Envisioning The Future Of EPCOT: The Reasons EPCOT's Best Days Are Yet To Come
When Epcot opened in 1982, it was at the cutting edge of theme park design. Two portions of the park, originally concepts for two separate parks, had come together to create the highly anticipated Epcot Center. Made up of Future World and World Showcase, the park would serve not only as an inspiring family entertainment area with revolutionary ideas about the future, but also as a cultural exchange in which guests could interact with people from all over the world in settings mimicking different nations.
As the park's attractions and landscapes have changed over time, it is not surprising for us to wonder whether the park is currently remaining true to its original purpose. True, Epcot's purpose when the initial idea was conceived was to serve as an actual, functioning city, an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Even without considering how much of the original city concept made its way into the theme park version of Epcot, it is worth deciphering whether or not the park does fulfill its original mission today.
In a dedication speech for Epcot on October 24, 1982, Card Walker (then CEO of the company) stated:
"To all who come to this place of joy, hope and friendship, welcome.
Epcot Center is inspired by Walt Disney's creative genius. Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, the wonders of enterprise, and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all.
May Epcot Center entertain, inform and inspire. And, above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere."
Today, guests visiting Epcot can still read this portion of the dedication speech, as it is engraved on a plaque just before the turnstiles at the entrance to Future World. The simple fact that the plaque bearing these lines from a dedication speech exemplifies the official purpose of the park: to entertain, but also to celebrate different cultures around the world and concepts for the future. Part of presenting futuristic concepts to the public is understandably restating a brief history of the past. This effort of presenting history before showcasing the future can be seen in a number of Epcot attractions, however in interpreting the intent of Epcot as a theme park, it is important to understand that the past we are talking about here refers to past ideas, and thinking, rather than our own visions of nostalgia. As much as we all value the nostalgia, it is important that those ideas do not inhibit us from developing deep understandings of the current state of Epcot.
At the center of Future World stands Spaceship Earth, a 180 ft tall geodesic sphere which houses an omnimover-style attraction in which guests travel through the history of human communication. As far as fulfilling the desire for Future World to be a place where guests could be inspired to look towards future innovations to better improve their societies, Spaceship Earth is and has always been right on the money.
This attraction traces the history of communication from cave paintings, through the renaissance, and into the future. While many Disney fans, myself included, might show some disappointment in the current version of the ride (where the descent no longer features scenes from an imagined future, but rather an interactive cartoon featuring guests in the ride vehicles) it would be wrong to say that the ride does not add to the park's mission. If Card Walker wanted to see an Epcot that would "entertain, inform, and inspire" Spaceship Earth should provide an outlet for guests in all three of these areas.
The post-show area of Spaceship Earth, originally known as Earth Station, has become slightly less futuristic in recent years, although one might still argue that the futuristic aspects of the attraction do still make it to the final room. When the park opened in 1982, Earth Station was essentially Epcot's Guest Relations area. Guests had the ability to speak to Disney cast members through video screens, similar to today's Skype or Snapchat. While we all have the ability of pulling out our smartphones and performing this same task today with ease, in 1982, communicating via video was not something that the average person regularly experienced. Earth Station allowed guests to use the resources they needed, asking questions, and making dining reservations, without having to pick up a landline phone or walk to Guest Relations.
Today, most guests who leave Spaceship Earth walk right through the post-show area, back to the rest of the park. Of course, they are missing the post-show, which consists of a massive sphere-shaped screen showing where all of the guests who have ridden the attraction are from, as well as other interactive exhibits. If you remember Earth Station, you might feel as though the old version of the post-show fulfilled the park's futuristic theme better than the current post-show does, however this is not necessarily true.
A person talking on a video screen in 1982 might have caught your attention easier than the slightly more off-putting interactive exhibits that exist today, however in both cases, the guest needed to take the initiative to learn about the future. As available technology changes in terms of theme park attractions, so do the ways that guests react to being placed in a futuristic environment.
Take for instance Test Track. Before there was Test Track there was World of Motion, an attraction occupying the same space that exhibited the history and future of transportation. Like Spaceship Earth, World of Motion pursued another common theme of Future World—using the past to better explain and inspire guests to look toward the future. In 1982, the building where World of Motion was housed was of a futuristic design in itself. Guests might not think much of a large circular building in a theme park today, but in the early 1980s this architecture was jarring compared to most structures, and definitely gave off a futuristic vibe.
The end of World of Motion would hint at what was to come later with Test Track, as guests would not only see futuristic transportation designs, but they would also see a detailed breakdown of what would go into designing and building them. The original incarnation of Test Track featured more of an increase in ride technology than in theme, a feature that might lead us to believe that this attraction was straying away from what Card Walker had mentioned during the dedication speeches. Where Test Track during its opening years gave guests a behind the scenes look at what goes into testing vehicles before they are allowed to be sold on an American market, the ride technology is what took the more futuristic role. In such, Test Track would become the longest, and fastest ride at Walt Disney World, fulfilling guest expectations for more thrill rides, which Epcot was harshly criticized for its lack of in the early years.
Today's version of Test Track has reverted back to the ideas presented in World of Motion, and in other early Epcot concepts. The ride technology has not changed all too much. Of course, the ride does look different, and might be more reminiscent of "Tron," than of the original Test Track attraction, but the way the ride functions is essentially the same except for the theme. Rather than simply showing guests what goes into the safety testing of cars, the attraction now allows guests to design their own cars of the future.
Test Track is basically forcing guests to do what they've recently moved away from doing while at theme parks: learning. There is a huge difference between enjoying Test Track because you like fast rides, and enjoying it because you learned something about how to make a car more powerful, or energy efficient, AND you were able to test out this design in a fun, high-speed thrill ride. In general, guests are becoming increasingly disinterested in learning-based theme park attractions. This is evident through the struggles museums deal with almost every day. As someone who has worked in multiple museums, I have firsthand experiences of seeing guests leave a museum with disappointment because there were no videos or costumed reenactors giving them information they still could have gotten from a less interactive exhibit.
Theme parks are beginning to have the same problems. When the ride technology wasn't there to create something like Test Track, more guests were interested in sitting down for a show,, or participating in an exhibit that would teach them about the future. Like many guests, I love thrill rides, but I also feel that it is unfortunate that the very technology that has on the whole made for a better theme park experience, has also let some of the most interesting aspects of Future World fall to the wayside.
When I hear someone say that Future World is no longer futuristic, I have to really think about how Disney has adapted the theme park to meet the changing expectations of guests, and only judge it from there. Assuming guests are more likely to prefer a ride attraction over anything where they need to initiate the learning for themselves, it makes sense that the park has changed as it has.
When discussing any Disney park, especially Epcot, it is important to put nostalgia aside as it leads to biases and skewed opinions of what the park is actually like. For instance, preferring Horizons to Mission: Space might have something to do with Horizons being a more memorable part of your childhood visit to Epcot. While I do think Horizons was a top-notch attraction, the fact that it was replaced with a futuristic thrill ride leads me to believe that it's removal was part of Disney making changes to meet guest expectations. Guests wanted more thrill rides, so more thrill rides they were given.
Nostalgic preferences of Epcot, or rather EPCOT Center, are topics for a whole different article—for proof that nostalgia really does impact our expectations of the current state of the park, just ask any Figment fan which version of the Journey into Imagination attraction he or she prefers. While Epcot has remained overwhelmingly true to the original intent of Future World, I can understand where some guests might worry that the vision is changing. Closing the Wonders of Life pavilionis definitely one change in Epcot's history that I can't really defend as being beneficial to the park's theme. Closing an entire pavilion without replacing it with anything new does not meet the park's mission or guest expectations. Of course, the majority of guests probably are not aware that the pavilion was ever anything more than convention space, so closing it may have simply been a wise business decision, but it is not something I would have expected at park opening in 1982.
Similar points can be made regarding the changes and closures of some of the exhibits inside Innoventions, or as you may remember is "CommuniCore," which presumably have become less popular with guests over time. If attractions within these areas are closed and replaced with something new and futuristic, I see little evidence except for nostalgia that would suggest this was a poor decision. With many original futuristic Epcot concepts such as Earth Station, Communicore, and Wonders of Life, going the way of the dinosaurs, it is understandable why some guests can be disappointed with the current version of Epcot. Regardless of when and how our favorite attractions are removed or changed, I think the future is still a huge part of Future World, we just need to take some extra initiative in finding it among the additions of rides and character meet and greets.
If you ask me, the cultural exchange, which was the other major part of Epcot's design, is alive and well... and quite possibly expanding and serving its purpose better than its Future World counterpart. When Walt Disney presented his community version of Epcot to the public in 1966, an area similar to World Showcase would have existed near the city's center. Walt was fascinated with the idea that we would all be able to learn from other cultures, and a permanent world's fair was always part of the original plan.
Today, guests are able to walk around World Showcase Lagoon, and experience different cultures through dining, activities, shopping, and entertainment. On hand, are cast members who are from each country, and are happy to speak with guests and teach them about where they come from.
Since Epcot was initially designed, a number of improvements have been made to World Showcase that help pursue the park's message to guests. The exhibits located inside each country's pavilion have improved over the years, and the Flower and Garden and Food and Wine Festivals have given guests ways of experiencing countries that are not permanently a part of World Showcase while also bringing in more food and garden designs from the existing countries.
As you might know, from watching film footage of Walt Disney with his original plans for Epcot, or simply from visiting the park in years past, characters did not always have as much of a presence in World Showcase as they do today. The involvement of characters within World Showcase is often a divisive issue among Disney fans, however in general I do not think they detract from the theme of World Showcase.
Meeting Disney characters might not be something you'd expect at a world's fair of sorts, however Disney is an entertainment company that caters to families, and as a result I see no issue with them being involved in World Showcase. I can understand why some are bothered by certain specifics, like placing Aladdin in Jasmine in Morocco, where they are actually from Agrabah, which is completely fictional and therefore obviously not located in Morocco. Regardless, as long as the characters are not dominating the pavilion, and the major takeaway for guests is that they were able to experience the country by interactive and accurate experiences, the occasional inclusion of characters in an attraction or a meet and greet do not detract from the pavilions.
However, the idea of characters in the World Showcase has of course taken on increased significance as the film Frozen, which is set in the fictional land of Arrendale, now has not only a ride but a meet and greet as well in the Norway pavilion. Since Norway is only one part of World Showcase, and I cannot think of any major faults with the rest of area, I do not think that the park has moved too far away from its original intention. Young children, who sometimes do not get as much out of Epcot as their adult counterparts do, welcome the additions of characters, and while I dislike the Frozen takeover of an entire pavilion, it is not difficult to understand why these changes are coming. I can still interact with Cast Members from Norway, and visit the shops. The bakery is still one of my favorite places to visit, as I can snack on authentic Norwegian items, and although also a character experience, Akershus is a fun way to experience some Norwegian cuisine as well.
While I would not disagree with anyone who says that Epcot could use a little updating, in fact I'm hoping it's next in line after Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, I would not worry that the park has moved away from the intentions Card Walker spoke of in 1982. We as a society have become so attached to technology as it has become easier to acquire, which simply means that we expect more in terms of futuristic ideas to "wow" us than we did when the park opened.
Guests need to be entertained while being educated if the original Epcot concept would work in any sense, and so far this plan has been a success. We might need to put a little bit more effort into actually getting ourselves to walk through the different exhibits in World Showcase, or taking part in some of the post-shows at Spaceship Earth or Journey into Imagination, but it will be worth it.
Walt Disney once said, "Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future." Changing for the future might mean leaving some of our nostalgic theme park memories at the expense of new and different experiences. These kinds of changes can be unfamiliar to us, but as long as we do not remain too attached to the nostalgia, at least in our present impressions of the parks, we should be primarily seeing an Epcot that succeeds in serving as inspiring us in future endeavors.
Many Epcot attractions, even in World Showcase like the American Adventure for instance, remind us how important understanding the past is for a successful future. Next time you visit Epcot, take a minute on your way into the park, and stop to read the dedication plaque on more time. Without dwelling on things like the Dreamfinder-less version of Journey into Imagination, see for yourself if the beliefs outlined in Card Walker's speech still ring true as a guest visiting the theme park in the present day.
Source: Theme Park Tourist
Banner Photo Credit: Matthew Cooper