What Went Wrong With Disney’s Worlds Fair

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MOST OF THE world must know by now that Epcot is a place built in north-central Florida by the followers of Walt Disney to explain how science and technology fit into the human scheme of things. When the editors of AMERICAN HERITAGE invited me to take a look at it, I gratefully accepted for several reasons.

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.