Walt Disney's E.P.C.O.T and the heart of our cities
by Sam Gennaway, 2011 from the book "Four Decades Of Magic", updated in 2014.
In 1963, James Rouse, a pioneering real estate developer, when speaking at Harvard said, “If you think about Disneyland and think about its performance in relationship to its purpose, it’s meaning to people – more than that, it’s meaning to the process of development – you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States.” Rouse goes on to say that Walt Disney “took an area of activity – the amusement park – and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, in its functioning for people, that it really does become a brand new thing.”
Walt was no stranger to creating meaningful and functional places. His animated characters seem to live and breathe in believable worlds. He guided the design and development of his animation and movie studio in Burbank as well as Disneyland in Anaheim. His team explored opportunities that ranged from an indoor experience in downtown St. Louis to a mountain village retreat in Mineral King surrounded by wilderness as well as all sorts of ideas for projects on undeveloped land.
At Disneyland, Walt could control what his guests saw as they strolled through his park but he could not control the tacky urban blight that was growing up around the perimeter. Walt was not satisfied. So, like everything else he had ever done, he knew he could do it better and he took out a blank sheet of paper. He wanted to go the next step and take everything that he had learned and transform the urban experience into one of more meaning, comfort, and convenience.
And why not? Even people like Ray Bradbury felt Walt could save the world. When Bradbury asked him to run for Mayor, Walt said, “Ray, don’t be silly…why should I run for Mayor when I’m already King?”
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
Given complete control, what kind of city could Walt Disney have created? What are the underlying design principles that would guide the development of E.P.C.O.T.
When I speak of E.P.C.O.T, I am not talking about the permanent World’s Fair that is at Walt Disney World today. What I am talking about is the city that Walt described to us just before he died. Where people would know that E.P.C.O.T. is an acronym. His dream city of 20,000 residents, that would be built on virgin land, and packed with new ideas in planning, design, construction, and governance.
Walt Disney did not like sequels. He was always looking over the horizon at the next opportunity. However, after the huge success of the Three Little Pigs, theater owners were clamoring for a follow-up. Walt hesitated. He proclaimed, “You can’t top pigs, with pigs.” Nevertheless, he could be practical when necessary and he had ambitious plans for the Studio. He could certainly use the money for those ideas. Therefore, he relented.
Thirty years later, Walt would find himself in the same place. He wanted to build his city of tomorrow and he knew that another theme park could help fund the project. To see if Disneyland style entertainment would work on the East Coast, he worked his way into four pavilions at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. You would think another Disney park would be a no-lose proposition but the failure of Freedomland in the Bronx made Walt pause. He wanted to be sure.
The Disney pavilions were a smash hit and were ranked as four of the five most popular at the Fair. Walt also benefited from the huge investments in ride systems, audio-animatronics, and other technologies paid for by his sponsors.
With Walt’s curiosity about the feasibility of an east coast Disneyland satisfied, the theme park would become the cash generator that he needed to fund his city. All he needed was enough land so he could avoid a replay of what happened in Anaheim. He always regretted not being able to buy more land around Disneyland he vowed that next time he find enough for all of his dreams.
Walt passed away before his most ambitious dream could be realized. Near retirement, Roy Disney decided to stay and make sense of Walt’s ideas. Roy and his team wanted to create something that would make his brother proud. Roy knew the first phase would include an updated Disneyland, resort hotels, campgrounds, and the infrastructure to support long-term development. When the time came to build E.P.C.O.T, the plans for a city was scrapped in favor of the theme park.
So, where did Walt Disney get the idea to build a city?
It may have started with the success of Disneyland, which brought an avalanche of offers from other communities looking for an economic boost. His organization looked at projects in Niagara Falls, St. Louis, and his boyhood home of Marceline Missouri. As early as December 1959, Walt was in discussions with billionaire John MacArthur to build a “Community of Tomorrow” in Palm Beach, Florida that would feature a 400-acre theme park and a town of 70,000. According to Harrison “Buzz” Price, Walt and Roy Disney’s go-to guy for feasibility studies, this is when Walt started to obsess about building a city.
Harrison “Buzz” Price was asked by Walt Disney to do the analysis for the perfect location for Disneyland. He went on to advise Walt on virtually every project until Walt’s death in 1966. Price’s influence on the theme park business is so profound, he was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Themed Entertainment Association. (When we originally ran this article, I asked why Buzz Price didn’t have a window on Main Street. I’m happy to report that on Tuesday, April 9, 2013, Buzz got his window!)
By the early 1960s, Walt’s frustration with the area surrounding Disneyland and comments from people such as James Rouse must have stirred his imagination. Plus, building a city is not the sequel to Disneyland but something new. This always excited Walt.
As I did my research, the real eureka moment came when I was on a tour of the Disney Archives. I met Dave Smith when he was the Chief Archivist at Disney. I asked him if Walt was reading any urban planning books at the time of his death. He suggested I drop him a note and he replied almost immediately and said, “Actually, on checking in his office inventory, he had only one book on the subject, The Heart of Our Cities by Victor Gruen.”
Victor Gruen (1903-1980) published The Heart of Our Cities in 1964. Gruen was born in Vienna, Austria. He was trained at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and was very active politically prior to World War II. Gruen left Austria when it was annexed by Germany in 1938. He found his way to the United States and landed in Los Angeles in 1941. He opened Victor Gruen Associates in 1951 and firm continues to practice today.
Gruen designed Northfield Mall near Detroit in 1954. This was the first suburban open-air shopping mall. It was as revolutionary to urban design as Disneyland would prove to be a year later. By 1956, he had put a roof over his shopping mall and opened the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota.
Gruen would become known as the father of the modern shopping mall. This is a moniker that he would come to loath. He was striving for something much more important than just a shopping mall. He grew tired of the cheap imitations of his work that destroyed communities instead of healing them. These experiences and more would lead Gruen to rethink the way urban centers could be formed.
Walt and Gruen redefined the public’s expectations for functional urban space. Mark Howard Moss said, “Both Gruen and Disney were in the dream business.” They knew how to create vibrant urban spaces that had the key ingredients of quality, variety, and surprise. Each man would influence the other.
Gruen believed that there was an underlying cellular nature to a properly built community. If the basic unit of life is a cell, and millions of cells can come together to create an organism, he reasoned that an urban structure based on cells (clusters of mixed-use development) would be the healthiest system. The benefit of a cellular urban organization is that it can be scaled as small as a home or as large as the size of a metropolis.
In The Heart of Our Cities, Gruen mentions Disneyland and finds the park to be an important urban space and an excellent example of cellular urban organization. He states that the park has become, “a social center, a center of national and international tourism”. Nevertheless, he is critical of what happened to the area surrounding the park.
By the 1960s, Walt was also concerned about the area just outside of Disneyland’s gates. It was becoming a hodgepodge of motels, restaurants, and other tourist serving enterprises. The look was chaotic and threatening. Gruen studied these “forces that threaten and destroy the city” and how we they produce the anti-city. Gruen argues that Disneyland was a great start but more land use regulations would be needed. Anaheim’s Laissez-faire attitude was destroying Walt’s strong urban center. It would not be until 2001 that a cohesive vision for the area would be implemented through the Anaheim Resort Specific Plan.
Gruen learned from Walt’s experience in California and tried to find a solution for his next big project. In 1960, a group of local executives called the Washington Metropolitan Board of Trade made a bid with the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) to host a World’s Fair in 1964. They were competing with New York and Los Angeles. The Fair would be in the Washington DC metro area at a location ten miles east near Largo, Maryland.
The Washington DC executives hired Gruen to draft an innovative site plan based on his cellular urban organization. The main Fair buildings would have been at the center of a large property surrounded by an ample greenbelt buffer. “Its most remarkable feature,” according to architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable was, “it is in effect a re-usable plan.” Gruen had proposed to build a prototype community for 100,000 based on his cellular organization and using the Fair’s infrastructure.
The Washington DC team would ultimately lose to Robert Moses and the City of New York due to their superior financial potential. However, Walt Disney would take full advantage of the New York opportunity and the rest, as they say, is another story.
In May 1960, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote an article for Horizon Magazine called Out of a Fair. She reviewed the proposed Washington DC post-fair plan and noted that the vision for the post-fair community “promises comfort, convenience, and calculated visual pleasure instead of the customary catch-as-catch-can arrangement of commercial and national exhibits.”
After the Fair, the central core of the fairgrounds would be converted into a huge regional commercial center with shopping, hotels, and offices. The proposal included “clusters of buildings on platforms in a park”, which would allow for trucks and other services to be hidden below. The main public areas would be under a climate-controlled roof or dome to protect the pedestrians from the brutal weather.
Surrounding the commercial core would be a ring of high-density residential units. Beyond those homes would be another ring that would blend neighborhood services with lower density attached residential units. Outside of this core are still lower density attached residential units connected by greenways. Finally, the entire development would be “surrounded by parking and transportation facilities ringed, in turn, by an outer area of open land.” He compared this urban form to a medieval castle and city.
Huxtable writes that Gruen’s post fair plan “is a scheme that would be applicable for any city where sufficient open land is available, and its expert attack on modern planning problems is a challenge to municipal governments everywhere.”
As the book, The Heart of Our Cities opens, we find Victor Gruen on a trans-Atlantic cruise. He was reflecting upon the fate of our cities. Gruen noticed that a cruise ship is a city with everything planned with an emphasis on function, comfort, and convenience.
As Gruen suggests, “One of the primary purposes for a city is to bring together many people so that, through direct communication with each other, they may exchange goods and ideas without undue loss of energy and time.” Walt wanted to take this idea one step further. At E.P.C.O.T guests would be invited to participate in his experimental community and to take the lessons learned back home with them.
Gruen said a city that is functioning properly gives one “free choice” to be “sociable” or to be private. To express your “human gregariousness” while meeting others or “the chance to disappear.” This is the freedom granted to everyone visiting the theme parks. How else can you explain people wearing silly hats?
To illustrate the cellular concept, Gruen compares a city to the human body. In a human, a healthy heart is one that shows high cardiac output. For a city, the central business district is the heart and it must demonstrate “high vitality”. Vitality is measured by the ability of primary functions to perform successfully and without strain.
A healthy city is one with an “infinite variety whose buildings and structures form, between them, spaces of differing size and character, narrow or broad, serene or dynamic, modest or monumental, contrasting with each other by virtue of varied treatment of pavement, landscaping, and lighting.”
Overall view of Downtown district in E.P.C.O.T, showing surrounding greenbelt, Cosmopolitan Hotel.
Herbert Ryman. 1966.
(c) The Walt Disney Company
The only way to achieve “high vitality” is to ensure that the secondary or “utilitarian” functions are also working well. These utilitarian functions include sewer systems, the telecommunications networks, our power supply, and our transportation systems.
In E.P.C.O.T, the central business district would be oriented toward the needs and scale of the pedestrian and feature a signature hotel, convention facilities, shops, restaurants, and Disney-style attractions. All public areas would be highly detailed and heavily themed. New Orleans Square in Disneyland may have set the standard for Disney design. Like the theme parks, all secondary functions were going to be hidden from the public’s view.
Two ways to objectively measure the success of urban spaces is to use what Gruen described as “Appearance” and “Atmosphere”. Appearance is the “sum total of the physical and psychological influence of an environment on human beings.” Atmosphere is the “small-grained variety and diversity” that elevates a space from acceptable to exceptional.
To measure Appearance, note the “degree [you] feel enabled to live undisturbed, unmolested, and free of interference.” As you move through a space, pay attention to how comfortable you are, how you feel, and are you being inspired.
Atmosphere is about function. As noted author Jane Jacobs said, the “main purpose is to enliven the streets with variety and detail.” She adds, “The whole point is to make the streets more surprising, more compact, more variegated and busier than before – not less so.” Atmosphere does not come about because of showy architectural statements. Architect Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details” and for many, this is what is referred to as the “Disney difference”.
E.P.C.O.T was going to be built on undeveloped land so Walt was able to avoid one hurdle facing modern cities, which was incompatible adjacent land uses. For example, Main Street USA represents an idyllic town around the turn of the last century. Everything is clean and in its place. The reality was cities at that time were rather brutal places. People used to live next door to stockyards and factories.
So in 1916 the City of New York enacted the first zoning code with the objective to create a separation between incompatible uses. Often the unintended consequence of these land use regulations is to create lifeless cities where the uses are so widespread that they are connected only by getting into your car and driving from one pod to another. Both Walt and Gruen knew this had the effect of sapping the vitality out of our city centers.
At E.P.C.O.T, the industrial areas would be located in their own pod and connected by the monorail. Walt and Gruen were strong advocates for separating all mechanical and utilitarian functions away from the public realm. As he had done with other projects, Gruen proposed placing the Fair’s truck traffic and utilities underground and building the show buildings on the second level. Walt would propose the same idea for E.P.C.O.T and it would finally be tested at the Magic Kingdom.
Using Disney nomenclature, Walt called the public realm “onstage” where Appearance and Atmosphere would create a seamless show. Hidden “backstage” are the utilitarian functions, away from the guests.
Gruen was frustrated by the lack of progress in the development of new public transportation technologies. He commented that millions of people go to Disneyland to ride a monorail that is being promoted as the transportation system of the future but the technology had been around since the 1890s. Solving the mobility problem is where Walt would make major improvements upon Gruen’s design. Transportation systems are one of Walt’s passions and specialties. For E.P.C.O.T, he proposed to use monorails, PeopleMovers, and electric vehicles to move people around.
View of the transportation center below the urban center of E.P.C.O.T
Herbert Ryman. Opaque watercolor on browline. 24 x 51. 1966. Restored in 2012.
(c) The Walt Disney Company
How we move people and goods around has a huge influence on the design and function of our cities. A vibrant urban space must have the right balance between pedestrian spaces, buildings, private open spaces, access, and the appropriate transportation systems. Many downtowns suffer because the balance is out of whack and too much land is given over to the private automobile and not enough land is dedicated to people.
Gruen’s solution was to align transportation technologies along a scale of gradation of movement. At each increment, there are certain transportation systems that can enhance the pedestrian experience or make you feel miserable. If the match is done right, the environment will “promise comfort, convenience, and calculated visual pleasure.” You will enjoy a positive experience. If the match is not right, the environment will feel unsafe and you will be on edge. You might say it is the difference between walking in a theme park and walking through the parking lot on the way to the theme park.
In reviewing drawings of E.P.C.O.T, I used Gruen’s scale of gradation of movement and I learned a great deal about what life in the city would have been like. In Gruen’s book, he provides many suggestions on how to mix uses, preserve the integrity of the public realm, and hide the vital services that keep the community alive.
Another breakthrough in my research came when I interviewed Harrison “Buzz” Price. Buzz worked on feasibility studies for the project. He was able to provide firsthand confirmation on project details and the application of these urban design principles.
Buzz said it all begins at the center. At the heart of E.P.C.O.T would be a world-class resort hotel with conference facilities combined with the transportation center. This combination would create a critical mass of activity that would energize the edge uses.
Site plan for E.P.C.O.T showing the urban center and the transportation hub.
Marvin Davis. Collage with watercolor and colored pencil on photostat. 40 x 66. 1966.
(c) The Walt Disney Company
Starting from the hotel and transportation center, and radiating out toward the edge, is what Gruen calls a Pedshed. A Pedshed is the “desirable walking distance” that a lazy walker, on a one-purpose trip without interruption, will walk. If the walker can sit, shop or eat, it distracts them and they can go longer distances. The length of a Pedshed is determined by Appearance and Atmosphere, as well as climate and topography.
E.P.C.O.T would have a large Pedshed because of the highly attractive and completely weather-protected environment. A typical guest would easily walk up to one mile or 20 minutes with these conditions. Imagine a network of storefronts like New Orleans Square in Disneyland or the international pavilions at Epcot themepark under one roof to distract the guests.
The theme parks are within the next gradient of the scale. A guest will walk up to a half-mile or ten minutes if you provide a highly attractive environment where the sidewalks are protected from sunshine and rain.
Next, we have the conditions found in many cities. If the central business district is attractive but not protected from the weather and people are exposed to the elements this limits the desirable walking range to less than a quarter of a mile or five minutes of walking. Degrade the environment even further with unattractive spaces like parking lots, garages, or a traffic-congested street, and you limit your range to only 600 feet or two minutes of walking.
Within the Pedshed, Gruen suggested slow moving people carriers like moving sidewalks. Walt’s solution to extend the Pedshed at Disneyland and enhance the guest experience was to use horse-trolleys, fire trucks, the omnibus, and other vehicles.
The common perception was E.P.C.O.T would be a city under a dome. This seemed very ambitious and would be very expensive. According to Buzz Price, the actual architecture was going to be much more conventional and predictable. At the center, the transportation center and hotel would be connected to the themed retail and dining districts by a covered pedestrian boulevard. Each highly detailed facade disguises an ordinary industrial building. Once again, think of New Orleans Square in Disneyland.
Once guests pass through the retail areas they will come to another pedestrian boulevard, which connects to the high-density residential apartments. The apartments are typical structures but residents would have been given a choice of views. They could look down at the indoor pedestrian boulevard or outside to a greenbelt that separates the central city from the low-density neighborhoods.
Gruen struggled with a way to move people between one to two miles and that is the next link in the scale of gradation of movement. For many, this is too far to walk but it is an inefficient trip in a car. He recommended electric mini-buses and taxis. Instead, Walt would use his PeopleMover to connect the hotel complex and transit center to the residential areas. Another benefit would be the overhead PeopleMover tracks could define the edges of the themed retail districts.
For trips of two to five miles you need different transportation technologies. Gruen liked fixed rail systems and larger buses. Walt preferred the monorail. His system would run north to south to include the Magic Kingdom, E.P.C.O.T, the Industrial district, the gateway transportation center, and the jetport. The monorail is perfectly suited for this challenge.
Gruen continues with recommendations for longer distances. During the planning for E.P.C.O.T, the focus was on automobiles, buses, and airplanes. Motorized traffic would have been diverted below EPCOT, out of view of the residents and visitors.
Continental and intercontinental visitors would typically arrive by airplane. One of the most unusual ideas proposed for E.P.C.O.T was Walt’s proposal for a radial jetport. This unique configuration for the terminal promised greater efficiency in moving planes in and out of the terminals.
Interestingly, Walt Disney World was on the leading edge of air transportation technology with its STOLport. STOL is an acronym for Short Take-Off and Landings. Walt Disney World’s STOLport was part of a regional network. For a short while, Shawnee Airlines operated a 19-seat de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft with service between Walt Disney World and the Orlando International Airport. The runway still exists today but it is no longer used as an airport.
Aerial view of E.P.C.O.T urban center, with a much older view of Diisneyland's unbuilt International Street reused as a concept for the International Shopping Center.
George Rester rendering painted and modified by Herbert Ryman. Pen and ink and watercolor on brownline with tape. 43 x 51. 1966.
(c) The Walt Disney Company
One sharp contrast between Gruen and Walt was the outer core of residential units. Gruen stated that “the space-devouring detached single home was not considered as suitable” and he was an advocate of clustered attached homes that shared common open space. Walt was not convinced and showed suburban-style single-family residential units. Buzz Price confided that, “Walt wanted a place for his friends to live.”
The Gruen plan for his post-fair city contained enough detail to convince the Washington DC executives to back his proposal. He did a lot of work on the development of data tables that help determine appropriate residential densities from the core to the outer edges of the community.
So I come back to my initial question; would E.P.C.O.T have worked?
During my conversation with Buzz, I asked him if the project would have worked. After all, nobody else alive today knew as much about the E.P.C.O.T project. He was in the room with Walt. Without hesitation he said, “Absolutely yes”. Buzz added, “Walt would obsess over a problem”. He reminded me that E.P.C.O.T was not revolutionary but evolutionary. Walt was going to use true and tried architectural technologies, creatively blend the land uses, arrange them in a way where the hotel and day guests are coming from one direction and they would meet the residents coming from another direction. Everyone would interact in a beautiful, comfortable, and inspiring public setting.
Buzz concluded by saying that, “E.P.C.O.T would have been more famous than Walt Disney World”.