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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
At Epcot, what happened in the past is seen as quite funny.
The rides, taken all together, are designed to give some feeling for the process of technological development from the start into the probable future. They present some telling and instructive occasions: a brief, quite straightforward, illustrated statement on the nature of energy in its various forms; a demonstration of the way farming has changed through the mechanization of agriculture; a vivid description of how oil is brought from its far-flung sources to the consumer.
But the conditions work against converting these episodes or any of the others into a sense of developing process or consistent narrative. For one thing, there is the rate of transit—the diverse scenes keep coming at you or sliding by—and it’s hard to take it all in. For another thing, there is the size of the subject matter—four hundred centuries in one case, a billion years in another—to get exposed to in fifteen minutes. These may be thought of as practical limitations imposed on the pedagogical exercise.
The instruction is further complicated by the views of those who put the rides together. The passage of time is subject to varying shifts of mood. What happened in the past is understood to be a fairly funny—or in the words of one admiring commentator, “charmingly droll. ” The present is earnest and quite remarkable. And the future is exhilarating—singularly free of irregular or imperfect forms in its conjugation. Such varying perspectives alter the significance—indeed the very nature—of the several stages of the developing process.
And then there is the question of what’s put in and what’s left out—always a problem in any general survey and especially difficult when the line of sight extends across an aeon. Here the age of flight begins with Mona Lisa stamping her foot as Leonardo turns from his easel to look at a primitive mock-up of a flying machine and continues with an eighteenth-century balloon filled with a cargo of pigs and goats. But there is no attempt to represent the more powerful agencies at work in the development of such aircraft as the DC-3 or 707.
Given the present state of things, it is useful to consider fossil fuels at some length, starting from an extended view of dinosaurs at work and play in former times. But in any study of energy it would also be useful to give more than the most casual mention of the energy in the atom.
And more generally, in the sum of all the rides from which one is supposed to derive some sense of technological development, where is steam? It appears when bandits hold up a train in the Old West but never as the prime mover that laid the foundation for all industrial advance and for many technological systems.
These lapses may suggest the difficulty of establishing a reasonable balance in any large-scale presentation. They may also suggest the special interest of WED Enterprises and those corporations that joined it in this exercise. They may further suggest the difficulty in establishing the sense of causality and process in any extended progression by presenting, however selected, a few isolated occasions.
There is the breathtaking—a simulated pell-mell descent in a snowmobile. There is the folksy—an articulate robot, a graduate of Solid State, who kids the customers. There is the astounding—a three-dimensional movie in which, if memory serves, a horse seems to reach out of the screen to crop your hair. And there is the soothing, jejune, if not really apposite message, such as the voice that affirms and reaffirms throughout the passage through the World of Motion that “it’s fun to be free.”
The aim to make people feel comfortable with the kind of world they have to live in is certainly commendable. The occasional penultimate assertion that people in the technological future must understand, choose, and wisely manage is certainly to the point. And the reminder that machinery has done a good deal to improve the lot of us on Spaceship Earth is well taken.
Still, even the wonders of technology are, like everything else, subject to the claims of reality. And it turns out to be very difficult to make that hard point by the means that have served so well in the Magic Kingdom, where not only disbelief but the laws of nature and the facts of life are momentarily suspended.