Tale of Two EPCOTs – Part I

By EPCOT Explorer

EPCOT has always had the rare distinction of having its conceptual core rooted in Walt Disney’s litany of personal products and projects. As one of the last ideas to come from the world’s greatest showman, The Walt Disney Company has always striven to tie EPCOT, as an entity, to their founder so as to appear respectful to his legacy and grand plans for the Walt Disney World Resort. Of course, the Florida property itself was the engine for Walt’s original idea for a grand center of urban planning and industry, so the narrative of both city and resort are highly intertwined. All of this remains inherent, even today, despite the city never materializing, and instead a theme park being built bearing the iconic and storied acronym. Continue after the page break for part 1 of a Tale of Two EPCOTs

Part I- The Challenge and Commitment to the EPCOT Theme Center

Although the lofty goals for the city were abandoned and instead its thematic underpinnings of futurism and world fellowship were slowly shifted toward a park, this infamous dichotomy is even more fractured and convoluted than it appears. Dick Nunis was a major influence in shifting the concept of EPCOT City to EPCOT Center. This was done for a multitude of reasons, excuses ranging from the sheer difficulty of building an urban center in the middle of what was slowly becoming the world’s premier vacation destination, to the fact that the techniques and technologies used in Walt Disney World were very similar to the plans that Walt had for his city. The latter fact was espoused in a especially flamboyant way. Nunis declared that Disney World was already EPCOT and the plans for a theme park were the capstone of an already grand achievement.

But even before all this, in 1974 and 1975, the ideas for EPCOT were scattered and varied. Painfully obvious to Disney leadership, the city that Walt Disney planned for his Florida venture would not be built. So, instead, they co-opted the main points of the idea and set them in motion in the most curious of ways. The first was expanding Lake Buena Vista into a more urban setting and applying some of EPCOT City’s organization and futuristic treatments, such as a large extension of Disney World’s transportation line, with a WEDway Peoplemover and a monorail track. These plans faltered.

The other two plans are much more familiar: A large showplace for the cultures of the world and international fellowship, and another series of showplaces dedicated to the enterprise and industry that drove the futuristic and streamlined operations of WDW itself.

Keeping in mind that these two projects were separate, the transition from EPCOT City to EPCOT Center begins in a state of independence and slow transformation from one idea, to two ideas, and back to one idea again. This split is intrinsically based in the politics and economy of the Walt Disney World Resort in those heady, early days.

Walt Disney Productions Chairman, Donn Tatum

On July 15th 1976, Walt Disney Productions Chairman, Donn Tatum, spoke at the EPCOT Future Technology Conference, hosted at the Contemporary Resort to express the hope that the Vacation Kingdom could become the host of corporate investment, technological enterprise and an example of practical urban fellowship.

Expounding on the lofty goals of the “EPCOT Theme Center”, Tatum reveals the premise for this “EPCOT Satellite” is one concurrent with the later plans for Future World. Regardless, there are differences in intent, scope, topics, and the corporate reasoning backing the project. The most striking of these philosophical proposals is the notion that the concept of enterprise was well within the bounds of the entertainment industry that Tatum placed Disney squarely into. In his own words, Tatum refers to this as the  “presumptuousness that we have had in a long experience in communication with the public through tangible means, many which were innovative and usually effective, in understanding the importance and empathy in science and technology”. 

Despite being very long winded, this isn’t far from the truth. Disney’s brand of entertainment had always been centered in fantasy, but aspects of it reflected educational and forward thinking ventures into the worlds of nature and science. Tomorrowland, at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, had been the first real examples of that, as showplaces dedicated to subjects such as aerospace and industrial chemistry. The EPCOT Theme Center was to be the culmination and “master plan” of these individual efforts. And, in a more oblique sense, this showplace of industrial know-how would have backed up the mission statement of Walt Disney World and it’s bevy of space age and progressive operations.

Tatum’s reliance on Nunis’ segue concerning the Walt Disney World property as the original EPCOT hinged on how WDW and EPCOT was perceived by the public, and more importantly, the industry leaders he brokered his plan to in May of 1976. In this change, specific wording was chosen to emphasize the broad nature of “community” in EPCOT’s meaning. Instead of employing the strict term of community in the sense that involved people living in an urban setting, the definition was stretched to match Donn Tatum’s meaning of “meeting place for ideas and information transfer”. This center for communication, was essentially to be a company forum to “stimulate comment and discussion within scientific communities” and the forum itself was conceptualized  “with the grand ambition of establishing EPCOT as an on-going meeting place where creative people of science and industry from around the world may gather to discuss and communicate concerning specific solutions to the specific needs of mankind.” 

This, here, is the catch. EPCOT has been altered from a grand city in the center of Walt Disney World to a meeting place, a place where the public could see the testing of technologies and systems that helped run the Disney organization, and even the world. Tatum’s perspicacious wording (All of mankind! All of it! ) certainly give the connotation of grand challenge and promise to be met and found with EPCOT. Card Walker writes that in order to attain Walt Disney’s goal for EPCOT, “We (Walt Disney Productions) must avoid building a huge, traditional “brick and mortar” community which might possibly become obsolete, in EPCOT terms, as soon as it is completed. We believe we must develop a community system oriented to the communication of new ideas, rather than serving the day-to-day needs of a limited number of permanent residents. EPCOT’s purpose therefor will be to respond to the needs of people, everywhere in a Disney designed and Disney managed forum.”

The city is no more. A plan for a showplace is just beginning.

I won’t comment on if this is a bad thing or a good thing for Disney history. I can’t. I don’t think anyone can. Walt’s dream of the future was utterly sublime. I believe that he, and he alone, could have established a working city in the middle of a Florida swamp that was now becoming the paramount entertainment destination in the world. This is not to say that I think his subordinates and followers could not have done this. But I think in the heady days of Walt Disney’s passing and the stressful years that accompanied the opening of Walt Disney World, the company was paralyzed with self doubt, and the need to assert themselves as being dynamic and driving in the world of entertainment. Modifying the EPCOT concept was, perhaps, a way to be broader in terms of public reach and understanding. Tatum makes several illusions to this.

Happily ahead of the Five Year Plan designed by Walt for the resort, The Magic Kingdom was at an operating capacity of 70,000; equal to Disneyland, a park 16 years its senior! Disney World had increased it’s capacity with a flurry of construction in Tomorrowland, adding the Carousel of Progress, the WEDway Peoplemover, the Star Jets, and the iconic (and first!) Space Mountain. Disney also added Pirates of the Caribbean, which contributed to operational capacity in the theme park. All of this, in turn, would set up Disney World to have the ability to plot the course for a new venue and stage in their entertainment development.

Tatum alludes to this progress as being part of the EPCOT Building Code, one of the oldest components of the EPCOT concept to be instituted in Walt Disney World. This specific mandate for building and growth in WDW was set in place in the planning stages of the resort to foster  “an environment that will stimulate the best thinking in the industry” and to exemplify Disney’s commitment to progressive initiatives, technologies, and techniques. This commitment was the foundation of the Reedy Creek Development District’s (Walt Disney World’s governmental association) modus operandi for construction and the use of new techniques.  One of these techniques was the WEDway Peoplemover, newly instated in Tomorrowland. The EPCOT Satellite program would have instituted the use of this transportation to great effect with a series of trains and lines linking the separate pavilions. It is possible that a secondary monorail system was also conceptualized, as these rare renderings show.

 
 

All of these concepts and plans had originally been in place in preparation for the development of EPCOT City. Considering the similarities in intent between city and showplace, the transition to the EPCOT Theme Center is not complicated. It simply means that instead of creating an environment in which people would live in, an environment of showcasing and exposition would be built with the same underpinnings, instead. The drive of Walt Disney Productions in terms of their educational entertainment, their practices in building and running a resort, and the growth of that resort expedite the transformation and transition of City into Theme Center. The fundamental ideology remains; only the face of the initiative is to be different.

Thus, the EPCOT Theme Center is the main EPCOT Satellite to be conceptualized. Closest to the ideas that Walt Disney had for his Florida Project, the design and topics to be addressed will look familiar in more ways in one. First, this is a reflection of the past hopes for company, hopes set on revolutionizing urban planning and industry. Secondly, they are in step with the final product, EPCOT Center’s Future World. There are some large differences in execution, but for all intents and purposes, the ideological drive of Future World and the EPCOT Theme Center are one and the same.

Card Walker, President of Walt Disney Productions, explained the EPCOT Theme Center some time after Tatum’s address:

Taking a broad approach to showcasing the world and its challenges the EPCOT Theme Center would have been a series of exhibits and shows dedicated to vital topics. The headliner attraction in 1975? CommuniCore! Described as a communications corridor, CommuniCore was set to be a multilateral pavilion, and part of the EPCOT Theme Satellite that would have  introduced guests to the EPCOT concept and exhibits.  Included in this would have been the EPCOT Overview Circle Vision Theaters which would have tailored their content to meet the guests on the day of their arrival, and the ongoing events at the EPCOT Satellite Centers.

The World City model would have “combined advanced entertainment techniques in miniaturization,  projection, and animation to show and trace the evolution of urban life that would show off the model community that EPCOT hoped to inspire. This concept seems very similar to the 1939 New York World’s Fair exhibit “Democracity”, which was housed within the Trylon and Perisphere and would have shown off a model city of the future. It is very possible that this idea inspired EPCOT’s vision of an urban display, and in turn, that vision of a city inspired the smaller tabluex seen in Spaceship Earth, the World of Motion, and Horizons, once EPCOT Center actually came to fruition. The World City model would have been at the center of the Information Gallery, which was described as an “Information Main Street” and would have centered on global and corporate communications. It is very probable that this entire concept would evolve into Spaceship Earth. The EPCOT Information Network was a major educational component to this, and in the built version of CommuniCore a similar idea did come to exist in the Teacher’s EPCOT Discovery Center.

Surrounding CommuniCore would have existed three major pavilions dedicated to three separate areas of interest. Think of Future World East and West in separate, large buildings, that contained all of their respective pavilions.  The three pavilions to the EPCOT Future World Theme Center would have centered in Community, Science and Technology, and Communications and The Arts. Keeping in mind that these plans are highly conceptual, there is a lot of overlap between the three main pavilions and the afore-mentioned CommuniCore pavilion.

The first in the series of Theme Center Pavilions would have been the Science and Technology Pavilion, which would have housed many attractions similar in theme to final versions that came to populate Future World in 1982.. Energy, Transportation, Oceanography would have all been featured in interlinking exhibits.

The Community Pavilion would have been a more humanistic experience, and dealt with health care, education, and even economics and government services.

And finally, the Communication and the Arts pavilion would have served as an engine for abstraction into the worlds of performance, be it in a physical, visual, or design based sense. Considering the topics the pavilion would have covered, this might be the first instance of the idea for an imagination pavilion.

What’s different about these pavilions from the final, topic driven attractions that were finally built in 1982 is their emphasis on education and the viability of having people come to EPCOT to learn and to apply their ideas in whatever profession they came from. There are various references to allowing for government workers and even economists to demonstrate and communicate their ideas and works in these settings. On the lowest level, it sounds like some corporate fantasy camp. On its most sincere, hopeful, and optimistic level, this version of EPCOT is made out to be a forum of futurism and promise. The heart of the matter is what astonishing potential the entire project exudes. Despite being corporately founded, Card Walker seems to rely on the fact that the EPCOT Theme Center is to be nonpartisan and non biased. Hopefully true, it is hard to imagine this without a veneer of cynicism directed to a corporation that is trying to be benevolent. Interestingly enough, Card Walker made the distinction of the EPCOT Theme Center as being non-profit for Disney, but leaving them in control of the design process. However, the content would have been totally in the power of the companies and agencies directing the pavilion’s intent. This is a fine line to walk in the power struggle between presenter and the intended effect of the instillation. At every turn there could have been conflict and clashing intents between Disney’s almost benevolent need to display industry, and a corporate desire to make profit.  Then again, this is Disney. This was the 70’s. Anything was possible. The final product of EPCOT Center, itself, while very corporate, was not biased in its intensions, and quite optimistic in its outlook. It is very possible that this similar mood would have dominated this early EPCOT venture.

In closing, it is appropriate not to truly compare these concepts and ideas to the final product, nor is it altogether plausible to bemoan the fact that they never happened. Instead, one must thoughtfully consider the background in which these concepts were dreamed up, and how and why they either reached fruition after being remolded and reshaped dozens of times. These concepts and ideas for EPCOT and the EPCOT Theme Center are part of the dynamic history and story that comes to settle around the grand vision for civic and technological betterment. Further, they are snapshots of the ideology governing a rapidly changing Walt Disney Company. Together, they form an indelible story of daring, optimism, and strike an interesting chord for the enterprise of themed entertainment and exhibition.

In Part II we will look at the ideas and plans that were behind the Walt Disney World Showcase, the other half of EPCOT.

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EPCOT Explorer has been visiting the Walt Disney World Resort since he was 2 years old and has recently just made his first visit to Disneyland. EPCOT Explorer’s first ‘Disney’ interest is the history of EPCOT Center of his youth and the brand of optimism, futurism, and culture that was originally found in the park. Other interests include the thematic interplay of design elements in Disneyland and the Magic Kingdoms that make these theme parks repositories of culture and Americana. EPCOT Explorer is also interested in the World’s Fairs for their connections to EPCOT and tiki culture, since the return of the Enchanted Tiki Room to Walt Disney World in 2011. EE’s writings often focus on the minutia of Disney’s enterprises and attempt to uncover how and why the parks function in the manner that they do. EPCOT Explorer is currently a graduate student and Teaching Assistant in History at Florida International University. EPCOTEXPLORER.TUMBLR.COM
 
 

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