Alexander Wilson's Critique of EPCOT Center misses context
Among the essays in Eric Smoodin’s Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom is Alexander Wilson’s “The Betrayal of the Future: Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center.” Originally published in the Socialist Review 15, No. 6, in 1985, Smoodin adapted Wilson’s essay to represent Wilson’s views on the cultural, historical and future imperialism of EPCOT Center.
It may be a function of the way that the article was edited, but it is difficult to believe that someone writing for a socialist magazine would forget the context that affords the Disney Company to present a utopic version of the future. EPCOT Center as it was called at the time of publication of this article was not built in the way that Walt Disney wanted. Rather than the experimental prototype city (or community) of tomorrow, EPCOT became another theme park with all of the trappings of a theme park.
Even as a theme park, EPCOT, at the time, could only achieve the modified vision for the park by having corporate sponsors. These sponsors, like Bell, Exxon and American Express, would necessarily represent capitalism and democracy and their results as unabashedly positive for everyone but mostly white people. (Wilson notes that the visitors to EPCOT Center were 95 percent white.)
It is easy to tear down what has been built and to criticize sterilized history, especially when it is not seen in the context of its presentation. Walt Disney was fervently patriotic and unapologetically corny. He looked to simplify life, and he saw the best in people as individuals, even if they didn’t see it in themselves. Both Walt Disney the dreamer and his brother Roy the builder were from a different era – one where technology and science were going to solve all problems, where plastics were marvelous and where even the sky was no longer the limit as man went from being earthbound to exploring space.
If this wasn’t enough to explain the washed out depictions of American life, it is also important to note that if EPCOT or any Disney property attempted to present stories in all of their complexity and without regard to the demands of the people that visit the parks, the company would quickly lose visitors, lose money and be shutdown. Maybe this is what Wilson wants as an author who is publishing in a socialist journal about a company and a man who embodies the American Dream, entrepreneurship and the ability to exploit capitalism to the fullest.
Epcot still has its rousingly patriotic vision “The American Adventure,” which is still a watered down version of simplistic history designed to invoke feelings of patriotism and pride in what the people of America have accomplished. It attempts to draw in without dwelling on some of the harder times, slavery and the horrid treatment of Native Americans, but it is not about that. It is about trying to draw people together.
The Disney Company is not here to serve up a dystopian vision of the past, present or future. There are plenty of other enterprises that are more than capable of providing people with experiences that are designed to create anger, sadness, guilt and remorse in an attempt to raise awareness of the terrible things that people did to one another and that the government did to minorities (and some would argue continues to do). Disney’s goal is to make a profit, and the company has found an extraordinarily successful approach in doing so by creating timeless productions that explore love, joy and happiness.