The History of EPCOT’s Horizons

Like Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom and the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom, Spaceship Earth is the icon for Walt Disney World‘s EPCOT. But when we talk about it as an icon we usually just mean the immense geodesic dome that many a Guest has confused for a giant golf ball.

The ride inside that dome, though, is less representative of the entire EPCOT project (as initially conceived, at least) than the structure and name – standing in for a view of the world where all of us are crew members on “Spaceship Earth,” and thus need to work together to ensure the survival of all our crewmates – might imply it to be. Yes, that ride is a beloved and iconic EPCOT institution, but ultimately it’s “just” a history of human communication, focusing on one aspect of science and technology, much like The Land focuses on agriculture and The Living Seas (now The Seas with Nemo & Friends) focuses on oceanic exploration.

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But is there an attraction that sums up the entirety of EPCOT’s hope for a brighter tomorrow? One ride that tells the story of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow? Is it Journey Into Imagination? Soarin’? Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind?

None of the above, actually. EPCOT’s “thesis statement,” if you will, came in the form of a ride that opened a year after the Park itself, and thus benefited from the full focus of the team of Imagineers who put together Walt Disney World‘s second gate.

That ride? The much beloved, and sadly long extinct dark ride attraction, Horizons.

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If We Can Dream It, Then We Can Do It

The original 1980s iteration of EPCOT was a bit different than the IP-infused theme park we see today. Most of the attractions at opening were presentational in nature, resembling the kind of thing you’d see at a World‘s Fair more than an amusement park. However, despite being didactic or pedagogical in nature, the rides in Future World were still filled with the wit, whimsy, and magic of Walt Disney Imagineering (today, Spaceship Earth and Living with the Land are really the last remnants in the Park of that initial style).

When Horizons – designed by Disney Imagineer George McGinnis – opened in a year after the rest of the park in 1983, it was the crown jewel of that sort of attraction. Combining giant Omnimax theaters, a revolutionary choose-your-own ending mechanic, and intricate sets full of unique and life-like (at least for the time) animatronics, Horizons was focused on the world to come, in which all the technologies explored elsewhere in Future World were synthesized into one unique vision of tomorrow.

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As writer Richard Beard explained in Walt Disney‘s EPCOT: Creating the New World of Tomorrow (the official Disney publication celebrating EPCOT’s opening),

Horizons is really a synthesis of everything in Future World, presenting elements of transportation, energy, food, communications, seas, all operating together to provide a better life for the people of the future.

Epcot Center‘s vision of the future is neither far-fetched nor forbidding. Significantly, it focuses less on technology than on a historically enduring social unit: the family. Rather than emphasizing the inevitable development and perfection of incredibly sophisticated machines of the future, Horizons concentrates on the purpose of the machines. And the purpose is us: how can our lives be enhanced by the future technology?

It may come as no surprise that the sponsor of EPCOT’s Horizons pavilion, General Electric, had a major financial stake in enhancing that future via technology. The attraction‘s slogan – “If we can dream it, then we can do it.” – was in fact borrowed from previous G.E. promotional campaigns, though it’s such a good quote that it has often since been wrongly attributed to Walt Disney himself.

Tomorrow’s Child

So, what was the actual experience of this vision of tomorrow’s horizons?

Guests began their ride to the future by getting into a four-person omnimover vehicle that crawled along a back wall and kept them always looking forward. In the first section, they were treated to a vision of the future as imagined by scientists and writers of the past (particularly science fiction writer Jules Vern). This was a whacky, whimsical look at a world where robots cut our hair in our living rooms while flying cars go by outside our window.

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After getting this look at the past’s take on the future, Guests moved into the two giant Omnimax theaters that engulfed them in video clips showing the cutting-edge of 1980s science, from space exploration, to crystal growth, to unraveling the mystery of DNA.

Following this, the ride vehicle moves on to the centerpiece of Horizons – the view of the future presented by Disney and G.E., featuring a more “realistic” take on how the robotic and computer revolutions might change the world. The heart of this world is one human family, who bear more than a little resemblance to the one seen on Walt Disney‘s Carousel of Progress (and, in fact, many Guests and commentators would come to view Horizons as the sequel to the Carousel of Progress). This extended family lives in four different environments – Nova Cite, an urban utopia; a terraformed desert, called Mesa Verde; an underwater sea base, known as Sea Castle; and the Brava Centauri satellite in outer space.

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This part of the ride features the bulk of the animatronics and show scenes (including a video screen cameo by show writer, and is one of the two aspects for which Horizons is most remembered. The other memorable sequence is what comes next.

After visiting the space station – where we see the entire family united for a birthday party via holographic video conferencing – Guests are given a choice of how they wish to return to the present. Based on a simple majority rules algorithm, the members of each vehicle could choose to end their experience on a ride over land from Mesa Verde, under the water from Sea Castle, or through outer space from Brava Centauri. Each choice led to a projection of a scene created using intricate models and camerawork, which served as the ride’s finale.

Reaching the Horizon Line

No matter how important Horizons may have been to the expression of EPCOT’s purpose, it still relied on a great deal of money to keep the expensive animatronic showpieces running. When G.E. pulled its sponsorship in 1993, Horizons’ days were instantly numbered. The attraction limped along for several years, closing and re-opening a few times, before the Walt Disney Company shuttered it for good in January of 1999.

A year later, the entire building was torn down to make way for Mission: Space, an attraction focused – like the rest of Future World – on one aspect of technology (space exploration) and not a synthesis of the future.

Credit: Disney Parks Blog

Looking back, Horizon’s death was in many ways the end of that first EPCOT era. With new attractions like Mission: Space and Test Track focusing on thrill over education, and IP-based revisions to the Living Seas and El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexican pavilion, the writing was on the wall in the early 2000s that EPCOT was changing.

For those who remember those initial two decades of operation, though, the original vision of EPCOT will always be embodied in Horizons, an attraction that reminded us that if we had the ability to dream of a better tomorrow, then we also had the ability to create it.

About Andrew Friedenthal