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Theme Park History: A short history of Epcot

Written by
Published: August 4, 2013 at 6:21 PM

Walt Disney World's second theme park, Epcot (originally Epcot Center) opened October 1, 1982, but its origins go back to before the creation of Disney World, as seen in this clip from Walt Disney's ABC television show:

Walt Disney envisioned Epcot (which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) to be an actual city where people would work and live with new technology presented by the very best in industry. After Walt Disney's death, the company decided against building and managing a city, especially without Walt's guidance. However, Walt's original vision for Epcot did push the Walt Disney company to convince the Florida legislature to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District and Lake Buena Vista, government entities effectively controlled by the Walt Disney Company, allowing the company great latitude in developing the Walt Disney World Resort.

Because of the success of Disneyland in California, the Walt Disney Company initially created a larger clone of the iconic park first (the Magic Kingdom) for Walt Disney World, but the ideal of Epcot continued to intrigue people inside and outside the company. When Imagineers considered developing Epcot as a theme park, some wanted the park to focus on new technology, while others wanted to showcase international culture. Eventually, they pushed the two plans together and created the hourglass-shaped combination of Future World and World Showcase that we know as Epcot today. It was Disney's first theme park not to be a Disneyland-like "Magic Kingdom."

Disney's then-CEO E. Cardon Walker dedicated the park:

Epcot relied heavily on corporate and international sponsorship in developing its many pavilions, and the massive capital investment Disney made in the park not only jump-started the company's theme park division, which had languished creatively following the completion of projects underway at the time of Walt's death, it helped launch the careers of many influential theme park design professionals, including Monte Lund, Bob Rogers, and Rick Rothschild. However, progress eventually stalled and Disney's not added a new Future World pavilion since building Mission: Space in 2003 and hasn't added a World Showcase pavilion since Norway in 1988.

Here are the original Future World pavilions still operating in some form today:

Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth: Located in the park's iconic geodesic sphere (no, it's not a giant golf ball), this attraction has had the same theme since its opening: communication. Originally sponsored by Bell/AT&T, it's now sponsored by Siemens and features narration by Judi Dench. Spaceship Earth was one of the first attractions to portray future technologies now come to life, such as Skype and Google hangouts.

Communicore: Home to ever-changing industry-sponsored exhibits on technology, especially computers, the Communicore pavilions were rebranded as Innoventions in 1994. Today, Innoventions West provides a home for Disney character meet and greets —, something that never happened in the park's early years, when Disney characters were kept out of the park entirely.

Universe of Energy: Known for its massive animatronic dinosaurs, this pavilion features a unique moving theater, which carries 80 people in each of six vehicles that glide through the pavilion, guided by a thin wire underneath the pavilion floor. Originally sponsored by Exxon, the pavilion closed temporarily in March 1989 to remove a preshow film reference to the Exxon Valdez tanker after its oil spill. In 1996, Disney revamped the attraction, renaming it Ellen's Energy Crisis, and later, Ellen's Energy Adventure, with a new preshow and narrative featuring Ellen DeGeneres, replacing the somewhat dry narration by Vic Perrin. In 2004, ExxonMobil dropped its sponsorship.

World of Motion: Sponsored by General Motors, this dark ride gave you a history of human transportation. It closed in 1996 and was replaced by Test Track, a ride through a vehicle design lab which was revamped in 2012 and is now sponsored by GM division Chevrolet. Both attractions use the same show building, which looks like a wheel from the top.

The Land: Developed and sponsored by Kraft, this pavilion originally represented the development of agriculture and food technology. Afetr 10 years, Nestle took over the sponsorship and all three of its attractions were revamped. In 2004, Disney demolished the Food Rocks animatronic show to make way for a major expansion of the pavilion to house Soarin', a clone of the movie attraction from Disney California Adventure. Many of items grown in the greenhouses seen during the Living with the Land ride are used by the Garden Grill Restaurant, slow-rotating restaurant that overlooks the ride.

In addition, Disney opened the Imagination pavilion in 1983, which has been home to three iterations of the Journey Into Imagination ride, though none as beloved as the original. The Living Seas pavilion, featuring what was the world's largest aquarium at the time, opened in 1986 and was rethemed into The Seas with Nemo and Friends in 2007, after a four-year redevelopment. In 1989, Disney opened the Wonders of Life pavilion, featuring the resort's first motion-simulator ride, Body Wars. That pavilion closed in 2007 and is now used for special events, though the rides remain closed.

The remaining original Future World pavilion was Horizons, a dark ride that showed what the future might hold for guests. The attraction was known for allowing you to choose your own future destination, though a selection of video clips shown during the ride. It also was considered the "sequel" to the Magic Kingdom's Carousel of Progress. There was even a nod to this by using that attraction's theme song ("There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow") in the attraction. Horizons was sponsored by General Electric, but when GE didn't renew its sponsorship, the attraction closed in 1999 and was replaced by Mission: Space. There are some nods to the old attraction in Mission Space including using the "space theme" music from Horizons.

Here are the World Showcase pavilions:

Mexico: This pavilion is completely inside of a Mayan pyramid and looks like a nighttime scene in a Mexican marketplace. It takes many of its inspirations from the Blue Bayou in Disneyland, including the boat ride that goes though the pavilion. This ride, now themed to Disney's Three Caballeros, shows the sights and sounds of Mexico. More recently, they have built a tequila bar and a new restaurant on the waterfront solidifying the popularity of alcoholic beverages in World Showcase. The nighttime show, Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, is controlled from the top of the pyramid.

Norway: This was the last country to be added 1988. It also features Maelstrom, a thrill-type attraction with flumes that explores Norway culture and legend. This pavilion also has one of the few Stave Churches in existence. This was one of the few countries of World Showcase that actually helped finance and sponsor the pavilion, but Norway's sponsorship ended in 2002.

China: This pavilion has the 360 movie Reflections of China which showcases the beauty and breadth of China. It replaced the 20-year-old movie "Wonders of China," which was one of the first American movies allowed to filmed inside of China, especially the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

Germany: Another popular pavilion for alcohol, its main restaurant, the Biergarten, provides German foods and one-liter beers. However, that was not supposed to be the restaurant. When building the pavilion, Disney started building the queue area for a boat ride similar to one in Maelstrom. However, Disney Imagineering decided to take a different route and it turned the pavilion into a restaurant.

Italy: Created in the style of Venice, this pavilion was also supposed to have an attraction like Germany, but the plans were scrapped. It would have been where Via Napoli currently stands. Italy originally started with L'Originale Alfredo, a very popular restaurant found in Rome that is said to have created Fettuccini Alfredo. It was replaced by Tutto Italia in 2007. The other main restaurant, Via Napoli brings Neapolitan pizza to the United States. To make the pizza as authentic as possible, they ship water from Pennsylvania to use in the dough because it shares much of the same water qualities as Naples. It also pays tribute to Italy with its three pizza ovens named after Italy's three volcanoes: Etna, Stromboli, and Vesuvius.

American Adventure: Representing the United States, a majority of this pavilion center's around the video and audio animatronic show, "The American Adventure." This show actually takes place on the second floor of the building because the animatronics from George Washington to Rosie the Riveter are shuffled and presented on what is basically a "drawer" of animatronic stages that kept are under the guests' seats. It is also worth noting that this show also shows the progress of technology with showing historic scenes using that time period's technology (pilgrims/colonialists use paintings, civil war uses photographs, and World War I and so on uses moving pictures).

Japan: Japan was one of the first pavilions in mind for World Showcase (because Tokyo Disneyland was also under construction). They originally were going to build a clone of "Meet the World" which is found at the Tokyo park, but were concerned about potential controversy because "Meet the World" did not mention World War II. This pavilion also holds one of the most unique performers in all of the Disney Parks: Miyuki who is the only female rice candy artist in the world. She creates "Japanese lollypops" in the shape of the guest's favorite animal.

Morocco: Morocco was also a later addition to World Showcase (1984), but is the only one that was actively built and still sponsored by its host country. In the their main restaurant, Marrakesh, there is a replica of the letter sent from the King of Morocco to George Washington congratulating him on independence, because Morocco is one of the United States' oldest alliances. Also, due to Islamic beliefs, the pavilion does not light up during Illuminations: Reflections of Earth because of the religious nature of the art in the pavilion, including the main tower which is a replica of a prayer tower. Disney will be building an additional restaurant on the lagoon side in 2013.

France pavilion

France: Representing Paris, France uses its buildings to create forced perspective to make the pavilion look larger and more crowded than it actually is. They go as far to spray bird repellant on their replica of the Eiffel Tower so that birds do not perch on their small scale tower and look like "monsters". This pavilion also hold the movie "Impressions de France" a travelogue of different parts of France. The classical score for this attraction features French composers and TPI editor Robert Niles called it the best theme park movie ever made.

United Kingdom: The United Kingdom pavilion was the first to have a permanent restaurant built on the Lagoon Side of World Showcase (Rose and Crown). The stores represent, in section, the United Kingdoms of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The entertainment is also very popular here with the British Invasion (now the British Revolution) and the World Showcase Players.

Canada: This pavilion highlights the natural beauty of Canada. Originally, the Canadian government was concerned by the pavilion that it would reinforce the stereotypes of Canada (i.e. a bunch of lumberjacks), but they helped finance the new 360-degree movie "O Canada" in 2007. The pavilion's high-popular restaurant, Le Cellier Steakhouse, originally started out as a buffet, but soon moved to table service and is one of the toughest reservations in the Walt Disney World Resort.

Up next: Disney's Hollywood Studios

Previously:

Readers' Opinions

From Phil B. on August 4, 2013 at 9:20 PM
Nice article....great job!
From N B on August 4, 2013 at 9:35 PM
I had never seen this Walt video until today. Now I know where they got the idea in Iron Man 2.
From Anthony Murphy on August 5, 2013 at 4:43 AM
Absolutely,

Iron Man II had huge nods to Walt Disney. Most likely because of the main plot taking place at the World's fair, but the similarities are striking.

I have always liked EPCOT because this really is the only other theme park that we have that Walt actually had some input.

Also thank you Robert Niles for publishing this in near entirety. EPCOT is dripping in history which made it tough to cut stuff out. Pictures and movies are worth 1000 words for sure!

And for TH, I do not see the old man in the EPCOT crowd (read TH's book to understand this).

From Bryce McGibeny on August 5, 2013 at 5:19 AM
Photo credit of Spaceship Earth to mwah. Hehe.
From Joseph Catlett on August 5, 2013 at 5:57 AM
Good article...just one quibble.
Spaceship Earth is NOT a geodesic DOME but a geodesic SPHERE. As an ex Castmember it always irked me when people called it that.
From 173.170.103.20 on August 5, 2013 at 7:10 AM
Another great article on TPI. One quibble about the Germany pavilion. Disney built the entire show building for the planned boat ride you mentioned. It still stands today, waiting for a sponsor to step forward to fund a new ride. Until then, it's being used for storage.

- Brian

From TH Creative on August 5, 2013 at 7:53 AM
Great effort AM ... and thanks for the plug about '7097-050719' -- book one in the theme park trilogy.

I was at the opening event where Mr. Walker spoke. It's always great to re-live that scene.

In 1982 as a Disney cast member and a student with the Magic Kingdom College program, I was fortunate to attend EPCOT Center's cast preview night a few days before the park opened.

From James Rao on August 5, 2013 at 10:27 AM
"In addition, Disney opened the Imagination pavilion in 1983, which has been home to three iterations of the Journey Into Imagination ride, though none as beloved as the original." ==> Understatement of the year! =)

Great stuff, Anthony, thank you for sharing.

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