable in themselves.

Long before tackling the EPCOT project, Disney persisted in the face of many setbacks and stumbles, some of which threatened to leave him homeless and hungry. Although he did everything he could to save them, Disney’s first two animation studios failed. His third studio, formed with his brother, Roy, after the two moved to California, finally saw success with its popular animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unfortunately, in the face of this success, Disney discovered that the rights to his creation were actually held by Universal. Forging ahead, he strode past this disappointment by creating Mickey Mouse, who became far more popular with moviegoers than his predecessor and brought the studio much recognition and wealth.

Even after Mickey Mouse had become a regular on the silver screen, however, Disney was eager to innovate again. In his eyes, his production studio needed a “new adventure,” a “‘kick in the pants,’ to jar loose some new enthusiasm and inspiration.”3 In 1934, Disney began developing the studio’s first full-length feature animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Despite his own enthusiasm, however, many friends and associates, including his brother and wife, thought the film would destroy the Disney Studio. Indeed, financial troubles nearly halted production. But Disney refused to give up, mortgaging his house and taking out a loan to complete the film—which became one of the most popular films of 1937 (and, adjusted for inflation, is number ten on the list of top-grossing American films), establishing him as a master in the entertainment industry.

Such persistence and passion would be crucial to the development and creation of EPCOT, which, as Disney conceived it, became a monumental undertaking. He envisioned EPCOT as a revolution in urban planning, “a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems.”4 It was to be a completely functioning prototype city in which captains of industry could test their solutions for the problems of modern-day city living. For this reason, all residents would rent rather than own their homes, and Disney Corporation would constantly update, change, and test the technology therein. As Disney indicated in a 1966 promotional film, residents’ homes would “be built in ways that permit ease of change so that new products may continuously be demonstrated.”5 During the workday, residents would enjoy a city geared toward maximizing their efficiency and productivity. Outside of work, EPCOT would provide them with a safe, convenient, entertaining, and educational atmosphere. . . .

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Endnotes

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Craig Biddle, Alan Germani, Joe Reed, Brian Phillips, and Tom Dungey for their assistance.

1 H. W. Brands, Masters of Enterprise (New York: The Free Press, 1999), p. 188.

2 The Epcot film—transcript, http://sites.google.com/site/theoriginalepcot/the-epcot-film-transcript.

3 Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 215.

4 The Epcot film—transcript.

5 The Epcot film—transcript.