- 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
There is a ride, not available when I was there, but sufficiently described in the literature, which passes through a curiosity shop that contains things like a box of childish delight, a diving bell for deep thoughts, and an Imaginometer. In such surroundings a man named Dreamfinder and a dragon called Figment take sounds, “glows,” shapes, and colors out of the atmosphere and mix them into new combinations. From there one moves to the Image Works, already in operation during my trip, where visitors can mix their own colors, shapes, and sounds by touch of finger, tone of voice, and tread of foot. It is said to be a “fun-house experience,” and it is to invention, research, and development as any fun house is to Bell Laboratories.
If it is hard to explain how an idea in science is taken up and applied through engineering to come out at the other end as a plastic cup or a communications satellite, it is at least as hard to explain how the machinery works. All you had to do to understand a waterwheel was to look at it. A steam engine exposed, quite dramatically, its modus operandi and how it distributed its energy through belts and shafting to do work. But as Henry Adams discovered in the Gallery of Machines at Paris in 1900, a dynamo is an “occult mechanism.” Ever since that time things have moved through the servomechanism, reactor, and computer to the increasingly occult. And the technical systems developed to organize the workings of the machinery have become steadily more abstract and arcane.
This tends to put increased distance between people and their machines and the work machines do. Henry Adams in the presence of the dynamo decided that the best way to deal with it was to pray to it. At Epcot the solution is to dramatize, and the means of dramatization—the vivid constructs of wire, paint, and plastic; the garish orchestrations in sound and color; the absolutely exact personification of Audio-Animatronics—produce such effective translations from the real that they acquire their own actuality.
Such confusion between the real and the apparent is imposing testimony to the skills of WED Enterprises. It also suggests what can happen when the circumstances of experience are set not so much by natural conditions as by the expanding energy in technology. One may wonder, amid the dazzling demonstrations, about what things may become if the machinery gets so far out ahead that it can impose the logic of its structure, the explicitness of its organization, and the uniformity of its operations on the ordinary course of human events.
On so large a speculation as this, as on so limited a consideration as what to do with acid rain, the message from Epcot is: Not to worry. The record as presented shows that machinery always does good (even the first traffic jam is blamed on a horse) and indicates that it will soon do better—if you can make the moon shot, you will certainly soon colonize outer space.
But anyone looking around today has to do some worrying and must come to recognize that the understanding and good sense required to manage the marvelous powers of technology wisely cannot be obtained solely by prayer or dramatic productions. That is why one may regret that Epcot did not develop in accordance with its original intent. The real problem is not to find out what the machinery can do—it can do almost anything; it is what we will do with the machinery.
An experimental prototype community could serve as a vocational school in this subject, a place where the potential in the technology could be investigated and learned about through trial and error. In such a place Walt Disney thought it would be possible to discover what given quantities and what unknowns had to be worked into the equation for future successful community living—what it might take, through the proper integration of technical efficiencies, social concern, and emotional satisfaction, to build a new sort of city on a hill.
It would have been very hard to do. There might not have been much money in it. He would have found it almost impossible to keep his hands off it. And it might have been useful and, even, very important.