Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sinkholes and Showtunes

When EPCOT Center opened in 1982 it was, to put it mildly, kind of a big deal. Disney excels at making even regular occurrences look like big events (the opening of the Magic Kingdom every morning, for example) and for EPCOT they pulled out all the stops. There was a huge publicity campaign, including a grand-opening TV special hosted by Danny Kaye. Take a look:

Whoever uploaded this video obviously can’t spell “century”

These days the idea of using a showtune to announce the 21st century’s early arrival seems a mite cheesy. However, this was a time when shows like The Love Boat, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Joanie Loves Chachi sat near the top of the Nielsen ratings. It’s safe to say we were on an all-cheese diet.

However, I find this little musical number interesting primarily for the revisionist history it presents. It’s a clean, very Disney-esque narrative: Walt Disney had a dream called EPCOT, and in 1982 it came true. The truth, of course, is that the EPCOT project went through numerous iterations. Michael Crawford at Progress City USA wrote an excellent couple of articles about the many forms that EPCOT took after Walt Disney’s death in 1966 (check them out here and here). The publicity campaign that surrounded EPCOT Center glossed over all that, though, and pretended that the park that opened in 1982 was exactly the thing that Walt had dreamed up back in 1966. No mention was made of the original plan to build a futuristic city on the EPCOT Center site. Almost thirty years later, I assumed that was still the company line.

Interestingly, though, it appears that Walt’s EPCOT city has found its way back into Disney’s official company history. When I took the Undiscovered Future World tour the guide actually mentioned the EPCOT City, but said that it was scrapped because the land was too swampy to support the complex. That’s not entirely true, of course. It was actually Walt’s death that sealed the fate of his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. However, construction in central Florida has unique challenges. When I lived in Lake City, a shopping center that was less than twenty years old had to be abandoned and demolished because a sinkhole opened up next to it. Sinkholes have swallowed up houses. And plans for the Venetian/Mediterranean Resort, which would have occupied a site between the Transportation and Ticket Center and the Contemporary, had to be scrapped after the land proved to be too swampy to support the structure. So, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the construction of the EPCOT city might have been complicated by sinkholes and swampy conditions. It’s nice to see Disney admitting that their founder’s vision of EPCOT differed from the park that was finally built.

Maybe in another thirty years they’ll acknowledge the real reason why.

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