Thursday, March 23, 2006
What could have been?
EPCOT Center, which is now Epcot, is a special place. Even with the shortcomings it has developed in the past 10 years, there's no doubt it's unique in the world. And yet ...
What could Epcot have been?
More importantly, what could it have meant to every single person on the planet had The Walt Disney Company not chickened out in the mid-1990s and stripped it of its ambitions to fuel thinking and ideas, and to present new technologies that could change our lives?
Remember that Walt Disney died in 1966, just two months after creating an extraordinary film (available on the Walt Disney Treasures Tomorrowland DVD) that detailed plans for Walt Disney World. EPCOT, he said -- referring to it as an acronym, not simply a theme park -- would tackle the challenges faced by then-modern urban planning. It would create an experimental city, then experiment with it. New modes of transportation, of communication, of urban design, would be utilized.
Most thrilling was the realization that the "rides" he had been installing at Disneyland turned out to be much more than that. The PeopleMover was a 5/8" scale replica of a working system that would be installed at EPCOT. The Monorail was going to be the primary mode of transporation. EPCOT would not only be an experimental living community, it would seek to develop and encourage the creation of new technologies to combat society's ills. Communication, climatization, education, socialization ... all of these things would be explored, dissected and improved at EPCOT.
Had Walt Disney lived just two more years, I am convinced our world today would be quite different. He would have not rested until EPCOT the city had broken ground. He would have encouraged WED Enterprises (now Imagineering) to focus not on rides but on proving concepts like a working version of the PeopleMover -- which ultimately did get put into service in Houston's airport -- and the Monorail. He would have forced the state governments in California and Florida, as well as President Johnson, to take his ideas seriously. He would have moved his company from being just an entertainment company into being a company that experimented with and explored a multitude of new ideas. Had he lived to see EPCOT actually completed, who knows?
The thing is, when EPCOT Center opened in 1982, it contained some amazing things. Fiber optics connected computers. Touch-screen computers were found in kiosks throughout the park. Live video-conferences helped guests make reservations. The Land and the Living Seas pavilions were genuine work environments for scientists thinking about future needs of our world.
If you're young enough, you consider touch-screen computers and fiber optics are mundane. But at the time, EPCOT Center was the first and only place you could find these innovations in every day use. They blew peoples' minds.
By the mid-1990s, they had been dismantled.
The Land and the Living Seas still had labs, but they seemed more for show than anything. The idea of pushing new technologies -- useful ones, not talking plush dolls -- out to guests to show them what their lives might be like in 20 years fell by the wayside.
EPCOT Center became just Epcot, the thrill-ride-based theme park. And we've all been the poorer for that lack of inspiration, of imagination, of excitement about an optimistic future of opportunity rather than a mundane future of virtual reality.