Futurists: Walt Disney's Utopia
This is the first blog post of a series covering notable futurists. Today, I’ll share some fun facts about Walt Disney and his vision for a Utopia called EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).
Tbh, I can’t say I’ve met Walt before. But, I’ve been watching documentaries and reading biographies on this guy. I’ve realized he is too complicated of a character to cover in a reasonable amount of time. You probably know him as a creative storyteller for his animated princess movies. Or as a businessman for his Disneyland theme parks across the world. He’s been called everything from “The Walt Disney” to anti-semitic to an international disappointment. Not many people know about his childhood delivering newspapers for his father and falling asleep in winter storms in Kansas. Not many people know about the fanatical amount of time he spent drawing or about his previous bankrupt companies Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists and Laugh-O-Gram Studio. With all of his quirks and contradictions, I look up to Walt as a visionary who knew how to create magic with technology.
If you look at his track record, Walt built his legacy using technology at the right times and in the right places.
1928 Steamboat Willie: Walt combined animation with music.
This was the first cartoon to have synchronized sound. Steamboat Willie popularized Mickey Mouse and led Disney to a successful strategy of creating musical animation shorts and films for the next decade.
1932 Flowers and Trees: Walt brought full color to cartoons.
He even negotiated an exclusive deal with Technicolor to use their secret three-strip process for 3 years. This short released in full color was a huge success and secured a running start for Disney to animate more cartoons in color.
1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Walt gambled everything on the first feature-length color and sound cartoon putting the company into serious debt.
Walt used new technologies such as the multiplane camera (creating an illusion of depth by decomposing scenes into multiple moving layers) and techniques to using live actors to help animators create realistic movement. His bet paid off and led to the “Golden Age of Animation”.
1940 Fantasia: Walt created new surround sound technologies.
Although unsuccessful at the box office because of WW2 affecting European distribution, Walt advanced the field of surround sound systems by 20 years to record and play this movie. With Fantasound, watching Fantasia would sound like being in a room with a symphony that mixed nine tracks into multiple speakers.
1951: Walt starts to capitalize on TV.
He writes to shareholders “television can be a most powerful selling aid for us, as well as a source of revenue” and adopts TV as a new platform for viewers instead of as a threat like other movie studios.
1952: Walt forms WED Enterprises to build Disneyland.
Using custom-built vehicles and attractions, Walt created an immersive experience in Disney turning the giant movie set theme park alive.
1964 World Fair: Walt invests in animatronics.
He built a lifelike animatronic of Abraham Lincoln for the World Fair. This led to the “It’s a Small World” ride and brought Disneyland to life with animatronic animals and characters.
1965: Walt pitches EPCOT
Walt buys 43 sq miles of land to build an experiment to reinvent cities using existing successful technologies.
Not only was Walt a master of turning his visions into a reality with technology, but Walt also had a unique skill to inspire others to dream bigger and do more. He created kids TV shows and shorts with leading scientists of the time (some acquired from Germany after WW2 in Operation Paperclip) to teach them what is possible today with technology. In the short “Man in Space”, Walt shared what the possibilities of going to space today and even inspired Eisenhower (who established NASA) to show the short to government officials. Walt’s pitch for EPCOT is my favorite because everything Walt suggests sounds so obvious like something that should exist already. Plus, Walt’s animations and mockups communicate EPCOT so clearly, it seems like he’s already finished building the city and is now just walking us through footage of it.
Let’s dive into what made EPCOT so special. You can find the full video on Youtube and I’ll give you the highlights here.
Although there is an EPCOT at Disney World today, it is nothing like the original idea or pitch. EPCOT was Walt’s mission to redesign cities “from scratch”. The 1940s and 50s were a time of suburban growth and urban decline due to economic conditions and rampant racism in practices like redlining. This was Walt’s attempt to solve some of these problems and move us forward with a city from the future. He purchased 43 sq miles of land in Florida to make it a reality (ultimately turning into Walt Disney World after he passed away). The highlights: The “radial plan”:
The city is designed to fan out as series of radials from a bustling hub at the center of EPCOT (denoted with orange on the image above). There’s high-density apartment housing in red and blue. Then a green belt with recreation lands, playgrounds, schools providing everyone with the skills to succeed, churches, and more. Finally, there are low-density residential housing furthest out in yellow. The unique mix of urban and suburban lifestyles in this city layout is really cool to me. “The hub”:
The hub is the center of EPCOT and is the center of business and commerce with a variety of lifestyle attractions. The “crown jewel” in the middle is a towering hotel for visitors. Around the hotel are shopping areas, theaters, stores, restaurants, nightlife, offices, and more. There are no vehicles allowed in these streets where the “pedestrian is king” or queen. The crazy part: the entire hub is enclosed in “a climate-controlled environment” so people can always enjoy the area no matter the time of year. “The heartbeat” of EPCOT:
So how do people get around the city? Within EPCOT, Walt envisioned a public transportation system called the WEDway people mover. It’s a silent all-electric system that never stops moving people between the city center to the low-density housing. Motors in the track drive the cars so there won’t be any traffic jams with a car having an engine breaking down.
For transportation in and out of EPCOT, Walt provided multiple options. The city is actually built in multiple “layers”. From the top layer down, we have the WEDway people movers at the top moving people around. Then, there’s the ground level where people walk around the city center. Below the hotel lobby in the city center, there’s a high-speed monorail station bringing people in and out of the city. Below that, there’s a highway system for people to drive in and out of EPCOT and parking spaces. Walt made it a point to have no stoplights in these streets to make the driving experience as smooth as possible. At the very bottom, there’s a special highway reserved for commercial shipping and trucking to bring supplies in. (This design was inspired by urban designer Victor Gruen’s proposal for where to have the 1964’s World Fair) EPCOT World: Outside of EPCOT, the monorail connects people to the Disneyland theme parks, the industrial park, the visitor center, and the airport. Walt designed EPCOT to be a living experiment for people all over the world to talk about and visit. But there’s also more to it than just the city itself.
The industrial center is filled with corporate offices providing everyone at EPCOT with opportunities to work and learn. It’s where the top American companies come together to showcase their latest and greatest work to the world (a permanent World Fair of sorts). From the start, Walt meant for EPCOT to be a collaborative project between the imagination of Disney and the intellectual smarts of American Industry. It would be more than just a city to solve the problems of today. EPCOT would be “a community of tomorrow that will never be completed”, always reinventing itself with new ideas and new technologies. It would be a “showcase to the world” and be a “living blueprint of technology” to inspire generations to come. There’s nobody like Walt with his optimism for making the world a better place with technology and his ability to inspire others to think the same. He inspires us to believe “All our dreams can come true — if we have the courage to pursue them”. Unfortunately, Walt passed away before he was able to turn EPCOT into a reality. And there’s still no city in the US like it. Additional sources if you wanna learn more about Walt:
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (this is really long and kinda psychoanalyzes Walt for some reason)