Walt called it EPCOT: Disney’s real interest in Florida real estate

The meaning of that 5-letter acronym spells out entirely why Walt wanted 27,400 acres of land

A 1966 diagram of EPCOT - The City that was meant to be the heart of "The Florida Project. (Disney)

BAY LAKE, Fla.While there is little doubt frustrations with what sprung up around Disneyland in Anaheim sparked the idea of a do-over somewhere east of the Mississippi, the Magic Kingdom itself is only 107 acres. So something much larger was top of mind by the time Walt Disney spotted Bay Lake and snapped up 27,400 acres in the middle of nowhere, Florida.

A year before his untimely death, with a twinkle in his eye and Florida Gov. Hayden Burns seated by his side, Walt Disney hinted something grand was, indeed, in the works. On November 15, 1965, as he announced his dream, he promised he’d just be getting warmed up with a new park to at least equal -- but more likely to top -- Disneyland, plus surrounding resort hotels, saying, “It’s going to be well over a $100 million, $100 million-plus.”

November 15, 1965 announcement confirming Walt Disney is behind "Project Florida." (Left to right: Walt Disney, Florida Gov. Hayden Burns, Roy O. Disney (Disney)

With inflation, $100 million today works out to roughly $867 million, and phase one ultimately cost $400 million in 1971 dollars. No wonder Burns was wowed enough to tout this as “the greatest attraction yet known in the history of Florida.” But Walt was vague enough to prompt Mayor Russell Thacker, of Kissimmee, to say that day, “It’s going to be something big, but I don’t think they’ve told us anything.”

Florida legislators learned everything less than 15 months later, on February 2, 1967, as Roy Disney pressed for the company’s own private government with the screening of a truly extraordinary short film touting “A whole new Disney World.”

The Movie touting EPCOT the city officially named Walt's Florida Project a "Disney World" (Disney)

After a prelude, Walt himself appears in what’s meant to be an Imagineering conference room, explaining: “We have a perfect location in Florida, almost in the very center of the state. In fact, we selected this site because it’s so easy for tourists and Florida residents to get here by automobile.... Our Florida land is located partly in Orange County and Osceola County, between the cities of Orlando and Kissimmee...” Take a look at the scale of the Disney property (below in green) compared to either Orlando or Kissimmee (both outlined below in red).

Walt Disney Explains his vision for "The Florida Project in 1966. (Disney)

Walt continued: “The important thing is that the Disney World is located just a few miles from the crossing point of Interstate 4 at the Sunshine State Parkway. Florida’s major highways carrying motorists east and west and north and south through the center of the state.”

Keep in mind, I-4 had just opened months before Walt’s secret was revealed in 1965. Sunshine State Parkway (now Florida’s Turnpike) opened its Orlando-area segment in 1964. The crucial intersection with I-4 that Walt talks about was completed two months after lawmakers saw this film, not to mention four months after Walt passed away.

After the geography lesson, Walt promised, “The most exciting and challenging assignment we’ve ever tackled at Walt Disney Productions... There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we could possibly imagine. Right now our plans include an airport of the future down here in Osceola County.”

Walt Disney envisioned his land in Osceola County would be an "airport of the future" (Disney)

“An entrance complex where all visitors will enter Disney World,” including day parking for the tens of thousands of theme park guests.

Vision for a centralized guest parking area for theme park guests miles from The Magic Kingdom, connected by monorails (Disney)

“An industrial park area covering about 1,000 acres...”

“And of course, the theme park area way up here. All these various activities around the Disney World will be tied together by a high-speed rapid transit system, running almost the full length of the property.”

A diagram showing an early placement for "The Magic Kingdom" -- envisioning an expanded Bay Lake (Disney)

“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.”

“EPCOT will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems.... It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future, where people actually live a life they can’t find anywhere else in the world,” Walt Disney added.

EPCOT the city would have been the very heart of "The Florida Project." (Disney)

Similar to Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, the primary sections of EPCOT would have radiated out from a circular 50-acre hub. Atop that hub would sit an enormous 30-story hotel the film’s off-screen narrator calls ”the shining jewel at the center of the city. It will offer tourists and vacationers not only the most modern guest rooms and convention facilities, but also a 7-acre recreation deck.”

Concept art of EPCOT - the City prominently featured a high-rise luxury hotel through its core (Disney)
A model of the planned recreation deck of the luxury hotel at the heart of EPCOT's City Center (Disney)

Below the hotel and its pools, volleyball and racquetball courts, would be a transportation lobby linking the vast parking area for theme park guests to the south and the theme park itself to the north via a monorail. Also on that level “international shopping areas where stores and whole streets recreate the character and adventure of places around the world, plus theatres with dramatic and musical productions, restaurants, and a variety of nightlife attractions and a wide range of office buildings....”

An International Shopping Street was planned for the heart of EPCOT the city (Disney)
An International Shopping Street was planned for the heart of EPCOT the city (Disney)

This section of the film likely sparked a major misunderstanding that persists to this day. The narration says “most important, this entire 50 acres of city streets and buildings will be completely enclosed. In this climate-controlled environment, shoppers and theatergoers and people just out for a stroll will enjoy ideal weather conditions, protected day and life from rain, heat and cold and humidity.” About this time, a visual shows a skylight looking down into the international shopping streets below.

Art of a Skylight over the International Shopping Street planned for the heart of EPCOT the city (Disney)

Note: No one says anything here about a domed city. The heart of EPCOT, below the hotel, was meant to be climate controlled -- like a vast shopping mall, but with more skylights and windows for natural lighting.

Underneath the shopping and transportation hub, the next level down would cater to cars moving through the heart of EPCOT and parking for those shops, offices and mid-rise high-density apartment buildings that would wrap around the outskirts of the City Central.

An underground level would be exclusively for trucks and other industrial traffic to keep traffic jams to a minimum.

The transportation hub as planned for the heart of EPCOT the city (Disney)

To reach the neighborhoods, guests and residents would hop aboard larger, enclosed versions of the electric-powered WEDWay Peoplemover found in Tomorrowland. These transit lines would ferry guests outward past a large greenbelt of parks, nature and recreation space that separates the urban from the suburban and also would have included schools and churches -- connected by footpaths to the homes.

Schools, churches and recreational activities were planned for a massive greenspace between the urban core of EPCOT the City and neighborhoods. (Disney)

The film does not even hint at the design of those homes themselves - just that they “will be built in ways that permit ease of change, so new products may continuously be demonstrated.” Who wouldn’t look forward to their kitchen being torn up once or twice a year, right? Every front lawn is a short walk from the nearest Peoplemover station, with smaller communal play areas out front and driveways out back for those times you need that pesky 20th century relic, the automobile. “But most EPCOT residents will drive their automobiles only on weekend pleasure trips,” the narrator continues.

Artwork showing a neighborhood of EPCOT - The City (Disney)

Getting to work is as simple as hopping a WEDWay to the hub -- then taking a monorail north to the theme park or south to a 100-acre industrial complex that uses more WEDWays to reach each office complex.

There, the film’s narrator promises “Individual companies will create a showcase of industry at work. In attractive park-like settings, 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.” I can just imagine the excitement in the face of teenagers clamoring to see metal car parts being stamped. “Dad! Look! Real flame retardant was just sprayed on that door gasket.”

An industrial complex intended as a showplace was planned south of EPCOT - the City (Disney)

The narrator promises “EPCOT will be a working community with employment for all. And everyone who lives here will have a responsibility to help keep this community and exciting living blueprint of the future.” So, no pressure guys.

Walt wraps up the film saying, “I’m sure 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 Explains his vision for "The Florida Project in 1966. (Disney)

Unfortunately, they weren’t. Walt passed away from lung cancer just 49 days after filming his vision of EPCOT. Without him, Imagineers eventually admitted they couldn’t crack the code to make it work. Instead, they took ideas from Walt -- making all of The Florida Project forward-thinking in terms of the environment, power, garbage and transportation. They managed growth and construction with a blueprint called “The EPCOT Building Code,” which was far more strict than Florida’s. Eventually, EPCOT Center was built in the heart of Project Florida, right where the city was meant to be. When they broke ground on October 1, 1979, the international shopping street had morphed into World Showcase. The industrial plant with its state-of-the-art displays from corporations morphed into Future World. It did become “The most exciting and challenging assignment ever tackled at Walt Disney Productions” -- costing close to $1 billion in 1982 dollars, but even many Imagineers wonder what would have happened had Walt lived just a few more years.

Groundbreaking for EPCOT Center, October 1, 1979 (Disney)
Disney 50

To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.

We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.

Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!

About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.