9. Walt Disney’s Optimistic Futurism
“I say believe in the future, the world is getting better; there are lots of possibilities.” — Walt Disney
Many visions of the future — from 1984 to Silent Spring to Blade Runner to After Earth – lead us to believe a bleak, gray-skied world awaits. The prevailing theme of dystopian futurists is that we and the generations to follow are going to destroy our society or our planet because of our greed. Most futurists view the world through a cynical, grim prism, and optimistic futurists come few and far between. One of them left his mark on the world in a most indelible way — Walt Disney.
When many people think of Disney they feel nostalgia, fantasy, and escapism, but in reality, Walt possessed a strong vision for making the future better than the present. He believed that technology and free enterprise held the key to a positive future.
Walt’s futuristic dreams began to manifest themselves in the science-fiction-crazy 1950s. On the Disneyland television series, he devoted entire episodes to the conquest of space, landing on the moon, going beyond the moon, and using satellites to improve life on Earth. He and director Ward Kimball worked with leading scientific lights such as Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley to create diagrams and dramatizations of potential space travel that even predate NASA — and what ended up on the screen resembled actual space travel in surprising ways!
When Walt opened Disneyland in 1955, the Tomorrowland area of the park took place in 1986! For Disney and the Imagineers, the future was wide open and buzzed with a kinetic energy. New and innovative transportation systems made their debut there. The Disneyland Monorail was unlike anything guests had seen. The WEDWay People Mover, which we now call the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, employed linear induction technology to move guests around quietly and using only electricity. Both transportation systems leave a unique impression on guests even today.
When the organizers of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair approached Disney about developing exhibits, Walt saw the fair as an opportunity to show how thrilling the future could be. One exhibit in particular, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, took a look at the technological innovations of the past and dared to glance at what technology can do for the future. Richard and Robert Sherman provided the soundtrack for the attraction with their giddily optimistic tune “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” The attraction moved to Walt Disney World in the 1970s and underwent a few changes. The Carousel of Progress still spins today at the Magic Kingdom.
As the sprawl of metropolitan Los Angeles closed in on Disneyland’s landlocked space, Walt sought to take his grand futuristic visions to the next level. He wanted to solve the problem of tacky urban blight, and he sought “the blessing of size” to allow those dreams to become a reality. The company stealthily bought up 33 square miles of land in central Florida for his most ambitious idea yet, and it encompassed more than just a theme park:
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.
But where do we begin? How do we start answering this great challenge? Well, 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.
Of course, the Florida Project would include a theme park, modeled after Disneyland but having its own distinct character and flavor. But the jewel in the crown of the Florida Project was a model city Walt called EPCOT — Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. This community would include a climate-controlled, vibrant downtown area under a glass dome and a pedestrian friendly suburban space with monorails and People Movers to shuttle residents back and forth throughout the city and to the theme park. Disney would invite the best and brightest of American industry to build plants there and test their products among residents.
In October 1966, Walt himself outlined the concept in his last appearance on film, The Epcot Film: