What It'll Take to Build the City of the Future


Recently, I had a podcast discussion with Jeff Barnes, Dr. Disneyland. He teaches the world’s only accredited college course on the History of Disneyland.

We started out talking about how Disney World feels in the midst of a pandemic, but soon, once we settled into conversation, we tackled the Dumbo in the room: EPCOT. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, as Walt had imagined it:

Why doesn’t the Walt Disney Company just build it today?

My main takeaway from our podcast conversation was how, lost in all the coverage of design and all the focus on people’s expectations, the actual process of realizing Walt’s final dream is a people problem at its core.

Yes, there’s leadership: the visionary at the helm.

But what does that leadership entail? Vision? Confidence? Personality?

The three aspects of leadership that Walt embodied were a doggedness to overcome any issues, not necessarily in a confrontational way, but certainly in a collaborative way. The trick would be instilling that in others. And the people he’d have to convince included

  • Local government
  • Competing high-tech companies
  • His own team, and those contracted to do the work

That’s a wide spectrum of people. He’d need to motivate people to waive some of their rights in moving in, convince companies to fund the expenses, and then also lead his own people into the project. No leader does that without relating to a large number of people, wielding both the hammer and the olive branch, sometimes one in each hand!

Let’s cover the challenges that emerged in the podcast, starting with residency.

The Question of Governance

Who will govern? Who will own the land?

This is a real question whenever you build a city where people will live. As Jeffrey Barnes mentions on our podcast, “In our system of government, the people have a voice. The landowners have a stake. And Walt didn’t hang around long enough to get his hands dirty enough to iron out those details.”

Details, indeed.

According to David Koenig in Realityland, “Walt calculated room in EPCOT for 20,000 residents—all renters to protect Disney’s land ownership rights.

What this means is that Disney would own the innermost part of the city, the central hub where people would live (condominiums), shop (stores), work (offices and labs), and play (park), subleasing out space on a temporary, year-to-year or contract-to-contract basis, like AirBnB’s or landlord-lessee agreements.

Koenig continues in Realityland: “Everyone living at EPCOT would be required to work on property, to ensure that every resident had a stake in keeping the community an ‘exciting, living blueprint of the future.’ When they were ready to retire, they could relocate to and buy property in a second, more conventional city on the fringe of Disney World.”

The question of working and playing on campus is central to any city. It’s why Celebration and Golden Oaks, other properties near Walt Disney World, don’t possess the same allure as Walt’s vision of EPCOT. In the City of the Future, work and play are intertwined. Consider the extremes:

Too much work without play, and the place becomes just another Googleplex or Apple Park, where people show up to work and then leave, afraid to be themselves because their family resides elsewhere.

Too much play without work, and the place just becomes another Disneyland theme park, with hotels on-site for middle-to-upper-class vacationers that want, at best, a work-cation.

It’s the “stake in keeping the community an ‘exciting, living blueprint of the future” that makes the City of the Future a City of the Future. Imagine building the next clean energy purifier in your lab, and then showing it to your family on the weekend when it’s rolled out for use in the shopping center. Imagine researching the latest vaccine or cure for cancer at work, then bringing in your parents to show them the promising progress. Imagine developing the next high-tech device, then bringing in your friends for a usability test. There’s a pride that comes with seeing the products you develop in the hands of users, and the proximity of work and play makes all that possible — especially for creatives like writers, artists, and designers.

Jeffrey Barnes said it best:

"There needs to be a balance between work and play. I think we need to have a purpose in life. I think we are made to work. We are made to make a difference in this life. I enjoy working. But I like to play as well. There needs to be a balance between those two. Having cities that recognize the importance of those two endeavors is really significant."

This is also why not just any company CEO can design or oversee this kind of project. You can't have someone that's a 9-5 type of worker that only ever sees the office when everyone else is there. You have to live and breathe the environment. Treat work like play, and treat play like work. Whether that's walking around the grounds, or crafting creative zones complete with restaurants and rides, it can't be your job. It has to be your life. You have to enjoy putting a smile on a fellow resident's face, and not focus on making a quick buck or boosting your company's stock price. Your drive has to come from a curiosity into how people like to live and work and play, and a deep-seated love of smiling people.

The Question of Sponsorship

The side benefit of having state-of-the-art facilities and transportation is the ability to attract sponsors that may want to showcase their product. The downside is how expensive it becomes to install and construct the new infrastructure.

Funding is synonymous with sponsorship. One thing I had down on my list of questions for the podcast but never got to ask was the concept of funding.

Specifically, one Roy Disney. How did he do it?

It still boggles my mind that Walt could convince Roy to keep writing those checks without seeing the vision as Walt did. As Dr. Disneyland said on our podcast,

“Roy had been to Imagineering ONE time. That’s it. ONE time. And now he’s gotta run the entire company and he’s gotta get Walt Disney World built. It’s a yeoman’s project.”

Of course, it’s not like banks and bonds were funding Walt Disney World. There were sponsors. You see them when entering rides in all the Disney theme parks. Kao plastered on the signposts at entrance and exit of Splash Mountain in Tokyo Disneyland. Coca Cola splattered across Space Mountain. Each of the countries with a pavilion in the EPCOT World Showcase had some native sponsor, like Mitsukoshi sponsoring the department store/gift shop in the Japan pavilion.

The implications of these collaborations is that they would help fund and install their technology—or sell and market their products— in the City of the Future. Imagine PepsiCo signing on as a sponsor, so Jeffrey Barnes wouldn't be downing 100 Dasanis (a Coca Cola brand) on a hot day! Maybe restaurants would serve only beverages of companies signed on as sponsors, with prime locations for Pizza Hut if Pepsico paid a premium. Transportation could be Tesla electric-powered versions of the Skyliner. Maybe Apple provides Time Capsules and wireless devices for creators, Intel would provide racks of servers, and Amazon provides online shopping and delivery as well as unlimited AWS storage. There could be dark rides celebrating the lives of Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and other creators. Need inspiration? Just take a ride through the reality distortion field!

The devil, of course, lies in the details. Walt — or whoever ended up building the city — would have to negotiate with all these companies, massage all their executives’ egos, and herd those cats to move in the same direction for the greater good. Easier said than done.

“Because he sort of envisioned this being a giant corporate laboratory. Walt could have gotten General Motors to work side by side with, say Ford and Chrysler, to come and be apart of this domed city and figure out what the future was in say automobile production.”

The lesson to be learned is that nobody funds a project of this scope alone. The billion-dollar question is in the art of Walt’s pitch, and how he and his teammates could bring competitors together for the greater good of the people. Connections? Networking? Clout? Somewhere in there is a lesson about asking for help. There’s no blueprint for getting companies to work together. It takes a lot of negotiation, a lot of compromise, and some blend of dogged determination, track record, and people skills.

It takes leadership.

The Importance of Vulnerability

Books talk about Dick Nunis barking orders into a voice recorder so that his instructions could be replayed for the people. A former American football quarterback at USC, he was the classic alpha male. Nothing wrong with that.

But Walt Disney’s vulnerability doesn’t receive nearly as much attention — as it should. But Jeffrey Barnes pointed out something else surprising in our discussion:

“On more than one occasion, he would look at folks and with a tear in his eye say, ‘I’ve wanted this my entire life, and it’s not going to happen if you don’t help me. Will you please help me.’ That’s how he got the first drawing of Disneyland that Herb Ryman drew, that Walt used to go to New York to pitch it to the networks to get the television program from ABC. That’s what he used to get the Disneyland Hotel built when he was getting 800 calls a day asking about overnight accommodations.”

Be vulnerable. It’s a lot harder than it sounds! When you’re a competitive person trying to get ahead and do something that has never been done, the dominant emotion is confidence. You want to project confidence onto others! You need others to believe in your proposal, and instilling confidence in others starts with showing confidence yourself. You have confidence in yourself, and your idea, your vision. Think about Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field. Maybe he didn’t order people into it, but he could inspire others into believing what he believed, sharing his vision.

But having to admit fault and cede power to others in the midst of that confidence is a difficult thing to do. Admitting weakness in any way — whether it’s a mental disorder, feelings of doubt, personal quirks — opens you up to criticism. And that’s hard to stomach on top of the inner demons and doubts you face yourself. But it’s key if you want your followers, your teammates—and eventually your customers—to relate to you.

That’s why a true leader is vulnerable. It’s hard because you want to speak things into existence. If you can’t believe in your idea yourself, how do you expect others to believe in it? I asked Jeffrey Barnes this very question on podcast. “Walt was very unique in his ability to reach into people’s hearts and get them to do whatever it was that Walt wanted them to do. There really wasn’t anyone else in the company — really, in the world — who had that gift and that ability.”

That’s one key to leadership that doesn’t receive enough credit: relatability. We’re all fallible human beings. We make mistakes, we learn to get better, and we grow from our experiences. I think everyone who has made a mistake knows this. The problem is showing that side of us in a way that feels authentic, and doesn’t completely undermine our credibility in our next venture. Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, who majored in leadership in college, said it best after sharing his struggles with mental health:

"It's not about looking tough. I think that’s a fake leader. Being a leader is about being genuine and being real."

The key to balancing vulnerability with confidence is showing growth, i.e. admitting fault and showing your human side while also remaining confident that you are heading in a positive direction, where others will want to follow.


The City of Future is a fun mental exercise to consider in the wake of continued theme park expansions — have you seen the Beauty and Beast expansion to Tokyo Disneyland!? 😍 It’s also practical when you consider how effective the NBA’s bubble campus has been in Orlando, Florida, keeping out the pandemic in a live-play-work on-campus environment sustaining hundreds of players and their families.

But when it comes down to planning, building, and managing this city, there’s more to it than a blueprint or a design:

  • Planning — Leadership and vision
  • Building — Funding and sponsorship
  • Managing — Governance

This is, at its core, a people problem. We need leaders we can trust, with a vision for what to include; a master negotiator to bring companies together in the spirit of collaboration; and a positive level of collaboration with local government, so that the managing company can maintain its ownership rights while giving residents enough incentive to come, work, and then retire to properties on the fringe.

Let’s get started! If you’re on board, email me at noko@hey.com! 😉

Written by
Noko Pikari