The big thinkers of the Mid Century era continue to inspire me in my perspectives on life and work, and one of my biggest inspirations is Walt Disney. I previously wrote about my fascination with Disney concept artist Herbert Ryman on this blog. My favorite of Ryman’s work is his concept drawings for Walt Disney’s original E.P.C.O.T. (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) project. You’re perhaps familiar with Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park, but what many don’t realize is that Epcot started off as a much bigger idea.
Although what we see on Disney’s Florida property today is a collection of theme parks based off of Disneyland in California, Walt Disney’s original intention was much more than adding some East Coast theme parks to his portfolio. He wanted to shift the paradigm of urban planning. Disney’s original EPCOT plan was to create a new Utopian City of Tomorrow. In The Florida Film, a 24-minute blueprint for his Florida project, Disney said: “By far the most important part of our Florida Project — in fact, the heart of everything we’ll be doing in Disney World — will be our experimental prototype community of tomorrow. We call it EPCOT.”
About his motivation for creating E.P.C.O.T. Walt explained, “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.” Veteran Disney animator and executive John Hench explained, “Solving the problems of the city obsessed him. When Walt went to New York, he complained about the noise of garbage cans waking him up in the middle of the night. He thought if you could set an example, people would make changes in their own home town.”
Even in the early 1960s, Walt Disney saw that America’s cities were in need of an upgrade. Since most Americans in the 1960s were desperately enamored with the automobile, urban planners prioritized projects that would ease the increasing traffic. Bridges and highways came first with people and neighborhoods relegated to whatever was left of the budget and landscape. Seeing the cultural and environmental cost associated with more and more concrete, Disney created what has proved to be a forward-thinking strategy that we’re just starting to implement today.
Disney’s original Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (E.P.C.O.T.) was to be a community of the future that would be a proving ground of new ideas for urban living. Walt Disney described it like this: “E.P.C.O.T. will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are emerging from the forefront of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed. It will always be showcasing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems.” Walt and his Imagineers had learned a great deal about environmental and building architecture in relation to crowds while developing Disneyland, and he wanted to see how those lessons could be applied to cities.
The plan for E.P.C.O.T. was to build a brand new community concept from the ground up. Taking inspiration to Disney’s clean, controlled environment and layout of Disneyland Park in California, it would be designed in a circular shape with a central hub. The central hub would be the foundation of the community with business and commercial activities centrally located with easy access via a modern transportation hub. The main mode of transportation would be Monorails and PeopleMovers, and all automobile traffic would be underground to keep pedestrians safe above ground. The rest of the community would fan out from the hub like spokes on a wheel. Community buildings, parks, and schools would fill in the area around the hub. On the perimeter of the community, suburb-like residential neighborhoods would provide bucolic housing for the 20,000 or so residents.
Sadly, Walt Disney passed away before the Magic Kingdom opened and his vision of E.P.C.O.T was not able to be brought into reality without his continued cultivation. Some of E.P.C.O.T.’s ideas came to fruition in the theme park that bears it’s name. Epcot's Future World is filled with futuristic thrill rides which encourage guests to stretch their preconceived notions about transportation, design, science, and the world around us. The theme park's World Showcase is a slightly altered version of the original E.P.C.O.T. International Shopping District where you can sample food and drink from around the world. Walt Disney World itself is a testament to Disney’s crowd management and mass transportation ideas with it’s ability to welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors each day and efficiently provide transportation, housing and food.
Disney’s hope was that if the E.P.C.O.T. prototype was successful, it could be replicated in other areas around the country. Even today, the E.P.C.O.T. concepts are inspiring urban planners and developers who want to make living within a city more efficient and enjoyable. In Detroit, for instance - a city that’s been very rooted in the automobile culture for decades - we’ve seen an increase in people moving into more urban areas where developers have begun to create little cities within the city. These little cities create a compact combination residential space, office buildings, hotels, shopping and entertainment districts in one walkable area. The addition of Detroit's first light rail line is another E.P.C.O.T. concept that promises to ease the traffic getting to and from the city and the outlying suburbs. So, in many ways, Walt Disney’s vision is being realized still today.
While the development of the full EPCOT project never came to be, the overarching ideals still ring true today - perhaps more than ever. The concerns about automobile traffic, land management, and city planning that Walt addressed in the 1960s are still things we’re working to improve on and find solutions for. It’s exciting to me to see Walt Disney’s ideas being implemented in my hometown to make city life a bit easier and enjoyable today - 50 years after his passing.