Walt and the Promise of Progress City, a Book Review

Since 1966, the world has been captivated by the vision that Walt Disney presented in his Project Florida film. It was such an amazing and inspiring vision, that Walt’s brother Roy was able to persuade the State of Florida to pass legislation that would allow the Disney Company almost unfettered power to develop the City of Tomorrow. After Walt’s passing in 1966 and then Roy’s death in 1971, the Company wasn’t able to complete Walt’s dream as laid out in the film, but many of the innovative technologies found their way into the Vacation Kingdom. Regardless, the Company battled the press, local governments and the public with their outcries of “Where is EPCOT Center?” As we all know, Disney finally opened EPCOT Center, the theme park, in 1982 and it was a far cry from Walt’s 1966 vision.

There has been a lot written about the Disney theme parks with an emphasis on the creation of EPCOT Center and the variance from Walt’s ideas. Much of the critical writing has focused on trying to dissect where Disney went wrong or strayed from Walt’s vision and promise. This is where Sam Gennawey’s book differs and offers a new look at what happened and what we might have seen. Sam has had a varied and long career that has led him to being an urban planner. Being a Disney fan and an urban planner makes Sam an obvious choice to postulate on Walt, urban design and what might have been.

Walt and the Promise of Progress City is an exhaustive and thoroughly enjoyable book about Walt’s EPCOT City, how the ideas were developed and what a visit to 1982 EPCOT Center could have been. Since Sam is an urban planner, you would assume that he would write with jargon and discuss overly-complex theories. On the contrary, Sam has written a book dealing with fairly complex subjects that any Disney fan will be able to read, enjoy and digest.

Sam’s book takes a different path than what I expected, which is a great thing. I assumed that Sam would just discuss what could of happened and why it didn’t turn into Walt’s vision. Instead, Sam discusses how everything that Walt Disney did from the first Disney Bros. Studios through the Project Florida film and how Walt applied everything he learned to Progress City. Sam looks at each project and analyzes the steps Walt took and the progression of his ideas. It was quite eye-opening to connect the Burbank Studio, Tom Sawyer Island, the Mineral King project and the World’s Fair to urban planning designs and theories.

After Sam explains all of the projects that led Walt to want to create a Utopian city, he takes us on a visit to the EPCOT Center of 1982 that could have been. Sam takes us place-by-place through what an average visitor would experience at EPCOT Center. We start wit the jetport and end with the industrial park; in between, Sam covers the governance, living in EPCOT, shopping, entertainment and transportation. It is an amazing journey where you realize, that for every dream Walt had for his new town, at least half of them came to fruition in the first ten years at Walt Disney World.

Walt and the Promise of Progress City is an inspiring tale that any fan of Walt Disney, the theme parks or urban design will enjoy. Sam takes us on a journey through urban design and planning that encompasses everything Walt did to discuss the vision. Although Sam covers some fairly intense theories, the book is not an academic treatise. Sam does a fantastic job of interpreting urban planning theories into a format that is accessible to the layperson.

I applaud Sam for tackling such a divisive subject as EPCOT and the oft-stated Internet battle cry of “What Would Walt Do?” None of us can say for certain what would of happened had Walt lived longer, but it is obvious that Sam understands urban planning and took a storied look at the project and analyzed it with intelligence, thought and a sense of wonder.

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