EPCOT Center’s Communicore was described by the Disney company as “Future World’s global Main Street of ideas and inventions.” This references its similarities to the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA, one similarity being that both areas served as funnels through which all guests must travel on their way into or out of the parks. Although this ceased to be the case at EPCOT Center once the International Gateway entrance was added between the United Kingdom and France Pavilions, Communicore still paralleled Main Street in that it was a multi-purpose arcade with smaller attractions, exhibits, merchandise, and food outlets arranged in a symmetrical environment. In July 1994, Innoventions officially replaced Communicore and ushered in a new era of louder, more flashy corporate-sponsored exhibits which were virtually screaming for guests’ attention. This new development is reaching successfully for the younger, video game-driven, market segment. Communicore, by way of contrast, was a realm of electronic tranquility. It provided guests with an introduction to some of the park’s major themes and an opportunity to learn more about the relevant subject matter if they desired. What follows is not the whole Communicore picture, just an attempt to remember some of its small pleasures now that they’re gone.
Communicore’s name, a combination of “community” and “core,” was derived from the supposition that EPCOT Center – when taken in combination with the remainder of WDW – was essentially the fulfillment of Walt Disney’s plan for
EPCOT, the city.* 25 years later everyone sees how silly that was and can talk candidly about how it came to pass, but in 1982 the company was dead serious about comparisons and tried to make good on some of the underlying rationales in this section of the park.
Like Innoventions, Communicore was broken down into quadrants. Technically the area consisted (in name) of only two halves, Communicore East and Communicore West. But each half was plainly divided into northern and southern sections, separated by covered outdoor walkways. Each quadrant had its own “feel,” with the northern quadrants being by far the busiest and most changed over the years.
The northeast quadrant contained EPCOT Computer Central, Travelport, Energy Exchange and the Stargate Restaurant.
EPCOT Computer Central, presented by Sperry (later to become UNISYS), was home to the first EPCOT Center attraction to disappear, the Astuter Computer Revue. This show took place on a second-floor terraced theater that overlooked a cavernous room where some of the park’s computers were housed. It was hosted by the projection of actor Ken Jennings in the role of an annoying Englishman who, after being “transported” from the World Showcase’s United Kingdom pavilion (where he performed – musically – with a monkey) and shrunk to a height of about a foot, sang and danced his way across a set of computer banks in the foreground of the room. His ridiculous antics purportedly explained the role of computers at Walt Disney World. This is why there was a track called “The Computer Song” on the first Official Album of EPCOT Center.
Sample lyric: “He’s got a great big memory like an elephant, utilizes knowledge without end, That’s why I’m a rooter for me computer, everybody needs a friend.” If guests learned anything during this presentation, it was that once was enough. Disney recognized this show’s potential quickly and closed it in January 1984. A month later it was replaced by Backstage Magic, a show that booted out the Englishman in favor of Julie, a girl-next-door-type hostess and her electronic sidekick I/O. They presented a more intelligent and less grating take on the computer story that ran for nearly ten years before closing in October 1993.
Elsewhere in Computer Central were interactive displays that were popular with guests. SMRT-1, a purple and chrome robot set on a rotating pedestal surrounded by telephones, involved a never-ending stream of guests in trivia and guessing games. When your turn came up, SMRT-1 asked you (in its synthesized voice) to speak your answer loud and clear through the phone. It also spent some time ad-libbing and singing between games: “If I keep this up I might graduate from Solid State.” SMRT-1 was probably related to BIT from the WorldKey Information System and ORAC-1 of the Magic Kingdom’s WEDway Peoplemover, all congenial, genderless electric beings that seemed to want their digital faces slapped for being super-cute. Of the three, SMRT-1 was definitely the least sugary and accordingly the most enjoyable. SMRT-1’s shell, long silent, could be seen for several years in the Contemporary Resort Hotel’s Grand Canyon Concourse as a piece of restaurant decor.
Nearby was the Compute-A-Coaster exhibit where guests could assemble their own roller coaster on a video screen. They were coached by a lisping cartoon beaver who sounded just like the gopher from Winnie-the-Pooh. The number of final coaster outcomes was extremely limited and the beaver would cite any attempt at a free-wheeling combination of track sections as a safety risk. But it was still hard to resist viewing a simulated ride on your own creation. The final run was accompanied by the beaver’s aural “play-by-play,” and he was always impressed by what guests had built. Other displays in this area included the Great American Census Quiz, Get Set Jet Game and the Flag Game, all of which used the same touch-screen technology found elsewhere in Communicore and across Epcot. In 1982 this technology was brand-new to many people, whereas fifteen years later it was common. At the entrance to EPCOT Computer Central was the Population Clock, where an ever-circling row of wooden humanoids tended to a length of revolving numbers depicting the U.S.A’s current citizenship.
Across the hall from Computer Central was the Travelport, presented by American Express. A large red globe sat at the entrance, and images of foreign sights were projected from within the globe onto its glass walls. Beyond this, guests could enter booths and play with touch-screen previews of travel destinations around the world. A Caribbean video preview was one of the more popular with little boys in the know, as it displayed what at least appeared to be one or two topless female sunbathers on the beach. Around the corner there was an American Express Travel Service desk where guests could obtain more detailed information from live hosts and hostesses.
Further down the quadrant was Exxon’s Energy Exchange, a vast room full of computerized and three-dimensional displays revolving around the theme of (guess). Large metal pinwheels and other gear-heavy apparatuses hung from the ceiling. Down on the floor, guests could pedal bicycles and see the results of their labor measured in watts. Another exhibit allowed guests the chance to spin a handle and, based on their speed and dexterity, generate the electricity required to light a bulb in front of them. A large model of an oil rig anchored another corner of the room. There was also a touch-screen video game where guests controlled the flow of a car through digitized city streets in pursuit of optimum fuel economy. Hands-on? Undoubtedly. Fun?
The adjacent Stargate Restaurant was the only section of the northeast quadrant that didn’t undergo wholesale change (i.e. removal) with the arrival of Innoventions. The restaurant did switch names, however, to become the Electric Umbrella. This meant it received a facelift, but retained its original layout. Along with the American Adventure’s Liberty Inn, this location has made sure every Epcot guest has ready access to highly suspect cheeseburgers for 25 years. The southeast quadrant was the home of Centorium, Epcot’s largest store. It was stocked with an interesting mix of park souvenirs, “futuristic gadgets” and art. As with the Stargate, it resisted massive changes for a long time but now the shop is called Mouse Gear and has virtually nothing in common with the Centorium outside of being in the same location. Just down the hall, the Electronic Forum was the site of the Future Choice Theater, wherein was administered the highly entertaining (albeit sedate) EPCOT Poll. Guests would enter the theater and find seats with pushbutton panels on the armrests. A cast member at the front of the room would prompt the guests to use these buttons in order to first break the audience down into a group of demographically diverse individuals, and then to register their opinions on a variety of topics (none too controversial). The results would then be displayed on an overhead screen, and often broken down using the demographic statistics to point out disparities in the votes of males and females, children and adults, U.S. residents and international visitors, liberals and conservationists, and so on. As part of the presentation there was a short film documenting park visitors’ responses to questions about relatively topical issues. One kid said “they” should make a car that could run on dirt. I always thought that kid was kind of stupid.
Unfortunately, the EPCOT Poll only ran until March 1991. Beyond that point just its foyer, with multiple kiosks full of TV screens receiving satellite broadcasts, continued to operate. This was also where guests could, for a short time, cast their votes for person of the century. It turned out to be me, edging out Bill Gates by a hair because (of all the ironies) I run on dirt.
Across the plaza in the center of Communicore, past the fountain that used to attract a lot less attention and blast with a lot less fanfare than it does now, was the northwest quadrant. This was home to EPCOT Outreach and FutureCom.
EPCOT Outreach, later Ask EPCOT and, finally, the Epcot Discovery Center, was an educational cul-de-sac where guests could investigate at length any of EPCOT Center’s major themes, or other Disney-related information. Graphic displays lined the walls leading up to a counter where a staff of researchers (plus one librarian) would attempt to answer queries ranging from “What music is played at the start of the film at the France pavilion?” to “Did the bobcat in the flash-flood scene at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad come from Disneyland’s Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland ride?” (Saint-Saens’ “Aquarium” and yes) They usually had the answer ready, but would gladly mail information later on if it wasn’t immediately available. There was also a Teacher’s Lounge hidden away here, where educators could sit in a room and look out through darkened glass at guests who couldn’t get to them. Which, strangely enough, is how schools will be in the future.
FutureCom, first sponsored by the Bell System and later by AT&T, was similar to EPCOT Computer Central and Energy Exchange in that it was a large room filled with interactive exhibits. The theme here was communications technologies, especially those involving phones or phone lines. On the north wall of the room was a sprawling animated diorama called the “Age Of Information.” It was a unique display comprised of stylized wooden sculptures (like those shown here) of varying sizes that went through rudimentary movements in time with a song about the coming wonders of the modern telephone. This song (which I was told suffered some dramatic editing shortly after Epcot opened) should have made it to the park’s official album.
If any of Communicore’s exhibits could be deemed prescient, the Age of Information was the one. It essentially forecast the services of the internet (booking travel arrangements, research capabilities, home shopping, uploading data) a full thirteen years before most of us were first toying around with the technology. This was 1982, and at that time touch-tone phones were still a “new” thing. While RCA’s Home of Future Living in the Magic Kingdom did suggest a similar array of services when it debuted in 1975, the Age of Information delved further into the specifics. Neither preview was dead-on accurate, most notably in that they did not foresee the vast applications that home computers – not phones or televisions – would bring into consumers’ lives, but by 2000 most people in developed nations were basically doing all the things these presentations suggested they would. FutureCom was also home to the Fountain of Information, another kind of kinetic sculpture. Here objects culled from all fields of communication media were thrown together into a pileup of lights, color and motion. Nearby, a wall-sized electronic map of the U.S.A. illustrated the country’s network of phone lines and demonstrated the concept of teleconferencing. A series of yet more games gave some insight on the relationship between phones and computers. One of these that was added in the late 1980’s, Phrasers, allowed guests to type a series of words into a computer and then hear it repeated back by one of several on-screen characters.
The southwest quadrant spent many years occupied by nothing other than the Sunrise Terrace restaurant. A large part of this area was initially slated to become the Tron Arcade, but that never panned out. Instead, that same space became the home of Expo Robotics in February 1988. This featured robots performing feats of precision maneuvering – such as balancing tops along the edge of a samurai sword – and “artistry,” in as much as they would translate a computer’s view of guests’ faces into souvenir portraits. Sunrise Terrace has since been broken down into the Pasta Piazza Ristorante and Fountain View Espresso and Bakery. Communicore was truly a mixed bag, and without question geared largely toward promoting the good name of its key sponsors. But it did so without being loud and (save for a short-lived Cockney busker) off-putting. As a whole it was passable entertainment allowing for the leisurely dispensing of a couple hours interest. And Communicore definitely contributed to the more relaxed and inviting atmosphere of EPCOT Center, which has long since given way to the remarketing and reinvention of the park.