Disney historian and urban planner Sam Gennawey traces the evolution of the EPCOT we didn't get and the Epcot we did, in a tour-de-force analysis of Walt's vision for city-building and how his City of Tomorrow might have turned out had he lived.
Beginning with Walt's earliest conceptions for "Progress City", a centrally planned, centrally run community where people could work, live, and play, Gennawey weaves urban planning concepts into a meticulously researched historical narrative that culminates in Walt's death and his brother Roy's decision to focus on building a new theme park in Florida, not an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
In Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City, you'll read about:
Disney Legend Marty Sklar says that Gennawey "captured much of the attitude and events of the times, and hit on much of Walt's drive and inspiration", and Lee Cockerell, a former Walt Disney World executive vice-president, says, "I thought I knew a lot about Epcot until I read Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City". Find out what Walt really had in mind for tomorrow!
Magic Highways USA
A Rear-View Mirror
A Clean Sheet of Paper
You Can't Top Pigs with Pigs
A Timeless Way of Building
The Quality Without a Name
The Higher Degree of Life
Doing the Right Thing
The Wizard of Bras Porch
Centers Are Measurable
The Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Beauty
The Burbank Studio
One Man’s Vision
A Machine for Making Movies
Form Follows Function
Walking Along the Grid
Soundstages and the Backlot
Virtually No Limitations
Birth of a Railfan
The Chicago Railroad Fair
A Bigger Train
From Yensid Valley to Disneyland
Imagineers Number One and Two
The Anaheim Project
The Origins of Disneyland
Mickey Mouse Park
A Graduate Course
Birth of the Imagineers
Location, Location, Location
The Feasibility Study
The Focus Group
Disneyland and the Urban Experience
The Building Blocks of Disney Theme Park Design
A New Standard for Clean
Trouble at the Border
Golden Oak Ranch
The Ranch Plan
An Idea Reborn
A Year-Round Ski Resort
Unlike Anything Else in America
Unlike Anything Else in America
The Sierra Club
Critics and Fans
The World’s Fairs
The 1958 Brussels World’s Fair
The 1962 Century 21 Exposition
The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair
Highways in the Sky
The 1964 Washington DC Plan
The Cellular Nature of Community
The Post-Fair Plan
Out of a Fair
The Florida Project
A Practical Man
Taking the Long View
Like a Sponge
Looking for the Crossroads
The Disney Secret Becomes Public
A Federal Partner?
Economic Impact Report
The Reedy Creek Improvement District
The Promise of Progress City
The EPCOT Film
Heart of Our Cities—A Personal Reflection
Curiosity—What Did Walt Need to Know to Build His City?
Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary
The Three Urban Development Patterns
EPCOT 1982—A Speculative Visit
A Bird’s Eye View
The Disney World Jetport
The Entrance Complex
The Transportation Lobby
The Urban Transect
The Legible City
The Center City
The Cosmopolitan Resort Hotel
Town Center Entertainment District
The Projection of Place
For Walt’s Friends
The Monsanto House of the Future
The Rural Zone
The Industrial Park
The Far Horizon
So What Happened?
Meeting the Public Need
The New Urbanism
The Return of Main Street, U.S.A.>
EPCOT: A Product of Its Time
Would It Have Worked?
About the Author
About the Publisher
It was November 1965. As a pre-teen fan of Disneyland, I was excited by the news that Walt Disney Productions had secretly acquired 27,443 acres 12 miles south of a town I had never heard of—Orlando, Florida. It was an enormous amount of land. I knew that Disneyland had around 60 acres within its railroad loop and probably twice that much acreage for parking and other uses. It seemed that Mr. Disney had enough land in Florida for hundreds of Disneylands—or for an entire city.
According to the initial news, there would be a City of Tomorrow, a City of Yesterday, and a number of major industrial plants. There were no details about what Walt Disney had in mind for these cities. The news quoted Walt Disney explaining that it would be three years until opening—a year and a half of planning followed by a year and a half of construction. I could hardly wait until 1968. But how would a California teenager be able to visit Florida?
In that pre-internet era, it was hard to follow newspapers in other cities. I was lucky to have an older brother in college on the East Coast who knew that I was a Disneyland fan. When The New York Times published a longer article in February 1967 about Disney’s plans for Florida, he mailed it to me. The article quoted Walt Disney, who had died two months earlier, describing his plans for something that he called EPCOT—the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Walt Disney’s vision was of a real city that would “never cease to be a blueprint of the future, where people actually live a life they can’t find anywhere else today.” So this was the City of Tomorrow! The article said nothing about the City of Yesterday.
I was much more excited about EPCOT than any East Coast follow-up to Disneyland. Living in California’s Orange County at the time, I was watching the birth of the city of Irvine. My father had even taken me to the offices of William Pereira to see the architect’s master plan for transforming the Irvine Ranch from orange groves and cattle grazing lands into a planned city. Although the Irvine Master Plan seemed to be an improvement over the haphazard growth elsewhere in Orange County, it still seemed so conventional, relying on automobiles and housing tracts, with no public transportation, no revolutionary ideas, and no cutting-edge technology.
But EPCOT would be another story! The New York Times article described a city unlike any other. No vehicles would he allowed at ground level. Instead, there would be two underground road levels, one for passenger cars and one for trucks. Elevated PeopleMovers—just like the PeopleMovers that would be coming to Disneyland later in 1967—would provide public transportation. An illustration showed a 30-story mega-structure with residential neighborhoods radiating from it in all directions. A cutaway illustration showed an indoor transportation lobby with PeopleMovers, a monorail, and the road levels below them.
It was October 1, 1971, before Walt Disney World actually opened. EPCOT was nowhere to be found. It was explained that EPCOT would be part of “Phase Two”, and that what had opened was only the first part of “Phase One”. Visitors had no reason to complain. They were treated to a $400-million extravaganza. The biggest attraction was, and still is, the Magic Kingdom theme park, similar to the original Disneyland, but with many elements larger and more elaborate. The Florida theme park was on the shore of a beautiful blue, man-made lagoon connected to a natural lake. A championship golf course, two resort hotels, a campground, and recreational facilities also clung to the bodies of water. A twin-loop monorail system provided transportation between the distant parking lot, the theme park, and the hotels.
By the time Walt Disney World opened, I was a student at the University of California at Irvine, where I took every class in urban studies and urban planning available to undergraduates. As someone fascinated by cities and by Disney parks, I was still waiting for EPCOT to get the green light—but each year, that seemed less likely. Walt Disney’s successors continued to quote him about EPCOT, but conveniently omitted any references to people living there. During the 1970s, the annual reports to the shareholders of Walt Disney Productions included beautiful Imagineering art showcasing concepts for EPCOT, but it evolved into a theme park, not a real city.
Epcot Center opened October 1, 1982. My first visit to Walt Disney World was just a few months later. I thoroughly enjoyed Epcot Center—but I couldn’t help but wonder what EPCOT would have been like if Walt Disney had not died the year after he bought those 27,443 acres. Would EPCOT have delighted enough residents and visitors to make it successful—as a business venture and as a living laboratory for innovative urban solutions? Would EPCOT have been able to renew itself continually over time, rather than becoming a stagnant relic from the era when it opened?
In 2009, I began reading a Disney fan blog called SamLand, written by a professional urban planner named Sam Gennawey. In this blog, I found someone who shared my interest in cities and Disney. I was hooked. Sam applied his insight and experience in urban planning to explain why guests had such positive experiences at Disney parks. We traded email. It turned out we would both be at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival that year, so we met each other there.
I learned that Sam had always been interested in cities. As a child, he would destroy his mother’s flowerbeds developing and rebuilding little cities in them. Instead of taking a direct path toward urban planning, Sam’s career included selling stereos, opening his own record store, running a record company, moving to Chicago to run another record company, joining Mercury/Polygram, serving as the marketing director at a radio station, and inventing a lucrative way to promote records. After all that, Sam went back to college to prepare for a career change to urban planner. Why planning? Sam explained to me that he couldn’t figure out how to make money as a historian, so he combined that passion with his love for the game SimCity. “Voilà! Planner,” as he put it.
I was thrilled when Sam told me he was writing a book about EPCOT. I was honored when Sam invited me to write the foreword. And I was fascinated when I read Sam’s manuscript.
Sam presents EPCOT not as a brief vision in the final years of Walt Disney’s life, but as a decades-long journey that leads up to EPCOT. Sam provides a detailed look at what Walt Disney’s EPCOT would have been like. And, best of all, Sam addresses the question of whether EPCOT would have worked.
I’ve been to Epcot many times, but thanks to this book, I’ve now also been to EPCOT.
Walt Disney was not content to be the most influential entertainment figure of the 20th century; he also wanted to become the most influential urban planner of the 21st century. What was his motivation and how did he intend to implement his vision?
My obsession with these questions started long ago—but it was not until I was reading In Service to the Mouse that I fully understood why. The book is the autobiography of Jack Lindquist, Disneyland’s first president. He was fortunate to learn his craft directly from Walt Disney. One of those lessons was that the best solutions usually came after a great deal of observation. Lindquist began to notice a certain type of guest that came to Disneyland. He said: “In the early days of the park, there were a lot of people, particularly women with small children from six to ten years of age who drove up in the morning during the summertime and bought general admission tickets for about $2.50 a day. We started seeing the same people doing this day after day: Buying tickets and dropping off their children.” I realized I was one of those kids.
From 1967 through 1973, my mother would take my brothers and me to Disneyland quite often. This was during the period when you paid for general admission, and tickets for attractions were a separate charge. We did not go on many attractions because that would cost a lot of money. However, we did enjoy Walt Disney’s beautiful park. Even better, there were a few attractions that were free, including Adventure Thru Inner Space, the Golden Horseshoe Saloon, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. My favorite was the Carousel of Progress.
The Carousel of Progress is a time travel story—a giant turntable takes the audience from the 1890s to the “near future” and beyond. The show did not end when the turntable made its final stop. Guests were invited to jump on to the stage and ride the Speedramp to the upper level to view the incredible 6,900-square foot model of Progress City. Every childhood trip to Disneyland meant another spin inside of the Carousel of Progress. I knew the script by heart and would quietly sing along with the chorus. By the time we got to the final act, the one with the super-rich family celebrating Christmas, I would start to move to the edge of my seat. It would not be long before I could weave through the crowd and be one of the first to make my way to the Speedramp that would take me to the model of Progress City. That way, I could linger just a little bit longer than the rest of the crowd and just soak it all in.
The Progress City model was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen, and it made a big impression on my young mind. Every chance I got, I would stop and stare at the 115-foot diorama for as long as I could. I would listen to the narration as it promised that living in Progress City would mean a great, big, beautiful tomorrow where we would all lead rich and rewarding lives. It sounded wonderful, and I wanted to know more. What would life be like in Progress City? Was the project even possible? When can I visit?
Let’s journey together as we attempt to answer the questions I have asked myself since I was a little boy.
Sam Gennawey is a prolific author and Disney historian, a contributor to Planning Los Angeles and other books, as well as a columnist for the popular MiceChat website.
His unique point of view built on his passion for history, his professional training as an urban planner, and his obsession with theme parks has brought speaking invitations from Walt Disney Imagineering, the Walt Disney Family Museum, Disney Creative, the American Planning Association, the California Preservation Foundation, the California League of Cities, and many Disneyana clubs, libraries and podcasts.
He is currently a senior associate at the planning firm of KPA.
Walt's city-building dreams started long before EPCOT, on a bench in Griffith Park.
The story of Disneyland’s origins has been told many times before in every way imaginable. The official line came from Walt himself in a 1963 interview when he recalled, “It came about when my daughters were very young and Saturday was always Daddy’s day with the two daughters. So we’d start out and try to go someplace, you know, different things.” Walt continued, “I’d take them to the merry-go-round. Sit on a bench, you know, eating peanuts. I felt there should be something built where the parents and the children could have fun together. So that’s how Disneyland started.” In another interview, he added, “While they were on the merry-go-round riding around 40 times or something, I’d be sitting there trying to figure out what you could do.”
To honor those moments, Disneyland has a park bench and a horse from the Griffith Park merry-go-round on exhibit inside the Opera House on Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. Both items came from Imagineer Tony Baxter’s collection.
It has been said that Walt may have been dreaming of owning an amusement park as far back as 1911, when nine-year-old Walt and his younger sister, Ruth, were regular visitors to Electric Park in Kansas City, fifteen blocks from their home. What they saw was a magical place where a train ran around the perimeter and landscaping was carefully designed. The park rides were integrated into the landscape and the grounds were well maintained. Every evening, there was a fireworks show at closing time.
The first time Walt seriously considered the idea of an amusement park to fulfill a real need came during the Hyperion studio days. He was inundated with requests from fans to meet Mickey and Minnie. People wanted to tour the animation studio. Guests touring movie studios was not a new concept. At Universal Studio just down the road, Carl Laemmle had been selling tours to his studio since 1915. People paid twenty-five cents for admission, which included a box lunch and a chance to climb up into grandstands and watch silent pictures being made.
Walt was not so sure that tours at his studio would work. As a showman, he felt that watching the animation process was not all that exciting. However, if he could enhance the tour experience with, say, a park, maybe it could work. To make the idea even more appealing, Walt had surplus land by the time he moved to Burbank.
By 1947, the talk of a place called Mickey Mouse Park was accelerating. In Burbank, Walt owned sixteen acres adjacent to the studio. The land was south of the main facilities between Riverside Drive and the Los Angeles River. Walt said, “When I built the studio over there I thought, well gee, we ought to have really a three-dimensional thing that people could actually come and visit.”
Walt was thinking of all kinds of ideas. In one very early concept, he had guests boarding a scale-model live steam train and touring the soundstages. On August 31, 1948, Walt sent a memo to one of his production designers, Dick Kelsey, that outlined his early ideas for Mickey Mouse Park. The memo was sent days after Walt and Ward Kimball had returned from the trip to Chicago Railroad Fair and Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Walt was motivated.
In the memo, Walt suggested that guests would enter a Main Village featuring an old-fashioned town square, a railroad station, a town hall, a fire station, a drug store, and other shops. The village also would have an opera house and a movie theater. The primary function for this space was to give guests an opportunity to meet some of the characters. Within the village, people could take rides on historic vehicles like a horse trolley and horse-drawn buckboards. Other areas would include a Western village and a carnival section.
Walt recruited a small group of artists from his animation studio and other movie studios, primarily Twentieth-Century Fox, to help him with this project. The first announcement for a place called Disneyland was published in the Burbank Daily Review in 1952. The park was going to be located at the corner of Riverside Drive and Buena Vista Road.
When Walt applied for the necessary permits, the Burbank City Council turned him down. They did not want a permanent carnival in their city. One lawmaker proclaimed, “We don’t want the carny atmosphere in Burbank! We don’t want people falling in the river, or merry-go-rounds squawking all day long.” Walt knew better. He assured them, “A word may be said in regard to the concept and conduct of Disneyland’s operational tone. Although various sections will have the fun and flavor of carnival or amusement park, there will be none of the ‘pitches’, games, wheels, sharp practices, and devices designed to milk the visitor’s pocketbook.”
Still, he was unable to secure the permits and was forced to look elsewhere. As it turned out, there were other reasons that made the Burbank site unworkable. Two large infrastructure projects were being proposed adjacent to the site: the Los Angeles River flood control project proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Ventura freeway expansion. More importantly, as Walt kept working on the problem, he realized that his dreams for his park were getting bigger and the property adjacent to the studio was just not going to be enough land.
Continued in "Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City"!
Progress City, what later became EPCOT (and then Epcot) started, as did many of Walt's projects, in miniature.
The Carousel of Progress stage show was the centerpiece of the General Electric Pavilion at the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair. The show proved to be so popular that it was moved to Disneyland in 1967 as one of the major attractions in the newly remodeled Tomorrowland. Carousel of Progress used sophisticated Audio-Animatronics and a novel theater to take the audience on a light-hearted journey through time so the audience could witness how each new generation of electrical appliances had improved the quality of our life. After the show’s finale, the giant turntable would make one last turn; when it stopped, guests were invited to step on stage, ride the Speedramp to the second level, choose one of the three rows, and prepare to be dazzled. At the top of the ramp was the Progress City model. Let’s revisit the model to learn how Walt’s vision reflected the timeless principles for building vibrant communities.
Progress City is an impressive scale model that reveals Walt’s vision for EPCOT. Based on many of the drawings used during the EPCOT planning process, this huge model covers 6,900 square feet and measures 115 feet by 60 feet. Everything is built to the scale of one-eighth inch to the foot, and is incredibly detailed, with more than 4,500 structures, 22,000 scale shrubs and trees, and 1,400 working streetlights. Many of the buildings are lit from within. Some of the building interiors are even furnished. At the center of the model is a huge megastructure with a dome-like shape punctuated by skylights and a gleaming 30-story hotel tower.
The central city is surrounded by a greenbelt filled with a wide variety of structures: beautiful and sleek Mid-Century Modern civic buildings, an amusement park with spinning rides, and a lake with a Tiki restaurant on one edge. Surrounding this greenbelt are single-family homes and more parks. Way off in the distance is an atomic power plant. Look closely and you can see moving sidewalks and electric carts. Jet airplanes are seen leaving the Progress City airport.
The model is fully animated. The transportation network—monorails, automobiles, and WEDway PeopleMovers—has 2,450 vehicles in constant motion. According to one 1967 press release, this model is not fantasy; it could “be built today through applications of the most advanced technologies”. Plus, you get to experience an entire day in a matter of minutes at Progress City. The lighting begins during the day, but slowly turns into night. At one magic moment, all of the lights in the model come alive and the city becomes “a sparkling jewel”.
While we are viewing Progress City, Father and Mother from the Carousel of Progress narrate a four-minute tour of the model. Father proclaims, “Every time we think we have gone as far as we can, there is a springtime of progress.” As they talk about the various community features, spotlights shine on that part of the model. Over there is the new General Electric nuclear power plant. On the other side is a local amusement park, which, Mother says, “[is] not exactly Disneyland, but it is clean and bright and lots of fun”. Father tells us that the “heart of the city is the rapid transit system” and Mother tells us that “shopping is a breeze” and it is “not a chore to go downtown anymore”. We learn that Grandma and Grandpa are leaving on a jet; and Father looks to the future and says, “Imagine how fast air travel will be when the SSTs [supersonic transporters] arrive.” Father and Mother tell us how life in Progress City is convenient and rewarding, and we are assured that everything we have witnessed is possible today, thanks to General Electric. Of course, the optimistic theme song that weaves its way into our heads continues to play in the background as we exit. “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow/Shining at the end of every day.”
In a 1967 report issued by WED Enterprises, we learn that “the overall design of…Progress City is based on a concept developed by Walt Disney himself for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, EPCOT, which he had planned for…Florida.” In The “E” Ticket, Marty Sklar commented on the model: “I went through a lot of material with Marvin Davis, and with other people who were in the trenches on it… [A]s we began developing the model of the idea…we called it Progress City. That model almost exactly matched all our planning for EPCOT. I think Walt got a kick out of doing that model, without having to say that he was going to build this big city, but it was all there for anybody to see.” Guests could view the model in the Carousel of Progress post-show or from the PeopleMover. Sklar estimated that during its Disneyland run, more than 31 million people saw the model.
Walt loved using models for all of his ideas. Maybe it had something to do with his passion for miniatures. He was heard to say that drawings lie, but models always tell the truth. Models can help the designer understand a project in new ways. A carefully crafted, highly detailed model can affirm the design direction or point out fatal flaws. This may explain why he required so many of his projects to go through modeling as part of the design process—even a project as large as a city.
Continued in "Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City"!