Walt Disney's EPCOT '66 Film Debut

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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I have always had a fascination about the creation of Walt Disney World and part of that comes from seeing the film of Walt Disney himself explaining what Epcot was going to be. I think there are others who had a similar reaction and imagined a domed city where technology made life an impossible dream.

I shared my interview with Imagineer Marty Sklar about the Walt Disney's EPCOT '66 (that everyone just refers to as "The Epcot Film") that he wrote and produced for Walt Disney to convince the people of Florida and American industry to support one of Walt's final dreams for a futurist utopian community.

It was filmed on October 27, 1966, just six days before Walt was diagnosed with cancer. Things moved quickly from that point. On November 7, the doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital, across the street from the Disney Studios in Burbank, removed his cancerous left lung. On December 15, 1966, Walt died. His brother Roy decided to continue with the Florida project and the film was completed to be shown to the people and legislators in Florida of what Disney was planning.

After showing the impact of Disneyland in California, and quickly mentioning there would be "another amusement theme park in Florida similar to the one we have in California," Walt devoted the vast majority of the roughly 25-minute presentation to showing concept art with limited animation to introduce his idea for a new type of city and how it would all work.


The Epcot Film was created so Walt could convince people to support his newest dream. It was shown at the Park East Theatre in Orlando.

Walt said: "The most exciting, by far the most important part of our Florida project—in fact, the heart of everything we'll be doing in Disney World—will be our experimental prototype city of tomorrow. We call it EPCOT, spelled E P C O T—Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow."

Many of the ideas for the new city came from a book that Sklar told me that Walt kept prominently on his desk during the 1964-65 World's Fair days: Victor Gruen's The Heart of Our Cities: The Urban Crisis: Diagnosis and Cure. Published in 1964, it challenged traditional theories of how to plan a city that was not only functional but beneficial to its inhabitants.

The film was shown at the Park East Theatre (501 North Orlando Avenue) in Winter Park on February 2, 1967. The movie theater no longer exists even though for a time it had a plaque in the lobby that commemorated this historic film showing. The theater was chosen because it was less than two years old, could hold a significant capacity of people and that there was no movie theater in downtown Orlando.

The theater opened in April 1965 as a two-screen theatre, operated by Wometco Theatres. The East screen opened on April 7, 1965 and the West screen opened on April 23, 1965. Total seating at opening was 1,500, divided 600 and 900 between the two theaters.

It was tri-plexed on October 30, 1981, and then became 11 screens on May 24, 1991 before evolving into retail space when a Regal Cinema opened across the street. It was closed in October 2007 and converted to a gym.

Before the showing of the film, the people of Florida had little idea about what vision Walt saw for his secret project. The last major event about the project had been the press conference in November 1965 where Walt had only vaguely alluded to what he was planning to do.

The showing of this film was meant to generate excitement and argue the necessity for the Reedy Creek Improvement District legislation that would successfully be approved later that year.

Like the 1965 press conference, this was a ticketed, invitation-only event, and the expectation was that there would be around 550 people. It turned out that 908 people showed up— and it was standing-room only. Nearly half the state legislature attended along with community notables.

Disney executives had wined and dined local legislators the night before at the Winter Park Villa Nova restaurant to prepare them for what was going to be asked of them. Basically, Disney was going to ask for almost absolute authority in areas that were usually governmental concerns.

Disney had arranged for New York bankers and representatives of 43 national media organizations to be flown into the McCoy Jetport the afternoon of the event and they were boarded on three chartered buses for the drive to Winter Park. On the trip, they were given an aggressive pitch on Orlando developing into a significant center of business.

That morning, Governor Kirk, Roy Disney (who was then 74 years old), and some Disney executives met for a private luncheon at Orlando's rooftop restaurant in the Langford Hotel.

Afterward, Roy and Kirk drove to the theater in a nine-passenger black Lincoln Continental limousine adorned with flags and accompanied by a state trooper escort. In fact, one press report stated there were enough police to guard two U.S. presidents. Kirk's limousine had originally been owned by Joseph Kennedy, the father of John and Robert Kennedy.

It was quite an entrance for the pair, but the press was even more excited when a woman named Mrs. Dorothy Austin gave Roy a peck on his cheek, hoping for some sort of scandal. She was actually Roy's cousin and worked on a Daytona Beach newspaper, which is why she was in attendance.

There were four press releases distributed about that day. Here is the first one:

WALT DISNEY PRODUCTIONS ANNOUNCES PLANS FOR A WHOLE NEW "DISNEY WORLD" DEVELOPMENT NEAR ORLANDO, FLORIDA

At a meeting attended by legislative, civic and industrial leaders representing all of Florida, Walt Disney Productions today announced plans for a whole new "Disney World" to be constructed on a 43-square mile parcel of land 16 miles southwest of Orlando, Florida.

Basic elements for the proposed development include a new amusement theme park similar to the world-famous Disneyland in California; a series of theme motels surrounding and compatible to the theme park development; outdoor sports centers for golf, tennis, boating, camping, and other recreational activities which will take advantage of and preserve the natural beauty of the area; an Industrial Park covering about 1,000 acres, planned as "showplace to the world of American industry"; a Jet Airport of the Future offering service to private and executive planes, commercial charters and freight carriers; an Entrance Complex to receive and service the millions of visitors expected annually; and an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow planned for 20,000 permanent residents.

The land development is expected to cost at least $600 million. Land clearance, drainage and other construction activities will commence on the 27,400-acre Disney property as soon as the corporation's legislative proposals are passed by the Florida State Legislature.

The invitational presentation, which began at 2 p.m. in the Park East Theatre, Winter Park, Florida, was held under the auspices of the Orange and Osceola County delegations to the Florida State Legislature.

The meeting was opened by Mr. Paul Helliwell, senior partner in the firm of Helliwell, Melrose and De Wolf, Florida counsel for the Disney organization. After introducing the Disney executives and special guests, Helliwell turned the meeting over to General William E. Potter, Disney's vice president in charge of administration-Florida project.

Potter, who described the meeting as "one of great significance to central Florida and to vacation-minded families throughout the world," introduced a 25-minute color motion picture, the last film to be completed by Walt Disney.

In the film, Disney presented details of the many attractions planned for Disney World, but gave special emphasis to his hopes and dreams for "EPCOT," the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which will be a central attraction in the proposed new, total environment.

Designed to serve an initial population of 20,000, EPCOT will be a living showcase for the creativity of American industry. In its endless task of depicting urban life 25 years into the future, EPCOT will be completed but will always be introducing, testing and demonstrating new ideas and new technologies.

"Our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow will always be in a state of becoming," said Disney in the film. "It will never cease to be a blueprint of the future, where people actually live a life they can't find anywhere else today."

Thus, the goal of this balanced working community will be to establish new standards of design, never borrowing from patented modes of living.

"I don't believe there's a challenge anywhere in the world that's more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities," continued Disney. "But where do we begin? Well, we're convinced that we must start with the public need. And the need is not just curing the old ills of old cities. We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land like this, and building a community that will be a prototype of the future."

Concluding his film presentation Walt Disney said, "With the technical know-how of American industry and the creative imagination of the Disney organization, I'm confident we can build a living showcase that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world."

Following the motion picture presentation, General Potter introduced Roy O. Disney, president and chairman of the Board of Walt Disney Productions.

Roy O. Disney emphasized that although the film dwelt upon the city of EPCOT, the new amusement theme park and its surrounding motels, will also be a highlight of the development.

"Our theme park will be similar in many ways to Disneyland in California, and will build upon the experience we had there as hosts to more than 60 million people," said the corporation's President.

"Of course, a project of this size and scope will take several years to bring to completion," said Disney. "In fact, we are currently planning its construction in phases."

"However, our corporation is dedicated to making Walt Disney's dream a reality, but it cannot be done without the help of you people here in Florida," continued Mr. Disney.

"We must have a solid legal foundation before we proceed with Disney World. This foundation can be assured by the legislative proposals we are presenting at the next session of the Florida legislature," he concluded. "If these requests are granted, I believe that we can make the new theme park a reality by 1971."

Disney then introduced Mr. Donn B. Tatum, vice president and administrative assistant to the President of Walt Disney Productions, who gave specific details regarding these legislative proposals.

Tatum then introduced Florida's Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. who offered his wholehearted support to this new project, and then detailed the economic growth Disney World will bring to Florida.

"During its initial construction phase and first 10 years of operation, Disney World will directly generate $6.6 billion in measurable economic benefit for the State of Florida as a whole," said Kirk, summarizing an independent study of the project conducted by the firm of Economic Research Associates.

"Of this $6.6 billion estimate, $3.978 billion will result in expenditures by new tourists attracted to the state by Disney World. Another $2.261 billion of this total represents payrolls of new jobs created, and approximately $414 million represents monies to be spent for construction materials and equipment," said Governor Kirk during his presentation.

Following a brief question and answer period, Governor Kirk and Roy Disney flew to Jacksonville to tape a half-hour televised report to the people of Florida, scheduled for statewide broadcast in color from 7-7:30 p.m. that evening.

The program was scheduled to feature Walt Disney's Florida Film, which had been shown publicly for the first time during the invitational presentation in Winter Park.

To the best of my knowledge that half-hour televised report filmed at a television station in Jacksonville and broadcast throughout the state has not been uncovered and shared. It was called "Report to the People of Florida". It began with the Epcot film and then followed with pleas by Roy and the Governor to the people of Florida to make this dream a reality.

After the film presentation in Winter Park, Roy addressed the audience to alleviate fears that it was not just a clone of Disneyland. "Wasn't that a dream? Doesn't that stagger you? Walt did not want to travel the same route twice. He was a peculiar guy this way. He always told me, 'If you do something well, how are you going to top yourself?'"

The other three press releases included one where Donn Tatum talked about the legislative proposals (primarily there were three major bills comprised of 161, 163 and 157 pages). Another release had Tatum talking about the effect of Florida traffic patterns (Disney had asked the state to construct a major interchange joining Interstate Highway I-4 and State Road 530 and to construct an interchange leading from State Road 530 into the Disney property which would result in the elimination of the cheap motels and shops that plagued the entrance to Disneyland).

The fourth release was one that included the remarks by Governor Claude R. Kirk, primarily focusing on how much money the project would bring to the state. Like his predecessor, Governor Haydon Burns, Kirk vowed that Florida would provide strong support for Disney.

Kirk was using facts and figures prepared for the Disney Company by Economic Research Associates of Los Angeles titled The Economic Impact of Disney World, Florida 1967. History would later show that those spectacular figures were actually extremely conservative. For instance, they predicted up to 6 million would visit in the first year but the actual attendance was more than 10 million.

Kirk was the first Republican to hold the office of governor in Florida since 1872 and, initially, he was unenthusiastic about the Disney project until convinced of the economic advantages. He was known as a "colorful character" and this event happened during the second month of his term of office.

The audience was told that the "entertainment section of Disneyworld could open as early as in the summer of 1970 if the company's legislative package is passed." At the presentation Roy Disney mentioned that Walt had considered the feasibility of building an amusement venue in New Jersey, but rejected it and that the tentative name for the project when the land was being bought was Disneyland East.

After the presentation, Frank Hutchinson, the editorial page editor of The Evening Star newspaper, wrote: "Disney will create a magnificent city. After that, all around it will be a big mess."

Harland Hanson, director of the area's tri-county planning agency recalled, "It was as though they'd put a gun to our head. They were offering to invest $600 million and there was the glamour of Disney. You could hardly be against that. We were all just spellbound."

However, the film was a huge success in convincing both the people of Florida and their legislators to give Disney everything it wanted. During that visit, Roy and several others, including Donn Tatum, Card Walker and Joe Potter took a closer look by land and boat of the property to assess what needed to be done to prepare the property.

The bills giving Disney almost absolute authority were signed on May 12, 1967 in Tallahassee. The Evening Star newspaper for that day stated:

"Present for the bill signing which Governor Kirk compared in historical significance for Florida to its discovery by Ponce de Leon and Henry Flagler's completion of his railroad to Palm Beach were the cabinet, legislative leaders and Orange and Seminole and Osceola legislators.

"Kirk signed the bills with a succession of pens from handsome desk sets engraved with the emblem 'Signing of Disney World Legislation: Claude R. Kirk Jr., Governor May 12, 1967.'"

Roy Disney also attended the ceremony along with 12 of the Disney Company's vice-presidents. Walking Roy through the governor's mansion to the garden for the signing, Kirk looked at Roy questioningly and asked, "Roy I have studied your legislation. I have read it carefully, studied and restudied it. There's one serious omission and I can't understand it."

A puzzled Roy replied, "What's that, Governor?"

"There's no provision in the kingdom for the crown," smiled the governor.

 

Comments

  1. By danyoung

    Thanks for the article, Jim. I have only one small quibble. I think (and I'm relying on memory here) that Walt in the film actually identified E.P.C.O.T. as "the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow" the first time he said it. He changed later on to "Community", but he got it wrong that first time.

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Thanks for the article, Jim. I have only one small quibble. I think (and I'm relying on memory here) that Walt in the film actually identified E.P.C.O.T. as "the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow" the first time he said it. He changed later on to "Community", but he got it wrong that first time.

    Don't you love it when it turns out that BOTH people are right? You are right that he used the word "City" before he said the actual word Epcot but I am right in the quote I used where after he says the word Epcot for the first time and explains what it means, he uses the word "community". It is at the 10:41 mark or so on the video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLCHg9mUBag

    Dan, I have always loved that you have kept a eye on my writing to make sure I am as accurate as possible. Hope you enjoyed all that other stuff that has never been in print before. Yes, originally Walt intended to use the word "city" for the project but as it developed he saw that it was much larger than even he had initially planned. By the way, I mention Gruen in the article. Perhaps I should have identified him as well as the father of the American mall (an honor he hated in later years because people had turned it into a retail location where he envisioned more of a community center with post office, etc.).

  3. By danyoung

    You are, of course, correct. But hey, as you said, I am too!

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