Walt Disney’s EPCOT: The City of Tomorrow that Might Have Been - The Objective Standard

“Invent your own job; take such an interest in it that you eat, sleep, dream, walk, talk, and live nothing but your work until you succeed.”1 That was Walt Disney’s motto—and exactly how he lived. Passionate about his vision, he persisted until he made it reality, often overcoming seemingly impassible obstacles. In order to succeed in building his entertainment empire, and later his first theme park, Disneyland, Disney made his work his life, an all-consuming, 24/7 state of being. Even in the last years of his life, he ate, slept, dreamed, walked, talked, and lived nothing but his work—but by then his focus had shifted from filmmaking and Disneyland to Walt Disney World.

According to Disney, Walt Disney World was “the most exciting and challenging assignment . . . ever tackled at Walt Disney Productions.”2 However, the Walt Disney World we know today is a far cry from what Disney himself had envisioned. Walt Disney did not intend it to be the world’s largest vacation resort but rather the epicenter of a transformation in urban planning, which would improve domestic living by imbuing it with groundbreaking technology. The heart of Walt Disney World was to be EPCOT, not the theme park that currently bears that name but an actual Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a futuristic city that would serve as a proving ground for the latest science and technology. EPCOT was Disney’s pet project in his later years. Sadly, he passed away before it was completed, and without his passion and persistence, the futuristic city he had envisioned would not come to be. His vision and tenacity, nevertheless, are remarkable in themselves.

Long before tackling the EPCOT project, Disney persisted in the face of many setbacks and stumbles, some of which threatened to leave him homeless and hungry. Although he did everything he could to save them, Disney’s first two animation studios failed. His third studio, formed with his brother, Roy, after the two moved to California, finally saw success with its popular animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unfortunately, in the face of this success, Disney discovered that the rights to his creation were actually held by Universal. Forging ahead, he strode past this disappointment by creating Mickey Mouse, who became far more popular with moviegoers than his predecessor and brought the studio much recognition and wealth.

Even after Mickey Mouse had become a regular on the silver screen, however, Disney was eager to innovate again. In his eyes, his production studio needed a “new adventure,” a “‘kick in the pants,’ to jar loose some new enthusiasm and inspiration.”3 In 1934, Disney began developing the studio’s first full-length feature animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Despite his own enthusiasm, however, many friends and associates, including his brother and wife, thought the film would destroy the Disney Studio. Indeed, financial troubles nearly halted production. But Disney refused to give up, mortgaging his house and taking out a loan to complete the film—which became one of the most popular films of 1937 (and, adjusted for inflation, is number ten on the list of top-grossing American films), establishing him as a master in the entertainment industry.

Such persistence and passion would be crucial to the development and creation of EPCOT, which, as Disney conceived it, became a monumental undertaking. He envisioned EPCOT as a revolution in urban planning, “a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems.”4 It was to be a completely functioning prototype city in which captains of industry could test their solutions for the problems of modern-day city living. For this reason, all residents would rent rather than own their homes, and Disney Corporation would constantly update, change, and test the technology therein. As Disney indicated in a 1966 promotional film, residents’ homes would “be built in ways that permit ease of change so that new products may continuously be demonstrated.”5 During the workday, residents would enjoy a city geared toward maximizing their efficiency and productivity. Outside of work, EPCOT would provide them with a safe, convenient, entertaining, and educational atmosphere.

To bring EPCOT to life, Disney turned to the company he founded to oversee the creation of Disneyland, WED Enterprises (“WED” being Disney’s initials). Staffed with Imagineers, who used “a blending of creative imaginations with technical know-how,” WED designed and created a scale model of EPCOT, known as “Progress City.”6 Built at a scale of one-eighth of an inch to the foot, the model was 6,900 square feet and included 20,000 hand-planted trees and shrubs, and 4,500 electrically lit buildings. It was EPCOT in full miniature with various moving parts and all the trimmings. Judging from the model, living and working in EPCOT would have been an exciting experience and a visual treat.7

For an area twice the size of Manhattan, Disney and his Imagineers drew up some startling plans. EPCOT would feature a distinctive and remarkably efficient radial design. “Picture a wheel: like the spokes of a wheel, the city fans out along a series of radials from a bustling hub at the center of EPCOT,” comments the narrator of the 1966 film.8 The hub featured a thirty-plus story hotel and convention center, along with a seven-acre deck area devoted to recreation. Surrounding the hub were five areas of activity. The first was a business and commerce area that included a climate-controlled shopping area. This area, about fifty acres in size, would be encased in a glass dome that protected buildings and pedestrians from the elements. Just outside the hub would be an area containing high-density apartment housing for many of those who worked in the hotel, retail, and office facilities. A short distance from the city’s hub would be an industrial park; this would serve as the production center of EPCOT. Here scientists, engineers, inventors, and industrialists would develop the groundbreaking technology for deployment elsewhere in the city and, ultimately, after testing and refinement, in cities throughout the world. Further away from the hub, a greenbelt would contain private schools and churches, as well as golf courses, parks, and other amenities for recreation. Farthest away from the hub, the suburban residential area would house many of those working in the industrial park. How residents would move between these areas of activity is one of the most unique and exciting aspects of EPCOT.

Disney planned four modes of transportation in and around EPCOT, including an airport that would serve Walt Disney World. Inside EPCOT, there would be two main transportation systems that converged at a transportation lobby in the core. A monorail system would transport passengers from the hub to the one-thousand-acre industrial park. A new type of transportation system first implemented at Disneyland, the WEDWAY people mover, would move people from the low-density housing area to the core. The WEDWAY consisted of a belt of continually moving cars, which meant that a car was always available for a commuter to step into and take a relaxing seat. This would allow for a new type of freedom: Rather than wait at traffic lights or be stuck in heavy rush-hour traffic (Disney hated traffic and wanted to eliminate it from his city), commuters would have free time for activities such as reading the newspaper or working on business projects.

Disney had incorporated into Disneyland a monorail and a people mover, both of which proved successful: “Disneyland vehicles [had] carried 340 million passengers in comfort and speed and [had] traveled more than 19 million miles in unequaled safety.”9 EPCOT’s transportation system would likely have paralleled Disneyland’s accomplishment by carrying EPCOT’s 20,000 residents in speed, style, and safety. And, given the various forms of transportation available inside EPCOT, residents would need their cars only to travel outside the city. For this reason the city surface would be free of roads; automobiles that needed to travel through EPCOT would do so unseen and unheard via underground tunnels.

This grand project faced numerous obstacles, which Disney either overcame or was in the process of overcoming when he passed away. The first of these was finding and acquiring suitable land. Among the sites considered in Florida were Palm Beach and Daytona, but Disney eventually settled on Orlando because of its location at the intersection of Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike. The 27,400 acres on which Walt Disney World was to be built were acquired piecemeal over the course of two years. The most difficult part of the process was keeping secret who was purchasing the land. If it became known that Disney was snapping up parcels in the area, landowners would demand much more for their properties and the project would become prohibitively expensive. (Indeed, when only a few acres remained to be purchased, Disney’s name was revealed, and those remaining acres shot up in price from an average of $183 to more than $1,000 an acre.) In order to conceal its involvement in the purchase, Disney Corporation created dummy companies to negotiate the land transactions.

This worked well for the most part, but the project was almost halted due to Disney’s near inability to acquire a crucial piece of land. Called the Demetree Tract, this parcel of land was 12,440 acres and occupied nearly half of the area that Disney was attempting to buy. Although a Disney representative was able to obtain an option to buy the surface rights to the land, Tufts University owned the underground rights and had not been willing to sell them for years on end. Disney knew that if Tufts retained underground rights, any exploration it attempted would disrupt Disney’s operations on the surface and prevent the building of the underground tunnels. Determined to buy that land, Disney researched the companies that had explored for oil and minerals on the land and obtained a letter from one of them stating that no significant oil or mineral deposits were to be found in the tract. Armed with this information, Disney’s lawyers were able to negotiate a deal with Tufts to buy several thousand acres of mineral rights, thus protecting his use of the surface.

The land purchase hurdle having been cleared, Disney turned to EPCOT’s next obstacle. As Disney indicated in his 1966 film presentation, “EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”10 To make this a reality, Disney would have to convince the Florida legislature first to let him develop the property without costly taxation and then to operate EPCOT with little government interference. To ensure that the land purchased by the Disney Corporation would remain taxed at a lower rate while it was still under development, Disney’s associates successfully negotiated with the Florida legislature to guarantee a tax rate suitable for undeveloped land, thereby saving the company millions of dollars over a period of five years.

Next, Disney set out to convince the legislature to relinquish within Walt Disney World certain controls that the state traditionally managed (such as zoning ordinances and building codes) and to create for Disney two municipalities and an improvement district, which allowed Disney to place its own infrastructure and utilities in lieu of those normally provided by the state. One of the concerns legislators had was that Disney might use his regulatory power over Walt Disney World to issue tax-exempt municipal bonds for building his private business, but Disney responded, “The use of governmental bonds (tax exempt) for building any function that could be built privately is repugnant to us.”11 In 1967, Disney’s EPCOT film was shown posthumously to both houses of the Florida legislature. Although Florida was in the midst of major political changes (the districts in Florida had just been reapportioned, and the citizens had just elected their first Republican governor since Reconstruction, who oversaw two Democratic houses), a bill granting Disney sovereignty over his landholding passed with little debate and was signed into law on May 12, 1967—a major victory for the Disney Corporation.

An even larger obstacle was that of obtaining financing for EPCOT. In 1965, when Walt Disney World was announced, it came with a price tag of $100 million. Within just a couple of years that price tag rose to $500 million and then $600 million. However, with a project of EPCOT’s magnitude, it is likely the final price tag would have risen even higher, perhaps to billions of dollars. Although he created a promotional film (similar to that shown to the Florida lawmakers) to be shown to corporations to ignite their interest in investing in EPCOT, Disney was barely able to begin the process of seeking financing before he passed away. For Disney’s 1964–65 World’s Fair exhibits, he developed three audio-animatronic exhibits, which, combined, cost several million dollars. He solicited and received financial backing from General Electric, Ford Motor Company, and PepsiCo to fund these exhibits; it is likely that he would have sought and ultimately received funding from these companies again, in addition to others.

Obstacles involving land, legislature, and financing for the EPCOT project were difficult, but with Disney at the helm, they were surmountable. What was insurmountable was Disney’s death.

A lifelong smoker, Disney was hospitalized in late 1966 after his doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer. True to form, he continued working on the EPCOT project even as he lay dying. Confined to a hospital bed, he imagined a map of EPCOT on the ceiling of his hospital bedroom and was still planning the project in his final days.12 Had cancer not taken his life, he certainly would have done everything within his power to complete EPCOT.

Unfortunately, although Disney had trained his staff well in developing theme parks, he was still in the process of learning the art of city design himself when he died, and thus was unable to pass much knowledge on the topic to his successors. For this reason, no one at his company who might have chosen to do so could carry on in his footsteps and create the technological marvel that EPCOT might have been. Moreover, Disney executives had little interest in doing so. Roy Disney, who became president of the company, did not want to pursue the project, which, as he saw it, died when Walt did.13 The other Disney executives had never been keen on the idea of EPCOT either. They did not want to risk money or time on Walt’s vision after he was gone; they wanted a lucrative venture that was comfortable and secure. So they stuck to what they were good at—building theme parks and hotels. Imagineer Marty Sklar summed it up: “It was clear pretty early that no one in the company knew how to get hold of that EPCOT idea. . . . But everybody knew how to do . . . another Disneyland in Florida with hotels where people could stay.”14

Although the original plans for Walt Disney World did include a theme park on the outskirts of EPCOT, the theme park was not intended to be the project’s centerpiece as the Magic Kingdom is today. The centerpiece would have been EPCOT—the innovative, functioning city envisioned by Disney.

The EPCOT that stands today is merely another Disney theme park. And although EPCOT, the theme park, was intended to embody the ideals of the original EPCOT, it does so only superficially and only in part. Disney had envisioned EPCOT as a showcase for American industry, technology, and free enterprise; the theme park showcases applications of technology to some extent, but a showcase of world cultures has assumed the central role. Later, the Disney Corporation did build a functioning city, Celebration, Florida. But Celebration neither strived for nor lived up to Disney’s original vision for EPCOT. Nothing is particularly innovative or exceptional about it: It is simply a well-planned master community. What both Celebration and the current EPCOT lack are Disney’s vision and his relentless dedication to bringing that vision to life. Although we will never know for sure, it is likely, given the evidence of his other ventures, that had Disney lived even another ten years, he would have brought his vision of EPCOT to fruition. Perhaps EPCOT would have become the springboard for dozens, even hundreds, of similar cities. Imagine what might have been.

The story of EPCOT demonstrates the importance of imbuing one’s life and work with passion and persistence, two virtues that enabled Walt Disney to succeed in achieving, and often exceeding, his lofty goals. We should look to Disney as a source for inspiration and adopt his virtues as a means to conquer our own challenges and achieve our own dreams.


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Craig Biddle, Alan Germani, Joe Reed, Brian Phillips, and Tom Dungey for their assistance.

1 H. W. Brands, Masters of Enterprise (New York: The Free Press, 1999), p. 188.

2 The Epcot film—transcript, http://sites.google.com/site/theoriginalepcot/the-epcot-film-transcript.

3 Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 215.

4 The Epcot film—transcript.

5 The Epcot film—transcript.

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6 The Epcot film—transcript.

7 Progress City Model, http://sites.google.com/site/theoriginalepcot/progress-city-model.

8 The Epcot film—transcript.

9 The Epcot film—transcript.

10 The Epcot film—transcript.

11 Chad Emerson, Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World (Pike Road, AL: Ayefour Publishing, 2010), p. 110.

12 Gabler, Walt Disney,p. 630.

13 Developing Walt Disney World Resort was a challenge in itself, and to his credit, Roy Disney took the reins to complete that project.

14 Michael Barrier, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). p. 320.


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