A Day At EPCOT
Thursday, July 03, 2008
Many years ago when I was Managing Director (President, but on a college campus it's best to have only one President) of Pepperdine Research Institute, Walt Disney commissioned us to work on plans for an Experimental Project: Community of Tomorrow. What he wanted was an institution much like Bell Labs, but more general; much like the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies; a place where a community of scholars could live together and work on projects that would help the world. Mr. Disney intended that this be his legacy, the good he did for the world beyond being an entertainer.
It was to be supported by tourist income. His idea was that the land for EPCOT would be bought cheaply at the same time that the land for Disney World would be bought, at a few hundred dollars an acre since it was all to be bought at once before anyone knew that Disney was interested in Florida not quite swamp land; EPCOT would be placed near Disney World; and for an additional fee you could tour it as well as Disney World. The additional fee would go to support EPCOT, and what he wanted was a design whereby a research community could be supported by tourist revenue, so that the research would not be dependent on grants, corporate sponsorship, or anything else. Scholars were to be resident in EPCOT, and the tourists were to somehow be separated from the scientific work.
"Doc, can fusion energy research be turned into something interesting to tourists, and can there be tours of such facilities without driving the scientists nuts?" he asked once. I thought about that one a long time. Except for inertial confinement experiments, fusion research isn't all that interesting to watch, and even zapping pellets with lasers or huge electric sparks from Marx generators isn't all that exciting to watch; while no scientist I know wants people looking over his shoulder all the time. We did come up with some notions, though, involving carts and hamster tubes for people.
Marine research involves a big aquarium and that can certainly be made interesting.
Mostly, though, you need a lot of explanation and lecture on what's going on, and what you see won't be very exciting. Paleontologists trying to assemble bones sounds more interesting than it is, for instance. Then there's the problem of public safety and EPCOT liability.
We did turn in some plans that might have worked. Disney seemed to be pleased with some of the ideas I and my colleagues and students came up with.
Alas, when he died, his heirs scrapped his plans for EPCOT, and built something else. It became a profit center, not an experimental community of tomorrow. Ah well.
So when Roberta and I were guests of honor at an Orlando science fiction convention -- which was fun -- we took the opportunity to spend a day at EPCOT to see what it became, as opposed to what Mr. Disney wanted it to be. It's a nice enough place, even a fun place. It's just not an Experimental Project Community of Tomorrow.
(For reflections on this in 2008 see View.)