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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
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: