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Imagineering the Future: Walt Disney's Obsession with Building a Better Tomorrow

Say what you want about his cartoons, but futurists like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are following in the footsteps of Walt Disney.

Photo via Flickr user Jody LaFerriere

Walt Disney has become many things to many people: He represents a hallmark of growing up, his films and theme parks a staple of childhood. He's been called a racist, a dictator, and a misogynist. And now, author and filmmaker Christian Moran is bringing another dimension of Disney's personality to center stage: his obsession with the future.

Moran's new documentary, Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow: The Futurism of Walt Disney, focuses on Disney's advancement of technology and his vision for a better, brighter world.


"We live in a very cynical era and I think a lot of people today love the idea that a man like Walt Disney, who created wholesome, family entertainment, may have been a bigot," Moran said, addressing Disney's reputation. But Moran says there was much more to the man than either the sanitized films or the "fascist-caricature people have turned him into."

In 1966, during one of his final television appearances, Disney outlined his vision for a futuristic city in EPCOT/Florida Film. He described a city that would "never cease to be a blueprint of the future," which would contain an industrial park, a green belt, and an urban center, where people would live. This utopian world, as Disney saw it, would have begun with his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, to be built in Orlando, Florida.

"The EPCOT film was the piece that really got me interested in Walt Disney as a futurist," Moran said. "Seeing that he had intended to build a city and wanted to combat the various problems of contemporary urban life really made me want to dig deeper into who he was as a person."

Disney's vision of EPCOT was intended to be free of traffic congestion from cars; visitors would use a monorail and walk freely in the streets. The residences would be designed with state-of-the-art appliances, which could be easily replaced when new technologies surfaced. "A project like this is so vast in scope that no one company alone can make it a reality," Disney said at the time. "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."


Disney died before the city could become a reality. In 1982, 16 years after his death, the Walt Disney Company developed the Epcot Center—a section of the theme park devoted to future innovation, but hardly Disney's vision of a prototypical futuristic city. What could have been the biggest achievement of the man's life was never realized.

Still, technological daring took Disney from one advancement to the next throughout his career. In his lifetime, the patriarch of animation pioneered sound (Steamboat Willie, 1928), color (Flowers and Trees, 1932), multi-plane (The Old Mill, 1937), and feature-length cartoons (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937). While producing the feature film Fantasia in 1940, Disney spent an estimated $200,000 to develop the first theatrical, stereophonic sound system to better the audience's viewing experience.

These advancements did not come cheap, but he pursued them in order to separate his product from the competition, and to further the artistic and technical merits of film. Moran believes that for Disney, "the point of making money was to spend it working on bigger and better projects. Many futurists like Walt, Howard Hughes, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk were willing to bet everything on an idea that no one else believed in. Typically those ideas involved promoting or using new technologies that most people didn't understand."

"If we don't have people using their money to push the limits, then we don't go anywhere. A futurist is someone who believes in pushing society forward regardless of profit." — Christian Moran


After revolutionizing the industry of animation, Disney turned his attention to reinventing the theme park industry. He wanted to create a theatrical and clean venue for families where visitors could interact with Disney characters and relive moments from the Disney Company's animated films—and he did so, against the wishes of his accountants, bankers, brother, and wife. Inspired by his experiences at the Griffith Park carrousel in Los Angeles and Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, the creation of Disneyland was also influenced by Disney's trips to Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Michigan and nearby Knott's Berry Farm amusement park, which at the time was still a literal berry farm with a themed Ghost Town.

As much as Disney (and the many talented men and women who worked for him) borrowed from each of these recreational environments, his vision was also modeled on the movie experience. Each of Disneyland's themed lands related to a popular film genre: adventure, western, cartoon, and science fiction. Sam Gennaway, an urban planner and author of several books on Disney, including Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City, compares Disneyland to a movie backlot. "It was like a movie set that one could walk on and be completely immersed," he said. "And then the use of movie techniques, film techniques applied to three-dimensional design, has now been used time and time again in commercial developments around the world."


Read: The Punks of Disneyland

In the park, Disney popularized the use of monorails and PeopleMover systems, which he envisioned as the future of transportation. (Monorails existed before Disneyland, but had yet to be used widely in the United States.) At the 1964 World's Fair, Disney unveiled a new technology—audio-animatronics—with Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, a robo-tribute to the president. He had given the technology a test run in Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, a Disneyland attraction where colorful audio-animatronic birds sang and danced to entertain visitors. The audio-animatronic birds were financed out of Disney's own pocket.

"Futurism and sound economic practices can absolutely go hand in hand," said Moran. "If we don't have people using their money to push the limits, then we don't go anywhere. Some companies will fail in these attempts, but others will expand our reality in new and surprising ways. In the end, a futurist is someone who believes in pushing society forward regardless of profit."

Disney's massive advancements in robotics were displayed simply for fun, as educational childhood amusements, but they changed the theme park industry forever. Disney also used the park's Tomorrowland section to inspire a bigger picture of the future with exhibits like the fiberglass-and-plastic House of the Future, built in 1957, which offered a vision of life in the future (1986, specifically) complete with a microwave oven and ultrasonic dishwasher.

"The world would be a much different place if it weren't for Disneyland," said Gennaway. And if he'd had the change to inaugurate his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—a new, idealized American city—who knows how the world would look today. Using his company's numerous of advancements in engineering, robotic, and transit technologies along with his well-connected, corporate support structure, Disney's EPCOT could have changed the world. Yet we'll never know for certain to what degree.

You can watch Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow: The Futurism of Walt Disney for free on YouTube.

J. Eric Lynxwiler is the author of two books on Los Angeles history: Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles and Knott's Preserved: From Boysenberry to Theme Park.