Thursday, October 22, 2020

Progress City, USSR

When EPCOT Center opened in 1982, the Disney company worked hard to make it look like their new theme park was exactly the thing dreamed up by Walt in the 1960s. The definitive EPCOT Center bible, Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, even opened with this picture of Walt Disney taken from the EPCOT infomercial he filmed shortly before his death in 1966, accompanied by a quote from that film:

"It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise."

The book never came out and said that thing on the wall behind Walt was an early EPCOT Center concept, or that the "community of tomorrrow" he mentioned was the theme park that Disney opened sixteen years after he died, but it implied the heck out of it.

Of course, as the first generation of EPCOT Center geeks grew up and did more reading, we learned all about Walt Disney's actual plan for the Florida property: to build a prototype "city of tomorrow" that would simultaneously function as a tourist attraction and an innovation hub for American industry. The Defunctland YouTube channel recently posted an excellent video that delved into Walt's original concept and ponders whether it would have actually been workable. You should definitely check it out.

The thing that fascinates me most about Walt's E.P.C.O.T. is the inherent hypocrisy of it. The past didn't happen in a vacuum, and Walt Disney wasn't just a wholesome purveyor of family entertainment. The mid-1960s were the height of the Cold War, and Walt was fervently anti-communist. He even testified before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee about his belief that a strike by employees at his studio for higher pay was actually a nefarious Communist plot to take over his business. Seven years before Disney filmed his E.P.C.O.T. pitch, then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had their famous "kitchen debate" where each argued that their country's political/economic system produced the best standard of living.

My point is that Walt Disney didn't just want to build his prototype community to show what a pedestrian-friendly city could look like. E.P.C.O.T. was supposed to be a living repudiation of communism, a gleaming showcase of the American system's superiority. A key tenet of Soviet-style communism was that individual citizens weren't allowed to own property or vote and all decisions were made by unelected Communist Party bureaucrats in bad suits. So naturally, a city built by anti-communist Cold Warrior Walt Disney would be totally different. In his E.P.C.O.T., residents would not be allowed to own property or vote, and all decisions would be made by unelected corporate bureaucrats in better suits. Wait, did I typo just now? No. Amazingly, Walt wanted to demonstrate the superiority of the American system by running his city like a Soviet state! And he never seemed to realize that was what he was doing!

During my childhood in the 1980s, adults would frequently lecture my elementary-school classmates and I on the evils of Soviet Russia. (My 6th grade math teacher was doing it as late as 1990 while the Soviet Union was collapsing. I don't think she watched the news.) The political and economic differences between the Soviet and American systems were a bit over our heads, so what the adults always told us was that in America we had "freedom" and little Russian children did not. This seemed a little hard to grasp at the time because the one thing you do not have as an elementary-school-aged child is freedom. Your existence is basically one long series of adults telling you what to do and yelling at you for doing the wrong thing. But during the Cold War "freedom" was a big selling point for the American system over the Soviet one, which is why it's equal parts disturbing and hilarious that Walt Disney expended so much effort trying to figure out how to legally deprive prospective E.P.C.O.T. residents of it.

The way Walt saw it, the only way to make E.P.C.O.T. the best all-American community of tomorrow it could be was for him to have near-total control over the residents' lives. This would be a place where agents of the city government would have the ability to unlock your doors and come into your house whenever they wanted, only instead of searching for incriminating "evidence" against you they'd swap out your appliances and furniture with new up-to-date ones. It's like if the Stasi were appliance installers. The kind of people Walt imagined as residents of his utopian city were endlessly cheerful and perfectly obedient, with no personal preferences, opinions, or need for privacy. In other words, the ideal denizens of Walt Disney's E.P.C.O.T. were the family from the Carousel of Progress. You know, Audio-Animatronics.

The only workable version of Walt's city was a tourist attraction populated by Animatronics, which is not that far from what the Disney company ended up building. I wonder if Walt would have come to that same conclusion, if he had lived. Would Walt have become like David Nix in the 2015 movie Tomorrowland, unwilling to actually let people actually live in Progress City because it would only mess everything up? 

If his city had finally been built it would have been completed in the mid-70s, smack dab in the middle of the Watergate years. Assuming the city had residents, and Walt was able to achieve the level of control he wanted, how would his authoritarian tendencies have played in that era? Would his carefully-crafted "Uncle Walt" persona have survived a more cynical climate? It's a fascinating AU fiction idea for somebody to write.

In the end, the ideal form for Walt Disney's Progress City is probably the model that briefly lived on the second floor of Disneyland's Carousel theater before it was chopped in half and sent to Florida. A lot of Disney fans accept "if you can dream it, you can do it" as a truism, but "if you can dream it and a lot of other people are willing to go along with you, then you can do it" is probably more accurate.

1 comment:

  1. Good thoughts.

    I prefer the Grandfather's first quote including that phrase; "The only difference is that today, with what we know and what we're learning to do, we really can bring our dreams to life. It takes a lot of work, but the truth is, if we can dream it, we can do it." Chopping that quote into the sound bite shown on the entry wall of the Horizons foyer is akin to what folks do to the quote in your caption, "[EPCOT] will never be completed..." What the full quote implies is PROGRESS in all its technological, industrial, imaginative and money-making glory. American free enterprise is at the heart of EPCOT, with the community supporting that goal (like it or leave).

    I think Elon Musk is building companies that embody the spirit of EPCOT. Forward-thinking and visionary with an interest in saving the planet (the human race!) AND making a bundle of money, for the benefit of all. Anyone building a company or community that creates a "win-win" scenario where people benefit and the company profits and the world is a better place at the end of each day, embodies the spirit of EPCOT. Visionaries like Disney or Musk are often criticized for their demanding ways or social quirks. Truth is, most folks are happy to be ignorant and under-educated, which is why the bold and innovative Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow became the boozy IP-inundated Every Person Comes Out Trashed. Even if Walt had lived and his vision tempered so that the park was built similar to what we got in '82, its decline would have likely been forestalled by Walt's singular ability to bring his dreams to life. The founding vision expressed by Walker to educate, inspire and entertain would have remained the guiding principles.


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