Walt Disney and an early map of EPCOT

Walt pointing out the area of Florida which he would develop

Walt's original drawing of EPCOT

Walt Disney's last film: he announces his plans for EPCOT

Watercolor aerial view of EPCOT

EPCOT diagram

Plan for an industrial complex to be constructed within EPCOT

Watercolor of the 30-story hotel designed to be built at the center of EPCOT

 

Site plans for EPCOT

The "Virgin Land" in Florida upon which Disney hoped EPCOT would be built

 

"Imagineers" at work upon the design for the reconceptualized EPCOT theme park

View of one of the vestiges of Walt's design, EPCOT's geodome

Contextual confusion: standing in Japan, with Italy off to the left

Walt's Vision

To truly understand Celebration, the issues that it raises and the tradition out of which it has emerged, one must first understand Walt Disney's original plan for a utopian community in Florida, a community that he called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT. It is in the original design for EPCOT that the seeds of Celebration can be found. And while Celebration is not merely an updated 90's version of Walt Disney's EPCOT plan, both have their basis in a common philosophy, and play on a common set of American myths and symbols.

Celebration is possible today because of actions that Walt took in the early 1960's. It was during this period that he secretly bought up the Florida land upon which Celebration, as well as Disney World, EPCOT Center, MGM Studios, the new Animal Kingdom and a series of resorts are built.

In February of 1967, two months after Walt Disney's death, Walt Disney Productions announced that it would be going ahead with the project closest to Walt's heart at the time of his death, a "city of tomorrow" to be built adjacent to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Echoing the words of John Winthrop, Walt explained that he "would like to be part of building a model community, a City of Tomorrow...This might become a pilot operation for the teaching age - to go across the country and across the world."

Eerily, this announcement to the press was narrated by Walt himself, in a film that he had taped for the purpose before his death. "The most exciting, and by far the most important part of our Florida project, in fact that heart of everything we will be doing in Disney World," announced Walt, "will be our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. We call it EPCOT. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise."

In the film Walt explained in detail his dream of creating a community that would be a technological and futuristic utopia. It was to be the home of 20,000 residents, and its purpose was to explore new ideas in urban planning. Walt said "I don't believe there's a challenge anywhere in the world that's more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities. But where do we begin...how do we start to answer the great challenge?"

Walt's first proposal was to build a giant dome that would house the entire community, so that the climate of the new city might be perfectly regulated. It was to be organized like a wheel, the heart of the city's industry and commerce at the wheel's hub, with residential areas moving out in concentric circles and serviced by a monorail system. The heavy traffic was designed to take place underground on two levels, one for cars and another for trucks. By keeping traffic below ground inside the city, "the pedestrian will be the king" said Walt, and he planned that pedestrians would be whisked around on people movers.

Walt felt that EPCOT should be grounded in a concern "with the public need." To serve this need EPCOT would be "an experimental city that would incorporate the best ideas of industry, government, and academia worldwide, a city that caters to the people as a service function. It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT there will be no slum areas because we won't let them develop. There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them, and at modest rentals. There will be no retirees; everyone must be employed." He concluded that "people still want to live like human beings."

The thing that strikes me most about Walt's statements are the incongruities that exist within them. In one breath he talks about serving the public's needs, and creating a place where people can live like human beings. And in the next, he explains that they will be denied the right to vote and to own property, two of unalienable rights of the American Declaration of Independence. Only a certain class of people will be allowed to live in Walt's utopia, excluding the lowest class of slum dwellers and the elderly.

Like Celebration, Walt's utopia was envisioned an actual community where he had all the power, not just a park that people visited. The architectural plan in some ways reflects the emptiness and control implicit in this vision. EPCOT's citizens would not be allowed to own property. The whole design centered around a 30 story hotel to be built at the very heart of EPCOT, a structure which essentially represents transience. Would the elderly eventually be forced out? The residents would not even be allowed to experience the weather. This does not sound like an environment in which people can live like human beings.

To make type of development a reality, Disney brokered a deal with the Florida Legislature that gave him almost total control over the land he had purchased in Florida. This including the right to make all the zoning regulations that would govern this property. In effect, he had free license over this property.

 

Precedents

Walt vision for EPCOT co-opted two of the most powerful narratives in the American self-conception, narratives that exist in tension with one another. First, he tied his community to the land. By stating that it should be started "from scratch on virgin land", he echoed the title of Henry Nash Smith's seminal work and tied the community to a long tradition of the pastoral in American history. Smith wrote in The Virgin Land that "one of the most persistent generalizations concerning American life and character is the notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward."(Smith 3) Although Disney was trying to pull society southward instead of westward, he was operating under the same ideological construct of which Smith writes. Like other pioneering communities before it, Walt Disney's EPCOT would leave behind the problems of past civilization and start over afresh.

Second, Disney's emphasis on technology and the improvements that technology could bring to modern life tied EPCOT to the idea of machine in the garden, the power of technology over the land and the symbolism of American's conquest over Nature.

 

EPCOT and Celebration

After Walt's death, his plan for EPCOT was eventually discarded as impractical. EPCOT was developed as a different kind of theme park which embraced Walt's interest in technology and futuristic architecture. EPCOT's symbolic structure is a geodome that represents on a small scale the dome under which EPCOT's original inhabitants were to reside.

Through corporate partnerships, the Walt Disney Company developed pavilions that emphasized the important place of technology in everyday life. In cooperation with a group of foreign governments, Disney also constructed national pavilions in EPCOT, so that one can walk from Japan to Italy, which have been placed next to each other and can be seen in the illustration below. In the same way that our senses have been confused by seeing the Cinderella's castle next to Tomorrowland, two things that could not logically exist together, we stop questioning the juxtaposition of nations in EPCOT and accept them as part of the reality that Disney has created.

In Celebration, Disney has again created their own reality, but it is one of coherence, not disparity. One becomes accustomed to the environment in Celebration because there is a sameness and consistency to every element of life that makes Celebration seem like an acceptable reality.

Celebration was envisioned as a way to build upon Walt's original vision. While some of Walt's ideas have been preserved, Disney has also made several changes. For example, although Celebration's residents are allowed to own their homes, and retirees are allowed to reside there, Celebration's residents are not allowed any form of local representative government, and there is a class screening process inherent in the price scale that Disney has adopted for the property that they are offering for sale.