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
If not all is as new as it is made to seem (there were six miles of electricpowered elevated railway at Chicago in 1893 and also a moving sidewalk), it is still an impressive demonstration of how to produce a carefully ordered and directed flow out of what Herbert Hoover called the “fluidity of the human particle.” And when the machinery does not serve, the continuing streams are ingeniously reduced to carefully controlled, slowly moving, short, pedestrian segments that damp down the sensation of standing in line. In part this is because of the system and in part also because the human particle, as in the matter of cleanliness, accepts the system as something imposed by the nature of that world. Even at a popcorn cart, six people wait in a quiet line.
Confronted with a dynamo, Henry Adams chose to pray to it.
The continuing crowds are drawn to Epcot, in the words of the Disney group, by a “unique” conception in which “entertainment will be a highly visible attraction,” but the “underlying educational value of Future World is its important contribution.” In earlier Disney installations there had always been some sort of intent to educate, if not so deep as a well, at least as broad as a barn door. Amid the gnomes, the tree houses, the shop for Disney merchandise, and the runaway train ride, one finds the detailed and faithful reconstruction of Main Street as it was a hundred years ago or the demonstration (if one knew enough to separate the mermaid from the algae and the fish) of what life beneath the surface of the sea was like.
But at Epcot the intent to educate is more consciously assumed. The pedagogical object, broadly stated, is “to create a gala atmosphere that transforms formidable technology into something we can understand and look forward to enjoying.”
The principal tool of instruction is the ride. Using the means previously developed in earlier lands, worlds, and kingdoms, trips are taken through several areas of technology—transport, energy, communications, agriculture, and within the next year “The Living Seas,” and “Horizons,” or the shape of things to come. These rides have certain common characteristics. There is the movement by vehicles through tunnels that at intervals open out to reveal striking scenes that are carefully contrived in background and are populated by Audio-Animatronics. This last is an art form, refined over the years, in which plastic, wire, paint, and electronic devices are brought together into a system that looks and acts and sounds as much like a living thing as a living thing does. Indeed, these artifacts disturbingly seem, in the words of Lewis Carroll, “as large as life” and within the limits of their programs, "twice as natural.”
In the literature the rides are variously described as dazzling, wacky, psychedelic, and refreshingly zany. In their multiplying scenes, sharply framed by enclosed space, vividly rendered in precise detail, set on beds of flowering prose, wrapped in music, laced with light, and, when appropriate, penetrated by supporting smells, they are designed to “engulf us in the wonders of modern science and technology.”
The principle of engulfment has been applied in different ways in the Disney universe for many years. It puts the pressure into the obligation to keep the place clean. It is the primary means through which the Magic Kingdom brings off its enchantments. Given its demonstrated power to drench, condition, and excite in gala atmospheres, what can it do to educate, to transform formidable technology into something understood?
In any engulfment there is an overwhelming gross effect. Here the sum of the rides and their supporting exhibitions put several points within the reach of even the laggard schoolboy: Men for a long time have made machines to extend their competence and improve their lot; as a result the world today is filled with machines that determine many of the conditions within which we live; in the future (which is just around the next corner in any ride you take), there will be many more machines widening the range of what can be done, adding far more excitement and increasing the choices of what to do.
That these points can be variously interpreted is one of the inevitable complications of pedagogy. As realized at Epcot, they have been said by some recent observers to constitute a “tribute to human ingenuity” or an “extraordinary encomium to a capitalist future” or something “to help make possible the survival of civilization.” Whatever the angle of observation, however interpreted, the desired points have been put across.
But, as in any engulfment, the gross impression is attended by subsidiary responses, side effects, secondary sensations, and loose ends. It is difficult to sort them out and identify them even after the event. They appear in no natural order, and they can be arranged in no reasonable progression of significance. What follows, therefore, is not a sequential narrative, but simply a set of notes and various reflections.