How far are we from Disney’s Utopia?

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April 6th, 2011

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Omaha, NE – The Utopian world that Walt Disney envisioned, and just how far away from it we are… that was the topic of this week’s Science Café in Omaha.

In the Walt Disney movie “Our Friend the Atom” from 1957, Disney, in his traditional fanciful storytelling style, compares the discovery of atomic power to the magical powers of a fictional ship, Nautilus, from the story by Jules Verne.

Walt Disney promotes the possibilities of atomic energy in the 1957 film, Our Friend the Atom

In the film, Disney tells the story of atomic power from a high-tech, for its day, lab. “Fiction often has a way of becoming fact,” Disney says. “According to the story, this craft was powered by a magic force. Today, that tale has come true.”

Pointing to a model ship, Disney calls it “the real Nautilus, the world’s first atom-powered ship.”

“It’s the first example of the useful power of the atom that will drive the machines of our atomic age.”

Doctor James Wilson, an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, gave a talk Wednesday night for the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Science Café on Walt Disney’s vision for the future.

“Some of the questions that he phrased and asked, and some of the problems and worries about society and energy are the same questions that we’re still answering today,” he said. “And it’s 50 years later.”

Wilson said Disney was interested in studying and solving the problems of finite energy resources. He produced a number of films promoting renewable, U.S. produced energy and the development of technology to better our lives. Some, like “Our Friend the Atom” were by request of the President. In fact, what is now part of the Disney World theme park in Florida, the Epcot Center was originally Disney’s vision for the future: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

“It was this kind of dreamy, Utopian place to live in,” Wilson said, “designed with public transportation in mind.”

The city hubs “would all be connected by these new transport methods he was promoting at the Disney Land park, which were the monorails and the people movers, and these are all electric-based public transport. The interconnectedness of the city would be such that you wouldn’t really need a car.”

Wilson said some of Disney’s designs have been incorporated into cities around the country, but mostly, they have not. And today we’re faced with the same problems Disney saw in the 1950s.

“At that time in the late 50s, our cities were just starting to expand, so there was space to incorporate all these ideas,” Wilson said. “Fifty years later now, we have filled in a lot of space and it is all based on automobiles and petroleum-based transportation. So for us to go back to that kind of ideal and incorporate it’s not impossible, but it would take a pretty substantial investment.”

Wilson is a contributor to The Climate Project, the nonprofit organization founded by former Vice President Al Gore, where he talks about energy needs and the impact of climate change.

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