What If Disney World Was a Real City?
A city exists, known to most as the the “happiest place on earth,” where “dreams come true.” To parents toting around young kids, it may not be the happiest place on earth, but to a small child it truly is an amazing experience. I was lucky enough to visit during the 25th anniversary many years ago and was in love with the rides and obsessed with filling my autograph book with signatures of every Disney character I came across.
Decades later, my fascination has changed from what the park is advertised for, to how it works. The park is known for being clean and bright. The main streets are whimsical places, reminiscent of the real main streets that were bled dry by a combination of the interstate highway system and the suburbs. But what is more so interesting about Disney World is not the recreation of the idealistic city, but the creation of two cities stacked on top of one another, the bottom of which serves to keep the top one functioning. Most park visitors would not give a second thought or even realize they’re walking on top of another city, but without it, their experience would be quite different.
When the Magic Kingdom was built in 1971 a series of tunnels known as utilidors were built underneath the park. They’re not actually underground however, since Disney World was built by draining a swamp, requiring the system to be elevated above the water table. These utilidors are more than just your standard tunnel made for shuttling people and goods around without being seen. They function as another small city entirely. An employee can not only move about the park, they can get a hair cut, visit the library to check out a book or surf the internet, grab a bite to eat, and even read the daily magazine that highlights all the park happenings (almost like a city newspaper). There are even showers and a place to sleep if you decide not to go home.
What I question however is whether Walt Disney came up with this idea on his own. The story goes that he saw a cowboy character traveling through a futuristic exhibit which threw off the illusion and magic of the park. He devised the utilidor as the answer. However, the Experimental City by Athelstan Spilhaus was also being designed in Minnesota at the same time. Were they both thinking up such futuristic ideas of a city with all the routine chores and movement housed below grade? Regardless, Spilhaus did not succeed, but Disney did, however one was trying to create a real functioning city while the other was improving an amusement park.
Disney was interested in a real futuristic city however, as demonstrated in his plans for Epcot, or its full name the Environmental Prototype Community/City of Tomorrow, envisioned as a real working town where residents would live and work. He even installed a below grade trash system saying that it “holds great promise for communities of the future because of its efficiency and cleanliness.” The AVAC (Automated Vacuum Collection system) sucks trash every 15 minutes at speeds of 60 miles per hour to a central trash compactor, keeping the park looking pristine. But instead of his true futuristic city, he ended up with a smaller town underneath the park serving not only to keep the illusion alive in the park above, but to keep the workers happy.
I often wonder how our cities could benefit from the technology that seems to only have succeeded in the make believe world of Disney. Why can’t we create a system of tunnels that moves garbage and recycling to its end destination instead of hauling garbage to the curb to be trucked around through our city streets? Would it reduce the amount of litter if our cities had trash cans spaced every 15 feet like in Disney World? If deliveries were made in this same tunnel system, there would be less traffic on our streets.
The tech boom has great potential to improve the function of our cities, but it must come with the same type of visionaries as Walt Disney or Athelstan Spilhaus to think up creative ways to use it. Already we see the ideas of innovation tempting to change cities. If drones start dropping Amazon packages at our doors, that reduces the amount of trucks in our streets drastically. But then we will see these buzzing drones in the sky at all hours of the day. The subterranean option seems like a better one. In my opinion it has been too long since we had visionaries create their idea of the city of tomorrow. It’s time for our generation to come up with the futuristic city of today.