Walt Disney, Planner?

This spring break I thought I was taking a break far away from the world of planning by spending a week at Disney World. However, I’ve come to learn you can never escape the influence of great planners. I was aware of the planned communities that Walt Disney had designed to house his employees, but I never knew that Disney dreamed of a greater plan than a series of theme parks.

Like is his contemporaries, Le Corbusier and Ebenezer Howard, Disney designed his city of tomorrow, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). My walk between countries with my mom, eating and drinking around the world with the occasional Disney character spotting, quickly became a lesson in planned communities.

Disney’s planning ideas were imaginative and progressive, and his concepts live on through the many theme parks and resort areas he imagined. He worried about the future of modern cities, which during the 60’s he considered dirty and dangerous places, unlike his Disneyland Park in California. His concerns inspired a focus on city planning and community development. He develop the land in Florida he acquired with a grand vision in mind. His intent was not to just build a second theme park, but to build a community that would be filled with the most innovative technologies and industries.

Aerial view of E.P.C.O.T urban center, as rendered by George Rester and painted by Herbert Ryman in 1966. Image: The Walt Disney Company

Disney used animation and concept art to showcase EPCOT, which included a radial design, a large urban center and hotel for visitors, a green belt, an industrial park for corporations who invested in the project, and monorails and PeopleMovers for transportation as the city was designed to be car-less. He produced a short film “Disney World” highlighting his grand vision, but Disney died shortly after the Florida State Legislature gave municipal jurisdiction for the acquired land to Walt Disney Productions.

The Board of Directors thought the plan was too risky, so instead they merely moved ahead with Magic Kingdom, the last stage of Disney’s plan. Today, Disney’s utopian ideas exist in different parts of different parks.

EPCOT is one of these, dedicated to world innovations and mimicking a World’s Fair showcase. A monorail connects resorts and theme parks, and the PeopleMover is now a ride in Futureland at Magic Kingdom. While riding, park visitors pass part of the model that Disney created for EPCOT.

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Disney’s model for EPCOT, as seen from the PeopleMover attraction in the Magic Kingdom theme park. Photo: Cory Doctorow
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The Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover. Photo: Jennifer Lynn

Disney’s forward-thinking design also lead to the design of the parks’ behind-the-scenes infrastructure, such as the sewer systems, electrical power, and movement of employees and goods out of sight from the visitors. Though Disney’s vision for EPCOT was never fully realized, his parks are a case study of innovative urban design.

So next time to think you are planning a “planner free” vacation, think again. Specially in the Happiest Place on Earth.

Bio: Sarah Parkins is a master’s student at UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning, concentrating in housing and community development. She has a bachelor’s degree in architecture, and her current academic interests include affordable housing and place making. When not working at the Carrboro Parks and Rec department, Sarah is baking and DIYing her way through Pinterest.