From EPCOT to Celebration :: A Disney’s Story

Last week I was helping my girlfriend research a paper she was writing for here American Urbanism course at Columbia. I ended up writing a brief cultural history of how I view the transition from EPCOT to Celebration. Although none of this was included in her paper it helped me wrap my mind around the social implications behind many of the urban design issues Claudia was actually analyzing. For a little background, she had already written a research paper on EPCOT itself (not Epcot Center the theme park) and everything was being contextualized through the lens of Jean Baudullard‘s “Simulacra and Simulation“, this was a continuation of that line of thought but was to focus on Clebration, but in order for me to be of any help I had to connect the two and work out how such a stark and different community became to be from such a wildly futuristic idea as EPCOT was. So I just wanted to post my ideas here so I could look back on them in the future and thought some of you would enjoy it as well…


In the late 1960’s Walt Disney dreamed up an inspiring concept for the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Although the dream of creating this utopia died along with the man who envisioned it, a phoenix arose from the ashes some 30 years later in the form of the new town of Celebration, FL. But this new development is a far cry from the domed and automated, traffic segregated, high tech industry driven city originally conceived. Where did the disassociation arise and how could two seemingly disparate realities have informed each other and become one in the same?

The fact is some similarities remain in the two seemingly opposite ideas. Indeed both the EPCOT plans and the Celebration development would accommodate 20,000 people when built out completely, both would have the highest quality schools which would act as a national model for teaching and both would grant it’s residents with access to state of the art technology. In fact, while marketing Celebration, old video of Walt selling his plan to the Florida legislature resurfaced in a selectively edited format championing the new development as if it was the one he originally dreamed up.  (Celebration U.S.A. )

In fact they both share the ideal of looking forward and simulating some imagined future. In the late 1960’s the future was sure to include domed cities with high speed monorail connecting high rise towers decked out in the latest Jetsonesque gadgetry. All this connected to a primary living and industrial areas neatly separated by parks and open spaces in between.  After all space was the next big frontier and the beginning of a globalized Earth was expanding horizons in every direction with American institutions like NASA and multinational corporations like Disney at the heart of it all.

The future city at the time of EPCOT’s inception is a vastly different place than it was at the time of Celebration’s implementation. EPCOT was planned as a continuously updated community, never to be finished due to constant improvements on the building materials, tech and industry side. Likewise it could be said that Celebration will never be complete but instead due to constant tweaks and changes to the hard infrastructure, it is social and cultural infrastructures that will evolve and change over time. The fact is that Celebration aims to be the future of cities not by gazing into the crystal ball and conjuring it but rather by reflecting on yesteryear and contemplating how it could have been better or, romanticizing it and building a future based on an idolization of a perfect past. I time before the dirty, inhuman city when people knew their neighbors and where neighborly. Before the constant onslaught of commercial programming and multinational corporations created a world of nameless faceless humans right outside your doorstep. Recalling and recreating a time when actual people worked at local stores, bagging their neighbors groceries and cutting the hair of the neighborhood kids at the barber shop, but most of all, before the neighborhood was designed for and dominated by the car, when people could walk to the corner store stopping to chat with neighbors on their porch or watch the kids play in the streets. These where all nostalgic yet futuristic ideas in the early 1990’s when Celebration was being planned and unfortunately, due to the persistent modern decentralization and implosion of our towns communities and neighborhoods, (which Baudrillard refers to as the hypermarket). These ideas of true community are still futuristic, subversive and illusive ideas to this day.

Somewhere along the line the dialogue metamorphosed from that of technogadgetry centered future to a seeming quaint conjuring of the past but really the idea remained the same.  Just as Mr. Disney stated himself, “The sketches and plans shown this room [in the original video] where simply a starting point… everything may change time and time again… but the basic philosophy behind Disney World will remain very much what it is now [1966].” (this is a quote from this video, definitely worth a watch if your into this topic! All 3 parts) The video went on to layout, in detail, plans for the entire Florida property focusing sharply on “the very heart of everything”:  EPCOT. But the actual idea was to create a showcase to the world of “American ingenuity”. It has been speculated that Disney never actually had plans to build EPCOT but rather used the plans as a means to win favor in the Florida legislature, which it did, and thus grant Disney absolute control over the land and it’s development. I speculate that the idea was proposed in good faith however the focus may have been fudged. In fact Disney has created, in the interim, an outlet for demonstrating America’s ingenuity and has become, what some would consider, the world’s greatest exporters. The difference lies in the goods sold, instead of exporting gadgets or gizmos Disney pedals in the stuff of dreams, lifestyle and culture. The exportation and explication of American culture is the fundamental basis underpinning the prototypical American city of the imagination. Celebration is that place where the young Mouseketeer at heart who remembers “The Magical World of Disney” as their own cultural heritage come home to roost.

The split between the two realities of EPCOT and Celebration come in the form of a generation worth of experience. The Greatest Generation was ready to industrialize, urbanize and embraced modern conveniences such as TV dinners and microwaves they were ready for EPCOT. In the mean time the Babyboomers where being shaped and informed by Disney and spoon fed their parents idealized pasts, some even came to reject the globalized marketplace their parents so quickly greeted into their homes, they now want to enjoy community by setting a stage for living a significant life such as living close to work,  walking to their local destinations stopping to chat with their porch sitting neighbors, slow down and experience the act of cooking and eating (and sometimes even growing food)the food they eat and serve with their friends, family and neighbors. This is the new demographic with new ideas for the future, these are the people of today.


Original EPCOT city center  :: image credit – Widen Your World


Town of Celebration, FL – Community Center :: image credit – puddle of red


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