Epcot - Walt’s Vi­sion In­ter­preted

WDW Magazine - - Content - BY STEPHANIE SHUSTER

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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

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