'Walt and the Promise of Progress City' - a Theme Park Insider interview with Sam Gennawey

November 17, 2011, 10:07 AM · What if Walt Disney had lived to build Disney World the way he had intended? Could the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow really have worked?

Walt and the Promise of Progress City That's the question Sam Gennawey explores in "Walt and the Promise of Progress City" [$17.77 from Amazon and $9.99 for Kindle]. Disney fans might know Sam from his Samland columns on MiceChat, but he's also an urban planner by trade and training, allowing him a unique insight on Walt's dream of a city of tomorrow.

If you're not familiar with the history of what became the Epcot theme park, Walt's original vision for EPCOT was Progress City - a real, functioning community where people would live, work and play. Cars and monorails would enter the city from underground, where a resort hotel skyscraper would be built over top of a central transportation hub. Immediately surrounding the hotel would be themed entertainment areas with indoor attractions, much like New Orleans Square in Disneyland (which was built as a prototype of an EPCOT block, according to Sam). Beyond that would be a ring of offices and apartment buildings. This central area would be covered by a dome or canopies, providing climate control in Central Florida's harsh summers. An outdoor greenbelt, filled with parks and schools, would surround this walkable core and single-family homes would fill the outer ring around the greenbelt, with PeopleMovers connecting all parts of the city.

Earlier this month, I walked a few blocks to my neighborhood coffeeshop to meet with Sam earlier and talk about his book - and the reality of EPCOT. We'll run part one of the interview today, with part two following next Monday.

Robert: So why a book about EPCOT?

Sam: I'm an urban planner by background, by training. So the environmental design elements of the Disney theme parks have always been fascinating to me.

When I was a small child - I'm as old as the Matterhorn - my Mom used to drive us to Disneyland. This was the day when you could buy a general admission ticket and it was pretty inexpensive. As long as you didn't buy tickets for the rides and you didn't buy food, it was actually a pretty cheap place to go and I think that was Walt's intent. He wanted people to be able to vary their trips from a walk through the park to being engaged in all the immersive experiences. We didn't go on the rides very often, (except for) the free rides. As a kid I got to see Lincoln all the time, because that was free.

One of my favorites was Carousel of Progress. We would go on that every single time and I just loved it. I thought that was the most glorious ride because by the time you got to the final scene you got to see this really rich family living it up with their VCRs and all that kind of stuff. As a little boy in that age range, the whole technology of the ride and the technology they were talking about - it was really quite appealing.

As I kept going to it, I would run upstairs where they had the Progress City model. And I would linger the whole time until they kicked me out for the next group. I don't think people appreciate just how wonderful this model was, because they see that small segment in the TTA in Florida and they don't realize just how big it was, and how animated it was. There was actually furniture inside a lot of the buildings. As a little kid, I kept looking at it and asking "I wonder if they could ever build this? I wonder if this could really happen?"

So as I grew up and moved over into urban planning, I kept asking myself "I wonder if Progress City could actually have worked?" And then, I had the chance to sit down and think, let's just look at it from an urban planning point of view, as if you were doing a feasibility study. You had this concept of EPCOT, and everyone kept saying that this is a fanciful concept, that it's just a dream, that it could never really happen, or it only would have happened it Walt could have pushed the thing through. I was trying to think to myself, "Is that really true?"

We as urban planners are able to dissect a project to determine its feasibility. So I started working backward, gathering all the information that I could that was available in the public realm, and I started pulling the project apart.

Let me stop for a moment and give you a filter. The filter that I use is Christopher Alexander, who wrote the book "A Pattern Language." He is one of the most influential urban planners - he's very influential in computers, as well, object oriented programming was his. He's informed my way of looking at this environment. So I worked on pulling the whole thing apart, trying to figure out which parts were fanciful, and which of the parts were do-able. As I kept doing that, I kept realizing that there was no part of EPCOT that was truly fanciful, that had never, ever been done before.

I made this realization that all of us who follow Walt recognize that the guy never invented anything. What he did was, he was the great synthesizer. He would take what was already out there, understand the best way to apply that technology and then apply the technology. It's the same sort of thing with Steve Jobs. The vision isn't that he was inventing anything. The visionary (aspect) was that he was taking what was out there and creating something new from it that you didn't know you already wanted.

I was on a D23 tour of the Disney Archives and I had a chance to meet Dave Smith. And I wrote Dave a note asking what were the urban planning books Walt was reading just prior to his death. And he said "The Heart of Our Cities" by Victor Gruen. I had friends who worked in Victor Gruen's office, so I was able to get into Victor Gruen's archives. I discovered through this research a 1959 proposal for what was supposed to be for the 1964 World's Fair in Washington, DC that Victor Gruen had done with the intent of having a city built along his cellular development concept.

As I started going back and researching Walt's life, everything clicked together. In about mid-1959, Walt was talking with John MacArthur to build a theme park in Palm Beach (Florida) on about 6,000-12,000 acres. He was going to give Walt 400 acres to build a theme park but he told Walt, "You know, I just don't want you to build a theme park. I want you to build a city to go around it." This was just at the time where the ragged edges around Disneyland really started to show, and Walt was really upset. So to him, that was the one problem he had - those ragged edges. And you're going to solve that problem for me? You're going to let me build the city that surrounds the thing? And MacArthur's like yeah, you get to do that.

So that made me go, ooh, something happened there. And all this got confirmed in an interview with Buzz Price, just before his death. Buzz told me at the end of that meeting that when Walt walked out of there he turned to Buzz and said, "Look, you guys know what I want for Disneyland - I want to get the audioanimatronics going, we already built the monorail, we built the Matterhorn, we built the submarines. You know the quality that I want. I want to build a city. You guys keep working on Disneyland. I'm changing my attention." So he started absorbing everything that he could.

Unfortunately, between that time in 1959 and May of 1960, the deal fell apart. But Walt's head was already into "I want to build a city," so he was studying everything he possibly could. He read an article by Ada Louise Huxtable that talked about the Victor Gruen city. By that time, the fair was going to go to New York, and this was a lament of "Gee, I wish we could have done this post-war city." I can't get inside Walt head, but my guess is that he was disappointed he couldn't build a city, but then he read about how to build this city and wanted to learn everything more than he could. And if you are looking at the Victor Gruen drawings and you look in the archives - you look at what (Walt) wanted to build for EPCOT - and they are exactly the same thing. There are some differences, of course. One for for 100,000 people, and Walt wanted to cut it down to about 20,000 people. Victor Gruen was very big on multi-family housing on the outside edge - connected housing with three or four units sharing open space. Walt wanted to put single-family homes on the edge, because Buzz Price told me he wanted a place for his friends to live.

So as a kid I saw this model, and as an adult I grew up still wanting to understand if it could happen. Then I got into the profession and came up with the objective tools to help me decided it would work. I wanted to write the book because I am throughly under the belief that EPCOT, as the way that Walt Disney proposed it, would have worked. It would have a huge success. It would have been a huge financial risk (initially), but the risk actually was relatively small because when you break down the components, every component was a money-maker.

We all know that the center hotel could have been built - it's just a resort hotel. We all know that it could have been packed with great rides like Country Bear Jamboree, because that's the kind of thing they were working on for Mineral King, so we know they knew how to do that. In fact, with the whole St. Louis indoor theme park project, he already knew how to do that. He knew how to build an indoor recreational center. They built specifically New Orleans Square as a one-acre test of creating an immersive themed environment, as a practice run of what the themed environments would be in here. It's pretty well documented that most of the 1967 version of Tomorrowland was designed to be a prototype for EPCOT. The PeopleMover was specifically designed for EPCOT, using the technology of the Matterhorn, combined with what they used at the Ford Pavilion in 1964. He knew the monorail was going to work because he's already been running it for years and years.

So the hotel would have worked. The themed environment was basically Disneyland. The distance from the transportation center to the outer edge of the dome was less than 1,500 feet, which is two to three large city blocks - an easy, easy walk. Along the outer edges, he was going to create a critical mass of offices and companies would have bellied up and put offices there just to be close to the Disney magic. Surrounded by that was apartments. So on a three-block walk was the critical mass of tourists in the center, full-time residents on the side and they all have to pass through each other. It is exactly what one wants when you want to build a city.

Robert: One of the things I like about the book was how you detailed specifically how Walt created what you called public spaces that connect emotionally with guests. It might seem accidental to people, and they don't know why it works, but there's a lot of intent behind the design of those spaces. Tell me a little more about how Walt made that happen.

Sam: Whenever you talk with Imagineers, it's all about story - story, story, story. If read interviews with Marc Davis, or any of the original Imagineers, story doesn't come into it at all. The original intent of Disneyland was to create a set where you, the actor, can walk onto the stage and fulfill your own fantasies. Remember, on the original versions of the dark rides, you were Snow White, for example, and people didn't quite get that, so then they had to put a Snow White in there.

I think that Christopher Alexander and Walt Disney are very similar to each other because they are both believers in empirical data. They are both believers that you can sit and observe and absorb and you take the best elements of what exists and you piece them together in patterns, then bring the patterns together to create meaningful and functional spaces.

I do a process I call collaborative planning, where you assume that the people who live work and play in a space are the true experts in the space. What you've got to do (as a planner) is get inside their heads and ask them a lot of questions. Walt had his crew going absolutely everywhere. This guy would have gotten arrested today by how often his was hanging out in little kid amusement parks and just going up and talking with children. But they're both big believers that if you sit and you observe and you watch long enough, you will learn what works and what doesn't.

Walt would see a street that he thought felt "right," and he would measure how big the street was. And that's why the width of Main Street is the width that the street is. The whole thing with the trash cans, too. They're spaced at certain distances because he figured that's how long it took to eat a hot dog and then you have to throw the (wrapper) away.

He drew upon extraordinary examples (such as) Tivoli Gardens - clean popcorn lights all over the buildings, fireworks at night, music, a beautiful place where everyone can sit. He saw the good, the bad and the ugly, and he kept through empirical data recording what worked and where people said "I really like that" and "the place feels really good to me." So that's it. It's empirical data.

What I want my readers to do is I want them to be able to walk away, look at the world and pull the little patterns apart so that they can see why things work.

I'll give a quick example: I asked a lot of people, if you were on the hub at Disneyland and you were on the hub of Main Street on the Magic Kingdom, which one would you like better, and why? And, to a person, it's Disneyland's Main Street. It's because of the scale, the intimacy, the ability to see the gateways from one position and they're not too far away. The castle might not be as big and impressive, but it actually fits in the context of everything else. And everyone thought it was more huggable, and intimate and much more a special place.

Come back Monday for Part Two of our interview, when Sam talks more about Disneyland vs. Walt Disney World, why Celebration isn't at all what Walt intended, and more about the little details that make or break a desirable community... or a theme park.

Replies (9)

November 17, 2011 at 10:16 AM · Great interview, Robert. I am an avid reader of Sam's blog, and love reading his insightful stories about the theme of the parks. He carefully details all the intricacies of the lands and how they help develop the general feel of them. A great blog (and book) for any Disney/theme park fanatic. I'm looking forward to the next part of the interview!
November 17, 2011 at 3:22 PM · Awesome interview, thanks!!
November 17, 2011 at 5:18 PM · It's great to read this kind of feature on TPI- thanks, Robert!
November 18, 2011 at 9:41 AM · Robert – Did you read the book and if so Did you like it?
November 18, 2011 at 11:38 AM · Definitely. It's a good read for anyone who's interested in the form of theme parks and how that speaks to the way we design communities. We'll talk more about examples from the book in Part 2.
November 18, 2011 at 10:25 PM · Superb article! Looking forward to part 2.
November 19, 2011 at 4:04 AM · I'm going to check out the two hubs when we go to Disney World on the 26th of November, and see if I agree with Sam. It is interesting comparing Disney and Universal from a planning point of view. Much of Universal is more anarchic, with the exception of the Harry Potter section. The Potter section is more crowded with people who appear to be facinated with their surroundings than the other areas. Having read your first article on Sam,I belive this may well have design ethics closer to the Disney spectrum than previously employed elsewhere in Universal, and it seems like their most successful area yet.
November 20, 2011 at 10:45 PM · I will read!
November 22, 2011 at 9:48 AM · Really good Robert and I will read that book.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive