Corporate Empathy Excerpt: Disney’s Florida Project

Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow (EPCOT)

EPCOT as envisioned by Walt Disney

Growing up on Long Island I lived only a couple of miles from Levittown, a planned community of mass produced homes developed between 1947 and 1951. The returning veterans of World War II fueled much of this growth as well as similar suburban growth throughout the country. The economies of scale that production lines created allowed large numbers of Americans to own a home.

William Levitt, the developer of Levittown, is an example of an innovator following Henry Ford’s concept of providing a high quality product inexpensively to the masses in order to improve life. Ford, passionate about automation, experimented with city planning using technology. Walt Disney, a friend of Ford, shared these same qualities culminating with his vision for the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, more commonly known as EPCOT to be built at Disney World in Florida.

EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, that will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems; and EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise. I don’t believe there is a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities. – Walt Disney

Unlike the theme park that bears the name today, Disney’s own view of EPCOT was that of an ever-evolving experimental community.

Well a project like this is so vast in scope that no one company alone can make it a reality. But if we can bring together the technical know-how of American industry and the creative imagination of the Disney organization, I’m confident we can create right here in Disney World a showcase to the world of the American free enterprise system. I believe we can build a community that more people talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world, and with your cooperation I’m sure that this Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow can influence the future of city living for generations to come. It’s an exciting challenge, a once in a lifetime opportunity for everyone who participates. Speaking for myself and the entire Disney organization, we’re ready to go right now. – Walt Disney

Disney’s vision of EPCOT was why Orlando and the state of Florida granted the company expansive rights over the property Disney owned. The plans to develop EPCOT would require Disney to make land use and building decisions free from politics allowing them to adapt and change more quickly. The agreement goes so far as to even allow the company to construct a nuclear power plant on the property if it desires.

Here the Disney staff will work with individual companies to create a showcase of industry at work. In attractive park-like settings, the 6 million people who visit Disney World each year will look behind the scenes at experimental prototype plants, research and development laboratories, and computer centers for major corporations.

So this is EPCOT, the heart of Disney World. In other parts of the country, a community the size of this prototype could become part of an entire city complex, composed of many such communities, planned and built a few miles apart. In Disney World about 20 thousand people will live in EPCOT. Their homes will be built in ways that permit ease of change so that new products may continuously be demonstrated. Their schools will welcome new ideas so that everyone who grows up in EPCOT will have skills in pace with today’s world. EPCOT will be a working community with employment for all; and everyone who lives here will have a responsibility to help keep this community an exciting living blueprint of the future. – Disney World Promotional Video

Five months after Walt Disney’s death in December 1966, Florida Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. signed into Florida law the statutes creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District that gave the Disney organization almost total autonomy within its borders. However, with Walt gone, the publicly traded Walt Disney Company had lost its founder and his unique ability to innovate and inspire. His brother Roy O. Disney tried to carry the EPCOT project forward but was unable to convince Disney’s board of directors to do so.

Empathy Lost

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. – Walt Disney

Despite Walt considering EPCOT as the heart of everything the company would be doing in Florida and the expansive rights (and responsibilities) given to the company by the government, the Disney board would not pursue the project. Walt’s EPCOT project was diluted down to a theme park opened in 1982 and known mostly for food and drinks from around the world in the park’s internationally-themed World Showcase.

Under the later direction of CEO Michael Eisner, the company launched into heavy hotel and resort development on the property, placing strains on the communities of Orlando and Orange and Osceola counties. Using its expansive rights in a very non-empathetic way, the board of directors saw no problem competing for and winning government bond money for its own expansion. Disney won the money to pay for its own new sewers rather than it being spent on an affordable housing project needed by the county for the influx of low-wage Disney workers.

Walt Disney World’s governmental arm is a real city in the eyes of the Florida Constitution and has the right to compete with other governments for tax-exempt bonds, an Orange County judge has ruled.

In dismissing a lawsuit filed by Republican candidate for governor Anthony R. Martin, Circuit Judge George N. Diamantis said the Reedy Creek Improvement District acted within the law when it applied for and received $57 million in tax-exempt bonds that Orange County had hoped to use to build affordable housing.Orlando Sentinel, 1990

The rights granted to the company because of its founder’s visionary ideas had been executed by a board and company that do not share his vision. In 1997 BusinessWeek named Disney’s board the worst board of directors in American business. By the time Eisner was pushed out as CEO in 2005. Walt’s own nephew Roy E. Disney had written “that the Company is rapacious, soul-less, and always looking for the ‘quick buck’ rather than the long-term value, which is leading to a loss of public trust.”

The American Dream and suburban development was in its infancy following WWII. Had Disney’s innovative EPCOT project been implemented and even mildly successful, its effect on the subsequent decades of suburban development would have been nothing short of profound.


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