EPCOT

It wasn’t supposed to be a theme park. What Walt Disney had in mind when he bought 27,400 acres of land in central Florida in the mid-1960s was a city. He wanted to build an “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.” A real-world lab for experimenting with city forms and processes. You can see him pitch the idea to potential partners and Florida legislators in this film:

Pretty crazy, right? Walt Disney was a visionary. He achieved many things during his life that seemed nuts to the people around him. I don’t know if EPCOT would’ve succeeded as a city, but I’m sure that something like what we see in that film would’ve been built if he’d only lived a little longer. Alas, he died a few weeks after it was shot.

Walt’s team was left with the challenge of building an EPCOT without him. No one had never made one of these before, and now the man with the vision was gone. The state of Florida had granted Disney regulatory and fiscal exceptions on the premise that it’d build something more than a theme park and some hotels on the property. The state expected an EPCOT, so after a few false starts (and the energy crisis of the 1970s) something called “EPCOT Center” opened in Disney’s Florida property in 1982.

I didn’t know this backstory when I first visited EPCOT Center. I thought EPCOT was an interesting — if mildly boring — theme park that looked like a World’s Fair. When I learned about Walt’s original plan for EPCOT, it made me sad. A permanent World’s Fair was OK, but Walt’s original idea was fascinating: A city run by a major U.S. corporation could be a laboratory for all sorts of useful explorations. We wouldn’t want to mess around with certain systems or processes in a “real” city; some would be deemed too controversial or politically impractical. But in a “toy” city controlled by a single entity,​ you could do all sorts of interesting things.

For a long time, the missed opportunity of EPCOT was on my mind every time I’d visit Walt Disney World. However, I was there a couple of weeks ago, and another thought came to mind: perhaps Walt’s dream is coming true after all. While I didn’t visit the theme parks this time around, I did go to Disney Springs, a highly themed shopping district. There were a lot of people there. While many shopping malls are closing around the country, victims of the rise of e-commerce, this place was thriving. Why?

For many in our society, shopping is a form of entertainment. In Disney Springs we experience an environment that is explicitly designed to foster both (much as the theme parks are.) Visitors to Walt Disney World aren’t operating within their everyday mindset; most are there on vacation. They come prepared to be catered to and entertained; to suspend their disbelief; to open their wallets – hundreds of thousands of them every day. (Walt Disney World is the most popular vacation spot on the planet.)

So even though the Disney company didn’t build Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, it did end up managing an environment that faces many of the same challenges as a small city. Transportation, safety, logistics, sustainability, energy efficiency, and climate change are all issues that WDW must deal with. As a private entity accountable only to the market (and the law), Disney can move faster​ than democratically elected city governments in responding to these issues. (Especially so in our time of political polarization and gridlock.) This combination of factors — control of an urban-sized environment, large volumes of people willing to suspend their disbelief (and their usual spending constraints), plus the deep pockets of the world’s largest entertainment company — make Walt Disney World the perfect laboratory to experiment with complex new systems at scale.

The original elements of the WDW plan were very forward-thinking: It featured (among others) new construction techniques for the resort hotels, innovative water recycling and waste management systems, and a monorail transportation​ system. The experimentation is ongoing. A few years ago, Disney deployed a new system for guest identification called MagicBands: RFID-enabled wristbands that identify individual visitors as they move around the WDW property. The ability to track individual users throughout the environment allows Disney to customize their experience and to predict population needs better, affecting staffing, logistics, transportation, etc. (Can you imagine a city doing such a thing?)

Another example is currently being built: the Skyliner, a new transportation system consisting of gondolas that stretch over various resorts in the WDW property. The Skyliner is the company’s most recent transportation experiment: along with those photogenic monorails, the WDW property also features ferries, buses, and — more recently — a fleet of ride-hailing vehicles known as Minnie Vans. (I expect that WDW will feature among the first functional self-driving car fleets in the world, since conditions in the property are so closely controlled.)

Transit patterns in WDW must be similar to those found in cities, with folks moving from resort hotels to theme parks at peak hours in much the same way they move from home to work and back. I can’t imagine it’d be easy for a city to build an entirely new transportation system “from scratch.” In many cases, political and economic pressures would make such a project a decade-long undertaking (at least.) Disney filed construction plans for the SkyLiner in early 2017 and has already started testing passenger gondolas. The system is expected to open later this year. That is astonishingly fast.

Sure, Walt Disney World is much simpler than a real city. For one thing, Disney doesn’t have to deal with property rights when deploying a transportation system like the SkyLiner. But that’s in part what makes this place so perfect for testing complex systems: it leaves out of the equation many of the non-technical factors that make deploying them so difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.

That’s just transportation. But this combination of factors is also in play for safety (e.g., especially against terrorism and violence), environmental sustainability, responding to the effects of climate change, and so much more. These are all challenges that require that cities and towns try new approaches fast. Current political structures aren’t set up for fast experimentation at scale — but Walt Disney World is. So in that sense, Walt’s vision for Florida is coming true after all.

The question is: Will Disney share what it learns from the operation of its Florida property? As a private entity, I understand the company not wanting to share this information with other commercial entities. But I wonder if there’d be a way for city officials and planners to study WDW as a model. Disney has run educational programs in the past aimed at teaching its customer service skills more broadly. Would it be possible for the company to do something similar with its Florida urban experiments?