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Was Walt Disney's EPCOT a Futuristic Utopia...or a Dystopian Nightmare?

The abandonment of the Experimental Community

Image: Disney

Even while on his death bed Walt was still designing EPCOT, according to brother Roy O. Disney. Walt went so far as to use the ceiling grid of his hospital room to scale out EPCOT, with each tile representing one square mile of the property! He was so determined to prove himself as more than just a provider of entertainment across the world but also as a man with a lasting legacy beyond cartoons and theme parks. You could say he was trying to be the best, most all-encompassing kind of “Imagineer” he could be, up to the day he died. 

While Roy was eager to move on with EPCOT after Walt passed away on December 15, 1966, the people who ran Disney after Walt’s death were far less enthused. There were some steps taken towards EPCOT after 1966, though, including Florida Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. signing Chapter 67-764 into law. That established the influential Reedy Creek Improvement District, which gave Disney a lot more power than a company would normally have. Without that, The Walt Disney Company would have had a lot more difficulty achieving such milestones for Disney World as the monorail as a full transportation system, the construction of buildings, supplying electrical power and even the clever way of disposing of waste devised by legendary Disney Imagineers John Hench and Richard Irvine.

The Disney board of directors refused to move forward on Walt’s version of EPCOT. If you really think about what Walt was asking for, it’s hard to blame the board. It understood that there would be a number of complications that came with running a city, even with Chapter 67-764 in place. All of the residents’ grievances, liability issues, potential lawsuits… they would have been venturing into almost entirely new territory, so it would have been hard to even guess everything to expect. As challenging as it is to run a theme park empire, running a city would probably be an even tougher job and for likely a lot less reward.

So yes, the dream of EPCOT as its own city was essentially dead in the water. But that soon opened the doors to the creation of the second theme park of the Walt Disney World Resort…

The beginning of EPCOT Center

Epcot construction

Image: Disney 

In the late 1970s, E. Cardon Walker, the CEO of Disney at the time, was interested in returning to the EPCOT concept. The board, though, was still wary about the idea of building and managing a city. One concern was that they believed that nobody would want to live under a microscope, constantly watched. Maybe their opinion on that would have been different if the reality TV phenomenon came a little earlier! Nevertheless, they rejected EPCOT as a city once again. But they were willing to compromise so that the concept of EPCOT could live on, albeit in a very different form.

Disney and its Imagineers wanted to honor Walt and his last great idea the best they could, but they weren’t sure of how to go about it. After careful consideration they landed on two concepts for the reimagining of EPCOT, one a futuristic theme park inspired by the latest technological advances and the other depicting something akin to the World’s Fair that Walt so loved which would put international cultures and traditions on display. They were designed as two completely separate parks, but one day someone had the wise idea to bring them together into one theme park named EPCOT Center. 

EPCOT Center is of course divided into Future World and World Showcase, which from there are divided into separate pavilions. Both the technological side and the cultural sides of the theme park have taken precedence in different periods of the park’s existence. For example, Epcot’s icon Spaceship Earth is most about honoring science and innovation. On the other hand, in 1994 and 1995 the park was renamed to Epcot ’94 and Epcot ’95, respectively, in the tradition of the World’s Fairs. 

EPCOT Center’s groundbreaking ceremony was on October 1, 1979. It would take another three years to get built, during which time guests had the opportunity to ride the monorail and watch attractions like Spaceship Earth being made. Planning for the Opening Day was being broken down minute by minute by 1982. Over a dozen committees were involved with everything from the design of invitations to booking stars for the event.

The reading of the dedication was only attended to a small number of people due to limited space, but it was described as a lovely occasion. In the dedication Walker explained nicely how EPCOT Center captured much of the spirit of what Walt Disney wanted from the location. 

To all those who come to this place of joy, hope of enterprise and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all. May EPCOT Center entertain, inform and inspire and above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man’s ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere in the world.

— E. Cardon Walker, October 24, 1982  

While sad that Walt Disney didn’t live long enough to see his futuristic city realized, and as unfortunate as it feels that The Walt Disney Company was too nervous to move forward with it, we can all take solace every time we visit one of the most popular theme parks across the world. EPCOT (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) is a dream that didn’t come true but didn’t quite go away either. As long as we have Epcot (which, since it’s no longer used as an acronym, has the weirdest name for a Disney theme park ever) we’ll keep remembering Walt’s last big gift to the world. 

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