In the lead-up to the creation of Epcot Center during the 1970s, a common refrain from Disney publicity was that, in many ways, Waltâs futuristic dream for the city of EPCOT had already come true in the Florida swamps. The underlying systems and technologies in use at Walt Disney World, it was argued, made the resort a futuristic community in and of itself, with a large âpopulationâ composed of visiting guests.
This argument was not without merit; indeed, much thought had been given to the incorporation of innovative technologies in the resortâs original design. Groundbreaking experiments in everything from waste management to energy production were part of Walt Disney Worldâs early years. Part and parcel of this was a range of state-of-the-art telecommunications systems.
The groundwork for the resortâs telecom system was laid early in its development. Two participating corporations had been the first to sign on for the Walt Disney World effort, and they received the lionâs share of the spotlight in the first announcements of its construction. One of these was United States Steel, which at the time was going to be an operating partner in the resortâs hotels. The other was electronics giant RCA.
RCA and Disney had deep ties. In 1940, the two companies had partnered in the creation of the groundbreaking Fantasound process for Fantasia. By 1959, RCAâs legendary Chairman âGeneralâ David Sarnoff had become eager to lure Disneyâs television programming from its then-home, ABC, to the Sarnoff-founded NBC network. To aid in this effort, Sarnoff commissioned a study for a second Disneyland-style park which RCA would help fund and which would be built in Jersey Meadows, near New York.
This proposal was rejected due to weather considerations, but a subsequent pitch gained more traction. A 1959 study by Harrison âBuzzâ Price and his company, Economics Research Associates, looked at the possibility of building a âcommunity of tomorrowâ in Palm Beach, Florida. This venture, which would also include a second Disneyland-type theme park, was to be funded by Disney, RCA, NBC, and insurance tycoon John D. MacArthur. It was one of the earliest glimpses at Waltâs grand plans for Florida.
But this venture, too, would fall through; there doesnât seem to have been enough available acreage to suit Disney, and amid a fiscal downturn itâs possible that RCA might have been reluctant to enter the theme park business. RCA backed away from the project, and Disney instead focused its efforts on the upcoming New York Worldâs Fair as well as other possible venues for âDisneyland Eastâ. (Regardless of this separation, Disney did eventually move its flagship television show, retitled Walt Disneyâs Wonderful World of Color, to NBC in 1961.)
In 1968, with Walt Disney World under development, RCA and Disney crossed paths once more. In March of that year, the two companies initiated a conceptual study of the information handling requirements of the future resort. It was to define the goals and requirements of Walt Disney World, and develop a conceptual approach to a âhybrid electronic systemâ incorporating âdigital computers, television, mobile communications and the telephone.â
Much as how the city of EPCOT had been envisioned as a working laboratory for corporations, publicity for Walt Disney World sold the resort as an opportunity for companies to demonstrate their products on a global stage. In 1969, Disney Executive Vice President Card Walker said that the Magic Kingdom would provide a âcommon meeting groundâ for âthe interests of both industry and the public.â In the wake of U.S. Steel and RCAâs involvement, other corporations such as Aerojet-General Corporation and Monsanto assigned task forces to work with Disney to see what systems and materials could be applied not only in the resort areas of Walt Disney World but also, eventually, in EPCOT.
âMajor companies participating in Walt Disney World will benefit in two ways,â said Walker. âFirst, they’ll have an opportunity to tell their story directly to more than eight million people visiting Walt Disney World – foreign visitors as well as American vacationers. Second there’s the marketing potential of building advertising campaigns around the company’s part in one of the country’s most exciting new projects – Walt Disney World.â These arguments would also be made in subsequent years to line up corporate participation in Epcot Center.
Similarly, Disney President Donn Tatum stated at the time these partnerships were announced that âthe research carried out and the experience gained â and the new systems, the new devices, the new techniques which have been found feasible during the past three and a half years of investigation as well as those that yet will be found â will provide a body of knowledge and experience as we move into the project that is defined today, which will certainly lead to the development of EPCOT.â
In August 1968, Disney and RCA kicked off a 90-day effort dubbed âProject 90â, in which large teams from the two companies would examine the information and communications requirements for Walt Disney Worldâs impending opening day in 1971. The goal of all this was to create systems for Walt Disney World that would enhance guest satisfaction, maximize facilities utilization, minimize the cost of operations, and provide for Guest safety.
On the RCA side, the development of this project was one of the first assignments for RCA Systems Development, a newly-formed corporate unit. Its director was Thomas Paterson; Dick Baker was named program manager for Project 90. Systems engineering, as defined by then-RCA President and CEO Robert Sarnoff, âcombines many skills and disciplines in a unified problem-solving effort.â RCA had formed this new division to apply the systems approach âto meet increasingly urgent social and economic challenges, including problems of health, urban planning, natural resources and education.â
One of the first assignments of the new organization, said Sarnoff, âwas to help develop the integrated Information-Communication System for Walt Disney World. We of RCA are proud to be associated with Walt Disney Productions in a project that holds so much promise for the future of human society.â It was a mission that was right up EPCOTâs alley.
On the Disney side, Tom Foster and Frank Stanek helped guide the project. âI was the point guy at WED,â Stanek recalls. âI think this was done at the time when the company had set up management training programs. They brought people from different areas of the company in teams of seven people. Bob Matheison was charged with coordinating that activity and the function was to get ready for Walt Disney World and the [Mineral King] ski resort and so forth.â
Stanek continues: âI spent a lot of time with the RCA guys because I would help them through the design development part of the thing, and I had all that background and experience in what we were working on, and what the thinking on EPCOT was and all that stuff. And they were based out of WED â they had an office there. There were a couple of guys from RCA that were stationed there permanently and they would interface with me often. At that time my function was more business planning and design criteria input to the creative group.â
As Stanek recalls, RCAâs motivations for the Walt Disney World project aligned with the visions and promises of corporate synergy that Walker and Tatum pitched above: âI got the impression that they looked at it maybe more as a potential market or sales tool â this whole study â where they could perhaps sell a lot of equipment to us. That was sort of their priority, even though the report was structured as how do you set up a whole new communications system. And maybe initially one section of their company thought there could be a market here. It was sort of like the transportation business, when we developed the monorail and the WEDway, and there was a whole thing under the federal government for various transportation funding. So I look at it somewhat similarly â maybe RCA thought there was a whole new communications system possibility that they could be involved in and using Walt Disney World as a showcase for that would generate more business. So I think that was their function, we were just trying to think far enough ahead. Because we went with this exercise with IBM at some point as well.â
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In December of 1968 the Executive Summary for Project 90 was released, describing an âintegrated information-communication system for Walt Disney World.â According to the report, Project 90 had been a great success, meeting goals including the validation of an integrated systems concept, the development of detailed requirements for the system, the definition of a modularized package for 1971, the establishment of cost estimates, and the development of an implementation plan as well as an RCA/Disney team to carry it out.
The conclusion of the study was that the desired goals for Walt Disney World could indeed be met, with an integrated system tailored to Disneyâs demands but based on âstandard product line equipments.â It was therefore possible to provide a customized system that was also relatively cost-efficient, and which could be completed in plenty of time for the resortâs opening day.
In addition to contributing to profits, the system would âprovide guests with an array of new services designed to enhance Disneyâs existing high standards of guest services.â It would also serve as a working prototype of the information and communication system needs of EPCOT. The team dubbed this new âsystem of systemsâ WEDCOMM â the Walter E. Disney Communications Oriented Monitoring and Management System.
WEDCOMM, Disney later claimed, would be the âfirst 21st century information-communication systemâ; a âdramatic preview of tomorrowâs system technology.â Its modular design meant that it would be able to expand to meet the demands of the resortâs growth; a 1969 press release said that it would be unveiled in phases over several years âto take advantage of operational experience and technological advancement.â
WEDCOMMâs scale would be remarkable. The same press release from April of 1969 touts how it would link administrative, financial, and operational functions in âa single management information system unique in scope and providing a new dimension in control of a major enterprise.â The sheer size of the system was seen as a direct result of the scale of Walt Disney World itself.
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The 1968 Executive Summary includes an entertaining write-up of what a speculative family vacation at Walt Disney World would look like once the resort and its information backbone were completed. It follows the fictional George Kellog and family through their trip, noting the many benefits they would reap from WEDCOMM. The âtrip reportâ is amusing not only for its breathlessness at the wonders of computer technology and the thrill of color television, but also for its prescience and description of some technologies and systems that wouldnât really emerge at Walt Disney World until decades after its writing.
The Kellogsâ adventure begins as they arrive at the Walt Disney World Entrance Center â then envisioned as a separate facility from the resort hotels. The check in and proceed to their hotel, which has been alerted to their impending arrival thanks to the computer. Their room is clean and ready for them, thanks to the âRoom Status/Maid Locator Systemâ, which allows the front desk to be aware of any roomâs cleanliness status at any time.
The room they find waiting for them is a technological playground â for the era. On the color television, daughter Debbie finds âmore channels than she has ever seen on TV.â Special television channels include a park information channel detailing that nightâs events in the Magic Kingdom, as well as a channel devoted to surveilling the hotelâs fenced-in playground. Meanwhile, young Curtis has turned on the AM/FM radio and discovers a special WEDCOMM station âplaying music from the Disney movie that we saw last week!â
The family arrives at the Magic Kingdom (making special note of the surveillance cameras monitoring the parking lot for safety), and father goes to buy their tickets. As a âpreferred guestâ he uses a âWalt Disney World Credit Cardâ that WEDCOMM automatically bills.
As they arrived, facts about their stay had been entered into the computerâs Attendance Prediction Model, which alerted the Inventory Control System and Computerized Personnel Scheduling System to make sure the resort would be properly staffed and stocked for their visit. When they enter the park, turnstile clicks reveal that attendance is rising faster than the computer predicted, and so the system alerts the System Communication Center, which in turn lets the operations supervisor know so that he can bring in extra Cast Members to help.
Throughout the Kellogsâ visit, surveillance of the park is used to make their experience more enjoyable. As the Kellogs wait for Space Mountain, in-park cameras reveal a growing line and so the System Communication Center alerts Tomorrowlandâs area supervisor who calls for live entertainment â Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs â to show up and entertain the queued Guests.
Surveillance also keeps them safe. Dark ride television monitoring keeps an eye on them in the Haunted Mansion, and the Automatic Monitoring and Control systems ensure that each attraction they experience is operating safely and in accordance with show quality standards. In case of an emergency, the System Communication Center is connected to security and fire departments via mobile communications, so help is easily available.
While enjoying a snack, the family is even alerted via a television monitor that special pricing is about to go into effect on the steamboat ride â the 1971 equivalent of a push notification!
When the family returns to their hotel, a light is blinking on their roomâs communication console. With the push of a button theyâre connected to the front desk, which tells them they have a message from grandma back home as well as a note to call the System Communication Center â apparently mom lost her purse while shopping in the Magic Kingdom!
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In 1969, Card Walker commented on corporate participation in the Walt Disney World project. Tomorrowland, he said, had been earmarked as the site slated for the heaviest level of outside corporate involvement. There, participating companies would help create âentire pavilions and showsâ.
That same year, on April 30th, RCA issued a press release touting the âadvanced information communication systemâ that they were bringing to Walt Disney World. It would all be controlled from the RCA Systems Communications Center â a facility which, in line with Walkerâs comments, would be a âhighlightâ of Tomorrowland. This facility would tie in all of Walt Disney Worldâs communications – telephones, radio paging and two-way radio, computer operated displays, monitoring and control systems, and television.
The attraction had been a Disney idea, proposed to RCA as a show which could serve as a focal point for Tomorrowland. But far from just a source of Guest entertainment, the Center would also be the operational nerve center for Walt Disney Worldâs entire information-communication system. âThe concept of this center,â they said, âis in keeping with the Disney philosophy of operation which vests the decision making with its managers who spend most of their time on the scene of activity, and assigns machines to a support role.â These RCA systems would alert managers to the need for decisions, as well as give accurate and timely information on which to base said decisions.
The Centerâs advanced electronics system was also to be designed to provide additional Guest services. It was to permit Walt Disney World Guests to simply and easily make reservations for hotel rooms, entertainment, and recreation before and during their stay. It would house the backend for a special Walt Disney World credit card that could be provided to hotel Guests for use throughout their stay, and it would broadcast news and previews of Walt Disney World daily activities and special events to hotel rooms over special in-house channels.
The RCA systemâs open ended design would allow updating as the state of art advanced over time. This meant that it could be expanded to meet Walt Disney Worldâs growth â It was promised that the Center would always be âa modern, efficient facilityâ âwhich it must be as the operational nerve center of Walt Disney Worldâ. It was even predicted that additional Systems Communications Centers might be constructed as Walt Disney World added the then-planned industrial park, jetport, and EPCOT.
But the Center wouldnât be all business â as progress on the concept developed, the idea emerged to add a show which would introduce Guests to the goings-on inside the facility and take them inside a computer. Disney veterans John Hench, Marty Sklar, and T. Hee collaborated on the idea, at least one version of which was known as Alice in Computerland.
Renderings for this attraction show Guests looking down upon the Communications Center through large plate-glass windows, while a show plays on monitors overhead. The concept appears identical to a show which would debut at Epcot Center in 1982, the Astuter Computer Revue. In fact, some of the concept art for the later Epcot attraction seems to be a direct draw-over of the original RCA show rendering.
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In their 1969 press release, RCA heralds their systemâs ability to link âadministrative, financial and operational functions into a single management information system unique in scope and providing a new dimension in control of a major enterprise.â But they also claimed to have loftier goals: âThe system is expected to contribute to broad improvements in education, health, safety, utility operations, municipal government, monetary systems, recreation and transportation. These will be an outgrowth of such WEDCOMM applications as computer assisted instruction, multi-test health screening systems, safety monitoring, automated reading drills, and billing and collection for utility services.â
Some uses seem prescient. The system was predicted to âautomatically build âguest profilesâ to assist the staff in progressively improving their service to return visitors.â âThrough attendance predictions and inventory control programs, the computer will help insure an adequate staff and sufficient food and supplies at all times.â Other comments might indicate RCAâs true motives in the project – it was said that the system would be âcontinually be fed by a stream of new technology from RCA laboratories and technical centers, particularly to meet the expanding requirements of EPCOT.â
RCA predicted many backstage uses of their systems. Since Walt Disney World was going to need to train so many new Cast Members â more than 4,000 at once â it was proposed that they be trained via closed circuit television. This, along with a video resource library would be key to training. Television could be used to monitor employee interviews and for training presentations that would be too expensive to repeat often, like emergency routines. It would also be used for orientation videos and motivational courses.
In the field of marketing, the RCA system would build Guest satisfaction, ensure return visits, and promote word of mouth advertising. Computerized Guest profiles, attendance prediction modeling, and Guest attendance statistics could be used for market analysis, advertising research, and group sales promotion. Wideband television could help train Walt Disney World sales personnel and stage travel bureau seminars with visiting travel agents. It would also allow television programs to originate from the resort, its hotels, and the Magic Kingdom.
The entertainment department could benefit by using the system for television monitoring. Shows might be recorded for review in California so that management could be âfully aware of entertainment quality at Walt Disney World without the necessity for time consuming and costly trips.â It would also be used to entertain Guests staying in hotels via closed circuit television.
Meanwhile, once WEDCOMM came online, it could be used for on-site computerized construction scheduling and schedule control. Cost control could also be brought to Florida. It was even proposed that an Interim System Communication Center, to be housed in trailers, could provide centralized communications to support the construction program prior to the completion of a permanent facility. It would allow a central location for the display and review of construction status as Walt Disney World began to take shape.
When the park opened, WEDCOMM would keep the park running more efficiently, as automatic testing could be designed to shorten repair cycles. Contemporaneous studies had indicated that with the use of complex electronics, up to 80% of the repair cycle was spent simply trying to isolate the fault â it took four times as long to figure out what was wrong than to fix it. At Walt Disney World, where the complex DACS computer system was needed to run the many shows and attractions, it was essential that computer downtime be kept at a minimum. And in Florida, which at the time had a much smaller pool of skilled electronics laborers than California, automatic testing would benefit Disney by allowing a smaller staff of less skilled workers to keep things running.
WEDCOMM could also be used to smooth resort operations. It was predicted that there would be a room status system that could expedite the renting of rooms by providing âcurrent status informationâ of every room on property. Registration and housekeeping staff could, at a glance, see the condition of all rooms at any time. The housekeeping staff could also be tracked via a key plug which they would insert into a âmaid jackâ in the communications console of Guest rooms as they cleaned. This would signal their location and track the completion of their work.
In the end, however, it was all about how to best entertain the Guest. Resort hotel rooms would be designed with communications systems created to ensure an âexciting and delightfulâ stay. RCA proposed that their own Mural TV color television receivers would be featured in each room. These cutting-edge devices offered âthe latest in the art of solid state modular plug-in circuitry, motorless remote control, automatic fine tuning, and other features designed expressly to fulfill hotel/motel requirements.â
A staggering 12 channels would be on offer, plus FM radio, to âoptimize the utility of color televisionâ. Programming could be selected from âoff-air AM/FM radio stations, tape, records or television originating in the video-audio production center.â The proposed system was designed to allow Disney to control the content of programs. Meanwhile, a âdecorator styledâ control panel built into the room furniture would control an AM/FM radio, âproposed to further enhance guest satisfaction by providing a choice of relaxing high quality music or other radio programs.â A room services panel would allow âfinger tip controlâ of other Guest conveniences, and message-at-desk and morning call features would also be offered.
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Where this was all leading, ostensibly, was EPCOT. At the time it was forecast that EPCOT would debut around 1981, ten years after Walt Disney World opened its doors. By the EPCOT era, it was said, WEDCOMM was âenvisioned as having broad functional components: Education, Health, Safety, Utilities, Municipal Government, Monetary, Transportation and Recreationâ. It would be built on a modular design based on forward planning from the Program Management Office, and would use proven, standard product lines.
Here, again, is the RCA focus on showcasing their lines of product. They divided the proposed development of Walt Disney Worldâs computer system into four phases: pre-opening, post-opening, the creation of the Industrial Park, and EPCOT itself. They proposed the use of their Spectra 70/35 and 70/45 computers before opening; the 70/35 would be replaced after opening by another 70/45. Just for perspective, the 70/45 system, introduced in 1966, could weigh up to 2,700 pounds and featured a staggering 256 KB of memory at its maximum configuration. As of 1969, all this power could have been yours for the low, low monthly rental price of $21,000 (roughly $147,000 today).
Phase three would see the addition of the proposed EPCOT-adjacent Industrial Park, and with it the WEDCOMM system would add time-sharing capability â a dedicated time-sharing center would add âmassive storage capacityâ to the system. When EPCOT arrived in phase four, it would âprovide a revolutionary opportunity for full exploitation of the computerâs ability to help make life convenient, pleasant, safe, and relatively free from many of todayâs routine tasks which fall into the category of drudgery.â
While the report acknowledged that the EPCOT programs might change greatly over the impending decade of development, and that planning for EPCOT must periodically be updated to include the latest trends and developments, they did predict a few ways in which WEDCOMM would revolutionize life in EPCOT.
In the field of education, it was said that the children of the time lived in a fast-paced world where information and entertainment came from many âmodern sourcesâ. (Remember, of course, that this was being reported in 1969!) This made school âoften not a totally relevant experience for themâ â but in EPCOT things would be different. In Disneyâs new city, technology was predicted to enable more effective instruction and less administrative work for teachers. âModern presentation techniques, gamelike and individualized instruction and new drill and practice methods can go a long ways toward making school a happy and relevant experience,â it was said. Meanwhile, in the Industrial Park, RCA Institutes would team up with a local university to offer accredited graduate level education courses via closed-circuit television.
WEDCOMM would keep the workers and students of EPCOT healthy and happy using the latest in RCA health systems. These would include âmulti-test health screening systems, the automation of the patient hospital admission process, patient-oriented hospital information systems and medical communications systems involving hybrid systems (television, optical, audio, digital and analog computers, etc.).â Again, areas that are as relevant today as they were in 1969.
Aside from staying healthy, EPCOT residents would also be safe. WEDCOMM would offer automated heat, smoke, and intrusion detection and reporting. In the realm of utilities, it would enable automated reading, billing, and collection of water, electricity, and gas services. It would control ventilation for EPCOTâs enclosed central district, monitor air and water pollution, and oversee the disposal of solid and liquid waste.
WEDCOMM would also keep the trains running on time. EPCOTâs bustling transportation system depended on the reliable operation and steady flow of a network of peoplemovers, monorails, two levels of automotive transportation, and air travel. WEDCOMM offered the possibility of computerized scheduling and dispatch, reservations, and ticketing. Everything would be monitored for safety via automated systems and CCTV by the System Communications Center. The cutting-edge jet airport would have advanced passenger, baggage, and cargo handling as well as automated maintenance facilities â this at a time when the Orlando airport was operating out of Quonset huts.
The system would keep EPCOTâs municipal government going by automating city and county tax services. School administration records would be âgathered, manipulated and reported via WEDCOMMâs computer.â And a system similar to one that RCA had created for the Florida legislature would make sure that âthe current status of legislative actions and bills will be automatically available on a real time inquiry basis.â
WEDCOMM would be an âintegral partâ of EPCOTâs money system, overseeing electronic banking, credit card operations, credit transfer, and insurance. What was theoretical then is part of daily life now: âPurchase transactions will be accomplished through automatic debiting of bank accounts. On line remote terminals at the point of purchase will handle the transactions. (The checkless/cashless society.)â
The WEDCOMM project would be, according to the company, âan important step forward in the affirmation by American industry of Walt Disneyâs âEPCOT Philosophyâ.â Said RCA chief Robert Sarnoff, âWe of RCA are proud to be associated with Walt Disney Productions in a project that holds so much promise for the future of human society.â
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Soâ¦ what happened? WEDCOMM was clearly never built out to the scale envisioned in the 1969 report, and the planned Tomorrowland System Communications Center never materialized.
Says Frank Stanek, âIn thinking back about it, and there may have been some other stuff at a corporate level at RCA â the reason they didnât want to go with the project â but I just think that they did not see the market or they didnât think there was enough there, perhaps, in the marketplace, and so they went through the motions of this. I think initially there was a lot of enthusiasm, we had a lot of good meetings, but it sort of tailed off. They did the report and the higher ups in the company at the time decided there isnât enough here. I think that was the conclusion â that was the feeling I got.â
Perhaps telling is Marty Sklarâs recollection of a meeting the Imagineering team had with RCA brass in New York. They were there to pitch the Tomorrowland attraction; RCAâs contract to design the Walt Disney World communication system had been written with a quid pro quo that the company would consider a $10 million sponsorship of the show. After nine months working their way up the corporate ladder, they finally were allowed an audience with Sarnoff.
The Imagineers lined the walls of the RCA board of directorsâ meeting room with storyboards and artwork, all arranged to be easily seen by someone sitting at the center of the table. Only afterwards were they told that Sarnoff insisted on always sitting at the head of the table. âSure enough,â Sklar recalled, âwe made our pitch the next morning with the chairman sitting so far away, he needed binoculars to see our materials.â
It got worse. As the presentation went on, Sklar, John Hench, and T. Hee sat with three RCA vice presidents in seats next to Sarnoff. As Sklar told it, âMr. Sarnoff scribbled a note and passed it to the vice president next to him, who passed it to the next vice president, who passed it to me. When I opened it, I read: âWho are these people?ââ âThe VPs had not even told Sarnoff who we were, or why we were there! Nine months of my life down the drain with four words scribbled on a notepad.â
Adds Stanek, âI think there were other circumstances in the RCA corporation at the time that said this is not a venture that weâre interested in anymore.â
Indeed, not long after, in 1971, RCA sold off their computer division entirely to Sperry Rand. Something of a debacle, the sale led to a $490 million write-off, which was the largest such loss ever suffered by an American business to that point. The fallout even led to the ouster of Sarnoff as Chairman in 1975.
Ironically, it was Sperry who would sponsor EPCOT Computer Central a decade later, including the Astuter Computer Revue show â a direct descendant of the original RCA plans for Tomorrowland.
Disney even stayed in business with RCA. After the collapse of the Tomorrowland show, Disney head Card Walker told Marty Sklar that they had to figure out a way to get RCA to sponsor an attraction. The resulting process led to the debut of the RCA-sponsored Space Mountain in 1975.
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And, in fact, RCA did remain Walt Disney Worldâs âprime electronics contractorâ in its early years. In March of 1971, RCA received a $1.5 million contract to design a computer system for Walt Disney World. A 1972 profile describes a WEDCOMM system that âblends computer, telephone, automatic monitoring and control, mobile communications, television, and wide-band systems into one totally integrated system.â One single coaxial cable allowed the system to carry âtelephone traffic, automatic monitoring and control system signals, computer data, and the audio and control signals for the attractions.â RCA supplied mobile communications equipment as well, including a system that might seem quaint today – six fixed stations, fifty mobile units, and 150 portable personal size units.
The RCA-built Automatic Monitoring and Control System monitored operating conditions of everything from fire alarms to golf course sprinklers; should any malfunction or emergency occur, a coded message would flash on video terminals located in Walt Disney Worldâs two fire stations, two security locations, and the main service area maintenance console. At the time, Disneyâs own fire department was as large as that of the city of Orlando.
A scenario from 1975 describing a Space Mountain breakdown shows how all the systems would work symbiotically. Thanks to the Automatic Test system, the Automatic Monitoring System had detected a faulty pump the previous evening and notified the computer which notified the Maintenance Center. A maintenance supervisor was able to schedule the needed repair during the nighttime maintenance shift, so that it was replaced before it could fail and bring ride downtime. Maintenance had the part ready to go because the Computerized Inventory Control System ensured that the right spares were in stock.
In addition, the Automatic Monitoring and Control Systems worked backstage for air and water pollution control. The computer also provided statistical analyses from failure data for future engineering decisions, and scheduled preventative maintenance.
The Disney studio even got those RCA Spectra 70/45 computers mentioned earlier. They connected via telephone line to video data terminals located at the Contemporary and Polynesian hotels to handle Guest reservations, registrations, and checkouts. It was planned at the time to expand the use of these terminals, allowing Guests to check out at data terminals in the hotel lobbies âmerely by punching his room number into the terminal keyboard.â âThe terminal would then automatically print out an itemized statement for payment at the cashierâs window.â
Guest rooms in 1972 received a whopping four television channels, but the system could be expanded to thirty. Three channels showed local network programming, while the fourth gave hotel information. The television receivers, built by RCA, were connected to a master antenna system called DISCADE, built especially for the resort by Ameco.
As stated in the 1968 Project 90 report, RCA felt it crucial that Disney have complete control over its telephone service due the vital linkages it would provide for WEDCOMM. It was recommended that Disney develop a privately owned public system, especially considering that the system would eventually be needed to service the residential community of EPCOT.
Thus was born Vista-United Telecommunications, which grew from an agreement in July 1971 between Walt Disney World and a local phone company â the only partnership of its kind at the time in the nation. The system, built by Stromberg Carlson, was the nationâs first all-electronic network, as well as the first with 100% touchtone dialing and 100% buried cable. It was also the first 911 service in Florida. In 1975 it became first system in the continental United States with a video display long distance operator system, and in 1978 it saw the first installation of a commercial fiber optic system in the country.
By 1987, Walt Disney World was laced with more than 7,000 miles of copper and fiber optic cable. The Worldlink earth station transmitted and received video to satellite, beaming down the Disney Channel for Guest rooms and broadcasting special promotions and events from the resort. It was the first âfull-arcâ earth station in central Florida, a motorized 10-meter dish that could reach any communications satellite in orbit over North America. Using the Galaxy I satellite, Disney had set up a private corporate communications network between the Disney Studio and Walt Disney World.
Of course, today all these technologies and systems seem unremarkable â even passÃ©. In a world full of hand-held supercomputers that allow each of us to broadcast ourselves live to a global audience, it can be hard to remember back when touch-screen interfaces where amazing, exotic technology and âvideo phonesâ still seemed like something from the Jetsons. A time when four television channels was about all you could get, and it was exciting to get them in color. And it wasnât that very long ago. But when we think about how things were, and what was considered cutting-edge at the time, we see how Walt Disney World really did innovate in some truly remarkable ways, and why it was such a technological marvel in its time. Itâs a tribute to the Imagineers of the era, and to the team at Project 90 who envisioned a system for which Walt would have been proud.