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"Building Tall" reveals the challenges that Tishman Realty & Construction faced while building EPCOT Center

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"Building Tall" reveals the challenges that Tishman Realty & Construction faced while building EPCOT Center

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Since sinkholes are back in the news again in Central Florida, Hungry Howie was inspired to drop me a line earlier today to ask about the sinkhole that almost swallowed EPCOT Center back during the construction of that theme park:

For years now, I've been hearing stories about EPCOT's sinkhole. Where exactly was this thing located? Is it still there? Was Disney able to stabilize this thing or is it someday going to swallow that theme park?

To get a definitive answer to your question, I grabbed my copy of  John L. Tishman's memoir, "Building Tall: My Life and the Invention of Construction Management " (University of Michigan Press, September 2011). For those of you who don't know: Tishman was / is the "owner / builder" of Tishman Realty & Construction, the company that built the world's first three 100-story towers (i.e. the original "twin towers" of the World Trade Center and the Hancock Tower in Chicago), NYC's Madison Square Garden and the Renaissance Center in Detroit.

Copyright University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved

In fact, it was that last construction project that got Tishman EPCOT Center. As John explains in this 240-page hardcover:

... during the construction of the first section of Disney World, the Disney Company had had a bad experience with their general contractor. They had fired the contractor and ended up forming Disney's own construction division and then having their in-house construction people supervise the contractors and subcontractors.

To avoid that very same problem with EPCOT Center, Disney made a point of getting to know the construction managers that it was considering for this massive project. In Tishman Realty & Construction's case, this meant that ...

Detroit's Renaissance Center during its initial
construction phase in 1974

... four-top Disney executives asked to come and see us at work, to inspect something currently under construction, and we made an appointment for them to visit the half-completed Renaissance Center site. The Disney executives arrived, four strong, and wanted to climb all over the construction project, go up ladders, travel on hoists, get their feet dirty, wear construction helmets -- the whole nine yards.

And those execs must have liked what they saw in Detroit. For the next thing John knew, he was meeting with Mouse House managers to form some sort of battle plan on how exactly to construct a theme park the size of EPCOT Center.

We began by making up a preliminary milestone chart that showed, to us and to Disney, the scope of the job in broad strokes. Then we broke that chart down into smaller sections, each with its own chart. Eventually we produced hundreds of schedules interrelating about 2,000 different activities.

Gag photograph from EPCOT Center's construction phase. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserve

The method of scheduling was the same (as when Tishman and his team constructed) the World Trade Center towers (in the middle of Manhattan). But while during the WTC project the logistics had a vertical axis, at EPCOT the need was to plan the logistics on a horizontal axis. In turns, this meant such things as having to plan for and carve out parking lots for the construction workers' cars, some 2,500 of them each day. We had to create those lots, and a lagoon (where there had not been one) and a major monorail system, as well as major access roads leading to and from EPCOT to the nearby highways -- and all of this had to be done before any pavilions could be erected.

Getting now to Hungry Howie's original question. Tishman Realty & Construction had just begun doing site prep on this project when ...

... smack in the center of the 600 acres (construction site for EPCOT Center) a huge sinkhole (was discovered). Sinkholes are geological formations that can be as old as 15 million to 25 million year. This one had been waiting for us quite a while, and its boundaries were not fixed -- regularly, cars and trucks that we thought had been on solid ground would start to sink and would have to be rescued by a tow-truck. The sinkhole was full of organic silt and peat, and the sand underneath went down as far as 300 feet. Nothing solid could be built on it, since the underlying sand could not support the weight of a building. The most logical thing to do with the largest sinkhole of all (at this construction site) was to dig it deeper and make into the lagoon around which the World Showcase pavilions would be situated.

In the top center of the above photo, you can see the bathtub-like pond that Tishman
constructed as well as the dredge that was used to clear the muck out of the World
Showcase Lagoon sinkhole. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Simple idea, difficult thing to do. Under (Tishman's) direction, three general contractors specializing in heavy construction worked on the area. First, they had to construction a bathtub containing an area that could be filled with enough water in which to float a dredge to excavate and remove the muck. The muck was five feet thick and there were a million cubic yards of it to be removed so that the underlying sand could properly serve as the lagoon bottom. Complicating the task of removal were two huge "root islands" in the muck. Unable to get them out, we eventually poured onto them a half-million yards of sand taken from another part of the lagoon. Then, top heavy with sand, they sank beneath the surface of the water and stayed there. Today, looking at the lagoon, you see no evidence of them. But they are there, beneath the surface, and the boats that ply the lagoon know to avoid them.

And speaking of water-related challenges that Disney & Tishman faced on the EPCOT Center project, John -- in this very entertaining memoir -- revealed the key role that he played in securing a sponsor for Future World's The Living Season pavilion. As you may already know ...

... Disney wanted to have each Future World pavilion sponsored by a major industrial firm. AT & T, Kodak, Exxon, Kraft Foods, and General Electric became involved. Exxon, for instance, in the pavilion devoted to energy. In that pavilion, visitors would view a show displayed on huge screens and dioramas ... AT & T was to provide the show that was inside the central geodesic, a multifaceted look at the progress of human communications from the caveman era to the present day. A third pavilion, whose theme was the oceans, was to contain the world's largest aquarium; its visitors could walk alongside the aquarium and sometimes through the parts.

Construction of the Living Seas pavilion at EPCOT Center.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I had the ideal candidate to underwrite that aquarium, United Technologies. Harry Gray (i.e. the Chairman and CEO of United Technologies) was interested, and with his blessing and the permission of the Disney board, I presented the case for this $50 million project to the board of United Technologies. The UT board liked the idea and signed on. Some of their products, including Otis elevators, were to be used in this pavilion and several others. The elevator in this big-aquarium pavilion was going to shake and shiver, to give guests the impression that they were descending several hundred feet to the level of the sea bottom, although the elevator (didn't really move at all).

The aquarium was a marvel. Huge, it was also compartmentalized so that it could be stocked with over 1,500 varieties of fish and marine life. Every space in the pavilion was to face the aquarium, so that, for instance, diners in the restaurant could have a full view of the living backdrop as they ate their meals.

Construction of the aquarium was quite complicated. Water is very heavy and large volumes of it exert substantial pressure, more and more of it as you go down toward the bottom. Because of the immense water pressure, near the bottom portion of the aquarium the viewing glass had to be nine inches thick, although the glass in each window was to become thinner as it went upward, to the point where at the top it would be only one inch thick. The thickest glass had to be imported from Japan, the only place of manufacture. It was a manufacturing challenge to maintain strength and transparency without distortion through this thickness of glass.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

There are dozens of similar sorts of great Disney-related stories to be found in "Building Tall: My Life and the Invention of Construction Management," terrific behind-the-scenes tales about how the Dolphin & Swan was built (not to mention how NYC's New Amsterdam Theatre was restored). So if you want to get a very different take on how some of The Walt Disney Company's most impressive projects of the past 30 years or so actually came together, why not find a comfortable chair to sink into and then pick up a copy of this memoir (which -- giving credit where credit is due -- was written by John L. Tishman with the help of Tom Shachtman).

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  • did you know that during the construction of Epcot center, propane gas lines were also put in and capped at the entrance to World Showcase.  Years later when they were planning the construction of the torches for the Millennium Celebration, one of the imagineers discovered it and while there was no explaination as why they were put in and never used, it save them 6 months worth of work not having to lay main gas lines and just the exstension lines going around World Showcase Lagoon.

  • You must have one heck of a Disney library, Jim! :) Thanks for the tip - the book sounds really interesting.

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