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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” .