December 27, 2019

Walt Disney, A Florida Swamp & An “Experimental” Community


Andy Yan, our  very own Duke of Data and Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University shared his discovery of this dated gem from 1966. Filmed just two months before Walt Disney’s death, the YouTube video below describes Mr. Disney’s next big project.

Walt Disney of Disneyland fame had read a few of the old classic books on planning and had decided to make EPCOT~the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow~ as a way to get industry working on innovation technology that would support the people living in the experimental community. You will see Mr. Disney holding up plans that look more like amoeba swimming around, with a bit of Buck Rogers streamlined arty design.

Of course you just can’t go and repurpose a town to create an experimental community, so Disney bought 47 square miles of swamp in the middle of Florida, got permission to create his own municipality, and made plans for 20,000 residents to live there. Just like Apple’s headquarters everything was circular with plans showing businesses in the centre of the proposed town and residences on the suburban perimeter.

The video below is cringe worthy for several reasons,  with the drawings looking strangely similar to  Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities and the Radburn Plan. Walt Disney was basically building a new town where he planned that workers and industry would live in harmony and commute by monorail and “PeopleMovers”.

With Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the more conservative Disney board morphed EPCOT into a series of international pavilions and steered away from the creation of a new community.

Indeed, Disney could not get financing for his new scheme unless he agreed to build an attraction like California’s Disneyland to assure investors there would be a source of income.

Forty-five year later we realize the ecological damage that was done by draining the Florida wetlands and the impact that has had on wildlife and Florida’s water table. Disney’s ideas seem outdated and quaint. But it is curious to think that someone that developed theme parks felt emboldened enough by that experience to think that could translate into the creation of a “model’ city.

As Walt Disney statedHere in Florida, we have something special that we never enjoyed at Disneyland . . . the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.”

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  1. What’s better? A mosquito, alligator and snake infested swamp or an attraction for millions with billions in annual spending employing tens of thousands?

    His vision was extraordinary. Plenty of wetland remains in Florida.

    Btw: how does the ideal city look like if one could create one from scratch? Like Brasilia? Like Washington, DC? Like Canberra ? Like Vancouver? All artificial cities created in the middle of nowhere.

    1. Every human development is violence upon nature. That’s not an indictment, just a fact. So I don’t disagree that we normally shouldn’t get too bent out of shape over a development displacing a swamp. Where would any of us be if Vancouver’s founders were reluctant to cut down trees?

      But Florida is a fetid, 3rd world heap. If the US government had a lick of sense it would sell the place back to Spain before it sinks. In this case, losing the swamp was a far worse outcome than gaining a theme park.

      Editor’s Note:

      1. No, no, you are very, very wrong about the ethnography of human settlement around what the original inhabitants call the Salish Sea. Ten-thousand years of occupation did not produce a single act of violence upon nature, did not deplete natural food stocks or lead to species extinctions, did not produce clear cut logging, or mining, did not produce pollution of any kind in the air, water or soil.
        The violence visited upon nature and local native cultures was brought about by the arrival of European settlers with a mentality disassociated from the natural world: exploitive, extractive, ignorant and profoundly self indulgent.

        1. It’s a matter of degrees, Jolson, but point noted and amended. First Nations peoples aren’t magical sprites. They’re human beings who have used what they needed. The extinct megafauna of North America would dispute this ‘zero impact’ interpretation of First Nation settlement, but yes, it is primarily non First Nations settlement patterns that have done the most indifferent harm.

  2. Aside from the serious Florida environmental issues, what a terrible idea from the 60’s; separate pedestrian areas in the city with no vehicles, separation of truck delivery access, separate vehicle roadways, pedestrian access 24 hours a day to a transit service that serves All districts of the city (vs the expensive limited obsolete SkyTrain technology) as well as a multitude of green areas with paths for handicap, cyclists and pedestrians and play and sports fields. Geesh, what were they thinking…sigh.

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