Utopia or dystopia? Disney’s experimental prototype community of tomorrow (EPCOT)

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Photo retrieved from www.sterow.com on 2/18/2014

Near the end of Walt Disney’s life, Disney’s attention was less on theme parks and cartoons than his own plans to build a Utopian city, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Disney’s vision for EPCOT was not just another real estate development, it was a plan to bring continual innovation into the community; to build a creative community environment, something akin to, but much grander than, an ongoing World’s Fair. Its purpose was to be a “community of the future” designed to stimulate American corporations to come up with new ideas for urban life.

Disney said it would be a community of tomorrow that would never be completed. His vision was ambitious and even progressive in terms of urban design, such as a high-density urban core with nearby high-density housing, all serviced by a monorail (or “people mover”) which would all but eliminate the need for the personal automobile, other than for recreational purposes on weekends. Other aspects of his plan seemed to have overreached a bit and are even a little troubling to some, presenting more of a dystopian nightmare rather than the Utopian ideal envisioned by Disney.

For years Disney studied the ideas of urban planners and wanted to build a community, not another theme park. He wanted the community to be a sort of ongoing social laboratory of modern technological advancement and to serve as a prototype for future urban development. With abundant capital at his disposal, Disney began purchasing land in Florida in order to construct his planned community. After accumulating an area approximately double the size of Manhattan, he began the political struggle to get his plans to go forward. His board of directors and financiers were reluctant to back the project, which seemed unrealistic to them. He only agreed to allow a theme park to be built on the site after he was pressured to do so, as a contingency, by his board and project financiers. To enable him to carry out his full plan, he also had to work with the Florida Legislature to acquire special approval.

Epcot Plan

Photo retrieved from www.xroads.virginia.edu on 2/19/2014

Just a couple of months before his death in 1966 he presented a video to the Florida Legislature to showcase his ideas. The video is a classic and lays out his vision and plans in great detail. The video accomplished what it was intended to do, persuade the Florida Legislature to create an improvement district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), which allowed a five member board (controlled by the Disney Corporation) to have full municipal jurisdiction over the new city and granted Disney freedom from nearly all of Florida’s zoning or building requirements.

Disney also planned to have the community governed, not by a voting electorate, but through the RCID Board. Inhabitants of the city would be “invited” to live there by Disney. He said there would be no real property ownership by the city’s residents (all the land would remain in the ownership of Disney). As such, there would be no slums, since slums would not be built by Disney. Everyone in the city would have a job (retirement would not exist) and the city center, including a 30 story hotel in the center of the city, would be sealed under a climate controlled dome. Though such aspects of his plans may be overly ambitious (giant air-conditioned dome over a 30 story building?), or even Orwellian, many other aspects of his plan were great, and one has to wonder what would have happened if Disney had survived long enough to ensure that his plans proceeded as he intended.

After his death his successors lost interest in the plan and EPCOT was only implemented on a greatly diminished scale. Disney World was opened in 1971, other attractions were built, and in the 1990s the planned community of Celebration Florida was developed on the land owned by the Disney Corporation. Celebration Florida is considered to be a successful planned community and continues to be administratively governed by the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Despite these developments, Disney’s plans for a Utopian “experimental prototype community of tomorrow” didn’t materialize to any degree, in the fashion that Disney originally envisioned.

Though the community of Celebration incorporated many new urbanism design elements which Disney may have appreciated, it is not on the grand scale which seems to be a Disney trademark. Disney’s plans included many of the fundamental ideas of modern planning such as mass rapid transit, density, and abundant community space; ideas which modern planners still aim to achieve.

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Photo retrieved from www.jeremypryor.wordpress.com on 2/19/2014

Disney’s plans even gained recognition by planners of his day such as James Rouse who said, “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland.” That was Rouse’s comment about Disneyland. One has to ask what planners like Rouse would have said about Disney if EPCOT had materialized. If he survived much longer Disney may well have been known as a great planner. His tremendous ambition would have likely driven the project forward and certain aspects of the city’s design would have been informative to contemporary planners. It is unlikely however, given the controversial social elements of the design, that EPCOT would have been the prototypical new community chosen by America.

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About Ryan Strong

Ryan is a graduate student at Boise State University, pursuing a masters degree in public administration and a graduate certificate in community and regional planning. He is also a paralegal for the City of Boise, specializing in land use law.

One thought on “Utopia or dystopia? Disney’s experimental prototype community of tomorrow (EPCOT)

  1. Thanks Ryan.

    This is an interesting alternative perspective about EPCOT than that provided by Sean Kelly’s post on the same development. I wonder if the town of Celebration is all that different than Walt Disney’s initial concept — allowing for the invariable deviation between concept illustrations and actual built development. On a side note, Celebration was designed by the same design group (in fact the same designers and planners) as the local planned community Hidden Springs.

    Akin to my comments in Sean’s post, I wonder how *real* the people in these places were seen to be by the fleet of “imagineers” working for WED Enterprise (now, Walt Disney Imagineering). I took the time to watch the entire promotional film Disney made for the Florida legislature, it’s hard to deny how influential this must have been — given that the company was given such unilateral control over the development of its land holdings. This must have been viewed as the land use planning equivalent to the race to put a man on the Moon. In fact, you could probably substitute Rouse’s references to Disneyland (and Disney World), regarding the accommodations for the comfort of Man, to the space-race efforts of NASA without any change in meaning.

    The control the Reedy Creek Improvement District board still has over Disney’s developments seems to provide inspiration for the Development and Design Center (DDC) concept found in the SmartCode: http://www.transect.org/codes.html — a type of form-based code crafted by (perhaps not surprisingly) the Florida-based architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ).

    Where land use controls are handed over to private developers, there’s little attention given over to how the will of the people can influence the direction of a community. Like the DDC in the SmartCode, and the RCID, no one gives much thought to how these entities make their decisions — and no effort given to how the public might participate in the formation and governance of such agencies (except, possibly, as agitators whose protestations must eventually be addressed). Here, the *public* is viewed as not much more than an aggregate consumer test sampling — whose needs are always open to the interpretation of groups of hired experts. Like the engineers at NASA, WED’s imagineers view the *public* as cargo — or Spam in a Can — even to the point of enclosing the entire center city in a climate-controlled bubble. Though I suspect the *climate* isn’t what’s actually being controlled.

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