Brad Bird’s TOMORROWLAND opens this Friday and it has got me thinking about the original Tomorrowland. No, not the section of Disney’s parks where you used to be able to catch glimpses of the future. I’m talking about EPCOT, the real EPCOT, not the Epcot amusement park in Walt Disney World. I am talking about the original EPCOT, Walt Disney’s city of the future – his real reason for building Disney World. (It only became Walt Disney World after he died).
I am just old enough to remember Walt Disney. He remains one of my personal heroes and I think one of the genuine geniuses of the 20th century. My earliest childhood memories are of watching him host his Sunday night TV show on NBC. I loved all the episodes but I particularly loved the episodes set in Disneyland. Walt's park seemed like a dreamland made real. When he announced plans to build a new park in Florida, I could not wait.
In the fall of 1966 Walt started talking about what he wanted to do in Disney World. Sure, there would be a Magic Kingdom theme park like Disneyland but the heart of his new Florida project was the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) where people could live and work in a city that would always be 20 years in the future. It would serve as a laboratory to solve the problems of society. The designs and the sketches looked amazing; the technology and plans appropriately futuristic. To a kid growing up in Michigan, it seemed the stuff of science fiction about to become reality. (Check out more details in my EPCOT essay at the bottom of the page).
People wondered if Walt had finally gone off the deep end. Model cities were always great on paper, not so much in execution. Their failures littered the 19th and 20th century landscape. And yet, when you heard Disney talk about it, it sound really exciting – and very possible. Especially in an era when we were regularly blasting off into space and aiming for the moon. When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) seemed a realistic prediction of where we would be in 35 years time. When we were living in an era when anything seemed possible – and our leaders encouraged us to believe. I only saw snippets of the complete EPCOT film as a child. You can watch the whole thing HERE. Walt hoped to break ground in 1967 and open the doors in 1969.
But then right before Christmas 1966, only a few weeks after he shared his dream, Walt Disney unexpectedly succumbed to lung cancer. The world went into mourning. His passing is one of the earliest bad memories that I have. I can still remember the shock. But I have never forgotten about EPCOT.
If I could choose to live anywhere in space and time, I would live in Walt Disney’s EPCOT. Work at home in one of those futuristic 1960s houses that still look cool. Take a walk or ride a bike in the neighborhood park.
Then take the People Mover into the internationally themed downtown. Maybe shop and have dinner. Thrill in the new advances whether they be at home, at work, or on the go.
Hop on the monorail and ride up to the Magic Kingdom park.
The Disney organization did build the Magic Kingdom but they never got around to building EPCOT. They did build something call Epcot on the very site Walt selected but that is where the similarity ends. Walt's EPCOT model became an unidentified display on the Disney World People Mover ride in Tomorrowland (see left).
And it has always seemed to me that that moment when Walt died and we all collectively turned away from EPCOT was a turning point in our expectations for the future. Over the next few years, we went to the moon then succumbed to the naysayers who wondered why we were wasting our money on space (as if the money has been better spent since here on earth).
The future stopped being about creating a “great big beautiful tomorrow” (the theme song of Disney’s “Carousel of Progress” ride) where life was always getting better and moving forward. It became instead more about the dark cynical dystopias of endless movies like SOYLENT GREEN (1973) and BLADE RUNNER (1982). “Making a change” got replaced by “nothing will ever change so why even try?”
Most of my adult life I have been listening to people telling me that the future will be worse than the past. And yet I have also lived long enough to know that you will have the future you dream. If you think it is going to suck, it will suck. If you think that anything is possible, it will be. That is true about both people and societies.
Which is why I am so excited about TOMORROWLAND (I suspect Brad Bird is an EPCOTer too!). Because it seems to me that what we need as a society is a capacity to believe again. To think we can make a change. That nothing is impossible. To believe again what we used to take for granted in our collective memory.
Which is why I choose to still believe in the possible. I cannot live in the real EPCOT but I try to live there every day in my mind. I prefer to believe in a “great big beautiful tomorrow.” Which is why I continue to say with great pride:
Ich bin ein EPCOTer -- I am an EPCOTer.
You can read more about EPCOT in these fabulous books:
Walt and the Promise of Progress City
By Sam Gennawey
Ayefour Publishing, 2011
Walt Disney and the Quest for Community
By Steve Mannheim
Ashgate Publishing, 2002
Read My 2008 EPCOT essay for Salem Press
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