Decline of a Dream
The Long, Slow Decline of Walt Disney World's Epcot
Walt referred to this dream project as EPCOT, for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
A Founder's Dream
In October 1966, two months before his death, Walt Disney outlined his dream for a Living Community of the future as the centerpiece of his planned theme park in the swamps of Central Florida. Walt referred to this dream project as EPCOT, for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It would be an idealized city of the future with innovative transportation systems and all sorts of facilities designed with the public's needs in mind.
When Walt died two months later, his brother and business partner Roy O. Disney postponed his planned retirement to personally ensure that the Florida Project would continue, meaning that the already planned Magic Kingdom Park and surrounding resort hotels would be ready to open in October 1971. However, despite Roy’s stepping in, Walt's death meant that his city of the future concept would be put on the back burner.
What’s more, Walt’s survivors in Disney management would eventually decide that Walt's original city concept was not feasible. This was not lightly decided by Disney as, at the time, the whole company was in mourning of its innovative founder and felt they needed to come to some accommodation of Walt’s bold plan. Not only that, the Florida Project, and the large investment in Florida land it entailed, demanded a crowd-pleasing innovation that would differentiate the Florida park from its forebear in Anaheim.
The job of finding ways to execute this “reimagining” of Walt’s City of the Future vision was left to WED Enterprises, later and currently to be known as Walt Disney Imagineering. In that creative time of Disney planning, the ideas flowed. Two were seen as particularly promising — one being an industrial-show-type exhibition showcasing Futuristic technology, and another planning a platform to showcase the cultures of the many nations of the world. When Disney Legends Marty Sklar and John Hench put models of these two proposed projects together, the concept of EPCOT Center, a permanent World’s Fair, was born.
In the mid-70s, development began. Numerous companies from the various sectors of industry signed on to sponsor attractions at this permanent World’s Fair. Construction began in 1980 and the park opened on October 1, 1982.
Opening EPCOT Center 1982
As EPCOT went from plan to reality, the centerpiece and designated “park icon” was clearly to be Spaceship Earth, presented by the Bell Company. The ride itself was conceived as a journey through the development of communication from the dawn of time right through to the present, along with a glimpse of the future depicting how communication could bring the human race together to build a better future. All of this was done via dioramas featuring Audio-Animatronic Vignettes, narrated for maximum effect and accuracy.
While this ride concept was a noble undertaking well in the spirit of Walt Disney’s plan to show the world of the future by looking at the science of the past, what made Spaceship Earth worthy of its centerpiece/park icon status was how it would be housed: in a gigantic “geodesic dome” visible from miles around. The geodesic dome had been designed and patented in 1951 by renowned scientist R. Buckminster Fuller, who in 1968 wrote a book titled Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Planner John Hench in particular saw Fuller’s work as highly influential, citing Fuller’s concept of an “Operating Manual” as especially indicative of how the ride event would continually be maintained and evolved as science and technology itself evolved.
The original script was written by renowned science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, then at the height of his fame, and narrated by voice actor, Vic Perrin. At the time, Perrin was well known for a voiceover that opened each episode of a then-well-known science fiction TV series called The Outer Limits, in which he famously informed viewers that the show had “taken over control of your TV set." Perrin also became the voice of EPCOT’s Universe of Energy pavilion, an attraction that detailed various sources of energy, with an emphasis on fossil fuels, being an Exxon sponsored attraction.
Another key feature that began its run with the original EPCOT Center was the World Showcase, a series of nation-based exhibits surrounding a central lagoon (fittingly called World Showcase Lagoon) that presented the cultural differences of people around the world. The original Showcase featured Mexico, which included the El Rio del Tiempo boat ride; China, which featured a movie in the round; and Germany, which was a single exhibit in spite of the country being two separate entities when EPCOT Center opened. Other featured countires were Italy, France, Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom. And, of course, there was the American Pavilion, which housed the patriotic show American Adventure and restaurants that catered to traditional American tastes.
Other attractions featured in the original EPCOT Center included World of Motion presented by General Motors, which was a humorous ride through the history of transportation, narrated by Gary Owen. The Land Pavilion, presented by Kraft, was a pavilion dedicated to agriculture with several attractions revolving around the theme of harmonious co-existence with the Land, including the “Listen to the Land” Boat Ride, Symbiosis film, and Kitchen Kabaret, in which singing food espoused the values of good nutrition.
Journey into Imagination was the name of the pavilion that housed a fanciful ride of the same name, which featured the beloved characters, Dreamfinder and Figment, who guided you through how using one’s imagination can result in incredible advancements in the arts and sciences. Upstairs from the Journey was Imageworks, which Disney called, “The creative playground of the future.” The Journey pavilion was rounded out by the 3D film Magic Journeys, a rather psychedelic look into the mind of a child. In the center of Future World was Communicore, a series of hands-on exhibits related to the themes of Future World.
EPCOT Center begins its future. 1983-1994
The very nature of EPCOT Center demanded that it keep with the times and while its early years produced few drastic changes, there were notable improvements and additions. On its first birthday, EPCOT Center opened arguably its most beloved (at the time) attraction, Horizons, which celebrated the future as seen from the past and showed a prediction of how advances in technology could create a better life in the realms of the Ocean, Land, and Space. It was also unique in that it let you choose your own ending.
In 1984, the nation of Morocco joined the World Showcase family with an exotic attraction that added new interest and value to the real estate around the lagoon.
Overall, however, the first decade at EPCOT Center was pretty much marked by consistency. Many guests, drawn by the wonder and promise of the place, fell in love with the park and reveled in the experiences it offered. However, in the fast-paced world of the 80s and early 90s, some guess were less impressed by the drier, educational aspects of the original Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy, and the Symbiosis film, and EPCOT Center found itself dismissed as “the boring park” in some circles.
Spaceship Earth, now sponsored by AT&T, was the first Future World pavilion to be updated to address these concerns. New narration was written by Horizons scribe, Tom Fitzgerald, replacing the original Ray Bradbury script; in addition, legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite was now the Spaceship Earth Narrator and the song Tomorrow’s Child was added to create an inspiring finale. Around the same time, Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson at a time when he was likely the biggest star in the world, replaced Magic Journeys as the 3D Film in the Imagination Pavilion’s theatre.
Also in 1986 came The Living Seas, featuring what was then the world’s largest aquatic tank. In 1988, Norway became a part of World Showcase, with their national exhibition featuring the boat ride Maelstrom, a “High Seas Norwegian Adventure,” through the Norwegian landscape featuring a three-headed troll and a backward drop.
Perhaps the most important development in EPCOT Center also came in 1988. After several fits and starts with short-lived parades and small fireworks shows, the developers debuted the spectacular IllumiNations, a dramatic light and fireworks show set to classical music and illuminating the lagoon around the World Showcase. The dramatic presentation has been held in some form almost every night since that debut, becoming a must-see, even for visitors who otherwise saw EPCOT Center as the Disney equivalent of “eating all your vegetables.”
Things normalized with the launch of IllumiNations, at least until 1993, when The Land Pavilion was completely refurbished. In this update, Listen to the Land became Living with the Land, (losing its memorable theme song but otherwise keeping virtually the same ride experience); and Kitchen Cabaret became Food Rocks, a more contemporary show for the 90s.
To the casual observer, it seemed that the park was simply making a few needed changes to keep the park fresh and alive. As it turned out, however, these changes were just portents of more drastic change to come.
1994-1999: Center of Crisis
To say that EPCOT Center was in crisis at the dawn of 1994 is probably too strong a statement. However, change would come more drastically than had been seen at any time in its inaugural decade — starting with a name change from EPCOT Center to Epcot 94.
The central spine of Future World (Spaceship Earth and the two Communicore buildings would be completely overhauled to bring them into the 1990s, Spaceship Earth received new narration written by Larry Gertz and read by Famous Actor Jeremy Irons as well as a complete onboard score by Edo Guidotti based on Bach’s Sinfonia in C and a brand-new finale showing how the world had shrunk thanks to advancements in communications. The original Earth Station was replaced by AT&T’s Global Neighborhood.
Communicore closed in phases before re-opening as Innoventions in September 1994. One of EPCOT’s first direct movie tie-ins, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience (a short-story variation on the popular movie), moved into Imagination's Magic Eye Theater around the same time. Also, at this time came the first major thematic violation in Epcot History, which happened with a show based on Mattel’s “Barbie” Doll in the America Gardens theatre.
Not surprisingly, 1995 brought another re-name to Epcot 95. That year saw the Symbiosis film at the Land Pavilion replaced with the film Circle of Life, featuring Simba, Timon and Pumbaa from Disney’s The Lion King. Despite the character infusion, the message of the attraction remained tied to the themes of the Land Pavilion and Future World in general, so this was not a further thematic transgression.
In 1996, the park was again re-named, but this time simply to Epcot, the name by which it has since been known, and both World of Motion and the original Universe of Energy closed for refurbishment early in the year. Universe of Energy re-opened in September 1996 as Ellen’s Energy Adventure, featuring Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye The Science Guy. It would be a stretch to call the new show an improvement, given the loss of the two memorable theme songs and the fact that the new attraction shrugged off the issue of climate change, which had already become an issue in scientific circles. Still, Energy Adventure did stay true to the subject of energy and Epcot’s Guiding principles.
World Of Motion’s replacement was the high-action ride Test Track, originally set to open in 1997 but delayed because of technical issues with the then-innovative ride system. The ride would have a soft opening in December 1998 before going online completely in 1999. Although there was little futuristic about it, Test Track certainly fit Epcot’s Edu-tainment philosophy and was instantly popular. Simulating what a test vehicle goes through before being approved for the marketplace, it certainly displayed the value of innovation and excellence. But with the technological developments that took place over the next decade, the ride eventually did not age well, and would feel a little quaint as the 21st Century moved into its second decade.
Horizons had lost the sponsorship of General Electric in 1994, but stayed open until January 9, 1999 due to the delays in the launch of Test Track. The original Journey into Imagination had closed a month earlier and Horizons followed suit.
1999-2000: Millenium Central
Most of 1999 was spent preparing the park as Disney’s centerpiece for the Millennium Celebration. Disney announced that Epcot would be the centerpiece of a huge 15-month celebration to usher in the 21st century. Plans included a complete renovation of Epcot’s entrance plaza. The formerly open and spacious entryway was replaced with columns on which tiny etchings of guests’ faces or messages (paid for by guests, of course) would mark their visit to the resort for the celebration.
In addition, Disney added to Spaceship Earth a gigantic representation of Mickey Mouse’s arm holding a sorcerer’s wand, out of which came the number 2000. The court area between the two Innoventions Buildings (which were re-done with a “Road to Tomorrow” theme for the Millennium) had a major shade structure constructed and was dubbed “Millennium Central” near the entrance to the World Showcase.
The coup de grace was the Tapestry of Nations Parade, a spectacle describing the legend of the Sage of Time and the uniting of world cultures to celebrate the future with larger-than-life puppets and rolling clock shaped percussion units delighted guests (especially the author of this piece) in the early evening. Later in the evening, the enhanced IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth told “a story as old as time itself but still being written” with state-of-the-art fireworks, fountains, water effects, and projections.
However, despite the many positive changes the Millennium Celebration brought, it also brought arguably the biggest mistake in Epcot History. The Journey into Imagination pavilion re-opened as simply the Imagination Pavilion. The Imagination Institute, a fictional institute that was introduced in Honey, I Shrunk the Audience five years earlier, was carried over into the new ride, the “Infamous” Journey into YOUR Imagination.
The beloved Imagination characters, Dreamfinder and Figment, were replaced by Institute Chairman Dr. Nigel Channing, played by Eric Idle of Monty Python-fame. I bow to no one living, or not dead yet, in my admiration for Python, but the Dr. Channing figure was handicapped by a less-than-stellar premise: that the “Imagination Scanner” reveals guests have no Imaginations whatsoever, after which guests are sent through a series of labs displaying illusions over a century old resulting in their imagination levels going “off the charts.”
To be fair, Figment made a few cameos in the attraction, but Imagineers underestimated how much the original characters were beloved and the attraction received some of the most negative guest feedback in Walt Disney World history. To make matters worse, the entire upstairs Imageworks area was simply shut down and spent nearly two decades in virtual stasis. Around the same time, the since-closed Horizons Pavilion was demolished to make room for a new Space Pavillion.
All in all, the Millennium Celebration had to be classified as a success. The Parade and Fireworks shows were exceptional, attendance was good, and with Test Track still a new and vital attraction, the failure of the new Imagination attraction and the closing of a few key attractions didn’t dampen the overall festive nature of the 15 months that welcomed 2000. However, it became clear as 2001 dawned that park planners weren’t sure where to take things from there.
2001-2010: The Prolonged Post-Millenial Hangover
After the Millennium Celebration ended, decisions being made for the future of Epcot seemed half-hearted and half-baked, beginning with the Mickey Arm that dangled from Spaceship Earth heralding the new Millennium.
In what seemed a more temporary compromise than real decision, the Mickey Arm was not removed from the side of Spaceship Earth. Instead, it was simply modified to have the word Epcot coming from the tip of the wand rather than the number 2000. Not everyone had a problem with it, but many traditionalists felt that now that the reason for the arm’s addition had passed, Epcot should return to simply its classic geodesic sphere.
Still, while disagreement over this decorative element showed some lack of direction, one huge reason that the post-millennium hangover proved long and costly had nothing to do with Disney or its Imagineers. It was the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. 9/11 devastated the travel industry and reduced attendance at all the Disney Parks saw cost-cutting as never before.
The impact of 9/11 was not immediate, though the immediate cut into attendance may have had some effect on already planned alterations. Before the year even ended the dreadful Journey into YOUR Imagination closed after only two years; obviously, I don’t see this as a big loss but when it was replaced in early 2002 with Journey Into Imagination with Figment, the experience was only marginally better. Regrettably, Dr. Nigel Channing and the Imagination Institute remained, but the tour was now interrupted by Figment — however, in an explicitly annoying version of the original childlike Figment.
More personally disappointing was the scaling down of Tapestry of Nations, the millennium parade event whose popularity had brought it well into the new century. The parade was “replaced” by Tapestry of Dreams, a cannibalized, kidified version of the original parade. While this cost cut was probably inevitable, it was difficult to construe this as progress and it felt mostly like a cost-cutting measure. The Parade was retired in 2003.
In 2003, Mission Space opened on the former site of Horizons, While Mission Space was a fantastic attraction in its own right, a worthy replacement for Horizons it was not. Over at the Living Seas, The Seacabs Ride closed. A year later, Turtle Talk with Crush (from the Finding Nemo Pixar film) opened at The Living Seas. It felt fine at the time, using characters from a popular film related to the subject matter. However, the upper brass at Disney felt this was not enough and the entire pavilion was absorbed and became The Seas with Nemo & Friends in late 2006.
The updated pavilion and its ride now emphasized Nemo & Friends more than it did The Seas. Thus, the rework of the Seas and would start a frustrating invasion of Character Intellectual Properties with little focus on maintaining Epcot’s Thematic integrity.
In 2005, the attraction, Soarin', came to the Land Pavilion after originally debuting at Disney’s California Adventure Park. In California, Soarin' proved highly successful and it was a very clever idea; with the use of a simple air lift vehicle and IMAX-quality footage, the ride provided a travelogue through the beauty of California’s natural attractions with the simulation of flight (and even the smell of oranges that once were a staple of Disney’s Anaheim site). For its first decade at Epcot, Soarin’ was simply the same version as in California with all vistas shot in California (including the Disneyland shot); the “world” version finally debuted in 2016, long after its promised date.
A change that occurred in late 2006 was neither a cost-cutting move, a commercialization attempt or an attempt to enhance entertainment value. Tragically, it came about because two riders of Mission Space died owing to the extreme intensity of the g-forces of the ride. The result was two separate rides of lesser and differing intensity, but the ride remains popular.
In early 2007, the El Rio Del Tiempo boat ride in the Mexico Pavilion closed to be replaced by Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros. Whether the character attraction fits the Epcot theme is debatable, and some strongly objected that only one of the Three Caballeros is Mexican (Panchito, Donald Duck, is American and Jose Carioca is Brazilian). Many felt that the inauthenticity and use of popular cartoon characters in the ride waters down the Pavilion’s credibility as a cultural attraction.
In July 2007, Spaceship Earth closed for refurbishment for its new sponsor, Siemens. As part of that refurb, The Mickey Wand was (finally) removed from Spaceship Earth. Despite its Centerpiece being closed, Epcot celeberated its 25th anniversary on October 1, 2007.
However, it’s widely reported that a group of fans pretty much had to shame Disney into acknowledging the anniversary at all. Basically, the celebration centered on a small ceremony at the fountain stage, a special exhibit in the Southwest Innoventions building, and a special pyrotechnic finale to IllumiNations set to classic Epcot music.
Spaceship Earth re-opened in February 2008 after a soft opening in December 2007 and was now narrated by Dame Judi Dench. While the more advanced animatronics and effects were very welcome, a painful script (“Remember how easy it was to learn your ABC’s? Thank the Phoenicians.”) and the excision of one of the most touching endings to any Disney Attraction created mostly anger among the Disneyphiles who were loyal to the original vision of Epcot.
Most of the criticism was for the introduction of interactive screens into the ride vehicles, a move that turned the placid, thought-provoking atmosphere into a modern media mess. There was no longer time and atmosphere to contemplate where communications might take us — just a loud reminder of how intrusive communications could be in modern life. Wonder was replaced by crassness. You could argue that the intrusiveness of modern technology was an accurate closing, but moving backwards through a dark tunnel watching a television screen showing an episode of The Jetsons with your face pasted on it heavily damaged a once-great attraction.
2010: Today Epcot in Name Only?
Epcot has soldiered on in this decade, but the changes that have happened have greatly damaged the execution originally intended by the Imagineers in the 70s and 80s.
In mid-2010, Captain EO returned to the Magic Eye Theater, but only as a tribute to Michael Jackson after his death; the attraction itself remained middling at best. On the bright side, in 2012, Test Track became the best refurbishment done to an existing attraction at Epcot in many years, finally bringing a welcome futuristic edge to the ride, thanks mostly to show producer Trevor Bryant, a veteran of the original development team of Epcot Center.
In April 2014, another veteran of Epcot Center’s original creative team, Tom Fitzgerald, was appointed Imagineering creative lead of Epcot. Most Epcot traditionalists saw this as a hopeful sign that Epcot would return to its original mission of Entertaining, Informing, and Inspiring. However, such hopes were dashed quickly when it was announced that the Maelstrom Boat Ride in the Norway Pavilion would be replaced by a ride based on the hit 2013 film Frozen.
While “The Snow Queen” story on which the movie was based does have some Norwegian influence, the story is actually by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson and takes place in a fictional kingdom called Arendelle. Maelstrom closed in October 2014 and Frozen Ever After opened in 2016. Now, both of the original World Showcase Boat Rides have gone from culturally relevant showcases of the host country to glorified advertisments for Cartoon Intellectual Properties.
In late 2016, Disney Parks & Resorts Chairman, Bob Chapek announced that Epcot would be going through a major re-model to make it “More Family-Friendly, More Relevant, and More Disney." Any hopes that Epcot would look to its past to inspire its future were dashed at the D23 Expo in July 2017. When it was announced that he Universe of Energy would be replaced with a Guardians of the Galaxy Roller Coaster, which will likely not even touch the subject of energy and just be another mindless Marvel advertisement with little educational value. Only the flimsiest justification for existing in the park has been given: that the Chris Pratt character in Guardians speaks in the film of visiting Epcot as a child in its 80s heyday.
More Toons will invade World Showcase, with the Pixar Ratatouille ride from Disneyland Paris being slated for into the France pavilion (though mercifully not taking out the original opening day attraction Impressions De France). In the near future, the Entrance plaza will lose its tombstones left by the Millennium Celebration (a positive move perhaps but Disney is offering no restitution to the guests who were told they would leave a lifelong legacy). All of Innoventions and Millennium Central will be demolished, to be replaced with lush landscaping — potentially an improvement as time has taken its toll on these areas.
Perhaps saddest of all, at least to me, is a proposed change to the last remaining threads tying the Epcot Concept together: it has been announced that IllumiNations Reflections of Earth will be replaced with a new show. Its replacement will be the key to whether Epcot is just in decline, or is in serious danger of going off the orbit of its original vision altogether.
If the show is an effective updating of the current show, brought up to meet the expected standards of the 2020s, or is at least as culturally inspirational and uplifting as the current show, there might still be hope for Epcot. After all, Disney has always been very effective at innovating with light effects, projections, fireworks, and has traditionally managed to surprise.
However, we must be careful. There is fear that it will feature more film synergy and less energy, and that the characters will overwhelm the event. In most Disney Parks, this isn’t too big a problem, but lots of us still see Epcot as special. We don’t want to see Epcot host a show that’s basically a Disney commercial, like the “World of Color” in California Adventure, which is an excellent celebration and presentation. It’s just not what Epcot was meant to be.
Many are excited to see that Epcot is finally receiving attention after years of neglect. However, the direction in which it is going — generally speaking, film tie-ins and mindless entertainment continuing to overwhelm “Entertain, inform, and inspire” — brings only cold comfort to those of us who love what Epcot used to be and wish to see it shine again in all its original splendor.