Book Review: Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City

Walt Disney World’s Epcot has the most fascinating history of any of the Disney parks (and probably more than any other theme park in the world).

Epcot is in a very transitional phase as I write this. In the past decade or so, some of the classic Epcot attractions have either gone through a major overhaul (The Living Seas) or disappeared entirely (poor Horizons, RIP). In their place we see more intellectual properties moving in to what was once a park that was meant to be devoid of the classic Disney characters. The Living Seas was re-themed and became The Seas with Nemo and Friends, while Horizons is being replaced entirely with a brand-new attraction featuring Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

There are a lot of opinions about the direction Epcot has taken over the years. Well, I guess there are only three: There are those who think Epcot has strayed so far from Walt’s original intentions that it’s essentially blasphemy to even call it “Epcot.”  There are those who just want more rides and experiences and don’t care about the history of what was the most ambitious project of Walt Disney’s life. Then there are people like me who fall somewhere in between.

I am not qualified to write a history of Epcot and others have already done a much better job. At the end of this post I’ll give you a list of some other things to listen to and read to learn about Epcot’s long journey. In broad strokes it goes something like this.

Walt Disney was never someone to rest on his laurels. First he revolutionized the cartoon and motion picture industries. Then he conquered television. Then he built Disneyland, which everyone predicted would be a catastrophe. When it succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, Walt could have simply just looked to build a second Disneyland on the east coast, but instead he came up with the idea to perfect and build a forward-looking, modern city.

A freaking CITY! Dude wanted to build A CITY.

He called it the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or…EPCOT). It was to be a place where people lived and worked. A place where the most modern technologies and urban planning would be used. People would live only for short periods in Epcot, the idea being they would take the ideas found there back home with them to pollinate their hometowns with modern ideas of city management and layout.

His commitment to Epcot being a truly revolutionary concept was what got “the Florida Project” off the ground. He was so committed that in order to finance Epcot, he would need to first build The Magic Kingdom park to fund his new and futuristic city.

Books like the one I am reviewing here, Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City, help us get a better idea of just what Walt was intending when he began creating Epcot. Written by Sam Gennaway, a trained urban planner and theme park historian, it’s a deep dive into the architectural ideas and urban planning philosophies that went into various Disney projects leading up to Walt’s conception of Epcot.

Mr. Gennaway takes us through the major projects of Disney’s life that helped evolve his creative impulses and execution. We don’t even get to discussing Epcot until chapter 13, but what we learn in the preceding chapters is context. Gennaway helps set the tone for the time period in which Disney lived. We get detailed descriptions of the World’s Fairs that Disney attended and designed attractions for. We also get his well-known enthusiasm for trains and the eventual construction of his own, and of course – Disneyland.

Because of Gennaway’s expertise in urban planning and architecture, this is no mere history book. There are numerous Walt Disney biographies that hit all those major projects in his life that I just mentioned, but none of them get into the design theories that help explain why we react to Disney parks the way we do. This book dives into the psychology behind human reactions to architecture to show us just why Disney parks are so special in their construction.

Gennaway describes Disney’s ability to create a “higher degree of life.”  He delves into architectural ideas like “arriving in a space,” and “denial and reward.” Both of these practices are described to help the reader understand why our brains react in such a way to the layout of a great Disney park or land. Gennaway also connects Walt’s theories on theme park design to his work in motion pictures. How the lands within Disneyland “cross dissolve” into each other like the scenes within one of Disney’s cartoons.

And then we get to Epcot. Gennaway examines many of Walt’s public comments about city life, and about what he intended Epcot to be. It is truly an incredible idea – one that has not been replicated since Disney’s death. The models and drawings that existed of Epcot’s early designs are truly something to behold.

In Epcot, Walt was looking to change everything about the modern city – how people got around, how their trash was collected, how they shopped, how they engaged in recreation, and how city services were administered. It was an all-encompassing mission to fundamentally reshape the way people were living in the 1950’s and 60’s.  

Unfortunately, Walt’s grand plans for Epcot died with him in 1966. He had just completed the acquisition of his Florida land, which would have been all the land he needed. He had filmed a promotional video describing Epcot in broad terms. But quite honestly, no one at Walt’s company could have possibly carried on and built what he had in mind. It was so singular a vision, so personal a mission that it would have been impossible in those early stages for anyone to follow through with Walt’s ideas.

If you’re looking for a good entry-level book on Epcot history, The Promise of Progress City probably isn’t it. Gennaway’s book really gets into the nitty gritty and it helps if the reader has a decent level of knowledge concerning Epcot’s history. Gennaway isn’t so much interested in giving the broad strokes of the park as he is in digging into what Walt was intending and why he made Epcot his last and final project. This is definitely what I would classify as a “rabbit hole book,” in that it really takes you into the weeds of Disney history. For a Disney freak like myself, it was a fascinating read. If you’re just beginning to learn about Epcot, I would start with the list of resources at the end of this post.

The question that can never be answered is this: would Walt’s original plans for Epcot have succeeded? Admittedly, on paper, Epcot was a pretty bonkers idea. It seems like an incredibly expensive gamble that had a million ways to go wrong – but that’s what Walt made a career out of. Many smart people doubted Walt’s commitment to making sound cartoons; they doubted his ability to make a successful feature-length animated film; they doubted his ability to create a successful theme park, and he proved them wrong each and every time. I have to imagine that he would have found a way to make the core principles of Epcot work, even if it may have changed along the way.  

Though we never got the Epcot of Walt’s dreams, books like this one give us another dimension in understanding just how fascinating Mr. Disney was, and why there probably won’t be another person with a legacy like his.

Click here to grab a copy of Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City!

Click here for Walt’s original Epcot film – it’s fascinating.

For some intro-level info on the history of Epcot, check these out:

Podcasts

Connecting With Walt, Episode #004 – The Master Plan

Connecting With Walt, Episode #005 – The Torch is Passed On

Connecting With Walt, Episode #007 – Pursuing the Dream Without the Dreamer

Books

Walt Disney’s Epcot Center: Creating the World of Tomorrow

By Richard R. Beard

Since the World Began: Walt Disney World: The First 25 Years

By Jeff Kurtti

 

 

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