"A commodified utopia" by Matthew C. Arnold (2002)

Overall view of Downtown district in E.P.C.O.T
(c) The Walt Disney Company


From his earliest days in the film industry, Walt Disney was always the innovator, or, as architect Royston Landau has labeled him, a “technological-gimmick-obsessive.”[1] With the 1928 release of “Steamboat Willie,” the short that introduced Mickey Mouse, Disney became the first animator to produce a cartoon with synchronized sound. A few years later, he was the first to release a full-color cartoon. And 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first full-length animated feature in America.[2] Walt’s spirit of innovation carried over into the development of first Disneyland and then Disney World, and has been a hallmark of the Disney Company ever since. As Tom Jones, former director of the Reedy Creek Utilities Company (the Magic Kingdom’s private utility company), said of his former boss, “Walt was a great looker. He used to talk about taking the latest research developments ‘off the drawing boards of industry’ and making them work.”[3]

Near the end of his life, Disney turned his attentions to the plight of America’s cities. “I don’t believe there’s a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities. But where do we begin?”[4] For Walt Disney, the answer was central Florida, on a 27,400-acre parcel purchased largely for that purpose.

Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

In October 1966, shortly before his own death, Walt Disney made his final film. Unlike the cartoons, adventure movies, and television shows that had made him famous, this untitled, 30-minute short was an overt espousal of Walt’s personal philosophy. It outlined something to which he had devoted much of his final years. Employing a descriptive narration, powerful imagery, and some straightforward enthusiasm from Walt himself, the film sketched out Disney’s vision of an American technological utopia.

The new city Disney described was to be part of the ‘Florida Project,’ a multi-year development on a huge tract of Florida swamp and scrub, the first portion of which was to become the East Coast version of Disneyland. But while his staff toiled on plans for the new theme park, Disney himself was consumed with the prospect of planning an urban landscape unlike anything that had come before. He read voraciously about city planning, and even made special trips to the new towns of Reston, Virginia and Columbia, Maryland. Disney even commissioned reports for the siting of the new theme park that included studies of model cities and the “the potential for a City of Tomorrow in Palm Beach.”[5]

Disney, however, was not a traditional reformer. He was largely uninterested in the systematic solving of modern urban problems like those in the Watts district of his hometown of Los Angeles. Instead, he seemed to feel that the best course of action would be to start all over again. As he explained in the film, “…the need is not just for curing old ills of old cities.... We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land… and building a special kind of community.”[6]

Originally called ‘Progress City,’ Disney eventually named this new urban construct EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. As described in the film, EPCOT would be an ever-evolving showcase of modern technology:

It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.[7]

For Disney, the consummate businessman and innovator, planning techniques like urban renewal and political reform paled in comparison to the combined power of technology and efficiency enabled by modern capitalism.

Disney felt that the corporation and not traditional government could best create jobs, prevent poverty, improve education, and provide for the common good. In fact, he believed that a corporate structure should replace democracy itself in EPCOT. Disney’s utopia would have no popular government, but would be managed by those who knew best, the Disney Company and its corporate partners:

It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT there will be no slum areas because we won’t let them develop. There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them….[8]

These were strong words indeed for an American history buff oft-praised for his audio-animatronic versions of U.S. Presidents.[9] But as many critics have insisted, and as will be discussed below, the foundation of all Disney developments in Florida has been the elevation of corporate control over democratic rule.

Physically, EPCOT would be a radial garden city of 20,000 residents.[10] The outermost of the city’s three rings would be low-density residential; the middle ring would contain churches, schools, parks, and cultural institutions. A round, 50-acre business district would comprise the city center. In order to maintain perfect weather conditions year-round, this center would be domed and climate-controlled. The focal-point would be a Corbusier-inspired hotel skyscraper that would rise through the dome for all to see. The downtown transportation system would be highly rational, with various modes, both traditional and modern, clearly delineated. There would be “electric People Movers on elevated tracks; surface streets given over to pedestrians; one underground level for monorails and more People Movers; a second underground level for cars; and a third underground level for trucks.”[11]

As to who would live in EPCOT, Walt was somewhat explicit: “There will be no retirees. Everyone must be employed. One of our requirements is that people who live in EPCOT must keep it alive.”[12] This proposition seems counterintuitive for a man well into his sixties, whose business partner and older brother (Roy O. Disney) was considering retirement. But it does fit with EPCOT’s grounding in capitalism and industry: a city designed to ‘showcase American free enterprise’ should, by this logic, be filled with those who would work and produce. It should also be noted that Walt had spent his entire career providing and marketing entertainment to the American nuclear family. The middle class family was his focal point, and he designed a city just for them.

Walt would not live to see the ground-breaking at Disney World, and never had the opportunity to construct EPCOT in the way he envisioned. He succumbed to cancer in December 1966 after a brief but heartbreaking battle. A Disney theme park called Epcot[13] eventually opened in Florida in 1982, but it more closely resembled a permanent World’s Fair than Walt’s technology-driven utopia. Many of Walt Disney’s urban planning ideas, however, have manifested themselves in the absolutely unique blend of public and private space found today in Florida’s Magic Kingdom. To consider the realization of Walt’s ideas, however, one must first understand the original impetus for the ‘Florida Project.’ And for that, one must begin at Disneyland.

The Disappointments of Disneyland

When it opened in Anaheim, California in 1955, Disneyland redefined the American amusement park. Not only did the park build upon the highly successful images and themes from Disney’s cartoons and films, but it also set new standards for order and cleanliness in an exceedingly imaginative urbanized environment. As the distinguished urban designer James Rouse explained to the graduating class of the Harvard School of Design in 1963:

If you think about Disneyland and think of its performance in relationship to its purpose… you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States. It took an area of activity – the amusement park – and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, that it really became a brand new thing. It fulfills the functions that it set out to accomplish unself-consciously, usefully and profitably. I find more to learn in the standards that have been set and the goals that have been achieved in the development of Disneyland than in any other single piece of physical development in the country.[14]

Given Rouse’s stature and the strong praise he candidly provided for Disney, it is no wonder that a significant portion of his speech appeared in the opening of the EPCOT film three years later.

Due in large part to the success of Disney’s films over the previous 25 years and the park’s unique relationship with ABC television, which broadcast both the Disneyland TV show and The Mickey Mouse Club,[15] Disneyland enjoyed international fame from the day it opened. “There was hardly a corner of the developed world where people were not aware of the Magic Kingdom.”[16] Over 28,000 people attended the park’s opening day, and some 42 million had clicked through the turnstiles by the park’s tenth year.[17] So great was the allure of Disneyland that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev requested a visit during a trip to the U.S. in 1959; he was crushed when that request was denied on security grounds.[18]

For all its success, however, Walt Disney became increasingly unhappy with Disneyland’s situation in Anaheim. Disney was a man of imagination, and he constantly generated ideas for new attractions and improvements for his theme park. But the entire Disneyland property encompassed less than 200 acres, and Disney soon found that there was simply no room for expansion in the burgeoning Los Angeles suburb. More importantly, he was increasingly disgruntled at the “second-rate Las Vegas”[19] that had sprung up around the park. The “motels, fast-food stores and unsightly neon cacophony”[20] clashed with the clean, orderly, family-oriented environment Walt had worked so hard to create in Disneyland. These outside businesses also siphoned off many of the tourist dollars that would otherwise be spent in the park. As one journalist from the Orlando Sentinel explained,

The Disney anger flares at what has happened in Anaheim. Speculators have snatched up surrounding property and, with light regard for justice, are cashing in on Disneyland’s success. Prices are astronomical, liquor is sold to minors, in spots a honky-tonk atmosphere batters the reputation of his Magic Kingdom and no one has contributed a cent to the source of prosperity.[21]

While there was little if anything Disney could do to improve the situation in southern California, there was plenty of undeveloped land in the United States where he not only could develop a new and improved theme park, but also on which he could inscribe and experiment with his growing urban design ideals.

Walt Disney began researching possible locations for an East Coast version of Disneyland as early as 1958. While sites in upstate New York, Maryland, and St. Louis were given serious consideration, the clear choice quickly became Florida. Not only was land relatively cheap, but the warm temperatures would allow year-round operations and thus a steady revenue stream. After extensive research and several reconnaissance trips to various ‘Sunshine State’ locations in the early 1960s, Disney agents began secretly purchasing options on tracts of swampland and cypress groves southwest of Orlando. The need for secrecy seems obvious from a financial standpoint: if the identity of the buyer was known, speculation would cause land prices to skyrocket. When information finally did leak out about the buyer’s identity in the fall of 1965, a public announcement became necessary. And while land prices did indeed soar from an average of $180/acre to $1,000/acre, Disney had already purchased an amazing 27,100 acres of its eventual 27,400-acre property. And it had done so for the relatively paltry sum of $5,018,779 (approximately $185/acre).[22]

To give some perspective on the sheer area that Disney would finally acquire, consider this simple comparison: 27,400 acres is approximately 43 square miles, or about twice the size of Manhattan. The Disney World theme park would comprise only a fraction of the new property; for the remainder, the sky was the limit. As Disney himself explained in the EPCOT film, “Here in Florida… we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland – the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.”[23]

Creating a Corporate Government in Central Florida

On November 15, 1965, at an Orlando press conference, Walt Disney formally announced his company’s intentions for a project in central Florida that would be bigger and better than what they had achieved in southern California. While he conceded that a new theme park would indeed be built, many of Walt’s comments that day were about “a model city, a City of Tomorrow.”[24] He talked about encouraging pedestrian traffic, creating a new type of school, and about fostering a stronger sense of community.[25] Although he did not name his city at the time, Walt was describing EPCOT, and it would be these grandiose visions of a Disney-styled utopia that would eventually sway the Florida legislature into enabling the creation of a local government absolutely unique in Florida and the United States in terms of the extraordinary powers afforded de facto to a single corporation.

Between that initial press conference and the next biennial meeting of the Florida legislature in 1967, Walt, Roy, and the Disney executives began formulating their development plans and lobbying state politicians for the concessions they would be seeking. From Disney’s standpoint, these concessions, once granted, would allow the company to develop and manage the Florida property in an efficient and profitable manner. Interestingly, though, their first controls were afforded not by the legislature, but by the courts.

Utilizing Chapter 298 of the Florida Code, Disney created the Reedy Creek Drainage District in May 1966. Chapter 298 required the circuit court to grant approval of this resource management district once the requesting landowners met certain rudimentary requirements. Once permitted, the new district, named for the major waterway that flowed through the property, encompassed not only Disney’s property, but also those circumscribed areas still owned by holdout landowners. Because the District was governed “on the basis of acreage rather than residents,” Disney was now able to outvote those holdouts, and could thus move the earth and re-channel the water necessary for the early stages of the park’s development.[26] The district designation also allowed for the issuance of bonds, the practicing of eminent domain, and the avoidance of certain taxes. While many of these powers were not exercised, as Disney was still awaiting final legislative approval of their other requests, the Reedy Creek Drainage District formed the foundation for the ultimate powers of self-government Disney would achieve the following year.

On February 2, 1967, in a packed Orlando theater, the Disney Company presented a proposal to the state of Florida requesting the passage of certain acts that would allow Disney to continue with the ‘Florida Project.’ It was less than two months since Walt’s death, but as his brother Roy had promised, the company was sticking to Walt’s original schedule. The “demands”[27] that the company presented to the state were truly impressive, but as Roy Disney explained, they were “something that we would ask in fairness for coming to Florida.”[28] After all, Disney would be spending upwards of $600 million on the project, and would be employing hundreds, eventually thousands, of Floridians. There would also be the influx of tourists, the increase in gas and sales tax revenue, and the promotion of growth in at least the two counties (Orange and Osceola) that the Disney property straddled. These factors alone would certainly, in the minds of Disney executives, justify the state’s widening of Interstate 4 near the park’s entrance, as well as the state’s construction of three highway interchanges near the property.[29] It also made sense, they reasoned, that the company be authorized to issue municipal bonds to fund their required infrastructure. (The latter was also a selling point in and of itself – Disney would be financing the construction of all infrastructure within their borders.) But these rather standard developer tools and resulting benefits were only window dressing. The true crux of the deal lay in the formation of two municipalities which would be surrounded by an autonomous political district that would be coterminous with the Disney property.

Based upon their previous drainage district, the new Reedy Creek Improvement District would be governed by its landowners on the basis of acreage. But this new incantation would have even greater powers. The new Reedy Creek would be able to create its own zoning and building codes (after all, “what other place has a castle?”[30]), build and maintain its own infrastructure, create its own fire department, and levy taxes. Reedy Creek would have the power to create its own police department, as well as construct an international airport and a nuclear power plant (none of which the District / Disney has yet done).[31] The District would also be exempt from local impact fees (the significance of which has become increasingly apparent over the last thirty years).[32] In short, the creation of Reedy Creek would, in effect, grant Disney its own private government, free from the will of other local jurisdictions and the voters who controlled them.[33]

Disney may not have been able to justify the granting of these truly extraordinary powers only with the promise of tourist dollars and the creation of jobs. While company VP Donn Tatum claimed that Reedy Creek was merely “a composite of special assessment, improvement, and taxing districts already provided for under existing Florida laws,”[34] there was simply no precedent for such a broad-sweeping deal. No, to clinch such a bargain, the Disney Company utilized to the fullest extent the sheer psychic power of Walt Disney and his sweeping vision of a utopian landscape in central Florida. Indeed, Walt himself fully understood his own ability to appeal to the American imagination; it was for this very purpose that, despite his deteriorating health, he went into the studio to make his final, fateful film – the EPCOT film – shown now for the first time.

And so it was that nearly three months after his own death, Walter Elias Disney was able to address a room full of Florida’s top brass and make his company’s pitch. He wowed his audience with visions of a vibrant, constantly evolving city unlike any other the world had ever known. His Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow would be devoid of slums but full of creativity; it would use the latest technological innovations to keep out the ills of modern urban life. The film was full of colorful images, raw enthusiasm, and that old Disney magic. And it contained a smile-cloaked ultimatum to the state of Florida:

A project like this is so vast in scope it will take the cooperation of many people to make it a reality! You people here in Florida have one of the key roles to play in making EPCOT come to life. In fact, it’s really up to you whether this project gets off the ground at all…. We must have the flexibility in Disney World to keep pace with tomorrow’s world. We must have the freedom to work in cooperation with American industry, and to make decisions based on standards of performance. If we have this kind of freedom, I’m confident we can create a world showcase for American free enterprise that will bring new industry to the state of Florida from all over the country.[35]

The construction of EPCOT, then, was the final wish of one of America’s greatest creative minds, and the vision of EPCOT was the final prong in Disney’s pitch to the Florida legislature. Growth, revenue, jobs, and the chance to recreate the American city. Summed up by Harlan Hanson, director of the area’s tri-county planning agency: “It was as though they’d put a gun to our head. They were offering to invest $600 million, and there was the glamour of Disney. You could hardly be against that. We were all just spellbound.”[36] The EPCOT film would eventually be broadcast on statewide television as part of Disney’s ensuing media campaign blitz, and it would not be long until Disney got everything for which it asked.

The enabling bills for the Reedy Creek Improvement District sailed through the Florida legislature in under a month, being signed into law on May 12, 1967. The following year, the Florida Supreme Court completed the approval process by ruling that Reedy Creek could legally issue tax-free municipal bonds. While the Court recognized that such a ruling would clearly benefit a single corporation, Disney, it found that these allowances were balanced by the benefits that would be conferred to the “numerous inhabitants of the District.”[37] Everyone in Florida seemed to believe that Disney’s work in Florida was a development project, that EPCOT would be built as promised, and that the granting of special powers to the Reedy Creek Improvement District would make that development possible. In short, most Floridians had believed everything that the Disney Company had told them.

But the EPCOT that Walt envisioned has never been built. In fact, for reasons that the Disney Company has never made clear, Walt’s plans for EPCOT were scrapped shortly after construction began on Disney World. (Interestingly, however, the Disney Company actually pulled out the EPCOT film as part of its lobbying efforts to garner support for its Epcot Center project in the late 1970s, despite the fact that their planned development bore no resemblance to Walt’s original.[38]) The resident population of Reedy Creek has never been above 50 people, far below Walt’s anticipated 20,000 people for EPCOT. But why such a small population in such a vast area? While the governance of Reedy Creek is based on acreage, and is therefore in the hands of Disney, Florida law requires that zoning and planning be subject to a popularly elected government. Thus the creation of the two municipalities, Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, eluded to earlier. By keeping the resident population small and hand-picked, Disney, in effect, has been able to create its own zoning and land use laws.[39] While Disney has, on occasion, attempted to promote Reedy Creek as a “bona fide public entity,” the District supervisors are “without exception… people with a Disney connection – employees or associates.”[40] This system, then, fits the model suggested by Walt in the EPCOT film, although it greatly twists his original vision of ‘community.’ While the nightly population of the various Disney resorts today ranges into the tens of thousands, there are, for all intents and purposes, “no landowners and therefore no voting control.”[41]

There are two final points worth mentioning about the Reedy Creek Improvement District. First, in addition to the tax-free bonds it can issue, Disney has been able to save on property taxes as well. Rather than paying fair-market value for the land and its improvements, the District pays taxes on the real estate value at the time of acquisition.[42] To put this in perspective, the 1990 stated land value for the District was only $67 million, compared with the value of total improvements (less depreciation) set at $3,250 million.[43] The second point: included in the 1967 legislation is a pledge by the state that as long as Reedy Creek has bonds outstanding, the state will not alter the original enabling act that created the District.[44] In other words, as long as Disney issues bonds periodically, the company will maintain its autonomous government in perpetuity. Thus while Walt had once claimed that his company’s project would be “the most significant event in Florida’s history since its discovery by Ponce de Leon,”[45] it is easy to understand how one critic could counter that the Reedy Creek deal that enabled the project was “like a land grant from the king of Spain.”[46]

The EPCOT Ideals Realized

Walt Disney World opened in October 1971, and it has remained one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world ever since. In its first decade, Disney World welcomed some 13-14 million visitors annually. After the opening of Epcot in 1982, annual visitation shot up to nearly 23 million. These days, in excess of 30 million people per year visit the greater Orlando metropolitan area.[47] It is in this light, then, that the effects of Walt’s utopian concept on the actual development of the Magic Kingdom should be considered.

In terms of physical design, the most fully realized of all of Walt’s EPCOT plans has been the blending of pedestrianism and mass transit. Having spent the middle of the twentieth century living in Los Angeles, Walt was distressed by the incredible transformation of southern California into an entirely auto-oriented place. He commented on the subject in the EPCOT film:

I believe that people still want to live like human beings. There’s a lot of things that could be done. I’m not against the automobile, but I just feel that the automobile has moved into communities too much. I feel that you can design so that the automobile is there, but still put pedestrians back again…. I’d love to work on a project like that.[48]

Like many a garden city planner before him, Walt felt that the car could and should be contained, and in EPCOT he laid out a plan to achieve just that.

Although Disney’s successors have not constructed the Magic Kingdom’s transportation systems exactly to Walt’s 5-tier plan (described above), they have come extremely close. Once a visitor leaves her car in one of the Kingdom’s vast parking lots, her time is spent almost exclusively as a pedestrian or transit rider. Monorails, ferries, trams, buses, water taxis, gondolas, and people movers connect the various areas of the resort. (Many of the service vehicles travel in below-ground ‘utilidors’ – utility corridors.) The design of every “public” space within the Reedy Creek District is oriented to the pedestrian, from the famous 5/8-scale Main Street U.S.A. that forms Disney World’s gateway, to the relatively new Downtown Disney night-time entertainment area (completed in 1997). In addition to the ubiquitous benches and rest spots, Disney also employs a resilient asphalt to keep leg muscles and joints from aching.[49]

The paradox, of course, is that there are no mass transit options for actually getting to the Magic Kingdom – one must drive.[50] As Tom Vanderbilt notes, “The point [is] depressingly obvious: public transportation [is] now ‘fun,’ an attraction in a theme park,” relegated to amusement status because in the ‘real world’ of interstate highways, it has been “effectively dismantled.”[51] To round out Disney’s auto/transit paradox, consider this fact: one of the original twenty attractions at California’s Disneyland (and still around today) is a ride that simulates a freeway. Called (rather unfortunately) ‘Autopia,’ the ride has remained one of the most popular in the entire park, and has recently been renovated with money from Chevron.[52]

But even Autopia showcased innovation when Disneyland first opened in 1955 – the year before the passage of the Interstate Highway Act. And the Disney theme parks have been innovating ever since. From the pioneering use of new building methods and materials, to the various transportation systems employed at Disney World, to the early use of fiber optics at Epcot, Disney has always tried to stay on the leading edge of technology. When Disney built its 16-story TraveLodge motel in the early 1970s, it was the tallest reinforced masonry structure in the United States. As of 1994, the ‘Universe of Energy’ building at Epcot contained the world’s largest privately-funded solar power system. And Disney’s 14-mile monorail system, which carries upwards of 80,000 passengers per day, is one the most extensive in the world.[53] This kind of innovation and the testing of new technologies is a direct result of Reedy Creek / Disney’s control over its own zoning and building codes. It is also just what Walt Disney described in the EPCOT film back in 1966. Each new development in the District has brought its own round of technological advances, as have the various remodels throughout the Magic Kingdom. In short, as Disney himself said it would, the ‘Florida Project’ has remained “in a state of becoming.”[54]

The overt promotion of such technological advances occurs at Epcot, and to a lesser (and now more “retro”) degree at Tomorrowland. It can be argued that one of Disney’s goals in presenting these advances is to assuage human concerns about the rapid replacement of humans with machines in the completion of everyday tasks. Certainly such a proposition jibes with Walt’s utopian philosophy as elucidated above. But the true power of Disney’s use of technology is much more subtle. It is technologically-enabled efficiency that runs the Magic Kingdom, that works to keep “guests” happy, stress levels low, and, ultimately, dollars flowing.

Consider, for example, something as mundane as waste management. At most mid-century amusement parks, trash was collected as it was throughout the rest of America – with strategically-placed trash cans emptied by employees paid to do so. In an effort to “protect” the Disney World “guests” from the sight not only of overflowing trash cans, but also of the removal of such trash through the park, an innovative Swedish pneumatic trash collection system was installed in the ‘utilidors’ beneath the park. Called AVAC (Automatic Vacuum Collecting System), this novel system whisks trash at speeds of up to 60mph to a central collection point “backstage,” from which it is removed by truck to an incinerator. While no doubt expensive as an initial capital cost, the AVAC system now handles up to 80 tons of garbage per day from Disney World with minimal use of manual labor.[55] The average visitor to the Magic Kingdom has no knowledge of the park’s waste management system, and probably does not care to. What that visitor does experience is a subtle feeling that Disney World is a clean place, cleaner than other theme parks, and probably cleaner than his/her hometown or city.

The perception of cleanliness is only one of the psychological benefits that Disney provides to its “guests,” but it stands as a lucid example of the extraordinary degree to which the company strives to make visitors comfortable during their stay. Every aspect of the Magic Kingdom, from trash collection to efficient transportation to the providing of near-constant stimuli, works to achieve this same end: freedom from worries, from toils, from the feelings of insecurity that define the average person’s workaday life. As Susan Willis explains, visitors to Disney World feel liberated “by the experience of relinquishing control over the complex problem-solving thoughts and operations that otherwise define their lives.”[56] The liberation, then, comes from giving over to Disney’s pre-programmed control mechanisms – the routes Disney lays out, the limited entertainment programs it offers, its limited hotel and restaurant choices, even the merchandise it sells. As Willis further explains, “The erasure of spontaneity has largely to do with the totality of the built and themed environment. Visitors are inducted into the park’s program, their every need predefined and presented to them as a packaged routine and set of choices.”[57] And apparently it is working: approximately seventy percent of Disney World “guests” are return visitors.[58]

This limiting of choices has actually accounted for an incredible degree of Disney’s success, and this formula is something Walt Disney learned early on. While Disney utilized the images and ideas from his films and television shows to lure people to Disneyland in the 1950s, he initially did not limit the market within the park to the selling of strictly Disney paraphernalia. In an attempt to add another level of historical reality to his Main Street U.S.A., Disney included the types of clothing and trinket vendors that one may have found on a traditional, turn-of-the century Main Street. As Vanderbilt notes, “apparently visitors’ fantasies did not include buying goods available at home (and more and more in shopping malls, not on Main Street), so eventually the stores sold just Disney merchandise.”[59] This lesson was an important one for Disney, as it taught him two related points. The key was that visitors did not want a variety of choices in merchandise when they came to a Disney theme park, unless those choices were stamped with the word, ‘Disney.’ The obvious corollary is that Disney could make more money by retailing strictly Disney items.

This basic lesson, which runs counter to the popularity of places like Minnesota’s Mall of America (the success of which comes from the offering of literally hundreds of shopping options) was learned in a new way by Disney executives in the 1980s. The ‘Florida Project’ had originally been formulated in large part because of the tackiness that had sprung up in Anaheim to mar the image of Disneyland. Thus, Disney World and Disney’s other subsequent theme parks had been constructed with a huge greenbelt buffer. While this buffer has helped maintain a visual and physical distance from the outlying growth, it has done nothing to prevent the sprouting up of the same type of hotel and restaurant development seen in Anaheim. Bettina Drew describes one such area, Route 192 in Kissimmee:

…a noxious example of unchecked chain-driven strip development, with no discernible regional culture…. Minizoos, fun houses, themed dinner shows, McDonald’s, Shellworlds, and Texaco stars merge primary-colored plastic and neon with metal, asphalt, and signs that blink and rotate…. [and extend] through the great expendable American landscape.[60]

As in southern California, areas like this one were siphoning off potential Disney profits.

The Disney Company’s response was the same as Walt’s had been thirty years earlier: sell them only Disney. Beginning in 1988, Disney launched a massive expansion plan that, to date, has included the construction of two new theme parks (Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom), twenty-nine new attractions at the existing parks (Disney World and Epcot), several new night clubs and shopping areas, and no less than seven new hotels.[61] The overall plan is obvious: make sure that every tourist dollar spent in the greater-Orlando area goes to Disney. And the plan has been very successful. By providing visitors with more choices, Disney has been able to keep “guests” longer on their property, where, paradoxically, they have fewer choices.[62] But they are Disney-stamped choices, and the market has proven that this is just what the visitor to central Florida wants. It can also be concluded from these and other Disney ventures (including the launching of Disney Magic, the company’s first foray into the lucrative cruise-line industry[63]) that Disney has learned another valuable lesson: the hospitality and entertainment industries are actually one and the same.

Conclusion: Commodified Utopia

The Magic Kingdom is an urban environment, albeit a fantastical one, full of gathering places, points of commerce, and places for repose. It provides basic services, entertainment, and cultural institutions for its (temporary) “residents.” It includes two public municipalities (Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista), and it is coterminous with a public improvement district (Reedy Creek). The Magic Kingdom has the look and feel of a public space, but in actuality is an entirely private enterprise owned and operated by a single corporation, Disney. It charges entrance and rental fees; it sells Disney products, Disney services, and the Disney image. In one interesting twist, Disney even prints its own money – Disney Dollars – for use on its property.[64] Michael Sorkin has termed the Magic Kingdom “the first copyrighted urban environment in history.”[65]

Because of this unique corporate control over largely public functions, Disney has been able to construct and infuse its urban environment with technologies, efficiencies, and philosophies unknown in either the wholly public or wholly private sectors. Disney has combined all of these factors into the type of liberating, comforting, safe, and fun environment of which Americans dream. And it has done so profitably, and therefore achieved those goals which Walter Elias Disney set out in 1966. On a 27,400-acre parcel of Florida swamp and scrub, Disney has created a wholly commodified utopia.


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[1] Royston Landau, “Mickey Mouse the Great Dictator: The Disney Game as a Control System,” Architectural Design 43.9 (1973): 591.

[2] See Ron Grover, The Disney Touch: How a Daring Management Team Revived an Entertainment Empire (Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1991) 7.

[3] Tom Jones as quoted in Ruth Eckdish Knack, “The Mouse that Ate Orlando,” Planning 45.2 (1979) 22.

[4] Walt Disney, as quoted in Stephen M. Fjellman, Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America (San Francisco: Westview P, 1992) 114.

[5] Richard E. Foglesong, Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando (New Haven: Yale UP) 37. See also Bob Thomas, The Walt Disney Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977) 278-279.

[6] Walt Disney as quoted in Fjellman 115.

[7] Walt Disney as quoted in Fjellman 114.

[8] Walt Disney as quoted in Fjellman 116.

[9] It may also be worth considering these remarks in light of Disney’s own upbringing. Walt’s father, Elias, was a socialist and supporter of Eugene Debs. He was also a most unlucky businessman, but had had the good fortune to work as a carpenter on the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. See Fjellman 115-116 and Thomas, Walt Disney 15-24.

[10] While this paper does not consider the effect of Disney’s vision for EPCOT on the development of Celebration, it is worth noting that the latter is planned for a build-out population of 20,000. See Ruth Eckdish Knack, “Once Upon a Town,” Planning 62.3 (1996): 10. For further analysis of Celebration, consult: Andrew Ross, The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town (New York: Ballantine, 1999); Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, Celebration U.S.A.: Living in Disney’s Brave New Town (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1999).

[11] John M. Findlay, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1992) 110.

[12] Walt Disney as quoted in Fjellman 116.

[13] From this point forward, Walt’s utopian city will be referred to in capital letters (EPCOT), while the theme park as built will be referred to as ‘Epcot.’

[14] James Rouse as quoted in Thomas, Walt Disney 293.

[15] ABC financed much of the park’s construction in return for the development of the weekly Disneyland program and partial ownership of the park. Thomas Hines notes that Disneyland was thus “the first place ever conceived simultaneously with a TV series.” (Quoted in Michael Sorkin, “See You in Disneyland,” Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) 206.) For a full discussion of the Disney-ABC deal, see Bob Thomas, Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire (New York: Hyperion, 1998) 183-190.

[16] James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 1993) 222.

[17] Thomas, Building 196 and Thomas, Walt Disney 268.

[18] Findlay 92-93. As Findlay further reports, one columnist wrote an open letter to Khrushchev following the incident that put Disneyland into Cold War terms: “Even though you are the dictator of what may be the most powerful country on earth, you are deprived of viewing the things that any American youngster can see if their parents pay a relatively moderate admission price” (93).

[19] Walt Disney as quoted in Thomas, Walt Disney 273.

[20] Fred Foldvary, Public Goods and Private Communities: The Market Provision of Social Services (Brookfield, VT: Edward Elgar, 1994) 117.

[21] Quoted in Findlay 107.

[22] Foglesong, Married 48-49. As Foglesong also explains, several owners of small internal parcels, or “ins,” held out for several years against Disney (49), eventually reaping handsome rewards. For further discussion of Disney’s land acquisitions, consult Thomas, Walt Disney 273-277 and Foglesong, Married 34-55.

[23] Walt Disney as quoted in Fjellman 114.

[24] Walt Disney as quoted in Foglesong, Married 51.

[25] Thomas, Walt Disney 277.

[26] Foglesong, Married 61.

[27] In an apparent slip of the tongue, Roy Disney, then the corporation’s financial manager, referred to Disney’s requests as “demands” when he addressed this audience of Florida officials and VIPS. See Richard E. Foglesong, “Walt Disney World and Orlando: Deregulation as a Strategy for Tourism,” The Tourist City, ed. Dennis R. Judd and Susan S. Fainstein (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999) 93.

[28] Foglesong, “Walt Disney World” 93.

[29] Foglesong, Married 68.

[30] Thomas Moses, former Reedy Creek general manager, as quoted by Knack, “Mouse” 20.

[31] Carl Hiaasen, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World (New York: LCT-Ballantine, 1998) 26-27.

[32] For a discussion of Disney’s refusal to pay impact fees, see Kunstler, Geography 222-223.

[33] For a full account of the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, see Foglesong, Married 55-57 and Fjellman 117-122. For a discussion of the legal basis for Reedy Creek, refer to Foldvary 118-121.

[34] Donn Tatum as quoted in Foglesong, Married 69.

[35] Walt Disney as quoted in Fjellman 115.

[36] Harlan Hanson as quoted in Foglesong, Married 69-70.

[37] Foglesong, Married 75.

[38] See Foglesong, Married 100-101. Also, a portion of the film is still shown daily at Disney World as part of a Walt Disney biography.

[39] Foglesong, “Walt Disney World” 94-95.

[40] Knack, “Mouse” 20.

[41] In the mid-1990s, as it set out to build Celebration, the Disney Company realized that its control over Reedy Creek would be compromised greatly by the voting rights of the property owners that would populate the new town. Thus, Disney de-annexed Celebration’s 4,900 acres from the District in order to maintain proprietary control over their local government. See Knack, “Once” 12.

[42] See Landau 593.

[43] Walt Disney Company Annual Report, 1990 as cited in Foldvary 121.

[44] See Foldvary 121.

[45] Walt Disney as quoted in Landau 591.

[46] Andrew Holleran as quoted in Kunstler, Geography 222.

[47] Foglesong, “Walt Disney World” 98.

[48] Walt Disney as quoted in Thomas, Walt Disney 277.

[49] Foldvary 125.

[50] In 1989, a Disney decision actually helped defeat a proposed high-speed mag-lev train that would have linked Epcot and Orlando International Airport. See Foglesong, Married 122-131.

[51] Tom Vanderbilt, “It’s a Mall World After All: Disney, Design, and the American Dream,” Harvard Design Magazine (Fall 1999): 90.

[52] See Disney.com .

[53] Foldvary 124. For further discussion of Disney’s various technological innovations, consult Foldvary 123-125; Knack, “Mouse” 22-23; Martin Fox, “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” Design & Environment 4.1 (1973) 39; Wilson, “Technological Utopias,” South Atlantic Quarterly 92.1 (1993): 157-173; and Fjellman 185-197.

[54] Walt Disney as quoted in Fjellman 115.

[55] See Knack, “Mouse” 22; Foldvary 124.

[56] Susan Willis, “Disney World: Public Use/Private State,” South Atlantic Quarterly 92.1 (1993): 123.

[57] Willis 123.

[58] Foldvary 116.

[59] Vanderbilt 90.

[60] Bettina Drew, Crossing the Expendable Landscape (Saint Paul: Graywolf P, 1998) 172.

[61] See Foglesong, “Walt Disney World” 98 and Foglesong, Married 108-112.

[62] Disney has also revised its ticket policies in an effort to keep “guests” on Disney property. In 1989, when the Disney-MGM Studios opened, Disney jettisoned its three-day pass to the Magic Kingdom in favor of one, four, and five-day passes. Most visitors purchase the longer passes, “which [take] up most of a family’s vacation week.” Foldvary 130; see also 126.

[63] See Hiaasen 45-49.

[64] For a cynical take on Disney Dollars, see Kunstler, Geography 218.

[65] Sorkin 207.