A Conversation with Marty Sklar

Filmfax article originally published in May / June 2017
interview by 
Ross Plesset / additionnal text and text editing by Sebastien Barthe

In the years following Disney's demise in December 1966, E.P.C.O.T segued to EPCOT Center (now known as Epcot), a permanent World's Fair with some attributes of the aforementioned industrial parks.

In 1974, Marty Sklar (February 6, 1934 - July 27, 2017) became creative leader (and later president, then vice-chair) of the Disney company's theme park designing arm, today known as Walt Disney Imagineering. He was crucial in realizing EPCOT Center and subsequently oversaw the design work of eight Disney theme parks world-wide (having been involved in the openings of 11 during his career). Altogether he was with the Disney company 54 years before retiring in 2009. He died a couple of weeks after this interview but was able to read its transcript.

Overall view of Downtown district in E.P.C.O.T, showing surrounding greenbelt, Cosmopolitan Hotel.
Herbert Ryman. Opaque watercolor on board. 1966.
(c) The Walt Disney Company

- How long had E.P.C.O.T been underway when you got involved ?

MARTY SKLAR: Walt had some work being done throughout the early and middle '60s, and it was part of the reason he acquired all that land in Florida. The first piece of that land wasn't purchased by Disney till 1964. There was work being done behind the scenes, not on parks but on land planning, and he was looking at various federal laws that you have to pay attention to if you're building a community into the middle '60s.

- Have you read the book Walt Disney and the Quest for Community by Steve Mannheim ?

SKLAR: Yes, I had read an early version of it. I never read the final version. He was working on it as a graduate student at USC. He did a good research job.

- For some reason, over the decades many have perceived E.P.C.O.T as a domed city though it's not depicted as such in published concept art or in the Progress City model displayed at Disneyland and and later Walt Disney World. Mannheim's book mentions that Disney had an interest in a domed coliseum in Houston [ citing an Orlando Sentinel article from 1965 ]. Otherwise, it doesn't seem clear how a large dome got associated with E.P.C.O.T.

SKLAR: I have no idea. It might have been one of the visuals we used. The E.P.C.O.T film we did makes it look as if the downtown is totally enclosed, but even that film was like “scene one.” Walt was just getting started. Who knew how it was going to end up ?

Harper Goff worked with Judge Hofheinz on the original Astrodome in Houston, and it may have come from something somebody queried Harper about how they built the dome, etc. That's pure speculation on my part.

- When you look at concepts for Disney attractions, you can appreciate how much they change before completion. Disneyland itself changed dramatically. Even fairly late, design changes continued: the Jungle Cruise was going to be over by Tomorrowland until it was moved across the park.

SKLAR: It was to take advantage of a wonderful group of eucalyptus trees, which are still there, that visually divide Main Street from Adventureland. When you get into it [ a project ] you find topographical things that happen, conditions that you need to reflect.

Also, Walt was really just getting started [ on E.P.C.O.T ]. He was laying out a vision that he wanted to put in front of people, but it was certainly not any kind of finished vision. I always think about it as “scene one.” [George McGinnis and Rolly Crump, who worked with Disney as Imagineers, also believe EPCOT's design would've evolved enormously had he lived longer.]

Master Plan drawn by Walt Disney, 1965-66
(c) The Walt Disney Company / The Walt Disney Family Foundation

- Did you ever get a sense of how much longer it might have taken had he lived to see it through ? Or did he ever discuss it ?

SKLAR: Oh no, I don't think he even thought about that. He followed his first sketch of the master plan of the whole Walt Disney World property, which was done on a piece of paper very loosely. It became very much what we did initially, but there was no time table. There was a concept that he wanted to pursue, and how long that would take, who knows? From the point when Walt died it took us almost another five years to build and open Walt Disney World initially. When you're just getting started on something like that, you then have to start to define even deeper the goals and objectives that Walt had laid out in a very, very general sense. And then you have to go after companies and other agencies that you need to have participate in the idea, and of course he always said that no one company could do this by itself. That meant selling a lot of different corporations to participate. So you could see that this was something that was years and years and years in the making.

- So if he had lived another few years, it wouldn't have started to get built ?

SKLAR: You know, I would say that if he'd lived another five or six years, it would probably have gotten started--and this is my view because that's the way Walt worked—but it wouldn't have been much more than a start. And more likely maybe he would have started Walt Disney World [ minus E.P.C.O.T ] to attract people and make sure people would go to Central Florida as a destination, which they did not in 1966-67. You had to prove that there was a reason for people going there which Disney [ i.e., Walt Disney's successors ] did, particularly when you're selling big companies on participating. They want to know that there are going be people there.

- And who knows how long the city itself would've taken because it was something he had never done before.

SKLAR: Well absolutely, and particularly the goals and objectives that he had set out: he wanted to demonstrate, he wanted things to be experimental and he wanted things to be prototypes. When you talk about things like that, that's a lot of digging and getting into companies besides the ones that may be participating in an industrial park or something like that. This company would say, “Hey, these are things we're working on that we want to demonstrate in your community.” Well that's a big job, and how do you fit all that together ?

- From what I've read it sounds like quite a bit of research was going on while he was alive. John Hench was quoted as saying that a lot of research was being done in waste water treatment. Do you remember that ?

SKLAR: There was a lot of research being done in many different things, in energy systems, we found the AVAC system where we collected the trash [described in the introduction], all kinds of things that intrigued him. Transportation issues, of course, was first and foremost in his mind. How do you move people? How do you move goods? The PeopleMover came out of that. That was an early iteration of something that would've gone into E.P.C.O.T and of course the monorail systems. And as things went along I'm sure that there would've been others as well because those were prototypes that really demonstrated the idea.

- Do you ever think about how E.P.C.O.T might have affected cities had Disney seen it through ?

SKLAR: That was the whole point that he was trying to do. He wanted to find things that he thought could be applied to better our lives in our own communities. E.P.C.O.T was not meant to be just a standalone that had no impact on what was happening in the world—quite the opposite. That's why he called it Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. He wanted people to look at it and say, “Hey, these are ideas that we can adapt and use to better our own communities.” That was the whole purpose.

- He wanted to show that monorails could be used in American cities, not just resorts and theme parks.

SKLAR: Well of course. That was a big part of why he brought the monorail to Disneyland. He was always very unhappy that Southern California in particular didn't figure out a way to use them going down a median of a freeway. Ray Bradbury became a huge advocate of that, and even after Walt's death he wrote several op-ed pieces in the LA Times about the monorail and how it could be used to alleviate a lot of the congestion on our freeways.

- There's one he wrote in 2006. It describes a meeting he attended of LA County Board of Supervisors in the early '60s where Alweg proposed building and operating a monorail system for free as long as they could keep the revenue. It was turned down.

SKLAR: Yeah, as I say, Ray was a big advocate of it, and that was one of the key moments I'd say.

- Are you familiar with an offer Walt Disney made to give the Viewliner trains [futuristic trains at Disneyland replaced by the monorail], after they'd been taken out of Disneyland, for use at Dodger Stadium? Initially he offered them for use as parking lot trams, then a way to connect the stadium with Griffith Park. This is mentioned in the book Disneyland: The Nickel Tour by Bruce Gordon and David Mumford. Did you hear about that at the time ?

SKLAR: No, I didn't hear anything about that. So the Dodgers made all the mistakes themselves [laughter].

- Even though the experimental city was never built, a lot of the prototypical systems where eventually used on the Walt Disney World property. There was a water hyacinth program for treating wastewater from 1979 to 1989...

SKLAR: Oh God, we tried so many things. Bill Evans, who was the landscape guru of the whole place and Disneyland, even brought redwood trees there. He said, “Well, no one ever tried to see whether redwoods would grow here.” And it was the first large uses of eucalyptus in Florida. They were used for windbreaks and screening. Bill always said, “You know there's 500 varieties of eucalyptus in Australia, and some of them have got to work here.” So he tried everything, and some of them worked, some of them didn't. And we had experiments in energy [ e.g., solar energy installed on a Reedy Creek office building in 1978 ], we had experiments in water hyacinths, we brought in that AVAC trash collection system from Sweden, an on and on. [ Laughs. ]

Look at the way the Contemporary hotel was built. U.S. Steel was building the rooms off-site and furnishing them before they were put in place—lifted into place and slid into the hotel.

Disney's Contemporary Resort
Construction Photos, 1969-70
(c) United States Steel Corporation / The Walt Disney Company

- And the monorail goes through it.

SKLAR: There were a couple of architects at [Welton] Becket who threatened to quit over that—not Mr. Becket but a couple of his architects. They didn't think it was right to have the monorail going through and disrupting all the activities in the core of the hotel. John Hench said [imitates Hench's voice in an endearing way], “Okay fellows, put your name here. Sign that you're resigning this account because of this.” Of course they didn't do it.

- The Contemporary Resort was conceived to be that way.

SKLAR: Oh, of course. As John said, “If we don't take the monorail through it, it's like a blimp hangar.”

- Getting back to Walt's own experiments in wastewater treatment, do you recall anything specific ?

SKLAR: No, except it was a water conservation concept, and turning all the waste into potable water was very important. And today it seems more important, especially here in California.

- I sometimes wonder about what the city might be like today had E.P.C.O.T been built and new things were continually being experimented with. At some point maybe there would have been things like water permeable concrete and rainwater harvesting. Of course, this is just speculation.

SKLAR: Who knows? Again, the whole idea that Walt had was he wanted to encourage industry particularly (it was that kind of period) to showcase, to demonstrate, to experiment, to show new prototypes and to continue to develop those. It wasn't just a one-off. He saw it as being a place where once you've demonstrated the use of these whatever they happen to be—whether it's a system, or a building technique or whatever—that people would see it and say, “Well, we can just adapt that for use in our city.” That was his whole idea.

It wasn't a phony idea with him, he was very serious about this. He wanted to leave that kind of legacy. He had already done everything he wanted to do in storytelling, and creating motion picture entertainment and Disneyland. Even doing another Disneyland wasn't much because he didn't do sequels. It really wasn't what he wanted to do. He was setting off in a new direction again, which was so much of his whole career.

- Yes, in watching The American Experience segment on Walt Disney I was struck by how strange some of his ideas must've seemed at the time—a feature-length animated film and a theme park on the scale of Disneyland—and now many people have never known a world without these things. Similarly, the idea of a city being designed by Walt Disney and others with animation, movie and theme park backgrounds must seem as strange.

SKLAR: Not really because Walt came at it from the standpoint of being a storyteller, and he knew to get through to people, those stories had to be real. When you walk on Main Street in Disneyland, you're walking on a real street, and Walt saw it as a real street. Yeah, okay, it went back to a lot of his boyhood memories of Marceline, but it was real. Things that happened there had to work. John Hench said it best to me. He said, “The parks are about reassurance and that things can work, that you can talk to a stranger in public place, and that a public place can be clean, and that you can build quality things that last.” Walt built those in the park, and John's point was that once people experience those things in the park, they say: “Well why can't my community be like that? Why can't there be quality, why can't things work all the time?” Walt was doing it on a bigger scale with a real community [ E.P.C.O.T ].

- When you mention strangers talking to each other at Disneyland, it reminds me of an experience I had there in the '70s. I left a nice camera on one of the arcade games in Tomorrowland, and somebody actually turned it in to the lost and found. My family was shocked. It happened then maybe because it was Disneyland and might not have happened somewhere else.

SKLAR: Well, it might not, but certainly people have different attitudes at Disneyland. They see there's no trash on the ground, so they look for a trash can and all those things. In the old days when there was still smoking, I used to watch people who didn't know what to do with their cigarettes after they finished them. They weren't going to throw them on the ground in Disneyland because there weren't any others! [Laughter.] You don't want to embarrass yourself with your kids and with other people, so you play the game the way it's set up. And Walt set it up to be the best quality that you could do and for you to be part of the stories he was trying to tell.

- Another thing I thought while watching American Experience: his Burbank studio seemed like an early iteration of him creating a community. Disney was talking, at one point, about having animators living on the premises.

SKLAR: I don't know as much about that period, it was built in 1939, but I think that definitely was part of it. You can see it in the way the whole thing lays out, the way light comes into the offices of all the animators. It's really well, well thought out about how people use something, and after all that's the basic thing that was asked for here [ E.P.C.O.T ]. How do you use it? How do you make things that are better for people so that whatever the problems are you alleviate them with whatever the system is? Yeah, he was doing that way back.

Walt Disney on the set - thursday, october 28, 1966
(c) The Walt Disney Company

- Does the planning room where E.P.C.O.T and the rest of Walt Disney World were worked on still exist ?

SKLAR: Oh no, no. We certainly had it through all the planning on Walt Disney World. We probably used it until sometime after Epcot the park opened, somewhere in that period. It was unnecessary [after that]. The reason for it originally was Marvin Davis had that for master planning, and because it was about three stories high, he could put the plans for the whole [Florida] property on the walls. It was a huge, huge surface to be able to map out something and show where it would go on the property. So for planning purposes it was excellent, but by the time we got Epcot open and we had things going on a lot of different parts of the property, it was no longer necessary. It was basically replicated, with that big map that Walt stood in front of, in the E.P.C.O.T film that we did.

- That was replicated at the studio in Burbank ?

SKLAR: Yes, it was; it was on a stage.

- You wrote two endings for that film, one version to be shown to potential corporate sponsors, another to be shown to Florida politicians to get special zoning needed for the experimental city. Apparently, the version that's been commonly seen, including on the DVD release [ i.e., Walt Disney Treasures—Tomorrowland: Space and Beyond ], has the ending aimed at industry. I don't believe the other ending has been seen by the general public, at least not in a very long time.

SKLAR: Yes, one of the reasons for doing the film was the Florida legislature was then considering the legislation that enabled the Reedy Creek Improvement District (the official entity governing the Walt Disney World property). So the second ending is what we used for showing the Florida legislature. And then we showed it on television in the state of Florida with that ending that said, “It's really up to you people here in Florida whether this project gets off the ground or not.” It was aimed directly at the Florida legislature that was considering that body of legislation.

- So Walt Disney was filmed twice with different closing lines ?

SKLAR: That's correct. He asked me to write those two endings, one directed toward the Florida legislature and the people of Florida and then the other one directed toward American industry because as he said so many times, “No one company can do this by itself.” He wanted to make sure he spoke directly to industry and say, “Hey, if this project is going to be done, it's going to be done because you get involved in it.”

- The film also features a concept model for part of E.P.C.O.T, the hotel in the central core, which was different from the preview model later displayed at Disneyland and is now Walt Disney World. Do you know if that was saved?

SKLAR: Oh, I have no idea. Imagineering does have a lot of models going back quite a time in storage in different places, but I have no idea if that's part of it.

- The General Motors Futurama II pavilion at the '64 New York World's Fair had a model city at the end that had some similarities to E.P.C.O.T. Do you recall Walt Disney ever going on that attraction and talking about it ?

SKLAR: Oh, I'm sure he went on that ride. He spent time back at the Fair, but I don't think any of that part of it registered with him in any special way.

- One influence for Disney regarding E.P.C.O.T is said to be Victor Gruen's book, The Heart of Our Cities. However, it didn't come out until 1963, which wasn't too long before Disney's passing. Do you know if he might have gotten an advanced copy of it ?

SKLAR: I don't know if he had an advanced copy of it, but he had a copy on his desk. I have a copy of it right here in my office.

- Gruen's city designs incorporated petals, and the layout for E.P.C.O.T also has petals [ i.e., residential neighborhoods outside downtown ].

SKLAR: You can't say anything particularly that Walt chose for E.P.C.O.T came out of that or any other particular piece. There were a lot of ideas that Gruen and other people had that influenced Walt. He was reading a lot, he was looking at a lot of different concepts, going around to many r&d locations at different companies around the country. I don't think you could say that any particular thing had a bigger influence than something else. He certainly wasn't copying Gruen, but it may have been an influence.

Gruen wrote a wonderful piece called Out of a Fair, a City. I think it was aimed at the New York World's Fair saying, “Why don't you use the infrastructure that you're going to build for that as the basis for a community rather than tearing it all down?” So Gruen was really thinking about the future and designs that could influence it.

- The only example that comes to mind that even goes in that direction is the monorail left over from the Seattle World's Fair that's still in use.

SKLAR: Yeah, that's right. That's just about it. [ Sklar subsequently noted additional World's Fair structures still in use: Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, Paris's Grand Palais national galleries and New York City's Unisphere. ]

- That seems pretty wasteful. According to The Quest for Community it was suggested to Disney that he take over the '64 World's Fair site, but that wouldn't have fit in with his plans.

SKLAR: I don't think that would've been true because Robert Moses's vision—that goes way back to 1939 and that World's Fair—his vision was to turn that whole area into a park. And he wasn't able to do it the first time, but one of the main reasons the location turned out to be the same is because he was still envisioning this park, which indeed it became afterwards. Not only that, but it became the place where the New York Mets field is located, and where they built the National Tennis Center, where they play the U.S. Open. That's all in that whole area now, which has become a park.

But Walt would never have done that. He was not interested at that time in doing something in New York. He looked at doing a project in St. Louis, and he asked Buzz Price to do an analysis between doing something in Florida and doing something in New York, and Buzz later said he had done 40 pages of recommendations, and the recommendations all said “Florida, don't go to New York.”

- In 1996 Disney's town of Celebration, adjacent to Walt Disney World, opened for residents. You refer to it briefly in your book but differentiate it from E.P.C.O.T.

SKLAR: I don't think there's any comparison between the two. I don't think Disney promoted it as a version of E.P.C.O.T. I think the media in Florida did, and I think that was mistaken. Disney never set it out that way. The whole idea was to do a unique community for Florida, and I think they accomplished that, and it's very popular with residents and people who want to find a place to live in Florida. But I don't think it had much to do with E.P.C.O.T. The two had very little to do with one another except to set a high standard, which Celebration has done but in a very, very, very different way than what Walt had in mind for E.P.C.O.T.

- One thing about Celebration is it has a sense of going back to an earlier kind of community, and it's been said E.P.C.O.T was going to have a city called Yesterday and another called Tomorrow.

SKLAR: That was a comment that Walt made in a press conference in 1965, where he said he loved to do things with nostalgia, and he did. But I don't think that was the thrust of the whole idea of E.P.C.O.T. It was really about trying to set a standard and encourage industry, American industry especially, to create solutions to problems that we have.