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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.