Walt Disney reads a book to a baby, the baby gets bored and attempts to escape.
Credit to Matt Gottula (@DLthings) for this one!
Happy 59th anniversary to the happiest place on Earth.
Up the Waterfall: Thematic Impressions of Disneyland
Julie Rheim: “Well, that is absolutely fantastic! But how do you top it!?”
Walt Disney: “Well, we set the place on fire! We have the audience trapped down there in this flaming city!”
Julie: “But how can they get out, now?”
Walt: “Well, now, you got into this mess by going DOWN a waterfall… How would you suppose we get them out of there?”
Julie: “By going UP the waterfall?”
Walt: “That’s right! By going UP the waterfall…. Anything’s possible at Disneyland!”
—- Walt Disney and Ms. Disneyland Tencennial, Julie Rheim, discussing Disneyland’s forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, 1965.
For almost all of my life, I’ve been a fan of Disney. Mickey Mouse presided over my first birthday. Childhood birthday gifts and holiday tidings usually brought a Disney film on VHS. And since the ripe old age of two, my family and I have spent time in the Vacation Kingdom of the World, happily just 230 miles up Florida’s turnpike and the perfect distance away to still be a satisfying and enchanting weekend escape that maintained the mystery of a far away destination, but close enough to capture my attention and establish a sense of familiarity that makes a return to WDW so comforting. That is the real crux of my involvement in Disney. Disney World was the physical manifestation of the incredible feeling and mood and happiness that Disney, as a whole, brought. EPCOT Center dominated the formative years of my interest and is still the cornerstone of my ongoing proclivity for themed design and Disney history. EPCOT provided a linkage to how the real world worked. Its optimistic drive and broad creative aims inspired an understanding in not only the exhibitive aims of the park but in how Disney used technology and art to convey a message and create an environment. Enjoyment and appreciation of EPCOT, funnily enough, broadened interest in the rest of the Disney world and the Magic Kingdom.
In an attempt in getting me excited (was that even really needed?!) for one of our earliest trips to WDW, my parents bought me a ‘Disneyland Fun’ VHS so as to familiarize me with what we would soon be visiting. Although for a park a continent away, the familiar visuals and localities on screen did their job and ‘Disneyland Fun’ became my mental image of the Florida property, despite glaring differences. That’s not our castle. Our Haunted Mansion looks scarier. We don’t have Star Tours in Tomorrowland, that’s over in MGM! And where is EPCOT!?
And so, I was aware of “an other”. There was an other Magic Kingdom out there. One that was seemingly older, had more in it, and yes, lacked an EPCOT. Despite that “flaw”, I was interested. And as I got older and learned more about Disney World, so came knowledge of Disneyland. Here was Walt Disney’s original park…. While Disney World captured my immediate attention for research and, ultimately, this entire blog, Disneyland was always revered, in my mind, as the gold standard for history and the park that set down the precedence for what thematic entities followed. Of course, with that, came a desire to visit.
Florida, sadly, is very far away from California. My family and I have always been very lucky when it comes to traveling and we have seen much of the east coast. While always an event to plan around, a vacation up to New York City or Washington DC was always more economical and feasible than an odyssey out west. Being from a family of teachers, and a student of history myself, who can complain when your destinations take you the very epicenter of what you study? And with Disney World just within reach for an easy getaway, Disneyland was really a world away. Happily, however, my chance to aim for Disneyland came earlier this year…. And as evidenced by this writing, I made it after almost twenty years of waiting and wondering. What follows, and what this entire post is meant to be, is a reflection of Disneyland, as seen through the eyes of someone who grew up entrenched by Disney World, or, frankly, any other Disney park. This is not history; this is going to be an opinionated thematic analysis of Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom as seen by someone for the first time.
If you talk to anyone who has visited Disneyland and you haven’t, and you ask them to describe the park, they’ll most likely tell you that Disneyland is quaint. Although I am sure that this is meant in a positive light, deconstructing the term “quaint” can paint a negative or slighted picture of Disneyland. Common definitions tell us that quaint may refer to qualities that are “attractively unusual or old-fashioned”. If we were to view this definition in a positive connotation I suppose, that, yes, Disneyland is quaint. However, I feel that this definition severely limits the breadth and expanse of Disneyland as a whole. Disneyland is much more than quaint. Disneyland exceeds that expectation from the moment you walk in.
Walking into Disneyland might give you that impression of “quaintness”, however, at least for the first time. Disneyland’s Main Street and Train Station are not the imposing versions found on the east coast. They are smaller (Built at 5/8ths scale, to be exact!) and snuggly welcome guests. There is a sense of smallness to Main Street and the hub, but that doesn’t alter the visceral impact of the mood and tones conveyed by the architecture. Disneyland’s Main Street creates a similar feeling to all Main Streets, I suppose, but this one has the subtext of originality to it. This is Walt’s. There are benches and fixtures and facades that were personally overseen by him and his design team and have stood there since 1955. Beyond that, the stylistic choices made on the facades are reserved and much more aligned with a more modest Main Street than one would expect after having only known the Walt Disney World version. Disneyland’s Main Street is a street out of a smaller town, though no less patriotic or lushly detailed as the larger, more urbanized environment found on the east coast. This Main Street is aglow with gas lamps, has a functioning opera house with a patriotic and historical attraction, and, interestingly enough, an array of cannon in the Town Square. Both sides of Center Street still exist in the west, though a lovely restaurant dominates one side. And instead of being totally connected to Disneyland’s central hub, the north end of Main Street is bookended by two large Victorian architectural chateaus, one a bakery, one one of Disneyland’s best eateries. These are all the small details and differences that place this Main Street in a different mood and frame of mind than others, and dispel any sense of “negative quaintness”, in my mind.
Disneyland’s hub is another shockingly different area when compared to the Magic Kingdom template. The 1955 version lacks water, lacks the open swaths of walkways and space that defines the WDW version and creates a thematic pallet cleanser for the area. Here, instead, exists a small and verdant area that seems a short respite from the thematic overloads awaiting behind arches, behind bridges, behind a mountain, and behind a spinning, kinetic, overwhelming sculpture. Disneyland’s hub could be closely associated with a city park, fitting for its close connection and shared thematic aesthetic with Main Street. Despite this, Disneyland’s hub often has the aesthetic motifs and qualities of bordering lands situated just on top of its terminus, so that the hub is almost a composite thematic example of all of Disneyland, all at once. While this sounds frenetic and clashing on paper, in person it can be a very unique and a beautiful vista. All parts of Disneyland, all at once, and all different, exist in some sort of beautiful, chaotic aesthetic stasis. Both the physical and emotional heart of Disneyland can be found in the hub.
And then, of course, there’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Our icon and symbol of not only Disneyland, but also the keystone to this entire facet of Walt Disney Productions. Although small in stature, and comparatively “less” adorned than her eastern and Parisian sisters, this castle, again, is steeped in the overriding sense of history that Disneyland has. This is smaller and shorter and more functional because it was built first. It was built on a tight budget. Does that show, almost 60 years later? Not in the sense of upkeep, but vastly in the sense of how the castle is regarded. This is already the very center of what it means to be in DISNEYLAND, but there is more to that when actively considering where exactly you are and what you are seeing. Again, this is an evaluation from a perspective of someone deeply reverent of Disney’s history and past. Guests who are looking only for large and impressive scope might not find such results.
This then, is an aesthetic “walk up” Main Street that every first time guest gets to experience and drink in as they settle into their time at Disneyland. For me, it was a strange and beautiful process as every preconceived notion of themed design was challenged and reformulated with every step I took. This is not the Magic Kingdom of Florida. The moods and themes might be the same, but the execution is vastly different leading to a different visceral reaction. Regardless, Disneyland’s “face” and first impression is a rich one, interwoven with a “quaint” aesthetic parameter and heightened by the historical context the park purports and flourishes under.
Scale: Approach and Effects Around the Guest
The scale of Disneyland is something that I thought I was prepared for. Again, everyone will warn you of the “quaintness” and smallness of the park, but I feel that this is still a nebulous term and ill fitting to the charm and actual makeup of Disneyland. While Disney World will offer you long and sweeping vistas of buildings that provide for the interplay of thematic elements on a large scale, Disneyland’s facades alter your view differently. Rarely do they tower over you or overwhelm in terms of stature. Instead of commanding attention from afar, Disneyland’s facades and buildings materialize, beckon you closer, and finally, when close, emerge and have an emotional effect on you. Thus far, my favorite way to compare these two approaches is juxtaposing the Disneyland Haunted Mansion with the Walt Disney World version:
Disneyland places you in New Orleans Square, a land rife with detail and real world texture. New Orleans Square is busy with activity and music and the energy of an active port city and the thriving urban elite in the French Quarter. A mansion house looms in the distance. You approach it and find yourself imperiled by the lore of a ghost story, building off the rich tradition of voodoo and magic found in the Crescent City. Walt Disney World, meanwhile, places you in Liberty Square, home of the American Revolution and birth of the republic. We leave an intimate and bustling town square and head towards a river, turning to see a looming and jagged Hudson mansion cutting an impressive figure on a hill. This, in cinematic terms, is a “long shot” and almost offers a panoramic view of the area before we settle on our subject: a haunted house. Then, as we draw closer, we hear wolves howl, the wind, and the cheery refrains of fife and drum give way to an eerie silence. Walt Disney World’s mansion (and most facades and larger attractions) captures your attention from far away and takes you on an emotional journey from the second you spot them. There is a long, drawn out progression to the process of crafting an experience that can overlap far beyond the attraction in Florida. California does this several times, but uses a different, and perhaps more subtle measure of thematic to affect visitors.
Disneyland, conversely, places you in a rich, livable environment, makes it as real and as lush and as beautiful as possible… and then once you get close enough to the building, whips the carpet from out under your feet and magic happens. Disneyland uses intimate scale to allow almost a seamless effect for establishing a narrative or experience driven attraction. Disneyland’s scale is ubiquitous, it surrounds you, things draw your attention just by nature of kinetics or details or signage. The excitement of experience merely exists beyond the façade, or only when you’ve settled into a locality and something is good and ready to happen.
This “good and ready to happen" approach method is also employed at the Enchanted Tiki Room. Instead of having a formal preshow as in The Magic Kingdom’s Sunshine Tree Pavilion, queuing and waiting for the show takes place in a informal garden setting right next to the theater. And, as the time draws near for a performance, the setting comes alive with music and monologues from the tiki statues. Disneyland establishes her thematic content in a short moment, by showcasing the breadth of thematics at hand… and then takes you beyond that with the flair and enchantment of the show. Disneyland requires you to be patient and to stay in one place to observe, instead of pulling you towards a impressive façade. Further examples of this can be found in the Snow White queue, where one has to wait to see the Evil Queen lurk behind a window. One has to wait to hear the soundscapes of the Matterhorn despite its massive size. One has to stand still, immerse themselves in the melodies of the tropics before Pele, Hina, and Tangaroa bellow forth their island mythos.
While related to the scale and thematic approach of Disneyland, I feel that discussion of Disneyland’s partitioned and separate thematic areas warrants discussion as their methodology and existence is fundamentally different from my perception of other ‘magic kingdom’ style parks. Where other theme parks strive for the illusion of broad space and room to breathe and revel in a chance to soak in the atmosphere, Disneyland offers this chance…. in very enclosed and filled up spaces. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling it claustrophobic, as that has a negative connotation, Disneyland is tightly knit and overwhelmingly so. Again, this is not a negative. Instead of placing all attractions along a thoroughfare, Disneyland utilizes courtyards and passageways to enclose lands and attractions off from one another. For the purposes of this article, let us term these as the “Street Method” and the “Courtyard Method”. The Magic Kingdom excels at the latter, Disneyland, the former. Let’s look at Adventureland in both locals. Adventureland East is winding and extends for almost the entire southwestern length of the Magic Kingdom, but, for all intents and purposes is a street, with most physical structures on one side of the path. Adventureland West is mostly situated with attractions on its south side, but accomplishes its physical space in a much shorter breath than one would think possible. For all intents and purposes, Adventureland’s “common area” is a large courtyard that stretches from the Tiki Room to the Swiss Treehouse. It’s about 500 feet from Adventureland’s entrance to where it begins to merge with both Frontierland and New Orleans Square (more on this intricate thematic moment, shortly) and in that very short space, the entire thematic breadth of Adventureland is contained. Adventureland! One of the most diverse ideas in the Disney cannon, all tied together by a walkway of about 500 feet! For a mind used to the thought of Disney World’s long and curving street with offshoots and alleyways that take us to attractions, having them all, quite literally, at your feet is a boggling and interesting experience. And it goes similarly for the rest of Disneyland’s lands:
Frontierland, while having a shorter attraction roster, is still contained in a courtyard near the eastern banks of the Rivers of America. Only Big Thunder Mountain exists outside of the immediate area, situating itself almost parallel to Fantasyland and north of Frontierland.
New Orleans Square isn’t a traditional “courtyard” so to speak, as it occupies the southern banks of the Rivers of America and is almost a “waterfront” district of winding streets, alleys and hidden courtyards. Given the city that it the area is set to emulate, this stylistic choice is appreciated. New Orleans Square is only open to the water, providing for the upbeat and frenetic mood of The Big Easy, while most of its aesthetic and thematic content is hidden away in the winding streets of the square. Filigreed balconies, ornamental fixtures, and mysterious shops all are contained by a snug series of buildings that hug the water’s edge. All of this begins with the Pirates of the Caribbean facility and terminates with the Haunted Mansion, with only a short green buffer zone separating the “city” portion of New Orleans Square from the uptown mansion home and train station.
Fantasyland is perhaps the next best example of the Courtyard Method after Adventureland. Instead of having to leave the physical presence of the castle to get to the land’s attractions, as in Disney World, Disneyland’s Fantasyland begins the moment you step through (or into!) Sleeping Beauty Castle. Four of her most iconic dark rides are located directly behind the castle breezeway in addition to the other carnival atmosphere rides that Fantasyland has always employed. Snow White, Mr. Toad, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio are all housed along the edges of a courtyard formed by the ancillary structures off to the right and left of Sleeping Beauty Castle’s main building. This, coupled with the intricate and detailed charm of a Bavarian village make Fantasyland into a self contained vision of storybook aesthetics and trappings. The rest of Fantasyland expands out from the right of the courtyard and is bookended by it’s a small world and the Matterhorn. Between the two, Alice in Wonderland holds court with the visual kinetics of her tea party and the roving train of caterpillars wending their way in and out of the show building. It should also be mentioned that it’s a small world is placed beyond the immediate sightline of Alice in Wonderland’s attractions so that Mary Blair’s and Rolly Crump’s artistic and magnificent façade isn’t a thematic clash of styles between the abstract 60’s design and the rest of Fantasyland’s European motif. And, providing for the “back wall” of Fantasyland is Storybookland, whose canals and train tracks through rolling hills and trees make Fantasyland feel endless and secluded, hidden away in some ancient medieval forest.
With all of this said about the physical methodology of containing thematic attractions, by nature of a magic kingdom park, almost equal value must be attributed to how Disneyland gets you from one place to another. Disney World is a master at this. Brief and subtle stylistic changes of architecture take affect as you walk through a land, and by the time you find yourself in the next one, your surroundings have been transformed to match the thematic intent. The Magic Kingdom changes for you as you move through it. Disneyland does this, too, but in a way that is compromised well for the size of the place. Disneyland’s transitions are not abrupt or jarring, but they do happen in an unconventional manner, when compared to how I feel that Disney World tackles the same challenges. Rather than a gradual shift of aesthetic styles, I feel that Disneyland melts several areas at their borders so as to ease the change of setting and mood. Two examples of this are among my more happy and interesting memories of Disneyland: The Matterhorn and Tomorrowland and the River Belle Terrace in…Adventureland? Or Frontierland? Or is it in New Orleans Square?
First, the Matterhorn: The Matterhorn is the largest fixture in Disneyland. And it feels larger than it actually is because of the smaller scale of the entire park, itself. And this is a wonderful thing, especially to a person used to the grand and sweeping ideas of architecture conveyed in Walt Disney World. The Matterhorn could easily be considered the ubiquitous “weenie” of Disneyland that looms over everything in the park, much in the same way that Cinderella Castle is almost ALWAYS apparent, back in Florida, cheerily reminding you that you’re HERE. This is Disney’s. This is fantasy and history and art, all wrapped up in one crazy place that you adore. The Matterhorn provides for the same warm feeling of symbolism, despite being a thematic disjunction when spotted looming over the Enchanted Tiki Room or the Rivers of America. So, how, then, does one transition from a land of fantasy and pure magic to the sci fi inspired land that is Tomorrowland with a massive snow capped mountain in the way? The answer, honestly, took me several walks through the park to grasp: Use the Matterhorn as a massive curtain. There’s no getting around it. The Matterhorn is practically a natural feature of Disneyland, only 4 years separate it from being as old as the park itself. The Matterhorn isn’t something to be shunted away with aesthetics; the Matterhorn is a aesthetic component and feature of Disneyland that is its own being. Therefore, the areas around the Matterhorn melt into it so as to exist in an appreciable way that does not clash with the rest of the aesthetics around it.
On the Fantasyland side, alpines and Swiss inspired foliage and buildings give the Matterhorn the appearance of being a fixture of the Fantasyland village we’ve just walked through, if on its very outskirts and on the edge of civilization. But, if you come from Tomorrowland, you’ve just walked through a land of palm trees and Googie aesthetic trappings (sadly offset with some Steampunk aesthetic elements from a decade old thematic overlay…) how does the majestic beauty of a European mountain fit into that aesthetic profile? Carefully and subtly. Thankfully placed next to the Submarine Voyages lagoon, the rock work of both submarines and the alps can be altered from side to side to mirror each other. While unconventional to have a tropical lagoon merge almost seamlessly with a towering alpine visage of rockwork, it happens and happens smoothly. Walkways move guests away from the main part of Tomorrowland and prepare a vista of only the Matterhorn’s rockwork and waterfalls. To the side of this walkway the barrier of rocks from the Submarine Voyage enforce the craggy aesthetic of both entities. And the deep blues of the lagoon match up with the waterfalls of the mountain quite well. Thus, there is a melting pot of aesthetics perpetrated by Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, using the Matterhorn to reflect and separate both lands simultaneously. Truly witnessing it is a moment of themed design that probably only Disneyland achieves… it’s a wonder to think about (and attempt to describe!) even now.
Yet another sublime “melting pot” moment comes out of Disneyland’s west side where Adventureland, Frontierland, and New Orleans Square all intersect. While all of these lands are closely knit in both space and even in thematic approach, they all meet up at one small building and the transition to all three lands is covered with the ingenious use of architectural trappings. The River Belle Terrace is one building with aesthetic markings of all three lands on it and looks completely natural doing this. This is accomplished by the shared motif of being related to the pioneering spirit of aquatic culture. Stand a certain way in Adventureland, and you can and will see the Rivers of America in the distance. Frontierland sits directly to the east of the shore, and as mentioned before, New Orleans Square dominates the south side of the embankment. So, when placing The River Belle Terrace squarely on the southeast corner of the Rivers of America, this building now reflects all of the aesthetics of the area. Thankfully, this is easy to accomplish through the commonality of how each land is aligned with another.
When Disneyland began planning for adding “Old New Orleans Square” in the mid 1960s, the first new land in Disneyland was considered to be an offshoot of Frontierland. Both rooted in the romance of the west and the appeal of America’s expansionist ethos of the 19th century, Disney’s 20th century representation of both localities would be steeped in the nostalgia of not only Manifest Destiny, but the allure of a trading port city that had so captured the imaginations of a continent with its rich legacy of mysticism and piracy. New Orleans’ realm of fantasy was a reflection of the romance and adventure surrounding the epic tales of the west and cowboys and natives of Frontierland. This places the River Belle Terrace at a wonderful conjunction between the two. One side of the façade reflects the clapboard and rough hewn makeup of Frontierland, the other the dignified and detailed charisma of New Orleans. So, what of the Adventureland side of the structure, lurking just beside the tree house towering over the entrance of The Temple of the Forbidden Eye? Thankfully, the spirit of Adventureland accounts for both the wilds of the bayou in New Orleans and the expanse of wilderness in Frontierland: imperialism and colonialism. Much in the same way that Jungle Cruise is a viewpoint of the indigenous land through the eyepieces of incoming explorers and adventurers, the River Belle Terrace uses that ethos and contains it in a façade. Thus, The Belle is a Victorian gem of the early 1900s, with all the rugged dignity that comes with it. Disneyland takes the ideas of New Orleans, the spirit of Frontierland, and the aesthetic of a European’s idea of Adventureland and marries them on a building that condenses and melts aesthetics and themes into one sublime transitional moment.
While it would be beyond my powers of description to discuss every ride in Disneyland, I would like to point out those that truly offered me something special and have stuck with me since my visit. Usually, these are versions different from those in Walt Disney World or those that are totally unique to Disneyland:
Pirates of the Caribbean is an odyssey through the Spanish Main and a magnificent pinnacle of themed design. The original dwells in suspense, atmosphere, and an intricate progression. Although hugely based in experience and watching events unfold around you, Disneyland Pirates is guided by a narrative of time travel. This allows for liberties to be taken in the flow of the attraction and the scenes we are made privy to. Traveling through the eerie stillness of the Blue Bayou, to the caverns of luminescent blue waters, to the catacombs of macabre tableaux is one of the most surreal, compelling, and satisfying thematic experiences I had in Disneyland. While I am very much attached to Caribbean Plaza and the second iteration of the ride in Walt Disney World and its unique happenstance of a history, Pirates in New Orleans Square is, without a doubt, Disneyland’s archetypical attraction and triumph.
The Haunted Mansion, meanwhile, is a different story… While the WDW version of the Haunted Mansion is what the original Pirates of the Caribbean is to Disneyland, the Disneyland mansion isn’t nearly as long or as well maintained as her younger sister. The positives are still numerous about the mansion house situated just west of the rest of New Orleans Square. Here, the face of the mansion isn’t imposing, but quiet and graceful, only subtlety hinting at the haunting within. While the ride itself is shorter, the experience of walking into the mansion is heightened by a longer and more convincing Stretching Room and load area that utilizes several Yale Gracey effects that you can stand next to and soak in, as opposed to being whisked past them on the ride, as in The Magic Kingdom.
The Enchanted Tiki Room on the west coast is all the more intimate here in the original, smaller facility. And with close to the original length of the show playing, the Enchanted Fountain is still on hand to dazzle guests. As I mentioned before, the Tiki Garden preshow allows for a more informal way of presenting both Tiki Room’s thematic content and locality giving way to a more organic way of “falling into” the show. Disney World opts for a formal thematic introduction.
Splash Mountain is rougher, darker (in both tone and light levels!) , and shorter… But bolstered by the sheer artistry of the original Marc Davis designed audio animatronics the attraction cannibalized from America Sings when it was built.
Indiana Jones Adventure is a rough, fast, delight of a romp though some of the most detailed and deep environments crafted by Imagineering. While you’re assaulted by a barrage of thrilling effects, you’re also navigating sets that are twenty years old and really appear to be ancient and covered in the grime and dust and dirt of the ages. And the queue itself is a example of place making and illustrating the illusion if implied space that really isn’t there.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is a madcap joy to behold, though very different from the much more frenetic version that played on in the WDW Fantasyland of my childhood.
Alice in Wonderland, a decidedly dark ride of WED’s original style is a trippy and enjoyable trip through wending sets and low-tech artistry. The ride feels like what I imagined it felt like years ago, if just for how the aesthetics remind you of the film’s art direction, mostly done by Mary Blair.
Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin, meanwhile, is decidedly a dark ride of WDI’s style in the late 80s and early 90s, but still a lavish and raucous good time, as you zip and spin through the streets and alleys of Toontown.
Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough is a hidden delight and an attraction of a bygone era. It’s a simple walkthrough of scenes from the film, but the scale and the immersive experience of going into the castle make this attraction a treasure of Disneyland. As opposed to being taken past scenes and visuals by a ride, you, as the guest get to linger and walk through the displays and really take in the sets. It is probably Disney’s most physically simple attraction… that offers such a complex environment and reaction.
The Storybookland attractions are endearing scenic trips that are simple and pure relaxation to enjoy. Casey Jr. meanders and takes you over the hills and through the trees of Fantasyland, providing for a great view of the kingdom in all its splendor, while the canal boats offer an up close look at miniature tableaux from many of Disney’s classic movies.
Space Mountain is not the hulking version found on east coast, but makes up for a smaller façade and less atmospheric queue with the sheer force of spectacle that the ride experience is. Smooth, sleek, and utterly thrilling, Disneyland’s Space Mountain experience is accompanied by a rousing musical score and dazzling special effects.
The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage has predictable content as it mirrors the events of the film it is inspired by, but this is quickly ignored if just for the visceral experience of diving beneath the waves in a submarine. Given that the Magic Kingdom closed her version of this ride in 1994, being back in a submarine in a theme park, for me, was a greatly nostalgic experience.
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, a relic from the New York World’s Fair, plays on at the Main Street Opera House with a great amount of reverence toward its place in history and patriotism. Although altered since 1964, the spirit of both the 16th president and the original New York World’s Fair live on here and to great effect. As a historian, one can’t help but realize that this isn’t the nitty gritty history of the Civil War, but an overview of the social niche that Lincoln inhabits, both in national legend and in actual history. Great Moment with Mr. Lincoln is exactly that and is a cogent performance surrounding the idea of Lincoln.
Entertainment- Magical Fireworks Spectacular, while awfully predictable in content makes up for this by the sheer force of the spectacle it provides. Seeing Tinker Bell and Dumbo swoop and glide and hover over Sleeping Beauty Castle is an iconic moment and is simply fun to see. Soundsational is an artistically pleasing parade and runs twice a day in Disneyland. I don’t think I’ll ever get the first few stanzas of lyrics out of my head. I am not complaining about that. Fantasmic, meanwhile, is a massive pageant on the Rivers of America and could not be any more dissimilar to the version that plays over at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This version is organic, surprising, and uses the practical surroundings of Disneyland to spectacular effect.
Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks Finale
Now’s the time to say goodbye, to all of our out-read and bleary eyed company… At least for now, and at the end of this, frankly, exhaustive, survey of Disneyland all of her thematics. I didn’t intend on this piece affecting such a length, but, I suppose that Disneyland and actually writing about Disneyland had a profound effect on me. I think that was inevitable, after all. But, to conclude, I would like to offer some thoughts on why that happens. And this happens not only to me, but to other visitors of the Happiest Place on Earth. I think the answer is simple: Disneyland offers charm. Charm that is inherent of the idealized representations of stories and experiences and, frankly, culture, from some of the most cherished archetypes in our society for the last half century. This charm is also intrinsic of ANY magic kingdom park found through out the world, but Disneyland does something different. Disneyland’s scale, her milieu of visual styles, her texture and simplicity in presenting her thematics all combine to make Disneyland a unique example of Disney’s approach to the themed environment. And this is probably because she is first. She is the prototype and the example that has led the pursuit of artful themed attractions to the heights that it has achieved around the world and in the hearts and minds of all who have gone and returned to any well designed theme park. At the beginning of this essay I offered the thought that Disneyland is not quaint. I stand by that, but I will offer this addendum: Disneyland might only be considered quaint for the pureness and simplicity of spirit that the place holds dear and upholds. The idea of the park is a profoundly simple one…. But Disneyland’s true magic is her charm, charm that is thrilling, complex, and above all, artful.
Happy 59th Anniversary, Disneyland!
59 years ago, today, the entertainment world was deftly changed with the debut of Disneyland. The first popular theme park to feature thematic environments and that strived to meet guest expectations in service and quality, Disneyland quickly became a cultural standpoint, not only in America, but around the world. Walt Disney’s great dream of making thematic and fantastic environments real has now endured for almost 6 decades and continues to impress, excite, and inspire all who come to that happy place.
Happy 59, Disneyland!!
Oh nothing, just Walt hanging out in the Swiss Family Treehouse, being cool and stuff.
Photo and caption graciously provided by @DLthings!
On this day in 1975, Walt Disney Productions formally announced their plans to develop Walt Disney’s EPCOT City into a series of parks. Ultimately, these plans converged upon EPCOT Center, as it opened in 1982. These posts highlight the individual components of the first EPCOT Center parks and discuss the design and corporate process that lead to their creation. Enjoy!
Tale of Two EPCOTs: Part II – EPCOT Internationalism and the Walt Disney World Showcase
Although the ideas and plans surrounding EPCOT in its formative states deal holistically in futurism, technology, and industry, the project was equally peppered with an international flair and a driving cultural theme. From the earliest concepts of Walt Disney’s EPCOT City, areas of the complex were to be dedicated to international shopping and cuisine. This was an inclusion of Walt’s own choosing, as various attempts to make Disneyland support an international venue to exhibit and showcase had faltered. Walt Disney always had an eye toward international fellowship in his productions, both the product of an optimistic message that his studio fostered, but also as a reaction to the calamitous 20th century itself. From an ethos of a peaceful future in the earliest iterations of Tomorrowland, to the “prayer for peace” that is “it’s a small world”, the idea of any EPCOT entity bearing a home for international culture and learning comes from what Walt Disney set out to do with themed entertainment.
As early as 1956, Disney planned for the areas off to the side of Main Street USA to feature a series of alleyways and streets to be themed to exotic and international environments. Formally billed as a coming attraction, “International Street” had a sign erected off to the side of the Town Square where a arcade would have lead to the area. In 1957, “The Complete Guide to Disneyland” exhibited that International Street had become International Land, and had settled on an empty plot of land between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. The Matterhorn sits in this location, now. Meanwhile the area adjacent to Main Street would shift its intensions to house Edison Square and Liberty Street, both concepts that were also abandoned for Disneyland but grew into Walt Disney World’s Liberty Square and the New York World’s Fair’s Progressland Pavilion. In much of the same spirit, the ideas and wishes for an international venue would once again fly east to Disney World and undergo a long and storied transformation, there.
This transformation, of course, is the change of EPCOT City into EPCOT Center and all of the dichotomies in policy and concept in between. When I last wrote of EPCOT’s prehistory, I focused on the Future World side of operations and how that concept grew out of the basic intent and Walt’s hope for what EPCOT would accomplish. Along the way, and as city became park, technology was separated from the planned international and cultural attractions to serve as the main focal point of the EPCOT satellite programs. Ideas for a world showplace would not be forgotten, though, and, in fact, would be a stepping-stone for Walt Disney Productions in creating their new vision for EPCOT. What follows is the evolution of Disney’s internationalism and how it settled to be part of the EPCOT program and almost a separate entity in the Vacation Kingdom of the World.
Formally announced in 1974, and truly gathering momentum in 1975, The Showcase would have looked beyond the scientific and technological aspects of EPCOT and focused on the advancement of international cooperation and understanding. As much as the EPCOT Theme Center was to be a meeting place for representatives from different governments, industries, and corporations, World Showcase would have served as the same forum for culture. Much in the same way it operates today, the World Showcase of 1974 and 1975 would have been a showplace and culture, history and tourism. The real differences revolve around the execution of the project and it’s separation from the Future World side of the EPCOT Theme Center.
Planned for a debut in 1979, The World Showcase would have not been open for nonprofit exhibition as the EPCOT Theme Center would have been. It would have also opened before the Theme Center and perhaps helped offset the cost. Encompassing an area similar in size to the Magic Kingdom, The World Showcase would have been composed of two imposing and sleek structures, semi circular in shape, facing each other to form a “Courtyard of Nations”, complete with flag park, theater, observation tower, and amphitheater for parades, pageants, and special events staged by entertainers from participating nations. A Disney PeopleMover would link the complex, with a new system designed by the Community Transport Services Division arm of WED Enterprises. The entire project would be housed just south of the Magic Kingdom’s Transportation and Ticket facilities, in a prime location to the rest of the Vacation Kingdom’s amenities and future ventures with the other EPCOT Satellites.
The individual national pavilions would all be housed inside the complex, and vary in size, though each would receive an equal amount of façade exposure. The afore mentioned PeopleMover would also give guests a preview tour of the World Showcase in its entirety. Each pavilion was planned to house facilities for permanent exhibition and a meeting place for visiting foreign dignitaries. In the same manner that the EPCOT Theme Center was to be focused on providing a forum for futuristic industry and imagination, the World Showcase was designed to almost emulate the United Nations, if just for meeting and even trade. The World Showcase, according to Card Walker in his 1975 annual shareholders report, was also to be totally run and staffed by cultural representatives from each nation portrayed in the forthcoming exhibits. Out of all of the plans for the World Showcase, this one has remained a constant, not only in the creative process, but in the actual completion of what would become EPCOT Center.
Card Walker spelled out a vision of cooperative fellowship that would allow Disney to grant visas and passports so that “young future leaders” could operate the shows, restaurants, exhibits, and meeting facilities of the conceptualized showplace. Walker hoped that the enterprise would attract young people with the potential of being versed in a wide variety of fields… not only for a showcase of diversity, but also to better the other half of EPCOT: The Future World Theme Center. Walker details that he desires those skilled in medicine, science, business, and education to come to the World Showcase for a period of one year to begin work on the monumental task of allowing EPCOT to work and flourish, not only as an idea, but a working system.
This “working system” of EPCOT relied on one of its oldest ideas and precepts: Housing! Though, not the slick and streamlined urban environment that Walt Disney hoped for, WED did design a housing complex for their incoming international cast.
International Village, as it came to be known, would have been centrally located to both the EPCOT Theme Center and the World Showcase and featured a relaxed atmosphere in contrast to the stark presentational and exhibition driven aspects of the showcase complex. International Village, while also housing he dormitories and living spaces for the cast would have also featured restaurants and shopping venues for Vacation Kingdom guests. Essentially, this would have provided the “experience center” of the World Showcase while the main structure existed only for pure exhibition and showmanship. Card Walker explains this separation for the reasoning dwelling in Disney’s desire to actually charge for admission to World Showcase, as in contrast to the not-for-profit EPCOT Future World Theme Center. The Village itself would have been similar to World Showcase, as it exists today. An open air complex, linked by swaths of promenades and open walkways, dining and shopping would have been the main attraction, for both guests and cast members, allowing for what Mr. Walker expected out of this “people to people exchange”. Most interestingly about this entire part of The World Showcase project is the fact that each nation was expected to provide capital for this part of the venture, while Disney would be tasked with designing the pavilion’s entertainment and rides. This idea of “land leasing” out the World Showcase was said to ensure the cost of maintenance for at least 10 years.
The matter of stimulating the financing and involvement of the nations in question was a venture totally removed from the operations of Walt Disney World itself, meanwhile. Setting up shop in Washington DC, Walt Disney Productions embarked on an ambassadorial voyage to entice and interest and sign nations to participating in The (new) EPCOT Project. In all, 31 nations would eventually come to Disney’s outpost in the capitol to see plans and models for the World Showcase. The office was staffed by C Langhorne Washborne, formerly the Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Tourism, who joined the Disney organization specifically to work on this venture of international fellowship. Enthusiastic support also came from other legislative officials in the United States. Florida Governor Ruben Askew made frequent visits to Disney’s DC office and often attended information conferences at Walt Disney World to ensure international participation in EPCOT. Governors Goodwin (VA) and Busbee (GA) also were often on hand to lend their support to persuading nations to join in on the World Showcase. Even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger traveled to the Walt Disney World Showcase office in Washington DC and pledged his assistance in securing success for international participation. In the end, Secretary Kissinger arranged for Disney’s marketing team to have access to meetings in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Brussels, and Paris.
Furthermore, Kissinger even went so far as to summon Disney executives to hold a presentation on EPCOT and World Showcase concepts before members of congress so as to allow congressmen to help in the effort of recruiting nations for Disney World’s international venue. On December 12th, WED and delegations from both Florida and California presented World Showcase to the legislative branch of the US government in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill.
And thus, it is not hard to imagine that national representatives came pouring in to Disney’s Washington DC outpost ready to sign onto the forthcoming World Showcase satellite to EPCOT. From 1974 to 1976, WED was a powerhouse of creativity and dreamed up unique and lavish concepts for almost all of the 31 nations that were interested. While 9 would only be built in 1982 for what would become EPCOT Center, each national pavilion plan was detailed and essentially ready for execution. Each plan was meticulous and detailed, every one offering a differentiated experience similar to how today’s World Showcase actually works.
Mexico, one of the earliest pavilions planned, and one that actually came to fruition would have boasted an entryway with a grand fountain with carvings speaking to the mystical heritage of the indigenous peoples of Central America, while a boat excursion to Lake Xochimilco was planned for the interior, not unlike the final version of El Rio Del Tiempo.
Japan would have boasted a simulated bullet train through the countryside, after passing through a courtyard with an amalgamation of Japanese landmarks. This courtyard might have also housed an Omnimover attraction, as pictured below that detailed the narrative of Japanese history. It is highly possible that this concept evolved into “Meet the World”, a carousel theater show that was planned for both EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland, but was only built in the former. The Japaneze pavilion was also designed to include a indoor pond for a kabuki dinner show, and the Ginza district of Tokyo.
Venezuela was also planned at this early stage and would have sported an areal tram through the rainforest, in addition to a greenhouse Audio Animatronic show.
France’s concept is relatively unchanged, when compared to what was actually built in 1982. In 1975, WED developed a series of Parisian streets, all leading toward a central movie theater for a travelogue about the sprit and beauty of France.
West Germany and her industry was captivated by Jack Lindquist, a marketing expert of Disney’s who ended up signing most of the nations in World Showcase, so much that they signed on to exhibit and sell German made toys, glassware, beer, wine, and also the “Rhine River Cruise”, a storybook journey into the fairytales of German ancestry.
A bevy of Arabian nations were also in talks to unveil a collaborative pavilion at the World Showcase: Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt planned on showing off a “magic carpet trip through the wonders of the Arab world….a journey through time and space, guided by a genie who shows guests the Arab contributions of astronomy, navigation, mathematics, chemistry, and the wonder of the world’s first library.”
…..and the list goes on and on, though these are the most fascinating and the most detailed. Comfortably familiar to the roster of pavilions that would open in 1982, once the EPCOT Center concept had coalesced around both Future World and World Showcase, the earliest World Showcase concepts are seen as not stagnant, but simply stalwart in the sense that they represented the true essence of what the EPCOT project intended to do: Show “people to people” systems that involved the exchange of ideas, concepts, and goodwill. The execution only being different in terms of all the pavilions being linked in one central structure notwithstanding, the sentiment of international fellowship is a realization of one of the earliest ideas of Walt’s EPCOT City, though vastly expanded from an international shopping district to a place that would allow guests to interact with and learn about culture.
In closing, the Walt Disney World Showcase is as vital to understanding the EPCOT concept as the Future World Theme Center is. Both are equal parts of one idea, though they were planned separately from each other for most of EPCOT Center’s conceptual history. Though the Future World Theme Center is more closely related to the ideas of an urban cityscape of untold innovation and optimism, the World Showcase concept besets the rudimental ethos of how EPCOT actually worked: fellowship, understanding, and a shared use of knowledge.
Above: Marty Sklar, Claude Coats, and John Hench survey their handiwork for building the World Showcase in the Vacation Kingdom of the World.
This article is a “sequel” of sorts to a piece I wrote a year ago on the conceptual history of EPCOT Center as a theme park. Having evolved out of Walt Disney’s concept for a futuristic city, the “Future World Theme Center” or “EPCOT Theme Center” was treated as a separate entity, or “satellite” as the World Showcase project went forward. That piece may be found here ( http://bit.ly/VCfkDY ) along with a companion essay to that article which details a model used by Walt Disney Productions to explain the task and process by which EPCOT would be built. (http://bit.ly/ZawQ2Q)
As it always is with a piece of this magnitude, this writing took quite a few weeks, quite a bit of research, and the support of all of my readers and friends. Thanks, as always, and I hope you enjoy.
On this day in 1975, Walt Disney Productions formally announced their plans to develop Walt Disney’s EPCOT City into a series of parks. Ultimately, these plans converged upon EPCOT Center, as it opened in 1982. These posts highlight the individual components of the first EPCOT Center parks and discuss the design and corporate process that lead to their creation. Enjoy!
Explaining EPCOT: Master Planning and a Model Future
EPCOT, 1976 – The black and white photo above gives us a rare, and perhaps long lost glimpse at a new vision for an early iteration of EPCOT Center. Why this version boasts incremental changes from concepts released previously to this deals directly with how and why EPCOT was explained to Disney’s audience and to those who would dream up and work on the monumental task that was building a new world of tomorrow, EPCOT Center.
By 1976 Disney was well on their way to finally acting upon the long lost notion of building EPCOT. However, Walt Disney’s idea for a working city of tomorrow’s industry and futurism was being remade into a park built for the grand purpose of exposition and corporate cooperation. EPCOT, as a park in 1976, was very similar to 1982’s final product in thematic spirit, but markedly different in execution. Each component of EPCOT would have been a separate entity in a series of EPCOT Satellites.
So, in 1976, to explain this, Disney’s top executives began a campaign of awareness to interest sponsors and excite the general public that the already new and flourishing Walt Disney World was going to be expanding her thematic borders. Walt Disney Productions Chairman of the Board Donn Tatum and President E. Cardon Walker hosted a bevy of conferences and summits at the Contemporary Resort Hotel that focused on the aspects of EPCOT that would make it a lucrative project for sponsorship and fellowship. As previously discussed on this blog, Donn Tatum tackled the “EPCOT Future Technology Conference” that dealt with securing funding and support from leading companies and industries vital to EPCOT’s proposed thematic and cooperative purpose. Tatum explained that the EPCOT Theme Center was to be a forum of the future, a meeting place for industrial leaders and the public. Further, Disney described and intended EPCOT to be a venue designed for “information transfer”, as exhibition and WED’s brand of practical showmanship would be used to express sponsor’s products and concepts. As we all know, these ideas would propagate the final EPCOT Center product.
Meanwhile, E. Cardon Walker was tasked with approaching a broader audience of commercial investors. In May and January of 1976, Walker spoke to the Urban Land Institute and the Florida Institute of Technology with the express purpose of showcasing that Walt Disney World was ready to build EPCOT as an expositional venue, with the help of industry leaders. Walker spoke at length of master planning and the techniques for construction and operation that ran Walt Disney World and that had already prepared the Vacation Kingdom to house and manage and run EPCOT efficiently. Spearheading this philosophy of experimental but efficient construction is Disney World’s EPCOT Building Code. The Reedy Creek Development District (Walt Disney World’s acting government) had already been using the code to guide phase 1 on Walt Disney World.
Walker mentions that the EPCOT Building Code is a cornerstone of master planning and that it has been built with the future in mind:
“ 1. [The EPCOT Building Code has the objectives of] accomplishing coordinated, balanced, and harmonious development in accordance of future and present needs.
2. Provide flexibility that will encourage American industry to test, introduce, and demonstrate new ideas, materials, and systems emerging now and in the future.
3. To provide an environment that will stimulate the best thinking in the creative development of new technologies to meet the needs of people.
4. To insure the safety, health, and general welfare of the districts inhabitants, visitors, and premises.
5. To establish a safe, sound, and forward-looking basis for developing and maintaining the district and its properties.
6. To regulate the quality of materials and systems for all buildings and structures within the district, including their design, construction, occupancy, location, and maintenance.
Therefore, it is seen that the guiding philosophy of the EPCOT Theme Satellites was already in motion, making a compelling case to center an entertainment venue on the same forward thinking drive and optimism. To convey Disney’s seriousness about their forthcoming foray into exposition, President Walker had a model on hand of the first satellite to be built in Walt Disney World: The EPCOT Theme Center.
Readers of this blog are familiar with the concept, but perhaps not with this conceptualization of it. As far as I can see, it is very similar to concepts previously discussed here, but unique. The round “Main Street” structure, planned to be CommuniCore lacks the structures “inside” the building, as seen below, but instead has a main thoroughfare through the building.
This area, perhaps, is the EPCOT Theme Show, 1976’s Spaceship Earth. Focused on communication, the EPCOT Theme Show would have been an introduction into the world of EPCOT and shown guests the purpose of the theme center and topics on display in the surrounding pavilions. Essentially, this is EPCOT referencing itself and referencing its purpose.
Speaking of pavilions, the structure itself is also similar to past concepts but unique to this model. The rounded building seems to boast the same buttresses and supports that Herbert Ryman’s World Showcase concept art also features. In addition to this, there’s a monorail track running around the contours of the building perhaps giving credence to WED’s Community Transport Division’s concept art featuring a new model of monorail circling a similar building. This photograph and the Community Transport Division’s concept art come from the same year, suggesting that they are linked to the same EPCOT Satellite Project.
The other pavilions on the model above reveal a bit of the murky conceptual past of the main component parts to EPCOT’s first version of Future World. To the viewer’s right, we can see the Community Pavilion, a broad swath of structures and ancillary buildings. The Community Pavilion would have focused on some of the more abstract subjects in EPCOT. Government, education, and the arts all would have found a home here, making them, perhaps, the more serious ancestors of EPCOT Center’s Journey into Imagination pavilion that focused on the arts, imagery and the creative optimistic spirit that was embodied in EPCOT. But, in 1976, Card Walker intoned that EPCOT’s Community Pavilion was for the purposes of
“focusing our attention on new technologies, where we will want EPCOT to provide an “ongoing forum of the future” for the best creative thinking of industry, government, and academia is exchanged regarding practical solutions to the real needs of mankind.”
Walker then goes on to say that
“ [Walt Disney Productions] … has no intent to simply become another sponsor of seminars where the participants merely talk and dream. We are seeking those participants were both dreamers and doers, who are interested in getting innovative and far-reaching ideas transformed into reality. “
So, again, Card and Walt Disney Productions makes their intensions for EPCOT quite clear: EPCOT, while an exhibition, will be evolving, changing, and meeting the challenges of tomorrow. EPCOT’s dynamic purpose is change, but change that keeps it relevant an in touch with the innovative solutions required. EPCOT is explained as the “Communicator to the world, utilizing the growing spectrum of information transfer to bring new knowledge in the most effective ways to the world community. “
Just as Card Walker is explaining his ideas for EPCOT, the photo of our 1976 EPCOT model is also explaining some of the other features of the new satellite theme park. Sitting directly behind the snappily dressed female imaginer (Who is she? Anyone know?! ) is a geometric structure that correlates to earlier images and renderings of the Future World of Energy Pavilion. Again, this isn’t the Universe of Energy that would come to grace Future World in 1982, but a rudimentary version of the pavilion. Concept art for the pavilion itself would have featured a heavily screen based walkthrough attraction utilizing lights and lasers. The shape of the building is also seen in the photograph with WED’s chief engineer John Zovich and former astronaut L. Gordon Cooper, now acting as WED’s Vice President and manager of the EPCOT Satellite project.
This is a departure from 1975’s plans for the plot “north” of CommuniCore to house a “Science and Technology” pavilion perhaps indicating that Don Tatum had done his job well at securing sponsorships to solidify Energy as a main topic for a pavilion in the EPCOT Theme Center. The 1976 model is perhaps the last time this version of the EPCOT Theme Center was used until the concept evolved into EPCOT Center itself in 1977. More on that soon!
Thus, this isn’t so much an essay concerning a model and how EPCOT was explained to the public, as it is a look at how EPCOT evolved over time. EPCOT’s trajectory from urban model of the future to a series of theme centers to a single unified park illustrates how difficult and multilateral the concept of EPCOT was for Disney to settle on and eventually get right. Card Walker and Don Tatum had a hugely daunting task at explaining how a city was going to become an entertainment and exhibition venue and be commercially successful for Walt Disney Productions and every sponsor involved. Given the amount of conceptual content that came pouring out of WED as EPCOT became a reality, this was truly a labor of love and one of the largest undertakings not only in Disney’s history, but in the history of themed entertainment. EPCOT was guided with not only the driving desire to fulfill Walt Disney’s final wishes, but a strongly defined sense of purpose and dynamic place in a rapidly approaching future.
This essay is meant to be a companion piece to a much larger article on The EPCOT Theme Center (http://bit.ly/VCfkDY) that delves into how EPCOT City became EPCOT Center. While that article goes into detail on the actual process of molding the EPCOT concept into a working reality, this one, I hope should help shed new light on some of the details and incidentals of how this was actually done. Given that there’s a totally different model of The EPCOT Theme Center in this article, I am of the opinion that the project itself was constantly evolving, at least for the part of the park that became Future World. World Showcase has its own unique conceptual backstory and history, one, which will be written about, here, in the near future. The synthesis of Future World and World Showcase into one central park will also be a future article topic.
Hope you enjoyed!
On this day in 1975, Walt Disney Productions formally announced their plans to develop Walt Disney’s EPCOT City into a series of parks. Ultimately, these plans converged upon EPCOT Center, as it opened in 1982. These posts highlight the individual components of the first EPCOT Center parks and discuss the design and corporate process that lead to their creation. Enjoy!
The Prologue and the Promise: Tale of Two EPCOTs.
Part I- The Challenge and Commitment to the EPCOT Theme Center
EPCOT has always had the rare distinction having its conceptual nexus 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.
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. As previously noted on this blog, 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.
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’ segwue 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.
This essay is the culmination of a month or so of fun, exhaustive, in-depth research. It was always in my intensions to write about the conceptual history of EPCOT, if not only to learn something for myself, but to clear up what I thought was a particularly shady era in Walt Disney World’s history. This essay is meant to be prefaced by a smaller piece on Dick Nunis which deals with the ideological reasons in revisionist history when concerning EPCOT City’s change into EPCOT Center. That can be found here:
Also, I wish to express my thanks for the friendship and help of Katie Buckler (@Ohmeylaweyla) and Jackie Steele (@Brkgnews) in the collaboration of media for this essay. Their efforts and contributions were invaluable to the completion of this writing. Many thanks to them!
Hope you enjoyed!