It would be hard to argue that the young Walt Disney that moved to Los Angeles in 1923 was anything but a dreamer. Armed with only a suitcase, he most certainly clung to those hopes and flights of fancy when facing the harsh reality that lay ahead. Had Walt Disney Imagineering decided to name the statue that stands in Disney California Adventure depicting Walt’s cross-country arrival “The Dreamer” instead of “The Storyteller,” it is likely that Guests would have found it an equally apt title.
Nonetheless, they did not. Instead, they have chosen to give that moniker to the statue of an older Walt that will quite literally “sit” facing World Showcase in EPCOT. Following the announcement and concept art reveal, longtime Disney fans fell into one of two camps: 1.) those who completely fell in love with the idea of honoring Walt in the place that was the impetus for the Florida Project or 2.) those who saw it as an insulting bit of “bone-throwing” based on the belief that EPCOT will soon cease to represent Walt’s original vision. While many saw a beautiful representation of Uncle Walt overlooking his finished dream, others posited that the “EPCOT” he will sit amidst never was his dream. Online arguments ensued for days.
Five months later, which side is right?
I would argue both at the same time. That may sound like a contradiction or a cop-out, but please continue reading, I promise it will all make sense.
Let’s take a trip back to 1966 when Walt announced the Florida Project on an episode of the Disneyland TV show where he extensively iterated his hopes for the “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.” He explained that the 27,000 acres that would eventually become Walt Disney World included plans for an airport of the future, an entrance complex, an industrial area, a theme park, high speed rail transit, and at the center of it all, EPCOT. This city of tomorrow was Walt’s answer to America’s urban issues and would be home to approximately 20,000 people.
Obviously, this description is nothing like the EPCOT of today, tomorrow or even the EPCOT of 1982, for that matter. In fact, the entire resort looks vastly different from Walt’s original dream.
However, when you listen to a dreamer talk about their passion, which is more important, the literal concept or the spirit behind it? Many of Walt’s wildly inventive ideas never came to pass because of a number of factors: cost, technological limitations, practicality, legality, and even his own prerogative. But much like they say at Imagineering, “a good idea never dies,” and for Walt, a good dream never died.
History testifies to the number of times when Walt had to abandon a specific concept, but not the dream that inspired it. Had Walt lived to see EPCOT to fruition, it is quite likely that he would have faced the same challenges that the Imagineers confronted over a decade later as they endeavored to see his vision through. If that had been the case, it is hard to imagine Walt abandoning EPCOT entirely. Instead, it seems likely that he would have taken his desire to improve a facet of life that was lacking and chosen to develop it in another way.
Walt Disney was not only a dreamer; he was an optimist. He believed in his ability to effect change, improve life and build a better future. That was EPCOT‘s purpose. He truly believed in the ideal that humanity could be made better because of what they would be doing there. That was the legacy he hoped to leave mankind.
When I hear the word “legacy,” I immediately think of a grandparent. I have heard this term uttered by many individuals of that age as they reflect on the life they have lived. Now that my parents have been grandparents for a few years, I enjoy watching the look on their faces as they look at my son. Their quiet, contemplative smiles conveying so much more than just joy. While I have never asked them if this is the case, their expressions seem to reveal that they are envisioning the future they hope he will have, while also looking forward to the part they can play in helping him realize it. This is the same look I see on Walt’s face in the concept art for “The Dreamer.”
Yes, it is true that the EPCOT of 2021 will be nothing like the actual urban center Walt planned, but that does not mean his dream will not be fulfilled in what it has and will become. A grandparent looking at their grandchild can see his or her legacy living on in that youth. Even if that child grows up to be vastly different from what his or her grandparent had imagined, it does not mean they will not still see their dreams carried out in them.
If EPCOT was always destined to be something other than what Walt originally imagined, how could “The Dreamer” still see his dream fulfilled? How could it still provide the legacy he hoped to leave?
The Essence of the Dream
Distill the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” down to its most basic essence, and it was a place seeking to take on the challenges faced by society. This was Walt’s objective when he decided to tackle the urban environment. He saw a problem that he hoped he could help solve. He may have even desired to positively answer the question facing so many adults in their later years, “Is the world better because I was in it?” While the EPCOT of 1982 may not have been a city of tomorrow, it did seek to offer solutions to many of the challenges facing the nation at that time.
The global community of 2020 is quite different from that of 1982; some problems have changed, while others have stayed the same. Issues such as the environment, water conservation, and cultural acceptance are not only just as relevant, they have become so pervasive as to be divisive.
If Walt were alive today, would he still choose to stare down the struggles of America’s cities or would he aim his efforts directly at the challenges facing our planet as a whole? Is it so hard to imagine him choosing to help EPCOT‘s visitors understand the importance of our earth through its beauty in shows like Canada Far And Wide, Awesome Earth, Soarin’ Around the World, or even the initial sequence that has been announced for Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind? Is it unfathomable to believe that Walt would see the value in using a character like Moana, one that children have fallen in love with, to help the next generation grasp the significance of the water cycle. Is it unbelievable to conceive of the man who played a vital role in the 1964 World’s Fair opting to promote cross-cultural engagement via annual festivals where attendees have the opportunity to experience food, music, art and ideas from around the world?
Just like those grandparents looking lovingly at their grandchildren, Walt may be seeing something different than he had anticipated, but that does not mean the dream is not fulfilled. The vision was that Walt could effect change that would help assure the possibility of a better future for mankind. “The Dreamer” is gazing out over the humanity-impacting potential of what his dream helped to create.
Expo photo from the personal collection of Vanessa Prince. Concept art copyright Disney.
To learn more about Kendall and read her recent posts for the WDW Radio Blog, visit her author page.