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EPCOT: Origins – The Tripartite Plan, 1975

By 1975, Walt Disney Productions had given up any pretense that it was ever going to build Walt’s city of the future in Florida. The stirring images of Progress City had disappeared from their promotional materials, and by July of that year a Disney spokesman publicly stated that “the concept that was originally envisioned is no longer relevant.”1 Yet Disney executives still planned to go forward with an EPCOT project; after all, most of the concessions that Walt Disney World had obtained from the Florida government were predicated on the assumption that they were necessary for the EPCOT dream to become reality. Outside of the legislature, the public was clamoring for information on EPCOT. The vision of Walt’s futuristic city had been well-publicized in the run-up to Walt Disney World’s opening, and the people of Florida would not forget it easily. With this constant pressure from the outside, it was clear that despite Disney CEO Card Walker’s back-pedaling, EPCOT was not going to go away.

As the original EPCOT concept of an actual working city faded away, Disney slowly began to promote the narrative that the Walt Disney World property itself, with its innovative use of technology and new systems, was EPCOT made real. EPCOT was never meant to be an actual city, the story would go as the decades passed, but instead it was the set of values upon which the Florida property was modeled. In 1975, the memory of Walt’s EPCOT film with its soaring skyscrapers and swooping peoplemovers was still too fresh in the public consciousness for this story to have worked, and the company was fairly candid in its admissions that they were changing EPCOT into a form with which they were more comfortable – that of themed entertainment. Disney still planned on incorporating many of EPCOT’s ideas into its Florida property, but instead of permanent residents it would house and service a transient population of tourists and corporate personnel. The elements in and around Walt Disney World derived from the EPCOT philosophy would then be made accessible to the public through a series of themed attractions that would inform guests about the various EPCOT initiatives and allow them to experience the innovations firsthand.

How, exactly, Disney intended to do this remained vague until halfway through 1975. Prior to that point, Walker and others gave several clues as to what the Imagineers were working on, but it’s clear from reading contemporary reports in the press that the media and public tended to interpret Disney management’s vague clues to EPCOT’s future in the context of their expectations for an actual futuristic city. This is despite the fact that in 1974 Disney had revealed that EPCOT would now take the form of a series of “satellites”; these would be demonstration sites within and without Walt Disney World that would display or promote new technologies or ideas. The first of these satellites, Disney announced in 1974, would be The World Showcase. This separately-gated attraction was to be “the first major step in the evolution of EPCOT.”2

The turning point for EPCOT, though, was meant to occur in 1975. Disney had announced in its 1974 Annual Report that the new year would “mark the first period of concentrated planning and design for the “centers of activity” within EPCOT itself. Said Disney:

Wide ranging discussions will be held with representatives of world governments, leading businessmen, engineers, scientists and artists, for only through their cooperation will the Company be able to bring this immense concept to life

Card Walker reiterated this intent in February of 1975, telling the Christian Science Monitor that “this is not double-talk … It’s serious. We are really getting it off the ground.”3 EPCOT, said Walker, would address “what is the best method of solar energy … new types of crop rotation … the whole field of solid waste disposal.”

But why 1975? According to Walker, the year would officially mark the end of Phase I of Walt Disney World’s development. The metric for this was the theoretical rides-per-hour capacity of the Magic Kingdom; with the addition of several new attractions the park had reached a theoretical capacity of 70,000 which matched that of Disneyland.4 It seems that the pre-determined endpoint of Phase I might have been a bit of a moving target; prior to Walt Disney World’s 1971 opening the company gave themselves five years to achieve an annual attendance of 10 million guests, at which point they would feel comfortable with proceeding with EPCOT. When the resort surpassed that attendance benchmark in its first year, a timetable recalibration was in order. According to Walker, the result was that the start of their EPCOT studies were announced two years ahead of schedule.5 By early 1975, Disney was working with General Electric, RCA, the National Science Foundation and the Jet Propulsion Labs to develop concepts for EPCOT. Said Walker, “We think we can do it, and if we can, it’ll be one of the most exciting things the company has ever done. It’s bigger than us, but because we’re us we might be able to get it done. We’re communicators; why not be able to communicate technology as well as entertainment?”

Disney made their intentions more clear on July 14th, 1975, when Walker and Disney Board Chairman Donn Tatum unveiled the company’s plans for EPCOT for the media and around 70 guests and visiting dignitaries6. It was a very different concept from what Walt had originally announced in the famous EPCOT film; as the headline in the Miami News put it, “Disney’s ‘City of Tomorrow’ will be built – without residents.” As Walker would later report, talking about their “dynamic and achievable” approach to EPCOT, “We believe that in order to attain Walt Disney’s goals for EPCOT, we must avoid building a huge, traditional “brick and mortar” community which might possibly become obsolete, in EPCOT terms, as soon as it is completed.”

“We believe,” Walker continued, “we must develop a community system oriented to the communication of new ideas, rather than to serving the day-to-day needs of a limited number of permanent residents.”

“EPCOT’s purpose, therefore, will be to respond to the needs of people by providing a Disney-designed and Disney-managed forum where creative men and women of science, industry, universities, government and the arts – from around the world – can develop, demonstrate and communicate prototype concepts and new technologies, which can help mankind to achieve better ways of living.

A map of the various EPCOT sites from early 1976 shows the plan as announced in July of 1975

The plan which Walker announced in 1975 divided EPCOT’s various activities into three categories. EPCOT, which Walker hoped to complete by 19807, would consist of:

The EPCOT Institute, an independent organization which will provide the administrative structure necessary to facilitate participation in EPCOT and its “satellite” research activities by all interested parties. Its goal will be to guarantee that the maximum benefits from EPCOT-related research will flow to both the sponsors of EPCOT activities and the public, and to establish the technical credibility of projects undertaken through a series of expert advisory boards.

The company seems to have taken the scientific mission of EPCOT seriously; at the announcement of the project, Card Walker said that “EPCOT will be a ‘forum,’ where creative men and women of science, industry, government and the arts, from around the world, can present and demonstrate new concepts and systems … no one company, no one nation alone could accomplish the goal of EPCOT.”

Key to the development of EPCOT would be the participation of outside entities, and the EPCOT Institute would help facilitate this. To help publicize the new project and to coordinate the recruitment of outside participation, Disney announced that they had brought aboard two prominent new executives to act as the figureheads and public faces of the new EPCOT initiatives. L Gordon Cooper, scientist and celebrity astronaut due to his membership in the fabled Mercury 7, would lead the technological aspects of the project as Vice President of Research and Development for EPCOT. C. Langhorne Washburn, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Tourism, resigned his position in the Nixon administration to join Disney as the World Showcase Vice President. Washburn would coordinate the diplomatic efforts required to ensure international participation in the EPCOT project.

The EPCOT “Satellites” or activity centers, which will be engaged in researching, testing and demonstrating prototype products and systems in such fields as energy, agriculture, education, medicine and communications, in locations best suited for the particular program. These “Satellites” may be located at the Walt Disney World site (as in the case of a specific solar energy project or solid waste recycling system) or off-site, and will undertake projects funded by one sponsor or joint programs funded by industry, government, foundations and universities.

The EPCOT satellite sites were to be a loosely-defined variety of projects meant to publicly demonstrate innovations in EPCOT’s fields of study. These could include any of the innovations already used for the working infrastructure of Walt Disney World, or they could be off-site sponsored research projects. It these centers, “experimental systems in the fields of transportation, energy, education, health and medicine, agriculture, outer space, oceanography, communications and the arts [could] be designed, tested and demonstrated.”8 The satellites would be open to guests, allowing them to see cutting-edge research and development in progress.

At each satellite, dedicated men and women will work to develop new technology in their field, seeking solutions and exchanging ideas in broad areas affecting the quality of life for people throughout the world.

Disney News, Spring 1976

The first of the satellite sites to open, as was previously announced in 1974, would be the World Showcase and the International Village in which the Showcase’s cast members would reside. It appears that the Showcase had been moved from its previously-designated site; originally intended to sit adjacent to the Transportation and Ticket Center on the shore of the Seven Seas Lagoon, World Showcase was now to be built south of the Magic Kingdom’s toll plaza on a 100-acre plot closer to the eventual site of the actual EPCOT Center. The International Village, home to the young foreign cast members that would staff the new attraction, seems to have been slated for construction near the then-underway Lake Buena Vista development.

Construction on World Showcase was announced to begin in 1978 with an opening date of 19809; later in 1975 Disney would announce that there had been so much interest in the project that they were moving up the timetable with construction to commence in 1976 and a targeted opening day of October 1st, 1979.

The EPCOT Future World Theme Center, a high-capacity visitor facility which will employ advanced communications techniques, including motion pictures, models, multi-media exhibits and ride-through experiences, to inform millions of people each year about what is being done in the creative centers of science and industry around the world. Most importantly, it will demonstrate how these new technologies and ideas can be applied in a practical way to improving the environment for living in existing communities throughout American and the world.

The Future World Theme Center was the real innovation of the 1975 plan; it was a single site in which all the ideas and fields of study being explored in the EPCOT satellites would be accessible to guests, and it would provide a nexus of sorts for the various EPCOT initiatives. Located roughly where EPCOT Center sits today, the Theme Center was the first emergence of the ideas that would evolve into the Future World section of the EPCOT park. It marked the first appearance of pavilions themed to difference fields of study, and these various pavilions would tie into the EPCOT satellite sites operating elsewhere.

The Theme Center was announced as the “heart” of EPCOT, and in many ways it was true; its three major pavilions based on science and technology, community, and communications and the arts would “feature displays, shows and information centers on … various fields and disciplines.” It would “keep abreast of scientific and industrial research around the world and make that information available to visitors.”10 According to the Spring 1976 Disney News, inside the Future World Theme Center “360-degree movie screens and various displays will offer guests an overview of current EPCOT projects. Guests can then visit the area, called satellites, of particular interest to them.”

The plan in 1975 was for there to be no fee for guests to visit the Future World Theme Center; Disney would charge for admission to the World Showcase and the other satellite sites. Resort guests would be able to reach the Theme Center and World Showcase via an expansion of the monorail system. Other future satellite sites would be tied into the resort transportation system as well.

As announced in July of 1975, the Future World Theme Center would begin construction in 1978. As to cost, officials stated that World Showcase by itself could “reach dimensions and expenditures similar to that of the current Magic Kingdom theme park.” Another spokesman said that the Florida property currently represented “an investment of $650 million now. We don’t have a figure on how much money is to be involved in the new attractions, but it’s possible that it could involve the same amount.” Over time, that would of course prove an understatement.

Perhaps the greatest impetus for the EPCOT project can be found in another statement by the unnamed Disney spokesman on the occasion of the project’s announcement: “It will give the public the incentive to spend at least a second day with us and possibly relieve us of some of the overcrowding that now occurs at peak times in the park.” It was explained that EPCOT would contain so many trade pavilions, scientific and technical exhibits and rides and theaters that visitors could spend an entire day.

EPCOT will be a forum where creative men and women of science, industry, government and the arts from around the world can present and demonstrate new concepts and systems. It will be dedicated to the advancement of new technologies and approaches to meeting the challenges we face throughout the world today

Disney CEO E. Cardon Walker

The EPCOT of 1975 is very different from the EPCOT Center that opened in 1982, but we can see the germination of many ideas that would develop into that later park. For the very first time, we had early versions of both Future World and World Showcase, and at some point over the next year those two concept would be combined into a single gate that would slowly become EPCOT Center. What’s interesting is how this version of EPCOT was a very functional environment for active research and development. Instead of just addressing themes relating to the future, the EPCOT satellite centers would feature working installations of cutting-edge systems and the latest developments of public and private institutions and corporations.

“The selection of Walt Disney World as the site for the Southern Governors’ Conference last September gave Card Walker and other Disney executives the opportunity to brief many state and national leaders on the Company’s plans for EPCOT and the World Showcase.”

The new momentum behind the EPCOT project can be seen in the increasingly aggressive marketing of the concept throughout 1975. In September of that year, Disney took advantage of the annual conference of the Southern Governors’ Association to help promote EPCOT. The conference, which not coincidentally was held at the Contemporary Resort on Disney property, brought a number of notable politicians to Orlando where they were a captive audience for Disney’s presentations.

Florida Governor Reuben Askew at the Southern Governors’ Association conference, Walt Disney World, 1975

Aiding Disney’s plans was Florida Governor Reuben Askew, who assisted the company in making their EPCOT presentation to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (right), Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT), and EPA Administrator Russell Train. The dignitaries were said to have “expressed their enthusiasm” for the concept. Governor Mills E. Godwin, Jr., of Virginia said, after witnessing the presentation, “The depth of planning and the vision that went into the concept, I am certain, will assure its success.” Georgia Governor George D. Busbee said that “it is a concept that I feel certain will do a great deal for our own country and for the cause of world peace.” Secretary Kissinger assigned two of his top aides to view the presentation, and the State Department arranged meetings for the Disney marketing department in Amsterdam, Athens, Copenhagen, Brussels and Paris. Additional presentations were made at Walt Disney World in July and October of 1975, and Disney opened an office in Washington, D.C. where World Showcase VP C. Langhorne Washburn could more easily present the EPCOT concepts to diplomats and politicians. In December 1975, Disney executives made a presentation on EPCOT to members of Congress in the theater of the Rayburn House Office Building.

EPCOT was underway. As Walker would say in the 1975 annual report:

It is my firm conviction that the need for EPCOT and the World Showcase has never been greater, that the timing is right, and that, in Florida, we have the right location. I am hopeful that by the time we celebrate our Bicentennial on July 4, 1976, we will be confident of enough foreign participation in the World Showcase to make the decision to proceed. If we do, it will become the focal point of our second phase of development at Walt Disney World.

Coming Soon: A closer look at the various projects developed for EPCOT in 1975. Special thanks to Scott Otis for his assistance in the research for this article.

This post is part of the Disney Blog Carnival; head there for more posts from around the Disney world.

  1. The Miami News – Jul 16, 1975 []
  2. Walt Disney Productions Annual Report, 1974 []
  3. Anchorage Daily News – Feb 5, 1975 []
  4. Walt Disney Productions Annual Report, 1975 []
  5. Los Angeles Times – Mar 9, 1975 []
  6. Rome News-Tribune – Jul 16, 1975 []
  7. The Miami News – Jul 16, 1975 []
  8. The Washington Post – Aug 17, 1975 []
  9. The Montreal Gazette – Jul 18, 1975 []
  10. The Pittsburgh Press – Jun 13, 1976 []

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