The Florida Project

Why would Walt Disney spend his last days trying to solve the world’s transportation problems rather than entertain us?

If you’re like a significant percentage of the East Coast population that grew up in the 1970s, you and your family probably visited Walt Disney World once or twice for a family vacation. If you’re like my family specifically, you went a lot more than a couple of times: we traveled there annually for a weeklong stay. (I was fortunate enough to have parents that enjoyed visiting almost as much as their kids did.)

And if you’re like me, during those visits to the Disney World of the ’70s, you probably loved the Magic Kingdom, loved the monorails, adored the Contemporary and Polynesian resort hotels (especially the Contemporary’s massive video and pinball arcade)…marveled at every part of the experience. There wasn’t a single aspect of the place that wasn’t completely enchanting to me, and I was always searching for new ways to immerse myself in Disney World knowledge. Through constant study during the fifty-one weeks of the year I wasn’t in Florida, I memorized the room number arrangements for both hotels, knew the sponsors of every attraction and gift shop in the park (some favorites: the Welch’s Grape Juice Troubadour Tavern…the WEDWay PeopleMover presented by America’s Investor-Owned Electric Companies), memorized the names of each of the Polynesian “island” longhouses, and the age limits for each of the different watercraft available for rental on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon.

The 1970s really were the golden years for the resort. Everything was brand-spanking new, and the whole thing was completely novel: there in the middle of Florida, the concept of themed entertainment had been taken to a previously unimagined level. And there was so much promise for what was yet to come. Specifically, “what was yet to come,” was EPCOT. EPCOT loomed over Walt Disney World in all of the company’s press materials and even in the Walt-narrated film shown in Main Street’s Walt Disney Story exhibit. I always thought that one of the most thrilling spots at the resort was an understated sign near the entrance roadway, visible to passing cars. In plain block letters (and no Mickey, or even a “Walt Disney Productions” logo as I recall) it read something like: “Site of Future Expansion, to open October 1, 1982.” I’m not even sure it used the word “EPCOT,” but I knew what they were talking about, and I knew it would be more thrilling than anything we’d seen thus far.

That I could be so excited about something so amorphous is a testament to the faith I had in the Walt Disney organization. What was EPCOT? Every definition rarely strayed—or was more specific—than the one Disney himself stated:

EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.

These words, accompanying alluring artists’ renditions of an idyllic, blue-green 1960s-style futuristic metropolis, were pretty much the extent of what anyone publicly knew. Adding to the intrigue was the intricate, miniature city of the future in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland, visible as the PeopleMover ride ducked into a dark tunnel above the Mission to Mars pavilion. Was this a preview of what EPCOT was to be? I rode the PeopleMover every day to gather hints, but the ride’s narration didn’t say. Despite all the mystery, the little I could piece together was good enough for me: I was ready to move in to Disney’s futuristic city.

That was a long time ago. The EPCOT that was ultimately built wasn’t the EPCOT that Walt Disney had envisioned. Instead of a city of tomorrow, the company built a kind of permanent World’s Fair (unwittingly leaving out a World’s Fair’s most alluring quality, its ephemerality.) And despite a few charms, the real “EPCOT Center” never lived up to what I’d envisioned the Walt Disney Company constructing. But is it fair to call the park that was built a disappointment if I never precisely understood what Walt wanted in the first place?

In order to have an intelligent argument about what the Disney organization could or should have built in Florida, I had to know what EPCOT—Walt Disney’s EPCOT—was really supposed to be, and until recently, such information was extremely hard to come by. But thanks to the Internet, I was able to take a gander at exactly what Walt Disney himself proposed to the Florida officials who okayed his enormous Orlando investment. On the Net, it’s possible to find a transcription—indeed, the entire twenty-four-minute video—of the “Florida Project” film that Disney made not long before he died. (The nice Disney site Waltopia has just such a film and transcript.) The film was made to excite the local and state governments about what Disney was intending to build in Florida. Apparently, it worked.

As the only document of what EPCOT was to be that is publicly accessible, I’m using this film as the foundation for my understanding. It might be dangerous to extrapolate too much from a twenty minute movie, but it’s just about all of the first-hand material there is to go on, and given that Disney died soon after the film was produced, it’s not clear that he himself had much time to develop more than what was on display in the film. (I should note that I haven’t yet read Steve Mannheim’s new book on EPCOT, Walt Disney and the Quest for Community.)

The Florida Project Film

The film is just over twenty minutes long, and is divided into four sections. The first is an introduction, narrated by the same gentleman who voiced most of the Disneyland TV specials of the era, laying the groundwork for the argument to be made: that Disneyland is a wonder, and a foundation for bigger and better things. Next comes Walt, standing in front of detailed maps and models, outlining his vision of what Disney is intending to build in Florida. Thirdly, we’re back to narration describing some details about EPCOT and its nearby industrial park, accompanied by animation and artists’ renderings. Finally, we’re back to Walt to wrap things up, leaving us with an enthusiastic, “we’re ready to [start building] right now!”

As defined in the Florida Project film, the Disneyworld (not yet “Walt Disney World”) master plan includes several elements: an “airport of the future,” a Welcome Center that all visitors would pass through, an industrial park, a “planned residential community” (EPCOT), and a theme park with resort hotels (the only part of the plan that was actually built.) Each of these major segments of the master plan is connected by an updated version of the Disneyland Monorail.

No details are expressed concerning the “airport of the future,” or of the Welcome Center. Only a few details are given concerning the theme park area of Disneyworld, stating only that the park would be nearly identical to the park found in Anaheim. The focus of the film is, of course, EPCOT.

EPCOT itself is built in a radial design, with a “Business and Commerce Center” at its heart. (This building is what you always see in the artists’ renderings, with its slender, glass-covered hotel jutting up from its center.) Inside this center are a hotel, convention facility, offices, themed shopping (a la the World Showcase of today’s “real” EPCOT), theaters, and nightlife activities. The film is quite eager to point out that every single one of these activities occurs under roof, in climate-controlled comfort. This huge roof isn’t just a roof, however: it’s also a second story outdoor “recreation deck” with parks, tennis courts, and the like.

From the city center, PeopleMover trains expand radially outward to the rest of EPCOT, first to apartment housing, then to a “greenbelt” of parks and activity areas, and finally to low-density residential housing. It’s implied, though not explicitly stated, that the residents of EPCOT are those who work somewhere in Disneyworld, either as a Disney employee or as one of the employees of the non-Disney firms located both in EPCOT and in the industrial park. No gasoline-powered transportation exists in EPCOT; rather, all non-electric vehicles—those owned by EPCOT residents when they need to leave their community, as well as delivery vehicles with supplies for the community—travel under the city on a multi-level traffic system.

The film spends a couple of minutes on Disneyworld’s industrial park. Here would reside the real, functioning offices of some of America’s most prosperous corporations. Portions of each corporate suite and/or manufacturing facility would be devoted to allowing visitors to tour and see American commerce in action.

Finally, Walt concludes the film:

That’s the starting point for our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. And now, where do we go from these preliminary plans and sketches? Well, a project like this is so vast in scope that no one company alone could make it a reality. But if we can bring together the technical know-how of American industry and the creative imagination of the Disney organization, I’m confident we can create—right here in Disneyworld—a showcase to the world of the American free enterprise system. I believe we can build a community that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world. And with your cooperation, I’m sure that the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow can influence the future of city living for generations to come. It’s an exciting challenge; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone who participates. Speaking for myself and the entire Disney organization, we’re ready to go right now!

Watching the Florida Project film, I was whisked back to my childhood memories, not just of what EPCOT was going to be like, but of what all of our futures would be like. It’s an intoxicating film, with beautiful illustrations and a Disneyworld “master plan” that is ambitious and thrilling. The extensive planning of roadways, PeopleMovers, and monorails almost sounds like it could work. For a moment I felt myself wondering: why didn’t the Disney organization try and build this?

But the more I thought about the film, the more I got hung up on a few issues…large ones. I’m not trying to throw water on the party here: I would like EPCOT to have worked as designed. And it’s a bit unfair to criticize the plan’s impracticality when (as Disney says several times during the film) it is a work in progress. Problems apparent during this first phase of planning would certainly get addressed at a later date, if not solved. But this is my impression of the plan, as told in the Florida Project film…so here goes:

Visitors are more important than residents?

The EPCOT of the Florida Project film is all about transportation, efficiency, and the satisfaction of those who would visit the city. But something important has been overlooked: there is virtually no mention of the people who would live in EPCOT. Beyond stating that they’d be active participants in the city’s success, working to make the resort live, and riding the PeopleMover around, the film devotes very little time to them. This stands in stark contrast to the visitors to the city: they’re mentioned on many occasions, and in fact the only building that had seen any serious design effort—the city’s central hotel—is built specifically for them.

At least twice in the film, Disney mentions how impressed visitors to the city will be when they visit, but the film doesn’t pay more than lip service to the idea that its inhabitants’ happiness is paramount. How that’s accomplished is left as a detail to be filled in later. And problematically, the tough part of building EPCOT is not where to place the PeopleMover stations for optimal traffic flow, but how to provide satisfying lives for its citizenry. The film gets these priorities backwards.

Are transportation ills really the biggest problem cities face?

More than anything, the film is about the transportation systems the city’s occupants and visitors would use. Though transportation is a significant issue in any metropolitan area, it’s rarely been the most important issue. Yet this is really the only issue that EPCOT seems to want to solve. (Even in the ’60s, it’s hard to imagine the mayors of any of the country’s ten largest cities claiming that transportation was the single largest issue they faced.)

And the facts about Disney’s transportation technologies are stretched a bit in the film. For example, the narration claims that:

EPCOT’s PeopleMover is a silent, all-electric system that never stops running. No single car can ever break down and cause a rush hour traffic jam in EPCOT. Because the cars run continuously, there will be no waiting in stations for the WEDWAY PeopleMover; the next car is always ready.

The concept behind the PeopleMover—that it never stops—is an interesting one, but it doesn’t solve the problems the film claims it does. I bring this up only because I hope the Disney people didn’t really believe what they were saying here. Imagine for a second what happens when a PeopleMover car breaks down: every vehicle in the system has to stop! It’s actually far worse than an automobile-based system, where the individual mobility and intelligence of each of the vehicles on the road (provided by the driver) automatically routes around obstacles to keep traffic flowing. No such luck with the PeopleMover. And the idea that there’s “no waiting”…anyone who’s spent more than a half-hour at Disneyland knows that this is a fallacy. Yes, cars are continuously arriving at the station, but if people arrive continuously at a faster rate than the cars, then people wait, just like they do at the queues for Space Mountain or Peter Pan’s Flight. Certainly Disney knew this, but somehow felt that the promise of all-electric mass transit wasn’t good enough on its own; the story had to be juiced a bit to make it deliver more than it was really capable of.

Would residents happily cede control to a central authority?

The film’s narrator mentions that the houses would be “built in ways that permit ease of change so that new products may continuously be demonstrated.” The houses are flexible not because people might want them that way, so they could decorate and arrange them as they would want; they’re flexible to demonstrate technologies. At EPCOT, the way people live seemed to be the least thought-through—and presumably least exciting—part of the project for Disney. EPCOT would be a city that might be more exciting to visit than your typical city, but not necessarily more fun to live in.

The closest thing to Disney’s EPCOT on the Florida property—the city of Celebration, constructed about ten years ago—is an interesting experiment, but it shares the same fatal flaw: it assumes too readily that its occupants will cede control to a central authority for things as mundane as the furniture they can place on their front porch. As such, it can’t be a blueprint for a real community, just a community that can be easily controlled. The majority of communities in the world don’t fall into that category. (The proliferation of gated communities in the U.S. might be an echo of the concepts that Celebration showcases…but are they what Disney was thinking of when he sat in front of the cameras in 1966?)

The film finishes with this strange dictate:

EPCOT will be a working community with employment for all. And everyone who lives here will have a responsibility to help keep this community an exciting living blueprint of the future.

What does this mean? How do citizens manage their responsibility? What if they don’t live up to their responsibility? What is their responsibility?

EPCOT neglects the problems of real cities

Disney says:

I don’t believe there is a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities.

Probably true, but is it really fair to think that EPCOT addresses any of the problems of a real city? EPCOT is so fundamentally different from a real city—in its governance, organization, the make-up of the people who inhabit it—that it’s hard to imagine how any of its lessons could be applied to any existing city. In and of itself, that’s not a failing of the plan: at the beginning of the film, Disney’s stated presumption is that the cities of 1966 are beyond repair. But the film tries to have it both ways: if today’s cities are beyond repair, then how could they possibly learn from EPCOT?

Intentionally or unintentionally, Disney is doing a bit of a selling job on the Florida officials he’s trying to convince. By saying today’s cities are beyond repair, he makes a case for bypassing a city’s traditional restrictions: its zoning laws, governance, etc.; rules that other cities have to play by. But by then teasingly promoting the wonders that the world will learn from EPCOT, he assuages the feelings of officials who might be feeling a bit guilty for thinking they’d let Disney skirt the regulations they’d meticulously put into place in the decades previous. They’re doing the world a service, they can think to themselves…so why shouldn’t they bend the rules?

…But is it possible?

These aren’t small issues I’ve outlined: they would have been incredibly difficult to surmount. When I started writing this article, my belief was that nothing like EPCOT could really have been built. But with more thought, I began to think that it could have worked if the mission were defined a little more narrowly: instead of a city of the future, maybe what EPCOT could have been would be a “compound” for Disney employees crossed with an industrial park. Hardly a blueprint for all cities, but a blueprint for small, planned, controlled communities. Make it a sort of college campus, not a city. Don’t try to solve ancillary issues, like the modernization of education. Don’t let people even think they have the rights of owners. They’re tenants. That’s why college-age kids would be great: they have no immediate need—or resources—to purchase anything, so their desire to control their environment is minimal. That’s the most important criteria for any planned community.

The industrial park aspect would certainly be difficult, though not impossible. The key requirement in creating an exhibit showcasing the work of a living, breathing corporation would be full-time attention from both Disney and representatives of said corporation, else the exhibit stands to go stale very quickly. Disney would have to volunteer all of the financial resources toward making the exhibit work, including paying the salaries of company employees who act as Disney liaisons. Disney couldn’t afford to let the host companies decide to skimp on—or worse, lay off—employees necessary to make the exhibits work, something host companies might sensibly want to do in hard times.

This toned-down EPCOT isn’t as thrilling as what Disney proposed, but it does seem more practical and would meet the goals that Disney himself set: to create a place where people would live and work in new ways, and where the American free enterprise system could be showcased in its best light. Whether it’s something that a company like Walt Disney Productions should be creating is another question entirely, and it’s not surprising that those who ran the company after his death in 1966 got cold feet.

Who was Walt Disney?

Creating a new work environment? Showcasing the American free enterprise system? Was this the same Walt Disney who had brought us The Three Little Pigs and Pollyanna? And what about this strange, final film that Disney produced? Why would someone known the world over as an artistic and creative genius dream of a city whose most prominent attributes were its transportation systems, completely neglecting any of the aesthetics or fun of the place?

The answer, I think, is that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what Walt Disney was actually good at. In his book The Disney Version, Richard Schickel gives his contrarian view of Disney’s skills:

[After Walt Disney’s death in 1966] the Los Angeles Times’ obituary editorial speculated that Disney’s “real joy must have come from seeing the flash of delight sweep across a child’s face and hearing his sudden laughter, at the first sight of Mickey Mouse, or Snow White or Pinocchio.” Certainly the sight did not make him unhappy, but the Times’ own biographical sketch, appearing in the same edition, carried a more nearly true statement from Disney himself on the source of his deepest satisfaction in his later years. A reporter once asked him, according to the piece, to name his most rewarding experience, and Disney’s reply was blunt and brief: “The whole damn thing. The fact that I was able to build an organization and hold it…”

These are clearly not the words of some kindly old uncle who just loves to come to your child’s birthday party and do his magic tricks and tell his jokes and find his kicks in the kiddies’ laughter and applause and their parents’ gratitude. Neither do they appear to bear much resemblance to anything we might expect from an artist looking back over his career. They represent, instead, the entrepreneurial spirit triumphant. They are the words of a man who has struggled hard to establish himself and his product; who has fought his way in from the fringes of his chosen industry to its center; who has gambled his own money and his own future on his own innovative inspirations and organizational intelligence and more than once has come close to losing his whole bundle. (Schickel, p. 38)

I think Schickel is half-right: in many ways, Disney was less an artist than most people give him credit for. But I think a more accurate description of what he was—rather than being just a skilled entrepreneur (which he certainly was)—is that Disney was a technology fanatic with the skills of a showman. He loved immersing himself in new technologies, and adored fashioning them into more accessible forms in order to share his joy with those less inclined to see their innate potential. How else to explain why someone who supposedly loved making films lost all personal interest in filmmaking once its most obvious technological challenges—sound, color, and stereo—had been surmounted? Why someone who supposedly loved animation turned away from the art form he’d popularized once he’d elevated it to as high a level as it could technically achieve? Why the man who supposedly wanted nothing more than to delight the children of the world with his amusement parks would be content to simply copy his California park to a new Florida location in order to turn his attention toward the transportation ills of cities?

My point, of course, is not that Disney disliked movies, animation, amusement parks, or delighting children. He almost certainly adored all of this. But I’m not sure that any of these things lie at the heart of what Disney was truly about.

With his invention of Mickey Mouse, intellectuals crowned Disney an entertainment genius. With Snow White and Pinocchio, they went further: they elevated him to the status of an artistic genius. Unfortunately, that designation was short-lived, and died with the release of his next few films. According to its critics, Fantasia’s simple-minded conception of classical music showed after all that Disney wasn’t the sophisticate they’d thought him to be. Bambi furthered that impression, they said, by proving him too sentimental and pandering. After watching the Florida Project film, it’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that with EPCOT, Disney saw his opportunity to once again be taken seriously. With Disneyland—just as he had done with Snow White twenty years earlier—Disney had built not just a brilliant toy, but a more meaningful work that drew applause from many of the intelligentsia whose approval had been so elusive throughout Disney’s later career.

The Florida Project film shows Disney building upon his newfound success as a creator of urban spaces and steering clear of the entertainment formulas he’d already perfected. The quote by urban planner James Rouse, mentioned frequently in Disney literature (“I hold a view that may be somewhat shocking to an audience as sophisticated as this: that the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland…”) is featured prominently early in the film’s narration. Why include this? Without this endorsement, Disney obviously worried that he wouldn’t be taken seriously. The film spends not a second describing how creative, entertaining, and beautiful the new Disneyworld will be, words you and I would most likely use to describe a Disney development. Rather, its design breakthroughs, importance—and ultimately, its great influence on the rest of society—are the only attributes that make the cut. EPCOT was his chance to both bolster his reputation and leverage the intellectual working capital he’d been handed by those who saw more in Disneyland than a mere amusement park.

Viewed in this light, the EPCOT in the Florida Project film isn’t the paradox that it first seemed to me to be. It’s the next futuristic wonder brought to you by Walt Disney, like sound cartoons or color television programs. The real Walt Disney, I think, had more in common with Steve Jobs than Steven Spielberg, more technologist than filmmaker.

Conclusion

Walt Disney’s EPCOT is going to remain an intellectual curiosity forever. It won’t be built, or at least, won’t be built in any form that resembles the city showcased in the Florida Project film. And given the problems the city might have faced (we can see them crop up in small scale in the town of Celebration) maybe it’s better that way.

Still, when I watch the EPCOT film or think back to the “Progress City” model in Tomorrowland, it’s easy to see why someone would want to live there, and it’s impossible to fault Walt Disney for trying to create it. Maybe he was cleverer than I give him credit for and he would have pulled off something amazing even in the face of overwhelming odds. Certainly Walt Disney accomplished more impossible things in his life than most have; maybe his city of the future would be just another of those unlikely achievements.

Note: This Disney article first appeared on LaughingPlace.com, where I’m a semi-regular columnist.
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2 thoughts on “The Florida Project

  1. I enjoyed reading your article about WED and EPCOT. I will suggest to you that this man was the master of imagination and had such a love for humanity that he was willing to put his entire reputation on the line, spend every last dime he earned and “con” American Industry into building something that would have changed the world. Do you actually believe a man of this intelligence and foresight expected anyone to live in this experimental community unless they couldn’t find it anywhere else in the world. Poverty is where he came from. He escaped it through the free enterprise system and recognized it as the only vehicle to eradicate is before poverty eradicates humanity. If he revealed his secret surprise, American industry would have never contributed. Unfortunately, he died too soon but he left his secret in the his final production by design. Watch the movie again on utube and read between the lines. Try to put all of the pieces together. There is a very logical explanation for everything you questioned.

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