Last page update: January 21, 2017
Everything You Need To Know About EPCOT (the city)
If You Only Want To Know Some Stuff
By 1997, so much had already been written about Walt Disney's city of the future that I didn't see much point in attempting anything comprehensive for WYW's first page on the concept. In addition, Paul F. Anderson had by that time targeted EPCOT as the subject of future discussion in his far-reaching publication, Persistence of Vision, using information he collected from many interviews with WED Enterprises heavyweights. That would have been an exhaustive account had the magazine's publication not been indefinitely suspended. Even in the absence of Anderson's essays, it is difficult to contribute to the public record regarding EPCOT in terms of offering something factually new.
Still, this immense unrealized "dream" has to be included in any self-respecting (or maybe even self-deprecating) overview of WDW anomalies. EPCOT was the driving force behind Walt's entire Florida vision, the perceived destination of his fantastic free enterprise voyage. The whole of the WDW project, at the time of construction, was built around the notion of EPCOT falling into the middle of the works a few years later. Of course, it didn't happen the way he mapped it out. As most everyone knows, the dichotomous theme park that ultimately usurped the EPCOT acronym in 1982 bore no physical resemblance - and only a few conceptual ties - to the idea after which it was named. And the explanations given for this over the years have been as varied as the range of rough drafts that broke EPCOT down into a bankable enterprise instead of the incredible, far-reaching gamble originally envisioned by the "world's master showman."
Walt Disney had been messing with matters of space planning, crowd flow and infrastructure for decades leading into the early 1960s, which is when colleagues first remembered seeing Walt carrying books on city planning. The Disney Studios, the CarolWood Pacific Railroad, Disneyland and CalArts were some obvious examples where his hand could be seen in the development of real-life environments which would be inhabited, whether for a few hours or a full career, by real-world people. If you look at where Walt's attentions were in terms of his early 1960s project workload, it would be rational to draw the conclusion that Walt was literally into a little bit of everything (animated films, bobsled rides, live-action musicals, submarines, treehouses and World's Fair attractions - nearly all of which have become iconic). But after 40 years of intense exposure to the subject matter, nothing has dislodged my personal theory that Walt Disney's foray into planning his own city of the future was hotwired mainly by General Motors' Futurama II exhibit at the 1964-1965 World's Fair. The Fair was someplace Walt spent a great deal of time while the four exhibits he designed for the exposition commanded much of his company's resources. Futurama II showed 21st-century manmade environments in space, undersea, in the desert (sound familiar?) and in a rain forest before ending with an extended look at an impressive future city model. Someone could advance the notion that the stunning Herb Ryman concept painting above and the Progress City model Walt had his "imagineers" putting together a year after the World's Fair opened were not directly influenced by Futurama II, but I believe the evidence to the contrary is perfectly sound. It's true that the specific look and layout of EPCOT was not copied verbatim from the GM exhibit. At least 2/3 of the Futurama city ideas, however, seem to be at play in Walt's EPCOT (you can be the judge after watching the video link lower on this page). And while Disney was said to have been influenced by Victor Gruen's 1963 book The Heart of Our Cities, this wouldn't negate the influence of Futurama II. It's entirely possible that Disney obtained his copy of Gruen's book AT the Fair itself given how recently it would have been published.
Walt Disney's first public mention of plans for an actual city came only thirteen months before his death. At a November 15, 1965 press conference in Orlando's Cherry Plaza hotel, he formally confirmed that Walt Disney Productions was the "mystery industry" that had purchased over 27,000 acres of land southwest of Orlando and spoke of both "a model community" where the employees of his development would live and a "city of tomorrow." But the public's interest at the time was focused on Disney's plans for a theme park and recreational facilities and the economic windfall that combination of elements would bring to Florida, not on references to the more futuristic aspects of the project.
So with thousands of Florida politicians and businessmen calculating the potential dollar flood that WDW Phase 1 would cause in their communities and companies, Walt Disney returned to California to spend his final year working on the one aspect of his new endeavor that could have set his company back by hundreds of millions. While many of his key WED personnel were focused on Disneyland's upcoming Pirate attraction, Tomorrowland overhaul and/or the relocation of 1964-1965 New York World's Fair exhibits to Anaheim, he set up a separate team of designers behind a locked door at the studio to work on nothing but the utopian guts of his Florida Project, to plan the conversion of Herb Ryman's painting from canvas to steel. This was to be EPCOT, which stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and it had Walt's full attention. In October 1966 he made a film, also entitled "EPCOT," in which the basic principles and designs of this community were outlined.
EPCOT's signature visual feature was its 30-story hotel structure placed in the dead center of the city's elliptical layout. This spatial configuration,, a.k.a. "the radial plan," looked like an eyeball drawn by H.R. Giger. It was basically an extension of the hub principle employed to success at Disneyland and was closely related to Ebenezer Howard's garden city and Victor Gruen's cellular metropolis of tomorrow - a circular city with businesses and community gathering spots positioned with increased density toward the central point. Everything would radiate out from there like spokes on a wheel. Office buildings, convention centers, the hotel and recreational spaces would sit atop the city center's roof. Underneath that roof, completely enclosed and climate-controlled, were the transportation center, office space, storefronts and an international shopping area. Along the perimeter of this core would sit high-density apartment buildings, home to some of the city's workers. Just beyond these structures would be an expansive green belt upon which would sit community buildings, schools, churches, sports and recreational complexes for EPCOT's residents. Further out, surrounding the entire development, would lie the low-density neighborhood areas. Here houses would back up against broad parks where children could play safely, free from traffic.
The purpose of this city, in Walt's words, was to "build a living showcase that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world." It was designed for a population of 20,000 who would live, work, learn and play primarily within EPCOT or other parts of Walt Disney World. And the entire complex would be charged with the daunting task of continually forecasting American urban and home life 25 years into the future. American industries would be constantly updating the technologies in both the commercial buildings and the homes, and those industries would be heavily relied upon as financial partners in the venture.
EPCOT's transportation system would consist largely of two technologies that Disney had already been using or developing at the time: the monorail and the peoplemover. The monorail would run straight through the center of the city with a station directly below the hotel. In this "transportation lobby," there would be connecting service to all parts of the community via the peoplemover. This system would radiate from the central lobby on 20 separate tracks to the furthest extremes of the low-density residential areas, with intermittent stations (vs. stops, for the peoplemover never stops). It was projected that residents would only need their cars for making long trips, not for commuting or shopping. While EPCOT contained plenty of roadways, they were all set up to flow effortlessly in counter-clockwise circles, both large and small, as a result of master-planning. Industrial automotive vehicles would be relegated to streets and parking spaces below the center of the city to keep things practical and looking pretty. It was even predicted that "nowhere in Disney World will a signal light ever slow the constant flow of traffic." What fun would predictions be if they all came true?
As mentioned above, EPCOT was to be the key component of Walt Disney World, the crucial stop on an almost six-mile long stretch of monorail beam that would also visit the theme park area, a 1,000-acre industrial park and a massive entrance complex which in turn connected with a "Jet Airport of the Future." This was Walt Disney World as envisioned by its namesake. This was the plan he sketched out himself and supervised as it was taken further toward a master plan. But it was only about a year after he made the first announcement that Walt died, on December 15, 1966. This was the beginning of the end for the EPCOT and the "Florida Project" as he saw it.
Yet the public knew little about just how he saw it until February 2, 1967. This was when his EPCOT film of the previous October was first seen by anyone outside Walt Disney Productions (hereafter "the company"). It premiered at the Park East Theater in Winter Park, FL, where it was screened for Florida business and government figures. It served as a fantastic pitch, something to not only confirm that the company would move ahead with Walt Disney World and whet the appetites of potential corporate sponsors, but to also pave the way for the Reedy Creek Improvement District legislation that the company would successfully seek to have passed later that year in Tallahassee. This legislation gave the company extensive governmental controls over its Florida property. The film served another purpose that the company would find less desirable in the long run: it cemented certain concepts in the public's collective consciousness, one of which was the image of EPCOT, this beautiful city Walt had obsessed over and that was not outlined in as vague a set of terms as some in the company would suggest not too many years later.
In late 1967, a massive model of EPCOT debuted as the finale for Disneyland's Carousel of Progress. The Carousel of Progress was brought to Disneyland for the "whole new" Tomorrowland after a two-year run at the World's Fair. The model, pictured above and below, was called Progress City during its Disneyland years. When the Carousel of Progress was shipped to Walt Disney World for a 1975 opening, a section of the model came to Florida as well. It was installed as a part of the WEDway Peoplemover and can still be seen today by guests riding the attraction (now alternately identified as the Tomorrowland Transit Authority and the Peoplemover).
After the updated Carousel Of Progress and several other new attractions were unveiled at Disneyland in 1967, the primary concern at WED (the company's design & engineering arm) was master-planning the first phase of Walt Disney World. This would consist of a Disneyland-type theme park, several resort hotels, a wide array of recreational options, a transportation system linking all of those together and a support infrastructure that would service the same areas. Phase One's five-year development plan would provide the foundation upon which the company would build the remainder of the "Florida Project." As late as 1969, what lie beyond Phase One was still projected in basic accordance with Walt's outline. But it was off in the distance and nothing had been done to further define the plans or set any timetables. By 1970, with the opening of Walt Disney World just ahead, EPCOT, the industrial park, airport and entrance complex were planted firmly in the background.
Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 to rave reviews and, soon enough, great attendance figures. Plans for additions to, and the refinement of, the first phase of the project sprang up almost immediately to meet the demands of guests arriving in greater-than-expected numbers. This trend continued for a couple years as the company became comfortable with its Florida empire and reacted to its needs.
During this time, EPCOT was barely mentioned. Careful attention was also being given to the context surrounding the precious few EPCOT allusions that did make it into company publications. The planned development of land at Lake Buena Vista (townhouses, apartments and condominiums) was heralded in the company's 1972 annual report as a step toward the development of EPCOT - as was the demand for "WED Enterprises to do consulting work in transportation, recreational and city planning" in 1973. A section of the post-show exhibit space in the Magic Kingdom's Walt Disney Story attraction, which opened in May 1973, had EPCOT city renderings on one wall just as the Disney Story film showed the painting. How it would come to pass, however, was yet to be revealed. All the while, a corner was being turned slowly in Glendale. Around that corner there would be a frequent usage of one particular statement Walt had made: that EPCOT would be a "Community of Tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems."
On May 15, 1974, Card Walker (then President and chief operating officer of the company) announced to a meeting of the American Marketing Association that Walt Disney Productions would be moving ahead "in a phased program" with the development of Walt Disney's concept for EPCOT. The company reasoned that Phase One of Walt Disney World was essentially completed ahead of schedule and it was time to turn toward Phase Two. The idea for a World Showcase of nations was introduced - its likely genesis in the International Shopping area concept and of course past World's Fairs. More importantly, EPCOT was now being considered "from the point of view of economics, operations, technology, and market potential." While the future phases of EPCOT were left very hazy, Walker did state that the company was not seeking "the commitment of individuals and families to permanent residence." Rather the company was looking for "long-term commitments from industry and nations."
Or, in other words, there wasn't going to be a city. The process of taking Walt's EPCOT apart and concocting something different with the pieces had begun. WED Enterprises spent about six years tossing ideas around, scrapping many and fine-tuning others. Future World was conceived as the "introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems" part of the project. It was grafted onto World Showcase and EPCOT Center was born. Groundbreaking took place October 1, 1979.
In 1990 ABC's Chris Wallace interviewed Walt Disney Attractions President Dick Nunis for a Prime Time Live segment on WDW. During their conversation, Wallace asked Nunis about EPCOT, the city that never materialized. Nunis, who had years earlier suggested to Orlando-Land magazine editor Edward L. Prizer that the EPCOT plans Walt left behind were sketchy at best, responded by asking Wallace, "isn't this a city?" He offered by way of example the fact that thousands of guests spent the night on WDW property every evening, and they were real people. Using Nunis' logic, guests at WDW hotels had become the citizens of EPCOT, an extension of the theory that WDW was EPCOT. Others within the company, such as Marty Sklar, have offered more straightforward accounts of EPCOT's end. They assert that Walt's successors really didn't know what to do with his city, or how to do it without him. He was the one consumed with the passion for the project, and without his hand in the process the only palatable option was to make something out of it that was in keeping with proven formulas; i.e., turn it into a theme park venture that wouldn't scare the stockholders too much. Not that EPCOT Center itself was without its own nail-biting observers. Anyone in the company nervous about the park's prospects for success was, really, just being rational.
That theme park, by the way, became Epcot instead of EPCOT Center in 1995. In dropping the "Center" from the title and changing the acronym to a name, the company exercised some sound judgment in allowing for the difference between EPCOT the city and Epcot the park. In 1996, Disney's newly developed "town" of Celebration (Osceola County, FL) welcomed its first residents. This planned community has been compared to Walt's plans for EPCOT by many of the company's high-ranking officials. Some reasoned that the spirit of EPCOT was being fulfilled by Celebration, 30 years after Disney's city concept was first introduced. It was and is difficult, however, to reconcile that kind of reasoning with that 1966 painting, with that model or with Walt's EPCOT film. If Celebration was in any way intended to serve as a stand-in for EPCOT as a community, it didn't measure up.
Of course, some of those who worked with Walt doubted that even he could have pulled off the experimental city. Ward Kimball for one, who was Walt Disney Productions' preeminent lunatic-in-residence for decades, expressed uncharacteristic reservations about EPCOT's potential in an interview with my Disney research associate Ross Plesset. The sentiment that "you can't experiment with people's lives" has come up on more than one occasion in discussions with other WDP figures. This is not exactly true given that governments, corporations, doctors and real estate developers experiment with people's lives all the time. But the notion falters for a more specific reason: before Walt Disney died it was already established that anyone living in EPCOT would do so on a temporary basis, most likely for no more than two years. This doesn't change the fact that it would still be a huge laboratory with human mice, but its intended long-range impact was not to be on individual families but the world at large.
One thing about EPCOT that persists in rearing its impossible head is the assertion that it was going to be a "domed city." After reading various quick newspieces from the past 25 years and comparing those to Walt Disney Productions actual plans for EPCOT, one would wonder how anyone might believe that the Disney company would cover a billion-dollar city of the future with a translucent dome that would, if built to truly span the city center, represent an engineering feat that shamed the Pantheon just so they could pit air-conditioning technology against the intense greenhouse effect that would result from a massive dome in one of the warmest climates in the USA. But there have also been references to this big dome in more scholarly works such as Steve Mannheim's extremely well-written Walt Disney and the Quest for Community (Ashgate Publishing, 2002). Mannheim wrote that Walt's EPCOT film contains animation depicting a hemispherical dome enclosing the city's 50-acre core. What the film actually depicts is a close-up ... concurrent with the narrator's reference to the enclosed, climate-controlled city center ... of a domed skylight structure built into the city center's flat roof. Depending on which EPCOT rendering you view, there were twelve to thirty of those around the central roof structure. EPCOT would have been full of domes, but none in the plans had a diameter exceeding 75 feet. The mere fact that there were a series of these small domes shown on the city center roof makes the notion of a larger dome covering the whole of that roof ridiculous, since it would make the smaller ones superfluous. But this is typical of misinformation about Disney, such as Walt being frozen, that perpetuates itself indefinitely.*
In the end, combining all the rumors, drawings, interviews, rationales and facts of EPCOT yields a perplexing portrait of magnificent ambitions being tempered by cold corporate feet. It's unlikely that EPCOT will ever go full-scale in anything like its original form, but discussions surrounding just what it would have become if built will likely continue for decades. As for how much of a role GM's Futurama II actually played in driving Walt to pursue the concept of a future city, no potential answer really diminishes the immensity of what he intended to build. To me it's just funny that none of his associates has ever said, "Oh, yeah, EPCOT definitely started with the GM show." Because, seriously.
* The apocryphal tale about EPCOT's subterranean passageways being designed to accommodate a cult of Hindu vampires (at John Hench's request) has been disproven.
Additional EPCOT Images & Scans
PDF file of Walt Disney Productions' 1967 Progress City Book
This publication was given to attendees of the company's February 1967 presentation to Florida government leaders and business figures:
EPCOT Video Links
The video linked to above is NOT EPCOT, this is GM's Futurama II from the 1964 World's Fair. It should be "required viewing" for anyone interested in 1960s visions of tomorrow.
First version of WYW's EPCOT the city page posted February 1997. Updated April 25, 2006, March 8, 2014 and January 21, 2017
Images copyright the Walt Disney Company. Text copyright 2017 Mike Lee.
Thanks to Mike Hiscano, Dave Hooper and Ross Plesset for their assistance with my research on EPCOT. Other sources for this article included a number of Walt Disney Company press releases, employee publications and annual reports, as well as pre-opening WDW materials.