- 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
For instance, there is a robot who has been doing time on an assembly line. With the assistance of a bird, he gets into show business and, having learned to claim his just desserts, winds up conducting a symphony orchestra. This is about as close as one gets to life on the shop floor, job retraining, or the technological unemployment of the nonAudio-Animatronic worker.
One gets no closer to the neutralizing of acid rain, the disposal of toxic waste, the changing character of work, the calculation of acceptable risk in the building of power plants, the question of how and why the Japanese make more efficient use of some of their industrial installations than the United States does, the question of how to understand and choose whether to put an MX in a silo or on a freight car or in a dense pack or to build it at all. Or the larger, longer question of how far human responses can be trimmed and fitted into the rigidities of technical systems before there is not as much fun as there used to be.
On great problems and small ones, Epcot’s message is: Not to worry.
As an educational device the gala atmosphere is a good deal like those temporary villages Potemkin built to persuade the empress, on her progress through the south, that things were going her way.
Throughout the grounds there are displays of one kind or another that, if not coigns of silence fit for brooding, are places where customers are on their own and can do whatever they want to. There are a good many things to do: look at an attractive collection of windmills; press a button on a scaffolding of wire and glass that will reveal by the extent of its illumination the amount of fossil fuel still available in the various deposits around the world; turn a crank that will excite a light bulb and explain how many hours of cranking would produce a dollar’s worth of electricity. Over in the World Showcase there is a handsome collection of Chinese art and in the same building an absolutely stunning movie, spread around a 360-degree screen, of the landscape of China. Farther on, in the German quarter, there are porcelain wares and stuffed animals for sale, and in the English shops Pringle sweaters and Royal Doulton chinaware.
There are computer terminals everywhere, usually in the form of television screens on which there are illuminated spots that can be touched with a finger to produce messages containing a great many different kinds of information. One is programed with material from the 1980 census; another with data on cities and vacation spots around the world; a third with the availability of reservations at the restaurants in World Showcase, and so on and so on. Then there are numbers games and problemsolving exercises. Anyone can play, and everyone is continually encouraged to have this “hands-on” experience. Those who do so seem, more often than not, to be the young, in spite of all the obvious” effort to make the programs, as they say in the trade, “user friendly” for those of every age.
It may be true, as my wife says, that the only piece of knowledge every man, woman, and child in this country now hold in common is Mickey Mouse. It is at least arguable that the art form Walt Disney developed gets through in some way to more Americans than any other that has been devised. And he may have taken us about as far along the road to some sort of wonderment as we are prepared to go.
The content of Disney’s art form was shaped, of course, by a well-defined and particular view of things, but its structure was determined by a deep intuitive feeling for engineering and by the kind of resourcefulness and precision required to make engineering constructions serve the end in view. It seems at least probable, therefore, that Walt Disney first thought of Epcot as an actual experiment in the interactions between men and machines because he knew he could not teach people to understand technology (and how to handle it) by the spectacular means he had devised to divert them.
For instance, those early animations that became a universal model derived primarily from his long, hard, painstaking work. As did all his later constructions. Though not much of an inventor, he understood and shrewdly used the system of research and development that invention has become. The point of that system is to get the intuitive perception of the possible new connections among things within the firmer discipline of logical progression. There is a good deal of trial and error in it, but it makes for a more orderly and predictable course, a more organized momentum toward novelty. By this process the imaginative impulse is informed, steadied, and directed by the workings of the mind. This system is now the intellectual mainspring in technological movement.
Explaining this process, getting across its place in technological advance, is hard enough to do by any means, even if life depends upon it. Some companies, to be sure, have understood research and development well enough to make millions; but a good many others have failed or gotten lost in conglomeration because they failed to understand. At Epcot the subject is dealt with only through the stimulation of the imaginative impulse.