- 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 one thing, as an American historian I have from time to time written pieces on the same subject matter with results that had begun to seem not only dully reiterative but increasingly problematical to me. I could use a new look.
For another thing, Walt Disney was a very interesting man. Except in his view of what the Middle West was like when he was growing up there, he tended to look upon the received tradition or the authorized version of anything as suspect. Whether it was rodents or Snow White, roller coasters or Beethoven, he sought offbeat forms of expression and novel interpretations. Those who have followed him are trained to his perceptions, very sophisticated in their own right as engineers, and almost equally shrewd in their calculation of certain aspects of the American temperament. What they have found to say about the place and meaning of science and technology in this society would certainly be interesting, especially at a time when no one is quite sure in such matters.
Third, the Disney organization, or WED Enterprises, as it is called, is a cultural force. It has discovered how to deliver whatever message it has in mind quite precisely to almost everybody. How, on this occasion, it has translated its difficult subject matter into a message nearly everyone can receive would also be interesting to see.
Finally, Epcot is said to be a kind of world’s fair, part of the long history of great expositions that began with the Crystal Palace. It would be interesting, I thought, to see how Epcot fits within this larger story of technological display, and so that is where I’ll begin.
In 1912 a convention of nations defined a universal exhibition—what is now called a world’s fair—as “embracing the majority of products of human activity.” From 1851, the year of the Crystal Palace, to 1904 there were twelve gatherings that seem to fall within this general definition. They took place in London, Paris, Melbourne, Vienna, Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, and St. Louis.
In these cities collections of infinite variety were brought together to reveal what men and women were doing in all fields from art to zoology. But the center of interest increasingly as time went by was what they were doing in industry.
These fairs were summarizing statements, clarifying expressions of what was happening in the industrial civilization that, in the last half of the last century, was developing unevenly around the world. As such they began to serve an unexpected purpose. In the opinion of Sir Henry Cole, who studied the phenomenon, they exerted “a greater influence on the development of tastes, habits and activities of the civilized peoples than the less direct, slower process of natural development of needs following in the train of modern scientific and mechanical progress.” In other words these fairs, which brought many products together, suggested new kinds of relationships among disparate parts and brought the whole into clearer focus.
The exposition at Chicago in 1893 is a case in point. It stood on 586 acres spread out along the lake shore. In accordance with suggestions by Frederick Law Olmsted, the plot was formed into a gracious arrangement of land and water. The design and distribution of the structures set on this ground were determined by a body of architects that included Daniel Burnham, Stanford White, Richard Hunt, Henry Van Brunt, and Louis Sullivan. The result of their labors was the White City. There it stood amid flowering shrubs and blue lagoons, a harmonious composition of great buildings, glittering by day, magical when illuminated at night. “A great milestone,” it was said, “a turning point in our national life.”
What went on in and around these buildings was at least as significant. There was, in fact, something for everybody. Dominating the Midway Plaisance was the imposing wheel that had been built by George Washington Ferris to put the Eiffel Tower—the wonder of the Paris Exposition four years earlier—into satisfying eclipse. Beneath it lay a diversity of distractions—a Hawaiian volcano in canvas, a squadron of Bedouins, a captive balloon, and a “real Dahomey village of genuine savages. ”
In other parts of the grounds there was a massive display of foodstuffs that was later believed to have modified somewhat the dietary habits of Americans. Nearby was a large exhibition of furniture, which, it was also later said, altered the interior arrangements of American homes for a generation. Elsewhere, in the pavilion for anthropology and ethnology, where the long course of human evolution and the gradual development of regional difference was painstakingly set forth, one could look upon a display of tribal dwellings in which someone had thought to introduce a full-scale house of a factory worker in upper New York State. And spotted about the grounds were such working enterprises as a logging camp, a weather bureau, an Indian school, a filtration plant, a military hospital, and a Japanese teahouse.
Within this various collectivity the center of gravity was to be found in the buildings devoted to transportation, manufacture, and electricity. Here, among the Corliss engines, the dynamos, the machine tools, the locomotives, and turret lathes, one would come in time upon all the instrumentation of the industrial process—much of it doing actual work.
And here also were many indications of how the process itself worked. There were the stages of development in the locomotive from the Stourbridge Lion in 1829 to the newest engine on the New York Central. Along one wall was laid out the linear progression of materials and ideas that Alexander Graham Bell had followed until he arrived at that first telephone he had used to inform Watson he needed him.
The 1893 fair ran for six months; one in four Americans saw it.
The current American performance was therefore ordinarily presented within the context of past activity. It was also put up against what other industrial nations were doing at the time. So there was an opportunity to make comparisons among other processes, procedures, and artifacts. The British, for instance, had an elaborate demonstration of the advances that had been made in ocean liners driven by steam propulsion and the Germans revealed their steady progress in ballistics in their exhibit of rifled cannon—one of which Mr. Krupp thoughtfully offered to Chicago “to protect the port.”
And the current American performance was set within yet another and larger context by a series of week-long colloquiums. The authors Hamlin Garland, Charles Dudley Warner, and Thomas Lounsbury, the leading Chaucerian, argued about the role of literary criticism; the philosopher Josiah Royce discussed Kant; and Frederick Jackson Turner revealed for the first time his concept of the significance of the Frontier in American history. Nikola Tesla lectured on induction motors, and when the great physicist Baron Hermann von Helmholtz appeared at one of the sessions, he received the loudest and longest acclamation given to anyone who attended the exposition.
The fair lasted for six months, and one out of every four Americans came to see it. And what did these fourteen million make of it all? The vast installation had been put together by so many different heads and hands representing so many different skills and attitudes that the range for exploration was almost endless and there were, of course, marked divisions of interest among the multitudes. Farmers tended to look at livestock, housewives to study textiles and dining room suites, factory workers to examine machinery, and small boys to stare at genuine savages.
But there was at the time, and has been ever since, a conviction that the whole added up to a good deal more than, something quite different from, the sum of the parts. It was not so much a fair as a kind of clearinghouse for the study of present attainments and future possibilities where you could reach your own conclusions. As such it was a powerful instrument of public instruction. As one shrewd observer said, “Educational game started like rabbits from every building.”
The lessons were of various kinds. One had to do with aesthetics—those buildings that Theodore Roosevelt said “make the most beautiful architectural exhibit the world has ever seen.” Not everybody thought so, and as in any sound pedagogy, there was a debate that has continued ever since. The prevailing style of the White City was called “freely classical,” which left a good deal of room for what one critic called a “duplication of other modes.” Lewis Mumford argued it was. “a retrogression” from the daring work that John Root and Louis Sullivan had been doing in that same city of Chicago.
But such views, however wise and perceptive, were held by a very small minority. Just by its presence, it was said again and again, the White City excited the “forces making for aesthetic appreciation in America.” It awakened the sense of the possibility of beauty—from wherever derived—in one’s own surroundings. Quite possibly both sides were right, and no one denied the continuing influence of these remarkable structures on the American consciousness.
And there were the lessons in the nature of the physical plant, the state of the country’s industrial development. Father Day sent his son Clarence off to the fair because “it is a great educational opportunity.” The boy should spend time, particularly, in the Transport Pavilion, where he would learn the things he needed to know when, at some future time, he took his father’s place on the boards of several railroads. More generally, it was said that “by daily practical demonstrations it became apparent even to the minds of very ordinary people” how electricity, “the new force,” had been “applied to human service,” how steam machines worked, and how the machines that manufactured things operated.
And then there was at least the opening chapter in the harder lesson of what to do with all the new power available, what kind of larger life to build upon the extraordinary mechanical foundations. In this area Oswald Garrison Villard found that the fair “as an educational institution was a tremendous success.” “Every kind of civic and social endeavor was stimulated by that exhibition,” he concluded.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.