Walt Disney proved himself a visionary on many occasions and in the truest sense of the word. A master creator, he built something from nothing, first when he scribbled illustrations on paper and then later when he founded a company to publish his drawings. Over time, he became a legend in the movie industry. To this day, he stands as the all-time champion in Academy Awards victories despite being dead for half a century.
To theme park tourists, however, Disney will always stand apart as the man who invented the very concept of the theme park. With Disneyland, he married the ideas of carnival rides and roadside attractions with his small but constantly growing group of intellectual properties. And yes, the entire premise was started by a mouse.
After achieving so much with his first theme park, Disney sought new adventures and new challenges. As one of the key cogs of the space age, the man who brought the monorail into the pop culture zeitgeist never found satisfaction in the ordinary. He wanted his ventures to fundamentally alter people’s perceptions of what was possible. Of particular importance to Uncle Walt was the future of society. Perhaps the reasons why are easy to understand. While the world knows him as an uncle, Disney fathered two children and was already a grandfather multiple times by the start of the 1960s.
When he looked at daughter Diane Marie Disney and her children, he saw what so many proud parents do. He glimpsed into a tomorrow he would never live to see. A chain-smoker all his life, Walt Disney recognized that the average life span of a man in the 1960s was roughly 66 years. At the start of the new decade, Disney was 59-years-old. He knew all too well that even if he beat the odds and lived longer than the average American male of the era, the 1970s would likely become his last decade. If he wanted to change society, he needed to do it quickly. The fate of his grandchildren depended on it.
By prioritizing the destinies of his children’s children, Disney embodied so many men of a certain age. Where he differentiated himself from other aging patriarchs, however, was in his ability to address the problem directly. Disney knew better than anyone else in the world that the staff he’d dutifully trained at WED Enterprises embodied the best of mankind’s troubleshooters and problem solvers. If he presented them with a bold vision for tomorrow, these brilliant minds possessed the unharnessed ability to change the world for the better. Disney’s Imagineers could build a utopia if only he placed them in the perfect position to excel. But first, he had to ask one simple question. What would it take to build…
A better tomorrow
Independent of the era, one issue drives mankind. How can we build a better tomorrow? Walt Disney grew obsessed with this question as he entered the last few years of his life. It wasn’t enough for him to revolutionize the movie industry with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He needed more than World War II heroics on his resume. Even founding one of the most powerful corporations on the face of the Earth didn’t satisfy Uncle Walt’s hunger. Only as he designed Disneyland did he begin to understand his true life’s ambition.
Disney’s Anaheim theme park stood as a testament to his willpower. He built something from nothing on land that would have served other purposes in time, but when he purchased the space, it was nothing but orange groves. On this site, he developed the Happiest Place on Earth, but even Walt Disney felt forced to make sacrifices during the endeavor. As rich as he was in the mid-50s, he still couldn’t afford all the land he needed to secure Disneyland’s future, an issue the park still struggles to overcome today. He also didn’t have the ability to dictate terms to the California government, who provided pushback on many of Disney’s most aspirational plans. Where others see ultimate success today, Disney saw compromises and half-measures after five years of his park’s existence. He wanted to do better. He knew that he COULD do better.
Walt Disney’s world
What Disney would need to fulfill his dreams were things that the boomtown of greater Los Angeles, California, couldn’t provide. He’d have to travel east to build something worthy of his grandest dreams. In the right location, he could operate without government interference. Disney, a staunch conservative and proven World War II patriot, believed that bureaucracy frequently stood in the way of greatness. His interactions with the great state of California strengthened his convictions about the dangers of big government. He’d need to buy land in a region desperate enough for industry that the local government would cede a great deal of authority to a powerful new land owner.
As much as anyone of his era, Disney weighed logistics in his decision making. The constant traffic in California, which people would consider empty roads today, bothered him greatly. The metrics for Disneyland bothered him even more. Research data indicated that only five percent of park guests arrived from east of the Mississippi River, a staggering stat given that roughly 75 percent of the population resided on the eastern side of the country.
Disney planners needed a place where people on the East Coast would want to visit. Given his strange parameters, his search radius required a locale with a great deal of land available at bargain prices. It also had to be somewhere that people outside the state could visit conveniently. And he wanted to have enough pull with the local government that the next Disney “park” would play by Uncle Walt’s rules.
I've got some Florida swampland to sell you...
Disney quickly deduced that the answer to his problems could be found in central Florida. The middle portion of the state included a lot of cheap land that he could acquire if only he were sneaky enough. He rightfully feared that if word leaked that a Hollywood icon/theme park tycoon was purchasing a lot of Florida real estate, prices would escalate quickly. At $180 an acre (or anything under $500 per acre), the price was right.
Conveniently, Florida swamp land came cheap, at least at its starter price. Anything higher would cut into the cost of future development, though. And even Florida swamp land would appreciate in value if people realized The Walt Disney Company wanted to purchase it.
For this reason, keeping the cost of land acquisition in check was the highest priority for The Walt Disney Company. As was the case with Disneyland in its early days, every addition in Florida would come at the opportunity cost of something else not being built for a time. Pinching pennies was critical to Disney’s grand plans. So, he famously performed a land grab under a lot of newly created corporations. Uncle Walt and his real estate team founded these fake businesses in order to hide his true intent, the de facto purchase of a yet unbuilt city in the southeast.
The highwayman and the girl reporter
One of the primary reasons Central Florida appealed to Walt Disney was its location. No, I’m not talking about the swamp land that construction workers converted into the gorgeous scenery you know today. I mean the infrastructure. While most of you have lived in an era of interstate access across North America, connecting highways were still limited in terms of 1960s infrastructure. As Disney flew over Florida, he experienced an epiphany. The highway under construction there, Interstate 4, would intersect with an existing one, the Florida turnpike, leading all Florida roads to central Florida.
The situation was ideal. The existing and upcoming connector roads would guarantee that anyone in Florida as well as visitors from outside the state could reach the new city by automobile. This was not Disney’s preferred choice, as you’ll learn in a bit, but he understood that many people would want to drive to the city that Walt built.
There was a fly in the ointment, though. The Orlando Sentinel discovered Disney’s plans despite his impressive amount of espionage. They did this despite the fact that Disney used lawyers and ex-CIA operatives (!) to cover his tracks on the bold land grab. One of the strangest reasons possible undid all their careful planning. Local store owners took note of an influx of Disney executives. While engaging in small talk, a requisite of southern hospitality, the Florida natives realized that too many people from WED Enterprises were visiting for the situation to be a coincidence.
On October 21, 1965, a reporter named Emily Bavar became a central part of Florida history when she speculated that Walt Disney was the one purchasing such a huge chunk of the state. Only people with names like Dan Rather and Christiane Amanpour break such stories as a rule. Bavar’s revelation was so dramatic that it was the key portion of her obituary in the newspaper where she worked.
A few days after Bavar’s bold proclamation, the paper ran one of their most infamous headlines ever. It read, “We Say: ‘Mystery’ Industry Is Disney,” and it was one of the boldest scoops southerners have ever known. I should note that this was a much more forward-thinking headline than the one they’d published regarding Bavar’s journalistic instincts earlier in the week. That one read, “Girl Reporter Convinced By Walt Disney.” A nation of feminists must have collectively shuddered.
The timing of the revelation was particularly strange for The Walt Disney Company, as their historic achievements at The 1964 New York World’s Fair had ended the week before after a triumphant two-year run. After such an emotional high, they had a sudden reversal of fortune. Bavar’s reporting immediately hit them in the wallet.
Prior to the article’s publication date, the company had purchased 27,000 acres of land at an average cost of $200. This cost was slightly more than the initial $180/acre price of the swampland but still quite a bit less than Disney had budgeted for the endeavor. Before Bavar exposed Disney’s real estate transactions, their spy tactics had worked beyond their wildest hopes.
After the word got out, however, land owners started to gouge The Walt Disney Company, knowing that without their property, this East Coast answer to Disneyland couldn’t move forward. The corporation had no choice but to pay exorbitant prices. They spent as much as $80,000 per acre after the “Girl Reporter” publicized their land grab. Bavar’s intrepid journalism cost Disney millions of dollars.
Less than a month after her story, Walt Disney held a news conference. During this event, he confirmed the rumors that his next creation would be constructed in Orlando. Florida governor Hayden Burns attended the event, and he happily described the turn of events as among the “most significant in the history of Florida.” Uncle Walt stated that the new venture would debut in 1969 and that his corporation would invest $100 million toward the project. He was ready to build a better tomorrow for his grandkids and all the other children of the world.
The age of limitless hope
To understand Walt Disney’s aspirations, you must appreciate the zeitgeist of the era. The space age stood apart as a time of unbridled optimism. As mankind prepared to conquer the moon, citizens across the globe appreciated the fact that dreamers had it within them to bring their ideas to life. Perhaps the only other similar instance of such hope occurred with the advent of internet technology, which connects people from all walks of life. Today, people build websites to relay ideas and dreams to one another, but in the 1960s, dreamers fantasized of creating a better tomorrow. The difference between Walt Disney and the other idealists is that he had the power to bring such purposeful ideas to fruition.
The same concerns were on Disney’s mind as much as anyone else’s at the time. He wanted future generations to live in a place free from crime or slums. In order to achieve that, everyone at his new location would need to hold a job and pay rent. His concept required zero percent unemployment levels and a group of residents willing to cede their rights as land owners.
The second point was important, because the people living at the Florida Project wouldn’t own any land. Instead, they’d pay monthly rent. Disney employees would call all the shots with regards to matters of community and law. Imagineers didn’t expect this to be a problem since everyone living at Walt Disney’s new world would also work for Disney or, at the very least, one of their corporate partners. They had a plan for 100% employment that seemed viable. Every resident would work at the airport, the hotel and convention center, the merchant exchanges, or the theme park. Anyone who didn’t have a job at one of these locations would interact with visiting corporations in the industrial park. In this manner, a total of 20,000 would become the first East Coast cast members, although they’d consider themselves utopians.
A renter’s dream
Why would people move to a place where they could never own property and have limited job opportunities? The key would be the appeal of the Disney brand. From the company’s perspective, the real world included many horrors such as hectic lifestyles, evil temptations, criminal transgressions, and filthy metropolitan areas. Compare those problems with the wildly popular Disneyland. It’s absurdly clean and free of crime. And while a vacation there can feel a bit hectic at times, there are no evil temptations at the Happiest Place on Earth.
From an unbiased perspective, Walt Disney had already introduced the public to one utopia. He simply needed to duplicate the feat east of the Mississippi River. Of course, an entrepreneur like Disney wouldn’t just settle for a carbon copy of his existing theme park. He had higher expectations for the Florida project. The new location would include a place that would entertain children of all ages. This new Florida gate would work as little more than bait, though.
The real prize would be the community enticed to pack up and move to a new location. These first generation tenants of the Florida Project would care more about improving the world than the petty political squabbles that so frequently stand in the way of progress. Even Disney himself demonstrated a willingness to relax his public affairs opinions as a means to bring his dream project to life. That pragmatism would have greatly enhanced the new community had he lived long enough to build it.
The only lingering question about the project is what would have happened had the citizens aged into retirement. Disney was emphatic about the fact that every resident of E.P.C.O.T. would work and that no retirees would live there. He projected that the city would function as a forward-thinking business center that would evolve into the premier testing ground for new ideas. Think about Silicon Valley of today, only with better planning and a much saner real estate situation.
No plan existed to gouge renters on the cost of housing. Everyone within the community would bring their own skills to the table and work to sustain the growth of E.P.C.O.T. as a whole. In exchange for their home ownership concessions, they’d live in some of the greatest housing in the world. Imagineers planned to build homes in such a way that entire sections could swap out when new styles came into vogue. If a better energy option proved viable such as solar power, people wouldn’t have to do anything. The residents of the prototype community would simply return home to find new solar panels on their roof. Similarly, even major appliances would slot into walls in such a wall that they were easily interchangeable, something homeowners of today still can’t even imagine.
This utopia actually sounds a bit socialist in nature, an oddity given Disney’s passionate dislike of that particular ideology. Still, Uncle Walt was a pragmatist and even when he disagreed with someone or something, he listened to the other side of the argument. He believed that ideas were innocent until proven guilty. That’s what empowered him to proffer such a bold gambit with his prototype community. He also did the legwork in researching all forms of municipal charters to identify the hiccups new cities face in the early days after incorporation.
In his own words, "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 new systems." If that sounds slightly familiar to you, it should. He also stated, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”
Walt Disney was never one to rest on his own laurels. He appreciated better than perhaps any other inventor that self-satisfaction only improved the chances of status quo, and nobody grabs headlines and delights the world by staying exactly the same. For E.P.C.O.T. to sustain itself as a hub of creativity and technological breakthroughs, it must adapt constantly. This is unfortunately something that the actual Epcot hasn’t done as well as Walt Disney might have hoped. While The Walt Disney Company has addressed the matter more effectively in the 21st century, the stale nature of Future World was a running joke for many years.
Disney’s grand plan
What would you do with 50,000 acres? That was the question Walt Disney asked himself once the massive land grab became a reality. Since 1962, he’d considered the critical aspects of infrastructure a place needs to succeed. His overriding goal was to build a property that people would want to visit. Once they were there, the hope was that they’d never want to leave. Disney wanted an even happier place than Disneyland. To his mind, people who were not residents of the Florida Project should desire nothing more than to find a way to live there. He’d hoped for a population of 20,000 in a city so well-maintained that imitators would crop up across the globe.
The blueprints for Project X aptly reflected the epic scale of Disney’s planning. You know the name of the new city, E.P.C.O.T., and you probably even know that it stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Have you ever actually looked at the design Disney presented, though? The scheme should seem familiar. It’s the same hub-and-spokes style that provides the backbone of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. The difference is in the scale of the project and how it functions as an independent legislature.
Walt Disney conceived E.P.C.O.T. as an actual city with a functional local government given autonomy by the state. With governor Burns fully supportive of the project, this part of the plan was coming together nicely. The Walt Disney Company persuaded the Florida state legislature to give them two towns complete with individual voting rights. To this day, about 50 people technically live at Walt Disney World. While the residents theoretically have the ability to make their own laws, they generally default to the ones that Disney suggests. This is precisely what Uncle Walt had in mind, only with a much larger population.
That’s where scale comes into play. Let’s put 50,000 acres into perspective. Manhattan, a borough with a population of 1.6 million, is less than 21,000 acres in size. Suffice to say that a lot of people could have lived at the community of tomorrow if Disney had wanted it that way. Instead, he wanted to spread out the options for the city, leaving plenty of room for residents to enjoy the finer things in life.
The hub of the E.P.C.O.T. development was to be the actual prototype community. That’s a bit of a misnomer, though. The residents of the city would not live at the hub. Instead, the plans called for business and commercial properties to sit in the middle. This makes sense from Walt Disney’s perspective. He viewed this Tomorrowland as an experiment of industry and commerce, too. Without appropriate monetization, the utopia would collapse into bankruptcy. For this reason, one of the primary goals for the upstart community would be to attract corporations from all over the world to interact with Disney. In this regard, Uncle Walt’s dream became a reality. Walt Disney World never has a problem signing sponsorship deals with other companies.
To have such important business people visiting, however, the former swampland would need excellent transportation options. While the existing and upcoming highways could solve some of the issues, Uncle Walt didn’t view those as forward-thinking options. He already understood the flaws of automobiles in major suburban neighborhoods. His dream city wouldn’t include the risk of children running into traffic or adults driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Instead, the driving portion of the prototype community would occur beneath the city’s business hub…and I mean an entire level beneath. The roadways would run underground, out of sight from citizens and visitors. Disney accepted that people would need to have road access in and out of his city, but he didn’t want such traffic distracting from the beautiful skylines he intended.
How would people move around within the city limits if they didn’t have cars? Come on, you should know the answer to this one. Disney’s obsession with the monorail served a purpose at E.P.C.O.T. This form of travel could transport people across the vast distances of the town in short periods. From a logistics perspective, it would function similar to subway systems and other forms of mass transit, albeit in a more energy-efficient manner.
While monorails would operate as the connector for cross-community journeys, travel over short distances required another method. Disney fans are intimately familiar with this solution as well. It’s the People Mover, a former attraction at Disneyland that still provides Magic Kingdom guests with welcome respites when they need to get off their feet. It’s a transportation system always in motion, the perfect solution for a carless commonwealth.
As originally intended, the People Mover would function similarly to elevators, escalators, and moving sidewalks. It would take the people from their neighborhoods to important parts of the city such as restaurants and theaters. In this manner, the only “traffic” in the city of tomorrow would be People Mover trams and monorail trains running on constant loops across the region. It would have been perfect… and so very Jetsons.
The two forms of interior transportation would meet at the E.P.C.O.T Transportation Lobby. This building would exist on the main level of the city, a level above the underground area reserved for automobile traffic. The monorail and People Mover as designed would allow people to hop off one and head directly over to the other, lessening the amount of walking required to navigate the city. Convenience was one of Walt Disney’s priorities in building the city of tomorrow. As he stated, “The pedestrian will be king.”
Theme park as bait
In the earliest mock-ups of E.P.C.O.T., the one thing missing from the blueprints was a theme park. Those came later after Walt Disney met with his board of directors. While acknowledging the bravado of his initiative, none of the money men at Disney liked the idea of such a massive undertaking without a theme park as an anchor of the endeavor. This wasn’t the news the company founder wanted to hear at first, because he stated on many occasions that there would only be one Disneyland. He viewed his achievement with his novel theme park as inimitable.
While Uncle Walt planned differently at first, he quickly saw the upshot of building the East Coast version of Disneyland suggested above. He simply hadn’t locked in on Orlando, Florida, as the ideal destination yet. Eventually, he appreciated that his ideas might be too advanced for some of the simpler folk who adored Mickey Mouse. They’d need an incentive to spend their vacation at the prototype community. He also knew from the dramatic success of the 1964 World’s Fair that the timing was perfect for an eastern response of Disneyland, even though he felt conflicted on the topic.
Once Disney latched on to this way of thinking, a wellspring of ideas came flooding into his mind. He appreciated that he could design his entire Florida Project with a theme park as the bait. That’s precisely why Magic Kingdom sits in the northwest corner of his new land. By doing so, he’d force tourists to visit (or at least take a monorail ride by) all the other portions of E.P.C.O.T. He hoped that in doing so, they’d take an interest in the more important parts of the new city than the one with amusement attractions.
His adaption of the original plans also breathed life into an unheralded but critical aspect of the Florida Project. Walt Disney no longer saw his life’s work as Disneyland. That was too limited in scope for what he dreamt about the lands of tomorrow. Instead, his plans grew and evolved into a Disney World, a place where loyalty, intelligence, wisdom, and selflessness would lead the residents of the city toward a utopian existence.
The Disney bubble
You may be familiar with the philosophy that Imagineers adapt with regards to designing theme parks. They want visitors to leave their troubles behind the instant they approach their Disney vacation. In order to accomplish this, Disney tries to build an insular bubble, a region where there is no outside world, only Disney magic.
The first time a person reaches the monorail, they should feel like they’re escaping reality to enter a better place full of joy and laughter. The company’s Magical Express program takes this concept a step farther by extending the boundaries of the bubble. People exiting Orlando International Airport never have to go through baggage claims to grab their luggage. Disney does this for them and also provides bus service directly to onsite hotels. Literally the moment theme park tourists reach Orlando, Imagineers are ready to nurture them by encasing them in the magic bubble.
This entire concept stems from Walt Disney’s vision for Orlando, Florida. He sought to build a literal bubble for his Tomorrowland, an enclosed space where his team of Imagineers would control the weather. In fact, his idea may have included an actual dome. The plans were definitive that people who lived in Walt Disney’s city would always have a roof over their heads. This may have been thanks to a bubble structure. The central residential area of E.P.C.O.T. would encompass 50 acres, and in the words of the Disney Epcot clip:
“This entire 50 acres of city streets and buildings will be completely enclosed.”
Disney later offered the explanation for such an odd choice:
“In this climate-controlled environment, shoppers, theater goers, and people just out for a stroll will enjoy ideal weather conditions, protected day and night from rain, heat and cold, and humidity.”
I should note that there’s hefty debate about the dome, as some people argue that there’s no explicit mention of the word dome in the video. There is, however, a picture of a town in a dome, not unlike a snow globe. The media all reported the dome as fact, and Disney died too soon afterward to clarify either way. In fact, his lung cancer diagnosis occurred less than a week after the release of the Epcot announcement video. Had he lived, the visionary would have felt significant pressure to build a dome. Right or wrong, that was how the media reported the story and so the public expected the utopia to include it. The Walt Disney Company would have suffered through a spate of negative headlines if they hadn’t built a dome, ironically because incorrect headlines trained people to expect them.
To a larger point, that’s how Uncle Walt perceived the entire project. In his own words, "Everything in this room will change time and time again as we move ahead. But the basic philosophy of what we're planning for Disney World is going to remain very much as it is right now". He knew that his initial plans for E.P.C.O.T. were necessarily fluid. Without the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, Disney’s most daring project would fall into chaos and, ultimately, failure.
Alas, the prototype community Walt Disney intended to build for his children never came to fruition due to his untimely death. It’s easy to fantasize about what might have been not just with E.P.C.O.T. but also the entirety of society influenced by the revolutionary proceedings at the Florida Project. Every bit of it is idle speculation, though. We’ll never know how powerful a driving force Disney’s strength of will would have been in making his dream for a better tomorrow come true. What we do know is how Disney Imagineers remained true to his legacy as best they could in the face of tragedy. That’s the topic of part two of this article.
In the interim, here's the original announcement video of Walt Disney's E.P.C.O.T. plans.