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The Florida Project
Why would Walt Disney spend his last days trying to solve the world's transportation problems rather than entertain us?
If you're like a significant percentage of the East Coast population that grew up in the 1970s, you and your family probably visited Walt Disney World once or twice for a family vacation. If you're like my family specifically, you went a lot more than a couple of times: we traveled there annually for a weeklong stay. (I was fortunate enough to have parents that enjoyed visiting almost as much as their kids did.)
And if you're like me, during those visits to the Disney World of the ‘70s, you probably loved the Magic Kingdom, loved the monorails, adored the Contemporary and Polynesian resort hotels (especially the Contemporary's massive video and pinball arcade)...marveled at every part of the experience. There wasn't a single aspect of the place that wasn't completely enchanting to me, and I was always searching for new ways to immerse myself in Disney World knowledge. Through constant study during the fifty-one weeks of the year I wasn't in Florida, I memorized the room number arrangements for both hotels, knew the sponsors of every attraction and gift shop in the park (some favorites: the Welch's Grape Juice Troubadour Tavern...the WEDWay PeopleMover presented by America's Investor-Owned Electric Companies), memorized the names of each of the Polynesian "island" longhouses, and the age limits for each of the different watercraft available for rental on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon.
The 1970s really were the golden years for the resort. Everything was brand-spanking new, and the whole thing was completely novel: there in the middle of Florida, the concept of themed entertainment had been taken to a previously unimagined level. And there was so much promise for what was yet to come. Specifically, "what was yet to come," was EPCOT. EPCOT loomed over Walt Disney World in all of the company's press materials and even in the Walt-narrated film shown in Main Street's Walt Disney Story exhibit. I always thought that one of the most thrilling spots at the resort was an understated sign near the entrance roadway, visible to passing cars. In plain block letters (and no Mickey, or even a "Walt Disney Productions" logo as I recall) it read something like: "Site of Future Expansion, to open October 1, 1982." I'm not even sure it used the word "EPCOT," but I knew what they were talking about, and I knew it would be more thrilling than anything we'd seen thus far.
That I could be so excited about something so amorphous is a testament to the faith I had in the Walt Disney organization. What was EPCOT? Every definition rarely strayed--or was more specific--than the one Disney himself stated:
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 ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.
These words, accompanying alluring artists' renditions of an idyllic, blue-green 1960s-style futuristic metropolis, were pretty much the extent of what anyone publicly knew. Adding to the intrigue was the intricate, miniature city of the future in the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland, visible as the PeopleMover ride ducked into a dark tunnel above the Mission to Mars pavilion. Was this a preview of what EPCOT was to be? I rode the PeopleMover every day to gather hints, but the ride's narration didn't say. Despite all the mystery, the little I could piece together was good enough for me: I was ready to move in to Disney's futuristic city.
That was a long time ago. The EPCOT that was ultimately built wasn't the EPCOT that Walt Disney had envisioned. Instead of a city of tomorrow, the company built a kind of permanent World's Fair (unwittingly leaving out a World's Fair's most alluring quality, its ephemerality.) And despite a few charms, the real "EPCOT Center" never lived up to what I'd envisioned the Walt Disney Company constructing. But is it fair to call the park that was built a disappointment if I never precisely understood what Walt wanted in the first place?
In order to have an intelligent argument about what the Disney organization could or should have built in Florida, I had to know what EPCOT--Walt Disney's EPCOT--was really supposed to be, and until recently, such information was extremely hard to come by. But thanks to the Internet, I was able to take a gander at exactly what Walt Disney himself proposed to the Florida officials who okayed his enormous Orlando investment. On the Net, it's possible to find a transcription--indeed, the entire twenty-four-minute video--of the "Florida Project" film that Disney made not long before he died. (The nice Disney site www.waltopia.com has just such a film and transcript.) The film was made to excite the local and state governments about what Disney was intending to build in Florida. Apparently, it worked.
As the only document of what EPCOT was to be that is publicly accessible, I'm using this film as the foundation for my understanding. It might be dangerous to extrapolate too much from a twenty minute movie, but it's just about all of the first-hand material there is to go on, and given that Disney died soon after the film was produced, it's not clear that he himself had much time to develop more than what was on display in the film. (I should note that I haven't yet read Steve Mannheim's new book on EPCOT, Walt Disney and the Quest for Community.)