He wanted his own city.
Walt’s plans weren’t just to create lots of great cartoons, he wanted to actually change the way American life was lived. His idea was to create a city of the future, but not as a theme park attraction. He wanted it to be a real place where people lived and worked, and he wanted it to be a blueprint for the future of American urban living.
The city Walt dreamed up was known as The Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow - EPCOT. Walt’s vision was huge. He wanted 20,000 people to live in his city. He wanted industries to test out their newest technology there, where it would be on display for the rest of the world. He wanted it to be city of the future whose progress never ended.
But he also wanted it to be his fiefdom. When he bought the land in Orlando for the project, he used shell companies to get better prices from landowners who wouldn’t know that a big corporation wanted their swampy land. Then he petitioned the state of Florida to give him pretty much complete municipal control of the area, even over building codes. Walt needed to be in charge of the rules of EPCOT, not some Florida politician. That is still in effect today; The Reedy Creek Improvement District, as the area around Disney World is known, could even build a nuclear reactor if they felt like it. They toyed with the idea at one point.
No one would own land in EPCOT. Every single resident would be a tenant, paying their rent to Walt Disney. This was to make sure that no one had a say in how the city was run, letting Walt go about his plans as he pleased. Everyone living in the city would be employed. There wouldn’t even be retirees. And everyone living there would be working for Disney in some way - either at the theme park that would be built or in local industry or the downtown shopping area.
Everyone would work for Disney and everyone would live under Disney’s rules and everyone would pay Disney rent for the privilege. Walt wanted to be able to be in control of the technology in the homes of residents; he would ensure that every home was easily upgraded to the latest tech. ‘A person returning from a hard day’s work could very well come home to a kitchen with brand-new appliances in it.’ says The Original EPCOT.
Essentially Walt Disney envisioned a completely corporate version of serfdom, a concept that would become familiar to fans of cyberpunk scifi decades later. Truly, EPCOT was the city of tomorrow. Whose tomorrow was another story.
But the Walt Disney board of directors weren’t so sure about all of this. They didn’t know if the corporation should be in the business of running a city, and they didn’t know if it made sense - why would people come to visit Walt’s weird city of the future? They convinced him to build a sequel to Disney Land, which would serve as the gateway to the city.
Walt’s plan was to have visitors arrive at the Walt Disney World Airport, and then be forced to ride the monorail through the entirety of the city before getting to the resort. The city would have been built in a radial pattern, with smaller and smaller rings nestled within one another.
Between the city and the outer ring would be an industrial park, where America’s corporations would have manufacturing facilities and labs to invent new tech that the citizens of EPCOT would use. After that visitors would pass through the low density housing - a bunch of neighborhoods would be arrayed in a petal shape around a large green area. There would be playgrounds and walking paths in the center of the petal.
A green band would separate the low density housing from high density (apartment complexes); in the green band you would find community centers and churches and more parks.
After the apartment areas (which is where most of the residents would live), you’d come to the downtown shopping area. This would be completely enclosed so as to make every day a nice day to walk around. Walt wanted to make a pedestrian friendly city and he had designed EPCOT so that people wouldn’t need cars. There would be the monorail that cut through the entire city and then each area would be connected by PeopleMovers - electric trains that never stopped moving, which actually ended up being used in Disney theme parks later. If people did insist on having cars, they would have to drive around in underground tunnels, which were otherwise reserved for trucks hauling freight and supplies. That was a system Walt had hit upon for Disney Land.
There were more elements, including a huge resort and convention center. None of them came to fruition - Walt died not soon after work began and the board of directors backed out of the project, going ahead with only the Magic Kingdom theme park and a smaller resort to be called Walt Disney World.
The EPCOT name returned a few years later when Disney World got its own version of Tomorrowland, but it bears little resemblence to Walt’s bizarre and massive concept. It’s sort of intriguing to think what might have happened should Walt have lived long enough to get his cryptofascist city of the future built; would he have impacted the way Americans live in the same way as his corporation impacted the way they consume?
But a weird idea never truly dies, and in the early 90s the Disney corporation returned to the concept of controlling a community. But times had changed; nobody wanted Walt’s futurism and the city of Celebration was going to be about a return to small town values.
Whatever else Celebration has, it definitely has the modern Disney corporation’s plasticky fakeness. During October fake fall leaves fall from trees at designated hours. At Christmas time fake snow comes from light posts. It’s a masterpiece of bizarre artifice, like the forced smile of the Disney theme parks.
But under that perfect community there must lurk a dark side - at least judging by the extreme events in Celebration over the past week. The community experienced its first ever murder just after Thanksgiving, when retired teacher Matteo Giovanditto was slain in his home. His body was found November 30th, and now signs asking residents for tips about the murder can be found in the area - a most un-Celebration touch. Maybe you could imagine fake blood being unleashed on Halloween, but the real thing seems so un-Disney.
If it ended there this would be an intriguing blip in the history of Celebration (worth noting: because Celebration has such a low population density this murder made the town the murder capitol of America that week, going by murders per capita). But today tragedy struck again when a father of three barricaded himself in his house, took some shots at police and then blew his own brains out.
Police are saying that the suicide of Craig Foushee, who held up in his home for 14 hours, wasn’t connected to the murder of Giovanditto. And maybe they aren’t directly related; maybe Foushee had nothing to do with the death of Giovanditto (Foushee was going through his own hard times the last few months, which probably led to his suicide). But there’s no denying a connection here. How can a ‘perfect’ town like Celebration not be impacted by its first murder? Could the loss of community innocence be profound enough that it triggered Foushee into action? Could this be just the start of a crash in Celebration, a crash caused by reality suddenly hitting the town?
And man, what a movie could come of this. Imagine the set up - the perfect town, run by the happiest corporation in the world, is suddenly rocked by violence. Once. Twice. A third time. What would be driving the citizens of this ideal town to such extremes? Call in Mulder and Scully or Snake Plissken or whoever; it could be aliens or demons or a water supply that’s been tampered with. I’d watch the hell out of that movie.
But this is reality, and the truth is just that life is life. Wherever you live, no matter how ideal it’s planned to be, there will be murder. And suicide. And bad people and failed relationships and hate and sadness. That’s just life. Somebody should tell the plastic smiley suits at Disney that you can’t create a perfect community if you’re going to let people live in it.
Much information for this article came from The Original EPCOT website.