Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Ideology of Future World, Part 1

Oh, EPCOT Center, where are you?!

It's not the first time this opinion has been voiced, and it surely won't be the last. It's been said so much by now that it's become a cliche... the 30-something EPCOT fan, pining away for the lost attractions of yesteryear. The Sci-Fi kid who grew up with NASA pennants and Star Trek episodes on tape may be one of the few types unaccomodated by theme parks, an area so often dominated by nostalgia and fantasy.

That may be part of the mystique,  but more than anything, EPCOT Center was the right product at the right time, the theme park about science and technology that opened during a pivotal era for science and technology. Home computers, video game systems, cable TV and VCRs became creature comforts used the world over, and special effects began their slow encroachment on the rest of movies. EPCOT Center was there, reflecting ourselves back at us, perhaps not flatteringly but basically correctly.

Recently I was reading through Fjellman's Vinyl Leaves and was struck by his coverage of Future World. Fjellman seemed rather enchanted by much of WDW, but in Future World, he came down hard on the corporate sponsors and their (rather naive) messages inside the attractions. And while it's true that a cultural critic, as Fjellman is, is always going to gravitate towards areas of greater thematic gravity simply because those areas actually have something to discuss, it's sort of remarkable from the 21st century to re-read his late 20th century concerns.

For example, in General Motors Transcenter, he sees the Bird and Robot Show as an effort to portray the computerized factory "workers" - then already replacing flesh and blood workers - as positive, helpful, unthreatening servants. Fjellman makes the connection to Michael Moore's then-recent documentary Roger & Me, depicting the economic devastation in and around Flint, Michigan, by GM's abandonment of the area. Well, Flint MI isn't any better off today than it was in 1990, and for basically the same reasons.

But in other cases he seems to be wide of the mark. In EPCOT Computer Central, people play computer games to humanize and put a friendly face on new, threatening technology, and Fjellman sees this as another effort to indoctrinate the public to their new mechanical masters. It's not Fjellman's fault that he didn't see the internet age and dot com bubble coming, but it's interesting in hindsight to see an area of human activity that de-corporatized as it developed, to the point that fighting for digital freedoms is a very real issue in Washington today, an issue that CommuniCore never hinted at.

Yet more than anything, it's truly strange today to read Fjellman going apoplectic over these attractions which today, if not universally beloved, are considered to be classics of the first degree, standard bearers to beat. Most of them were with us for less than the life span of many house pets, yet their legend was grown outsize, torpid. There are fans of Horizons who never saw it in person. And if these classics really weren't so idiotically vapid as they seemed in the 80s, perhaps they weren't all they're cooked up to be today, either. Ideologically, if not technologically, a lot of Future World was very often suspect.

So let's take a leisurely tour of Future World, taking a look at the message of those original shows, their new message (if relevant), original sponsor, and assessing whether these subjects are still relevant, and how the message of Future World could change. After all, a lot can change in thirty years!

Spaceship Earth, 1982
Original Sponsor: Bell Systems
Original Message: The evolution of communication technology will lead mankind into the future.
Current Sponsor: Siemens
Current Message: The evolution of communication technology has led mankind into the future, where you are also a cartoon.

Comments: Of all of the major corporate pavilions at Future World, this one has aged the most gracefully, which is good, because it's inside a structure so complex it can't really be easily removed. Of all of the visions of the future presented at EPCOT Center, Spaceship Earth's came the nearest to actually coming true - even the families of Horizons were doing things like playing dorky transparent organs instead of staring at glowing screens the way everybody actually is today. This also means it's the easiest to update, which means it's gotten the most updates. But that itself is the problem.

The original version of the show, scripted with an assist from Ray Bradbury, had a tone that was dry and vaguely spooky, like many of the original Future World shows. The Walter Cronkite narration and insertion of "Tomorrow's Child" into the finale had the effect of softening the attraction somewhat, and to me the Cronkite version is still the champion for "best overall" version - it had show scenes almost all the way through, with animatronics and compelling visuals from bottom to top to bottom. The 1994 Irons version was simultaneously an improvement and a downgrade - it had an even better script, a stronger message, and an excellent soundtrack. The trouble came shortly before the "180 top" segment, where the sections dealing with an actual communications technology future, still relevant in the 90s, became an extended advertisement for AT&T's new videophone technology, which looked then like the sort of tech gadget that Screech would mock on Saved By The Bell. Worse still, the entire segment was accomplished with static figures in cheap sets which had no resemblance to the rest of the attraction, and were rendered in UV-sensitive paint which didn't always do a good job hiding the fact that most of what you were looking at was just black curtains.

True to tradition, the 2007 reboot both improved things and made them worse. Screens were added to each car and an Innoventions-style quiz game with animated cartoon became the new finale. A new score by Bruce Broughton doesn't have remotely the same impact as the 1994 score, and Judy Dench's narration is the first truly eye-rolling one for this attraction, although the contrast was heightened by coming immediately after Irons' excellent script and delivery. However, the refresh did manage to extend the good segment of the ride - complete with scenery and animatronics - a good 30 feet nearer to the 180 top, resulting in the strongest version of the front half of the ride since before the 1994 edition.

What Needs to Change: The focus of the next refurbishment needs to be extending the quality scenery at least part of the way down the descent portion of the ride. The original version included astronauts floating in space on the 180 top repairing satellites, then as the cars descended they coasted through the center of a space station where a woman directed the operation from a control tower. It was one of the most impressive things in EPCOT. The same effect can be achieved today, even with limited function figures, and Spaceship Earth really deserves that ending, more than it deserves a grid of dots or watching the news on TV. Once through that section, the original Spaceship Earth show converted to the "Tomorrow's Child" segment, right about where the 1994 show was giving you the famous "lightning in space". The final diorama and tunnel has never been attractive, and WDI really needs to commit to putting something cool here.

I suggest bringing back the 1994 score and dialing back on the patronizing quality of the narration for the next version. The in-car screens were prescient for 2007, and debuted mere months after the first iPhones went on sale, but are embarrassingly behind the curve now, and really need to show something worthwhile or be removed.

Status: Still truckin'
New Sponsor Suggestion: As the iconic visual of EPCOT Center, I think it's time for Disney to commit to this one themselves. The trouble with the sponsorship game is that sponsors are always going to want to tell a specific narrative, and inside an already constructed attraction like Spaceship Earth, it isn't an easy thing to do. As the last remaining Future World Classic, this one should be owned and funded entirely by Disney, and it needs to speak for the rest of Future World in a way that the other pavilions no longer do.

Earth Station, 1982
Original Sponsor: --
Original Message: --
Current Sponsor: Siemens, "Project Tomorrow"
Current Message: Thanks for riding!
Comments: I still think this is the most logical spot in Future World for Guest Relations. The original Earth Station included a detail everybody remembers: the computerized reservation central, where you could talk to another person through a video screen! Literally everything about Earth Station, and the WorldKey system, has been replaced by an average smartphone device, and that's fine. But I still think Guest Relations should be moved back to here. It doesn't need to be anything flashy, but this spot was designed for it.

Status: A less technologically advanced Face Time

CommuniCore Futurecom, 1982
Original Sponsor: AT&T
Original Message: A hands-on look at the complexities of relaying information across the country, including the Age of Information diorama, the Information Fountain, Network Control game, Packet Phraser, and Microchip Maze.
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: the true "post show" of Spaceship Earth was one of Communicore's nicest areas, using human-scaled activities and warm, inviting earth tones. On a basic level, kinetic pieces of art like the Information Fountain and Age of Information were fun to look at even if you didn't bother to stick around to figure out what it was all about. Exhibits like this were Future World's equivalent of Magic Kingdom's charming architectural facades, and the lack of them is one reason why Future World currently feels so sterile. If Future World is going to draw people back in to its monumental architecture, it needs socialization hubs like this - with appealing colors, natural light, and actual fun things to look at that don't mean much.

Status: Not quite as relevant, but still cool.

Universe of Energy, 1982
Original Sponsor: Exxon
Original Message: Fossil fuels, despite the extraordinary difficulty of obtaining them, are still the best energy source available, although if something better comes along, Exxon intends to own that, too.
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: We're running out of fossil fuels, but don't worry, we'll think of something.
Comments: The most ideologically weighted of the original Future World shows, let's be honest - Universe of Energy was never especially progressive or prescient. Much of the original show was devoted to explaining, at excruciating length, where fossil fuels come from and how they are harvested. Don't worry, there's also dinosaurs! The 1996 reboot of the show, Ellen's Energy Crisis, put a warm face on the proceedings but pretty much wrote off alternate energy sources as impractical. In some ways, the 1982 show was more honest - we are running out of options with fossil fuels, and the search for fossil fuels has led us, politically, to some pretty ugly places.

What Needs To Change: Universe of Energy is a problem. The basic design of the pavilion is based on a pitch created by production designer John DeCuir and bought by Disney in the 1970s. Technologically, the "moving theater" is probably the most outdated thing at Walt Disney World, running on an absurd jury rigged system that is as crude as it feels. But the pavilion is also an opportunity to create a real classic; after all, those dinosaurs are still pretty awesome.

If the moving theater concept is going to be retained, then at the bare minimum Disney needs to invest in new theater cars and a trackless ride system. With the ability to quickly and precisely move into place instead of waiting for the equivalent of two Commodore 2s to move you into place, it should be possible to present a dramatically reduced version of the original Universe of Energy show - complete with dorky theme songs - in about 15 minutes. The question is, should we really be doing that, even if the film in Theater 2 is entirely new? Because it's still then a show ideologically dominated by a fossil fuels company.

I think running an omnimover through the building is a better choice. This would allow you to retain the dinos and build new scenes around the experience, as well as present a different point of view, perhaps showing how far we've come since 1982 - and how much farther we have to go. Omnimovers are popular and efficient, and a family-friendly, not too long experience could do well today sitting next to two major thrill rides. To do that we need a sponsor with a real vision for a world without fossil fuels.

Status: Still Relevant
New Sponsor Suggestion: Tesla

CommuniCore Energy Exchange, 1982
Original Sponsor: Exxon
Original Message: Fossil Fuels are still the best!
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: This was the place where, freed from the confines of a moving theater, Exxon really hit home their point, offering guests opportunities to turn bicycles and wheels to light up lightbulbs, before offering the news that we would have to keep turning that crank for hours to generate one dollar of electricity! It wasn't terribly exciting and was usually empty, but it was memorable and did a lot better job doing the ideological heavy lifting than Universe of Energy ever has. If you've got to make a point, that's how to do it.

Status: Effective but Questionable

CommuniCore Epcot Computer Central, 1982
Original Sponsor: Sperry Univac
Original Message: Computers are not scary at all, and in fact even you can use them.
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: A wide-ranging overview of the various ways computers can improve and automate our lives, Sperry-Univac's keystone exhibit - The Astuter Computer Revue - closed shortly and reopened as the blandly cute Backstage Magic within just two years, but that was not the only problem. The exhibit overall focused heavily on the institutional and business aspects of computers - after all, this was years before even simple graphical interfaces became common, and nearly a decade and a half before Windows 95. As a result, a lot of Computer Central felt impersonal and utilitarian, where we could see computers doing things like calculating census data. Other computer abilities highlighted by Sperry included things that almost nobody does on a computer these days, like assembling an American flag. The most memorable thing in Computer Central, SMRT-1, was less of a demonstration of computer technology as a traditional theme park interaction exhibit dressed up as a robot.

One component amidst this sea of number crunching and automation did ring true as to where we were going with computers: the Rollercoaster game. Anybody who played this goofy thing in the 80s may not immediately think it as their introduction to CAD, but that is what it was. Computer Central wasn't much interested in the home and entertainment sectors of computing - the sectors which would explode in about a decade - and there wasn't even a single mention of "e-mail" anywhere in it, but I'd wager that between WorldKey, Rollercoaster, and the other games here, more Americans touched a computer inside EPCOT Center than anywhere else in the country during the 80s.

Status: Fossilized

Wonders of Life, 1989
Original Sponsor: MetLife
Original Message: It's a real battle to stay healthy (???)
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: Instead of breaking up each attraction here, I'm going to treat the entire pavilion as a piece, which is frankly really difficult. Of all of the Future World pavilions, Wonders of Life presented the most diffuse message, and had the shortest life span. Most guests simply treated the individual attractions as Magic Kingdom-style experiences, void of ideological ramifications, which was good, because they largely were.

Throughout, the visual theme of an indoor fun fair gave way to militaristic themes in the major attractions. A rather naked imitation of the 1987 film Innerspace, Body Wars was a ride-thru B movie complete with bad acting and sickening special effects. The charming Cranium Command was, in its day, one of the funniest, smartest things at WDW, but it had no more of a message than the Tiki Room - not freaking out seemed to be its main suggestion for dealing with daily life. Elsewhere, Wonders of Life offered a film about human conception and birth, and sold late 80s idea of healthy foods, like frozen yogurt and waffles.

It's probably better to think of Wonders of Life as a reflection of Michael Eisner's ideas about theme parks than any kind of coherent addition to the Future World lexicon. Here garish, Michael Graves-ian colors combine in a circus atmosphere complete with a spinning overhead mobile. Faceless, industrial institutions like the Miniaturized Exploration Technologies and the eponymous Cranium Command invite tourists to do highly unlikely things. Celebrities appear for no apparent reason - hey kids, is that Charles Grodin? What whimsy!

More than anything, Wonders of Life can be paired with The Living Seas as pavilion ideas that Disney created back in the 70s that never really found a great reason to exist. As an outgrowth of some truly strange ideas created for a Life & Health pavilion by Rolly Crump, Wonders of Life was more of its time and less interesting. It was also never quite able to justify how a discourse on healthy eating and exercise wasn't folded into the message of The Land, across the park.

Status: Goofy Gestalt
New Sponsor Suggestion: It's probably better to allow Wonders of Life to exist in its native habitat - the 1990s. This spot should be used as an expansion pad.

CommuniCore American Express TravelPort, 1982
Original Sponsor: American Express
Original Message: --
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: Basically a laserdisc assisted version of a travel agent, minus the ability the actually book a flight, TravelPort is hardly remembered aspect of Communicore, and for mostly good reasons, because it neither predicted nor rode any particular futuristic wave. It did, however, have a big red sphere, and those will always be cool.

Status: Replaced by Airfare Watchdog, Expedia, UrbanSpoon...

Horizons, 1983
Original Sponsor: General Electric
Original Message: If We Can Dream It, We Can Do It
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: This is the big one, and it's the big one for good reason. While the other Future World pavilions were marked by corporate elisions or made ideological hash of their messages, Horizons made the case that the rest of Future World couldn't - that the future was going to be really goddamned awesome, and you were going to float upside down. That message doesn't date, even if all of the other trappings of the show did. And as an index of the rest of Future World, showing us undersea colonies (The Living Seas), cool space stations (Spaceship Earth), and desert cultivation (The Land), Horizons was enormously effective and Future World will never be complete without it.

Here's why Horizons is still relevant today, and it's the reason why every kid who ever rode it, and most adults, have never forgotten it, regardless of how simplified and schematic is was. Kids deserve to be shown a version of the future that isn't a totalitarian society, or an ecological disaster, or a zombie apocalypse, and our society is not and never has been forthcoming with these options. Horizons delivered and made dimensional, tactile, a version of the future which was friendly and reassuring, and people, especially at a young age, deserve to know that positive change is possible too, even if it's wrapped up in a package which is somewhat of a fantasy. Because if you can't be cheerfully optimistic at Disney World, then what the hell is left?

Now, let's be clear: there will never again be an attraction as elaborate as Horizons. Disney was really the only place that ever built things like this, and they're not in that business anymore. Split into four segments - Looking Back at Tomorrow, the two omnisphere theaters, Tomorrow's Windows and Choose Your Own Future - Horizons was a staggering multi sensory epic. But when you get down to it, the key sections were Looking Back at Tomorrow and Tomorrow's Windows, and both of them were built on the fountain of stuff that Disney still does well - dimensional figures and scenery. These segments also have basically solid designs. What wasn't crucial in Horizons was not the specific designs of the clothes, accessories, even music or narration, all of which were pedestrian. What made Horizons work was the astonishing way the omnimovers creeps through and around those pod-like sets, sliding past space stations, and down below undersea cities. This can still be replicated, and given a new look with modern modern conceptions of shapes, colors, clothes, music, and dialogue - basically the same things which keep Spaceship Earth plugging along.

Therefore, even if the full version in all its glory can never be replicated, there is simply no excuse for Disney not to rebuild at least part of Horizons as their prestige family friendly omnimover attraction at Epcot. It's Epcot's Pirates of the Caribbean, and it really needs to be there, if only in part. I suggest putting up a new, condensed version where Wonders of Life is now.

Status: Integral, badly needed.
New Sponsor Suggestion: Horizons was the most Disney thing in Future World, so this is another one that Disney needs to really build and market as their own. Amongst the Disney faithful, a new version of Horizons would be one of the marketing and public relations success stories of the decade, and truly send the message that Disney was committing to Epcot again.

CommuniCore Electronic Forum, 1982
Original Sponsor: --
Original Message: The upcoming computer age will open new doors of communication, maybe
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: Of anything in EPCOT, Electronic Forum probably got nearest to where we would be in three decades. Televisions in the lobby, ostensibly intended to be used to access news casts from around the world, were most often used by EPCOT visitors to dial up college football games. As Richard Beard memorably puts it in his iconic Walt Disney's EPCOT Center, the Future choice Theater "offer(s) a rare opportunity to get a number of things off your chest and into a computer". The resulting demographic breakdowns displayed onscreen, and indeed the entire concept of electronically voicing opinions, was probably not what visitors carried away from this experience. Since the demographic breakdowns of 170 people were self-reported, Future Choice Theater was likely the first experience many people had with that most modern of internet activities, misrepresenting yourself.

In later years, the emphasis on current social issues gave way to the more benign "Person of the Century Poll", of which the winner was usually Michael Jackson. Because the attractions in Electronic Forum required the cheerful compliance of audiences to remain on message, here already was evidence of the true directions technology would take - subverted for amusement, redirected to watch college football on Sundays, turned into popular culture popularity contests. Anybody who thinks human mischief in the age of the internet is anything but an inevitabile could take a long look at Electronic Forum for a more persuasive alternate view.

Status: Replaced by Social Media

World of Motion, 1982
Original Sponsor: General Motors
Original Message: Private automobiles are more efficient, more useful, and less dangerous than any form of transportation yet invented.
Current Sponsor: General Motors, Test Track
Current Message: Thanks to rigorous testing, private automobiles are safer than ever before.
Comments: Designed at a time when the American automobile industry was imploding due to overseas competition and embroiled in expensive and publicity damaging scandals concerning chemical dumping and labor, World of Motion had next to nothing to say about the future, and spent most of its time concentrating on the past. That past, as designed by Marc Davis, was supremely goofy and fantastical, as various hazards and inconveniences - irate mules, sea serpents, flying carpets, airborne pigs, and traffic cops - impede the frivoulsly liberated human population's desire to go for a drive in the country. This wasn't so much a history of the automobile as a history of getting from place to place, ending in a vision of the future where paved multi-lane highways run every which way into the horizon - a future where no invention will ever replace the family sedan. Exxon, over at the Universe of Energy, would likely have approved.

What Needs to Change: The current version of Test Track, although less of my kind of ride than World of Motion was, is one of the few Future World pavilions to really feel like it has a place in Epcot. It has a corporate sponsor, a unified aesthetic, and is pushing an agenda, and doing a pretty good job doing it. Although I really miss all those those Marc Davis animatronics and huge sets - remember how massive the oak tree in the bicycling scene was? - Test Track is still on message. In a world where EPCOT Center is re-concieved from the ground up for 2016 audiences, an entire pavilion touting the personal car would not, I feel, make the cut, but for the popular and effective ride, this one should stay for now.

Status: Unkillable

TransCenter, 1982
Original Sponsor: General Motors
Original Message: Cars and combustion engines are great!
Current Sponsor: General Motors
Current Message: Buy some stuff, even a car!
Comments: Much like Energy Exchange over at CommuniCore, TransCenter does the ideological heavy lifting for General Motors. While Exxon let you turn a crank and see how insignificant your personal body power was compared to the merest blip of electricity, GM took a comic approach. The Water Engine took place in a darkened room where screens appeared behind the lowering cylinders of a combustion engine. While a laconic cowboy - the absolute embodiment of 80s American patriarchy - insists that he'll stick with the combustion engine till something better comes along, various crazy cartoon characters demonstrate their engines until a Mad Scientist-type turns on a "Water Engine" that explodes and wrecks comic havoc. Funny, charmingly animated, Water Engine still played directly into the prejudices of Americans and General Motors.

Steven Fjellman saw much that was ominous in The Bird and Robot Show, and given that his book was written in the immediate aftermath of Roger and Me, it's not too surprising. It's perhaps better, and more accurate, to see Bird and Robot as an outgrowth of traditional Disney theater shows like Country Bear Jamboree and Tiki Room, similar to the way that Kitchen Kabaret sought to add some old school Disney charm to to sleek, corporate EPCOT programme. WED basically treated the robotic assembly arm as the most advanced audio-animatronic possible, and paired it with a model of one of their earliest animated figures - a Tiki Room bird - to show off how fluidly it could move, lift objects, perform tricks, etc. Three decades on, the automation of labor has only increased, and is rapidly cresting the horizon where social change is going to need to happen to keep pace with the displaced population of laborers. Much like over at Expo Robotics, the robots are now the whole show.

The cleverest idea in TransCenter, and the one that really stuck, was the notion to require riders to exit through an automobile show room. Everyone remembers the Aero 2000, a machine designed to reduce wind resistance, but the Aero was a fantasy car and acted as the lure to keep people walking through the exhibit. Further along came more practical, potentially salable items such as the GM Lean Machine and, most importantly, next year's GM models.

What Needs to Change: The 1998 reboot into Test Track retained a few of the post-show elements. There was a simulator type attraction called Time Chasers, and a new gift shop which absorbed the back part of the automobile show room. The cars were instead moved forward into the exhibit area; guests still walk past the areas where Bird and Robot and Water Engine played. Given the fact that Test Track has a height restriction where World of Motion had none, I find it impossible to believe that films and exhibits in this are wouldn't be more popular with waiting families than the original menu of attractions were. In this case it's a matter of relocating or condensing the shop to make room for some informational activities that supplement the on-ride messages of safety and reliability.

Status: More memorable than you'd expect from a car company.

Come back next time for the rest of Future World!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Disney Springs and Invented Florida

"The truth of the matter is the only new towns of any significance built in America since World War II are Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Both are 'new', both are 'towns', and both are staggeringly successful." - Peter Blake, Animated Architecture, 1982
Authenticity: the Slippery Slope

Last time, we discussed the history of Disney's failed urban planning project, Lake Buena Vista. This week, we'll be looking at the newest effort to keep the area relevant, but first, a brief detour into semantics. I'd like to discuss what, exactly, makes a place or thing "authentic" versus an imitation.

This subject is central to the very concept of theme parks, but has hardly ever been discussed. It's been invoked by every cultural critic who's written on the subject - implying that being built by an elect group of people with a plan and goal as opposed to being built by unrelated people with no real plan makes a place any less real. But does it?

"Authenticity" is a slippery slope once you actually start sliding down it, and nowhere else is this more evident than in the realm of architecture - architecture being, after all, the main thing that theme parks are made up out of. Let's look at one example: the Philip Chapin house, in my hometown of New Hartford, CT:

Today, we fawn over this sort of thing as an authentic example of Victorian architecture. In its day, it would have been seen as the most ghastly form of nouveau-riche tastelessness. A ludicrous modern imitation of an Italian villa, what was seen in its own day as a sham and fake has become authentic with the passage of time.

Another example, closer to home: Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, or King Ludwig's Castle. It's commonly cited as the basis for Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland:

Yes, it's a real castle, but it's also a ludicrous fake, constructed by a wasteful king in the Victorian era to evoke romances of the holy grail and the operas of Richard Wagner. It was built with what then qualified as the most modern of amenities, including heated running water, toilets, an electric bell system, a modern oven, and including such suspect embellishments as reproduction tapestries and an indoor cave.

When we think of it this way, the space between Ludwig II's private theme park and Walt Disney's fiberglass castle becomes very narrow. They're both widely viewed and beloved by visitors who care not a lick for "authenticity" because both are designed to evoke powerful symbolic associations in the minds of their visitors.

So what makes something authentic? Once enough time passes, will Disney's fiberglass castles be suddenly, magically conferred respectability? Or is it a slipperier thing - is it belief? Does something become "Authentic" because its viewers believe it to be so?

Of course the sort of people who are eager to confer upon theme parks and their like - shopping centers, planned communities, restaurants - the label of "Fake" are those who have the most to lose by failing to control such labels: those who need their opinions to carry the weight of authority. Sometimes the label can be extended to "appropriation", i.e. theft of something held to be integral elsewhere. But even trying to establish what's "real" and what's "fake" is often an exercise in futility, as we shall shortly see.

I think that's good. Theme parks may be manufactured according to strict aesthetic guidelines, but to me that's a crucial distinction, because that is what makes them compelling. What one person sees as "fake" can just as easily be labeled "artistic". And in the case of something like Disney Springs, where the distinctions have broken down to an extent that the distinctions become meaningless anyway, there is a fascinating case study.

Inventing Space

Even if the notion of authenticity is a slippery slope, there is already a built in resistance to confer the blessings of cultural approval on Disney. One way this manifests is a resistance - supported by Disney - to deem the parks objects of historical interest. so far there has been no general acceptance of the idea that a theme park is certainly related and in some ways basically analogous to the traditionally approved manufactured settings - fine dining establishments, museums, theaters, or national parks.

I've thought long and hard on this subject and to me the only workable definition of a "themed" enviroment is one which has been subject to the act of curation - in which certain aspects have been enhanced, or removed, to obtain a specific aesthetic, often symbolic effect. Museums build narratives out of the mess of history; theme parks build narratives out of the harmonization of imaginary spaces. National parks, so often sold as representing an "untouched" area in a specific state of historical preservation, are also subject to the act of curation - by removing or demolishing any aspects of the protected area which would break the illusion of being "unspoiled" (for more on this see Terence Young, Theme Park Landscapes: Antecedents and Variations).

And yet, I would argue that ideologically and historically speaking, Disneyland, EPCOT, and Magic Kingdom are as central to the American identity as Yellowstone or the National Mall. If they weren't, then there would be no implied threat in Disney co-opting American history in things like The American Adventure and Disney's America. Through sheer popularity, citizens have conferred importance and historical relevance on Disney theme parks, bypassing the gatekeepers of culture.

The minute that we open our minds to the possibility that non-sanctified history is still basically historical, the more the complexities of Disney's manufacture of history become compelling. Disney Springs is a key place to see this at work. Here, real and imagined history weave into a tight web. Let's dip back into our historical narrative of Lake Buena Vista from last week and pick up some threads.

Faux History

By the time Downtown Disney had added its West Side addition, it was a patched-together thing, laid out as three distinct units that made sense on their own but made no sense together. Traffic flow between the three areas was already best described as impractical, and the opening of Pleasure Island to foot traffic only made the situation worse.

Something would need to be done, but what? And how could all three distinct areas be tied together cohesively? In the past, the solution to improving themed areas which were lacking in appeal came down to two options: re-skinning, or demolition. Tomorrowland 1994 re-skinned the offending area, isolating the problem in its aesthetics. New Fantasyland and Disney California Adventure demolished, preferring to start over in a more traditionally appealing aesthetic mode.

At Disney Springs, the approach was, uniquely, to lean in to the mess of conflicting styles and agendas. Areas which already were aesthetically appealing, such as the Marketplace, only received minor facelifts and foot traffic improvements. Pleasure Island's industrial aesthetic could stay. The largest offenders at West Side could be covered up with industrial details or slated for later demolition. Tying the whole thing together is a new "Downtown" area and central water feature.

In other words, by refusing to paper over or demolish the inconsistencies of Downtown Disney, Disney Springs embraces them as the whole darn point. By my count there's at least seven aesthetics at work in the area, and they have been used to signify, rather than try to remove, the pains and competing ideologies of the growth of its imagined community:

Pre-Modern Cracker Houses and Ranches

Industrial Revolution tin sheds

Industrial Revolution "old brick"

Early 20th century Spanish Revival

Mid-Century Craftsman/Chalet

Post-Mid Century Modern

Post-Modern "Whimsical"

And here's where the story begins to become almost perverseley convoluted. Lake Buena Vista represents an abandoned attempt at a "Planned Community". The downtown of this planned Community - the Village - was actually constructed. As a result, even before the notion was legitimized by this new expansion, Downtown Disney already represented the problems of real cities - namely, having a well planned downtown with a bunch of suburbs stuck onto it more or less randomly, causing no end of traffic problems and infrastructure strain.

This new expansion seeks to resolve the problem by building a new, sleeker, more attractive downtown away from the original urban center. Wait, hold on -- where have we heard this before? Oh, that's right, we've heard it in real life - it's the story of every mall that has ever been built.

It even basically looks and sounds like these new "Town Center" outdoor malls which have sprouted like mushrooms in major urban centers. Below is one not far from Disney Springs - "The Grove" at Winter Garden Village. The Grove even contains faux-historical landmarks, a hotel sign above empty space, and signs honoring "local" Winter Garden residents. It is a manufactured downtown, but treated and used as a legitimate one by local shoppers. and what did we say about authenticity up top?

"Inside" the story of Disney Springs, are are supposed to understand that the new Town Center represents the "original" downtown area and the original Village is now a later suburb, yet the mind spins. We've now got a mall built next to a downtown that is pretending to be an yet older downtown - inside a huge mall.

Where Downtown Disney more or less tried to keep pace with whatever the current conception of "cool" is, Disney Springs instead aligns itself with the mode of representation traditionally most successful to Disney - the past. Instead of a murky Florida lake, the area is now centered around a "natural spring" - really a pretty, and pretty elaborate, swimming pool. Surrounding the Spring is brand new - but supposed to be old - Florida vernacular architecture. 35 years ago, this area was a swamp outside the Village. 3 years ago, it was a pile of dirt, yet here now stands "The Oldest Building In Disney Springs."

Yet it's just this sort of absurd, working backwards, built up layers of signification that gives Disneyland and Magic Kingdom their great sense of history. And while perhaps there's nothing deeper to the historical approach of Disney Springs than the generational shift towards all things "retro chic", the new style at least will have the benefit of aging gracefully instead of constantly trying to chase whatever is "cool" in this decade.

Yet for the committed Disney historian, the rabbit hole goes deeper. Throughout the new area, there are numerous small call-outs and references to Disney history, in this case usually tied up with both the real history and imagined history of this part of WDW property, such as this brand new building intended to be an early 20th century converted vegetable market, built by "Buena Vista Steel":

One could easily write off these details as the product of an unimaginative design team dipping into Disney's rich heritage to insert yet more meaningless tributes to past glories. But, in Downtown Disney, probably the number one area in WDW where master planning failed, the authentic history of poor legacy designs becomes disguised as the artificial history of the spreading of a town.

"Buena Vista Steel"
In other words, Disney Springs is the only part of Disney property which has grown to become something of a real life example of the kind of urban space it was designed to evoke. Real life cities do have huge traffic problems, real life cities are putting up parking decks to service their downtowns, real life cities are trying to attract popular and prestigious companies to fill their new malls. At what point does Disney Springs cross a line into fiction? At what point do real life cities more and more resemble Disneyland? If people believe that the fiberglass castle is real, does it become real?

In this sense, Disney Springs opens up a feedback loop akin to the ironic mutation of history seen on Buena Vista Street at California Adventure. There, shops and facilities named after old school Disney characters are said to have inspired a young Walt Disney to create... those same old school Disney characters. It's become an absurd IP game of musical chairs where history and fantasy have melded seamlessly into a mobius strip of influence.

I can see an average visitor being genuinely bewildered by this. Disney has replaced real history with slightly different artificial history and left audiences to sort it out. They've messed with similar elisions before - in the original development cycle of the Haunted Mansion, the ride was said to be a real haunted house transplanted to Disneyland. And since 1955, this plaque at Disneyland has been quietly bewildering readers, assigning great historical import to a random bit of metal:

But as far as I know Disney has never quite created an idea that requires this many layers of fiction piled up on each other, and if the result is aesthetically underwhelming, it's conceptually dizzying. It's like taking everything one step further and claiming the Walt Disney actually grew up on Main Street USA and built the rest of Disneyland around it. Both versions of the area are fiction, but there's a crucial distinction left unsaid.

Then again it's only worth fussing over conceptual distinctions like that if people are actually legitimately fooled, and I have little concern about that happening. Still, the resulting product, with its intermeshed history, fantasy, fact and fiction is truly evocative and conceptually bizarre.

The Fake Real Fake City

Going in another direction, let's return to the Town Center. Around the Town Center are a number of buildings designed to resemble converted houses. There's a few Cracker houses, an old ranch house (D-Luxe Burger), a Googie house (Blaze Pizza), and what is said to be some kind of ice house (Sprinkles) (the owners, presumably, having long ago fled to the suburbs). But most of the Town Center is built to recall Spanish Revival architecture - tilework, whitewashed stucco, wrought iron, and red tile roofs.

Any seasoned Orlandoite will recognize immediately what this is an imitation of: Rollins College in Winter Park.

Okay, so let's talk about Winter Park.

Winter Park, a suburb north of Orlando, has become for many the cultural center of Orlando, with brick lined streets, high end dining, winding canals, and the famous and expensive Park Avenue. Despite all of this, it is in some ways a fake city.

Winter Park was begun as a suburban development in 1885 to take advantage of one of Florida's many land rushes and a new rail line. With strict limits on housing style, varieties, roads, and walking paths, it was one of America's earliest planned communities. It was Celebration 110 years ahead of schedule.

So yes, Rollins College may be old - 1885 - but its beautiful architecture is not authentic old Spanish. Strictly speaking, it's artificial. Of course, in architecture circles, they have a word for this - Spanish Revival, which sits neatly alongside Gothic Revival, Italiante, Renaisance Revival, Queen Anne, Second Empire, Romanesque, and other styles of American architecture built to resemble something they are not. But it's just as correct to say that Rollins College was built themed to Spanish Florida, with its conquistadors, fountains of youth, and romantic tilework.

The fact is that maybe the most distinctive single thing about American architecture is that we have always and forever loved building themed to other things. That's why we were the country that created Coney Island and Disneyland. These places weren't some kind of perversion of a pure cultural legacy, but simply the logical outgrowth of what we've always done.

Don't believe me? Let's go back - back to when the United States was brand new, and take a look at Federalist architecture:

Those cool little pavilions around the front doors, the white columns, the emphasis on symmetry, the mullioned gables, and half-rounded fan lights? We didn't invent that - we stole it from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and stuck it onto our little saltbox houses in the nationalist frenzy of the post-Revolutionary War. The borrowing from ancient Greece was no accident - they were a famous Democracy, just like America.

Thomas Jefferson caught onto the fad and took a trip to Greece to check out what was left of their architecture, and when he came back he applied the Grecian "golden ratio" to American houses and created Jeffersonian Architecture:

See those white columns? The weirdly out of place pediment? The five-part structure of the house? The relentless symmetry? Yeah, Jefferson stole that from the Greeks. You can see it at Monticello, of course, but the symbology of ancient world Democracy is the reason why Americans have always enjoyed slapping neoclassical embellishments onto our nationalist architecture:

It's theming by just another name. And once you accept that something in the American national character just compels us to build stuff that looks like other stuff:

...the distinction between Main Street USA and real Victorian architecture begins to look like nothing but a blip. Less time passed between the era depicted on Main Street and the opening of Disneyland than passed between the construction of Rollins and the new Town Center. The Town Center, for those who only know Florida from Walt Disney World, may not scream "old Florida", but it's as legitimate a copy of the original fake as the fake itself was legitimate.

Town Center is a mall that pretends to be the original downtown of an artificial community, built beside the real downtown of an abandoned planned community, built to resemble a successful planned community just a few miles away.

Reused Reuse

Or, we could talk about Pleasure Island. "Inside" the story of Pleasure Island, it was a manufacturing center for the Pleasure family in the first part of the 20th century, which was wiped out by a hurricane (the same one which destroyed Typhoon Lagoon, in a likely coincidence). The island was re-claimed by Disney and renovated into a nightclub district, all of this to flatter Michael Eisner and his love of 80's style "Urban Reuse".

As far as I know, Pleasure Island was the very first time Disney built structures in which their signifying facades were intentionally at odds with their contents. Even the monumental abstraction of something like Future World's The Land was intended to signify what could be found inside; haunted houses contained haunted houses, pirate forts contained pirate rides.

Pleasure Island asked you to separate form and content in a way that nothing else at Walt Disney World does. Mannequins was a purpose-built facility housing a nightclub, disguised as a reclaimed tin shed-style industrial manufacturing building. Today, "Inside" the story of Disney Springs, it's a reclaimed bottling plant which just so happens to contain Morimoto Asia, a high end pan-Asian restaurant.

In this way, the building now housing Morimoto Asia even more strongly resembles its obvious inspiration: The Cannery Restaurant in Newport Beach, CA, which revolutionized restaurant design in the 80s by reclaiming a disused cannery and leaving its industrial equipment in place around the dining rooms as pieces of sculpture.

Yet this invented history paints over the real history of the building - as a nightclub called Mannequins, one of the few Pleasure Island nightclubs to run from opening to closing day. Nearby, Jock Lindsay's claims to be a converted airplane hangar from the 1940s, and it's tough to tell them apart, despite Jock Lindsay being new construction. It's pretty tough to recognize most of Pleasure Island, honestly, unless one is very up on her Pleasure Island history. Nearly everything there was knocked down and rebuilt, leaving only minor traces behind.

For about ten years, seemingly everything Disney built was rooted in some kind of meta history of abandonment and reuse - to Pleasure Island we may add Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, parts of Animal Kingdom, and much of California Adventure. Inside the parks, at least, much of this didn't jibe well with Disney's audience and so has been stripped out, especially at California Adventure.

Disney Springs is one of the few places left where this sort of thematic games playing is still in evidence, and it has fakes upon fakes upon fakes all reflecting back at one another, like a hall of mirrors. For just one example: a brand new building on "The Landing" aka Pleasure Island, housing a new upscale restaurant STK Orlando, has a distinctive, seemingly arbitrary shape:

Yet for those who know Orlando well, if it seems strangely familiar, it's because it's built as a reference to this 1889 train station in Downtown Orlando:

Imagineers didn't have to look at old photos to get that idea, because that structure still stands today, on Church Street in Orlando. That's right, it's Church Street Station, and through the 70s and 80s it was a nuisance to Disney management as the entrance to a famous pay-one-price, gated nightclub attraction. To compete with Church Street Station, Disney built....... Pleasure Island, the current location of this reproduction. History doesn't simply repeat; it devours itself whole. Good luck not getting lost in all that.

This is why Disney Springs seems to collapse in on itself conceptually, forever pulling to some center point where fantasy and fact collide, like the house at the end of Poltergeist. There are so many layers of real, but obscured, and invented, but promoted history floating through that place that it's impossible to keep track of.

What I do know is that there are things in Disney Springs, Lake Buena Vista, and Downtown Disney that are beautifully present simply for their own sake - in the end, the only reason that matters. There's the way the afternoon Florida light filters in through the artfully arranged clutter in Jock Lindsay's Hangar Bar, who for some reason knew Indiana Jones, but whose bar feels authentically old in that moment in a way you usually have to go to Key West to enjoy. There's the Empress Lilly, impressive for her own sake, who is shortly getting her smokestacks and paddle wheel back, a real bit of history being returned to us. There's even an honesty in D-Luxe Burger, that brand spanking new old ranch house, in that it quietly and casually reminds Disney guests that once upon a time a long time before a certain theme park was built there wasn't much to Central Florida besides cattle pasture.

It may be fake, and not look very much like the real thing, but there's a honesty in the spring inside Disney Springs too. It's the first time in the 50 year history of Walt Disney World that Disney has seemed to say to its visitors: "Hey, you know, there's stuff in Florida, too, and it's good enough for us to build a fake version here for you.". It's the first time that Disney's home state has been warranting of the sort of representation extended to, say, Canada.

And there's the catch, and why the theme seems to maddeningly fold in on itself, bigger on the inside than the outside. It isn't themed to some other place, but to right here. Disney's mess of a planned community in Florida has embraced its identity as... a mess of a planned community, in Florida.

It's Floridian, and maybe part of being Floridian means being an an elaborate fake, like Charlie Kane's Xanadu deep in the tropical jungle of the imagination. Imagined, fantasized, pre-planned, corporate, artificial, deeply weird - that's Florida, and it's true inside Disney's bubble... and true outside it, too.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Lake Buena Vista and Shaping Orlando

"Disney is nearer to what people really want than anything architects have ever given them." - Robert Venturi, 1972
Historians don't like question marks. Mysteries are reserved for literature, and send the factually minded chasing down clues and pursuing phantoms, chasing scraps of evidence forever hoping to stumble across that moment where uncertainties are erased.

But no matter what, Walt Disney's E.P.C.O.T. city will forever be the un-answerable question sitting at the center of discussions not just of Walt Disney World, but Walt Disney's entire life. Walt Disney was a man who coaxed art out of unpromising material - cartoons, amusement piers, episodic children's books, rotating furniture galleries - by posing open questions to his devoted league of designers and hashing out the final product from their best ideas. EPCOT didn't get very far from the question of "What would a future city look like?" before Walt Disney died.

Walt Disney's inheritors were absolutely right in their conviction that only Walt could have actually produced EPCOT - partially because there were few men left in the world of his means and conviction, and partially because nobody but him knew what the hell it was going to be. The famous "Progress City" pie-shaped suburb and covered urban center is very much a work in progress - ambitious, perhaps, but also not real.

One need only to look at the problems a later Disney regime faced in trying to launch Celebration to immediately realize that Walt never solved the problem of actually having people living in this place. Riding glass enclosed Peoplemovers and going home to steel and glass houses to be gawked at by tourists and constantly hassled by corporations who want to replace your dishwasher is not everyone's American dream. Everyone who lived in EPCOT would've had to have loved it as much as Walt for any of his goals to actually work.

So in their own way Disney was right to fulfill the specifications if not the spirit of their pact with Florida in creating EPCOT Center. And yet in other ways, the apple of urban design has never fallen far from Disney's tree. Through a combination of accident and design, Walt Disney World actually is a city with a population of tens of thousands - a city of fantasy, not science fiction.

On this blog I've always tried hard to raise awareness about the key role of Lake Buena Vista both in the creation of Walt Disney World and the evolution of Disney's urban planning, but I feel that now is the right time to raise the question again.

The problem is that tracing Lake Buena Vista from conception to present day has always been a failure story - an unrealized planned community that gave way to a patchwork quilt of chaos called Downtown Disney. But times have changed, and Disney has spent the last several years entirely, experimentally and painfully rebuilding the shell of Lake Buena Vista into Disney Springs, and that changes the story.

We'll get there. But before we do, for new readers of this blog as well as for maximum clarity, it's necessary to backtrack. So first let's introduce what Lake Buena Vista was and what it was supposed to be for Disney, and how Lake Buena Vista's development is the key to unlocking the secret history of Walt's EPCOT city.

Lake Buena Vista - Where The Peacocks Roam

The usual way of thinking about the EPCOT City is that it qualifies as an abandoned project by Disney; they simply give up and built a theme park, a betrayal of Walt's final project. This is not quite true. In reality an entire phalanx of complexities and setbacks saw the EPCOT city concept gradually pushed deeper and deeper into the grave. It's a long story, one that sees Disney scaling back and scaling back ambitious plans in the face of an uncertain economy and indifferent housing market.

The Magic Kingdom was not yet open when the foundations began to be poured for Lake Buena Vista. The October 1971 issue of Walt Disney World News includes this surprising headline near the back of the magazine:
"Lake Buena Vista - City of Tomorrow 
The city of Lake Buena Vista, located on 3,800 acres of lush Florida lake country adjacent to Walt Disney World, represents a new concept in urban development. 
A testing ground for modern building and living ideas, the city is rapidly emerging as a new kind of recreation-oriented community. Residential homes, condominiums, motor inns, apartment complex, an 18-hole golf course and commercial development are all part of the new community concept."

Anybody reading that in 1971 could come to the conclusion that this was the start of construction for Epcot, which of course is exactly what Disney was betting on. The 1971 Walt Disney Productions Annual Report included an entire section on LBV, and made the claim explicit:

"A prime consideration of Walt Disney in purchasing 27,500 acres of land in central Florida as the future site for Walt Disney World was his desire to give direction to the surrounding development which would emerge as a natural consequence of his new destination vacation resort. 
Walt Disney's ultimate goal for the Florida project was always the development of EPCOT, an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a living environment, 25 years ahead of its time, which would always be introducing, testing and demonstrating new systems and technologies. 
To gain practical experience in this new field of real estate development, and to provide careful and balanced management planning for the entire Florida property in keeping with Walt Disney's initial objectives, the Company created a wholly-owned subsidiary, the Buena Vista Land Company."
In June 1972, Architectural Forum published an extensive overview of the entire Walt Disney World complex, saving special space for the Lake Buena Vista project as it stood at that time, and they had this to say about it:
"The nearest thing in WDW to a real town is the residential community of Lake Buena Vista, a development of high and low-rise structures that will, eventually, cover 4,000 acres and house 16,500 full or part-time residents, and employ 4,000 outsiders. It's not nearly as adventurous as the late Walt Disney's dreams of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT; but, unlike EPCOT, the community of Buena Vista is both practical, in todays terms; and it is, in fact, under construction. 
An initial development, called the Golf Course Community, has started construction with 27 clustered, neatly planned and designed row houses (some of which may be operated, experimentally, on dry cell batteries that are a product of the Space program at Cape Kennedy, 100 miles to the east). 150 additional, clustered row house will be built almost immediately; and, eventually there will be 2,500 housing units. 
Preliminary plans for commercial development include two kinds of retail areas. The first will be on the water and consist of small-scale souvenir, craft and convenience shops. The second center is planned as a regional shopping district and as it grows will probably become the ultimate in multi-level, all-enclosed extravaganzas."

Architectural Forum published this early master plan for LBV, including the Townhouse that were actually built, with an unrecognizable modern complex where the Village would shortly be:

The "Hospital" seen in the top right off SR-535 still exists today as a CentraCare; before the construction of Celebration Hospital, this is where all injured WDW guests were cared for. Disney put up a new sign off 535 announcing the entrance to Lake Buena Vista, directly across from what would one day become the Crossroads Shopping Plaza:

However, even the sunny Architectural Forum article suggested some of the problems Disney was already encountering in terms of actually getting their planned community off the ground:
"Unless policy changes, Buena Vista will be a recreational community, its houses owned cooperatively by individuals or corporations that want to get their executives to relax, occasionally. There may be no schools in the conventional sense, although there will be commercial and office buildings, if the demand materializes."
The trouble with EPCOT had always been that a city required citizens, and citizens would demand a variety of rights, including voting rights. Disney, of course, would not want to extend private citizens voting rights over the property they had fought so hard to have total control over. The situation was never fully resolved. To this day, Disney does have full time citizens who live on their property... carefully selected citizens, who have been encouraged or otherwise persuaded to vote as the Mouse tells them to.

Disney's first effort to solve this problem was to start the population of its City of Tomorrow with corporate sponsors. Shortly after October 1971, the Walt Disney World Preview Center was closed, and made over into the Lake Buena Vista Preview Center. Disney offered sponsors and other businesses the opportunity to buy a two-level shed-style condo on Disney property and offered interior design services to reflect each individual owner's preferences. Disney went to the extraordinary step of bringing over Disney Studio designer Emile Kuri to establish an interior design firm just for this purpose - Buena Vista Interiors. And early promotional brochure from 1972 explained the program this way:
"Lake Buena Vista is a private community of residences designed for leisure-living in the Florida outdoors. Looking out onto a lake, a forest or a waterway, residences vary: Family detached “second homes” and vacation sites, homes for business executives and corporations, cluster homes and townhouses. 
Disney security, landscape, maintenance and other important services are part of the reason this community is “different” from other leisure-time concepts. 
Residential Hostessing is not a new idea. But at Lake Buena Vista’s Townhouses, the concept has proved especially popular with America’s corporate officers and their guests … because Lake Buena Vista has met its promise. 
In the Townhouse community, where Residential Hostessing is offered, conveniences and life’s pleasures are anticipated. Businessmen meet in park-like settings to discuss business affairs, dine on gourmet-catered luncheons, then tee-off at one of three 18-hole golf courses in Walt Disney World. 
The Residential Hostess has arranged it all – tickets to the Magic Kingdom for wives and children, cocktails at six, dinner at eight, catered at your Townhouse or at Walt Disney World’s exciting hotel supper clubs. 
Flowers, champagne, a note of welcome, arrangements made and followed, service … these are the calling cards of the Residential Hostesses in the Townhouse community at Lake Buena Vista."
LBV Circa early 1972. "Buena Vista Land" is the old Preview Center.
Inside the first cluster of LBV Townhouses, 1971

One of the only, and thus the primary, source for insight into these early days of Lake Buena Vista is an early 1972 issue of Orlando-land Magazine. John Tassos, head of sales for the division, met with editor Edward Prizer and Prizer had this to say:
"Another uncommon aspect of Lake Buena Vista is the emphasis on second homes. Some people have interpreted this to mean that Disney is appealing only to buyers with a certain level of affluence. Possibly the fact that the first group of townhouses have all been leased to business firms has added to this impression. 
I asked John Tassos whether their planning would mean that the average one-family home would be excluded. 
"Our prime motive is a second-home community, but we are not limiting it," he said. "Anyone will be welcomed at our marketing center. We will eventually have year-round residents. We'll be careful about what kind of people can help the community but we see no reason to eliminate qualified buyers." 
Disney has indicated that there may be home sold for as low as $28,000. Plans include provision for schools and churches - a necessity if there are to be permanent residents."

It isn't hard to read between those lines to see that Disney still hadn't come up with a plan for offering residence for citizens - and Tassos went on to hint at the true direction Lake Buena Vista was heading.
"John Tassos mentioned the fact that there was an urgent need among companies associated with Walt Disney World to have a place to put people. "With our hotels at 98 percent occupancy, accommodations just haven't been readily available."
The Townhouses failed to make much of an impact. Today, it's easy to see such an offer being wildly successful, but it's important to remember that in the early 70s there was literally nothing anywhere around WDW - it sat in the center of pasture land and orange groves until well into the 90s. Meanwhile, just up the road, Walt Disney World hotels were filled to constant capacity. While Disney moved ahead with construction of the promised golf course and clubhouse - now called The Lake Buena Vista Club - on-site liscencees for hotels were building a TravelPort, Dutch Inn, Royal Inn, and Howard Johnson's as quickly as cement could be poured. With few other options, Disney furnished the remaining Townhouses and began to offer them as deluxe vacation rentals for tourists.

A Village Rises in 1974
The Shopping Village in 1976

Little changed at Lake Buena Vista for several years until Spring 1975, when the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened amidst a swirl of champagne and Glenn Miller by starlight. A cluster of a dozen chalet-style structures positioned around a man-made lagoon, Lake Buena Vista was designed to evoke a sophisticated adult milieu of wood tones, overflowing planters, and classic Mediterranean statuary. It appealed as much to locals as to tourists looking for an extra day of fun. The Shopping Village brought fine wines, high end fashions, and gourmet food to the sleepy little hamlet of Orlando - the kind of place where the best meal in town circa 1974 was at a restaurant called "The Beef and Bottle". Disney's extravagances paved the road for Orlando's sophisticated modern dining scene.

All of this was by design, of course. Despite lackluster sales of the Townhouses, Disney began construction on a series of somewhat similar Treehouse Villas, intended to sleep a large family, and like the Townhouses before them complete with kitchen and laundry. Residents at the Townhouses or Treehouses could have food delivered from the Gourmet Pantry at the Village, while Village Spirits provided wine. The Lake Buena Vista Club, a modern low rise restaurant "where you are already a member" offered one of Central Florida's most exclusive meals, only a short boat ride away. Disney established the Village's bona fides by holding an annual art fair in November, what eventually became the Festival of the Masters.

The Shopping Village was designed to be Lake Buena Vista's downtown - a bustling master planned urban center with high end restaurants and eateries. It was then easy to brush off Disney's claims they they are establishing a city - especially since we, looking back from 2016 know what happened afterwards - but a remarkable series of documents from 1975 hint that their ambitions had not scaled back yet.

This 1975 map shows a series of office buildings directly across from the completed Village, terminating in what Disney describes as a "Multi-Modal Station". The Station was intended to service bus, taxis, automobiles, people movers (indicated in pink in the map above), and monorails (blue on the map above). The planning documents state:
"A major element of making this public transportation system best meet Lake Buena Vista’s needs will be the multi-modal terminal on the downtown Peoplemover system. Guests and Employees will be able to arrive at the city via public transportation and then ride the Peoplemover to their destination – a journey completely void of private automobiles. 
Another very important service Lake Buena Vista multi-modal terminal will provide is a gateway to Walt Disney World for people arriving via public transit. Lake Buena Vista and the downtown Peoplemover will be exposed to millions of these Walt Disney World guests. 
The downtown Lake Buena Vista multi-modal transportation terminal includes intra-urban, inter-urban, and inter-state facilities which provide the critical “location” and “link” to the achievement of a viable regional public transportation system. 
According to the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council recent study estimates, by 1990, the public transit system will provide daily trips to 34,610 Orlando area transit passengers, with 24,570 of these trips going to/from Walt Disney World. For these visitors, the multi-modal terminal at downtown Lake Buena Vista will be the “showcasing” stop while on their way to Walt Disney World."
In other words, the station was to be positioned directly off I-4 because it was expected to interface with trains and other forms of public transportation throughout the Central Florida area.

This is very much in line with Disney's ethos of the 1970s. Disneyland, the Vacation Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista and even planned but abandoned projects like Mineral King emphasized the concept of isolated parking - part of the utopian feeling of Disney's theme parks is that their roads are reserved entirely for foot traffic, unlike modern urban cities where roads make walking slow and dangerous. It's easy to see Disney here calculating the benefits of encouraging and hooking themselves into a mass transit solution - pointedly, they did the same thing in 2012 when high-speed rail lines were proposed linking Daytona Beach to Tampa.

Fascinatingly, the Peoplemover system intended for Lake Buena Vista in 1975 was going to be radically different from the ones at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom: it was going to have vehicles shuttling in and off a main line with stops at each hotel and destination along way way. And, perhaps most interestingly, Disney expected to charge a nominal fee for their use.
"It is envisioned that Lake Buena Vista’s Peoplemover will operate as a “horizontal elevator”. Passengers will be moved from one facility to another just as an elevator moves from one floor to another, but, with one important difference: the Peoplemover will take each party directly to their destination without intervening stops. 
Passengers will use the system by first depressing a vehicle call button near the vehicle entry “elevator” door. The door to the waiting vehicle will open, permitting entry. After selecting the desired location on a control panel inside the vehicle, passengers will be dispatched to their destination without intervening stops at other stations. Each station will have sufficient loading positions to meet passenger demands with a minimum of wait time. 
A reserve supply of units will be capable of “feeding” an empty load position unless another vehicle will be arriving momentarily. Conversely, if a station is filled with empty, dormant vehicles, they will be shuttled to the spur track to make room for loaded vehicles arriving from other stations."

Walt Disney World Village: The Dream Contracts

Building communities? Inter-urban transit stations? World Showcase? Epcot Satellites? The mid-70s was a crazy era for Disney's brand of speculative futurism.

And yet 1975 is also the year that marks, in a way, the end of Lake Buena Vista's potential as a real community. In January 1975, Space Mountain opened at Magic Kingdom, and Donn Tatum announced that Phase One of Walt Disney World was complete. The company would now be lavishing all of it attention and resources on EPCOT - and it was expected to be a theme park, not a city.

Treehouse Villa Kitchen
Up till now the Townhouses and Treehouses had been designed as much for gracious entertaining as vacationing, but a shift was underway. Disney broke ground in 1976 on a new development nestled amongst the holes of the Lake Buena Vista Course, and called them the Fairway Villas. These were smaller energy efficient dwellings with long sloping roofs, with limited kitchenettes instead of full kitchens and bedrooms, intended more for vacationers than full time living. Promotional descriptions from the time hint at the shift:
“The Villas, expected to yield energy savings of 50 percent with their unique design, each have a 720-square-foot living, dining, and kitchen area and two bedrooms, one of which can be combined with the adjoining Villa. Designed for family vacations, meetings, seminars, and executive conferences, the Villa units will be arranged so that as many as four bedrooms can be rented by one tenant.”
As perhaps one final, last-ditch attempt, Disney actually built four full-size houses nearby. If they were ever offered for real sale, I've never seen any evidence of it. Rented out for corporate functions and large families, Number 301, 302, 303 and 304 Lake Buena Vista, FL were the only true residence houses constructed on the site. In later years they were rented under the title "Grand Vista Suites", and Steve Birnbaum diplomatically described them as "model homes for a development project that has been abandoned for the moment".

Across the street from the Village, what Disney advertised as the first of their planned office complexes as part of the Lake Buena Vista Commercial District opened. A square, glass-walled structure housing a SunBank on the bottom floor and Disney administrative offices above, it was the sole structure built. It still exists today and is known as the SunTrust Building.

1977 also saw the expansion of the Shopping Village with the addition of the Empress Lilly riverboat restaurant. Actually a network of seven interconnected restaurants and lounges positioned in a full sized New Orleans riverboat, the Lilly was an attempt to introduce a visual element of fantasy to Lake Buena Vista, to add some more "Disney" to the experience. The same year, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was rechristened The Walt Disney World Village. Buena Vista Interiors was quietly disbanded, becoming a furniture show room in the Village.

In this iteration, with the Village, Riverboat, and Villas for guest rental, Lake Buena Vista trundled along for over a decade with no real change. Shops came and went every so often. A series of vacation rentals called the Club Lake Villas opened in 1979, attached to the new Lake Buena Vista Conference Center - conventions having quietly become one of the company's core profit centers.

The Rise of Downtown Disney

Lake Buena Vista Conference Center Lobby
EPCOT Center rose while Lake Buena Vista slumbered. Corporations and deals were hatched, earth was moved, Spaceship Earth was assembled. And in the end EPCOT Center opened in a bum economy and a hostile corporate environment. Even with the largest participation of corporate America in any theme park in history, EPCOT Center cost so, so, so much money, it threatened to capsize Disney. And then the movers and shakers behind Disney were out, and Frank Wells and his chosen CEO Michael Eisner were in. And still Lake Buena Vista slept while the old ways of thinking at Disney that gave birth to it were uprooted and discarded.

By 1989, Eisner, Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg had turned around the floundering Disney studio with a succession of inexpensive comedies and dramas, and the animation unit was showing signs of rebounding. The time for expansiveness had come, and Eisner sought to add an additional full day to vacationers' trips with The Disney/MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, and Pleasure Island. Each of these attractions was intended to directly challenge a local competitor for vacationer's money - Universal Studios Florida, Wet and Wild, and Church Street Station, respectively. The entire area behind the Empress Lilly - an area first envisioned for a New Orleans area - became a rediscovered industrial center.

Michael Eisner had some unusual taste in architecture. Growing up in a wealthy family in New York, and having served successful and controversial stints as both a television and motion picture executive, Eisner's taste was perhaps never in line with the largely heartland, middle class audience Disney had courted since the 1950s. Through the 1980s, one of the largest trends in fashionable coastal cities was adaptive reuse - repurposing old industrial buildings into new civic and entertainment centers. Pleasure Island was themed to an old Florida industrial district that had been destroyed by a hurricane and then adapted by Disney into a nightclub district.

Concurrent with the opening of Pleasure Island, Disney totally revamped the Village, renaming it the Disney Village Marketplace. Gone was the conceit of a seaside hamlet. All of the decorative statues and graceful contemporary touches were suppressed. The concept now was for a lively outdoor festival atmosphere with topiaries, splashing fountains, and twinkling lights. Shops which were intended to be darkened and elegant were made over into bright, kid-friendly spaces. The Verandah Restaurant became Minnie Mia's Pizzeria. The Village Restaurant became Chef Mickey's. The emphasis was on bright, family friendly fun.

On the far side of Pleasure Island, a huge AMC megaplex opened, and was joined by a colossal floating planet in 1994 - the then-hot themed restaurant Planet Hollywood. Just one year later, one of the Village's most distinctive shops - the Christmas Chalet - was demolished and the gigantic World of Disney store was built where it once was. Just past World of Disney, Minnie Mia's Pizzeria was done over into a flagship LEGO store (with LEGO dragon poking out of Village Lake), and just past that, Disney's newest corporate partner - McDonald's - opened a bizarre "Ronald McDonald's Playhouse" location. Chef Mickey's was moved - in name only - to the Contemporary Resort, and its space became a Rainforest Cafe. The Empress Lilly was gutted, its paddle and smokestacks removed, painted grey and turned into Fulton's Crab House.

Across the lake, changes were underway at the Lake Buena Vista Villas. These clusters of buildings, once intended as second homes for residents, had largely been eclipsed by brand new moderate hotels throughout Walt Disney World aimed at the same mid-price vacationers who had used these villas through the 80s. Disney hotels like Caribbean Beach and Dixie Landings had rendered them irrelevant, and the lack of distinct theming of the Villas had been a disappointment to some.

The solution was to rebrand the Villas as The Disney Institute, a resort which offered opportunities for classes in activities as diverse as cooking, rock climbing, and animation. Taking advantage of the relaxed, adult atmosphere of the Villas, the golf course, and the waterways, Disney expanded the Lake Buena Vista Club into a full lobby and spa, with a theater, bandstand, and classrooms.

The Disney Institute is, along with Disney's America, perhaps Michael Eisner's largest stumble in terms of brand name in his tenure at Disney. Many guests were not certain if they could book rooms at the Institute without also attending classes, and the term "Institute" repelled those traveling with children even more than the term "Villas" had. Eisner, with his love of massive corporate edifices, factories, and production plants, saw a romance in the name "Institute" which few others did. However, those who did give the Institute a chance, often found a charming, relaxed atmosphere there - one last remnant of the Lake Buena Vista days.

While Marketplace/Village were original concepts, the West Side development which began construction in 1997 was a stark imitation of Universal Hollywood's City Walk, a highly profitable outdoor mall complex which opened in 1993. With oversize signs, post-modernist architecture, and playful shapes, City Walk is only distinct from West Side in that it has dated remarkably well, at least in its original home in Hollywood, while West Side has not. The West Side's opening meant that the entire complex was rebranded as "Downtown Disney", which made the imitation of the "City Walk" brand even more obvious.

In 2000, Disney's tourism market was already declining, and following the terror attacks in 2001, the bottom totally fell out. Hotel facilities at Walt Disney World, built up so much through the 90s, were simply shuttered to save costs of running them. Dixie Landings and Disney Institute were placed under "refurbishment". Dixie Landings would eventually reopen as Port Orleans Riverside, but Disney opted to demolish the old Lake Buena Vista Villas to make way for a new DVC resort: Saratoga Springs. The lobby, pool, and surrounding facilities built for the Institute in 1994 were retained. Today, only the southmost section of the lobby structure - housing the Turf Club Restaurant, Lounge, Golf Pro Shop, lockers, and tennis courts remains of Disney's 1971 adventure into planned communities.

The Fall of Pleasure Island and Everything Else

By 2005, Downtown Disney had become impossible to continue operating in its current form. Pleasure Island was still a gated attraction, which meant that only paying guests could traverse the island. Anybody visiting and wishing to see both the Marketplace/Village and West Side would have to walk alongside busy parking lots and bus stops to reach a bridge which ducked underneath the entrance bridge to Pleasure Island. Walkways were jammed with tourists while meanwhile attendance at the Pleasure Island nightclubs was faltering. Disney had failed to invest in updating the bulk of the clubs, and 2005 audiences were not interested in night clubs from the 80s and 90s. Only the Comedy Warehouse and Adventurer's Club had managed to attract a loyal following, and those fans went directly to those two clubs and bypassed the rest.

The solution to the crowded walkways and abandoned clubs was to open Pleasure Island to foot traffic, and charge individual admission to each club, which is what Disney did in 2006. The concert stages facing the walkways through Pleasure Island were now free to all, and the free entertainment and parking began to attract an undesirable element. Pipe bombs were tossed in dumpsters fairly regularly. Local news agencies began to report robberies and holdups in the congested parking lots. Drug dealers were often seen at West Side. The most popular thing on Pleasure Island was the Irish pub Raglan Road, which was leased space and not owned or operated by Disney.

The experiment, which required millions of dollars of construction to re-route the foot traffic, ended just two years later. Disney shuttered all of the remaining nightclubs in September 2008. Signs were removed, nightclub entrances locked, and decals painted over. Then something funny happened - nothing. Two years later, in 2010 Disney announced the replacement for Pleasure Island - Hyperion Wharf. A press release trumpeted:
"The district will come to life with a nostalgic yet modern take on an early 20th century port city and amusement pier. By day, stylish boutiques and innovative restaurants will draw you in and by night, thousands of lights will transform the area into an electric wonderland. 
Taking its name from Hyperion, the Greek god of light, as well as the street on which Walt Disney built his first major animation studio, the wharf district will also feature a relaxing lakeside park and enhanced pedestrian walkways. And its diverse eateries will expand dining availability at Downtown Disney by more than 25 percent."

And, indeed, things did begin to change. Several buildings on Pleasure Island were leveled, a new boat dock was built, and the area in front of Fulton's Crab House was refurbished.

Yet no tenants were ever announced, and as time went on, it was clearer and clearer that work on Pleasure Island had stopped. 2013, the announced year of competition for Hyperion Wharf, came with no real progress, until the announcement of Disney Springs later that year. Disney Springs opened last month, with more projects to complete the shift from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs expected to extend into 2017.

EPCOT: A Second Look

Here's my question, and it's a question Disney fans don't like to hear. Would Walt's EPCOT city have actually been any good?

The fact is that Walt Disney died at exactly the moment that a man like him would have to have changed. He had already changed a lot through the 50s, personally and politically. The kids who he had running around in coonskin caps and watching Disneyland on TV were now wearing beads and turning on, dropping out.

Consider, for a moment, that Walt Disney ate at the Tam O'Shanter and held meetings about Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln while, somewhere nearby, kids were playing 45s of "Blowin' in the Wind". Walt lay dying planning his sterile metropolis and only six months later the Summer of Love put Haight-Ashbury under a permanent cloud of opiate. After he died, the Vietnam conflict escalated, his good friend Richard Nixon became president, and the United States entered a period of heightened political awareness that lasted, in fits and starts, for another ten years.

How would Walt have responded to kids burning American flags? To drug culture? To Vietnam? To Watergate? These questions swirl around inside the story of EPCOT and cannot be separated. After he was gone, his inheritors looked at his ideas and thought they could use some of them but changed others to better reflect the culture they would be selling to. If the political strife, urban decay, and white flight of the 60s and 70s made the model of constructing a sanitized urban city forever impossible, Disney was also too early to another movement to really ride its wave: New Urbanism.

That's basically what Lake Buena Vista was supposed to be, but it came way before any famous examples were actually built. Seaside, FL is often considered the touchstone of the New Urbanist movement, but that didn't even get started until 1979 - long after Disney had pretty much abandoned Lake Buena Vista.

The thing is, Lake Buena Vista is still, almost 50 years later, basically appealing. We still long for escapes from and solutions to urban congestion. Biking paths, walking trails, boat launches, Peoplemovers and Monorails are still awesome, and a charming, walkable Downtown is a goal which has often been imitated and rarely bettered than the Shopping Village.

Would Walt have changed his plans for EPCOT had he lived? Probably. Would it have been the sort of wild success it needed to be? We will never know. Would it have managed to keep up with the times to avoid falling into neglect and disrepair? Would Walt have managed to steer it through a turbulent, violent and wrenching social transformation that rewrote popular taste entirely? Probably not.

And it's not as if Disney's taste for urban design has gone away, it's just transformed. Just as Lake Buena Vista begat Downtown Disney - which spread to California, Paris, Tokyo and now Shanghai - Disney is still mucking around with moving people - through theme parks, shopping complexes, and hotels. Shanghai Disneyland will be the most fully developed resort complex they will have built since Disneyland Paris, back in 1992. And this frenzy of activity has extended back to its source in Florida, which has been engulfed in construction for almost eight years now. Disney Springs has become Disney's version of the Big Dig: seemingly endless.

Now that we are oriented in the history of our subject, next time we'll take a deep dive into Disney Springs and the not always unambiguous questions it raises about Disney, urban design, and cities overall.