Conceived by Walt Disney’s corporate successors as the viable alternative to EPCOT, the city , and pieced together from countless concept proposals over a six year period that preceded its construction, EPCOT Center (later Epcot) opened its gates to Walt Disney World visitors on October 1, 1982. Initially the project was going to be constructed in separate and non-adjacent phases, with the first version of World Showcase destined for a site near the Transportation & Ticket Center, and a later EPCOT (including an EPCOT institute and “Future World Theme Center”) installation planned for a site closer to where the final, conjoined version was erected. The groundbreaking took place October 1, 1979. By that time the final iteration had been determined; visitors would be treated to both internationally-themed diversions and glimpses into the future in a sprawling figure-eight spatial arrangement that defied all sense and logic.
Walt Disney’s EPCOT was primarily of one man’s drive and clear vision, aided by a staff under his direct counsel. In stark contrast, EPCOT Center was in every sense the end result of the committee approach. Rather than being overtly unified in its general presentation, it spoke to a vaguely interlocked sense of brightness and optimism through a smattering of pavilions that, as independent units, carried the diverse imprints of their respective designers. This approach worked more cohesively in settings such as New Orleans Square or Main Street, USA – where the separate attractions tied in more fluidly with the underlying themes of their “host” land, which in turn connected to each other in a nearly seamless manner. At EPCOT Center the stage was set more loosely. The pavilions of Future World and countries of World Showcase stood apart as monolithic entities which, in spite of efforts to make them complementary, ultimately looked detached from one another because they were divided by open plots of land where future pavilions were slated to rise. The same was true in the Future World area, which had all the coziness of a World’s Fair. This should not have surprised anyone, because all of WED’s principle designers were either contributors to or disciples of the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in New York, for which Walt Disney Productions had provided four major attractions and from which it drew key inspiration that would lead to many of EPCOT Center’s “new” attractions and exhibits.
If all of this made the park feel more impersonal, several of its main attractions managed to rise above that pervasive coolness and engage guests in genuinely fun and sometimes even educational experiences. Horizons, for one, fully embodied the spirit of the “family of man” looking forward to a bright and increasingly interconnected future in spite of physical distance. Even if you knew it was just an elaboration on General Motors’ 1964 Futurama ride (from the aforementioned World’s Fair), you had to appreciate its expert execution. When it opened in 1983, Horizons seemed to suggest the direction in which Epcot was headed. With Horizons now gone and the thrill ride Mission Space in its stead, we see that was not to be.
As unfortunate as the loss of Horizons was, the park’s ultimate shortcoming has been its ineffectuality. Jokes about how the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland was always becoming “Todayland” had been told years before the company decided to set the future in concrete on an even larger scale with EPCOT Center’s Future World. To lend it a sense of immediacy would have required constant revisions to its major pavilions – not just to the exhibits that revolved around corporate sponsors. By 2002 Future World had become a convenient place to build anything that might bring people into the park, even if the additions had nothing to with the future … and increasingly they (Soarin’, The Seas with Nemo and Friends) have not. An even greater effort would have been needed to infuse World Showcase with anything more than travelogue safeness. So the entire park was peppered with built-in time bombs (after the massive 1989 oil spill from the Exxon tanker Valdez, the Universe of Energy’s film footage of “Majestic Port Valdez” caused lots of eye-rolling; after that same year’s Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, Wonders of China’s depiction of a peaceful Tiananmen Square – especially in 1989 and 1990, seemed gruesomely oblivious) that could only be defused with militant upkeep. That didn’t happen, and it resulted in the park’s inability to truly fulfill any mission beyond that of providing entertainment.
In spite of its current failings, no one could have loved Epcot much more than my brother Brian and I did from our first visit on opening day up through the early 1990s, before a sweep of drastic changes began creating the park that visitors encounter today. The first three years, in particular, were genuinely captivating for us and many others who were fortunate enough to enjoy the park in its infancy. It is that sense of excitement that WYW seeks to honor.
Altered WDW Theme Park
Opened: October 1, 1982 Contributing Disney Personnel and outside consultants:Marc Davis, Claude Coats, Harper Goff, Tony Baxter, John DeCuir Jr., George McGinnis, Ray Bradbury, Alex Haley, Ward Kimball, Barry Braverman, Marty Sklar, John Hench, hundreds of others
1964-1965 World’s Fair
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All photos copyright The Walt Disney Company. Text 2011 by Mike Lee