A note to the reader: For clarity Walt Disney is referred to only as his full name or as Walt. The same is true with any other members of the Disney family that are referenced. The eponymous company is referred to as Disney, both the animation studio and the broader entertainment company.
If you were to ask any of Disney’s nearly quarter of a million cast members who their employer is, they would likely tell you that they work for The Mouse. Mickey Mouse isn’t just an iconic fictional character, but a physical and metaphorical representative of the largest media conglomerate in the world. It is an unspoken rule that everyone from the cast member handing out churros to the CEO all rank below Mickey’s supreme authority.
Despite the obvious fact that none of the employees answer to a fictional rodent in their day to day activities, there is more truth in it than many of them even realize. It is an open secret that the land in central Florida that Walt Disney World occupies isn’t just owned by Disney, it is more or less directly governed by the company. The Reedy Creek Improvement District is a supposedly independent government that operates the fire services, waste disposal, transportation, and even phone and electrical services. However, all of the members of the government and even its residents are hand picked by Disney to make sure they have near complete control of the local municipality. Essentially, they pay taxes to themselves to govern their own territory.
This is a wholly unique entity. Although many corporations have large impacts on their governing bodies and can often make sure that the regulations are in their favor, they don’t actually run their own government. How Disney was able to achieve this sort of unprecedented authority goes all the way back to the inception of what Walt Disney called ‘The Florida Project.’ It may be the largest single-site employer in the entire world with seventy-seven thousand employees, but the Walt Disney World of today is only a shadow of the imagination of its inception.
Walt Disney wasn’t looking to just make Disneyland for the East Coast. Disney’s plan for the former swamp land was to build a technotopia where cutting edge technology and innovative city planning would create a perfect city that all others would strive to emulate. At the head of this city was Disney himself overseeing the design, governance, and even the lives of its residents. This is the story of EPCOT; not the now iconic theme park, but the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. The proposed company town whose ideas were so ambitious and forward thinking, that only a fantasy maker would have conceived of it.
Disney was not the first man to think that a company run city was the solution to all of the woes of industrialization. Rail tycoon George Pullman purchased 4,000 acres of land near his factory south of Chicago and constructed a planned town that he decided to modestly name after himself. When the Columbian Exposition came to Chicago in 1893, the town of Pullman saw massive tourism and was advertised as the model city of the future.
In reality, the perfect exterior was a facade for the rot that was beneath the surface. Company towns ended up being more or less indentured servitude. Tensions rose to a boiling point when Pullman refused to negotiate with the union which led to a massive strike. The strike was eventually settled, but it spelled the end for the town as a corporatocracy. By 1907, the company had sold all residential property and the city of Pullman ceased to be a company town, although it still exists as a standard municipality.
Despite the failure of Pullman, many others tried to make the concept work. In the 1920’s 80% of all coal miners in West Virginia lived in company towns and were paid in company scrip instead of actual currency. Even Henry Ford tried to set up a company town in northern Brazil in order to subvert a British monopoly on rubber. Like Pullman, it also had the modest name of Fordlândia, but failed even worse than Pullman, never even starting production. Nearly all company towns in history have ended in unmitigated disaster and have been mostly abandoned in industrialized nations. However, Walt Disney didn’t see these as a flawed concept. He saw them as flawed in their execution, and he could do it better.
Walt Disney had always believed he knew what was best for the people who worked for him. At the animation studio, workers were paid according to how Walt felt about their work instead of seniority or job description. Another grievance was his refusal to allow them to unionize. The first decades of the 20th century saw trade unions cropping up in nearly every sector, and entertainment was no different. The Screen Cartoonist’s Guild gained footholds at many studios, but Walt refused to even consider it. Despite his assertion that he knew what was best for his workers, his workers disagreed.
The 1941 animator strike is one of the darkest chapters in Disney’s history and it is largely due to how Walt handled the situation. Not understanding why anyone would be upset with his management style, he asserted that the actual cause was communist rabble rousers attempting to disrupt the production of propaganda shorts he was animating for the US government. The fact that the Soviet Union was an ally of the US in WWII didn’t seem to assuage his fears. He fired the workers attempting to start a union and threatened mass layoff for those who sympathized, but the workers called his bluff. After losing half of his staff and with the deadline for his newest production, Dumbo, quickly approaching and also falling behind on their government contracts, Walt acquiesced. He was still convinced the strike was a Soviet ploy, but with little recourse, the idea of a company town was shelved as he turned his ambitions to his next project, and it was the project that would change his company, and change the world forever.
On the 17th of July, 1955, Disneyland park opened its gates for the first time. Despite a rocky first day, Disneyland became an undisputed success. It is important to remember that in the lead up to Disneyland, very few people believed Walt’s idea would succeed. Even his brother, Roy O. Disney, who ran the studio’s budget, thought the scheme was hairbrained and likely to fail. With Roy’s refusal to put company assets at risk, Walt created a spin off company called WED Industries and invested the bulk of his personal wealth in it, along with pulling as many favors as he could to fund the project. Practically nobody believed that Disney’s plan for a family theme park could succeed. The story of Disneyland’s development is unquestionably a Megaproject, so let us know if you would like to see that by sounding off in the comment section.
By the end of the 1950’s, there was nobody doubting Walt’s park. Disneyland was already an American icon. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was furious upon being told he could not visit the park during his 1959 trip to America. However, it wasn’t just the thrilling rides or popular characters that made the park unique. WED Industries had one of the greatest teams of engineers, architechs, artists, and creatives that Walt decided to call Imagineers. Instead of designing the park like a boardwalk or midway like the majority of theme parks at the time, they designed it like a city. The entire park was to be plotted out with urban design in mind.
The imagineers took a concept that was starting to be developed in some logistical planning and translated it to urban design. The hub and spoke design is a simple, but brilliant concept. In the middle, there is an icon and central plaza. In Disneyland, that icon is Sleeping Beauty castle. Then, a series of pathways project out from this central plaza to the different sections of the park while those sections connect to each other via a path that circumnavigates the entire property. When you look at a map of Disneyland from above, you see the pattern that looks like an old hub and spoke wagon wheel.
Although Disneyland was the first major property to use this design, it was not the last. Malls, museums, cities, and even other theme parks use this design and variations of it to move people efficiently and quickly. Disneyland was quickly put in architecture and urban design books as a model to be emulated.
Walt Disney had always been seen as an innovator in the world of entertainment, but the success of Disneyland projected him above the role of a simple cartoon producer and into the niche and esteemed role of Futurist. Walt, however, was not satisfied with his West Coast park. Disney thought there was more that he could provide the world. To do this, he had to think even bigger. This hub and spoke design was innovative and needed to be implemented on a larger scale. It needed to be on the scale of an entire city.
As Walt started dreaming about his new vision, there were a few practical matters to tackle first. They had to figure out if an East Coast park would negatively impact Disneyland. If a new park would put the old one out of business, it wouldn’t be a plan worth pursuing, but it didn’t take them long to find out it wouldn’t be an issue. Only 10% of Disneyland’s guests were coming from East of the Mississippi, so there was little chance of making the park unprofitable. Now, they had to figure out if East Coast residents wanted a park, where to put it, and what to fill it with. The first thought was to have the park built near New York City capitalizing on the large population and on the upcoming 1964 World’s fair, but the plan was quickly scrapped. New York’s cold winters mean that the park would only be seasonal and drastically limit profitability.
This is when central Florida was settled upon. While flying overhead in a small prop plane, Walt pointed at a junction where two major roadways linked. He also noticed it was close to the city of Orlando. The land was cheap swamp land and it was far enough south for weather to allow year round operation. Walt decided then and there that his new park, and more importantly his city, would be built here.
Before any significant planning could take place, they had to acquire land. This had been the biggest thorn in Walt’s side in Anaheim. Since the park was in the middle of the city, it had no room to expand and also was surrounded by businesses that Walt thought were tacky and exploitative. This was far from the magical experience he wanted for his guests. This is a mistake he would not make twice. He would buy up enough land that he would never have to worry about incursions from outside entities and could expand as much as he liked.
This presented a problem in and of itself. If Walt Disney walked into a realtor’s office and bought a large swath of land, the price of that land would shoot through the roof. An East Coast park had been rumored for years and everyone would want to be as close as possible to Walt’s new masterpiece. In order to make this a reality, Walt, Roy, and many others set up dozens of shell companies and purchased small pieces of land. We must also give some credit to whoever it was in charge of naming the shell companies, because names such as M.T. Lot Realestate and Retlaw Incorporated (just Walter backward) are hilarious. They started using these aliases to buy land in May of 1965 and continued to buy as much land as they could before the news inevitably leaked. They picked up land that is among the most desirable in the country today for pennies on the dollar. Some of the land was as cheap as $100 an acre.
By October, 1965, suspicions were high. It had not gone unnoticed that a series of recently formed companies were all buying land in the same area. However, they had covered their tracks well enough to evade being outed entirely, although Disney was a prime suspect. After a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel was among those invited to tour Disneyland, he grilled Walt on his involvement with the land purchases. Although Walt didn’t let the news slip, the reporter printed a story airing his suspicions. Seeing that the jig was up, it was confirmed that Disney had big plans in Florida, and those plans were bigger than anyone had hoped.
Along with the businessnesses and crowding, another of the annoyances of Aneheim was having to have all of their projects approved by the city and state government. Not only did they have to have detailed plans that offered little variability once approved, these plans were public record. This meant that many of the projects in Disneyland were completely known to the public long before they were ready to be shown. This frustrated Walt to no end, seeing this as a crack in his magic. It also wasn’t a situation that he would tolerate for his new utopia. He had no time for governmental oversight and even less for the public peering in on his plans. This is when he gave the state of Florida an ultimatum. Give us control of our land, or we will find someone else who will.
It is hard to know how realistic this threat was. The land was already purchased and the plans were well in development. However, Walt Disney was a juggernaut of business, and even more so a juggernaut of personality. He went on a media frenzy touting the thousands of jobs and six billion dollars he would bring to Florida, and he wasn’t exaggerating. The plans that were starting to trickle out were ambitious beyond what anyone could imagine and the people were starting to pressure the state government to sign over control.
Walt was absolutely obsessed with making his plan a reality. He had long ago given up control of the animation studio and he didn’t even spend much time working on his beloved Disneyland park. Every moment of his life had been dedicated to this project. Aiding in these beliefs, he had started a close friendship with science fiction writer and futurist Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was so impressed with Walt’s visions that he genuinely believed that he could find the solutions of urban life. Working together, they were a tour de force of innovation and imagination. The ambition skyrocketed and the plans started to come together.
But all was not well. Walt’s half a century of chain smoking had caused him to struggle with breathing. Simple tasks became difficult. However, he said that he was too busy to seek treatment and he plowed ahead. Eventually, there was no avoiding it. He was forced to see a doctor about the condition, and the news was devastating. It was lung cancer, very advanced and extremely aggressive. The outlook was bleak. While undergoing treatment for the cancer, Walt would call over Roy or the others visiting him and gesture to the tiled ceiling, using it as a map to keep explaining his vision. He wanted them to write it down so that when he finally was feeling better, he could implement it into the plan. However, he didn’t get better. On December 17th, 1966 Walt Disney died, surrounded by his family.
The news was devastating. On top of the deep personal loss for the Disney family, the company was devastated at the loss of its leader. Despite all of the controversy that Walt had caused among his employees, there was one thing that was almost never in doubt. Practically everyone had said he was doing what he thought was best for all of them. Even when they disagreed or even fought, Walt wanted every one of his employees to flourish and be happy. Although criticisms of his management style were and still are valid, those closest to him, even his critics, knew that there would never be anyone like him again.
The Florida project was in shambles. What would it be without Walt? How can you make the city of tomorrow without its architect and visionary there to guide it? The decision was made to move forward. At every turn and in every part of the company the question “What would Walt do?” would be the guiding star for them to wish upon.
On February 2nd, 1967 Roy Disney held a press conference to outline their project to the whole world. At this press conference, they showed the model for EPCOT as well as a video of their vision for the city. This had been the last thing that Walt had ever recorded. With the drive and energy he had always had, he outlined this city that all other cities would be based off of. This video could be considered the pinnacle of mid century futurism and the city would have been a beacon of that ideology.
The first part of EPCOT was to build the East Coast park. Like Disneyland, it would be a place for children and adults to have fun together and enjoy a reprieve from the rat race of modern day life. However, the park was hardly mentioned. It wasn’t Walt’s focus. The city itself was to be a shining city on a hill. The original EPCOT was a Megaproject full of Megaprojects. Any one aspect of his plan would have been ambitious, let alone building a city full of them. Believe us when we say we are only covering the highlights. His EPCOT video has been republished in its entirety countless times, so if this is something you are interested in, we recommend tracking it down.
Walt’s goal was no less than to make a city that was free from most of life’s problems. Although every little woe and sadness couldn’t be overcome, he thought that there were many that could. About two decades before, the great American architect Frank Loyd Wright had started his Usonia movement with the idea that good design would cause good living. Walt would build on this belief on an urban scale. There were three main issues that had been broadly put forth as the biggest issues that stemmed from urbanization. Those issues were transportation, separation of work and residences, and overcrowding. Walt believed that clever city design and modern technology could solve all of these issues.
The streets would be quiet as all traffic would be channeled underground. Several levels of underground road systems would separate out delivery trucks, local commuters, and those just passing through. There would also be massive underground parking lots so there wouldn’t need to be any need for the unsightly and loud motorways to disturb the communities above.
This was one of the key features of the city. All above ground spaces would be explicitly car free with pedestrians being able to walk from any point to any other without having to see a single motor vehicle. Walt hated the way that cars had transformed American cities into loud and crowded disasters where traffic was one of the biggest hassles everyone dealt with daily.
Going all the way back to his design for Disneyland, the entire city was planned around the hub and spoke design. This was a stark contrast to most American cities. Most planned cities of the last several centuries were laid out on a grid system. This was great for organization and navigation, but Walt saw it as a negative as soon as cars invaded spaces that were not initially designed for them. With this in mind the hub and spoke radiated out from the very center of the city, all the way to its edge. Similar to other urban centers, the farther inward one went, the denser population was.
Like Sleeping Beauty Castle at the center of Disneyland, EPCOT would have had a hotel skyscraper at its center. Itself a piece of modern design, it would have held room for all visitors to the city and to the theme park. It would have had access to all of the most modern technology with companies using the city to test out their new ideas.
This is also where much of the funding of the city would have come from. The initial estimates of the cost of the city sat at six hundred thousand dollars (around 5.2 billion today) but that almost certainly would not have been enough. EPCOT park cost eight hundred thousand (about one billion today) and it didn’t come anywhere near the size and scale of the city. No modern study has even tried to tackle what the actual cost may have been, but conservatives estimates put it at 6 billion dollars (over fifty billion dollars today.)
Disney planned on funding all of this by offering corporate offices in the city. If a business decided to set up shop there, they could have their employees live and work within the city. In return, they would rent spaces from Disney as well as integrate their technology into the homes of the residents. He imagined that homes and workplaces would be constantly updated with new technology and that companies from across the globe would pay for the privilege.
While the idea may seem a bit far-fetched, it was a model that had worked before, although not on that sort of scale. Disneyland had many sponsored attractions that were paid for and maintained by corporate sponsors. Also, Disney Imagineers had designed multiple attractions for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, all of which were paid for by partners. It is still highly doubtful that it would have worked. The project would have also been funded by large retail spaces that are largely reminiscent of shopping malls that residents and tourists alike would spend their hard earned money. Naturally, these stores’ rent and part of shoppers’ taxes would be paid to the city.
Another of the most ambitious projects of the city was its public transportation. With no cars above ground, the citizens of the city still needed a way to get from place to place, and Walt had just the thing. Firstly, Disneyland had been running a monorail for years and it had functioned as an attraction and as mass transit. Similarly, Imagineers had designed an omnimover system that could be converted from dark ride vehicles it was used on to mass transit systems. This omnimover, entitled the Peoplemover, would have a series of vehicles that all moved at a fixed rate. People would fill in the cars as they moved by slowly with moving walkways making boarding safe. The entire system would be constantly moving with vehicles that never stopped. Many of Disney’s most popular rides today such as The Haunted Mansion, Voyage of the Little Mermaid, and appropriately The Peoplemover, use this system.
Lastly, there would be a circular park that seperated the central industrial and shopping areas from the residential areas further askew of the center. This was meant to be both a metaphorical and physical border between work and home. Once someone had moved through the Greenbelt, it was a sign that their work day was over and that the rest of the time was theirs and not their employers.
Some of the reporting on the plan even claimed that the entire city was to be domed and temperature controlled. Reports are mixed on this, but it seems to be an exaggeration or an idea that was considered extremely briefly and immediately nixed. Although none of the original planning documents mention this, it is possible that it was a rumor that Walt and Roy happily allowed to spread as it built excitement for the project and helped aid in the goal of convincing the Florida government to grant them the land charter.
Up until his final breaths, Walt believed that EPCOT was the most important project of his life. He told everyone around him that the Florida Project was his legacy. Walt was right, but not in the way that he had hoped. The state of Florida granted Disney a special administrative zone on the land that they had purchased to develop this city with very little governmental oversight. They started to move ahead with the project just as Walt wanted.
If it seems like we were a little light on details, that’s because Walt was too. This was just how he did things. He would propose an idea to his imagineers and they would make it a reality. It had worked more times than not up until this point. It may have started small with “I want that girl to dance with cartoons,” or “make them feel like they’re flying over London,” but eventually, he wanted his imagineers to build a utopian city.
Because of this, the whole project sagged under the weight of its ambition. Despite Roy coming out of retirement to personally oversee his little brother’s project, the city of EPCOT was shelved. It was far too much to undertake all at once, possibly ever. For now, they would focus on the guaranteed win of an East Coast Disneyland. With this larger space and all encompassing immersion, the Florida park was dubbed Disneyworld. However, one change was recommended. Roy watched Walt pour his entire life into this project with the goal of changing the world. They decided to name the new resort Walt Disney World.
Even half a century later, Walt’s vision for EPCOT is incredibly ambitious. Fifty years of progress has made many of the ideas possible, but just as many are still a ways off. However, many of the aspects that Walt envisioned have been surpassed by the park. While Walt envisioned a city with a population of twenty thousand, the Magic Kingdom alone has an average daily attendance of sixty thousand guests. At peak times, there can be nearly a half a million people within Walt Disney World’s borders. All four of the parks are on the list of top global tourist attractions and Disney Imagineering is still one of the top developers of cutting edge technology.
With the success of The Magic Kingdom, the second gate of the resort would bring more of Walt’s vision into reality. EPCOT park would have a permanent World’s Fair just like the one in New York he worked so hard on. There are eleven countries on display with cultural representatives there to share their way of life to all who visit. Other spaces in the park are dedicated to agricultural progress and sustainability, even serving food grown on the property in its own restaurants.
Right at the entrance of the park is the enormous freestanding sphere entitled Spaceship Earth. On the inside, a dark ride of the same name uses an omnimover system to take guests on a journey across time to see the entire scope of human communication. Written by Ray Bradbury as a tribute to his friend’s life ambition, it highlights much of what Walt was trying to accomplish in his grand vision of EPCOT.
Planned cities, underground infrastructure, technological advancement, and global tourist attractions have all been megaprojects on their own. EPCOT was ambitious in a way that few other projects have been. Only major global superpowers have tackled anything on this scale, and a lot of those still failed. The original vision of EPCOT was almost certainly impossible to achieve. Even if Walt had lived another ten years to develop the project, the time, technology, and cost would have made every single aspect of it prohibitively difficult.
In its own way, EPCOT is representative of Walt Disney himself. He was a man who through the strength of his dreams and his belief in humanity and in himself changed the world in ways that few other individuals ever have. His legacy lives on in the park that bears his name and the innovations that have stemmed from them. Although it is hardly the city of tomorrow that Walt Disney had envisioned, aspects of his ideas are seen in every corner of the park added in loving reference to the man and his astounding vision.