Hey gang!

Jim Hill here. Talk about starting your week off with a bang! Today, JimHillMedia.com proudly introduces its newest columnist: Walt Disney Productions veteran Larry Pontius.

For those of you who don't know: Pontius was the head of marketing for the entire Walt Disney World resort back in the mid-1970s. After that, Larry ended up being promoted to Director of Creative Concepts for Walt Disney Productions.

So -- having experienced his Disney history from the inside -- Pontius is obviously a guy who knows how the Mouse House really operates. Which -- perhaps - explains why Larry was recently able to churn out such an entertaining fantasy novel, "Waking Walt." A book that actively toys with the notion of what might happen if Walt Disney actually had been cryogenically frozen back in the mid-1960s, only to be thawed out today.

Okay. Enough with the gratuitous book plugs ...

In his debut JHM article, Larry takes us back to Epcot's early, early days. Back when Disney executives were still flailing about, as they tried to figure out how the company was going to pull a full-blown "community of tomorrow" out of the swamps of Central Florida.

This article is really a great behind-the-scenes piece about how Disney history was truly made. Told as only Larry Pontius (who was actually there when all this stuff happened) could tell it.

You're in for one hell of a fun read, folks. And JimHillMedia.com has just landed itself one hell of a great new columnist. So -- like I said earlier -- talk about starting your week off with a bang!

So let me get out of the way here and let Mr. Pontius get his story started.

Take it away, Larry!


 

Do you remember Epcot Center?

The answer I usually get when I ask that question is some variation of, "Wrong, dude. It's just Epcot." But that's one of the things I remember whenever I think about the opening celebration of Epcot in October of 1982. It started out as Epcot Center.

I guess most people know that Epcot is an acronym. When Walt Disney first coined it in 1966 it stood for Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow. Whether Walt himself or the PR guys softened the C to mean Community, is not really important. He obviously intended to build a city. A city as different from the ones we live in today as Disneyland is from a carnival.

Unfortunately, before 1966 had ended Walt was gone. And that has always been the problem with Epcot: No one had any real idea of what he planned to do. Oh sure, there were plenty of notes and drawings, even one of a domed city, plus the film of Walt introducing Epcot to the Florida legislature and the world.

But how in the heck was he going to pull it off?

Disney management and the Imagineers at WED were still scratching their heads about that a decade later. The press wanted to know, too. And it was under the media's constant drumbeat of "Where's the City of Tomorrow?" that Card Walker, then President of the company, finally made the decision in the mid-70s to move forward with the Epcot project.

Early on, I remember, marketing was asked to come up with an employment campaign to help WED bring aboard more designers and engineers. We built the campaign around that classic World War II "I Want You!" poster, but with Mickey instead of Uncle Sam. There was a brochure and full page ads in the LA Times and the Orlando Sentinel. As I recall, dozens of potential Imagineers came out of the woodwork and a good number were hired.

Not to design or engineer a City of Tomorrow, however. The Company's top management and the managers at WED had already decided that that was impolitic, imprudent, impractical, and probably impossible. In other words, they didn't know how to create what Walt Disney had dreamed of doing.

But it was also at least impolitic and imprudent to say so -- or do nothing. So, they did the best they could and tried to make a beginning. That beginning was based upon two sentences that Walt himself spoke in the middle of the film he'd made introducing his idea: "EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry...And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise."

A showcase of new ideas and new technologies now being developed by American corporations, that's what they'd build...a sort of preview center for what the City of Tomorrow might offer its citizens -- Epcot Center.

A far cry from a city, but still a worthwhile and challenging project. Just how challenging became clear from the first presentations the Disney crews made as they sought the cooperation of major American companies. In hindsight, I guess the stumbling block should have been obvious, but those were heady days. And the Disney corporate culture was still far removed from the realities of American business.

"Let me see if I've got this right?" was the typical response from corporate CEOs. "You want me to help you with a display that features the ideas that we've been doing everything we can do to keep our competitors from finding out about?"

From that moment, it was clear that Epcot Center might feature American industry but not the future they were creating. That would remain behind closed doors.

It was at about that time that Vince Jefferds, the legendary Disney vice president of merchandising, stepped into the picture. Vince had joined the company in 1954 and immediately made his mark as the man behind the incredible Davy Crockett merchandizing phenomenon. And, although he wasn't directly involved in the planning of the Epcot project, he was a powerful force in the company. And as outspoken as he was powerful.

Vince took a look at the plan for Epcot Center and said something simple like, "Boring as hell. There's not enough to draw people to it."

Frankly, after almost 30 years, I don't remember whether he actually came up with the idea for the World Showcase or he just roundly promoted it. It really doesn't matter. In a flurry of his memos about world fairs and in a series of long meetings at WED, "a showcase to the world of new ideas and new technologies from American industry" became the World Showcase and Future World. And not too long after, Epcot Center became Epcot. Not an acronym anymore, just a funny word for a couple of theme parks.

Thinking back now, I remember two other things about the opening of Epcot in 1982. First, I was completely surprised when I got an invitation to the special press preview party. I didn't expect it because I'd left the company more than a year before. I don't know for sure, but I think Jack Lindquist, my boss the whole time I worked at Disney, or *** Nunis dropped my name in the hat. I saw them both that night and each of them slapped me on the back and told whoever they were with that I'd written the advertising campaign for the Epcot introduction. And they both quoted the headline: "The 21 Century begins October 1, 1982." It was true, of course, but I'd written it in 1980.

The best surprise, however, came deep into the evening. In the late 1970s I had hired a young musician named Bob Moline to create a jingle for a new campaign for Disneyland based on the line, "It could only happen at Disneyland." He'd done such a great job that, when I was asked to suggest a musician to create some music for the Land pavilion in Future World, I picked Bob. We only met once on the subject. I had told him what was needed and tossed a lyric idea at him, but I left the company before I could hear what he came up with.

With all the excitement of the Epcot opening press party, I had completely forgotten the whole thing until my wife, Harriet, and I took a ride on the boats in that Kraft sponsored attraction. Then I was all smiles. It was Bob Moline at his best. And for those of you who have been on the boat ride, the lyric line I gave him was "Listen to the Land."

 

Special thanks to the folks over at Waltopia.com who provided the quotes from Walt's Epcot film.