“Disney is nearer to what people really want than anything architects have ever given them.” – Robert Venturi, 1972
Historians don’t like question marks. Mysteries are reserved for literature, and send the factually minded chasing down clues and pursuing phantoms, chasing scraps of evidence forever hoping to stumble across that moment where uncertainties are erased.
But no matter what, Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T. city will forever be the un-answerable question sitting at the center of discussions not just of Walt Disney World, but Walt Disney’s entire life. Walt Disney was a man who coaxed art out of unpromising material – cartoons, amusement piers, episodic children’s books, rotating furniture galleries – by posing open questions to his devoted league of designers and hashing out the final product from their best ideas. EPCOT didn’t get very far from the question of “What would a future city look like?” before Walt Disney died.
Walt Disney’s inheritors were absolutely right in their conviction that only Walt could have actually produced EPCOT – partially because there were few men left in the world of his means and conviction, and partially because nobody but him knew what the hell it was going to be. The famous “Progress City” pie-shaped suburb and covered urban center is very much a work in progress – ambitious, perhaps, but also not real.
One need only to look at the problems a later Disney regime faced in trying to launch Celebration to immediately realize that Walt never solved the problem of actually having people living in this place. Riding glass enclosed Peoplemovers and going home to steel and glass houses to be gawked at by tourists and constantly hassled by corporations who want to replace your dishwasher is not everyone’s American dream. Everyone who lived in EPCOT would’ve had to have loved it as much as Walt for any of his goals to actually work.
So in their own way Disney was right to fulfill the specifications if not the spirit of their pact with Florida in creating EPCOT Center. And yet in other ways, the apple of urban design has never fallen far from Disney’s tree. Through a combination of accident and design, Walt Disney World actually is a city with a population of tens of thousands – a city of fantasy, not science fiction.
On this blog I’ve always tried hard to raise awareness about the key role of Lake Buena Vista both in the creation of Walt Disney World and the evolution of Disney’s urban planning, but I feel that now is the right time to raise the question again.
The problem is that tracing Lake Buena Vista from conception to present day has always been a failure story – an unrealized planned community that gave way to a patchwork quilt of chaos called Downtown Disney. But times have changed, and Disney has spent the last several years entirely, experimentally and painfully rebuilding the shell of Lake Buena Vista into Disney Springs, and that changes the story.
We’ll get there. But before we do, for new readers of this blog as well as for maximum clarity, it’s necessary to backtrack. So first let’s introduce what Lake Buena Vista was and what it was supposed to be for Disney, and how Lake Buena Vista’s development is the key to unlocking the secret history of Walt’s EPCOT city.
Lake Buena Vista – Where The Peacocks Roam
The usual way of thinking about the EPCOT City is that it qualifies as an abandoned project by Disney; they simply give up and built a theme park, a betrayal of Walt’s final project. This is not quite true. In reality an entire phalanx of complexities and setbacks saw the EPCOT city concept gradually pushed deeper and deeper into the grave. It’s a long story, one that sees Disney scaling back and scaling back ambitious plans in the face of an uncertain economy and indifferent housing market.
The Magic Kingdom was not yet open when the foundations began to be poured for Lake Buena Vista. The October 1971 issue of Walt Disney World News includes this surprising headline near the back of the magazine:
“Lake Buena Vista – City of Tomorrow
The city of Lake Buena Vista, located on 3,800 acres of lush Florida lake country adjacent to Walt Disney World, represents a new concept in urban development.
A testing ground for modern building and living ideas, the city is rapidly emerging as a new kind of recreation-oriented community. Residential homes, condominiums, motor inns, apartment complex, an 18-hole golf course and commercial development are all part of the new community concept.”
Anybody reading that in 1971 could come to the conclusion that this was the start of construction for Epcot, which of course is exactly what Disney was betting on. The 1971 Walt Disney Productions Annual Report included an entire section on LBV, and made the claim explicit:
“A prime consideration of Walt Disney in purchasing 27,500 acres of land in central Florida as the future site for Walt Disney World was his desire to give direction to the surrounding development which would emerge as a natural consequence of his new destination vacation resort.
Walt Disney’s ultimate goal for the Florida project was always the development of EPCOT, an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a living environment, 25 years ahead of its time, which would always be introducing, testing and demonstrating new systems and technologies.
To gain practical experience in this new field of real estate development, and to provide careful and balanced management planning for the entire Florida property in keeping with Walt Disney’s initial objectives, the Company created a wholly-owned subsidiary, the Buena Vista Land Company.”
In June 1972, Architectural Forum published an extensive overview of the entire Walt Disney World complex, saving special space for the Lake Buena Vista project as it stood at that time, and they had this to say about it:
“The nearest thing in WDW to a real town is the residential community of Lake Buena Vista, a development of high and low-rise structures that will, eventually, cover 4,000 acres and house 16,500 full or part-time residents, and employ 4,000 outsiders. It’s not nearly as adventurous as the late Walt Disney’s dreams of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT; but, unlike EPCOT, the community of Buena Vista is both practical, in todays terms; and it is, in fact, under construction.
An initial development, called the Golf Course Community, has started construction with 27 clustered, neatly planned and designed row houses (some of which may be operated, experimentally, on dry cell batteries that are a product of the Space program at Cape Kennedy, 100 miles to the east). 150 additional, clustered row house will be built almost immediately; and, eventually there will be 2,500 housing units.
Preliminary plans for commercial development include two kinds of retail areas. The first will be on the water and consist of small-scale souvenir, craft and convenience shops. The second center is planned as a regional shopping district and as it grows will probably become the ultimate in multi-level, all-enclosed extravaganzas.”
Architectural Forum published this early master plan for LBV, including the Townhouse that were actually built, with an unrecognizable modern complex where the Village would shortly be:
The “Hospital” seen in the top right off SR-535 still exists today as a CentraCare; before the construction of Celebration Hospital, this is where all injured WDW guests were cared for. Disney put up a new sign off 535 announcing the entrance to Lake Buena Vista, directly across from what would one day become the Crossroads Shopping Plaza:
However, even the sunny Architectural Forum article suggested some of the problems Disney was already encountering in terms of actually getting their planned community off the ground:
“Unless policy changes, Buena Vista will be a recreational community, its houses owned cooperatively by individuals or corporations that want to get their executives to relax, occasionally. There may be no schools in the conventional sense, although there will be commercial and office buildings, if the demand materializes.”
The trouble with EPCOT had always been that a city required citizens, and citizens would demand a variety of rights, including voting rights. Disney, of course, would not want to extend private citizens voting rights over the property they had fought so hard to have total control over. The situation was never fully resolved. To this day, Disney does have full time citizens who live on their property… carefully selected citizens, who have been encouraged or otherwise persuaded to vote as the Mouse tells them to.
Disney’s first effort to solve this problem was to start the population of its City of Tomorrow with corporate sponsors. Shortly after October 1971, the Walt Disney World Preview Center was closed, and made over into the Lake Buena Vista Preview Center. Disney offered sponsors and other businesses the opportunity to buy a two-level shed-style condo on Disney property and offered interior design services to reflect each individual owner’s preferences. Disney went to the extraordinary step of bringing over Disney Studio designer Emile Kuri to establish an interior design firm just for this purpose – Buena Vista Interiors. And early promotional brochure from 1972 explained the program this way:
“Lake Buena Vista is a private community of residences designed for leisure-living in the Florida outdoors. Looking out onto a lake, a forest or a waterway, residences vary: Family detached “second homes” and vacation sites, homes for business executives and corporations, cluster homes and townhouses.
Disney security, landscape, maintenance and other important services are part of the reason this community is “different” from other leisure-time concepts.
Residential Hostessing is not a new idea. But at Lake Buena Vista’s Townhouses, the concept has proved especially popular with America’s corporate officers and their guests … because Lake Buena Vista has met its promise.
In the Townhouse community, where Residential Hostessing is offered, conveniences and life’s pleasures are anticipated. Businessmen meet in park-like settings to discuss business affairs, dine on gourmet-catered luncheons, then tee-off at one of three 18-hole golf courses in Walt Disney World.
The Residential Hostess has arranged it all – tickets to the Magic Kingdom for wives and children, cocktails at six, dinner at eight, catered at your Townhouse or at Walt Disney World’s exciting hotel supper clubs.
Flowers, champagne, a note of welcome, arrangements made and followed, service … these are the calling cards of the Residential Hostesses in the Townhouse community at Lake Buena Vista.”
|LBV Circa early 1972. “Buena Vista Land” is the old Preview Center.|
|Inside the first cluster of LBV Townhouses, 1971|
One of the only, and thus the primary, source for insight into these early days of Lake Buena Vista is an early 1972 issue of Orlando-land Magazine. John Tassos, head of sales for the division, met with editor Edward Prizer and Prizer had this to say:
“Another uncommon aspect of Lake Buena Vista is the emphasis on second homes. Some people have interpreted this to mean that Disney is appealing only to buyers with a certain level of affluence. Possibly the fact that the first group of townhouses have all been leased to business firms has added to this impression.
I asked John Tassos whether their planning would mean that the average one-family home would be excluded.
“Our prime motive is a second-home community, but we are not limiting it,” he said. “Anyone will be welcomed at our marketing center. We will eventually have year-round residents. We’ll be careful about what kind of people can help the community but we see no reason to eliminate qualified buyers.”
Disney has indicated that there may be home sold for as low as $28,000. Plans include provision for schools and churches – a necessity if there are to be permanent residents.”
It isn’t hard to read between those lines to see that Disney still hadn’t come up with a plan for offering residence for citizens – and Tassos went on to hint at the true direction Lake Buena Vista was heading.
“John Tassos mentioned the fact that there was an urgent need among companies associated with Walt Disney World to have a place to put people. “With our hotels at 98 percent occupancy, accommodations just haven’t been readily available.”
The Townhouses failed to make much of an impact. Today, it’s easy to see such an offer being wildly successful, but it’s important to remember that in the early 70s there was literally nothing anywhere around WDW – it sat in the center of pasture land and orange groves until well into the 90s. Meanwhile, just up the road, Walt Disney World hotels were filled to constant capacity. While Disney moved ahead with construction of the promised golf course and clubhouse – now called The Lake Buena Vista Club – on-site liscencees for hotels were building a TravelPort, Dutch Inn, Royal Inn, and Howard Johnson’s as quickly as cement could be poured. With few other options, Disney furnished the remaining Townhouses and began to offer them as deluxe vacation rentals for tourists.
|A Village Rises in 1974|
|The Shopping Village in 1976|
Little changed at Lake Buena Vista for several years until Spring 1975, when the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened amidst a swirl of champagne and Glenn Miller by starlight. A cluster of a dozen chalet-style structures positioned around a man-made lagoon, Lake Buena Vista was designed to evoke a sophisticated adult milieu of wood tones, overflowing planters, and classic Mediterranean statuary. It appealed as much to locals as to tourists looking for an extra day of fun. The Shopping Village brought fine wines, high end fashions, and gourmet food to the sleepy little hamlet of Orlando – the kind of place where the best meal in town circa 1974 was at a restaurant called “The Beef and Bottle”. Disney’s extravagances paved the road for Orlando’s sophisticated modern dining scene.
All of this was by design, of course. Despite lackluster sales of the Townhouses, Disney began construction on a series of somewhat similar Treehouse Villas, intended to sleep a large family, and like the Townhouses before them complete with kitchen and laundry. Residents at the Townhouses or Treehouses could have food delivered from the Gourmet Pantry at the Village, while Village Spirits provided wine. The Lake Buena Vista Club, a modern low rise restaurant “where you are already a member” offered one of Central Florida’s most exclusive meals, only a short boat ride away. Disney established the Village’s bona fides by holding an annual art fair in November, what eventually became the Festival of the Masters.
The Shopping Village was designed to be Lake Buena Vista’s downtown – a bustling master planned urban center with high end restaurants and eateries. It was then easy to brush off Disney’s claims they they are establishing a city – especially since we, looking back from 2016 know what happened afterwards – but a remarkable series of documents from 1975 hint that their ambitions had not scaled back yet.
This 1975 map shows a series of office buildings directly across from the completed Village, terminating in what Disney describes as a “Multi-Modal Station”. The Station was intended to service bus, taxis, automobiles, people movers (indicated in pink in the map above), and monorails (blue on the map above). The planning documents state:
“A major element of making this public transportation system best meet Lake Buena Vista’s needs will be the multi-modal terminal on the downtown Peoplemover system. Guests and Employees will be able to arrive at the city via public transportation and then ride the Peoplemover to their destination – a journey completely void of private automobiles.
Another very important service Lake Buena Vista multi-modal terminal will provide is a gateway to Walt Disney World for people arriving via public transit. Lake Buena Vista and the downtown Peoplemover will be exposed to millions of these Walt Disney World guests.
The downtown Lake Buena Vista multi-modal transportation terminal includes intra-urban, inter-urban, and inter-state facilities which provide the critical “location” and “link” to the achievement of a viable regional public transportation system.
According to the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council recent study estimates, by 1990, the public transit system will provide daily trips to 34,610 Orlando area transit passengers, with 24,570 of these trips going to/from Walt Disney World. For these visitors, the multi-modal terminal at downtown Lake Buena Vista will be the “showcasing” stop while on their way to Walt Disney World.”
In other words, the station was to be positioned directly off I-4 because it was expected to interface with trains and other forms of public transportation throughout the Central Florida area.
This is very much in line with Disney’s ethos of the 1970s. Disneyland, the Vacation Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista and even planned but abandoned projects like Mineral King emphasized the concept of isolated parking – part of the utopian feeling of Disney’s theme parks is that their roads are reserved entirely for foot traffic, unlike modern urban cities where roads make walking slow and dangerous. It’s easy to see Disney here calculating the benefits of encouraging and hooking themselves into a mass transit solution – pointedly, they did the same thing in 2012 when high-speed rail lines were proposed linking Daytona Beach to Tampa.
Fascinatingly, the Peoplemover system intended for Lake Buena Vista in 1975 was going to be radically different from the ones at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom: it was going to have vehicles shuttling in and off a main line with stops at each hotel and destination along way way. And, perhaps most interestingly, Disney expected to charge a nominal fee for their use.
“It is envisioned that Lake Buena Vista’s Peoplemover will operate as a “horizontal elevator”. Passengers will be moved from one facility to another just as an elevator moves from one floor to another, but, with one important difference: the Peoplemover will take each party directly to their destination without intervening stops.
Passengers will use the system by first depressing a vehicle call button near the vehicle entry “elevator” door. The door to the waiting vehicle will open, permitting entry. After selecting the desired location on a control panel inside the vehicle, passengers will be dispatched to their destination without intervening stops at other stations. Each station will have sufficient loading positions to meet passenger demands with a minimum of wait time.
A reserve supply of units will be capable of “feeding” an empty load position unless another vehicle will be arriving momentarily. Conversely, if a station is filled with empty, dormant vehicles, they will be shuttled to the spur track to make room for loaded vehicles arriving from other stations.”
Walt Disney World Village: The Dream Contracts
Building communities? Inter-urban transit stations? World Showcase? Epcot Satellites? The mid-70s was a crazy era for Disney’s brand of speculative futurism.
And yet 1975 is also the year that marks, in a way, the end of Lake Buena Vista’s potential as a real community. In January 1975, Space Mountain opened at Magic Kingdom, and Donn Tatum announced that Phase One of Walt Disney World was complete. The company would now be lavishing all of it attention and resources on EPCOT – and it was expected to be a theme park, not a city.
|Treehouse Villa Kitchen|
Up till now the Townhouses and Treehouses had been designed as much for gracious entertaining as vacationing, but a shift was underway. Disney broke ground in 1976 on a new development nestled amongst the holes of the Lake Buena Vista Course, and called them the Fairway Villas. These were smaller energy efficient dwellings with long sloping roofs, with limited kitchenettes instead of full kitchens and bedrooms, intended more for vacationers than full time living. Promotional descriptions from the time hint at the shift:
“The Villas, expected to yield energy savings of 50 percent with their unique design, each have a 720-square-foot living, dining, and kitchen area and two bedrooms, one of which can be combined with the adjoining Villa. Designed for family vacations, meetings, seminars, and executive conferences, the Villa units will be arranged so that as many as four bedrooms can be rented by one tenant.”
As perhaps one final, last-ditch attempt, Disney actually built four full-size houses nearby. If they were ever offered for real sale, I’ve never seen any evidence of it. Rented out for corporate functions and large families, Number 301, 302, 303 and 304 Lake Buena Vista, FL were the only true residence houses constructed on the site. In later years they were rented under the title “Grand Vista Suites”, and Steve Birnbaum diplomatically described them as “model homes for a development project that has been abandoned for the moment“.
Across the street from the Village, what Disney advertised as the first of their planned office complexes as part of the Lake Buena Vista Commercial District opened. A square, glass-walled structure housing a SunBank on the bottom floor and Disney administrative offices above, it was the sole structure built. It still exists today and is known as the SunTrust Building.
1977 also saw the expansion of the Shopping Village with the addition of the Empress Lilly riverboat restaurant. Actually a network of seven interconnected restaurants and lounges positioned in a full sized New Orleans riverboat, the Lilly was an attempt to introduce a visual element of fantasy to Lake Buena Vista, to add some more “Disney” to the experience. The same year, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was rechristened The Walt Disney World Village. Buena Vista Interiors was quietly disbanded, becoming a furniture show room in the Village.
In this iteration, with the Village, Riverboat, and Villas for guest rental, Lake Buena Vista trundled along for over a decade with no real change. Shops came and went every so often. A series of vacation rentals called the Club Lake Villas opened in 1979, attached to the new Lake Buena Vista Conference Center – conventions having quietly become one of the company’s core profit centers.
The Rise of Downtown Disney
|Lake Buena Vista Conference Center Lobby|
EPCOT Center rose while Lake Buena Vista slumbered. Corporations and deals were hatched, earth was moved, Spaceship Earth was assembled. And in the end EPCOT Center opened in a bum economy and a hostile corporate environment. Even with the largest participation of corporate America in any theme park in history, EPCOT Center cost so, so, so much money, it threatened to capsize Disney. And then the movers and shakers behind Disney were out, and Frank Wells and his chosen CEO Michael Eisner were in. And still Lake Buena Vista slept while the old ways of thinking at Disney that gave birth to it were uprooted and discarded.
By 1989, Eisner, Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg had turned around the floundering Disney studio with a succession of inexpensive comedies and dramas, and the animation unit was showing signs of rebounding. The time for expansiveness had come, and Eisner sought to add an additional full day to vacationers’ trips with The Disney/MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, and Pleasure Island. Each of these attractions was intended to directly challenge a local competitor for vacationer’s money – Universal Studios Florida, Wet and Wild, and Church Street Station, respectively. The entire area behind the Empress Lilly – an area first envisioned for a New Orleans area – became a rediscovered industrial center.
Michael Eisner had some unusual taste in architecture. Growing up in a wealthy family in New York, and having served successful and controversial stints as both a television and motion picture executive, Eisner’s taste was perhaps never in line with the largely heartland, middle class audience Disney had courted since the 1950s. Through the 1980s, one of the largest trends in fashionable coastal cities was adaptive reuse – repurposing old industrial buildings into new civic and entertainment centers. Pleasure Island was themed to an old Florida industrial district that had been destroyed by a hurricane and then adapted by Disney into a nightclub district.
Concurrent with the opening of Pleasure Island, Disney totally revamped the Village, renaming it the Disney Village Marketplace. Gone was the conceit of a seaside hamlet. All of the decorative statues and graceful contemporary touches were suppressed. The concept now was for a lively outdoor festival atmosphere with topiaries, splashing fountains, and twinkling lights. Shops which were intended to be darkened and elegant were made over into bright, kid-friendly spaces. The Verandah Restaurant became Minnie Mia’s Pizzeria. The Village Restaurant became Chef Mickey’s. The emphasis was on bright, family friendly fun.
On the far side of Pleasure Island, a huge AMC megaplex opened, and was joined by a colossal floating planet in 1994 – the then-hot themed restaurant Planet Hollywood. Just one year later, one of the Village’s most distinctive shops – the Christmas Chalet – was demolished and the gigantic World of Disney store was built where it once was. Just past World of Disney, Minnie Mia’s Pizzeria was done over into a flagship LEGO store (with LEGO dragon poking out of Village Lake), and just past that, Disney’s newest corporate partner – McDonald’s – opened a bizarre “Ronald McDonald’s Playhouse” location. Chef Mickey’s was moved – in name only – to the Contemporary Resort, and its space became a Rainforest Cafe. The Empress Lilly was gutted, its paddle and smokestacks removed, painted grey and turned into Fulton’s Crab House.
Across the lake, changes were underway at the Lake Buena Vista Villas. These clusters of buildings, once intended as second homes for residents, had largely been eclipsed by brand new moderate hotels throughout Walt Disney World aimed at the same mid-price vacationers who had used these villas through the 80s. Disney hotels like Caribbean Beach and Dixie Landings had rendered them irrelevant, and the lack of distinct theming of the Villas had been a disappointment to some.
The solution was to rebrand the Villas as The Disney Institute, a resort which offered opportunities for classes in activities as diverse as cooking, rock climbing, and animation. Taking advantage of the relaxed, adult atmosphere of the Villas, the golf course, and the waterways, Disney expanded the Lake Buena Vista Club into a full lobby and spa, with a theater, bandstand, and classrooms.
The Disney Institute is, along with Disney’s America, perhaps Michael Eisner’s largest stumble in terms of brand name in his tenure at Disney. Many guests were not certain if they could book rooms at the Institute without also attending classes, and the term “Institute” repelled those traveling with children even more than the term “Villas” had. Eisner, with his love of massive corporate edifices, factories, and production plants, saw a romance in the name “Institute” which few others did. However, those who did give the Institute a chance, often found a charming, relaxed atmosphere there – one last remnant of the Lake Buena Vista days.
While Marketplace/Village were original concepts, the West Side development which began construction in 1997 was a stark imitation of Universal Hollywood’s City Walk, a highly profitable outdoor mall complex which opened in 1993. With oversize signs, post-modernist architecture, and playful shapes, City Walk is only distinct from West Side in that it has dated remarkably well, at least in its original home in Hollywood, while West Side has not. The West Side’s opening meant that the entire complex was rebranded as “Downtown Disney”, which made the imitation of the “City Walk” brand even more obvious.
In 2000, Disney’s tourism market was already declining, and following the terror attacks in 2001, the bottom totally fell out. Hotel facilities at Walt Disney World, built up so much through the 90s, were simply shuttered to save costs of running them. Dixie Landings and Disney Institute were placed under “refurbishment”. Dixie Landings would eventually reopen as Port Orleans Riverside, but Disney opted to demolish the old Lake Buena Vista Villas to make way for a new DVC resort: Saratoga Springs. The lobby, pool, and surrounding facilities built for the Institute in 1994 were retained. Today, only the southmost section of the lobby structure – housing the Turf Club Restaurant, Lounge, Golf Pro Shop, lockers, and tennis courts remains of Disney’s 1971 adventure into planned communities.
The Fall of Pleasure Island and Everything Else
By 2005, Downtown Disney had become impossible to continue operating in its current form. Pleasure Island was still a gated attraction, which meant that only paying guests could traverse the island. Anybody visiting and wishing to see both the Marketplace/Village and West Side would have to walk alongside busy parking lots and bus stops to reach a bridge which ducked underneath the entrance bridge to Pleasure Island. Walkways were jammed with tourists while meanwhile attendance at the Pleasure Island nightclubs was faltering. Disney had failed to invest in updating the bulk of the clubs, and 2005 audiences were not interested in night clubs from the 80s and 90s. Only the Comedy Warehouse and Adventurer’s Club had managed to attract a loyal following, and those fans went directly to those two clubs and bypassed the rest.
The solution to the crowded walkways and abandoned clubs was to open Pleasure Island to foot traffic, and charge individual admission to each club, which is what Disney did in 2006. The concert stages facing the walkways through Pleasure Island were now free to all, and the free entertainment and parking began to attract an undesirable element. Pipe bombs were tossed in dumpsters fairly regularly. Local news agencies began to report robberies and holdups in the congested parking lots. Drug dealers were often seen at West Side. The most popular thing on Pleasure Island was the Irish pub Raglan Road, which was leased space and not owned or operated by Disney.
The experiment, which required millions of dollars of construction to re-route the foot traffic, ended just two years later. Disney shuttered all of the remaining nightclubs in September 2008. Signs were removed, nightclub entrances locked, and decals painted over. Then something funny happened – nothing. Two years later, in 2010 Disney announced the replacement for Pleasure Island – Hyperion Wharf. A press release trumpeted:
“The district will come to life with a nostalgic yet modern take on an early 20th century port city and amusement pier. By day, stylish boutiques and innovative restaurants will draw you in and by night, thousands of lights will transform the area into an electric wonderland.
Taking its name from Hyperion, the Greek god of light, as well as the street on which Walt Disney built his first major animation studio, the wharf district will also feature a relaxing lakeside park and enhanced pedestrian walkways. And its diverse eateries will expand dining availability at Downtown Disney by more than 25 percent.”
And, indeed, things did begin to change. Several buildings on Pleasure Island were leveled, a new boat dock was built, and the area in front of Fulton’s Crab House was refurbished.
Yet no tenants were ever announced, and as time went on, it was clearer and clearer that work on Pleasure Island had stopped. 2013, the announced year of competition for Hyperion Wharf, came with no real progress, until the announcement of Disney Springs later that year. Disney Springs opened last month, with more projects to complete the shift from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs expected to extend into 2017.
EPCOT: A Second Look
Here’s my question, and it’s a question Disney fans don’t like to hear. Would Walt’s EPCOT city have actually been any good?
The fact is that Walt Disney died at exactly the moment that a man like him would have to have changed. He had already changed a lot through the 50s, personally and politically. The kids who he had running around in coonskin caps and watching Disneyland on TV were now wearing beads and turning on, dropping out.
Consider, for a moment, that Walt Disney ate at the Tam O’Shanter and held meetings about Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln while, somewhere nearby, kids were playing 45s of “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Walt lay dying planning his sterile metropolis and only six months later the Summer of Love put Haight-Ashbury under a permanent cloud of opiate. After he died, the Vietnam conflict escalated, his good friend Richard Nixon became president, and the United States entered a period of heightened political awareness that lasted, in fits and starts, for another ten years.
How would Walt have responded to kids burning American flags? To drug culture? To Vietnam? To Watergate? These questions swirl around inside the story of EPCOT and cannot be separated. After he was gone, his inheritors looked at his ideas and thought they could use some of them but changed others to better reflect the culture they would be selling to. If the political strife, urban decay, and white flight of the 60s and 70s made the model of constructing a sanitized urban city forever impossible, Disney was also too early to another movement to really ride its wave: New Urbanism.
That’s basically what Lake Buena Vista was supposed to be, but it came way before any famous examples were actually built. Seaside, FL is often considered the touchstone of the New Urbanist movement, but that didn’t even get started until 1979 – long after Disney had pretty much abandoned Lake Buena Vista.
The thing is, Lake Buena Vista is still, almost 50 years later, basically appealing. We still long for escapes from and solutions to urban congestion. Biking paths, walking trails, boat launches, Peoplemovers and Monorails are still awesome, and a charming, walkable Downtown is a goal which has often been imitated and rarely bettered than the Shopping Village.
Would Walt have changed his plans for EPCOT had he lived? Probably. Would it have been the sort of wild success it needed to be? We will never know. Would it have managed to keep up with the times to avoid falling into neglect and disrepair? Would Walt have managed to steer it through a turbulent, violent and wrenching social transformation that rewrote popular taste entirely? Probably not.
And it’s not as if Disney’s taste for urban design has gone away, it’s just transformed. Just as Lake Buena Vista begat Downtown Disney – which spread to California, Paris, Tokyo and now Shanghai – Disney is still mucking around with moving people – through theme parks, shopping complexes, and hotels. Shanghai Disneyland will be the most fully developed resort complex they will have built since Disneyland Paris, back in 1992. And this frenzy of activity has extended back to its source in Florida, which has been engulfed in construction for almost eight years now. Disney Springs has become Disney’s version of the Big Dig: seemingly endless.
Now that we are oriented in the history of our subject, next time we’ll take a deep dive into Disney Springs and the not always unambiguous questions it raises about Disney, urban design, and cities overall.