Inspired to write the next chapter of my novel, I pulled out my laptop in the Center Street Coffee House at Tokyo Disneyland. Immediately, the two girls seated at the next table stopped playing and stared. On my other side, a girl adjusted her angle on a selfie to crop me out. I just wanted to type my thoughts and let inspiration from the atmosphere flow, but the waitress kept coming by and asking if I needed anything.
Yes, please, I need some peace and quiet!
I didn’t say that, because I felt I didn’t need to. The Japanese pride themselves on “reading the air” (空気を読む) in that by mere appearance, people know what others are thinking, and are culturally primed to anticipate what another person wants. She should have known!
…Or, maybe, I should have known, seeing how nobody around me was programming or writing their latest young-adult fantasy.
But creatives like me aren’t that rare. There are others, who do come out to play; they just don’t come out and say. Stephanie Garber, author of Caraval, “loves Disneyland because it’s the one place on earth where she feels as if the fantastical stories she loves to write about could actually come to life.”
It’s not only creatives who want their environment to inspire them. When I was programming apps in a windowless office in a high-rise, I often dreamt of escape — not just vacation once a year, but in the middle of every work day. It’s like I was back in preschool, waiting for recess. I started out taking a walk. I ended up Googling, “living in Disneyland.”
We want fresh experiences, inspiring atmospheres. A place not only to play, but also live and work. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to bring those worlds closer? Imagine a bubble city, where living, working, and playing could coexist, with clean, futuristic transportation — or good old-fashioned walking — carrying you between them.
Because inspiration for creative work is like Mickey waffles: Consume it when it’s hot, because it never tastes as good when soggy back home.
What could the future ideal place to work/live/play look like? How can we achieve this utopia without compromising each component? Is it viable to have a bubble city containing everyone and everything you need to function?
It turns out Walt Disney conceived something similar. He recorded his presentation of Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) in this video:
David Koenig distills the essentials in his book, Realityland:
EPCOT would copy Disneyland’s radial “hub-and-spoke” layout, but with a 50-acre urban complex at the center. A climate-controlled dome would enclose the city, guaranteeing perfect weather day and night. Through the middle of the domed roof, a cosmopolitan hotel would soar 30 stories or more, featuring contemporary guest rooms, a convention center, and — for those seeking fresh air — a seven-acre recreation deck.
At the base of the hotel, Walt envisioned an international shopping area — years earlier proposed for Disneyland — with stores and streets recreating the character and adventure of exotic foreign countries. Restaurants, theaters and other nightlife would complement clusters of office buildings serving the needs of both EPCOT residents and major corporations nearby.
Below the hotel, special trams for short hops and a high-speed monorail would carry residents to work, or between the theme park and research sectors.
One level below them, an underground tunnel layer would admit normal car and bus traffic without stoplights. This streamlines traffic to pass below the city instead of through it, meaning that most residents wouldn't need to interact or cross streets with real cars. Furthermore, this separation of outer traffic from interior transport would preclude traffic jams. Loading docks and service elevators would streamline deliveries of essential goods from the outside world, allowing all inputs to be checked for safety. In a pandemic, that would help keep inhabitants safe from outside infection.
The city would be circled by three concentric rings, interconnected by WEDway routes. The first ring would consist of high-density apartments for those who worked in the city. In the next ring, a broad greenbelt would contain a mixture of recreation facilities, parks, playgrounds, churches and progressive schools. The schools would welcome new ideas, so that every child raised in EPCOT would have the advanced skills required to keep pace with the fast-changing environment.
Walt designed the rings so children could walk or bike to school without ever encountering a car. Low-density residential neighborhoods of single-family homes would encircle the outer ring, each sector grouped around a green park-like petal. Notably, monorails would connect all key parts of the city, allowing residents to go from work (business park) to play (theme park) without driving their own cars. Their daily routine would involve riding the monorail between their offices, labs, and their theme park of choice during breaks or after work.
Ever the visionary, Walt Disney even planned an itinerary for out-of-town visitors: a jet airport would transport passengers and their baggage to the city efficiently. Once screened, they'd be able to take a special entrance into research and development laboratories for behind-the-scenes looks at experimental factories and prototype test labs. Having hotel room space and visitor tunnels set aside for these guests, Walt envisioned businesses sharing their ideas with the outside world, so they could bring those ideas back to innovate their own communities.
Walt calculated room in EPCOT for 20,000 residents: all renters, so Disney would maintain land ownership rights. Everyone living at EPCOT would be required to work on property, motivating them to keep the community an “exciting, living blueprint of the future.” At retirement, they'd relocate outside and buy property in a second, more conventional city on the fringe of EPCOT.
Walt’s vision describes a viable bubble city, that even today's NBA bubble campus can be proud to emulate! Like the plastic casing around a USB cable, entry and exit into the city would allow only screened, safe people into the city. Just plug in shipments from outside, and the inside can function on its own!
Live within a high-speed monorail ride from your office or lab!
Homes for both families and individual creatives!
Shopping directly under the hotel, on the way to work!
Experimental R&D labs with visitors so kids could learn the skills they’d need to contribute!
And a theme park you could visit everyday, as part of your wor— er, creative routine!
What happened to this dream community of the future? It seems so different from the EPCOT we know today, a second theme park in Orlando, Florida. A few things led this plan astray:
First, Walt Disney passed away before his company finished building EPCOT. They had tackled the theme park portion (the Magic Kingdom) in the north first, since it was the most familiar part based on Disney’s experience with Disneyland in California.
Secondly, his successors didn’t share his same vision. Card Walker, president of Walt Disney Productions, one of the executives that took over after Walt’s death, “preferred easy-to-digest ad slogans and mission statements” as Koenig notes in Realityland. “So, the group’s task was formally boiled down to seven objectives:
To encourage industry and the professions to introduce, test and demonstrate new ideas, materials and systems.
To showcase and prove the usefulness of promising concepts, technology and specific prototype products.
To provide an ongoing “meeting place” where creative people of science, industry and the arts, from around the world, may gather for days or weeks or months to discuss and develop specific solutions to the specific needs of mankind.
To advance the excellence of environmental planning.
To bring together, in a living, working, creative environment, people of varied interests, talents and backgrounds who will live together for days of weeks or months in a community and climate where experimentation is accepted and fundamental.
To create an artful and efficient environment — a community fashioned in human terms and human scale that begins with the belief that the people who live and work and play in it are the heart of the city.
To provide, for the first time anywhere, a practical basis for investigating and proving not only the “popularity,” but also the economic feasibility of new ideas, material and systems introduced and tested here.”
“I think Card saw the world as a place to sell movies and cartoons to,” said one colleague. “I don’t think he understood EPCOT.” At a New York Society of Securities Analysts meeting, Card Walker was asked about EPCOT. After waffling for a few minutes about various components of Disney World that exemplified “the spirit of EPCOT,” Walker finally admitted, “I’ll be very honest to say that we don’t have any definitive plan for EPCOT, nor did Walt.”
In fact, once the EPCOT theme park opened, Card Walker considered his mission accomplished, and he retired.
Future generations, mostly marketing and business executives, preferred the sure thing to an untested venture like the City of Tomorrow. They focused next on expanding overseas with more theme parks, and extending the EPCOT family vacation with additional attractions, like Pleasure Island and Typhoon Lagoon. When the press questioned them about Walt’s vision, their message to the public was that they couldn’t even say for sure Walt wanted an actual city. They pointed to the video presentation as all they had to go off:
For management in Florida, preoccupied with operating and expanding the Vacation Kingdom, EPCOT had begun to fade. “We always felt there would be an EPCOT, but everything we knew was from one TV show and the Progress City model at the end of the PeopleMover,” said Dale Burner [vice president of resort management]. “Nobody understood what it meant.”
The video Walt left behind wasn’t enough. A project as big as the City of Tomorrow needs a living leader, constantly pushing the vision and adapting to the arguments of the day, to drive home what it means. Otherwise, like a game of telephone, the message gets lost in translation, from one executive to the next.
When Michael Eisner took over in 1984, he tried to placate loyalists that were still awaiting fulfillment of Walt’s promise. “We looked at what made communities great in the past, added what we’ve learned from the best practices today and combined that with a vision and hope for strong communities in the future.”
A strong community in the future, as Eisner said, not a community of the future, as Walt had wanted. A subtle but crucial shift.
That community turned out to be Celebration, a $2.5 billion real-estate deal, a “creative way of packaging and selling Florida swampland” that Disney no longer intended to use as an annex to the Disney World theme parks.
In theory, the community shared elements with Walt Disney World:
a community of 20000 people,
all stores a short walk away, in a central town center, to limit vehicle traffic,
state-of-the-art fiber optic cable internet,
a health facility styled after a Mediterranean-style hotel, with no waiting rooms; patients would be paged when their doctor was ready to see them, and they could leave their car with a valet,
a school with cutting-edge teaching methods for grades K through 12,
Eisner said in interviews and in his biography, Work in Progress, that Celebration was built in part to make good on Walt’s promise of a futuristic city. But as David Koenig noted in his book, Realityland, “In truth, at the time Eisner saw the connection to EPCOT as a negative; the public would invariably compare the two, and his real city would likely pale when held up to Walt’s more altruistic dream” (p 287).
“However, by bringing this community to fruition, Disney would in many ways finally release themselves from the original EPCOT wishes of Walt, and everyone at the company knew it.”
“Today, Disney executives from Michael Eisner, the company’s chairman, on down speak of Celebration as the fulfillment of Walt Disney’s old dream to build a City on a Hill — a model held up to the world.”
“With Celebration, we’re giving something back, trying to blaze a trail to improve American family life, education, and health. This project allows us to fulfill Walt’s idea for a town of tomorrow.”
After a lottery determined priority, residents started moving in during the summer of 1996. Although many residents enjoyed the quaint small-town atmosphere, the technological side of the community didn’t fare well.
AT&T sponsored the community and furnished homes with routers connected to the Celebration Community Network (CCN): a virtual bulletin board, chat rooms, email service, and a portal to the Internet. However, they also installed something called a “Zeus box” in each home to monitor the devices. At first, it performed simple tracking of user habits and usage patterns. Over time, it began surveying customers with questions to learn more about their browsing interests:
“If given the opportunity, would you watch an execution on the Internet?”
“If you could lie or cheat on the Internet without getting caught, would you?”
“Have you ever been embarrassed by anything you’ve done on the Internet?”
Eight months later, the project unraveled. AT&T sold off all its data to advertising agencies and technical contractors.
In 2002, Disney sold all remaining residential land to Arvida, the development company it owned in the mid-1980s. A year later, Disney put the town center and golf course up for sale. In 2004, Disney relinquished control over all eighteen acres of land encompassing shops, restaurants, offices, and homes to Lexin Capital, a private real-estate investment firm. As of the 2010 census, the population numbered around 7000.
Like Walt’s original plan for EPCOT, Celebration was an experiment. Unlike EPCOT, residents were the guinea pigs. The Celebration story reads like an outsourcing nightmare, with third parties intruding into residents’ lives and Disney trying to reap profits by micro-transactions and sales.
In 2014, Disney welcomed residents to Golden Oak, a “Walt Disney World Resort.” According to Google Maps, the properties are within 5 minutes driving from EPCOT Center. Houses are for sale! The website says, “With its references to European and Caribbean styles, Golden Oak celebrates the timelessness of Old Florida architecture while being attuned to contemporary resort living.”
“Homes priced from the mid $2 millions.”
While a five-minute drive from EPCOT’s gate sounds convenient, and though the houses look picturesque, I don’t consider this a City of the Future. Where are the apartments for single professionals? Where would people work? How does the community foster and advance scientific research? Where’s the international shopping — and, by extension, the segment of community that would comprise internationals, like those staffing EPCOT’s World Showcase? Where’s the library? The monorail shuttling you to and from your office or lab? The state-of-art underground transportation that would eliminate rush hour traffic? The immersion — the interplay of life, work, and play — seems to be missing.
David Koenig echoes this risk-averse attitude at the end of his book, Realityland: “In the end, Disney came to terms with the fact that, at least without Walt, it was an entertainment company — granted, a highly proficient and successful one, but one beholden to millions of shareholders. It could no longer take the risks necessary to change the world by building a futuristic city.”
I’ve encountered this sentiment a lot at Apple, after the passing of Steve Jobs. The company has outgrown its risk-taking origins. Without a visionary at the helm prioritizing innovation over shareholders and profit margins, executives favor the safer, less-risky decisions. Executives tasked with running the company make decisions that will lead to predictable outcomes, steering the ship toward incremental growth at the expense of world-changing ventures.
David Perell describes this tendency as the Ice Cream Principle:
Tell 10 people to get ice cream. If they have to agree on a flavor, they'll pick chocolate or vanilla every time. Groups of people don't agree on what's cool or interesting. They agree on what's easy. “Consensus” is just another way of saying average.
When you don’t have one visionary at the top, a group of executives overly concerned with developing consensus and pleasing everybody ends up with vanilla or chocolate, leaving another company to take rocky road.
Will someone ever build the City of Tomorrow?
It’s not a question of if, but when and where. Japan is the most likely country where something of this scale gets done, for three reasons:
To acquire enough land to make the city and its buffer possible, buyers have to maintain secrecy to prevent rates from blowing up once word gets out. Japanese companies are among the most loyal when it comes to confidentiality and leaks.
Of all the theme parks Disney has built abroad, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea were the smoothest from an operational standpoint. “The Japanese are easy to work with. They are very organized. They really get in there and get it done. They’re good on electrical and sound, machinery and animation.” And, as maintenance chief Bob Penfield, who helped open the first four Disney parks, commented to media, “We taught some things to the Japanese [that they applied].”
Japanese conglomerates collaborate as one. When Nintendo decided to release its games on mobile platforms, it enlisted DeNA to help manage and monetize the business. Likewise, Japanese trading houses mobilize their partner arms swiftly. For example, Mitsubishi helped San Francisco smoothie startup Replenish Foods get its drinks into Lawson convenience stores — which Mitsubishi owns — by having its appliances arm build and service the machines, its manufacturing arm produce the cups, and its marketing arm spread the word. Something like a City of the Future, which would require expertise as widespread as food production, construction, and public transportation, would require a coordinated effort that more competitive, capitalistic countries could struggle to mobilize. But it would seem right down the line of a company like Oriental Land Company, the company behind Tokyo Disneyland, owned by Mitsui Real Estate Development Company and the Keisei Electric Railway Company in the same conglomerate model.
Single-building cities like those above Shin-Yokohama Station provide a glimpse of what’s possible. As of 2020, the “city” above Shin-Yokohama train and subway lines contains a 12th floor hotel, restaurants, food court, laundromat, electronics shop, grocery store, and department store. It’s already fully livable, just lacking office space and a more spacious residential district.
Building a city like this can’t be the work of process people. Accountants in a big company can’t treat it like an exercise in profit-loss, or even an investment that will bear future growth. It has to be a labor of love, for the future of humanity and the advancement of science. It can’t be a side project for a delegate department. Neither admission nor its residents can be considered a product. People with the internet at their fingertips are too savvy, and mass media too quick to spread skepticism, for a marketing-driven message to amass the long-term support such a project needs.
Most importantly, a visionary must own the project and push it to its end. She must have absolute veto power to sever marketing antics like the “Zeus box” at their bud. There must be collaboration to establish and enforce regulations, and absolute trust among all partners and residents that decisions happen for the better of people, both in the community and for humankind.
I’ll detail my vision of such a city in an upcoming essay.
But right now, it’s dinner time. My waitress on the S.S. Columbia, docked in Tokyo Disney Sea, surfaces from the kitchen with the steaks my friend and I ordered. As if on cue, my friend quickly puts away her iPad Pro, in the middle of a character drawing.「恥ずかしい」 she mumbles sheepishly when I ask why.
“Embarrassing in this type of place.”
Succumbing to social pressure, I put down my pencil and pick up my fork and knife.
But in my mind, I dream of a time when we can continue drawing through our meal.
I dream of a place when the waitress serves us not only our steak, but an idea for a character, and some mental support to boot.
Instead of angling their selfie to crop us out, the couple next to us are prototyping their augmented reality (AR) app.