Walt Disney, The City Architect

Written by Suthen Siva


Walt Disney’s untimely passing in 1966 was one of the biggest losses in human history. He was on the verge of creating his greatest masterpiece – EPCOT, a utopian city that had the potential to eclipse his reputation in entertainment.

The EPCOT we recognize today is a component of Disneyworld with over 12 million visitors in 2019. It is best known for its world showcase, which consists of 11 pavilions representing countries from around the world, including Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Japan, the United States, Italy, Germany, China, Norway, and Mexico.

Despite its success as a theme park attraction, the current state of EPCOT is a far cry from Walt’s original vision – the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).

“EPCOT 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 new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”

– Walt Disney

Walt aimed to solve problems that plague our cities even today.


Visual Gridlock 

Cities have increasingly become chaotic places, as architectural and graphic information scream at the citizen for attention. Former Disney employee John Hence describes this by saying “a journey down almost any urban street will quickly replace the visitor into visual overload as all of the competing messages merge into a kind of information gridlock.”

The litany of hotels and billboards outside Disneyland, Walt’s first theme park in California, really bothered Walt. This was a situation that Walt was looking to avoid to think bigger by controlling the entire city experience.


Abundance of Cars

Car ownership has long been a symbol of personal freedom. In the mid-1900s, the mass production made cars super accessible. Walt’s documentary of America’s highway system in 1958 describes how car ownership outpaced road development – leading to traffic jams everywhere.

“The automobile has created a highly industrialized America of abundance and made us the most mobile people in the world. But with all the pleasure the automobile has given us, it has overloaded our highways.”

To solve these problems, Walt put forth a detailed vision of what EPCOT should look like, began the process of influencing public perception and seized unprecedented legislative control.


Walt Disney’s Vision for EPCOT

The reality is that Walt was done building theme parks after seeing through the construction of Disneyland in California and starting the Disney World theme park in Florida.

His original vision of EPCOT was to build a model community for 20,000 residents. He believed that he could take everything he learned from building theme parks and apply it to urban city design.

The following quote best describes Walt’s inspiration for building EPCOT.

“I don’t believe there is a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities.

Everything in EPCOT will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who live, work, and play here, and those who come here from around the world to visit our living showcase.”

Walt foresaw the growth of cities – where today, more than half of the world live in urban areas. He also recognized the varied purposes that cities served (“live, work and play”).


A Legible City

Famed urban designer, Nathan Cherry, defines a legible city as a “more sustainable, balanced, and distinctive metropolis that works on all scales, from individual to regional.”

Similar to his theme parks, Walt proposes a radial concept to design the city with the central component being the cosmopolitan center, followed by high-density housing, a greenbelt park area and finally low-density housing.


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The radial design makes it easy for people to identify different neighborhoods and grasp the street network.


Transportation

Walt decided to focus on the movement of people, not cars. He proposed that EPCOT should have three distinct layers to enable ease of transportation.

  1. Trucks: This will allow for easy access to all loading docks and delivery of commercial goods.

  2. Cars: “For the motorist just driving through, no stoplight will ever slow the constant flow of traffic through the center of EPCOT.”

  3. The People Mover: This is really just a larger system of the People Mover that we see in Disneyland where people can get around using an all-electric system that never stops running.

  4. Pedestrians: Walt really made it a point to explain that the ‘pedestrian is king.’ All of his plans described a community where there would be no cars on the surface level of the community.

Keep in mind that Walt was advocating for a pedestrian-centric city at the height of the car ownership era. The decision to build a people mover and limit cars to underground use was likely an unpopular choice.


Gaining Legislative Control

A key learning that Walt had from his experience in building Disneyland in California was the need to control the entire guest experience.

In order to make EPCOT and Disney World a reality, Walt discussed the idea of creating a municipality for Disney where voting rights would be limited to landowners / the Walt Disney corporation.

While creating a new municipality was far-fetched, the Florida government, keen on boosting their tourism revenue, was open to the creation of a special district.

This is defined as a “special-purpose governmental unit with substantial administrative and fiscal independence from general-purpose local governments.”

Creating a special district would give Disney control over the project while the counties would avoid the debt involved with installing the infrastructure.

Disney made it a point to ensure that they had the ability to use experimental technologies for transportation systems, public utilities and power and energy. Here’s a key excerpt from the approved legislation:

“In order to promote the development and utilization of new concepts, designs and ideas in the fields of recreation and community living, the District shall have the power and authority to examine, develop and utilize new concepts, designs and ideas, and to own, acquire, construct, reconstruct, equip, operate, maintain, extend and improve such experimental public facilities and services as the Board may from time to time determine.”

The level of government buy-in and legislative power that was granted to the Disney team was unprecedented. It’s hard to imagine any company getting equivalent control over an entire district today.


Educating the Public

One of Walt’s greatest assets was his national media reach via animations and TV programming. He experienced this when Disney agreed to produce a TV program to finance the development of Disneyland. This was the largest TV deal at the time and paid $5 million per year during a 7-year contract.

Walt used the TV program as an opportunity to ‘live stream’ the development of Disneyland. In the first year, nearly half of the American population (~28.4 million television sets) were tuned in and watching.

The first season was so well received it won the Emmy for Best Variety Series.

After the success of Disneyland, Walt started to do educational programming. This is where he first started highlight issues that he saw within urban design.

In 1958, Walt produced a TV show that explained the events leading up to the creation of the American highway system. In this show, he clearly highlights his view on the abundance of cars: “The automobile has created a highly industrialized America of abundance and made us the most mobile people in the world. But with all the pleasure the automobile has given us, it has overloaded our highways.”

His next feature film relating to city building would be his last. Once Walt had finalized an initial plan for the community, he created a short film, just weeks before passing away, to share with key legislators and the broader public.


Conclusion

It is quite clear that Walt Disney was well on his way toward building EPCOT – a project that could have changed how the world looks at city building. His vision focuses on problems that haven’t been solved 50 years later, especially when it comes to transportation.

Walt’s work behind the scenes to get government buy-in demonstrates a systems mindset that we rarely see today. He also recognized the power he held via entertainment and used it as an opportunity to educate the public on key issues.

Entrepreneurs today should study the work of Walt Disney and build on top of his work to change the way we build cities.


About the Write of Passage Fellowship

This article was written by Suthen Siva as part of the Write of Passage Fellowship. It’s a short version of a 10,000-word essay I’ll be writing on this topic in the next few months.

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