- Historic Sites
What Went Wrong With Disney’s Worlds Fair
With Epcot, Walt Disney turned his formidable skills to building a city where man and technology could live together in perfect harmony. The result is part prophecy, part world’s fair. Here, America’s leading authority on technological history examines this urban experiment in the light of past world’s fairs, and tells why it fails where they succeeded—and why that matters.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
So it was quite a fair. Since that time it has been followed by others at such places as London, St. Louis, Brussels, Chicago again, San Francisco, and New York. And now in Florida there is being created an arresting mutation in the long sequence: something thought of by its creators as a continuing or permanent world’s fair.
It didn’t start out that way. In the early sixties Walt Disney, impressed by the success of his Disneyland in California, decided to build a similar installation in Florida that would be called the Walt Disney Magic Kingdom.
“Very ordinary people” could learn how electricity worked.
He intended to surround it with Epcot, an unwieldy acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. This scheme was the product of his conviction that American cities were going to pieces under the pressure of modern conditions. Disney was determined to make Epcot a demonstration of how an urban community of twenty thousand permanent residents—a clean, organized, efficient, and satisfying community—could be built on the foundation of modern technology. Since, as he well knew, the technology was always changing, Epcot itself would always be “in a state of becoming, a living blueprint of the future.” In the planning and construction of this small city, he intended to engage “the best thinking” of American industry.
It was his most ambitious, serious, and interesting enterprise. As a beginning he bought 27,400 acres (43 square miles) in the dull landscape near Orlando. Then, in 1966, suddenly and unexpectedly, he died. One of the things he left behind him was W(alter) E(lias) D(isney) Enterprises, an organization that through the years had learned to give very precise expression to the perceptions, ideas, prejudices, insights, and aesthetic judgments of Walt Disney. WED Enterprises proceeded in the course of the last decade to build on the site the Walt Disney Magic Kingdom. It then turned its attention to Epcot.
As it stands today, Epcot is a modification of the original intent. If not exactly a universal exhibition, it does look a good deal like the more recent versions of a world’s fair. In an area called Future World, constituent elements of industry—transport, communications, energy, agriculture—are displayed in pavilions shaped in geometric forms: spheres, circles, pyramids, and rectangles. They are built of glass, metal, and plastic, and they glisten in the sun.
In a second area, World Showcase, there is a kind of architectural counterpoint. Here, in careful replication, are streets, squares, piazzas, lanes, and platzes derived from other countries in other times. Here also are distinguishing landmarks—Eiffel Tower, Temple of Heaven, campanile, pagoda. These provide an engaging surround for a Georgian edifice, which, in a kind of structural bloat, appears to include embellishments taken from Independence Hall, Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and the Harvard House Plan. In this area the nations purvey in pub, bierstube, café, ristorante, and numerous small shops their identifying food, drink, and consumer goods.
The whole—Future World and World Showcase—is organized within an attractive scheme of promenades, paths, waterways, and plantings. All elements are brought together in a limited space by a masterly manipulation of scale and proportion that produces a sense of magnificent sizes and distances. It is quite an emplacement.
It is also, from top to bottom and from edge to edge, absolutely clean. Every Disney land and world is built on the cultural premise that a decent community abhors even one used plastic cup or a single cigarette butt. At Epcot the premise has the force of natural law. People don’t drop things or throw them away and leave them lying there. They dispose of them in the available, appropriate containers.
There are at any given time a great many of these people or, in the local idiom, guests. In continuing streams they are processed through channels by computer-controlled devices—an elevated monorail, groups of theater seats that convert into vehicles holding ninety-seven passengers, a “linear induction-powered” people mover, and countless small cars that transport observers past the intricately contrived exhibits.