After a very successful exhibition at The World Fair in New York, Walt Disney decided that it was time to open a Disney property on the east coast. Eventually, he decided that Florida would be the perfect spot, saying that “here in Florida we’ve enjoyed something we’ve never enjoyed at Disneyland, the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all of the ideas and plans we could possibly imagine”. However, Disney did not want to just create a carbon copy of Disneyland. He wanted to develop a location where people could both play and live, thinking that he and his team of Imagineers could use the information they learned while developing Disneyland to plan communities and actual cities. This is where his dream of EPCOT started.
An Original Idea
Walt Disney’s idea for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was originally inspired by his concerns about the future when it came to the fast development of modern cities that were crime-ridden and dirty. He wanted to create a forward-thinking community that pushed American corporations to constantly develop new ideas for clean, organized urban living.
At the beginning of the project, Walt explained his concept by saying that “EPCOT will be an experimental prototype community of tomorrow that will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imaginations of American free enterprise.”
Two months before he died, Walt Disney released a 25-minute film on October 27, 1966, explaining his Florida project, “Disney World”, in great detail. He used concept art and animation to demonstrate what the city would look like, how it would operate, and how it would work with the other parts of Disney World that were in development but made sure to reiterate to his audience that it was just a starting point. His goal with the film was to convince industrial companies and corporations to get involved and develop innovative technology to incorporate in his city. He also took the film to Disney’s Board of Directors, who were all skeptical of the idea and felt more comfortable with a guaranteed money maker like Disneyland.
Plans For the EPCOT City
Walt Disney’s passion project was way ahead of its time, dreamed up with the intention of encouraging people to be open to technological growth and innovation in their daily lives. The community was meant to be both a travel destination for guests visiting the resort as well as a permanent residence.
Guests would arrive at the community by car or via an incoming flight to the Disney World Airport, which would have been built in a southern area of the property. Then they would be taken via monorail to the Disney World Welcome Center, which would have been staffed with hosts and hostesses from all around the world that could communicate with guests regardless of what language they spoke.
For people just visiting, the hosts would help them plan their entire stay, then point them to the monorail to start their EPCOT experience. Guests would arrive at EPCOT’s Industrial Park first, where the city core concept would come to live. Here, visitors could tour offices and labs inhabited with American corporations working on new technologies that would be used in the city.
Designs for the city were both simple and innovative, based on a similar layout to the Disneyland concept. EPCOT was to have a radial design, with a busy city core and dwindling urban density as the community fanned out. People would have entered and exited through the Industrial Park, which would have served as the city’s core.
Based on Walt Disney’s ideas, no outside cars were permitted inside his prototype community. His plan was to utilize the monorail concept from Disneyland as the city’s primary mode of transportation, connecting EPCOT to other parts of Disney World. The community’s internal transportation was a completely new concept, the WEDWay PeopleMover. Instead of the vehicles moving on a stationary street, a motorized track that never stops would have transported the cars through the city. The Peoplemover would have been responsible for carrying people from the Metropolitan area at the city core to the outer residential areas.
The two forms of transportation were to be the only option inside the city. They would come together at the EPCOT Transportation Lobby, and guests returning from the Magic Kingdom park would hop off the monorail at the lobby before boarding the PeopleMover to head home.
Cars could still be used to get off the property for weekend trips or travels outside of EPCOT, but the roads for drives would have been built underneath the Transportation Lobby in order to eliminate the risk of pedestrian accidents.
The City Center
The central core of the city would have been made up of EPCOT’s downtown/commercial area, a completely enclosed area that would be exempt from outside weather conditions. Following Walt’s “pedestrian is king” concept, no cars or vehicles would be allowed in the downtown area.
Directly in the center of the city core, a 30 story hotel and convention center was meant to be the tallest building in all of EPCOT acting as a focal point from miles away in any direction. A parking lot for people intended to visit the hotel would have been built under the city, with an entrance from the vehicle throughway.
Inside the downtown area, the hotel would have been surrounded by shops and restaurants inspired by various cultures from around the world in different areas each themed around a different country. The Peoplemover track would have run above the shops, taking guests where they wanted to go. The roof of the downtown building would have held a recreational area for guests with a pool, tennis courts, basketball courts, shuffleboard, and other activities.
High-Density Residential Area
High-density apartment housing, which would have been built on the city core’s outer rim, would have served as the primary housing area for EPCOT’s 20,000 residents. The goal was to keep rental rates modest but competitive to the surrounding market. Although there is not a whole lot of information available on the community’s housing aspect, one of the key elements was that housing at EPCOT would ensure the “ease of change”, meaning that residents could come home one day to a kitchen with all new appliances or products to reflect new technologies.
The Green Belt
Separating the city core and the low-density residences, the green belt would have been a large grass area housing city services like parks, playgrounds, churches, and community centers.
Low-Density Residential Area
The Low-Density Residential Area would have consisted of single-family houses located on the other side of the green belt. The designs for the area resembled petals on a flower, with houses built on the outskirts of each petal. The insides of the petal would have had more green area, with paths for electric carts, adult recreational areas, and playgrounds for kids.
Living and Employment
One of the most unique aspects of the residential community was Walt Disney’s insistence on residents not owning their own land or housing. He wanted to reserve the right to update the houses and apartments with the newest, most innovative technology as it became available which would not have been possible if the properties were not owned by Disney.
Another interesting requirement Walt had was that all residents were required to be employed, including retirees. His logic was that everyone must be employed in order to avoid the creation of “slums” or low-income neighborhoods within his community, explaining that “everyone living in EPCOT will have the responsibility to maintain this living blueprint of the future”. Suitable places of employment included Magic Kingdom, shopping areas in the city’s core, the hotel or convention center, the airport, the welcome center, or the industrial park.
What Went Wrong
After Walt passed away in 1966, the plans for EPCOT were essentially abandoned. His brother Roy actually came out of retirement to try and work with the board on bringing the community to life but was unsuccessful. They instead pushed forward with Magic Kingdom, which opened as part of The Walt Disney World Resort in 1971 along with Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Polynesian Resort, and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Roy Disney insisted that the resort be named after his brother because his imagination and ideas are what brought the whole thing to life. The land that was purchased for EPCOT ended up being completely used for Walt Disney World Resort.
Although it is much different than Walt Disney’s original idea, a residential community DID eventually open on the property in the 1990s called Celebration. Some elements of the prototype community were realized in the design of Celebration but on a much smaller scale, resembling a typical small American town but with modern conveniences. While Epcot was largely based on modernism and futurism, designs for Celebration were inspired by new urbanism and does not make use of the futuristic transportation system that Walt originally envisioned for his dream community.
The plans for Epcot were revisited in the late 1970s, but the board was still worried that Walt’s dream community would not be successful because they thought people wouldn’t want to live under a microscope or feel watched. However, all hope was not lost on creating some kind of Epcot park on the Disney World property. Eventually, the concept was reworked and evolved to the Epcot we know today, which opened in 1982. The second Disney World park loosely fit Walt’s vision but became more of a World’s Fair than a residential city. Some of the elements from the original plans were repurposed as elements of the Epcot theme park such as the monorail, the focus on technology, and the multicultural references from the city’s “downtown”. The park is split into two parts: Future World, which is dedicated to innovation and technology, and The World Showcase. Unlike the original plans for an enclosed downtown building that represented a variety of regions, the World Showcase has 11 individual pavilions that each honor the culture and history of a specific country. You can get the whole picture of Walt Disney’s plans for his community on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover, where the original model is on display.