Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Heart of the Matter


EPCOT Center's original name (that is, EPCOT Center) didn't come about by accident. Once Imagineers realized that building a "permanent World's Fair" instead of a Community of Tomorrow was, truthfully, not exactly what Walt envisioned, they had to find a name for this new place.

Still, they reasoned, and perhaps rightly so, the concept of the city version of EPCOT wasn't really dead. No, there would be no residential area, no radial design, no "city center." Then again, there's enough evidence to believe that even Walt would have recognized that, for once, his ambition truly did outdo his capabilities with the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Looking at his plans now, as marvelous as they were, it's clear that Walt's vision of a city could never have lasted more than 10 or 15 years as a real place; urban planning and the needs of human beings just changed too rapidly.

So, no, EPCOT wouldn't be a city in the strictest sense. But a closer look at two of those words, "Experimental" and "Community," brought to light one amazing fact:

EPCOT existed already.

The Walt Disney World Resort itself was as complex as any city -- and any expansion would just make it infinitely more so. Workers and resort guests were on the grounds 24 hours a day, effectively turning them into residents. And they had needs, the same needs of any urban center: traffic control, shopping districts, water management, utility supplies, even mass transportation. If there were no houses, no "commercial district," that didn't make Walt Disney World any less of a "city" than Milwaukee or Portland. There was even a quasi-governmental agency overseeing the development and growth of Walt Disney World, so, perhaps inadvertantly, Disney had indeed created EPCOT right under its very own nose.

And the heart of EPCOT was this amazing Center -- a theme park, yes, but more than that. A grand experiment in itself, one that took two seemingly disparate themes (technology and culture) and blended them, showcasing our common human desires of progress, harmony and a better world.

EPCOT was at the very center, literally and thematically, of this grand world that Walt Disney had designed. If ever a name seemed appropriate, it was "Walt Disney's EPCOT Center."

As it was the first major expansion of Walt Disney World (or, in a broader sense, the "EPCOT Project"), it would need to be connected to the existing infrastructure. What better way to showcase the ingenuity of Disney, to visually and physically link the lighthearted storybook world of The Magic Kingdom with the sleek and unusual world of EPCOT Center than a massive extension of the Monorail system?

After all, Disney had been perhaps the world's biggest proponent of the Monorail, teaming with Swedish transportation firm Alweg to develop and perfect the system. At Walt Disney World, Disney management could continue Walt's dream of proving that a Monorail system was practical and effective by, well, making it truly practical and effective, linking two parks that were miles apart. Walt had wanted to use his parks and Walt Disney World as a showcase for technology that could take root there and grow to impact the lives of everyone.

Over the years, as Walt Disney World grew, so did its transportation sytem. By 1996, a Rand Institute study pointed out that WDW pointed out that under WDW's own Clean Air Act Amendments, its vehicle fleets were often required to purchase and operate reduced-emission vehicles. They augmented the Monorails to provide clean, efficient mass transportation that kept roadways less congested than expected given the number of visitors, and certainly promoted the notion that Disney was on the leading edge of some major issues related to our everyday lives. Disney, it seemed, was still living out the goals, ideals and concepts of EPCOT Center.

And then, something changed. When Disney's Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, the Monorail wasn't extended. Now, to visit this environmentally aware (and, in many ways, environmentally themed) park, visitors had to either park in a massive parking lot, each group driving its own car; or they had to take the WDW bus system, which had become increasingly complex and inefficient.

Today, getting stuck behind a WDW bus is a horrendous experience. The vehicles are far from "clean air" transportation, belching foul-smelling black smoke into the air and proving so inefficient that more and more guests (anecdotally -- I have no empirical evidence) seem to be opting to rent private cars.

The Monorail still shuttles between The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT ... but that's all. Within a theme park designed to showcase our better future, this completely clean, environmentally friendly and wonderfully effective mass-transportation system just stops.

Disney management has said in the past that the Monorail is just too expensive to extend. I've seen it reported that the beams alone cost upwards of $1 million a mile, and over the years that figure has undoubtedly grown. The likely cost of building out the Monorail would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Of course, that's far less money than is going into the "upgrade" of California Adventure. It's probably a little less than Bob Iger's salary and perks for the past few years. Almost certainly, it's less than a new Chronicles of Narnia or Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

But, just as EPCOT Center used to be the heart of Walt Disney World, that, perhaps, really is the heart of the matter.
Doing what would be right for Walt Disney World, doing what would be innovative but perhaps not cost effective, making a major statement that doesn't realize a financial return, investing in a vision of the future that can inspire and inform its guests -- well, those things just aren't in the management vernacular at The Walt Disney Company anymore.

The Monorail extension stopped at EPCOT Center. And just as the inspiration to continue building on the creative ingenuity of the EPCOT theme park seems to have stopped, so, too, has the desire to truly expand and build on the notion that EPCOT, for a while at least, really did exist, and could have changed the future for all of us.


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P.S. Apologies for re-using a photo that I also utilized recently; I just like the image a lot, and it fit the subject!

6 comments:

GeorgeKirk said...

I, too, wish the Monorail system extended throughout the property, but I understand why Disney chose not to do it. Let's be honest: the last Disney executive who would have spent those millions of dollars on Monorail tracks instead of a new Pirates movie or roller coaster for the 'tweens died in 1966. People like Walt only come along once a generation, at the most.

dean said...

Good point, georgekirk. Even though the EPCOT Center monorail was built over a decade after Walt's death, it's pretty safe to assume that the company was still running on his momentum. It wasn't until Eisner showed up and decided to put his own "stamp" on the company that things started to change for the worse. Unfortunately, people like him come along all to frequently.

I have to admit that the last time I visited WDW we rented a car and drove around the property, even though we were staying at the resort. We did take advantage of the Epcot Monorail, parked at Epcot and took the monorail to the Magic Kinigdom, but I have to admit that changing trains at the Transportation Center took more time than it should have. I agree that Disney should invest the money to extend the clean and efficient Monorail throughout the property, but they also have to look at how it can be configured for speed and efficiency.

Greg said...

I'm all hyped on this topic since, coincidentally, I was just browsing Monorail.org's site.

The cost is probably a great deal more than $1 million per mile -- that was the number I heard quoted in the 80s. And that number was probably low then.

Still, it is only 5 km, as the crow flies (judging by Google Maps), to get between EPCOT Center and Animal Kingdom.

Then its another 7-8 km to join Kingdoms Animal and Magic. So, let's estimate 14 km, at the high end, for the loop. That's less than 9 miles of new track.

Judging by the Monorail.org page, we're talking about $10 to 25 million per mile in today's money. That's a $140 to 350 million project to connect the look. (But "only" $75 million to add a spur from EPCOT Center to Animal Kingdom!)

To me, it would be worth it. Hell, I'd go for just the monorail ride (ever sit in the front?!?).

OF course, that's not including impact reports and other bureaucratic things, but I'd be surprised if Disney hadn't paved the legal way for monorails already. Expansion has probably been grandfathered in in some way.

Anonymous said...

I agree...And obviously there would be some interruption somewhere. Take a year off of making movies...Renovate where needed at the parks to incorporate the new leg of the tracks, use the money saved from not making the movies, and viola! I mean, come on...the crowds alone when the new stem would be complete, would probably make up for most of the "loss" of cash to build the thing. I wouldn't mind having to stop at, say, Animal Kingdom to get to DHS. I would definitely contribute to the experience...

Tracie the Red said...

The township of Celebration, FL was what EPCOT Center was supposed to be, sort of. EPCOT Center was originally supposed to be a place for the cast members to live, but that went out the window. It wound up being a theme park and then eventually Celebration went in, and Celebration was supposed to be affordable housing for cast members.

It is to laugh.

Anonymous said...

I find it very offensive that you don't think EPCOT the city would have lasted 15 years. If it had been built, it would currently be the envy of the world, and copycats would have sprung up around the globe. Our world would be in a much better situation than it is now.

Walt did his best to make sure EPCOT would be built after he died - from building a huge working model to pumping up the public on TV. Then the businessmen decided to use the publicity to slap the name on a theme park instead, and pretend that was Walt's real dream. Most people still believe it too.