Monday, November 7, 2011

Between Books - Walt and the Promise of Progress City

Often I have wondered what the Walt Disney World Resort would have looked like if Walt Disney had lived to see his last dream come to completion.  I am sure that many of you have wondered the same thing.  Walt Disney’s hopes for his Florida property were for so much more than a theme park; after all he did not do sequels.  The Walt Disney World Resort we have today is more than a clone of the Disneyland that opened in 1955 due to lessons learned from the California park, but it is still only a shadow of what Walt Disney dreamed.

Sam Gennawey of the SamLand blog provides his insight as an urban planner to detail Walt Disney’s dreams for his Florida project, its evolution and its development in Walt and the Promise of Progress City.  Gennawey introduces his readers to concepts used by urban planners when developing an area, often referring to specific examples within the Disneyland Resort to demonstrate them in action.  This is followed by a detailed examination of Walt Disney’s own property development projects including the Burbank studio, Disney’s Carolwood Drive home, Disneyland, the failed Mineral King development, and finally the Florida project.  This historical journey makes it clear that Disney’s projects were becoming more complex and that Disney’s true interest in building in Florida was not another theme park, since he had already built one, but the development of a working city that could demonstrate solutions to the problems of urban living through the use of technology.  Genneway then walks his readers through the EPCOT of 1982 that might have been, Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, not the Epcot theme park that we have today.  Instead this EPCOT is a functioning city with shopping, recreational areas (including a theme park), residential areas and even a theme park much like seen in the Progress City model found in the exit of the Carousel of Progress at Disneyland during Gennawey’s childhood.  Gennawey concludes his book with a brief answer to if Disney’s plans would have worked.

This book is full of the language of the urban planner.  And though that could be seen as a drawback, I believe it is a benefit.  I do not have a background in planning cities, I am not aware of the vocabulary that urban planners use and I’m definitely not aware of historic urban planning thinkers.  Typically when I read a Disney book I learn a few facts that I have never been aware of before, but honestly many Disney books revisit the same material.  Instead with Walt and the Promise of Progress City I learned about the world of the urban planner and because of this I was finding myself having conversations using this new vocabulary.  And I was able to understand it because of the Disney linkages Gennawey provides his reader.  Instead of being intimidated by these new concepts I was learning about them since he presents them in terms I can understand.  Concepts like “The Quality Without a Name” can be easily understood when demonstrated in action within the Disney parks. 

As a historian I truly enjoyed Gennawey’s presentation of Walt Disney’s evolution of building bigger and bigger projects eventually arriving at his dream of EPCOT, an entirely new city within the Disney Florida property.  By linking together the various building projects that Disney oversaw, the reader can see Disney’s desire for the inclusion of new technologies and improving the quality of life even if it was just an animator’s desk for his Burbank Studio. Additionally, I found his discussion of the Mineral King project fresh and filled with possibilities of what could have been if the property had followed Walt Disney’s designs.  It is also clear that urban planners like Victor Gruen who were foremost thinkers in the city planning were influencing Disney’s thoughts on cities.  But Genneway makes it clear that Disney was not attempting to innovate new ideas about cities but to use the best thinking and technology to create spaces that people could truly use and enjoy.  Disney’s dream was gift humanity with a model of better ways to live and solve urban problems, not just an enjoyable family vacation.    

Genneway’s visit to the EPCOT 1982 is inspiring.  First, it is not a theme park, but is instead a place where people live and work.  Theme parks and hotels do not dominate this space.  Instead it is a city with shopping, residential housing, schools, greenbelts, and yes that moneymaking theme park.  Most surprising to me was the industrial park where companies would display the latest technology and processes.  Though this EPCOT looks different than what we have today, it still includes shopping, hotels, and green spaces that exist today.  While Walt’s dream of a city is clearly not fully achieved by the current profile of the Walt Disney World Resort, it is amazing how much of the plans for a full city exist.  For example as Genneway discusses the reading for the shopping district to be an attraction on its own right, I thought my families inclusion of Downtown Disney alongside the parks as part of our vacation planning. 

If I could change one thing about Walt and the Promise of Progress City, it would be the inclusion of an index.  There is so much good information about Walt Disney, the Disneyland Resort, the Walt Disney World Resort and urban planning, many readers will likely dog their copy with notes and highlighting and be used as a constant reference for what will have been.  This text is an essential for any good Disney library due to its content.  Interest for this book also can be found beyond Disney fans, I have friends who are not Disney enthusiasts asking to borrow my copy due to the historical content out of their own general interest.  Sam Genneway in Walt and the Promise of Progress City offers a well-written, highly educational and highly interesting book that fans and non-fans of the Walt Disney World Resort will enjoy.

Review copy provided by Ayefour Publishing    

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