Celebrating the 35th anniversary of the park that changed Disney - Epcot

October 1, 2017, 9:01 AM · LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Walt Disney World Resort today celebrated the 35th anniversary of Disney's most unique theme park — Epcot.

This morning's 35th anniversary ceremony. Skip to 14:20 for a medley of classic Epcot songs from The Voices of Liberty.

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.

Disney's pre-opening promotional video for EPCOT Center

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.

A post shared by Joe Rohde (@joerohde) on

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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Replies (22)

October 1, 2017 at 1:03 PM

We had a great time at the park today and enjoyed the celebration. We didn't see you there but then it was crowded.

October 1, 2017 at 1:27 PM

First, thanks for the props to Morocco, that place is just beautiful to look at.

I grew up in the prime era of EPCOT. I adore Horizons, World of Motion, Imagination, all of it. I miss it. I miss the original versions, I miss the inventiness, the freedom from "pure Disney" and such, I loved it badly and miss it.

But I also understand times change and tastes change. My niece and nephews look at the old videos of those rides and talk of how they look "fake and dull." Sadly, it's a different generation not into that old style. I do wish it was different as the classic EPCOT was something special. But I recognize how things are and love how you summarize it all.

A great line from a blog I saw is how Disney purists want the parks (like EPCOT) to be "the Beast's rose, forever protected under a glass case. Ignoring how the point is that under that case, the rose wilts and dies." Do I dislike more IP presence in Epcot? Yes. But as you wonderfully summarized, it's a different time and Disney has to be competitive to stand up today.

Let's face it: If any park was MEANT to be evolving and changing, it's EPCOT. This is a beautiful article and that line on how EPCOT helped boost the Disney company today is a brilliant note. I love an article that doesn't trash Disney for ignoring the original park but knowing change is needed. I love the old EPCOT with my heart and soul but then, I'm sure there are Disneyland purists who wish the park was just like it was in the 1960s and '70s.

For me, I look forward to what is coming in the future. And that's what EPCOT has always been about.

October 1, 2017 at 1:29 PM

As always, your EPCOT articles are some of my favorite on the entire site. I am glad that somebody is able to accurately articulate what many of us feel about EPCOT.

In this day and age, it seems like anti-intellectualism is creeping into our politics and culture. I was just reading Scientific American and they just released their "State of Science" issue. In short, they do not look too optimistic about the future with the current administration and Brexit to name a few things. This is why EPCOT is important.

Not surprising, guests want to get away from the real world. They want to travel to Pandora or Hogwarts to leave their worries behind. This is the genius of Disneyland. However, Harry Potter isn't going to save us nor Spiderman or the Terminator. We all, together, need to make the world a better place and I think EPCOT has the tools.

Does EPCOT need a bit of a refresh, of course, but EPCOT provides the tools to understand how to grow food (The Land) or what goes into Space Travel (Mission Space) and even how we got to where we are now (Spaceship Earth). World Showcase provides a glimpse of faraway lands that up until recently, were out of the budget or imagination of some guests. The typical steriotype of the American is that we know nothing about other cultures. EPCOT helps to fix that. Is it perfect? No, but it gives better understanding of African/Middle East, Europeans, and Asians. Heck, even when it became a huge booze area, it still gives a unifying theme: celebration. Whether is is clinking a stein in Germany or doing a tequila shot in Mexico, countries have their celebratory drinks and customs. Where else can you be exposed to so much in such little time?

I certainly do not have a problem with Disney characters or IP at EPCOT...where it makes sense. Nemo works at the Seas because he is a fish showing you, well, fish. You even learn a little kN-ow-ledge from the Crush man about Sea Turtles. However, what do you learn about Norway from Frozen? This is why I fear Guardians of the Galaxy. It is great IP, but can they make a point?

Happy Birthday to EPCOT. I hope that your soul is not sold because Disney got the hiccups due to Universal.

October 1, 2017 at 1:32 PM

By the way, I am not sure why Disney believes they are falling behind with EPCOT. The park is always busy and offers something different for guests than just characters and princess. EPCOT ranks like 3rd in the country for attendance. It is only behind Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. If anybody is cutting into EPCOT's sales, its the other three parks!

Also, this is Disney. They still call the shots in FL.

October 1, 2017 at 2:29 PM

Great points, Anthony. I was a bit thrown at the Nemo overlay at Seas but yeah, that makes total sense and it does encourage kids more (Turtle Talk remains a gem). I was bugged at Frozen at Norway, still am, despite how fun the ride itself is. And I actually always liked Energy so annoyed they lost that as not sure how GOTG works (if anything, that property would be themed for space).

I guess like so many, I'm influenced by how I was there for the classic 1980s/90s EPCOT and thus a deep love that the newer generation doesn't get.

October 1, 2017 at 3:07 PM

As I said in my experiences, I was prepared to hate EPCOT. Perhaps its even fair to say that I wanted to hate it. Its not Walt's vision at all... The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow seems sadly to be long forgotten, with Epoct just being another meaningless word like Superkalafriskiatedexpiadadotious"

But despite it being in its current seemingly unloved state (and I base that on there being empty prime real estate - Innoventions), Future world did positively change my view of what a Theme Park could be. The Pavilions are perfect for the Florida climate (a great place to get out of the "Punch you in the face" humidity and the regular-as-clockwork showers) - I think its a shame that others haven't taken that model and run with it (maybe make em a bit bigger to include a few extra attractions).

October 1, 2017 at 3:40 PM

Its a shame Epcot is becoming just another Disney theme park. Even though it was very different than what Walt envisioned, opening day Epcot still tried to honor Walt's vision. In an effort to raise attendance, that vision is being abandoned in favor of being merely a variation of the Magic Kingdom. Which is too bad. There once was a time when each of Disney World's theme parks had their own identities. Not anymore. Disney has decided to do what is the easiest and safest bet. I'm sure the changes won't be had, but they will be nowhere near as good as Disney when it was willing to take risks. At one time, Disney was all about doing things in a way nobody else was doing them. But the people in charge of making sure Disney's profits grow like clockwork don't want to do anything that isn't a guaranteed success. There would not be a single Disney theme park if the company was managed this way when Walt was alive. Disneyland would have been put on the shelf by the skeptics that thought Disneyland would have been a failure.

October 1, 2017 at 4:13 PM

From a classic perspective, EPCOT is GREAT!

From a MODERN themepark attraction perspective, EPCOT SUCKS!

Don’t believe me, try to engage children outside of Frozen or Test Track. Try to convince parents with bored kids that World Showcase is worth it WITH CHILDREN.

BOTTOM LINE: EPCOT is dated. Even adults will tell you that.

WDW is doing the right thing... ELIMINATING SCREENS!

October 1, 2017 at 5:16 PM

Happy EPCOT Day!

October 1, 2017 at 6:49 PM

I went last night. It rained all evening, but that didn't dampen the mood! Still love EPCOT, though I think it'll be that much better once the new installations are made.

October 1, 2017 at 8:13 PM

“So why doesn't Disney keep doing what it had started with Epcot?”

Makes me wonder why didn’t they take the IP approach to the recent makeovers of Space and Test Track. Epcot’s attendance was flat and it was clear Animal Kingdom and DHS was catching up. The festivals are no longer gimmicks and are spreading to other Disney Parks. This makes me want to trash DHS for putting back California into Hollywood. It’s as if the Left side is not talking to the Right side. If there’s a master plan, it’s being improvised.

October 2, 2017 at 5:11 AM

Doesn't Disney have enough land that they could build an additional park with these IPs, rather than screw up the beautiful thing that is EPCOT?

October 2, 2017 at 5:44 AM

A few years back, I took someone who had never been to a Disney park before to WDW for the first time. Now I have known them for many years and they have heard me talk about Epcot...Epcot.....Epcot.....

Epcot is the reason I love Disney and I was a teenager in the late 80s. For perspective, this person is in my same age bracket and was highly unimpressed with today's Epcot. After our full day's adventure at the park, she said "so what's so great about Epcot??? Your hype did not deliver." Well...pull my heart directly out of my chest and smash it on the sidewalk. Then run over it with a parade float just for good measure. The reality that I had tried to block out for the past 20 years had truly sunk in. This wasn't "MY" Epcot....and it never would be again.

A part of me died that trip and I certainly don't look at the park the same way I did when I held it in such high regards. Yet like everyone else on this forum, I get it. Do I want to get it?? NO! But it is what it is. Sure I will continue to visit but that One Little Spark has been extinguished.

October 2, 2017 at 8:15 AM

To the most unique theme park of them all, Happy 35th! I am not a supporter of its uniqueness being diluted with the latest planned iteration but times change, both the heightened competition of the theme park market in Orlando and the paying public's expectations since 1982. So for the last 35 years, I raise a glass.....and to the next 35, I raise two!

October 2, 2017 at 9:31 AM

I'm probably the only Disney fan that's not afraid to say it: Walt's original idea of Epcot would have been a huge waste of time and money and probably an embarrassment for the company. Reedy Creek works well because it has no (real) residents and Celebration was a mess for the company and a huge waste of time and money (any exec at the time will tell you that). Epcot was much better off being a theme park where Disney has 100% control over everything and no pesky residents.

October 2, 2017 at 5:32 PM

If that's what you think about the original idea of EPCOT, then it's obvious that you don't know much about the original idea. I'm not an expert but I have read enough to know that the original plans for EPCOT would not have let anyone actually own property, which would have allowed complete control over the community to remain with Disney. I lament the changes at Epcot as well, but perhaps for different reasons than others. I have no issues with the inclusion of IP, but I really miss the Innovations pavilion and all of the amazing new technology that was showcased there. But we're in a different time now, and many of the technologies that used to be in Innovations are actually easily available. Also everyone in the country is walking around with the entire Internet in their pockets, so a physical space to showcase technology that includes an entrance fee isn't as appealing as it used to be. Couple that with the science denial that we seem to be living through and the original model of Epcot didn't have a chance.

October 3, 2017 at 12:05 AM

I loved EPCOT Center, I liked EPCOT and I hate Epcot.
Man has that park and it's reworked rides went downhill.

It's true, the new company has nothing to do with Disney. It needs to make money every single inch of the park. Every ride should be an IP with huge sales from the exit store and synergy for the next movie or spin off.
No more Figment (except as a commercial exploit for the nostalgia line of products). If the park to was to continue with it's original theme then it should be updated at least every 10 years and no investor nor Disney wants that. It's beyond me why they still claim the "unique" aspect of Epcot will stay intact. What educational value has Frozen in Norway? What about Remi in France? Nothing and it makes the park a lie or at least a confusing theme. But it's probably the best Disney Imagineering can do these days.

October 3, 2017 at 9:01 AM


I was just at Universal Orlando and was SHOCKED how a classic Universal Pictures IP was replaced by a licensed Warner Bros. IP. I was further SHOCKED by the square footage dedicated to retail. As OT correctly says, Universal is seeking, “huge sales from the exit store”!

And, recently I was SHOCKED to learn a unique dueling coaster concept will be replaced by more licensed Warner Bros. IP. As OT correctly says, more “synergy for the next movie or spin off”!

October 3, 2017 at 5:51 PM

Disney has such vast amounts of land, but they lock themselves into 4 parks. Why? Why not use some of that land to build new parks with these IP's? I can imagine an entire Frozen land!

The only reason I can think is that they are being cheap. Cheaping out by destroying the core value of Epcot. Also, Avatar doesn't belong in Animal Kingdom -- it belongs in Hollywood Studios.

Way to be cheap, Disney.

October 3, 2017 at 5:51 PM

Disney has such vast amounts of land, but they lock themselves into 4 parks. Why? Why not use some of that land to build new parks with these IP's? I can imagine an entire Frozen land!

The only reason I can think is that they are being cheap. Cheaping out by destroying the core value of Epcot. Also, Avatar doesn't belong in Animal Kingdom -- it belongs in Hollywood Studios.

Way to be cheap, Disney.

October 3, 2017 at 6:35 PM

/\ Economics. Building another park at this point would probably cannibalize their own business, meaning for most people they would go to that park at the expense of another park instead of going to all of them. I think at some point Disney will build a 5th park in Florida, but the demographics need to support it. If international tourism became more stable (with more visa-waiver countries) that would help a lot. I know historically Disney has lobbied a lot for this, but with the terrorism and what-not going on these days that's probably not something Washington will get behind at this point. Also the middle class has shrunken a lot in the past couple decades which is alarming for Disney, the editor of this site wrote a pretty good article about why there are so many upcharges now and prices going up.

Also building Frozen and Rat at Epcot makes sense because people with kids may not go to Epcot without having familiar kid-friendly IP attractions. It doesn't mean Epcot is ruined or anything, it's just good business.

October 4, 2017 at 5:52 AM

@DBCooper - A 5th gate is not as "cheap" as you would think. In addition to the initial $2+ billion investment needed to construct the park, they would then need to staff and maintain the park. Let's face it, Disney has been having a hard enough time making sure there's enough stuff to do in their 4 current parks, so building a 5th park would only dilute their own product. Plus, with 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, and Disney Springs (along with golf, water sports, and other smaller attractions), the 4-park model is just about perfect for a typical week-long vacation. A 5th park would disrupt that model that has proved to be very effective, particularly in ensuring on-site hotel bookings. Until the 4 existing parks are all full-day, plus parks, even during slow times of year (if there is such a thing anymore), Disney would be foolish to invest in a 5th park that would undoubtedly undercut their existing business.

Having not seen it yet, I think the concept of Avatar works perfect for DAK. It's a twist on the original Beastly Kingdom concept, and while the original IP has faded somewhat since the original movie's release, upcoming sequels ensure that it will maintain popularity at least through the next decade. I can see the argument that it could also fit in DHS, but being such a small park and the SW Land on the way, I think it was wise to place Avatar in DAK.

I'm definitely not a fan of putting Pixar and Disney animated IPs in EPCOT, but if it helps to stabilize attendance at the park, then it's certainly worth it. Parents have always had trouble getting smaller kids to relate to the ideas of the World Showcase, and if these IPs help do that in a logical and realistic way, then I can accept it.

I'm a little more leery about Guardians, but willing to take a wait and see approach since it was clear Energy needed a serious update.

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