The Spirit of EPCOT

Early concept art of EPCOT Center — ©Disney

This will be the first in a three-part blog as a response to the 2017 D23 announcements for the future of Epcot. In this entry, I will be focusing primarily on the conception, application, and “spirit” of EPCOT. Disney Park fans are particularly protective about EPCOT. It was, after all, a passion project of Walt’s, and the last thing he ever worked on.

For the purpose of clarity, I use three formats for the term “EPCOT”:

  • EPCOT: refers to the proposed city, or the underlying concepts of the park from conception to opening
  • EPCOT Center: refers to the park and its attractions prior to its initial renaming as Epcot ’94
  • Epcot: refers to the park and its attractions since the ’94-’96 reimagining

Of course, as anyone educated in Disney history knows, Walt’s EPCOT was not another theme park. It was a city — an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was a place where people would live, work, and play; where leaders in every major and up-and-coming industry could show off their latest concepts and products. It was the basis for everything the Florida Project was going to be. I will spare you all the details, suffice to say that you can watch a high-definition restoration of Walt’s original promotional film on Retro WDW‘s YouTube channel here.

Needless to say, this version of EPCOT never happened. Walt died mere months after publicly announcing his plans for his futuristic city. When his brother Roy took up the reins of the Disney World Project, one of his first decisions was to postpone the building of EPCOT, and all its auxiliary facilities, until after the Magic Kingdom park was built, opened, and turned a sufficient profit, estimated to be about a decade later. Shortly after Roy opened Phase One of the newly renamed Walt Disney World, he retired. Unfortunately, like his younger brother, he died a few months later.

This left the of future EPCOT in the hands of the new President and later CEO of Walt Disney Productions, E. Cardon Walker, who decided that city planning and administrating was not something the Disney Company was prepared to do; and along with Walt’s son-in-law and Walker’s soon-to-be successor Ron Miller, altered the concept of EPCOT from a community to a park, the first “second gate” in theme park history. What did carry over, however, was Walt’s idea of EPCOT being a showcase of technology and culture. Two separate park concepts, one revolving around the evolution and applications of technology in our lives, and the other around the people, history, culture, and art of foreign nations, were eventually combined into one park, taking inspiration from the Worlds Fairs of the past century.

They decided on an old concept known colloquially as “edutainment”, wherein audiences are educated through a media that would usually be considered entertaining. Public television networks of the time were producing successful programs such as Mister Wizard’s World, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, and Sesame Street under this premise. More recently, ABC produced a series of animated music videos that taught science, history, grammar, and multiplication to young Saturday morning viewers with Schoolhouse Rock!. Even Walt Disney himself had several successful “edutainment” productions with his True Life Adventure series of nature films, his animated shorts promoting the U.S. space program, and Disneyland attractions such as Rocket to the Moon, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and the “after-Disney”, Monsanto-sponsored attraction, Adventures Thru Inner Space.

In fact, to get this park built and fill it with sufficient attractions, the struggling company needed financial help. Even before Inner Space, when Disney was developing some of his most famous attractions for the 1964-5 New York World’s Fair, the financial assistance he received helped develop the technology that made attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, the WEDWay PeopleMover, and The Hall of Presidents possible (among countless others). For the new EPCOT park, every Future World attraction and every World Showcase pavilion was paid for, at least in part, by sponsors in its respective field or nation.

The reason sponsorship worked was a symbiotic relationship. Disney attractions are places a lot of people from all over the world want to visit. By sponsoring one (or more) of these pavilions, a company gets their name out to guests who may have otherwise been unaware of them. They also have an opportunity to show off their latest and up-and-coming products within the pavilion. In exchange, the company pays to help Disney design and build the pavilion. And since it is the sponsor’s name and reputation on the attraction, and their money invested in it, they are permitted input in what the attraction is, and how the information is presented. Finally, Disney gets a pavilion at a subsidized cost to them, and they get to keep any ideas and characters and new technology that goes into it, even after sponsorship ends.

This is how the park ran for over a decade. Sponsors signed contracts promising they would pay a certain amount of money towards the production, operation, and maintenance of their pavilion for a predetermined amount of time, after which point they had the option to renew their contract if they wanted.

The first pavilion to lose its sponsor was The Land. Originally sponsored by Kraft Foods. Kraft was replaced by Nestlē the following day. Along with this change came major changes to attractions within. Kitchen Kabaret became Food Rocks, Listen to the Land became Living with the Land, and Symbiosis became Circle of Life, a similar film starring Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa from The Lion King.

The next sponsorless pavilion was the classic Omnimover attraction, Horizons. A little more than a year after General Electrics declined to renew their contract, the ride closed semi-permanently while Disney awaited a new sponsor and a new concept. (It temporarily reopened a year later as a placeholder while its neighboring pavilions were closed for lengthy refurbishments.)

Throughout the ’90s, every Future World and World Showcase pavilion either changed sponsors, saw major refurbs requested by its sponsor, or lost sponsors entirely and either closed or operated out of Disney’s own pocket. A decade later, the process repeated itself. Of the seven Future World pavilions from opening day, none are currently sponsored by their original company (although Test Track is sponsored by Chevrolet, a division of the transportation pavilion’s original sponsor, General Motors). Most of the attractions have been completely replaced at the request of their sponsor, and three have closed completely due to lack or change of sponsor. As for World Showcase, most do not have a sponsor at all anymore.

The reason for Epcot’s sponsorship woes are a culmination of cultural changes, not the least of which being the Internet. From the ’60s to the ’90s, Disney could use their worldwide recognition and appeal to attract sponsors looking for new and more diverse customers. When the World Wide Web opened to the public, businesses only needed a dot-com to get their message out to potential customers around the globe. Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars to scrape a little profit off of Disney’s success, they can invest a fraction of that money into an Internet-based promotion that benefits them directly.

Modern-day Epcot faces another major hurdle besides sponsorship. As I previously mentioned, EPCOT Center was built on the concept of edutainment. When the park was conceptualized, the most prominent sources of education were schools, libraries, and museums. For education to be entertaining and child-friendly was still a novel concept.

Again, in the early-’80s, there was no Internet. Most households only had access to a handful of locally broadcast television channels: NBC, CBS, ABC, maybe a PBS network, and in rare cases a few public access or UHF stations. At-home options for edutainment were extremely limited. EPCOT Center was something most people had never experienced, and the tangibility of it was entirely new.

We now have literally hundreds of television channels, millions of websites, and almost every major city has a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! or WonderWorks, or some other form of interactive museum. Adults seeking educational entertainment now only have to tune into The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, The Travel Channel, The Learning Channel, or any of their various spin-off networks. Sesame Street paved the way for countless children’s edutainment programs, like 3-2-1 Contact, Square One TV, Beakman’s World, Bill Nye: The Science Guy, Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer, and even Disney’s own Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Between PBS, Nickelodeon, Disney, and several others, there are just as many network options for children.

Edutainment is everywhere. We have EPCOT Center, in part, to thank for that. But it is the ubiquity of edutainment in the media that has been slowly driving nails into Epcot’s coffin since the mid-’90s. Whereas 30 years ago, EPCOT Center was the best place to learn with your family while still having fun, nowadays there are any number of ways to have the same experience at home. EPCOT as a concept is no longer unique.

To the Imagineers’ credit, they have tried, and continue to try, to innovate new ways to engage the guests while remaining informative. There have been hits (Test Track, Ellen’s Energy Adventure), and misses (Food Rocks, Journey into YOUR Imagination), and a few that maybe leaned a little more heavily on the “edu-” than the “-tainment” (Spaceship Earth, Living with the Land), and vice versa (Soarin’, Mission: Space). But through the many years of refurbishments and replacements, everything has always managed to feel like EPCOT, even if only in part.

So what does all of this mean for the future of Epcot? That is what we will continue looking at in part two.