Last Update to this page: September 19, 2016
As a fourteen-year-old in 1983, two competing visions of the future shaded my perception of how the 21st century might look and feel. The first, which was actually from 1982 but only got to me through HBO the next year, was Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Dystopia, the term others have applied to the dark, grimy and dangerously alluring physical film world Scott built for Philip K. Dick’s 1968 book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , wasn’t hard for me to accept as a likely outcome for humanity … corporate dominance, rampant crime and moral ambiguity continuing along a societal trajectory that already felt pretty well established when the film was released. The second vision was EPCOT Center’s Horizons pavilion, which projected a bright, clean and uplifting destiny for both those of us on earth and the ones moving “off-world.” Its depiction of mankind working past lines of class, race and historically irreconcilable cultural differences toward sustainable, technologically advanced communities in space, in the deserts and under the seas may have appeared improbable to me even as a teenager, yet it was the future I wanted to believe in. That’s not to say Horizons lacked for corporate influence, because its original sponsor General Electric made its mark on the pavilion quite plain, as it had with the attraction’s theoretical predecessor, Carousel of Progress. But that aspect of the ride’s character ran a distant second to Horizons’ masterful summarizing of every EPCOT Center theme and subject matter into a thoroughly entertaining crystal ball experience with both epic scope and a warm personality.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact Horizons had on an entire generation of WDW visitors. Many of us were still in the process of exploring EPCOT Center’s original (1982) attractions when this amazing new pavilion showed up a year later and blew our minds. The internet attests to a vast swath of ardent admirers, some of whom have been sufficiently moved to erect awesome digital shrines to Horizons and carry its ambitious messages forward even if the current Future World does not. WED Enterprises got the art of attraction design so right with Horizons – a combination of dramatic exterior elevations, a high-capacity ride system, imaginative set designs, superb music, the smell of citrus, natural humor, redheads, robotic weather forecasting, jumpsuits and kelp* – that it made you wonder why the team behind it couldn’t go on to invest other attractions in the park with some extra Horizonsness. EPCOT Center could not possibly have had too much of that aura about it.
In the end, however, Horizons was a singular entity that lasted a too-short sixteen years before joining the pantheon of WDW’s magnificent and regrettably deceased. The structure in which it had resided was demolished in plain sight of park guests over an extended period of time – an unfortunate end for a great attraction, a conclusion that felt like the future we were fortunate enough to glimpse through Horizons’ prism was slipping away along with EPCOT Center’s original identity and sense of purpose. Symbolic or not, its loss will resonate in perpetuity for both the fans who enjoyed it in person and those who know they missed something special.
As referenced elsewhere on this site and in more reputable places, EPCOT Center as it was finally built (after a dozen years of conceptual stasis and fitful evolutions) was in essence Disney’s version of a World’s Fair. More grand in many ways, certainly more polished in most respects and surely less diverse in some regards … by virtue of a more narrow set of guiding hands under the auspices of a family entertainment company … but a World’s Fair nonetheless, in spite of whatever titles and premises were ascribed to it. A theme park version of a World’s Fair, to be more precise, as envisioned by the undisputed masters of the form. EPCOT Center was the direct output of the men and women who had helped Walt and Roy Disney erect the two most amazing parks in the world up to that point. The impact that World’s Fairs had on Walt Disney himself is well-documented. EPCOT Center was sufficient evidence that his fascination had been passed on to the first and second generation of WED designers. Horizons itself was the proof that those WED veterans could take everything they had learned about, and from, theme park design and World’s Fairs* and blend them into a modern classic … an attraction rooted firmly in the company’s traditions yet reaching beyond those foundations to assure those of us in an often-troubled world that the future could be an exciting and fun place for everyone.
* Much as they had done with all their filmed entertainment experience when creating 1964’s Mary Poppins .
Horizons was a descendant not just of General Electric’s Carousel of Progress and General Motors’ Futurama (both from the 1964-1965 World’s Fair), but also of a somewhat darker horse … RCA’s Home of Future Living (1975). The Home of Future Living, the original post-show exhibit for WDW’s Space Mountain, was the first case of Disney using audio-animatronics to depict a family unit several decades ahead of the present enjoying man’s technological advances in their home. It was kind of like a Carousel of Progress “flash forward,” but one that inadvertently suggested the omnipresence of video screens would play a divisive role. Rather than unify generations, each family member would be in a separate living space watching separate monitors and only be aware of each other because cameras showed them what was going on around the house. Horizons applied a much broader scope to the idea of showing the impact of future technologies (beyond screens) and demonstrated that greater interconnectivity between the family members might be possible because of advances in electronic communication, even if some of those family members were in outer space and others were on the ocean floor.
Having predecessor attractions to draw from didn’t mean that combining all those influences would result in a “hit.” In a 1983 Interview with Orlando-Land magazine reporter Pam Parks, WED’s Tom Fitzgerald and Marty Sklar spoke about some of the challenges inherent to the design process and, in particular, forecasting the future. “One of the problems we face is getting people to make predictions, particularly companies who don’t want to show a product they’ll have in ten years, for competitive reasons,” said Sklar. “If we go too far, people will say it’s just fantasy … a balancing has to take place when you’re talking about the future.”
* Much as they had done with all their filmed entertainment experience when creating 1964’s Mary Poppins .
Concerns about tipping a research & development hand in a pavilion would seem to have applied less to General Electric at Horizons than it did to General Motors at the neighboring World of Motion (with prototype cars on display) or AT&T at Communicore’s FutureCom exhibit (with the next generation of “phone tech” possibilities being heavily showcased). By looking so far ahead into the future as to be addressing daily domestic life on space colonies, there was no risk of nascent GE technology being unduly exposed in the 1980s. But how to depict future life still presented a multitude of options. Futurama at the 1964 World’s Fair relied heavily on scale models of landscapes/seascapes and moving vehicles along with a declarative narration, one which Disney would have Vic Perrin heavily ape for the first iteration of Spaceship Earth in 1982. One can’t watch a video of GM’s Futurama without seeing in it the genesis of multiple Horizons elements and hearing the origins of Perrin’s EPCOT Center voice work … at times the parallels seem unreal. But while Disney reached for some of that epic overture feeling with Horizons, it rooted everything in warm midwestern family tones only a half-step removed from Rex Allen’s Carousel of Progress narration.
Early “working names” for Horizons included Century 3 and Future Probe. Since one of those sounds like a real estate company and the other like something that penetrates you in an ultramodern capacity (as opposed to Past Assault), the more benign Horizons wasn’t a bad selection. Futureport (a name they used in Horizons) and Futurescape could have worked too.
One thing about Horizons that’s not hyper-well-known: it wasn’t on the original mid-1970s roster of proposed EPCOT Center attractions or even projected at the time of the park’s 1979 groundbreaking ceremony. Prior to 1980, references to Century 3 / Future Probe / Horizons were nonexistent in company literature. A Space pavilion was mentioned, along with concept artwork, by 1977 but its theme was mostly distinct from those explored in Horizons. Opening-year pavilions like Universe of Energy, The Land, Communicore, World of Motion and Spaceship Earth had been anchored for roughly five years (sometimes under different names) before General Electric and Disney got together and came up with the first Horizons ideas, which printed records suggest came together much more expediently than those for other Future World rides and with fewer revisions. The first reference to Future Probe that I came across as a kid was in Walt Disney Productions’ 1980 annual report, where a model of the Omnimax theater was depicted, and shortly thereafter references to the pavilion showed up in Orlando-Land magazine articles. By that time, ideas for a Space pavilion were on the way back burner at WED.
When The Walt Disney Story on Main Street USA at WDW’s Magic Kingdom was converted to the EPCOT Center Preview Center (what a name) in 1981, the film showed study models for an attraction called New Horizons. By the end of the year, the final name of simply Horizons had been settled upon.
Horizons Early Audio Segments (live) courtesy of Martin Smith
1983, mp3 file, 3.6mb, 1:57, Martin has compiled a live cross-section of ride narration and character dialogue segments that changed shortly after Horizons opened.
Horizons Scene Music – Urban Habitat
1983, mp3 file, 2.4mb, 1:41
Horizons – Extinct WDW Attraction
Location: Future World, EPCOT Center Opened: October 1, 1983
Closed: January 9. 1999
Descendant of: Carousel of Progress (1964-present), General Motors’ Futurama II (1964-1965), RCA’s Home of Future Living (Space Mountain, WDW, 1975-1985)
Space Later Became: Mission Space
Contributing Personnel: Tom Fitzgerald, Robert McCall, George McGinnis Narrators: Dena Dietrich, Bob Holt
Bibliography for this Page: WDW Eyes & Ears September 29, 1983, Orlando-Land magazine November 1983
This page incorporates, or may incorporate in the future, information and/or images provided to WYW by Todd Becker, Howard Bowers, Mike Cozart, Alastair Dallas, Rhodes Davis, Dave Ensign, “Miami Mike” Hiscano, Marc Marcuse, Chuck Munson, Ross Plesset and Martin Smith
All images copyright The Walt Disney Company. Text copyright 2016 by Mike Lee
First draft of page posted January 28, 2012. Minor update December 11th, 2013. Current version posted September 19, 2016.