Maybe Epcot is Just What a Weary World Needs, After All

November 15, 2015, 10:40 PM · Fifty years ago today, Walt Disney announced his "Florida Project," an experimental prototype community of tomorrow that a few years later would become the Walt Disney World Resort.

Announcing Disneyworld

Today, Disney's world encompasses 11 theme parks around the globe, with a twelfth on its way. However, on this day, two of those parks were closed — the Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios parks in Paris — following a series of deadly attacks in the French capital on Friday evening. The parks will remain closed until Wednesday, in observance of a national period of mourning.

From a business perspective, Walt's vision was spot on — inspiring a global entertainment business that delivers wildly popular films and television entertainment and welcomes millions of guests to theme parks all over the world (More than 134 million guests last year, according to an industry report). But while Walt the businessman surely would be pleased by his company's success, Walt the optimist might be disappointed by the state of the "great big beautiful tomorrow" that he envisioned.

Walt Disney died within two years of the Florida project's announcement. His successors at the Walt Disney Company never built EPCOT (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) but simply applied that name to a World's Fair-themed park that opened in 1982, instead. But they included in that park plenty of the optimism that fueled Walt's interest in the Florida project — with corporate-sponsored displays of ascendant technology and song-filled travelogues that offered visions of a friendly world.

Spaceship Earth

But it's hard to accept that vision today with so much anguish and fury around the world, following not just the recent attacks in France and Lebanon, but also the years of endless war in the Middle East and the resulting, massive refugee crisis.

We've written before that today's public is looking to entertainment for an escape from the state of the world. The optimism of someplace like Epcot just isn't selling as well as it did generations ago, when an expanding middle class, seemingly abundant energy, and ever-cheaper travel made the future look a paradise that was just a few years away.

But how much longer can we keep pretending to escape our reality? At what point do we realize that no superhero is really coming to save us? That no magic spell will make things right? That if anything is ever going to improve, we will need to stop ignoring our problems and instead stand strong to face and overcome them, together?

The irony is that the Epcot we've turned away from in our collective desire to escape to a better place has a lot to inspire us to make that better place where we all long to be.

The final day of the annual International Food & Wine Festival brought tens of thousands of guests to Epcot today. While surely most came simply to enjoy their last chance to enjoy all that food and drink, Epcot had plenty more today to nourish the soul of anyone weary from Friday night's news.

Start with the beautiful music, scenery, and poetry of "Impressions de France," a love letter to a nation that has endured far, far worse than what it faced on Friday night.

Impressions de France

Move from there to "The American Adventure," which does not shy from addressing the mistreatment of the African slaves, Native Americans, and women who for too long were excluded from America's story. But this show reminds us that even when we get it wrong, we can make it right — that when we work together, we can make our golden dreams come true.

The American Adventure

It's an important lesson, for in the days and weeks to come, those who profit from endless conflict will try to use these attacks to divide us — by religion, by race, and by nationality. Just remember that division is what feeds the hatred that fuels terrorism. Those who attacked Paris did so to elicit a backlash — not just against them and their allies, but against everyone of Muslim faith and Middle Eastern ancestry. Suicide bombers succeed only when they recruit their replacements.

Want to strike back at those who attacked Paris? Then don't stay home in fear. Keep traveling. And keep reaching out all those around you — not just to whomever you are inclined or directed to believe to be the right kind of people. Offer a smile and a greeting not just to the young hosts in Epcot's France pavilion, but also to the family in hijab posing in front of the Kingdom of Morocco sign next door. We must remember, as President Franklin Roosevelt declares in The American Adventure, "the only thing we have to fear is... fear itself."

Morocco pavilion

So let's wrap up with a trip on Spaceship Earth, where we learn how communication — and the cooperation it enables — helped mankind build our civilization. From the Phoenicians and their alphabet, to the Greeks and their mathematics, to, yes, the Arab scholars who developed our numbers and preserved the knowledge that would have been lost in the fall of Rome, people from around the world have contributed to our collective journey.

If we are to do our part in continuing that journey, it will be because we remember the lessons taught by those who came before us. We will remember the corrosive power of fear, and turn instead to more powerful forces — of contact, communication, and cooperation.

We are all travelers on this spaceship Earth. How we make that journey is up to us. We can make that "great big beautiful tomorrow." But no one else will do that for us. And none of us can do that alone.

Replies (11)

November 15, 2015 at 11:01 PM · Very nice. I wish hope sold as much as intellectual properties, because I see what's happening to Epcot as a microcosm of life. Turn a blind eye to the future and ingest every pill the corporate, cold hearted, business world would have you swallow. The optimistic future is fundamentally built on equality and harmony with nature and war and hatred are often based on the opposite. Like you said in previous articles Disney shows signs of straying from the middle class now. Maybe one day someone will take charge of the company that will care more about the ideals than a rich persons pocket. Wishful thinking I know but somewhere in the heart of Epcot lies the genesis of my love for theme parks, and it's still in there somewhere however distant it feels.
November 15, 2015 at 11:01 PM · Actually the 16th is the last day, we have fastpasses set up for one of the eat to the beat concerts tomorrow.
November 16, 2015 at 4:54 AM · Best article you've written in a while, Robert. And I agree with you about not staying home. My family and I are saving up for a big trip to Europe for this summer, and one of our key destinations was Paris. Then, of course, the Nov. 13 attacks happened. But we decided that we're still going to Paris. Because if we decide to just stay away, we'd be giving the terrorists exactly what they wanted.

There are many problems in our modern world today, but if humanity's been able to survive such things as the Black Plague and the Cold War, I'm sure we'll get through this.

And I really do hope that people do see how EPCOT can help comfort us in these times. When the Frozen ride was announced for EPCOT, I was starting to worry that it would soon devolve into just another IP-driven Orlando park; but the announcement of the Colortopia exhibit at Innoventions has given me a slimmer of hope that this may not be so. Even today, with EPCOT being a "shell of it's former self," it still teaches a lot and definitely makes me think more than any other park I've been to does. Now that is some true Disney magic right there.

November 16, 2015 at 6:04 AM · Bad news travels fast, but good news usually goes on un-noticed. The attacks were terrible, no doubt. But there are countless stories of how people helped each other when in their time of need. Political borders were shattered when people from all nations helped in any way they could. Overall, the world really is like EPCoT. People really do get along with each other, except for the extremely small percentage who chose to cause trouble. It is, unfortunately, that small percentage who grab the headlines all the time. Picture the Olympic Games where athletes from around the world stand together in harmony. If we were suddenly to start reporting good news, the news wires would not be able to handle the increased volume. EPCot really DOES exist in the real world. We just need to hear about it.
November 16, 2015 at 7:34 AM · ^Well said, Michael.
November 16, 2015 at 9:05 AM · Re-

Thank you! So nice to know I'm not the only person who thinks that way.

November 16, 2015 at 11:26 AM · Excellent article, Robert!
November 16, 2015 at 11:26 AM · Excellent article, Robert!
November 16, 2015 at 12:49 PM · Wonderful Robert. I was one of many who brought flowers to the Cast at the Japanese pavilion after the horrible earthquake and tsunami several years ago. I was so happy to see that people were doing the same thing for the Cast Members at the French pavilion after the tragedy this weekend.
Epcot is an amazing place. It does need to morph to appeal to changing tastes, but I really hope it never loses its optimism.
November 16, 2015 at 5:24 PM · I've been thinking about the popularity of IP themes in parks and I think we may be in a time like the 1950s were there is a subconscious low level of anxiety that really drives people into escapism. A lot of people look back on the 50s as an idealized time, but weren't kids doing bomb drills in school all the time? It couldn't have been too long before those little kids knew their desk wouldn't save them. My dad was a kid at that time and he still thinks the human world is going to end within 50 years from nuclear bombs. I think that is less of a fear for younger people, but random violence is very stressful to people even if it is uncommon. The 24 hour news cycle really feeds that anxiety because you can keep hearing about it all day. It may be that escapism is so attractive to people now because baby boomers and people who are in their 20s felt anxiety as children. I think 911 traumatized a lot of people who were kids at the time, just by seeing it on the news constantly and then experiencing the abrupt heightened security measures. These things are experienced differently by children than adults and they leave an impression that is difficult to erase completely. I wonder how many people who feel inspired by EPCOT and love Tomorrowland are generation Xers. The thing is that generation X has kids right now and so most are probably fine with IP because our kids like it. So that kind of sets the stage for huge popularity for IP with two generations of people looking for escapism flanking a generation of parents.

I would also like to say that in science, your workplace is like the world showcase. The vast majority of my friends in San Francisco and Sydney were born in other countries than the one we were living in (or their parents were). I think this is often true for IT as well. It would be cool at EPCOT if that concept could come across somehow in the science exhibits.

I think the World showcase should focus more on art history at the different pavilions. That still has a lot of value even if that is thorough the story for the inspiration of animated movies. Food is working well for foodies, but not all kids are that adventurous with food and some adults aren't either especially on vacation. I think that art is a great way to overcome language barriers and communicate the values of different cultures and promote respect for the people of the culture.

On the science side of things it may be better to focus on the history of science that illustrates pretty established concepts. There's no way you can make cutting edge science exhibits at WDW. The 2 years it takes to develop them would make them obsolete on opening day. Science text books for undergrads are many times not even used because they are out of date within a year of publication. If you look at that big bang sequence of Fantasia it isn't too far off of what we still think, but if Disney had made an exhibit from that they could have tweaked it when it was discovered that there was a comet strike that coincided with the extinction of the dinosaurs, for example. It would still teach very important concepts even if they are not new.

November 16, 2015 at 6:52 PM · As a wise commenter pointed out above, there is lots of good news around the world, lots of reasons to be optimistic, but nobody much in the media points them out. When Epcot opened, violent crime in the U.S. was roughly 7 times more frequent than it is now. New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago - these were very scary places with the average citizen in real danger, every day. Now you can walk through Harlem, let alone Midtown, at 1 AM and just relax and enjoy the scenery. When Epcot opened, violence in schools was considered normal, "boys will be boys" behaviour, and wars were raging in teh middle East, not to mention Russia was viewed as a dark enemy and a serious nuclear threat. What thinking person actually worries that Russia will aim nuclear weapons at us now?

in the supposedly idillic 1950s beating your wife was a joke, and also considered normal male behaviour - an I Love Lucy Episode even thought this was a fitting subject for an episode of a sitcom!

Now gay people, women, minorities... These are all treated with much more respect than they were 30, 40 or 50 years ago.

Sure the incidents in Paris are tragic, but a lot of other tragedy has been slowly erased form our lives.

We've become a much more peaceful, open minded, kindly society, and this is cause to celebrate. Epcot's dreams have in many ways come true.

- Robert Ruffo

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