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Lawsuit accuses Disney of stealing Epcot concept

The estate of an artist who painted a never-built theme park featuring the world's nations sued Walt Disney Co. on Tuesday, claiming his vision was stolen and turned into Epcot Center.

Mark Waters' 1961 painting for Miniature World, based on an Air Force officer's concept, bears striking similarities to Disney's Epcot, which opened in 1982. Both parks have hourglass shapes, large spheres at their entrances and a lake surrounded by pavilions evoking different countries.

According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Lt. Col. Robert M. Jaffray had met Waters while stationed in Hawaii. Jaffray took the painting to Disney officials in 1963, only to have the company turn down his pitch.

But in 1979, Disney unveiled its plans for Epcot _ and they looked much like Waters' painting.

"We believe that Disney will now have to deal with this case straight up," said John Stemberger, the attorney representing the estate of Waters, who died in 1997. "They'll have to face the music and not hide behind any legal technicalities and legal procedures."

Stemberger said a settlement or verdict against Disney could cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars.

A Disney spokeswoman said the suit has no merit.

"It has nothing to do with the pursuit of the truth, but it has everything to do with the pursuit of financial gain," said Marilyn Waters, who is not related to the artist.

She also noted that the artist's wife and daughter filed a similar suit against Disney last year, but a federal court in Rhode Island threw it out because the statute of limitations had long expired. An appeals court upheld that decision.

"Clearly, they're trying to manipulate the court system to find a better venue," she said.

Stemberger, who also represents the Jaffray family, said they also may file a lawsuit.

Jaffray, who died in Wooster, Ohio, in 2000, went to his grave claiming credit for Epcot. The company responded by taking the unusual step of releasing volumes of sketches, photos and memos as evidence that there was no theft.

Disney has always claimed that the World Showcase section of Epcot, which features pavilions displaying cultural exhibits from 11 countries, was inspired by World's Fairs. Also, Epcot has a section devoted to futuristic technology that wasn't part of Miniature World's plans.

There is a precedent for Disney being accused of stealing ideas _ and multimillion-dollar penalties against the company after lawsuits.

In 2000, two businessmen were awarded $240-million by a jury that decided the company stole their idea for its Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World. The company settled with the men for a far lower figure in September.

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