Disney fans from coast to coast will have reason to celebrate on October 1, 2011, as The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco marks its second anniversary—and the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Walt Disney World and the innovative city of EPCOT were two of Walt’s final dreams, and visitors to the Museum can gain a better understanding of his vision for “The Florida Project,” which had a far greater purpose than just building a “Disneyland East.”
By the age of sixty-five, Walt Disney was much more than just a successful filmmaker. As the creative head of Walt Disney Productions, Walt and his talented organization had elevated the animated film to an art form, produced award-winning films and documentaries, and successfully utilized the new medium of television. In the planning and construction of Disneyland, Walt Disney unwittingly began a new career as an urban designer.
In the planning and building of his park, there were no standards to follow, because nothing like it had ever been built before. As Disneyland continued to grow, Walt studied the way the Guests interacted with his park, and would constantly enhance or replace anything that failed to meet the public's need.
The success of Disneyland impressed Developer James W. Rouse sufficiently to state in his keynote speech before the 1963 Urban Design Conference at Harvard University, “that the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland. If you think about Disneyland and think of its performance in relationship to its purpose, it’s meaning to people—more than that, it’s meaning to the process of development—you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States. It took an area of activity—the amusement park—and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, in its functioning for people, that it really does become a brand new thing.” Unfortunately the one area Walt did not have any design control over was the land surrounding his Magic Kingdom.
Walt Disney experienced firsthand how the haphazard transformation of the idyllic orange groves of Anaheim into a tacky neon jungle of motels and gift shops detracted from his carefully planned theme park experience. To Walt, this change reflected the greater issue of inadequate city planning and the urban decay of city centers across the country. He began reading books on city planning and visiting new planned communities across the country before deciding to take on the challenge of creating a community of his own design. In a 1966 film that explained his bold new endeavors, Walt said, “I don’t believe there is a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities.” “We’re convinced we must start with the public need. And the need is not just for curing the old ills of old cities. We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land and building a special kind of new community.”
After a detailed analysis of the eastern United States, Walt personally chose Central Florida for the site of his “Disney World” project. Florida already had a healthy tourist population, mild weather that allowed year ‘round operation, and large areas of affordable undeveloped land. The Disney organization secretly purchased more that 27,000 acres, providing Walt with more than enough land to “hold all of the ideas and plans he could possibly imagine.” Disney World would have a theme park similar to Disneyland in California; in addition to hotels, motels, and a variety of recreational activities, but that was only one part of the massive project. The master plan included an airport of the future, an entrance complex where all visitors would enter Disney World, an industrial park area covering about 1000 acres, and a high-speed rapid transit system consisting of monorails and PeopleMovers.Walt enthusiastically stated that, “The most exciting, by far the most important part of our Florida project—in fact, the heart of everything well be doing in Disney World—will be our experimental prototype city of tomorrow. We call it EPCOT, spelled E-P-C-O-T: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.” Retired International Ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering Marty Sklar remembered “With Walt Disney World, you know Walt didn’t spend any time [working] on the park, in fact, his whole focus was on EPCOT, as an experimental prototype community of tomorrow.” Former Disney CEO Card Walker recalled that “…Walt was working on that project 24 hours a day, and he often had lunch with Marvin (Davis) or Marty (Sklar) or Herb (Ryman), and it just kept coming out as these ideas developed and matured and changed…It was just an evolving thing.”
Walt continued to plan Disney World even as he lay dying in his hospital bed. “On the day before he died,” Walt’s older brother Roy O. Disney said, “Walt lay on the hospital bed staring at the ceiling. It was squares of perforated acoustical tile, and Walt pictured them as a grid map for Disney World. Every four tiles represented a square mile, and he said, ‘Now there is where the highway will run. There is the route for the monorail.’ He drove himself right up to the end.”
The untimely death of Walt Disney in December of 1966 might have also been the end of the Florida Project. Former Chairman of Walt Disney Attractions Dick Nunis remembered, “Roy dedicated the last few years of his life to bringing his brother’s dream into reality. And I think he deserves a lot of credit for that, because without Roy I don’t think anybody in the Company would have made the decision to go forward with Walt Disney’s dream.”
Roy only made one change to the Disney World project. He insisted it be renamed Walt Disney World so that people would never forget the man at the heart of the project’s bold vision and daring dream.
"Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney…and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney's dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place…a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn—together." —Roy O. Disney
Joseph Titizian is an inaugural member of The Walt Disney Family Museum volunteer team. He is a regular contributor to this blog, and has developed continued education courses for the volunteer team. A lifelong Disney fan, Joseph has previously worked at Disneyland Park and Pixar Animation Studios