Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T – Let’s Build It!

AUGUST 2017
Written by Rich Procter

"You can awaken people by dreaming their dreams more clearly than they dream themselves." - Alexander Herzen

The New York Times tells us that Disney is getting ready to “spruce up” Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park with movie IP. What if Disney decided to take another direction, and “spruce up” EPCOT by returning to its original inspiration, as imagined by the man who founded the company?

First, some background. The Walt Disney Company once ruled two priceless cultural dominions: timeless mythic fantasy, and modern cultural optimism. They still rule the realm of timeless mythic entertainment, making billions on franchise entertainments like “Frozen” and (all versions of) “Beauty and the Beast.” Most people forget Disney’s ownership of the other dominion. Did you know that public (taxpayer) support for putting a man on the moon in 1969 began with three television shows aired on “Disneyland” in 1955? The shows were “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon,” and “Mars and Beyond.” Walt Disney – the dreamer and doer, the cultural optimist, the civic cheerleader – stood on his national television soapbox and showed America that travel to outer space was something entirely practical. He changed the cultural conversation of space travel from “sci-fi fantasy” to “next logical step for mankind.”

1955 was also the year that Disneyland opened its gates. Fantasyland was – and still is – devoted to the realm of mythic fantasy. Tomorrowland was devoted to modern cultural optimism. In Tomorrowland you could board a TWA rocket to the moon, cruise the Interstate Highway System at Autopia…and starting in 1957, you could step into the “House of the Future” (sponsored by Monsanto). Disney wanted us to believe in progress, so he created a future we could step inside and enjoy.

I was fifteen years old in 1966. I was watching “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” the night that Walt told me that, sometime in the near future, I’d be able to visit his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or “E.P.C.O.T.”). This would be an entire futuristic city created by dreamers like him: a living laboratory of technological and civic innovation. Here’s how Walt himself described it that night:

“EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”

My brain was on fire. It would be Tomorrowland, except an entire city! That I could visit anytime I wanted! That would inspire every city in every country around the world! Walt went on…

”When EPCOT has become a reality, and we find the need for technologies that don’t even exist today, it’s our hope that EPCOT will stimulate American industry to develop new solutions that will meet the needs of people expressed right here in this experimental community.”

Walt Disney died in 1966 shortly after making this presentation. When EPCOT opened on October 1, 1982, Walt’s plan had morphed into a kind of permanent World’s Fair: half corporate pavilions (“Future World”), and half pavilions devoted to countries around the world (“World Showcase”). I visited EPCOT shortly after it opened. Something had gone wrong. What was it? I knew I wouldn’t find Walt’s working prototype community, but I expected to find an inspiring vision of the future in Future World. Instead I found a “World of Energy” devoted to fossil fuels, a “World of Motion” devoted to the history of transportation (as opposed to its future), and a Journey Into Imagination, which was charming but belonged in Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom. Only one directly addressed to the future: Horizons, sponsored by GE. This was a ride that took me into the future, and even let choose one of three possible futures at the end.

I’ve spent decades rooting for Disney to return to Walt’s original inspiration for EPCOT. The world still needs a place where people who believe in progress can step into a future that works for everyone. Instead of what’s there now – with some movie IP added – imagine what EPCOT could be:

MEMBERSHIP – For the price of a ticket, every guest can become a member. These members share a common value – the commitment to create a better future for the world. Membership gives these guests a number of benefits, including the opportunity to attend TED-type seminars and celebrations of progress.

AMERICA’S MOST SUCCESSFUL COMPANIES SHARE THEIR INNOVATIONS – This is the home of cultural, scientific and civic optimism. This is the place where the next iPhone is introduced. This is the place where Elon Musk announces Tesla’s new solar roof technology that integrates with its electric vehicles. This is the place where Jeff Bezos announces his plan to drone-deliver Amazon Prime packages. Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Tesla, Virgin: they come here to share their dreams with the world, and to work together to learn from each other. And Disney partners with them, building prototypes of their dreams that EPCOT guests can experience in three dimensions. And this is all documented and shared on the “EPCOT CHANNEL,” leaving the Discovery Channel in the dust.

ENTERTAINMENT THAT INSPIRES AND TRANSFORMS – Walt Disney was all about entertainment. Disney’s Imagineers can return to Walt’s original premise – “dreaming about the future is HUGE FUN!” – and turn this new EPCOT into a wildly entertaining experience. (Imagine driving a Tesla prototype at 110 miles per hour, rocketing through space with Virgin Galactic, and visiting the “possible dream world” of 2100 in a virtual reality presentation created by James Cameron and Lightstorm.)

EPCOT was created with a unique mission, described in Herzen’s quote above: “To awaken people by dreaming their dreams more clearly than they dream themselves.” Walt Disney’s entire life was devoted to this premise. The world needs his optimism, energy and enthusiasm more than ever. He’s the one who told us what to do:

“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”