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Chad Emerson Talks with DisTECH about Project Future!

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The creation of Walt Disney World is an intriguing tale of innovation and secrecy.  You’ve probably heard about the early days of the resort, and you know what a great story it is.  The truth is, the story starts right after Disneyland opened in 1955 and continues until opening day in 1971.  If you want a detailed look into this great story, then Chad Emerson has the book for you.  Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World covers the entire span of time from Disneyland’s opening to Disney World’s opening, and it goes into great detail doing so.  Chad was kind enough to let me do an interview with him about his book, so click below to check it out!

DisTECH: Give me a general overview of Project Future.  Where does the story start, and how far into the building process does it go?

CE: Project Future was an early code-named that Disney used internally to describe the Central Florida project now known as the Walt Disney World Resort.  The book picks up the Disney theme park story after Disneyland has opened in 1955 and follows Walt as he quickly gets interested in developing a project in the Eastern United States.
I devote several chapters to early projects that didn’t pan out.  However, the bulk of the book focuses on the time period from 1963 to 1969 as Disney selects the property, acquires it, and begins the massive undertaking of developing thousands of acres of swampland into a vacation destination.

DisTECH: The 1960s were a time of great technical achievements, innovation, and imagination.  How did this affect Project Future?

CE: This was a time when America was thinking on big, grand scales.  We were sending people into orbit and onto the moon.  Massive construction projects like the interstate system were taking shape.
I believe that many of these grand events inspired Walt Disney to, in turn, think big.  The idea behind EPCOT as a model city of tomorrow–complete with a massive transportation, building, and operational infrastructure–seems almost outrageous now but, back then, big ideas were more common-place in many ways.

DisTECH: This area of Florida was largely swamp land before Disney developed it. Did Disney have to start from scratch in creating infrastructures for communication, power, etc.?

CE: Basically they had to drain thousands of acres of unbuildable swampland before they could even start to develop a resort project.  This involved, on a private scale, an almost unprecedented amount of drainage infrastructure such as canals, dams, and the like.
Also, since the water table was so high, Disney’s ability to bury much of the infrastructure underground was limited.  Indeed, that was one of the main reasons behind elevating the Magic Kingdom to essentially one story above ground.  The result is that much of what appears to be the “underground” part of the Magic Kingdom–often known as the Utilidors–is actually on the surface level because digging under the surface would have been such a challenge with all the water in the area.

DisTECH: What limitations did Disney face when implementing these infrastructures?  Were there any technological limitations, or were the limitations mostly political?

CE: In many ways, the water was the biggest challenge.  They had to figure out ways to drain the water that made both business sense and aesthetic sense.  Early on, many of the drainage canals were designed to be very straight and visually not as appealing.  The Disney team quickly realized though that such an industrial feel would not work well with its overall aesthetic vision.  So, more money was spent to give many of the canals (especially the ones in the public areas) more of a natural look and feel.

DisTECH: What did Disney do to overcome those limitations?

CE: One big thing that Disney did to counter the water challenges was to incorporate water into many of the entertainment experiences.  From the man-made Seven Seas Lagoon to various attractions and, later on, Crescent Lake at Disney’s Boardwalk, the company has turned what was originally a big challenge–managing water to avoid things like flooding–into an actual part of the themed environment.  That was really an impressive example of turning a problem into a solution.

DisTECH: Some of Walt’s original ideas for Florida never came true quite as he imagined (Epcot, for example).  What ideas did Disney have (technology or otherwise) that never really came to fruition?

CE: The idea of placing the planned EPCOT city under a climate-controlled dome quickly comes to mind.  For the hot and humid Florida weather, this would have been a real benefit in certain respects.  However, key questions like what type of actual material could be used for the dome and what would be the support structure never ended up being addressed since the concept soon moved away from the dome idea.

DisTECH: On the other hand, what innovations are still in place today?

CE: The monorail really stands out here.  Sure, it has changed over the years but the general technology behind it remains very similar to when Project Future first opened.

DisTECH: Building what we know as Walt Disney World was a massive undertaking.  Today, technology allows us to create amazing structures and build them easier than was possible 40 years ago.  In the building process, did Disney run into any limitations due to the technology of the time?  How did they overcome those?

CE: In some respects, the technology limitations might have actually helped.  For instance, back then, many buildings and construction projects used what i would consider to be more durable materials.  More concrete and such.  That’s why in many ways some of the initial infrastructure used throughout Project Future remains operational today.
That said, the company did embrace new types of materials and technologies.  However, throughout my research, I didn’t find many examples of where Disney could  not accomplish something it wanted to do because the existing technology was insufficient.  Probably the biggest issue that, had Walt lived longer, might have come up was whether the available technology would have truly allowed much of the planned EPCOT city to actually reside under a dome.  That was going to be a real engineering and design challenge in many respects.

DisTECH: Let’s get into how you went about writing the book.  Not too long ago, a book of this nature would require countless hours pouring over old documents.  I don’t doubt that’s still a big part of the process, but what parts of your research were done with current technology?  Was the Internet a big part of your research, or did you find your information in other ways?

CE: While I traveled to various archives to actually view certain documents, one of the biggest advantages of the Internet is that it allowed me to research information catalogues before actually visiting a site.  In the past, you might simply have to make the trip and hope that you didn’t come up empty-handed.  Now, with so many search engines and digital catalogues, you can do a great deal of the initial research “leg work” right from your computer before heading out.

DisTECH: Where can we get the book?  Any plans to release it on other formats, say the Kindle or the iPad and iBookstore?

CE: Right now, we are recommending that people buy the book from Amazon.com or the book’s official website:  www.projectfuturebook.com.  We’ve looked into offering the book via Kindle and similar formats and it is certainly doable.  I plan to closely gauge if there is demand for those type formats and, if so, I suspect we’ll move it that direction.

I hope you enjoyed this interview, and I hope you take the time to take a look at Project Future. Visit projectfurebook.com to learn more about the book.  There you can read an excerpt from the book, view a timeline of important events, learn about some major players in Project Future, and more.  To order the book, visit the item page on Amazon.com.

I’d like to thank Chad for taking the time to do this interview with me.  He is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to Disney, and that translates into a great read.  I recommend you take a look at this book.

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