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History

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Epcot: What's In A Name?
A Short History

Walt Disney had a dream. This, in itself, wasn't unusual -- he was always dreaming. He dreamed of making the first animated feature film, and of building an amusement park that parents could enjoy right along with their kids. Each time "they," meaning the experts of the day (and usually also his brother Roy), told him it couldn't be done. But Walt persisted, and the successes of Snow White and Disneyland proved them wrong.

This time Walt's dream was much bigger -- he wanted to build an entire city. An Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT for short. It would be a model community that would serve as both example and laboratory, a way to test solutions to the problems of our cities and help solve them. Urban unrest, suburban sprawl, increasing crime, air and water pollution, overtaxed roads, and over taxed citizens; Disney saw them all on the horizon in the early '60's and thought he could find the answers.

He bought thousands of acres of land in Florida, then, with the promise of a Disneyland East dangled in front of them, convinced the Florida Legislature to give his company unheard of power over the land to drain, dredge, and develop as he saw fit without interference from local county governments. The Reedy Creek Improvement District, which still holds responsibility for drainage, building codes, fire protection, and other normally governmental functions at Walt Disney World, was the result.

Even as he was dying of lung cancer, Walt threw himself into this "Florida Project" which was to consume his final days. The first step was the theme park and resort, as that had to pay for the rest of the development, but with Disneyland as a model he could turn much of that work over to his staff. After all, he had already built the world's most successful theme park, building another wasn't a challenge. But EPCOT was.



Walt's dream encompassed a domed city, where traffic congestion was unknown and sleek monorails and peoplemovers whisked its residents about. More than 30 years later, it still sounds like Science Fiction -- but, remember, turning fairy tales into reality was Disney's specialty. For more on Walt's last, great project, pay a visit to Waltopia.

Walt Disney died in 1966, his plans far from completion. With the more practically minded Roy Disney in charge, work pushed ahead on the Magic Kingdom Theme Park and its associated hotels and Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971. While Roy had originally opposed Walt's plans for Disneyland he had since been impressed by its overwhelming success and, to his credit, he did a fine job in helping to create what may be the world's greatest and most successful single resort. But EPCOT fell by the wayside.

By the mid to late 1970's, with both Walt and Roy gone, Disney was a company in trouble. While the theme parks were doing as well as ever, with a third (by franchise) on the way in Tokyo, the film division was struggling badly. Animation production trickled to a near standstill, and the live action division couldn't come up with anything more exciting than forgettable sequels like Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo.

Corporate raiders were circling -- Disney was a perfect target with assets far exceeding its falling stock price. Any investor who could take over the company stood to make a quick and tidy profit -- if they ripped it apart and sold it piece by piece. Pieces like the film library that, through careful management, was still turning a long term profit. The studio on prime Burbank real estate. And the theme parks. There were enough prime hotel lots unused on Walt Disney World property alone to pay off any debt incurred in grabbing the company. (Amazingly, Disney hadn't built a hotel beyond the first three in years, despite near 100% occupancy -- and when more hotels finally were allowed on Disney property (the Swan and Dolphin) they were by lease!) It seems impossible to imagine now, but there was a time when even Disneyland could have been sold off to the highest bidder. Six Flags Over Disneyland? The mind shudders.

Earnings had to improve, and a capital intensive project certainly wouldn't hurt the company. A new theme park seemed to be just the thing, so EPCOT was reborn. But the gleaming domed city was out, a practical new theme park was in. In many ways the EPCOT that was finally built owes as much to the 1964/65 World's Fair, which Disney was heavily involved in, as Walt's dream city. Like the fair, it is composed of pavilions paid for by corporate sponsors that look to the future or else illustrate life in a foreign country. Like Walt's city, it is educational in intent and acts as a showplace for new technologies.

EPCOT Center opened on October 1, 1982. "Center", because, we were told, the entire Walt Disney World development was Walt's dream city after all, and this was its center and showcase. Just look at all our wonderful urban planning, and pay no attention to the fact that this is a "city" with no permanent residents.

(Would that they had paid more attention to Walt's ideas in recent developments at the resort -- with the building explosion that began in the Eisner era the same traffic problems you find in every city have reared their ugly head. Instead of Walt's shiny and quiet people movers, we have two token monorail circuits and a fleet of plain old smelly diesel busses fighting the tourist traffic. Some future.)

A planned community finally was built on Disney property: the town of Celebration. While it is a carefully planned upscale housing development, it's a far cry from a model city of the future. And it's no accident that it was built outside of the Reedy Creek District -- allowing more property owners, and therefore more voters, inside would dilute Disney control.

Today we look back on Walt's last great dream and wonder if, this time, he had created a dream so big that even he couldn't have pulled it off, had he but lived. Think of the administrative hassles of dealing with real residents with minds of their own, instead of pliable anamatronic figures. Of now outdated notions of urban planning implicit in his original model. Of the sheer daunting scale of the project. Ask any expert, and they'll say it couldn't have been done. Just like Snow White and Disneyland.

So much for the EPCOT we didn't get. Now visit the real Epcot of today:

Future World

World Showcase


Copyright (c) 2002-2008 by Robert H. Brown
All Rights Reserved.
Theme Park City's Orlando Theme Park Guide is an independent information source
not affiliated with the Walt Disney World Resort or any other theme park operator.