by Keith Gluck
AllEars.Net Guest Blogger
Ever wonder what Walt Disney World was like way back when? Each month, we rummage around in the archives for this featurette, which indulges in a bit of nostalgia, taking you back in history for a glimpse of Walt Disney World and The Walt Disney Company through the ages. This month, we take a look back at... Walt Disney himself!
Thursday, December 5, 2013, marks the 112th anniversary of the date of Walt Disney's birth. Even though his story has been told time and again, we wanted to take this occasion to share some of his amazing life with you.
When Walt Disney was young, a fortune-teller told him he would pass away in December, but specified he wouldn't make it to the age of 35. Walt was not a superstitious man, however the prediction still affected him deeply, and he lived his entire life racing against the clock in order to accomplish everything he wanted to do. The reality is, Walt could have lived to be 100 and still wouldn't have had enough time to see all of his visions realized. When the clock did eventually catch up with him, 10 days after his 65th birthday, he was working on one heck of a vision.
After the success of Disneyland, Walt was initially opposed to the idea of building a second one. His position on the matter began to change, however, once he realized he had a chance to do more than just build another theme park. In the late '30s, he loved the ability to plan every little detail during the creation of the Burbank studio. Disneyland was also meticulously planned, however Walt was always bothered by the fact that less quality-focused businessmen had surrounded his Magic Kingdom with a "second-rate Las Vegas." Additionally, he was concerned by what he considered to be a decline in the quality of American life. Friend and author Ray Bradbury once remarked, "Walt was troubled by the diminution of the neighborhood." Walt saw cars, shopping malls, and crime on their way in, and the cordial confines of the community on its way out.
The evolution of Walt's ever-curious mind, combined with his propensity for "plussing" and his decades of experience in planning and creating functioning environments, led to what many folks consider to be his greatest dream: the creation of a model city.
Research for Walt's new project began as early as 1958, when he commissioned the firm Economics Research Associates to determine the best location for "Disneyland East". The answer, Florida, was serendipitous, as Walt was already leaning towards the Sunshine State. Among the many advantages was Florida's warm weather, allowing the park to enjoy year-round operation. The lone disadvantage in the report cited the state's modest population of 6.5 million, which was only 1.5 million more than Disneyland's annual Californian visitors. An unfazed Walt stated, "We just gotta get the folks up north to want to come down."
The following year two more surveys were performed: one to locate the ideal location within the state of Florida, and the other to evaluate the possibility of a "City of Tomorrow" accompanying the theme park. The results indicated Palm Beach would be the most favorable location, however Walt was against the notion of not only competing with the beach venue, but also the exposure to the humidity and hurricanes. "I want to be inland, Walt said. "We'll create our own water."
A 1961 survey revealed the best location to be Ocala, and the runner-up, Orlando. Even as Florida was declared the prime location for Walt's latest endeavor, several more sites were considered before anything was made official. By 1963, St. Louis, Niagara Falls, and a site between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. were all considered. It was on the flight home from surveying these cities that Walt made up his mind. Shortly before landing in Burbank, he stated, "Well, that's the place-central Florida."
Walt's futuristic city needed a name, so he took it upon himself to come up with one. While eating lunch with some staff from WED, he commented, "What we're talking about is an experimental prototype community of tomorrow. What does that spell? E-p-c-o-t. EPCOT. That's what we'll call it: EPCOT."
So consumed with EPCOT was Walt that he prepared to entrust a large amount of the studio's endeavors with others. Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller remembered, "He was so excited about EPCOT. Walt always looked for new challenges, and EPCOT was his fresh and new challenge." Walt later told Miller that he planned to hand over complete control of the films to him, along with Bill Anderson, Jim Algar, Bill Walsh, and Winston Hibler. Walt wanted to concentrate solely on EPCOT, and predicted he would need roughly 15 years to see this latest dream through to completion. Even during the planning meetings of Disneyland's East Coast counterpart, he grew tired of discussing the theme park aspect. "You guys know that by now," he said. "I don't want to discuss what we learned in the past; I want to talk about the future."
Looking to the future was a trait Walt possessed his entire life, perhaps never more so than during his final days. While the planning of EPCOT and Disneyland East (which became known as "the Florida project") was in full swing, Walt was rarely without a book about city planning. Two such titles were The Heart of Our Cities by Victor Gruen, and Garden Cities of To-Morrow, by British urban planner Ebenezer Howard. He was obsessed with every detail, both big and small. "I vividly remember sitting next to Walt on a plane, when he pointed to the center of EPCOT, an oval-shaped area," mused Disney Legend Bob Gurr. "Walt said, 'When this EPCOT gets up and running, and we have all the participants there, this spot with a little bench is where Lilly and I are going to sit and watch.' "
Sadly, Walt wouldn't live long enough to see his greatest dream physically take shape, passing away before ground was broken. It consumed him until the end, however. Disney Legend John Hench recalled, "Roy Disney told me about his last visit to Walt in the hospital, when Walt was talking very excitedly about the Florida project, which Walt was envisioning on the ceiling of the hospital room." Had Walt lived just a little bit longer, he would have changed the world (even more than he already had).
Walt Disney was born in the upper bedroom of 1249 Tripp Avenue, Chicago, on December 5, 1901. He was a visionary like few others, and his legacy will continue to bring joy to people's lives for centuries to come. On behalf of everyone here at AllEars.Net, I'd like to say, "Happy birthday, Walt. Thanks for everything."
Inside the Dream: The Personal Story of Walt Disney
by Katherine & Richard Greene
Walt Disney: An American Original
by Bob Thomas http://astore.amazon.com/debsunoffiwaltdi/detail/0786860278
The previous post in this blog was The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream, Part 4.
The next post in this blog is Whatever Happened to the LiMOUSEine?.