A Whole New City

What can cities learn from the Mouse?

Miranda Jung ’16 and Marissa Mondello ’16 consider how Cinderella Castle defines the park and how the various “lands” radiate from it. (Photo by Scott Cook) Miranda Jung ’16 and Marissa Mondello ’16 consider how Cinderella Castle defines the park and how the various “lands” radiate from it. (Photo by Scott Cook)

The Magic Kingdom is something of a dream as far as urban planning goes. It has public transportation (the monorail); a center (Cinderella Castle) from which everything else radiates; a Main Street with shops, restaurants, and entertainment; a bustling economy with job opportunities; and unparalleled coordination: from the music to building heights, color schemes, and landscaping.

Unlike most theme parks, however, Walt Disney World (WDW) has its own private government, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, with lobbying powers that influence both our state and national governments. (Did you know, for example, that Disney has its own Q-1 visa? Known in the U.S. State Department as the Mickey Mouse visa, it allows recipients to work while participating in a cultural exchange program.) Both of these factors make WDW an interesting case to explore, especially when considering what type of system—democratic and capitalist or authoritarian and feudal—is most ideal for urban planning.

And that’s just what students spent a week examining in a course called Disney and the City, led by Rollins professor Rick Foglesong. As part of the course, students visited Disney properties (or former Disney properties) ranging from Magic Kingdom and Epcot to Celebration. It hardly seems like a class, but the objectives are far from fanciful. At its heart lies one central question: Is WDW a good model for planning cities?

To answer this, you must first understand urban planning, which is a technical and political process aimed at improving the welfare of people and their communities by enhancing the use of land and design.

Capitalism and democracy often make the process arduous and fragmented; authoritarianism and feudalism make it less so, but often at the expense of the public they’re supposed to be working to enhance. Part of the fragmentation in the first scenario comes from the contradictory nature of capitalism and democracy.

“Capitalism creates a need for an organized system,” Foglesong says. “Democracy thwarts it.”

Think of it in terms of I-4, and the perpetual construction and congestion issues. The government has to have designs approved, submit changes to a review board, consider feedback from affected private property owners, and have everything eventually voted on by the public. Individual families who may lose their homes due to the expansion have to be taken into consideration. Under a private government such as Disney’s, however, that isn’t a concern. They only have to worry about how these changes affect the bottom line, and they want to move as quickly as possible so as not to disrupt business.

And that’s exactly what Walt Disney wanted. When agreeing to build in Florida, The Walt Disney Company gained its own powers and immunities. Namely, according to Foglesong’s Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, the Disney Company was authorized “to regulate land use, provide policy and fire services, build roads, lay sewer lines, license the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, even to build an airport and a nuclear power plant.” They also “won immunity from building, zoning, and land-use regulations.” Cinderella Castle, for example, is an 18-story fiberglass structure. That isn’t exactly up to code.

They were awarded those powers because WDW was originally proposed as having a residential component, presented as The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—Epcot. However, those residents would have the power to challenge the corporation’s managerial decisions. To fix this issue, Walt Disney—in what Foglesong deems the biggest lie told in Florida in the 20th century—replaced the words “permanent residents” with “temporary residents/tourists” in memos that were later found in his desk.

“Despite his fanciful mind, [Disney] clearly grasped the political reality—if people lived there, they could vote there, undermining the company’s political control,” Foglesong wrote. “And where the memo explained that, legally, their private government could not exercise planning and zoning powers unless it was popularly elected, Walt switched from lead pencil to red grease pencil, writing ‘NO’ in inch-high letters at the margin.”

In terms of urban planning, a private government without an influential voting public is kind of a big deal. This level of freedom is largely unprecedented in the history of urban planning in the Western world. Though you can find plans for cities dating back to the medieval era, urban planning for the modern world begins with Paris in 1853 under Baron Haussmann. Designated the city designer-in-chief by Napoleon III, Haussmann was charged with transitioning Paris from a medieval city to a modern capitalist industrial city (he accomplished part of this). One of his biggest achievements was creating wider boulevards. While these helped free up traffic and provided better access both into and out of the city, they also made it easier to defend against revolutions—something that would have been a great concern of Napoleon III. Where the previous narrow, crooked streets made it easier for demonstrators to close off sections of the city to keep out police and military, the wider, straighter streets made it easier for authorities to shut down rebellions.

The Disney Company has few rebellions with which to contend. A castle may lie at the epicenter, but WDW doesn’t exactly have to worry about a feudal uprising. They don’t have citizens who call their property home—even the most ardent Disney fan eventually leaves the parks and hotels for the real world. Without the benefit of a private government, the recent expansions to Fantasyland, for example, could have taken up to a decade to achieve.

But they didn’t, and for Disney, that’s a great thing. It means they can focus on the guest experience and transporting guests in place and mind to another world—“A Whole New World,” to quote Aladdin. And students are left to explore the benefits and drawbacks of urban planning under a private government versus a democratic one.