The Prophet and the Planner: Walt Disney, Joseph Smith, and the Dreams of Utopia


In 1923 a young animator and entrepreneur from Missouri arrived on the West Coast, where he began a family business that would grow into an empire. Walter Elias Disney was a showman with the genuis’s zeal and drive that helped him build an entertainment juggernaut based largely on the values that he took with him from the midwest.

Almost century earlier, the young head of a small but growing New England church was preparing a massive migration of his followers to Missouri, where they would build a new city to God. From a temporary headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith, Jun. sent an epistle to church leaders then gathering in Independence, Jackson County, called, an “Explanation of the Plat of the City of Zion.”

In 1833, Joseph Smith and Frederick G. Williams prepared this map for the city of Zion, to be built in Jackson County, Missouri. Public areas in the center are surrounded by 10-acre city blocks with half-acre home lots. The city was never built, but many of the plan’s basic ideas were later used in Latter-day Saint settlements.

Both men were visionaries, and though they lived in different times and were motivated by different forces, their legacies intersect in Missouri, and at the belief that planned communities could bring salvation to a fallen world.

Consecrated Lands

At 27, Smith had been at the head of his quickly expanding church for three years by 1833. A divine vision initiated the movement, and new scripture was its driving force. Mormon doctrines were radical enough to demand sacrifice, but traditional enough to garner significant support among Smith’s Protestant countrymen.

But the Mormon movement, for all of its appeal to Christian millenarianism and the spritual realm, quickly became an earthly, land-based faith. Mormons immediately began to gather and build. Smith’s prophecies and instructions reflected his intense interest in western land, which might be the most American aspect of the uniquely American religion.

Disney also saw the value of land. In Walt Disney and the Quest for Community, Steve Mannheim suggests that Disney’s empire was really a real estate venture almost from the start. Intellectual properties were just an entre into building communities in real places.

These places were both specific and general. Of course, Disney began his land experiments in California because that’s where he was. After scouring the eastern part of the country, he chose Florida for a more ambitious project that would combine entertainment and living in a massive social experiment.

Mormon land acquisitions were experimental, too. Smith’s plan for his city in Jackson County was predated two years by a revelation designating western Missouri as the place of Zion, a place Smith had not yet seen.

Hearken Oh ye Elders of my Church, saith the Lord your God, Who have assembelled yourselves together, according to my commandment in this land which is the land of Missorie which is the Land which I, have appointed & consecrated for the gethering of the Saints.

The Mormon church has always reflected a core belief, though untaught, that land was at the heart of worship. In his famous Wentworth Letter, Smith explained that “Zion [The New Jersualem] will be built upon this continent.” The teaching was informed by the Book of Mormon’s emphasis on geography and its importantance in Christ’s mission.

For his part, Disney didn’t have a scriptural basis for his acquisition of land, nor did he require specific land (Disney World was a signature away from getting built in St. Louis); rather, he wanted real estate that met certain criteria.

His choice of Florida wasn’t without controversy, or serendipity. It was a gamble, too. While visionaries like Smith and Disney often act speculatively, these men were betting enormous resources far into the future.

Planning Cities for the Future

When Walt Disney incorporated his little studio operations, the Mormon church was just over half a million members strong. That year, it bought land at the site known as “Hill Cumorah” in New York, where Joseph’s religious life began, but its population center was firmly esconsed in the Mountain West.

The church had grown in the relative barrenness of Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Arizona since the 1850s, when hundreds of Latter-day Saint communities sprung up mostly under church direction. Most of these communities were based on the “city of Zion” design, with modest modifications.

Zion-inspired municipalities included many elements of Smith’s 1833 plan: uniform street widths, square blocks, and designated city centers. His urban design reflected a theology that prioritized village values — agricultural sensibilities with the benefits of urban sociability:

The farmer and his family therefore will enjoy all the advantages of schools public lectures and other meetings his home will no longer be isolated and his family denied the benefits of society which has been and always will be the great educator of the human race but they will enjoy the same privileges of society and can surround their homes with the same intellectual life the same social refinement as will be found in the home of the merchant or banker or professional man.

Smith hoped to combine the best of both worlds — rural and urban — in a place where the spiritual could flourish.

On the other hand, Disney saw urban decay as a major problem by the time his first theme park opened in 1955. A dozen years later, shortly before he died, and during the phrenetic planning for Disney World, Walt declared to a TV audience,

I don’t believe there’s a challenge anywhere in the world that is more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities.

Similarly, if paradoxically, Smith’s vision of a perfect urban site anticipated desolation, and early Mormons joined the movement to build Zion as a site of protection against the disasters that are hallmarks of the Christian apocalypse.

Walt Disney unveils his plans for EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, as part of his original concept for the ‘Florida Project’ in a video presentation recorded Oct. 27, 1966. (FILE/Disney)

Both planners stamped their priorities to the geographical centers of their cities. Of course, all visitors to Disneyland and Disneyworld recognize the centrality of Main Street and the town square — iconic representations of an idyllic community, based almost entirely on Walt's Marceline memories. The welcome plaque at Disneyland reads,

To all who come to this happy place — WELCOME. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past. And here youth may savor the promise and challenge of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that created America…

Whereas Mainstreet, USA was a look backward, Disney’s planning magnum opus was Epcot — a reaction against suburban sprawl on one hand, and urban decay on the other. It was a gaze forward. An acronym of “experimental prototype community of tomorrow,” Epcot was an animating concept as much as a plan for an actual place.

Disney called it “the most exciting, by the far the most important part of our Florida Project — in fact the heart of everything we will be doing in Disney World.”

Epcot’s original plans featured a retail complex at the hub of a radial layout. Seemingly crass on its surface, the center would have invited visitors to see demonstrations of urban technologies and gather at a hotel and convention center.

Smith’s city of Zion (and many other cities that were actually built and inhabited) always had a temple as the focal point. Early Mormon temples also represented gathering, though of a spiritual kind.

Building Communities of God

Both Disney’s communities and Smith’s cities were to be gathering places for families. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the fog of commercialism that surrounds Disney parks today, but Walt’s dream of a city “ever becoming” inhered its citizens need for reassurance, needs that emanated from his midwestern values.

Early Mormon towns conceived by Smith had similar aims. Zion was to be one mile square, and limited to 15,000–20,000 inhabitants. The Prophet was killed before one of his cities reached that mark, though at 12,000, Nauvoo, the last city Smith founded, rivaled Chicago as Illinois’s largest.

Both built the foundations of empires that would follow. New Jersualem was never built, though. Mormons were expelled from Missouri after trying to establish their uptopia for almost a decade. By the mid 1840s, the pattern would repeat in Illinois, compelling the church to migrate en masse to the Rocky Mountains. Though the patterns of urban planning continued in the Mountain West following another mass migration, the dream of a “City of Zion” as the New Jerusalem slowly faded, and Zion became a state of mind.

With the death of Walt before Disney World was completed, Epcot, too was abandoned, at least as far as Walt envisioned it.

Walt Disney and Joseph Smith sought to create a new America in their own time, and in many ways succeeded. The heirs to their respective organizations continued to build and acquire. To this day, the Mormon church continues to buy land in and around Jackson County, Missouri. Disney’s community planning interests finally found fruit in the town of Celebration, Florida.

A look at the present and future takes on a clarity with a look back at the coincidences that inspired and drove the men behind two of the most powerful cultural forces in America.