Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Blurring Fantasy and Reality: Disney's EPCOT Dream and Tomorrowland

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Blurring Fantasy and Reality: Disney's EPCOT Dream and Tomorrowland

Article excerpt

Walt Disney first described his dream of a living community to the public in his EPCOT promotional film recorded on October 27, 1966. It was then that he portrayed it as a showcase to the world of the "ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise," but that vision was significantly scaled back when Epcot Center opened in 1982, sixteen years after his death. In that first unveiling, it was clear that his intention was for the community to "always be in a state of becoming...never ceas[ing] to be a living blueprint of the future." We see a glimpse of what this community might have looked like in Brad Bird's film Tomorrowland (2015). The film reflects elements of fantasy that are representative of the blurred distinction between Disney's aim to entertain and the initial mission of EPCOT which centered on the promotion of technology and global communication. By connecting Disney’s utopian dreams for EPCOT and its evolution into reality back to the film Tomorrowland, we explore these frictions within the representations of these futuristic cityscapes.1

In an article for The Guardian, Steve Rose contends that Tomorrowland’s futuristic city actually takes us back to the "techno-futurism" of the 1960s, depicting a "pristine, shopping-mall sort of place with soaring glass spires and flying trains and happy people of all nations." While Rose suggests that the film "retrofits a backstory" onto the Tomorrowland area of the Magic Kingdom theme park, the city presented on screen really has stronger ties to the original plans for the community of EPCOT. Rose's description of Disney's theme park as a "place of paradox and contradiction" is useful though. Disney creative executive, Marty Sklar, has said, "Walt Disney had one foot in the past, because he loved nostalgia, and one foot in the future, because he loved new technology" (qtd. in Patches). As Rose suggests, Disney World is presented as "eagerly forward-looking yet stiflingly conservative," and it is "neither pure fantasy nor is it quite reality." These tensions are at the heart of our analysis of the film and its connections to EPCOT. We see the dissonance between these concepts when comparing Walt Disney’s vision for EPCOT and the Disney business model that emphasizes corporate logos and sponsorships, in addition to the frequent invasion of fantasy and magic in areas that are supposed to be focused on the development of innovative technology and global communication. Rose asserts that those strains between fantasy and reality were apparent from the beginning, embodied in what he refers to as the hybrid term, "imagineers," which was Walt Disney's name for his creative team.

Before his death, Walt's vision for his "Florida Project" (sometimes referred to as "Project X") was less about replicating the success of his California theme park in the Sunshine State and more focused on his concept for a city. The model of "Progress City" that was later displayed in the Carousel of Progress attraction at Disneyland depicts his conception, which as Brent Lang notes in his Variety article on the film Tomorrowland, was "surprisingly in step with current ideas of urban planning." That link is not surprising though when we consider the resources and ideas that Walt was familiar with and drawing upon during his planning phase. Most notably, he was influenced by urban-planner Ebenezer Howard and architect-planner Victor Gruen, and their books Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902) and The Heart of Our Cities (1964) were commonly seen on his desk. (Garden Cities of To-Morrow was originally published as To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898, reprinted with the revised title in 1902, and then republished in 1945.) Disney's approach toward city building is described by Sam Gennawey in Walt and the Promise of Progress City as "less revolutionary and more evolutionary [because] he learned from the best, reconfigured their ideas and qualities, and created something that was not only substantially better than what came before, but that would also continue to improve over time" (271). …

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