Disney's "non fiction" theme park opened October 1, 1982 — the day the 21st century began, according to Disney's marketing message at the time. Taking its name for Walt Disney's original concept for his "Florida Project" — the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — EPCOT Center, as the park was known when it opened, was not the modernist planned community that Disney envisioned before his death. Instead, Epcot functioned as a Disney-sanctioned and designed "World's Fair." Corporate pavilions celebrating their industries lined Future World, while national pavilions introduced Disney fans to their cuisine and culture in World Showcase.
While Epcot celebrated the gee-whiz optimism about the world and its future that Walt Disney often expressed in his weekly television show two decades and more before the park's debut, it did not celebrate Disney's iconic cartoon characters. After a brief appearance at the opening ceremony (in 1970s silver jumpsuits), Mickey and the gang disappeared from Epcot, making Disney's third theme park a "Disney-free" experience, in the eyes of many fans.
Disney soon caved, and its characters began appearing at Epcot. And thus came the first step in the long journey of transforming Epcot from an IP-free expression human ingenuity and culture into another home for Disney's entertainment franchises. While many fans lament that change, perhaps we should consider that while Epcot 1.0 expressed perhaps the most optimistic statement about our world ever made by a major entertainment company, Disney's direction with Epcot was driven as much by practical matters as a desire to recast the world as some "Golden Dream."
Disney ultimately didn't build a non-fiction park out of any unbound affinity for teaching guests about science, technology, history, or world culture. It built Epcot because it needed a second gate and it didn't have enough fictional IP in the late 1970s and early 1980s to fill it. Walt had passed away more than a decade earlier. The company's new animated films were not exactly busting blocks. Corporate raiders were circling.
So the company turned to a concept it knew well and that didn't require an expensive license from another studio — a world's fair. Walt and his Imagineers had created four hit attractions for the 1964 fair in New York and those Imagineers knew the template cold. But like with the original Disneyland in Anaheim, the company didn't have the money to build this park on its own, either. So Marty Sklar and his Imagineers went looking for corporate and international funding, getting it be designing business-friendly exhibits that made people feel good about the industries of the sponsoring companies: the Universe of Energy, the World of Motion, Listen to the Land.
And it worked. Epcot was a hit. Millions of fans crammed the park in its first years, swelling attendance at the Walt Disney World Resort and helping to ensure that the company could fend off the corporate raiders. A couple years later, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells came to Disney's rescue, and the company's renaissance began.
As the company developed more and more franchises and earned more and more money over the years, it continued to expand the Walt Disney World Resort, adding the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park (now Disney's Hollywood Studios) in 1989 and Disney's Animal Kingdom in 1998. Disney World today truly is the vacation kingdom of the world that it proclaimed itself to be at its start. And Disney made that happen, in part, because it took a chance and built a park even though it didn't have the IP or money to do that.
"If you dream it, you can do it," indeed.
This view should not lead you to infer that what Disney's Imagineers did with Epcot 1.0 was not genuine. It was brilliant. It inspired me and millions of other theme park fans around the world. Imagineer Joe Rohde on Instagram this morning honored Epcot by noting how it has influenced the development of the theme park industry since its opening. Love Pandora, or Diagon Alley, or Cars Land, or any of the deeply immersive themed lands that parks have created in the past decade? Their craftsmanship grew from what Disney did in its World Showcase pavilions, most notably with the absolutely brilliant (and woefully underrated and under-appreciated) Morocco pavilion.
In my opinion, the Morocco Pavilion is hands-down the most effective pavilion at World Showcase at Epcot. This is for two reasons. First it is spatially complex enough to absorb you into a multitude of intimate spaces which are immersive in 360 degrees of view. The macro-composition is very sophisticated. Second almost all the architectural detail was created by real Moroccan craftspeople working in place. The tile is really hand-laid right where you see it, and all that intricate plaster was hand cut by Moroccan plaster workers using traditional tools right where you see it. The Morocco pavilion was the design template for the Animal Kingdom. During our design phase, I would bring my team to World Showcase only and exclusively to look at the Morocco pavilion.
So why doesn't Disney keep doing what it had started with Epcot? Why did Disney add the Three Caballeros to the Mexico ride and Frozen to Norway? Why is it building Ratatouille in France and replacing the Universe of Energy with the Guardians of the Galaxy?
Because this is the lesson that Disney learned from Epcot — if you want to survive in the competitive world of business, you need to make big plays, just like Card Walker and Marty Sklar and everyone else at Disney did with Epcot 35 years ago. Disney has franchises that need more theme park presence now, instead of an empty theme park without the Disney IP to fill it. It has money to spend — more than $2 billion on its announced Epcot changes, by insider reports. It is time to make a play with them.
This is a different Walt Disney Company today. It is no longer the company that built Epcot. It is the company that Epcot helped build.
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