A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a trip to Walt Disney World’s Epcot. The park left me thrilled about the positive outlook it portrayed, but at the same time was depressing, as the vision was largely outdated. The park also does not come close to the bold vision Walt Disney had had for the project; at the time nicknamed E.P.C.O.T. — the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Yet the original proposal, while being largely non-existent in the park itself, can be found elsewhere in almost all aspects of our daily lives.
Disney himself filmed a presentation two months before he died in 1966 that was intended to help sell what was later to comprise Walt Disney World. The film was a pitch to the Florida Legislature and general public, but also intended to win over key industries in order to help finance the project. (It can be found on the DVD set Walt Disney Treasures – Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond.) The city was never built, and the park that was built in its stead did not open until Oct. 1, 1982, and is more a world fair than a self-contained community.
Disney considered E.P.C.O.T. to be the most interesting and important part of Disney World. It was intended to house about 20,000 inhabitants, as well as establish a nearby industrial park. A large mall-like structure in the middle of the proposed community was to feature offices, themed shopping areas resembling European cities, and host a large hotel that towered over the rest of the structure.
Surrounding this, the proposal featured individual housing for those working in the city center. Such housing was to radiate out from the center, much like the spokes of a wheel.
Connecting the living quarters with the center along those “spokes,” the project was to feature new modes of transportation. Short-distance travel, such as citizens commuting to work, was to be taken care of by “people movers,” a concept that involved railed carts that never stopped and were to offer a fast and convenient transportation. The people movers can now be found in Disney’s Magic Kingdom, albeit simply as a “ride” and not the everyday mode of transportation they were to be at E.P.C.O.T.
When I screened the movie in one of my urban planning classes as part of a presentation and asked what my classmates thought of the proposal, the consensus was that the bold planning depicted in the movie may not have gotten the financial support it would have needed to be built, but this was largely because it was years ahead of its time. A lot of the proposed aspects of E.P.C.O.T. have found their ways into aspects of our lives, albeit not in the all-encompassing way Disney intended.
Disney proposed a self-contained community that would feature a homey, “happy” atmosphere. Today, many of us live in gated communities that promise just that.
The mall-like city center proposed can now be found in virtually every American city. International Plaza Mall, here in Tampa, even features some of the European-inspired storefronts Disney envisioned.
Tampa International Airport connects the outlying terminals to the check-in counters at the center of the airport via a monorail system. It’s not exactly a people mover, but it’s close.
But not all is well in utopia. Much like the community Disney proposed, more and more of our society is owned by corporations.
One main concern students had after watching the film was that political representation within the community would likely be questionable at best. Since the entire community was to be owned by Disney, the decision of what is and isn’t permissible in the city would also have been in the hands of the corporate owners.
More and more of our country’s infrastructure is being privatized. Large corporations own entire communities and write the rulebooks. In some cases, such corporations control everything from the workplace down to housing, coming eerily close to feudalism of the past.
Disney intended E.P.C.O.T. to be a “happy” community that offered equality to all. It did, however, limit the personal freedom of those who did not agree with the established rules. In that regard, modern America is also on the way to representing what E.P.C.O.T. was to be.
Sebastian Meyer is a senior majoring in geography and is the Oracle Opinion Editor. firstname.lastname@example.org