Project X: How Walt Disney tried to create a futuristic city in Florida

You might know Walt Disney as the creator of Mickey Mouse, carefree cartoons, and an avuncular purveyor of childhood fantasy and whimsy.

And, well, he was that.

But Walt Disney was restlessly creative, and conquering the worlds of animation, film, and theme parks just wasn’t enough for him.

You see, in the 1960s, Walt Disney had a vision: a city, a sci-fi utopia that could solve the myriad problems of twentieth century living. He would oversee it, personally design it himself, with help from the brightest minds in architecture and urban planning.

He called it the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and the project was destined for failure.

You’ve never heard of it? Well, actually, you might’ve visited it, vacationed there, just not as the animation legend himself intended…

The Vacation Kingdom of the World

Credit: Disney

In 1982, to much fanfare, a brand new theme park opened at Walt Disney World in Florida. It was the second theme park to debut at the sprawling American resort, a vacation destination between Orlando and Kissimmee that spanned 27,000 acres – at this point including two hotels, golf courses, a camping ground, and the crown jewel; the Magic Kingdom theme park, a lavish, state-of-the-art entertainment complex that was in essence a souped-up and improved version of Disneyland in California, which swung open its gates way back in 1955.

On this day, however, it was another park that was in the spotlight – a massive new construction that was more than twice the size of the Magic Kingdom and unlike anything Disney had built before. They described it as the realisation of Walt Disney’s “last and greatest dream”, a permanent World’s Fair called EPCOT Center.

“A vast new showplace for the innovations of tomorrow and the nations of today,” a promotional film from 1981 proclaimed. “This unique community of ideas will encompass two major themes. First, Future World, posing the challenges and previewing choices for the community of tomorrow. And second, the World Showcase, a community of nations, focussing on the cultures, traditions, tourism, and accomplishments of people around the world.”

This wasn’t, however, what Walt Disney had envisaged.

The legendary studio head, who had been a heavy smoker all his life, had died of lung cancer in 1966, in the hospital just across the street from the Disney studio in California. He had been dreaming up something quite extraordinary, even mapping it out on the ceiling of his hospital room as he lay in bed. Theme parks were no longer important to him. He was thinking bigger, much bigger, and over the past few years had secretly dispatched trusted associates to Florida to snap up parcels of swampland to make it a reality.

But Walt was dead now, and the company had new leaders. How could they possibly follow through with such an ambitious project? Walt’s plans for Florida were scaled back and opened as Disney World, a so-called “Vacation Kingdom” that began with the Magic Kingdom in 1971. This was much closer to what the public would’ve expected from Disney at the time, and certainly much easier to sell. And now they were opening EPCOT Center, another theme park that promised the characteristic Disney charm and attention to detail – but crucially was just another theme park, albeit one that explored technology and world cultures over fantasy and fairy tales.

So, what exactly had Walt Disney been planning all those years ago?