Featured Attractions

Monday, April 22, 2024

Disney Company Believe It Or Not! - Forgotten Theme Parks

While Disney’s theme parks are the gold standard for themed entertainment, there are, obviously, other companies that have owned and operated theme parks. In a bizarre coincidence, two companies that were eventually purchased by The Walt Disney Company owned theme parks in California that had the word ‘Marine’ in their name.

After Disneyland’s initial success, various companies sought to enter the theme park industry. As an original investor in Disneyland, ABC was initially uninterested in owning part of a theme park. It just wanted a television show from Walt Disney. It only invested in the park when Walt Disney insisted that they wouldn’t get a show unless they became a partner in Disneyland. Even though the park was successful, ABC was desperate to cash out. Ten years later, however, it saw what a mistake it made as Disneyland became fully established and its investment would have been worth much more. This inspired the network to try out its own theme park. Not willing to invest the sort of capital that a ride based theme park would require, ABC decided that an animal theme park centered around the ocean would suffice. Thus ABC’s Marine World was born.

Located just south of San Francisco next to the San Francisco Bay, the park opened in 1968 and featured animal acts that claimed to teach its guests about conservation and preservation of the animals on display. While initially successful, the park fell victim to the one thing that most every theme park operator finds out- that guests require new attractions to keep coming out to the park. ABC had hoped that it could ride the park’s original success for at least a few years before it needed to invest in new attractions. It quickly lost interest in the park and sold it off to another area theme park- Africa U.S.A.- and left the theme park industry for good. It would only get involved with theme parks again after The Walt Disney Company acquired the network in 1995. Marine World Africa USA would eventually move to nearby Vallejo, CA and go through a succession of different owners until it became part of the Six Flags chain and renamed Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. It remains open today.

Marineland actually opened a year before Disneyland did- in 1954- but it would quickly become one of the many Southern California attractions that would take advantage of the millions of tourists attracted by Disneyland to carve out a place for itself. Coincidentally designed by the architect who worked on the Disneyland Hotel, the park saw ten years of increasing attendance in its Rancho Palos Verde location. After San Diego’s Sea World opened, however, it found a more challenging business environment. By the mid-1970’s, it eagerly accepted an offer from Twentieth Century Fox who would hand over design and event responsibilities to movie producer Irwin Allen, who was the “master of disaster” in the 1970’s.

Irwin Allen was responsible for the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea franchise which was the primary reason for the bizarre decision to put him in charge of a theme park. However he had also become a mega producer when Twentieth Century Fox handed the park’s reins over to him. The gigantic success of “The Poseidon Adventure” had given him an aura of infallibility and by the mid-1970’s, he was seen as someone who could help the faltering theme park stay afloat. Unfortunately, this was also around the same time that the disaster film bubble began to burst.

Allen’s inexperience with theme parks doomed the experiment. He overpromised and under delivered during the 1974 Christmas season, which led to an embarrassing class action lawsuit against the park. Twentieth Century Fox ended up unloading the park to Hanna Barbera. The park would eventually get sold to the owners of Sea World who originally claimed that they planned to keep both locations open. In the end, they reneged on that promise and closed the park in a manner that prevented anyone else from reopening it as an oceanarium. It was a distant memory by 2020 when Twentieth Century became a part of The Walt Disney Company.

Monday, April 15, 2024

EPCOT Part Twelve: In Conclusion

EPCOT never became the real life city that Walt Disney envisioned, nor did it remain the educational showcase that it was when it eventually opened as a theme park in 1982. When The Walt Disney Family Museum opened in 2009, EPCOT was featured, for the very first time in a high profile setting, as Walt Disney’s final, unrealized dream. The Magic Kingdom park for the very first time acknowledged that the futuristic model city displayed alongside the Peoplemover tracks was not, as the narrator previously insinuated, a generic model of a futuristic city, but was actually what EPCOT might have looked like if Walt Disney had lived to build it. It was a huge change from the company’s confusing insinuation that EPCOT as built was exactly what Walt Disney had envisioned.

While it seemed that the company was going to be more open about EPCOT’s development, a recent major construction project added a statue of Walt Disney sitting down and staring out at EPCOT as though he was enjoying the sights of the theme park he had designed. So it appears that going forward the company will still rely on the public’s murky belief that the EPCOT that Walt Disney spoke about in 1965 is similar to the EPCOT that opened in 1982 and remains open today. While the difference between EPCOT the city and EPCOT the theme park might not be something that the average guest even thinks about, the company’s continued insistence that the EPCOT of today has any ties to the EPCOT of Walt’s dreams is infuriating to Disney historians.

But the biggest question that comes to mind when thinking about EPCOT- would Walt Disney’s original vision of EPCOT have been successful? Would the public have embraced a town built and designed by American industry and Walt Disney Productions? The public’s view of large corporations and industrial development has dramatically changed since the mid 20th century. Historically, the titans of industry were seen as benevolent entities who could be trustworthy stewards. That had definitely changed by the late 1960’s. By 1982, when EPCOT Center opened as a theme park, the idea of a company town planned and operated by a private business had become an entirely foreign concept. While Disneyland had been an untested concept back when it opened in 1955, Walt Disney was only asking people to spend a few days in his Magic Kingdom. At EPCOT, he would have been asking people to spend their lives in his planned community- a much bigger feat than just asking them to spend their vacation time. 

While Walt Disney was always determined to see his dreams come true- he was also a practical person. Had he lived to build his version of the Florida project, he very well might have downsized his plans if he determined them to no longer be practical. Even if he had canceled EPCOT completely, however, he probably wouldn’t have used the same name for a lesser project. While the EPCOT we got was not the EPCOT of Walt’s dreams, it is a nice place to spend a day or two. If Disney fans want to see Walt Disney’s last fully realized dream come true they would still need to head to Anaheim- the home of Walt Disney’s One and Only Magic Kingdom.

Monday, April 8, 2024

EPCOT Part Eleven: Celebration

As the company expanded the Florida resort, it made several adjustments to EPCOT that were geared towards silencing the early complaints and filling the park. More traditional attractions replaced some of the exhibits and special events were planned to attract guests to EPCOT from Magic Kingdom. New hotel projects were announced in an effort to capture more of the money being spent by Disney’s guests. The company saw unprecedented revenue increases in Florida as it was not only convincing guests to stay on property but to also extend their stays. This led to the resort’s most successful theme park launch on a small parcel of land behind EPCOT- Disney MGM Studios.

Unlike the grand openings of both Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, the opening of Disney MGM Studios was huge. Thousands of guests flocked to the park from day one, making it the most successful grand opening in the resort’s history. The park had been severely under built, sparking a massive construction boom as the company sought to improve capacity and offer more attractions. Star Tours, which had opened in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland and was supposed to be located in the same location at Magic Kingdom was hurriedly shoehorned into the park. As the park’s closest neighbor, EPCOT became the beneficiary of its popularity; guests who arrived at an at capacity Disney MGM Studios were steered to EPCOT.

With this building boom going on, company executives sought to make better use of the company’s vast landholdings. New hotels were springing up from the swamp just about every year. The company was only constrained by its ability to finance these projects. Disney CEO Michael Eisner sought a project that would be easier to finance and wouldn’t eat up too much of the company’s revenue or credit lines. In the early 1990’s, he settled on a project that could be billed as a realization of Walt Disney’s original vision of EPCOT- the master planned community of Celebration, Florida.

Celebration, Florida would be an all new town built on land de-annexed from the Walt Disney World Resort. The master planned community was to be financed by the sale of houses and property within its borders. The company would be able to show Wall Street that it was making use of its surplus land without spending its own money. While the company was still suggesting to guests that EPCOT the theme park was the same EPCOT that Walt Disney spoke about on his show, it would now also suggest that Celebration would be a realization of Walt’s dream of a planned city. In actuality, neither of these suggestions were true.

While Celebration would be a nice subdivision, it was actually the antithesis of Walt Disney’s EPCOT. The EPCOT of Walt Disney’s dreams would have featured mixed use development where people would live near where they worked and played. A reliable, efficient transit system would eliminate the need for a car. Celebration, on the other hand, would be just like any other subdivision where people have to own several cars and commute long distances to go to work or shop. In the end, Celebration would look more like the subdivisions that surrounded Disneyland in Anaheim than the futuristic city of tomorrow that Walt Disney had envisioned.

Monday, April 1, 2024

EPCOT Part Ten: What If Nobody Showed Up?

In 1982, EPCOT neared completion and the company prepared to open its biggest, most ambitious theme park ever. Despite opening during a recession, the company was confident that EPCOT Center would fully establish Walt Disney World as the Vacation Kingdom that Roy Disney had envisioned. That it wasn’t the EPCOT that Walt Disney had envisioned was glossed over and ignored. While the company didn’t specifically say that this park had anything to do with Walt Disney’s original plans, it didn’t discourage anyone from thinking that it did.

The EPCOT that greeted guests on opening day was massively larger than even the Magic Kingdom, but despite its size it had fewer traditional attractions. The park featured mostly exhibits, shops and dining. The decision was also made to ban Disney characters from the park. Instead, guests found bizarre park specific characters that were supposed to represent the World Showcase countries. On October 1, 1982 the Walt Disney World resort finally opened something called EPCOT- the theme park that it hoped would stop the questions about where EPCOT was and turn the complex into the vacation kingdom that Roy Disney wanted.

The heavily hyped park was met with a yawn. While the park opened to larger crowds than the Magic Kingdom did, it still massively underperformed. The company panicked and quickly injected Disney characters into the park. The huge cost involved to build the park sent the company into a tailspin that attracted corporate raiders. Disney CEO Card Walker, who approved EPCOT, had retired at an opportune time right before the park opened its doors. His successor, Walt Disney’s son-in-law Ron Miller, would unfortunately get all the blame for the company’s financial problems. The lackluster reception received by EPCOT threatened to do what naysayers had believed would happen in 1955- take down Walt Disney Productions.

Two years after EPCOT’s disastrous opening, the company cleared the decks, installing a new management team championed by Roy E. Disney. At first the new team led by Michael Eisner had planned to sell off the theme parks and resorts, licensing the Disney trademarks to the new owners. After realizing that the theme parks (other than EPCOT) stabilized the company as a whole, the new team decided to invest heavily in fixing EPCOT and extending the company’s theme park holdings. As part of this new push to bolster the theme parks, the new regime decided to double down on pretending that EPCOT as built was exactly what Walt Disney wanted. Promotional materials often referred to EPCOT as Walt Disney’s final dream come true.

As part of its efforts to bolster the Florida property, The Walt Disney Company began an unprecedented era of construction at Walt Disney World. In Anaheim, the majority of the revenue generated by Disneyland went to non-Disney owned businesses. This bothered Walt Disney because if he had owned more of the enterprises that sprang up around Disneyland, he could use the revenue to improve his park. This was one of the reasons why he wanted to own more land in Florida. Unfortunately, Roy Disney underbuilt hotel rooms, so the same tawdry, low rent leeches still sprang up in Orlando, though farther away. The Walt Disney Compamy sought to fix this with a new building boom in the 1980’s and 90’s. Would the company ever build anything resembling Walt’s original dream? While the Disney company would claim they had- in actuality, they would not.

Monday, March 25, 2024

EPCOT Part Nine: Guest Complaints

After its initial attendance problems went away, Disney World’s Magic Kingdom park faced new capacity problems.
Roy had under built the park and it had less than half the number of attractions as Disneyland did at the time. While the park was larger in size than Disneyland, it had far fewer things to do. To resolve this issue, the park quickly began fast tracking new attractions. Roy felt that since the Magic Kingdom in Florida was so close to the actual Caribbean, the park could do without Pirates of the Caribbean. Guests felt otherwise, so a cut down version of the ride was shoehorned into Adventureland. 

Due to Florida’s less hospitable weather, it was determined that the Matterhorn would not work if built at the Magic Kingdom. Park management remembered that when Walt Disney originally came up with the idea for Space Mountain it was not technologically possible. Imagineering had floated an idea to just build the Matterhorn indoors and call it Space Mountain. Walt rejected this idea, but Florida management was desperate to add capacity so it was quickly approved. (Disneyland would later get the Space Mountain of Walt’s dreams in 1977.)

As the years wore on, it became apparent that Roy Disney’s conservatively built resort was not fully taking advantage of the resort’s allure and the same type of tawdry motels that sprung up around Disneyland opened up around Walt Disney World, just further away from the main gate. To fix this problem, Roy’s handpicked successor- Disney CEO Card Walker- asked Imagineering to come up with new ideas for a second theme park and new resorts to provide more on property activities for Disney World guests. There were two competing theme park ideas at the time- a theme park themed to other countries called World Showcase and another that was like a larger Tomorrowland called Future World. Neither idea seemed to get much traction with Disney leadership and plans for larger expansion projects at the resort had stalled.

Expansion plans would soon get on the fast track due to a misunderstanding about what EPCOT was supposed to be.
Guests remembered seeing Walt Disney speak about some sort of ‘EPCOT’, but they seemed to think it was supposed to be a theme park. Guest Relations was still getting questions and complaints from guests inquiring about EPCOT and wondering where it was. With the second theme park planning going nowhere, Card Walker gave Imagineering a new mandate- come up with a new project that the company could slap the EPCOT name on to satisfy guests. 

For anyone who has been to the place eventually called EPCOT, you’ve probably already figured out what Imagineering did to create “EPCOT” the theme park- they put their plans for “Future World” and “World Showcase” together. EPCOT Center would not be the futuristic, real city that Walt envisioned; it would be a massive theme park Frankenstein instead. While this compromise would resolve several problems for the resort, it would create new ones- the biggest one being its high price tag. Since each part of EPCOT Center was originally intended to be a theme park unto itself, building them together at the same time would be very expensive. While the company planned to extensively rely on outside sponsors, it was still making a sizable investment that would eventually cost more than the rest of the company was worth at the time. While the Magic Kingdom theme park had eventually become self sufficient, this huge new investment would place the company’s financial solvency at risk again. Would guests flock to this massively scaled down version of EPCOT? Only time would tell.

Monday, March 18, 2024

EPCOT Part Eight: Roy’s Folly

As the October 1st grand opening of Walt Disney World grew near, Roy Disney was riding high. He had canceled his brother’s plans for the experimental prototype community of tomorrow and was eager to open his vision of the Florida project, which consisted of just the parts that he deemed as being profitable- the Magic Kingdom theme park and three resorts. Eager to avoid the madness of Disneyland’s chaotic and overcrowded opening day, Roy strictly limited the number of tickets available for opening day and prepared for the onslaught that was sure to await the park on day two- when the real guests would finally experience his idea of a “Magic Kingdom.”

In an effort to get good press, Roy planned an opening day that would only host half the number of guests who visited Disneyland on an average day at the time. This would allow the media to comfortably experience the park and declare it to be more polished than Disneyland. Imagine his shock when less than a third of the expected crowd showed up. Magic Kingdom park set a dubious record that it continues to hold to this day- as the Disney theme park with the lowest opening day attendance. Initially, Roy blamed the lack of attendance on guests remembering Disneyland’s disastrous and overcrowded opening day. Truly day two would be better.

Except it wasn’t. The newly built theme park’s second day attendance was worse than the first day and a fraction of what Disneyland was attracting. As opening week continued, Roy reeled from the daily attendance reports. Magic Kingdom park was not attracting enough guests to justify the expense of building it. Weekend attendance wasn’t much better than weekday attendance. To the outside world, the company was confident that things would improve. Inside the company, however, was a different story. While Walt’s Imagineers smugly observed the disastrous attendance as Walt’s revenge for Roy disregarding his original plans, they also worried about their jobs. What would the rapidly growing Florida problem do to their job security and pensions?

Days of poor attendance became weeks of poor attendance. Magic Kingdom’s abysmal attendance was quickly becoming a crisis. While Disneyland had been forced to step aside to let its newer sibling take the limelight, it was now propping up the looming disaster in Florida. If Disneyland’s attendance had mirrored that of Florida’s Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney Productions would have gone bankrupt as many had predicted before the original park opened in 1955. Lucky for Roy, Disneyland’s profits would keep the company solvent- for now. As October switched to November with no improvement, everyone knew that Roy would soon have to make some tough decisions- and things didn’t look good for the company’s Florida property. Layoffs and cutbacks were on the horizon.

This period of time was said to be stressful for Roy Disney. He was beginning to fear that he had doomed Walt Disney Productions to bankruptcy. Was the Florida project DOA regardless of what was built or would building EPCOT as his brother had originally planned have improved its fortunes? As a second month of poor attendance lurched forward, Roy decided that despite the bad optics of doing layoffs during the Christmas season, he would have no choice if he wanted to stave off bankruptcy. He decided to wait until after the Thanksgiving weekend to begin cutbacks, layoffs and closures, but was sadly certain that he would have to actually do them.

If this situation doesn’t sound familiar to you, it was due to the miracle that awaited park staff on the day after Thanksgiving. As the resort prepared to open that morning, staff encountered a welcome sight- backed up traffic at the parking lot toll booths. The crowds had finally showed up. Florida’s Magic Kingdom finally had its first full capacity day. The crowds continued to show up in the days and weeks ahead. If Walt had cursed the park because of the cancellation of EPCOT, he must have felt that his point had been made after two months of poor attendance. Roy could finally rest easy and Walt Disney Productions would pretend that Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom was always hugely successful.

Sadly, Roy wouldn’t get to enjoy the success of his version of the Florida project for too long; he would pass away a few weeks later on December 20, 1971. While he had been afraid that he had doomed the company a month earlier, he would enter his eternal rest knowing that the company he built with his brother would be on firm ground.

Monday, March 11, 2024

EPCOT Part Seven: The Dream Is Over

After Walt Disney’s shocking death, Roy Disney quickly took full control of the company. Dismissing talk of a sale, Roy insisted that the company would remain independent, Disneyland would stay open and he would personally see to it that his brother’s last dream- “Disney World” in Florida- would be built and open in five years. In fact, he officially started calling the Florida Project “Walt Disney World” to show the world that it was the fully realized dream of a real person- Walt Disney. Except- it wasn’t.

While Roy claimed he was making his brother’s final dream come true, his very first action as the sole leader of Walt Disney Productions was to permanently cancel Walt Disney’s plans for an experimental prototype community of tomorrow. EPCOT, as designed and dreamed up by Walt Disney would NEVER see the light of day. Even though Walt’s imagineers hadn’t been too enthusiastic about EPCOT when he first started the development and design process, they had grown to accept and embrace it. They weren’t happy when Roy pulled the plug on the project and ordered them to start working on the theme park. They became even more disenchanted with Roy’s vision for the park itself.

By 1971, Disneyland had 16 years to “grow up” into the fully developed theme park that it had become. Walt Disney had planned to build out “Disneyland East” to be a mostly carbon copy of Disneyland with the same number of attractions. Roy, on the other hand, figured that the newer park could open with much fewer attractions than Disneyland had and build itself up over time. His most controversial decision was to build a bigger castle with a taller Main Street. In his mind, this would show everyone that the company now had more money to spend and could afford to build a bigger castle than the one at Disneyland. Except, the castle at Disneyland was not built the way it was because of money issues- it was built the way it was because Walt Disney wanted a friendly, accessible castle. He felt that only tyrants built large castles to intimidate the peasants and purposely had his castle designed to be kid-friendly.

Even worse, Roy Disney chose to not fix the part of the park that Walt Disney was always self conscious about- Fantasyland. Walt had originally wanted Fantasyland to look like a European village. Budget cuts forced him to compromise and design what was referred to as a “Medieval Fair” look that featured brightly painted, flat decor. While Roy’s tyrannically sized castle loomed large, it concealed a Fantasyland that wasn’t all it could be. (Disneyland eventually fixed this issue in 1982. Florida’s Magic Kingdom has never bothered to fix it at all.) Rolly Crump, whose whimsical artwork inspired the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland left the company after he became disenchanted with the design of the Disney World project.

In 1971, Walt Disney World, which was more of Roy’s dream than Walt’s by this point, lurched towards its opening. Severely under-built, the resort only had two hotels and a campground in addition to its theme park with an underwhelming lineup of attractions. Would Roy’s EPCOT-less resort prove to be a successful draw? Only time would tell.

Monday, March 4, 2024

EPCOT Part Six: Walt vs. Roy

When Walt Disney first presented the idea of Disneyland to his brother Roy, Roy was firmly against it. Walt’s brother was certain that Disneyland would bankrupt the company and initially rejected the idea. Only after he realized that Walt was insistent on seeing his dream come true (and that the company had never gotten legal permission to use his brother’s name) did Roy reluctantly approve his brother’s plans. After Disneyland succeeded beyond Roy’s wildest dreams, he was eager to build a second park- but he didn’t want to build EPCOT. Roy allowed his brother to develop plans for EPCOT in the project’s early stages, but planned to put his foot down at some point to prevent the project from going forward. Veteran Disney employees braced for the upcoming battle.

While Roy thought that he could eventually convince his brother that EPCOT was not feasible, others within the company thought that he would eventually acquiesce to Walt as he typically did and allow some version of EPCOT to get built. Either way, Disney staff had hoped that the battle would not be as intense as it was when Walt Disney wanted to build the Matterhorn, Disneyland Monorail and the Submarine Voyage attractions and Roy wanted to coast on Disneyland’s success for a few more years without building new projects. The wild success of the expansion eventually made Roy see that he was wrong, but the fight between the two was bitter nonetheless.

The first sign of stress between Walt and Roy happened when Roy visited Imagineering. He was looking for some concept maps and artwork for Disneyland East and its associated hotels that he could show to potential investors and financiers. He discovered that none existed. Walt had no interest in working on the theme park at this point and had his imagineers busy designing EPCOT. Roy requested that they start working on the theme park, an idea shut down by Walt. He assumed that if Disneyland East was built first his brother would find a way to shut down EPCOT. Roy enlisted the help of his sister-in-law Lillian Disney to try to talk some sense into his brother. Lillian suspected that if EPCOT became reality her husband would want to move to Florida, and she was not fond of the idea. This entreaty didn’t really accomplish much; Walt wasn’t convinced to drop EPCOT and Lillian wasn’t convinced that a move to Florida would be a good idea. The EPCOT question remained unresolved.

As 1966 went on, Walt’s Imagineers felt that he seemed oddly insistent at getting EPCOT planned out ASAP. While he had been eager to get his dreams out into the world in the past, this time it felt like there was an air of desperation around his efforts. For the first time ever, it felt like Walt thought he was running out of time. Walt decided to introduce the world to his idea of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow on his television show as a way to force his brother’s hand- after all, if he clearly laid out what the “Florida Project” would be like, Roy would have no choice but to follow through with it, regardless of what the future held. 

Unfortunately, fate would intervene in the saddest of ways. On December 15, 1966 Walt Disney passed away. Even the people who worked with him were shocked. To them, Walt Disney was an immortal force to be reckoned with. That he would no longer be around to supervise his Magic Kingdom or see his latest dream of EPCOT become reality was unthinkable. With Roy Disney at the helm, would he see fit to make his brother’s final dream come true? The answer to that question would be complicated.

Monday, February 26, 2024

EPCOT Part Five: Walt Disney’s Experimental Community

When Walt Disney decided to announce his latest project, the public was confused. They loved the idea of Disneyland East, but what was this EPCOT thing? Was it another theme park? For those of you who have been following along, you know that it was definitely NOT a theme park. But what exactly was Walt planning to build? Today we take a look at what EPCOT would have been like if Walt Disney had lived to see it open.

Guests would have entered the massive property at its southern end, parking their cars in massive parking lots located where Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the All-Star Resorts are located today. They would then board monorails and peoplemovers that would whisk them north to Disneyland East through Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow- EPCOT. As guests pass through the city, a pre-recorded spiel would point out the important features of this real life city and encourage them to take a tour of it during their stay.

The city itself would feature working factories and mixed use development where people could actually live and work. The factories would be operated by some of the biggest names in American industry and permit guests to tour the grounds. Walt envisioned a place where people lived close to where they worked and shopped, predicting a future where mixed use development would be proposed as a way to reduce carbon emissions caused by lengthy commutes. 

Walt believed that he could convince the titans of industry to setup shop in EPCOT and he would start with the companies that already sponsored attractions in Disneyland- Monsanto, RCA, General Electric and McDonnell-Douglas. The hope was that guests of Disneyland East would head back home and encourage their hometown leadership to adopt the ideas and technology found at EPCOT. Even better, some guests might be inspired enough to pull up stakes and move to the futuristic city. While Disneyland East would be the weenie that attracted the world to Orlando, EPCOT would be the real life city that would truly inspire the world to look to a brighter future.

While Walt Disney enthusiastically pushed forward with his version of EPCOT, Roy Disney was enthusiastically pushing his brother to start work on designing Disneyland East. Walt cared little about the theme park and ordered his staff to not waste time on it. He reasoned that the original Disneyland was already perfect and he would just duplicate it in Florida without New Orleans Square and with more water. Would this impasse between Walt and Roy lead to their greatest argument ever? Sadly, fate would intervene in the most tragic way possible, forestalling the inevitable fight over Disney’s Florida Project.

Monday, February 19, 2024

EPCOT Part Four: From NYC to Florida Swampland

By 1964, Walt Disney had set his sights on building “Disneyland East” somewhere in Florida where he could buy up vast tracts of land at a cheap price. Unlike his previous project in Anaheim, “Disneyland East” would not be the focus of this new development- that would be his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow- EPCOT. “Disneyland East” would just be a way to get people to visit EPCOT- a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. By this time, Roy Disney had seen the huge success that DISNEYLAND had been and relished the idea of re-creating it in Florida. He hated the idea of EPCOT, but figured he could convince his brother to scrap it as unworkable eventually. He would keep this plan close to the vest, however.

For now, Walt Disney wanted to prove that a Disney attraction could succeed far from Hollywood’s backyard. He decided that the best way to do this was to embrace New York’s 1964 World’s Fair. If Disney could successfully build and operate multiple attractions in the cosmopolitan city of New York, it would prove that a Disney theme park could work on the east coast. WDI quickly got the word out that it was ready and willing to work with American industry to build exciting new attractions.

Ford Motor Company, General Electric and the State of Illinois quickly lined up to have Walt Disney’s Imagineers work on new attractions. With three major projects underway plus extensive expansion at DISNEYLAND, Walt Disney Imagineering’s hands were full. 

Despite the huge amount of work already being undertaken on a staggering number of projects, Walt Disney decided to sign up one more project that would produce one of the company’s most beloved attractions- “it’s a small world”. PepsiCo’s board of directors had been fighting ever since Hollywood actress Joan Crawford had insisted on taking her late husband’s seat on the board. The internal war had delayed the planning of the company’s World’s Fair attraction that it had publicly announced would benefit UNICEF. Forced to compromise rather than suffer a PR black eye, the company enlisted Joan Crawford to appeal to her Hollywood friend Walt Disney to get a fast tracked attraction built- a ride that became “it’s a small world.” Yes folks, the ride beloved by generations of children exists in part because of Joan “Mommie Dearest” Crawford.

Disney’s World’s Fair attractions were the highlight of the event and proved that DISNEYLAND’s magic would work even thousands of miles away from its main gate. With this success, the company went full speed ahead, acquiring thousands of acres of swampland in the middle of Florida. While Walt Disney saw a vast wilderness that he could tame into becoming a model (and real) city, his brother had an entirely different idea for a vacation kingdom.

Walt and Roy were headed towards a battle over what this “Florida Project” would actually be. Come back next week as we take a look at what Walt’s Florida Project would have looked like if he had lived to see it open and won the battle against his brother Roy who was extremely skeptical of EPCOT’s viability.


Monday, February 12, 2024

EPCOT Part Three: Walt Looks East- To Palm Springs

Upset with the urban sprawl that quickly surrounded his Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney began to think about ways to influence the way cities were being planned around the world. He attempted to show futuristic modes of transportation and technology in Tomorrowland, but the influencers of the time derided attempts to introduce any of these ideas to the real world as impractical amusement park rides. Walt’s best efforts to promote a great big beautiful tomorrow were actually standing in the way of these technologies making their way to the outside world.

Walt decided that he needed to build an actual city- an experimental prototype community of tomorrow- that would show everyone how monorails, technology and careful planning would solve the problems plaguing cities at the time. Suburban sprawl and its resultant decay, which the city of Anaheim regrettably allowed to surround Walt Disney’s perfect park, could hopefully be held at bay if guests took the things they learned from Walt’s experimental city back to their respective cities. But where could this city be built? Walt originally looked east- to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.

Walt Disney was very familiar with Palm Springs and its surrounding area. The city had become a desert getaway for much of Hollywood, Walt Disney included. In fact, he had mortgaged his own Palm Springs home at the area’s famed Smoke Tree Ranch to help finance Disneyland. Walt looked at various sites south of Palm Springs where he could build EPCOT. Walt wanted to do more than just build a city of tomorrow; he wanted to establish it as a city that Walt Disney Productions could fully own, operate and manage. This greatly concerned Roy Disney, who enlisted MCA/Universal’s Lew Wasserman to talk some sense into his brother.

In the 1920’s, Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle bought hundreds of acres in North Los Angeles to build his new studio. Laemmle incorporated “Universal City” as a privately owned and operated city that just so happened to produce motion pictures. His intent, however, wasn’t as noble as Walt’s- he used his private city’s status as a publicity stunt and a way to circumvent regulations. By the 1960’s, however, new CEO Lew Wasserman saw the city’s incorporation as an albatross and agreed to help his friend by meeting with Walt to discuss the headaches and pitfalls of establishing a private city. He was unsuccessful; Walt left the meeting even more emboldened to build his city.

After running the numbers, Walt Disney’s consultants pointed to an obvious problem; tourists would not flock to tour a “city of tomorrow” regardless of whether it had the Disney name attached. Walt Disney’s guests would be disappointed and possibly disenchanted with his company if they showed up to EPCOT and saw a city instead of a fun park. He would need to build something fun to attract the public then hope they stick around long enough to then tour the experimental city. If this enterprise were built in the Coachella Valley, it would draw guests away from Disneyland, diluting the park’s profits. So how could Walt try to avoid cannibalizing Disneyland’s business? By locating his new project on the opposite side of the United States. Thus he began planning out what he was now calling  “The Florida Project” .

Monday, February 5, 2024

EPCOT Part Two: Walt’s Misadventures in Vacationland

When DISNEYLAND started construction in 1954, there was very little development in Anaheim. The park was being built in the middle of an orange grove surrounded by open farmland. The Anaheim canvas was, for the most part, entirely blank.

Walt Disney purchased as much land as he could afford at the time- about 250 acres- and began asking his famous Hollywood friends for investment funds. Since few people believed that the park would succeed, he wasn’t successful in this effort. Moving on, Walt decided to ask his wealthy friends to purchase some of the large parcels of open land that would surround the future Magic Kingdom, promising to buy it all from them after Disneyland became profitable. This appeal was also unsuccessful.

Eventually, Walt gave up on the prospect of securing more land in Anaheim and decided to make an appeal to the city itself. Disneyland was going to be a jewel, attracting millions of tourists to the town, so the city had to be prepared to deal with the onslaught. Anaheim would need to put its best foot forward to impress the millions of guests who would find their way to Disneyland, so he advised them to be careful with their zoning. It should only allow tasteful and complementary development around Disneyland. Unfortunately, the city never took his advice.

It seemed like the only requirement the city of Anaheim had at the time for businesses in the area surrounding Disneyland was that the building didn’t fall down. The city even allowed housing to spring up mere feet away from the Disneyland Hotel, bringing in a wave of residents who would eventually complain about the noise and traffic. Walt Disney despised the “third rate Las Vegas” that surrounded his Magic Kingdom and he quickly pondered a solution to the urban decay that seemed to be endemic to large cities around the world. Maybe he could use all of the things he had learned when dreaming up Disneyland to show the world how its cities could be improved. The huge success of Disneyland could bankroll his experimental community of tomorrow- a project he called EPCOT.

Monday, January 29, 2024

EPCOT Part One: In the Beginning…

EPCOT has always had a complicated history. Though Walt Disney’s original plans for the Florida Project would have put his version of EPCOT at the center of Disney World, the few guests who arrived at the resort in October of 1971 would not have found anything called or resembling Walt’s version of EPCOT. In this new series, we’ll take a look at the genesis of EPCOT, its troubled planning process, its complete cancellation and its eventual rebirth as a troubled theme park that bore no resemblance to Walt Disney’s original plans.

EPCOT, as originally envisioned by Walt Disney, had its origins at DISNEYLAND. After the wild success of Walt’s original theme park, American industry welcomed Walt Disney and his imagineers into its research facilities. Many imagineers found wide open doors at companies such as Monsanto, General Electric and McDonnell-Douglas. These companies offered Walt Disney a chance to look at technological advances they were working on and new technology that they thought he might be able to use in DISNEYLAND. 

These peeks at the amazing new technologies these companies were working on amazed Walt Disney, who became confident in American industry solving complex problems with science and research. Many of these technologies were highlighted in Tomorrowland and used behind the scenes throughout the rest of the park in its amazing attractions. The Peoplemover and Disneyland Monorail were intended to show the world how mass transit could be updated to solve the problem of pollution and smog.

As Walt Disney quickly discovered, however, the presence of alternate modes of transportation inside DISNEYLAND proved to work against their adoption in the real world. Any time a major monorail or Peoplemover project was proposed, detractors dismissed them as theme park rides that would prove to be a boondoggle for any city planning to build them. Walt Disney then sought to fix this perception problem- and he’d find inspiration just outside the gates of his Magic Kingdom.