Progress City: Walt Disney’s Prologue to Modern Urban Development

This will be my first post in a series of posts to follow featuring work I did in my film classes this year at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.  Unfortunately, they will not cover animation, however, this first post features one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written (And I’d also like to work in some animation posts this summer, especially with Inside Out coming up soon).  It is a paper in which I discussed the similarities and differences between Walt Disney’s EPCOT project and modern day urban developments.  This is the first academic paper I have been able to write that tackles a specifically Disney subject.  I understand that lots has been said about EPCOT by many people far more knowledgeable than I am, but I haven’t found anything that attempts to draw modern day parallels and contrasts between Disney’s plans and how our communities look today.  Thanks to Jaime Maas and The Original Epcot for their advice and resources.  If you have feedback, criticisms, or points of discussion, I’d love to hear them here or on Twitter.

Progress City: Walt Disney’s Prologue to Modern Urban Development

     In the mid 1960’s, Walt Disney was a master American showman running a diversely successful entertainment production company.  Walt Disney Productions saw success in areas such as animation, live-action films, television, consumer products, and of course in tourism through the revolutionary Disneyland park in Southern California.  At this point, however, Disney was willing to wage everything under his name for a project so immense that it required 28,000 acres of land in central Florida.  In a 25 minute short film, Walt Disney presented his plans for E.P.C.O.T., the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.  This film roughly detailed a utopia of neighborhoods, businesses, parks, and residences interconnected by a system of monorails and rapid, clean transportation.  True, Disney’s vision was never built, but today there is a resurgence in this type of community planning in both positive and negative forms.  Although Disney’s EPCOT was a hopeful experiment that sought complete control over social spaces and dynamics, it did so with an optimistic spirit.  Future cities will need such forethought and planning, but the residential community of the future is only as progressive as the integrity of those that design them.  Valuable lessons can be learned from how people perceived the future in the past, specifically as seen in this short film, and how those lessons can help direct future societies.

     First, Disney sought to exercise a strong amount of power and influence over the lives of the citizens of EPCOT.  This was a habit he had obtained from tinkering with his Disneyland theme park over the decade it had existed before he and his team of designers set to work on EPCOT.  The property was divided into roughly four sections, including an airport, an industrial park, a theme park five times the size of Disneyland, and, at the heart of it all, the urban downtown center EPCOT.  In the film, EPCOT is discussed in the greatest detail.  To put the city design in simplest terms, it would include four rings.  At the edge were residential communities and neighborhoods.  The next ring inward was a green belt dedicated to public parks, schools, and churches.  Inside this was the “high density apartment housing,” and then finally at the center was a district for business (EPCOT).  This layout followed a radial design that Disney had popularized in his theme park, where guests could move outward from a central hub, and in EPCOT this hub was marked by a single high rise about thirty stories tall.  Above the pedestrians were the rapid transit monorails and people movers, and below the city were the parking lots and roads that allowed vehicles to pass through without disrupting pedestrian traffic.  The visual center of EPCOT would be marked by a single high rise cosmopolitan hotel, standing approximately some thirty stories tall.  One notable aspect about the design of the EPCOT center was that from the high density apartments inward, fifty acres of pedestrian streets and buildings were to be entirely enclosed.  Above this enclosure, seven acres would be dedicated as a recreation deck for guests at the hotel (EPCOT).  In the middle of this central district was to be the transportation center, surrounded by streets of shops, restaurants, and theaters that sought to invoke the stylized designs and cultures of places around the world.

     In case it isn’t clear, every aspect of EPCOT would exist under the full control and supervision of Walt Disney.  According to Alan Byrman, a professor of social research at Loughborough University, Disney was unhappy with the tasteless designs and establishments that had sprung up around his Disneyland park, and often expressed his desire to control the surrounding land should he ever build another park (Byrman 13).  Byrman explains that there is a certain predictability inherent in the Disney product that signals an overall control in the situation.  He asserts that predictability and control are quite similar because control over the situation creates predictable outcomes, resulting in the robotic actors in rides, and themes across the park that play into guests’ sentimental memories or perceived notions of the past, future, and fantasy (Byrman 117-118).  Of course, EPCOT was not just another theme park, but a functioning city that would change the course of its own story every day based on the people who lived and worked there.  Disney needed more than predictability to control the scene; instead, he needed absolute authority over the environment.  As John M. Findlay, an endowed professor at the University of Washington, writes, EPCOT’s success hinged on a type of “dictatorial power” that was unparalleled in United States city planning at the time (Findlay 111).  In other words, Disney’s EPCOT project was deviating into unprecedented levels of control over human populations.  It did so in the effort to reform the problems of then-current cities.  As Walt Disney himself states in his presentation, the public need was not “curing the old ills of old cities,” but to start fresh with a new design that could tackle the problems facing the nation at the time (EPCOT).  Findlay lays out a few of these problems, which included the “fate of the family,” as well as the concern of creating environments in which young people could grow up creatively and safely (Findlay 106).  Disney’s concept of EPCOT was ahead of its time in terms of understanding that technologies could influence the social future of the city itself, but his city may have been ill-suited to address many other issues such as gang activity and urban ghettos, leaving many to wonder what a modern day incarnation of Disney’s planned urban community might look like.

      To address the modern day iteration of EPCOT, first note that the film itself dedicates a great deal of time to discussing transportation in EPCOT.  Walt was fascinated with transportation, as evidenced by the constant kinetics and motion that prevailed in Disneyland during his lifetime.  Even in the introduction of the EPCOT film, the narrator points out that in Disneyland, “people travel aboard almost every method of transportation that man has ever designed,” including steamships, clipper ships, rafts, steam engine trains, monorails, submarines, automobiles, and various other ride vehicles exclusively designed by the WED Imagineering team themselves (EPCOT).  Disney sought to create his EPCOT community with a heavy reliance on mass transportation.  EPCOT, as mentioned before, would feature a transportation hub at the center of the city underneath the lobby of the high rise hotel.  It would be the crossroads of the high speed monorails that traveled the length of the property, and the perpetually moving WEDway PeopleMovers, a then-new form of transportation developed by Disney’s WED team.  The PeopleMovers were designed to transport people radially into the different rings of EPCOT.  Both the Monorails and PeopleMovers would run on electricity.  The PeopleMovers could carry residents out past the green belt, high above all foot traffic, and into the suburban neighborhoods where stations would be just steps away from the residences, connected by footpaths.  Of course, cars were permitted in the community, but they were designated to roads that were apart from pedestrians and efficiently routed away from the communities.  In every sense of the word, Disney’s EPCOT was a transit village, “ a compact, mixed-use community, centered around the transit station that, by design, invites residents, workers, and shoppers to drive their cars less and ride mass transit more” (Bernick 5). Even today, the benefits of a transit village are indisputably positive.  Such communities are conducive to a more socially equitable lifestyle, the argument being that “those who are too poor, disabled, young, or old to own a car are effectively left out of many of society’s offerings” (Bernick 46).  In fact, many issues that automotive traffic creates are eliminated in the use of major transportation systems, especially these electric systems proposed for Disney World.  Eliminating automobiles also eliminates the social cost of wasted time, air pollution, unsightly urban sprawl, noise pollution (which destroys nearby property values), water pollution from road drainage, and promotes general energy conservation (Bernick 43-48). 

     Today, the theory of New Urbanism is taking hold of current residential developments.  Celebration, a community that Disney was able to create on its Florida property, began development in the early 1990s and welcomed its first residents in 1996.  According to Aaron Passell, an assistant professor of sociology at Furman University and author of Building the New Urbanism, what is striking about Celebration, Florida is that it is a very walkable town.  It also tends to follow more or less the New Urbanism design theory, which departs “from automobile-dependent, residential subdivisions toward walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods” (Passell 15).  Though Passell argues that Celebration’s strict regulation of building styles “violates the New Urban emphasis on creativity within guidelines,” Celebration still follows the ideals that govern modern day community development (Passell 7). 

     Currently, an Austin, Texas suburb, Mueller, has embraced such New Urbanist ideals, but simultaneously reflects Disney’s plans for EPCOT.  Built on land reclaimed from a demolished airport, Mueller is still being developed today on 711 acres of land.  It differs from EPCOT in that it is solely a small suburb of Austin, Texas — instead of the larger city Disney aspired to — but it does incorporate many of the ideals that EPCOT sought to achieve, such as green spaces, reduced traffic, and safe pedestrian walkways.  However, it further expands upon the EPCOT ideal, seeking to promote fiscal responsibility in the community, as well as a greater contribution to the Austin area at large (Catellus Development Corporation 2-3).  Though EPCOT was not an isolated, gated community — it was meant to also function as a viewable showcase to the world — it did not have any primary goals to contribute back to the surrounding areas at the time.  Being a suburb, Mueller is a community with a heavy emphasis on open space, and the designs detail that nearly 140 acres, or about 20 percent of the property, have been designated for parks, fields, and open plazas in the downtown areas.  These are designed with the structure of roads in mind, with the hope that the streets of Mueller can work efficiently and seamlessly with the bicycle paths and open green spaces to create ideal “movement corridors.”  Complementing the vehicular paths are various transportation systems, implemented with the goal of creating “a compact pedestrian-oriented community that fulfills the development potential of this property” (Catellus Development Corporation 8-10).  The infrastructure of Mueller beautifully embodies a modern day incarnation of the EPCOT ideas of reduced automobile traffic and walkable open spaces complemented by public transportation and a local economy.  With the modern added benefits of a commuter rail planned to connect it to the city of Austin, as well the green initiatives and sustainable development that Mueller prioritizes — over 15,000 trees are planned to be added to the site to naturally filter storm water runoff — the project adds its own modern sensibilities to the EPCOT ideals (Catellus Development Corporation 15).  Though they use reclaimed land instead of the fresh land Disney had talked about, it seems that in the modern vein of recycling and reusing, Mueller does indeed prove to be a modern day incarnation of Walt Disney’s EPCOT.

     On the other hand, individuals like Geoff Palmer are showcasing a dark alternative to the authority Disney sought over his development.  In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Palmer, a real estate developer in Los Angeles, California, began creating communities that promoted luxurious living in enclosed spaces.  He creates his communities in Downtown Los Angeles in order to tap into the demand for urban living.  Palmer has created several various properties all lavishly themed to Italian architecture, arguably to the point of over the top gaudiness.  These properties are all a part of the Renaissance Collection, and they feature amenities often found at resorts such as tennis courts, swimming pools, fountains, parks, fitness rooms, and spas.  Sadly, however, Palmer’s communities are the dark alternative to Disney’s community of the future.  True, Palmer is able to solve the problems of ghettos, gang activity, and general urban decay within these small developments, but he does so at the price of true community.  Marc Haefele in a Los Angeles Magazine article responding to one of Palmer’s recently arson stricken construction projects beautifully describes Palmer’s developments as “inward-facing citadels that appeared to exist apart from the neighborhood they inhabited” (Haefele).  Though his communities offer control, they do not offer the openness and progressive, optimistic attitudes that help to foster innovations and new technologies of the future.  Palmer’s estates are not an exhibit to the world, as Disney would have liked his EPCOT project to be, rather they are self-serving communities that offer little in the way of optimistic futures for communal city life.  In fact, Palmer’s developments are arguably detrimental to the Los Angeles community that surrounds them.  In City Futures, Edgar Pieterse, a professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Cape Town, explains that successful redevelopment of a city requires a shared and agreed upon plan of action “that sets out how, practically, each strategic thrust will be implemented in terms of actors involved, costs and time frames” (Pieterse 72).  The problem, however, is that government will often prioritize the wealthy and middle class because they are viewed as the foundation of “local wealth and prosperity.  Instead, governments ought to tackle issues like poverty and environmental conservation (Pieterse 73).  In Palmer’s case, his upscale developments offer no actual urban renewal, rather they further a cycle of elitist preference and splintered development that give the city no real sense of direction in providing any real renewal to the downtown spaces.  Ultimately, the “urban renewal” Palmer’s estates represent is as much a facade as the faux Italian architecture he integrates in all his designs.  According to George M. Smerk, in his book Urban Mass Transportation, life can acceptably continue in a high density location if mobility and “access to economic, cultural, and social activities is relatively easy and low in time, effort, and money cost,” but when these movements are restricted, especially by traffic congestion, this is when mobility issues hurt a larger society (Smerk 8).  Unfortunately, due to his high rent charges, gated exclusivity, and nonexistent contributions toward automobile reduction and mass public transportation, Geoff Palmer’s developments offer nothing in the way of real urban renewal.

     Perhaps this has become a trend in the new millennium, one of exclusivity and closed doors.  In a 2007 Newsweek article, Emily Vencat wrote about the privatized lifestyles of the incredibly wealthy.  Disney and his team of designers probably could not have predicted that gated living and private concierges that recommend healthcare options, such as those that are described in the article, would have become social norms to a certain class of people at this point in time, but of course this is what they sought to avoid in their city (Vencat).  Instead of worrying about closed circuit cameras surveying their properties at all hours of the day, EPCOT citizens would have ideally been secure and content in their homes because the technologies they were producing in their city could alleviate crime in the neighborhood and unemployment in general.  Privacy in life would have been available in the comfort of the home, but EPCOT was meant to also function as an exhibition and a model for other cities to observe.  Neighbors wouldn’t gate off their homes, and as Disney points out in his models, yards would have opened up to one another.  Simply going outside would have provided opportunity for socializing.  The goal of life in EPCOT was not to seal off neighborhoods, but rather to promote an openness that could foster discussion which lead to innovation and positive change in urban and residential settings.

     At the heart and center of EPCOT’s potential success was, certainly, a large amount of control, but at the same time, new technologies and the drive to innovate, create, and produce new ideas was what this city of the future sought to create.  Disney’s EPCOT city was a prologue to the technological needs of the twenty-first century.  Instead of taking Disney’s approach to starting on fresh land, cities today are seeking renewal from within or in surrounding areas, but perhaps this renewal isn’t always in the best interest of all parties involved, as in Geoff Palmer’s case with his exclusive communities.  Thankfully, communities like Mueller reject the exclusivity designs and instead embrace the openness that was so heavily present in EPCOT, meanwhile expanding on those ideals to include modern day environmental and recycling sensibilities.  Many aspects of Disney’s design were sound, such as his plan for mass rapid transit to provide safe and clean transportation for his citizens, and hopefully future communities will continue to use this to create safer, cleaner, and more connected communities.  The takeaway should be that though EPCOT never came to be as a city, the ideas and theories surrounding it can still hold in today’s society.  That being said, city and suburban development must be approached with two thoughts in mind.  Yes, population control and strong authority must be handed over to some higher designer, but in doing so future cities will shine with optimism as they carry the world forward into the new millennium.   

Works Cited

Bernick, Michael.  Transit Villages in the 21st Century.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.  Print.

Bryman, Alan.  Disney and His Worlds.  London: Routledge, 1995.  Print.

Catellus Development Corporation. Mueller Design Book.  Roma Design Group, 2004. Web.

EPCOT. Perf. Walt Disney. Walt Disney Productions, 1966. Web.

Findlay, John M.  Magic Lands. Berkley: University of California, 1992. Print.

Haefele, Marc. “Geoff Palmer’s Faux-Italian Renaissance Goes Up in Flames.” Los Angeles Magazine. Los Angeles Magazine, December 8, 2014. Web. March 25, 2015.

Passell, Aaron.  “Introduction.” Building the New Urbanism.  London: Routledge, 2013.  Print.

Pieterse, Edgar. “Urbanization Trends.” City Futures. London, Zed Books; Cape Town, UCT, 2008. Print.

Smerk, George M. Urban Mass Transportation: A Dozen Years of Federal Policy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1974. Print.

Vencat, Emily Flynn. “Private Islands for Super Rich.” Newsweek. Newsweek LLC, November 30, 2007. Web. March 26, 2015.

1 comment
  1. Jim said:

    Great work Hans! Especially like the example of the Palmer developments as an antithesis to the EPCOT ideal.

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