Epcot - Walt’s Vision Interpreted
Epcot is known around the world as being the “golf ball” park – and for those who’ve never had the chance to visit, it’s possibly the most difficult Disney park to explain. Part technology, part world culture, and a huge dose of accidental nostalgia have made the park into what it is today, for better or worse.
Walt Disney World’s second gate is steeped in history, innovation, and the concept of progress – but today’s park is as far from Walt’s original vision as can be. Let’s take a look at how Epcot has evolved over the last 50 years…
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Disney fans of history have certainly heard about The Florida Project – this was how Walt Disney and his team referred to Walt Disney World in the early years of planning and concept development.
The “blessing of size” Walt had in Florida with 27,800 acres of swampland at his disposal is associated with his desire to have more control over the environment and surrounding for Magic Kingdom than he did with the original Disneyland park in California. And we’ve all heard the story of his inspiration to create Disneyland as a place where families could have fun, together.
Epcot came out of a similar place in Walt’s mind. He was increasingly concerned for the future of his grandchildren and the type of cities they would grow up to live in. Major American cities were becoming over-crowded, polluted, and springing up so fast that they were poorly planned.
Walt went into problem solving mode to figure out how he could engineer a better city of tomorrow – something that would be sustainable and replicable for communities across the nation and around the globe. We often forget the Walt Disney was not merely an artist and entertainer – he truly was a technological and social visionary. Just as he challenged and transformed the movie and theme park industry, he wanted to change city planning for the better.
The original vision for Walt Disney World had Epcot as its center – the beating heart of the whole community. It was the key differentiator to the California counterpart – WDW would not just be a Disneyland theme park on the east coast – it was going to be a blueprint for a city where people would work, live and thrive.
In fact, Epcot was intended to be the first stop for all guests who were visiting Walt Disney World – it would serve as the access point to everything else the property had to offer. Before they would carry on to the Magic Kingdom theme park on the north end of property, guests would have the chance to tour the Epcot community and experience a new way of city living.
THE EXPERIMENTAL PROTOTYPE COMMUNITY OF TOMORROW
Epcot stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. While today we know Epcot as an unconventional theme park, it’s original intention was to be a real city that was ever-changing with the times, serving as a blueprint of the future.
Walt wanted Epcot to integrate with everything at WDW, and encouraged corporations to get involved in creating and running this “progress city” with their latest technologies. Constant innovation would push the boundaries of urban living ideas to produce new ideas and cutting edge solutions for modern life.
In exchange for their involvement, these corporations would have a real life testing ground to showcase and perfect their technologies before rolling them out to a wider market.
Walt’s vision for Epcot was derived from the Garden City Movement of urban planning. It relied on radial design with the highest density at the center, green belt and residential spaces at the periphery, with industrial parks and high density residential in between. In the core, a hotel and convention center would be the anchor for shopping and dining inspired by exotic locales, all enclosed in a space that would be free from the concerns of weather.
Monorails and Peoplemovers would provide mass transit for this community, in which people could live, work, and play – no cars would be used for daily commuting. In fact, leisure cars and supply transports would run under the city, away from pedestrian zones.
Fun fact: you can see part of the original architectural model for Epcot on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover in Magic Kingdom.
Notably, in this plan for Epcot, residents would pay only modest fees for apartment or home rental, and no one would own their land. Everyone living at Epcot would be employed somewhere on WDW property (excluding children) and would share responsibility in maintaining Walt’s living blueprint for a community of the future.
Everything would be designed for ease of change – for instance, new appliances could be swapped in at a moment’s notice to test new technology. This vision for Epcot had it as a city that was always evolving and never stagnant – not quite the theme park it has become today.
A SHIFT IN VISION
While the Florida Project was announced in 1965, with Walt’s planning well underway, the vision for Epcot would shift dramatically before the park’s opening in 1982. In 1966, Walt Disney’s death would result in a major upheaval for the company and the plans for Walt Disney World.
Even before his death, Walt struggled with the Board of Directors to gain approval for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. They were much more interested in recreating the success of Disneyland with a bigger, better theme park in Florida.
While his brother Roy Disney defended Walt’s vision, the Board felt it was far too risky to venture into city planning, and focused their attention on the Magic Kingdom. Eventually Epcot would debut eleven years after Walt Disney World opened its gates to the public, but it was markedly different from the original plan.
The updated design retained some elements of the original concept – the Monorail was used for transportation (not just as an attraction like at Disneyland), there was space to demonstrate technology in Future World, and world culture was prevalent in World Showcase. But all of these functioned as entertainment and education – not in a practical application as Walt had dreamed.
Disney did build a scaled down planned community in Celebration, Florida – but it only employed some of the qualities of the city of tomorrow. Be sure to keep reading as we dive into the history of Celebration in our Around the World section of this issue.
In creating the Epcot theme park, Imagineers were indecisive and at odds – should the park bring to life technology or culture? Two separate park plans were eventually brought together into the 300-acre park (that’s twice the size of Magic Kingdom) that we know today. Epcot took three years and an estimated $800 million -1.4 billion dollars to build.
On October 1, 1982, Epcot finally opened to the public. It was Disney’s third theme park and the first “non-castle” park they had built. Dedicated to human achievement, technological innovation, and international culture, it was a far cry from the fairy tales and fantasy of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.
Anchored by Spaceship Earth, the park icon and attraction housed in a gigantic geodesic sphere – Epcot was a permanent World’s Fair, with a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces in pavilions dedicated to different technological concepts and countries.
Originally known as Epcot Center, E. Cardon Walker issued this dedication of the park on October 24, 1982:
“To all who come to this place of joy, hope and friendship, welcome. Epcot Center is inspired by Walt Disney's creative genius. Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, the wonders of enterprise, and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all. May Epcot Center entertain, inform and inspire. And, above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.”
On opening day, Future World included the following pavilions: Journey Into Imagination, Communicore East and West, Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy, The Land, Earth Station, and World of Motion. World Showcase featured these countries: Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, the USA, Italy, Germany, China, and Mexico. Some original elements of these pavilions have remained to this day, although most have undergone significant change.
BEYOND OPENING DAY
Ironically, in opposition of Walt’s original concept, which relied on constant evolution, Epcot has remained remarkably idle over the years. This is particularly evident and problematic in Future World, where many ideas, from recycling to energy production, are presented as cutting edge, although they may be decades out of date.
The park’s name changed to Epcot ’94 and Epcot ’95 in 1994 and 1995 respectively, then settled into simply Epcot, as it’s known currently.
Norway and Morocco joined World Showcase in the late 1980s – and rumors of adding Isreal, Spain, Equatorial Africa, Puerto Rico, Russia, Switzerland, United Arab Emerites, Costa Rica, and Venezuela followed suit, but never came to fruition.
Horizons and The Seas were added to Future World, but have since been replaced by Mission: Space and The Seas with Nemo & Friends. The popular Wonders of Life Pavilion was open for only eighteen years before it was converted into a special events space.
Major changes and additions to Future World since the park’s inception include Soarin’ (now Soarin’ Around the World), updated to Universe of Energy, Mission: Space, Innoventions, and Test Track (first and second versions).
Various parades, entertainment, and nighttime shows have come and gone, with the award-winning Illuminations: Reflections of Earth currently playing nightly.
Epcot has become one of the most popular theme parks in the world with nearly twelve million annual visitors – it has the third highest attendance in North America, and sixth in the world.
FOOTING THE BILLS
Initially, pavilions at Epcot were meant to be sponsored by corporations like Exxon, Nestle, Kraft, and, General Electric – this would serve as promotion for those companies and provide funding to keep attractions updated. However, as sponsorship waned, so did improvements.
Today, a few corporate sponsorships, from Chevrolet, Siemens, Chiquita, and Coca-cola, help pay the bills in Future World but this doesn’t quite stack up to the original thought behind the partnerships.
In World Showcase, only Morocco is funded by it’s host country – the rest are paid for by Disney, and in some cases private sponsors who have a vested interest in promoting their home countries.
NOT JUST FOR KIDS
Epcot has always been seen as Disney’s least kid-centric park. It was the first Disney park to introduce alcohol, which Walt had expressly kept out of Disneyland. It features many fine dining options, exotic cuisine, and entertainment appealing to adults. The educational components of Epcot are often boring to children. While originally seen as a positive – this park isn’t just for kids! – Disney realized over the years that more family appeal was needed.
In recent years, there has been an effort to include kids and families in Epcot. Character meet and greets and dining opportunities abound. Craft stations and interactive video games help bring World Showcase to life for kids and pre-teens. Playgrounds and virtual exploration games keep little one occupied in Future World, while mom and dad ride the more intense attractions.
Finding Nemo and Frozen have taken center stage with their own family friendly attractions, and even the festivals throughout the year provide activities and treats geared towards the younger set.
Epcot has an enormous amount of space, making it perfect to hold special events throughout the year – and Disney has pretty much perfected a formula for festival success: take a common theme, add special food, entertainment, seminars, and decorations, and bibbidi bobbidi boo – you’ve got a hit!
The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, Holidays Around the World, and the brand-new-in-2017, Epcot International Festival of the Arts provide new ways to explore topics relevant to Epcot’s concept, and generate lots of extra revenue, especially from locals during the “slow season.”
While Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, and even Disney Springs have undergone or are undergoing major overhauls, Epcot has been left largely out of the fun. But in November of 2016, Disney Parks Chairman Bob Chapek announced that Epcot will be undergoing a huge transformation in the coming years. We can expect it to be “more Disney, timeless, relevant, family-friendly” and to retain the vision of an educationally centered park.
The Imagineering team has been challenged to “dream big” on this, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for Disney’s most fascinating park!