Home » Was Walt Disney’s EPCOT a Futuristic Utopia…or a Dystopian Nightmare?

Was Walt Disney’s EPCOT a Futuristic Utopia…or a Dystopian Nightmare?

Image - Boy Scouts of America/Wikimedia Commons

Though the Epcot we know and love today is certainly an iconic part of Walt Disney World, Walt Disney’s original plans for EPCOT (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) were so much greater than just a simple theme park. Walt’s ultimate goal for was to create what he believed to be the ultimate futuristic city, complete with homes, apartments and places to work for all citizens. 

Of course, this idealized vision of the future never came to fruition, but thanks to Walt’s preliminary work on the project, we have a good idea about what life in EPCOT could have been like if this city of tomorrow had ever been completed.  

Not everyone agrees that EPCOT would have been the utopia Walt dreamed of (in fact, Business Insider went so far as to describe it as an “eerie futuristic dystopia”). Disney’s plan involved retaining absolute control over the city, with citizens being denied what many would consider to be basic rights. Would this trade-off have been worth it, in order to live in a constantly evolving living experiment? Would you have enjoyed living in EPCOT? Let’s take a look, and you can decide…

Walt’s grand vision

Image - Boy Scouts of America/Wikimedia Commons

It’s probably not too bold to say that, if completed in his lifetime, Walt would have considered the Experimental Prototype of the Community of Tomorrow  his magnum opus. As much joy as he spread through entertainment in the forms of film, animation and theme parks, Walt was very much a futurist. A father and grandfather many times over, he was concerned with what the world would be like for his descendants. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the idea of developing his own city came into Walt’s head. We do know that New York’s World Fair in 1963-64 was a big event for the expansion of the idea. Walt debuted a special attraction called The Carousel of Progress, which used Audio-Animatronics to show the evolution of science and technology.

The most interesting part of the attraction was the fifth act, which contained a detailed model of what Walt dubbed Progress City. It had many of the most significant aspects of Walt’s plans for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Those included the radial design, the urban center, the green belt, the industrial park, the Monorails and the PeopleMovers. The Carousel of Progress was exported to Disneyland in 1967 and later sent to the Magic Kingdom in 1975. It was a well-liked attraction, but what really matters is that it was the first appearance of the utopia Walt was planning in the background.

Walt’s ideas grew more complex and increasingly tangible over time. Once he had acquired a massive amount of property in Florida, he went to Disney’s board of directors with his idea for a Disney World that included an “Experimental Prototype of the Community of Tomorrow.” He didn’t get much traction at first; the board wasn’t convinced Disney World would get a lot of tourists at the Disney World as Walt described it. They wanted something like a second Disneyland, but… bigger. Even though it wasn’t his ultimate goal, Walt agreed to make a theme park in the northernmost part of the property if it meant that his vision for EPCOT could be realized. It wouldn’t be anyway, sadly. At least not the way he intended.

The fundamentals of EPCOT

Image © Disney

There are some signature ideas that defined EPCOT the city. Four in particular stand out as ingenious concepts that could have had the potential to change the world, but only one ever saw the light of day as a part of the Epcot theme park. Hopefully the other concepts will still someday find new life. 

The radial design 

Image © Disney

It shouldn’t be surprising considering that he’s an artist, but Walt Disney is fascinated by design. Design is largely about shapes, and for Progress City Walt wanted a perfect circle. In fact, EPCOT was meant to be like a wheel with a central core. Walt was largely inspired by the book Garden Cities of Tomorrow by Ebenezer Howard for this.

The focus on the future

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Walt wanted to be able to always keep his special city up-to-date. Whereas parts of most cities degrade or fall into disrepair , in EPCOT the wheel would constantly turn to keep it a clean, beautiful, technologically advanced city. Walt was one-upping what he did for Disneyland with its always-clean streets with an actual city that would never look “shabby”.

The transportation

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This is the part of EPCOT that made it into the theme park Epcot. The monorail is an extremely interesting invention, and Walt Disney did a lot to pioneer it because of his plans for a futuristic city. The use of the monorail is advantageous at Walt Disney World, but it would have likely been deemed revolutionary if EPCOT was created.

Life in the Community of Tomorrow

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In a short period of time Walt Disney conjured up a lot of ideas for his city. One of his biggest concerns was, naturally, how people would live there as opposed to in typical cities. His plans are radical even by today’s standards, over forty years after he envisioned them. Here are some aspects of everyday life that Walt had considered for his Experimental Prototype of the Community  of Tomorrow, covered mainly in a 25-minute video you can watch here

Working in EPCOT

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Absolutely everyone 18 and older would have had to hold a job at EPCOT. Retiring wasn’t going to exist there. Outside of special circumstances, you would only be able to stop working when you died or after you left (possibly moving to a separate community elsewhere at Disney World). Walt believed that this would prevent slums or ghettos from forming in any part of his magical city. If everyone had a job then no one would be struggling to pay rent or eat. With everyone working all the citizens of the Experimental Prototype of the Community of Tomorrow would theoretically have their basic needs met.

Living in EPCOT

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There would have been two different areas to live in EPCOT, depending on what you preferred and what you could afford. There would be high-density housing area for most people in the city. We only know a little about what those apartments would have been like. As urban homes they wouldn’t be very spacious. They were designed to easily adapt to the emerging technology that Walt Disney was so passionate about. The hardware (and someday the software) in your home would have been updated regularly. Walt claimed that the prices for these homes would have been “modest” and “competitive with the surrounding market.”

For the upper-class members of society in EPCOT, there were low-density areas more like neighborhoods. As you can see in the concept art pictured above, the residential areas were akin to petals on a flower. Houses would be on the rims of each of the petals, and inside the petal was a green area for grass, trees, etc. The area would also have recreational options and play areas for kids. Like the apartments, the houses would be equipped to easily update to emerging technologies.

A crucial part of residence in EPCOT was that no one but Disney would own the land. This was so Walt and his successors could easily make updates and changes without being slowed down by, or worse, halted completely by a vote not in their favor. This would make it easier for EPCOT to always be the most cutting-edge city possible, but various individuals and groups have questioned over the years the feasibility and morality of a system where residents have such little control.

Getting around in EPCOT

Image © Disney

Image © Disney

One of Walt Disney’s core philosophies regarding the Experimental Prototype of the Community of Tomorrow was that no one would need a car to travel within EPCOT. Walt fervently believed that communal transportation was the future. His specific future involved a little something you might be familiar with called the monorail system. It was introduced in 1959 at Disneyland, but there it was more another attraction than a monumental innovation. In Orlando it was going to be a futuristic transportation system that would go through the center of the city, connecting Walt’s magical city with the rest of the massive Disney World property. 

Transportation within the city itself was going to be through a system called the WEDway PeopleMover. Described as a transportation system that never stopped moving, it would have sent people from the center to the outer edges of EPCOT. The monorail and the PeopleMover would come together at the EPCOT Transportation Lobby. 

With both the monorail and the PeopleMover, cars wouldn’t be needed except for what Walt described in the video as “weekend pleasure trips.” The roads for those cars and for trucks carrying supplies that the city would need to keep running would be located underground, as to not disturb or endanger the pedestrians above. This connects to the fabled story of Walt Disney seeing a cowboy from Frontierland in Tomorrowland at Disneyland. Just like he didn’t want people to be distracted by the inner workings of his parks, he didn’t want residents to be reminded that EPCOT wasn’t a totally self-sufficient city. That’s a testament to Walt’s strive for perfection, as unattainable as it might ultimately be.

Visiting EPCOT

Image © Disney

Image © Disney

EPCOT would of course have plenty of visitors. People would have come to the city to see if it was a place they would want to live or just out of sheer curiosity over such a unique idea. They would have travelled into the city through the monorail and through the city via the PeopleMover, as mentioned above. But that still leaves the question of where visitors would stay. Walt dreamed up a grand 30-story Cosmopolitan Hotel and Convention Center, which would have been the tallest building in all of EPCOT. Like the roads, the parking lot would have been located underneath the city core. The roof would have been its own recreational area, with a pool, tennis courts, basketball courts and more to entertain the guests. Also surrounding the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Convention Center would be a lot of shops and restaurants, which leads to another aspect of life in EPCOT.

Experiencing culture in EPCOT

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Walt Disney was very concerned with maintaining a sense of culture in his city. He respected America for being a land of immigrants, and wanted that to be showcased in his utopia with multiple districts that displayed a lot of diversity. The concept art for the international shopping center shows specific places for Spanish, Asian and Irish cultures. That was probably intended to just be the start. Look above at the Spanish quarter. This concept would ultimately see (a very different) life as the World Showcase at the Epcot theme park.

City services at EPCOT

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The area between the core of the city and the elite residential area would be a substantial amount of grass field, referred to by planners as the Green Belt. City services would have been located here. That includes community centers, parks/playgrounds and churches. Providing services like those would probably have been one of the hardest aspects of the city to get right. Having places for a number of different groups to interact, enough recreational options for all residents and churches for all faiths would be no easy feat. Something so complex was probably a compelling reason for the people who ran The Walt Disney Company after Walt to get skittish about going through with EPCOT as a city.

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.