Robert Jaffray Did Not Create Epcot

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Robert Jaffray Did Not Create Epcot

As we come close to Epcot's birthday celebration, let's take a moment to clear the air about Robert Jaffray and the creation of Epcot. Unfortunately, I am finding more and more people using the Internet as their main source of information, especially students writing papers for their class. So I wanted to make sure there was at least one article that would pop up on their search engines that brought the information together about Jaffray and his claim.

Let's start with a letter written by Imagineer Marty Sklar a few years ago:

Dear Disney Cast-

For the past 45 years, I have had the pleasure of participating in the creation of new concepts for one of the most creative companies in the world. As vice chairman and principal creative executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, I lead the creative development of Disney's theme parks around the world. I was pleased to share the true story of Epcot at this morning's press conference and now I would like to share it with you.

As the leader of the Epcot design team, I can assure you that there is no doubt the ideas which evolved into Epcot began with Walt Disney himself. I had the honor of writing many of the scripts through which Walt Disney described his concepts, including a significant film about Epcot.

Over a period of nearly 30 years, Epcot evolved from numerous concepts that Walt initiated, consequently developed, tested and ultimately blended into the project you see today.

As early as 1953, there was discussion in our company of creating an internationally themed area at Disneyland. By 1956, that concept was developed as 'International Street,' an area re-creating authentic architecture from a variety of countries and filled with international cast members, costumes, diverse languages, shopping and dining.

Soon after, this concept expanded into an entire 'International Land,' complete with the elements of Epcot's World Showcase: architecturally authentic pavilions separated by foliage, fronting on water, with both pedestrian and boat access from country to country.

In the years that followed, however, 'International Land" was put on hold as we realized that greater capacity was needed for Tomorrowland. Therefore, Submarine Voyage and Matterhorn Mountain went into the space intended for 'International Land.' But Walt Disney never abandoned this concept.

The international concept was developed in another way beginning in 1961, as Walt and all of us at Imagineering began work on several high-profile exhibits for GE, Ford, the State of Illinois and UNICEF as part of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. The pavilion commissioned by Ford, required the development of 'International Gardens,' a completely realized re-creation of foreign countries on the lines of "International Land", but on a smaller scale -- and, of course, 'it's a small world,' originated at the New York World's Fair, too.

This fair gave Walt Disney the chance to show the business world what we could do outside of what had been done at Disneyland and to learn more about the financial needs and interests of corporate sponsors. At the same time, Walt became intrigued by the possibility of creating a project with elements of a community, a 'permanent' World's Fair, and the by-then traditional Disney theme park attractions.

Soon after, in 1965, Walt first told the people of Florida about his plans for a new project on the East Coast that would use "a lot of the things we had thought of for Disneyland" and hinted that the World's Fair was a good analogy of things to come. Before his dream could be realized, though, Walt Disney died in 1966.

A dedicated team of Imagineers came together to continue the work Walt had started. The first thing was to establish Walt Disney World as a resort destination, with the opening of the Magic Kingdom in 1971. Then we focused on realizing Walt Disney's vision for the EPCOT area. What we developed were two new parks, one a permanent World's Fair showcasing technology and the other an expression of the existing plans for an 'International Land.'

Very much like the World's Fairs we studied and attended, a spherical structure suggesting a globe of the world was a classic and timeless choice for an icon of the 'Future World' park as it came to be called. In particular, the New York's World's Fair in 1939 had the Perisphere, and the one in 1964 had the Unisphere, as their central symbols. The United States pavilion at Montreal's Expo '67 was also in this spherical vein; and it was Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome and in his book, 'Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth,' that ultimately inspired our perfect choice for Epcot's icon, 'Spaceship Earth.'

The international park continued along the lines I have already described. It was only after these two parks were well into development, with much modeling, architectural renderings, and other plans complete, that we concluded that two separate parks would not be economically feasible. That's when we decided to physically combine the two projects into one. Its design and layout resulted from this combination. Together, they became known as EPCOT Center, now simply called Epcot.

This, in a nutshell, is how Epcot was developed.

I never met, or knew of, the late Robert Jaffray or his work. Nor do I know anyone from Disney who ever knew or met him, or saw his work. The Jaffray family has offered no documentation whatsoever of a meeting or relationship with their late father or our Imagineers. I also think it is noteworthy that Robert Jaffray himself never pursued such a claim, even though he had nearly 20 years to do so.

I think the details I've shared with you speak for themselves. From the beginning, our work at Disneyland and Walt Disney World has been totally focused on the dreams, ideas and visions of Walt Disney. This is the true story of what we did.

Yours truly,

Marty Sklar Vice Chairman and Principal Creative Executive Walt Disney Imagineering

Robert Jaffray? What does he have to do with Epcot? Actually, he has very little to do with Epcot, Walt's original concept or the World's Fair compromise that finally appeared in Central Florida in 1982. However, that did not prevent his family from being involved in an intellectual property suit filed in 2002 claiming that Jaffray was the true "father" of Epcot.

According to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Lt. Col. Robert M. Jaffray had met artist Mark Waters while Jaffray was stationed in Hawaii. In 1961, he had Waters produce a painting for "Miniature Worlds", a concept that Jaffray had developed many years previously.

Robert Jaffray claimed that he took this painting along with his plans for a theme park that would break down cultural barriers to help create world peace.to show Disney officials in New York in 1963. He wanted them to invest in his 180-acre "Miniature Worlds," to be built near the nation's capital. Disney supposedly declined.

Jaffray felt that the final design of Disney's Epcot bore a strong resemblance to his plan of a park shaped like an hourglass with a giant globe at the entrance and a lake at the other end. Jaffray's design had a small-scale village of 19 nations and the pavilions had landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and an Aztec pyramid.

Disney representatives say the company has no record of a meeting with Jaffray, and any resemblance of his plans to Epcot is purely coincidental. In fact, the design of Epcot seems very similar to the 1939 New York World's Fair. That World's Fair had one section that was devoted to technology of the immediate future and interactive exhibits, sponsored by major corporations, and was called the "World of Tomorrow." There was a Lagoon of Nations surrounded by pavilions of different countries. In the Lagoon every night, there was a show of water, light, music and fireworks. There was even a special Mickey Mouse color short cartoon produced for Nabisco shown every day at the Fair.

In fact, the format for most World's Fairs included an area to showcase new technology and another area to showcase foreign countries.

After a long illness and a series of strokes, Jaffray died in his home April 5, 2000 at the age of 81. On the wall above his bed was a painting of the entrance to "Minature Worlds." He went to his grave claiming credit for Epcot even though he had never personally visited the park. He based his claim on pictures he had seen and correspondence with friends who went to the Disney theme park.

Jaffary was a military intelligence officer sent to England to monitor troop movements in communist countries in 1952. While visiting a miniature village west of London, he started to formulate a plan to build an attraction that would break down cultural barriers, and get people to understand each other better.

He spent his days designing his miniature park and his nights on the "alert desk" looking for threats to the United States.

After his transfer back to Washington, D.C. in 1953, he later formed a Virginia corporation in 1955 known as "Model Countrysides," naming himself as president, and two fellow military officers as directors. In 1956, he filed a 28-page business and site plan for "Miniature Worlds" with the copyright office.

He planned for the park would be built near Route 50 west of the nation's capital in Fairfax County, Va., and it would cost more than $2 million. He assumed that cost would be paid by sponsoring American corporations doing "discreet, American-style advertising" in the park. By 1959, Jaffray added the eight-story-tall globe, and two years later, revised the site plan yet again.

Jaffray said he took his idea to corporations such as Lionel, Ford, and Kodak. They were reluctant to invest. Finally, Jaffray claims that he and his lawyer Dayton "Mike" Harrington, a "Miniature Worlds" officer, were invited to meet with Disney officials at their New York offices in1963, but Walt himself was not present.

Jaffray said he showed drawings and site plans to Disney officials, and gave the Disney officials copies. He had even produced a professional slide presentation for the meeting. Disney claims there is no record of any such a meeting nor any recollection from any of the surviving members of the Disney Company who would have been in that office at that time. Jaffray had attempted to contact the Disney Company as early as the mid-1950s by mail but never received a reply.

Through Harrington, Jaffray learned that Disney wasn't interested in investing. Finally, in 1966 with his increased work activity due to the Vietnam War, Jaffray shelved the project. Harrington passed away in 1979.

Jaffray always claimed that he did not base his idea on a World's Fair concept. The globe was added to show the universal appeal of the park, not to mimic the ones at the 1939 and later 1964 New York World's Fairs.

His primary goal in creating an international theme park environment, much like Walt Disney's, was to help Americans understand other people and their customs, lifestyles and arts.

In a brochure that Jaffray wrote in 1953, he stated: "We nurse a hopelessly confused and unfair conception of our globe. We regard our own country as the focal point of the universe, and we tend to judge all things, all developments, from the narrow relationship of our own surroundings. By creating a place to entertain and educate people about foreign lands, Miniature Worlds can establish an enduring testament and monument to international peace and understanding."

In November 2004, U.S. District Judge Patricia Fawsett, in her 43-page order dismissing the case before it got to a jury, found that the two renderings by Jaffray and the Disney Company were not "strikingly similar."

The differences were as great as the similarities. The Jaffray plan called for the nations to be built in waist-high buildings on a scale of one inch for every foot. In another significant difference, Jaffray's plan did not include a Future World doppleganger as part of his park. Jaffray's plan included a train running around the entire perimeter of the park.

"While the Epcot rendering and Miniature Worlds painting contain similar ideas, both works express these ideas dissimilarly," Fawsett wrote.

The suit alleged that Jaffray shared the drawings with Disney executives during meetings in the early 1960s, though Fawsett said she saw no concrete proof that occurred.

In a 2000 letter to the Jaffray family, Marty Sklar denied ever seeing the "Miniature Worlds" drawings. At some point during the design of Epcot, Sklar scribbled the phrase "Miniature World, Micro Miniature Worlds" on a piece of paper, court records show. When asked why he wrote "Miniature World," Sklar said he did not know what he was thinking at the time and had doodled the words while "falling asleep in a meeting," according to records.

Disney has been a frequent target of lawsuits alleging intellectual-property theft. In 2000, jurors concluded that Disney had stolen the idea for its Wide World of Sports complex and ordered the company to pay $240 million to two businessmen who had pitched a similar idea to the company years before. A confidential settlement was eventually reached. It is apparent that Robert Jaffray was a sincere, hardworking man and I definitely consider him a visionary when looking at his concept of an entertainment venue to promote international understanding. However, Walt Disney also had the same idea including using miniature structures to recreate an international environment as I documented in the article on the development of Storybookland (link).

In fact, Walt kept developing several different variations of that concept as mentioned in Marty Sklar's letter. While the Epcot the world finally got in 1982 was not what Walt intended, it did include his vision that Epcot would showcase an international influence to aid in better understanding of other cultures. However, that presentation owes much more to the traditional World's Fairs than to the proposal that Jaffray labored over for so many years.