To Infinity and Beyond: Disney After Walt’s Death

The Evolution of EPCOT

In December 1966, Walt Disney died of lung cancer at age 65. At the time of his death, the Disney World project had not yet begun construction in Florida. Disney’s brother, Roy Disney, oversaw its construction, renaming the park Walt Disney World in his late brother’s honor. When it finally opened in 1971, much of the park, including the Magic Kingdom (a larger and more elaborate version of Disneyland), reflected Disney’s original plans.

One of Disney’s biggest dreams for the Florida property was never fully realized, however. EPCOT, or the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” was Disney’s answer to what he saw as the growing urban crisis of the 1960s. In initial plans for Disney World, EPCOT was very different than the “EPCOT Center” that would eventually open in 1982. EPCOT was intended to be a fully functional community with 20,000 residents designed to showcase American industry and technology, employ the latest building innovations, and find solutions to urban problems. In Disney’s own words, “EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”

Walt Disney’s last televised appearance, explaining his EPCOT dream in a video produced for Florida legislators in the company’s quest for funding. Notice Disney’s use of the phrase “vital center”…coincidence? We think not!

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In the tumultuous political climate of the mid-1960s, Disney’s vision of an orderly ideal community resonated with the Johnson administration’s desire to fight civil unrest and urban crisis. The Disney company sought funding for EPCOT from the newly established Department of Housing and Urban Development under 1966’s Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act. Disney also worked with the Florida government to create a special district within the state for his large tract of property in an attempt to solve legal issues associated with building a town from the ground up (in the middle of a swamp, no less!). Ultimately, while Disney was ardently committed to EPCOT until his death, the plans were never finalized before he died and were never realized in the absence of Disney’s propulsive determination and drive.

By the mid-1970s, Disney’s successors had moved on from the original EPCOT plans (which were found to be overwhelming and unfeasible without the guidance of Disney himself) to the idea of cultivating the area as “EPCOT Center,” an $800 million dollar “permanent world’s fair” that would include Future World and the multinational World Showcase. EPCOT Center opened in October, 1982.

This is a preview video produced by the Disney company in 1982 to advertise EPCOT Center.

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DISNEY’S INTERNATIONAL EMPIRE

Less than a year after the opening of EPCOT Center, the first international Disney resort opened in Tokyo. Tokyo Disney Resort is owned and operated by the Oriental Land Company, but it is licensed by the Walt Disney Company and Disney still maintains some control over the resort’s operations and Disney Imagineers consult on the construction of new attractions.

Disney’s second international outpost, Disneyland Paris, opened in 1992. Disneyland Paris is operated by Euro Disney, which is partially owned by the Disney company.

Disneyland Paris

Many of its attractions and hotels have distinctly American themes (“Disney’s Sequoia Lodge,” “Disney’s Hotel New York,” and “Disney’s Davy Crockett Ranch,” to name a few), and the Disneyland park mirrors the original Disneyland in California.

In the past decade, Disney has opened the Hong Kong Disney Resort and Shanghai Disney Resort, and plans are in the works to expand the Hong Kong and Paris parks. As Sharon Zukin says in her book Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disneyworld, the success of these international projects is representative of the persistent “cultural capital” of the Disney brand (Zukin, 265).

DISNEY AS CULTURAL ICON

During Disney’s lifetime, the Disney brand and its manifestations on film and in Disneyland were seen as emblematic of a glowing vision of America. As the 1960s ushered in an era of dramatic social upheavals, and as the Disney company attempted to continue without its founder’s guidance, this positive American image was threatened. Disney stock, which had been very successful through the mid-60s, slumped throughout the 70s, as the baby-boomer generation turned away from the fairy tales and utopian fantasies of their secure youth in favor of countercultural activity. In the view of the counterculture, Disney was soundly part of the Establishment. Disney’s resurgence in the early 1980s coincided with the rising tide of neoconservatism in America. Along with opening EPCOT Center and expanding into international markets, Disney also diversified its film offerings to include movies for adult audiences.

Today, both positive and negative portrayals of Disney abound, but undergirding every discussion of Disney in scholarly and popular discourse is a single fact: Disney is a cultural icon. In his book Jesus in Disneyland (the title of which neatly suggests a cultural devotion of religious magnitude), David Lyon explains Disney’s unique cultural status in contemporary America: “Disney’s impact extends far beyond films or parks made by the Disney corporation. By the end of the twentieth century Disney had become a byword for commercial culture, a symbol for animated cartoon lives, a model for tourist activities, and a mode of imagination” (Lyon, 3). While some view the ubiquity of Disney as a menacing specter of old-school American exceptionalism (carrying on the tradition of the coutnerculture’s misgivings about a monolithic Establishment), others view the process of “Disneyization” as a constructive alternative to “McDonaldization” in the business of exporting American culture. While Disney himself is long gone, many argue that his company still maintains a principled, emotionally invested attitude in its varied endeavors (Lyon, 4-7).

Text by Ava Burke.

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Bibliography:

Lyon, David. Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern Times. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Mannheim, Steve. Walt Disney and the Quest for Community. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002.

Zukin, Sharon. Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disneyland. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

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