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What Is EPCOT, Anyway?

EPCOT. Epcot. EPCOT Center. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Walt Disney World‘s “second gate,” EPCOT, has been many things – and had many names – over the course of its 40-year existence, ranging from a plan for an actual city through to a theme park, a “permanent world’s fair,” a source of edutainment, and a place where Every Person Comes Out Tired. Which begs the question – what IS EPCOT?

More than any other Disney Park – with the possible exception of Disney’s California Adventure – EPCOT has changed its focus, purpose, and target audience over the years, a constant work-in-progress that is still finding itself four decades on.

RELATED: EPCOT Is Getting a New Disney Park Experience

Pre-1966 – A vision of tomorrow

I don’t believe there’s a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities. But where do we begin; how do we start answering this great challenge?

We don’t presume to know all the answers. In fact, we’re counting on the cooperation of American industry to provide their best thinking during the planning and creation of our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

So that’s what Epcot is: an experimental prototype community that will always be in a state of becoming. It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future.

These words – spoken by Walt Disney himself in a film made in the fall of 1966, just months before his death – proved to be prophetic when it came to the way EPCOT has evolved over the years since it was planned and built.

As Walt originally envisioned EPCOT, it was something quite far away from the theme park it would someday be. As the cornerstone of his Disney “Florida Project” – which would eventually become the Walt Disney World Resort – EPCOT was one of the two main impetuses for Walt to want to open an east coast Resort (the second being, of course, to bring in tourist money from Americans living east of the Mississippi).

Walt Disney Disneyland Opening Day

Credit: Disney

RELATED: More EPCOT Expansion Is on the Way

Having created an (at the time) much-lauded piece of urban planning in California’s Disneyland, Walt wanted to expand his reach and build an actual urban space where people lived, worked, and played. The theme park part of Disney World – what we now know as the Magic Kingdom – was largely intended to fund this massive urban project. Scholar Priscilla Hobbs explains this development in her book Walt’s Utopia: Disneyland and American Mythmaking:

With Disneyland, [Walt] implemented the vision of ideal mythscape, but quickly became disheartened when seedy hotels plagued the area surrounding the park. When he bought the land in Florida, he purchased enough land to help him fully actualize his utopian dream. In the 1966 promotional film, EPCOT, Walt presents plans for his utopia. Borrowing from the image of a wagon wheel, EPCOT was designed with the commercial center in the middle, with residential districts radiating off like spokes. Trash and traffic were kept away from the main view of the people with the intent of promoting safety and recreation, especially for children. Monorails and WEDWay People Movers would transport residents to and from school or work in the center or in the adjacent industrial area. His plans suggested a fully self-sustainable, eco-friendly, community-centered environment.

While we may think of EPCOT as a symbol of optimistic futurism within a theme park milieu, in another world we might simply be talking about it as a planned community our friends moved to after college.

In this world, however, Walt Disney died in 1966, and with him went this original vision of EPCOT.

1966-1982 – A theme park emerges

After Walt’s death, his brother Roy took over the company just long enough to oversee the completion and opening of Disney World, which Roy renamed Walt Disney World in his brother’s honor. However, when the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, there was no community – experimental, prototypical, or any other kind – that opened along with it.

Walt and Roy Disney

Walt & Roy (Credit: Disney)

RELATED: Disney Just Released The Recipe For This Delicious EPCOT Dessert

This was because the original “urban utopia” version of EPCOT was such a personal vision that it wasn’t something the Walt Disney Company wanted to invest in without Walt himself at the helm. Instead, they decided to move forward with a kind of compromise vision of EPCOT that, while explicitly a theme park, was themed around the concept of utopian futurism. When it opened in 1982 as EPCOT Center (its official title until 1994), this new Disney Park took a new and unique approach that was wildly different to either Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom.

1982 – 1994 – A world’s fair for the ages

To express Walt’s utopian vision in this new form, the original EPCOT Center (as it was known until 1994) was divided by the Disney Imagineers into two halves – “Future World,” featuring various pavilions dedicated to the history, present, and future of specific aspects of technology (such as Spaceship Earth‘s focus on communication and World of Energy’s focus on, well, energy), and “World Showcase,” consisting of pavilions themed to various nations and sponsored by either the countries themselves or by private companies affiliated with those countries.

As Marty Sklar, the long-time head of Walt Disney Imagineering, explained in Walt Disney‘s EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow (the celebratory book published when EPCOT opened), this was a theme park with a utopian inspiration. Although the Magic Kingdom had been successfully operating for over a decade,

What was lacking was a public focus for new ideas and concepts, a “center” for the communication of new possibilities for the future-directly to the public. To answer this need, we are developing Epcot Center: a permanent world’s fair of imagination, discovery, education, and exploration that combines the Disney entertainment and communications skills with the knowledge and predictions for the future of authorities from industry, the academic world, and the professions. Our goal is to inspire the visitors who come here, so that they will be turned on to the positive potential of the future and will want to participate in making the choices that will shape it.

With a focus on education and inspiration, though, what the original EPCOT Center was lacking in was fun. While the Magic Kingdom remained a realm of whimsy and magic for children and their parents, EPCOT Center appealed to an older audience. Except for the Imagination pavilion, with its whimsical mascot Figment, the Future World rides – even the iconic Spaceship Earth – put pedagogy front and center, while World’s Showcase was home to more films, restaurants, and shops than rides that would appeal to children.

france-pavilion-epcot

Credit: Pinterest

EPCOT Center had its many die-hard fans, however, and it was a huge success in its first decade or so of life. However, by the mid-90s, Disney was reminded of a lesson they had already learned with Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom‘s Tomorrowland – though magic, whimsy, adventure, and historical themes may be timeless, our visions of the future become thoroughly dated shockingly soon. What’s more, even the Kidcot Fun Stops couldn’t make World Showcase appealing to young kids.

RELATED: The History of That Lovable Fellow, Figment

1994 – 2016 – A festival center

By 1994, most of the Future World attractions were in dire need of updates, if not entire redesigns. While this process slowly transpired over the next several years, Disney introduced a new concept to EPCOT that would at least keep Guests coming through the gates – the EPCOT festival season(s).

In 1994 and 1995, respectively, EPCOT held its first International Flower & Garden Festival and International Food & Wine Festival, seasonal events meant to appeal to Florida locals as much as to the tourist trade that makes up the bulk of Walt Disney World‘s patrons. However, turning a billion-dollar theme park into a place for a garden festival and a food & wine festival for a local audience is ultimately only a stopgap measure, and Disney realized that EPCOT was going to require permanent changes.

RELATED: Is the Rest of EPCOT’s Overhaul Still Happening?

2017-Present/Future – An evolving brand

In 2016, those changes began in earnest, as one of the two rides in World Showcase – Norway’s Maelstrom dark ride, which had closed in 2014 – was replaced with Frozen Ever After, themed to the popular animated film Frozen. Along with this new ride came the inescapable conclusion that Disney IP was coming to EPCOT in earnest.

For three decades, Disney has resisted adding its characters and films to EPCOT; in fact, for many years, no Disney characters (except for Figment, as an original creation for the park) would even appear at EPCOT. Though this restriction slowly loosened over the years, it wasn’t until 2006 that an attraction themed to a (non-original) Disney character or movie opened with the retheming of The Living Seas as The Seas with Nemo & Friends. Shortly thereafter, in 2007, World Showcase‘s other ride, Mexico’s El Rio del Tiempo, was updated to the Donald Duck-starring Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros, though these changes were milder compared to Maelstrom’s later transition into Frozen Ever After.

In 2017, though, Disney made the IP infusion official, announcing that EPCOT would be undergoing a multi-year redesign and expansion that would include Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and Remys Ratatouille Adventure. Following up on this, during 2019’s D23 Expo the biggest change to EPCOT, ever, was announced, just in time for Disney World‘s 50th anniversary – Future World would cease to be, replaced with three new “neighborhoods” called World Celebration, World Discovery, and World Nature.

EPCOT-four-neighborhoods

Credit: Disney / Clipart

RELATED: Final Goodbyes to EPCOT’s Iconic Future World

This cleared the path for a move away from Walt’s original futurist utopianism and into a more traditional theme park that could comfortably house a variety of attractions based on Disney’s intellectual property (much like Disney’s Animal Kingdom has used different lands to fit IP within the overarching theme of conservation).

That’s where EPCOT stands at the moment, but if one thing is clear, this “community of tomorrow” is constantly on the move, and so are the Walt Disney Company‘s plans for it. So what is EPCOT, and what will it become? Will World Celebration, World Discovery, and World Nature survive as long as Future World did?

Will Disney IP suffuse the park, including such mainstays as Spaceship Earth, with more thrill rides like Cosmic Rewind? Or will the pedagogical bent make an unexpected turn? That might be something that only tomorrow’s child will discover.

About Andrew Friedenthal