The early 1980s were an interesting time for The Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney had died in 1966, and the company had floundered a bit since then. It premiered only one of its signature animated features between 1978 and 1984 -- 1981's The Fox and the Hound.
Yet Disney was surprisingly active in these years before Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg spearheaded the company's renaissance. Card Walker, company president since Roy O. Disney's death in 1971, had been elevated to chairman in 1980, and Ron Miller was elected president. The two oversaw several new initiatives that continue to be popular today. They opened Tokyo Disneyland in 1983; The Disney Channel began broadcasting just three days later; and Tron was released in 1982. 1983 also saw the release of the theatrical featurette Mickey's Christmas Carol, which helped begin a revival of interest in the traditional Disney characters that continues to this day.
Walker and Miller's biggest legacy to the Disney of today, though, is probably the implementation of what we now know of as Epcot.
Epcot opened on October 1, 1982 with the name EPCOT Center. 'EPCOT' was an acronym, composed by Walt many years previous, for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Walt had envisioned EPCOT as a living, breathing, community, where real people would make use of the latest concepts in technology, sociology, medicine, and even philosophy.
I wouldn't call it an attempt at utopia, but I definitely get the sense that it was a place Walt would have wanted to live. He greatly enjoyed making use of new technologies and seemed to live, above all else, to make people happy. Just as his theme parks and his films were designed to meet these goals, so would have EPCOT, but on a larger scale -- not just for entertainment but in people's daily lives.
Walt died long before he had a chance to take any concrete steps toward creating EPCOT. The Disney-managed town of Celebration, FL, seems similar in many respects to the original EPCOT concept, but lacks the focus on the future and use of cutting-edge technology. Celebration instead makes a concerted effort to incorporate modern conveniences into an idealized "hometown" setting.
The honchos at Disney, in the late 1970s, revived the name EPCOT for a somewhat different concept (thus the addition of 'Center' to the name). Instead of a true 'community' with real people, EPCOT Center was to be a new theme park, located at Walt Disney World in Florida, but separate from the Magic Kingdom. This was a new type of theme park and a big experiement in its own right; it's been described as an "eternal World's Fair."
A brief history on the name. EPCOT Center was renamed as "Epcot '94" in 1994. The purpose of this was twofold: first, to distance the park from Walt's original EPCOT concept by making the acronym a proper noun; second, to emphasize the evolving nature of the exhibits and technologies presented at Epcot by incorporating the year. This helped reinforce the "World's Fair" idea. The year number incremented accordingly in 1995 and 1996, at which time the name was shortened to just "Epcot".
Epcot is a very different kind of park than the Magic Kingdoms which preceeded it. When it opened, it had no thrill rides (it now has three). While there were rides, they were slow rides, ones that gave guests a chance to think. The rides invited guests to ponder technology, human innovation, diverse cultures, and the interdependence of these ideas. They did this via effective narration, awe-inspiring visuals (helped by Audio-Animitronics, of course), and heaping helpings of Disney Magic. Epcot is the thinking man's theme park.
Epcot is neatly divided into two areas: Future World and World Showcase.
Future World opened with six pavilions. Each pavilion had a corporate sponsor, which helped defray the massive cost of the park to the struggling company. This is yet another reason for the "World's Fair" analogy.
Spaceship Earth, presented by AT&T
Spaceship Earth is the focal point of Epcot. This gigantic geodesic sphere has become the iconic symbol of Epcot, like Cinderella Castle is for the Magic Kingdom. Disney has so far resisted any temptation to put mouse ears on this giant sphere.
The attraction inside the sphere -- also called Spaceship Earth -- is actually about human communication. Fitting for a pavilion sponsored by AT&T. The ride takes guests back to the dawn of history and invites them to speculate on what is to come in the future.
Communicore (East and West), presented by various companies
Communicore (separated into Communicore East and Communicore West) housed most of the shops and eateries in Future World, but was also a giant technology playground. The Communicores were closed in 1994 for renovations and re-opened as Innoventions. Innoventions kept the core idea intact but re-envisioned it, focusing more on what specific companies have in the works for the future.
Universe of Energy, presented by Exxon (now ExxonMobil)
Almost universally remembered as "The Dinosaur Ride," the Universe of Energy's main point -- about energy and how we use it -- is often lost amid the spectacle of animatronic dinosaurs. The original, fairly boring, show was replaced in 1997 by Ellen's Energy Adventure, featuring Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Alex Trebek. Both shows feature an impressive Audio-Animatronic recreation of the Mesozoic Era.
World of Motion, presented by General Motors
This ride, housed in a contemporary cylindrical building was similar to Spaceship Earth in many ways, except focusing on human transportation rather than communication. The exit sent guests through a showroom floor where automobile technologies both past and future could be explored.
World of Motion was closed in 1995; it finally re-opened in 1999 as Test Track. Test Track -- still sponsored by GM -- is a thrilling ride that gives guests an idea of what it might be like to be a crash-test dummy.
Journey Into Imagination, presented by Eastman Kodak
Ah yes, Imagination. What could be more representative of the Disney spirit than pure imagination? This pavilion had three main attractions when it opened. The titular ride featured Dreamfinder and Figment, who led guests on their Journey. Upstairs was ImageWorks, where kids (and adults!) could explore their creativity in many fun ways. Most importantly was a 3-D theater that showed the 3-D short film Magic Journeys.
Magic Journeys was replaced in 1986 by Captain EO, which then made way in 1995 for Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. The main ride was also revamped in 1995, into Journey Into Your Imagination, and the name of the pavilion changed to Imagination!. In 2002, the ride was redone again, bringing back the beloved Figment after many fan protests.
The Land, originally presented by Kraft, now by Nestlé
Out of the six original pavilions, this one housed the most individual attractions, aside from perhaps Communicore. The best-remembered attraction was "Kitchen Kabaret," a fun musical filled with singing foodstuffs. When Kraft stopped sponsoring the pavilion, the Kabaret was replaced wtih the much-inferior "Food Rocks." "Food Rocks" closed in 2004, and was replaced in 2005 by "Soarin'," an import from Disney's California Adventure. Also at The Land is an educational featurette featuring Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa, called The Circle of Life. The Land also has one of the best food courts in Walt Disney World. Another restaurant, the Garden Grill, rotates.
The main attraction at The Land, though, is "Living With the Land." This is a lengthy boat ride through the back portions of the pavilion, which are actually a set of working greenhouses. Hyrdoponics and other growing technologies can be viewed up-close and in action; it's fascinating for anyone interested in behind-the-scenes stuff and/or botany. The Land's greenhouses provide fresh produce to restaurants throughout Walt Disney World.
Three pavilions have since been added to Future World:
Horizons (1983), presented by General Electric
Horizons explored the future. After a brief look at some possible futures posited by people in the past, such as Jules Verne, the ride moved into contemporary views of the years to come. At the end of the ride, viewers got to choose (on a car-by-car basis) which future-scape they wished to view (desert, ocean, or space).
GE stopped its sponsorship in 1993; Horizons closed in 1999, replaced by Mission: SPACE (see below).
The Living Seas (1986), originally presented by United Technologies (now unsponsored)
An exploration of all things aquatic, The Living Seas is presented as a journey to an underwater Sea Base. At Seabase Alpha, guests find various interactive and non-interactive displays to teach them about life underwater. Helping matters immensely is the largest saltwater tank in the world, home to millions of marine organisms including dolphins, sharks, and manatees. The Coral Reef, a seafood restaurant, features excellent views into the tank through glass walls.
Wonders of Life (1989), originally presented by Metropolitan Life (now unsponsored)
Inside this low, golden geodesic dome are a number of attractions. Most notable are Cranium Command (a multi-media show about a day in the life of a young adolescent and his internal organs) and Body Wars (an exciting flight-simulator ride through the human bloodstream). Also around are various stationary displays and films, all focusing on health and physiology. One display features Goofy in classic Disney "How To" cartoons; another has improvisational comedy.
Mission: SPACE (2003), presented by Compaq
This pavilion stands where Horizons once did. The main attraction inside is a simulation of a spaceflight to Mars. Each rider has a role to play amongst his or her four-person "crew," from separating the booster rockets to engaging the cold-sleep function. The ride provides g-forces via centrifuge (barf bags are provided), resulting in an effective illusion of takeoff, flight, and landing.
Once off the ride, guests enter an area with multiple space-related games and activities, most notably "Mission: Space Race," a two-team, 32-person interactive spaceship race which challenges participants' pattern recognition and cooperation abilities. Loads of fun, certain aspects of the game can even be played online, interacting with guests in the park.
Back when Epcot was still EPCOT Center, each pavilion in Future World had its own circular logo, used in signposts and guidebooks to identify each one. The system was nice, and it gave a cohesive feel to the diverse pavilions. Epcot itself had its own logo, a pattern of five interlocking circles (in a flower shape) with a sphere (with latitude and longitude lines) in the middle.
World Showcase put the "World" in the "World's Fair" comparison. The Showcase consists of several themed areas, each expertly modeled after a different country. The nations are arranged around a large lagoon, making it easy to visit all of them. Double-decker busses ferry passengers from one end to the other. A secondary Epcot entrance, the International Gateway, lies between France and Great Britain; it provides easy footpath and ferryboat access to guests coming from the Epcot resort area and from Disney-MGM Studios.
Every nation in the World Showcase has at least one restaurant, making this one of the best and most sought-after places to eat in all of Walt Disney World. Most nations have at least one ride or other attraction. They all have shops galore, offering many unique and interesting items that would otherwise be hard to find without going to the home country.
A majority of the cast members found in each nation are natives of that country, lending further authenticity to the environments. One never fully forgets that one is at Walt Disney World, but the experience is as close to 'being there' as it could possibly be.
From east to west (clockwise around the lagoon), the nations in the World Showcase:
The Mexico area consists primarily of a reduced-size native Mexican pyramid. Inside the pyramid, it is perpetually twilight, and one can browse the 'open-air' shops, have a romantic dinner under the 'stars,' or ride El Rio del Tiempo (The River of Time) a pleasant boat ride through Mexico's history.
Aside from the standard Norweigian shops, the main attraction here is the Maelstrom, Epcot's first 'thrill ride.' It's a log-boat ride that shows guests sights from Norway's past and present, including images from its mythology -- at one point, the boat encounters a troll and nearly careens out a window onto the street below! Norway also features an intriguing Norweigian church.
China is about what you'd expect -- Chinese food, architecture reminiscent of the Forbidden City, and plenty of shops. It also has a Circle-Vision 360 movie called Wonders of China.
I suppose the main attraction here would be the Biergarten, which comes complete with polkas and a large German buffet. Overall, there is surprisingly little to see here, unless you like beer steins or Deutschekuchen.
Italy is quite similar to Germany, actually -- come for the food because there's not much else to see.
The American Adventure
The 'host' pavilion for World Showcase, it's located dead center. The centerpiece is a large colonial-style mansion, which houses an opulent theater showing one of the best shows at Walt Disney World: The American Adventure. A combination of film and Audio-Animatronics, both are well utilized to create a poignant and patriotic show, hosted by Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin.
Not much in the way of shops here, although you will find that most American of restaurants -- the fast food joint. Also here is a large outdoor stage where various musical acts perform.
An impressive pagoda houses one of two Japanese restaurants here. It's a little more interesting than Germany and Italy, if only because Japanese culture is a little less familiar to the average American.
Morocco may seem an odd choice; you don't often see it in the company of Japan and France. Of course, Morocco the country actually sponsored this pavilion, so that may have something to do with it. On the other hand, Morocco's atmosphere seems the most immersive of any of the nations of World Showcase; its small streets and clustered shops feel real while hiding the rest of the park from view.
Impressions de France is a simple film showing picturesque views of the country set to music -- its biggest draw is that the theater is air conditioned. Of course, there are a pair of French restaurants -- a gourmet bistro and a brasserie. Also here is a miniature Eiffel Tower, set in the background and created with forced perspective to add to that Parisian feel. On the other hand, it's kind of disconcerting to stand in Mexico and see the Tower across the lagoon.
Home to the Rose and Crown, a traditional British pub complete with fish and chips, Great Britain also has a lot of neat shops. If you're lucky, you may catch some musical groups, such as the British Invasion (a Beatles cover band), or Off-Kilter (a group of kilt-clad, bagpipes-wielding rockers).
Yes, our neighbors to the north are here, too. Guests can view Canada in the Circle-Vision 360 film O Canada!, visit the mountain-lodge-themed restaurant, Le Cellier Steakhouse, and browse the shops and buy a toque or some real maple syrup. Don't miss the impressive artificial waterfall.
The World Showcase is home to two daily events. First is the Tapestry of Dreams parade, a multicultural celebration featuring gigantic paper puppetry. Second is the famous IllumiNations (currently IllumiNations: Relfections of Earth), a nighttime light and fireworks show that gives each nation its spotlight in turn. IllumiNations is truly impressive; every nation is completely decked out in lights; numerous lasers pierce the sky; fireworks fill the lagoon.
Epcot is a truly unique theme park, and one that is slowly but surely being updated to keep up with the human progress that it celebrates. It may not be great for the youngest Disney guests, but there's something there for almost everyone.
If the Magic Kingdom represents Walt's sense of fun, Epcot represents his sense of innovation and exhiliration at human progress.
The following sources were used only for factual reference; the words above are my own.
Disney: The First 100 Years by Dave Smith and Steven Clark