Walt Disney World Chronicles: EPCOT Films

Jim Korkis

Feature Article
This article appeared in the January 4, 2021 (#1118) edition of ALL EARS®

Editor’s Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Epcot Concept Art from Disney

This year we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World as hard as that might be to believe. Over the coming year I will be sharing some stories about WDW in 1971 and I thought I would start with the first thing most of us ever knew about the Florida Project which was the short film that Walt made to tell the world about his vision.

In 2007, Marty Sklar was a guest speaker at the National Fantasy Fan Club (now called the Disneyana Fan Club) convention in Orlando and talked about EPCOT. Besides taking notes on his presentation, I got to spend some time with him afterward asking him to clarify and expand on some of the things he said.

I transcribed that conversation and am sharing it here with my questions eliminated, “off the record” comments edited out and our little side tangent discussions removed and focusing just on the film. However, I feel that what remains is a valuable personal insight into the background of that famous film. Sklar died in 2017.

SKLAR: “My start with EPCOT began with that film that everyone calls the EPCOT Film. There’s actually an official title that nobody ever seems to use. It is called Walt Disney’s EPCOT ’66. That’s the official name but nobody uses it. The film wasn’t finished until after Walt died and that made it really hard to do.

“Walt had seen bits and pieces of it and, of course, had to approve the script. He’d certainly seen all the dailies of what we had shot of him. It’s a 24-minute film and we shot it all in one day on October 27, 1966. We started about 8 a.m. and ran until about 7 that night. It was the very last time Walt appeared on camera. We had no idea that about six weeks later he would be dead.

“We had no idea that he was sick, and he certainly didn’t act as if anything was wrong. Of course, he had that hacking cough he would get if he got tired or worked up.

“The coughing sometimes ruined a take, but that had happened on other things like what we did his narration for the World’s Fair. We had to shoot two different endings, and by the end of the day, you could tell his voice was getting hoarse.

“I remember him saying ‘Damn it, Marty, don’t you have enough that you can use?’ but that was just Walt’s impatience. He was having fun. He ad-libbed that line ‘I am six miles tall.’ That wasn’t in the script. He often ad-libbed on the introductions to his television show and this was no different. He was trying to communicate directly to people, so he was trying to be comfortable, not so formal.

“The version that most people have seen is the one where Walt was making a plea to American industry to get on board. It was for the corporate sponsors. That was actually considered the second version.

“The first version was meant directly for the people in the state of Florida to get them to get the state legislature to establish the Reedy Creek Improvement District because we had some proposals, we needed so that we had the freedom to get the thing done. At the end Walt pointed out that the project would bring new industries to Florida from around the country.

“He wanted to push that this was not a land development promotion in any way. Disney had to retain control in order to have the flexibility to keep pace with tomorrow’s world. We were so naïve that we thought all Florida residents were retired people.

“We shot the entire thing on a stage at the Disney Studios where we had done a mock-up of the actual WED room where all the planning was going on. We brought all that stuff over.

“I had met with Walt on October 10 and took seven pages of notes that I consider special treasures today. It was just ideas that he wanted communicated. He kept emphasizing that EPCOT must meet the needs of the people. That was a phrase he kept using ‘needs of the people.’

“Nobody believed in the Disneyland concept, he said, but it was successful because it answered the needs to the people. The philosophy for EPCOT would be the same as Disneyland that people will be the king. It was to be a showcase to the world of American free enterprise.

“Walt could be what I call ‘specifically vague’ where he would get you excited about the big picture and then you had to worry about filling in all the details. Anyway, at that meeting, he was so focused that he made it easy for me to write the script. His ideas, phrases that he used, that’s all in the script.

“The film was supposed to be the blueprint of what Walt had in his mind. There is no question in my mind that Walt could have sold that version of EPCOT and that he would have constantly made changes as it was being developed. It was a great idea but only Walt could have made it work. Only Walt could have convinced industry to support it in the way he wanted.

“You know in the second version he made that pitch that ‘none of this is possible without your participation and no one company could do this by itself.’ He intended these companies to use EPCOT as their research laboratory.

“That first version of the film was shown at the Park East Theater in Winter Park on February 2, 1967, as part of a press conference, and later on local television, because Disney needed the support of the legislators and the big decision makers in the state to give us some leeway. Roy [Disney] slipped and called them ‘demands’ and then corrected himself, but he was clear we needed these things, or we wouldn’t do it.

“Ham Luske and Mac Stewart were producing the film. They had worked on some of the television projects and had done stuff on Disneyland and the World’s Fair. Mac did all the storyboards for the film and put the narration under the scene sketches. That was really our shooting script for the film.

“Art Vitarelli was the director. He had come on board when we were doing Zorro and he worked as an assistant director on the live action films. He wasn’t there to do any creative decisions, just to facilitate getting the thing done.

“When we were on the set, there was time between various set-ups where Walt and I just got to talk. He talked about how frustrated he was about the monorail. He had done this thing at Disneyland and showed how efficient it was and that it worked but nobody had picked up on it.

“He blamed the politics in Los Angeles and that too many people had their hands in somebody’s pockets. He had envisioned monorails going through the center of the freeways.

“He wanted that for EPCOT, things for people to see work that they could use in their cities. That last line he says in the film, ‘We’re ready to go,’ for him literally meant ‘get off your butts and let’s do this thing now.’

“When Walt first started talking to me, it wasn’t called EPCOT at that time. It may just have been called COT (Community of Tomorrow) as I remember. I think we did a booklet with that name on it if I’m not mistaken.

“There was that Progress City model that was built, and Walt always loved models and he especially loved that one because he could pick something up and move it around. He liked seeing things three-dimensionally.

“He used that model in Carousel of Progress in Tomorrowland at Disneyland. There was Progress City visible out of the window of the final scene and then you went upstairs and there was the full model which was pretty impressive. All of that was to get people thinking and talking about it so he could see the reactions.

“Walt could be full of mischief. He could get cute and sometimes when reporters dropped by to talk about the latest movie or whatever that he was doing, he’d start dropping hints about EPCOT just to see reactions.

“One of them, Norma Lee Browning, a feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, wrote a story about what Walt was talking about that appeared in October 1966 and he showed me a copy. At that point, it was all still pretty vague and nothing official had been announced. Nobody picked up on it surprisingly.

“Walt said, ‘Gee, I guess I talk too much’ but he liked doing things like that. One of Walt’s major references for EPCOT was Victor Gruen’s The Heart of Our Cities: The Urban Crisis: Diagnosis and Cure published in 1964. He had that book with him all the time. But he wanted ideas from us as well.

“The whole idea of EPCOT expresses Walt’s passion for creating something that would make life better for all people. That was something he really believed in and made all of us want it to become a reality.

“He was optimistic about the future. He was anxious to let people know that the future could be better, that we could learn from the past and improve all these things. Transportation. How we lived. He believed it so strongly he made us believe it, as well. That’s the real core of his idea for EPCOT.”

If you are interested, I wrote a book about the creation of Walt Disney World and covered fully its first year of operation in my book The Unofficial Walt Disney World 1971 Companion