Friday, September 22, 2023

EPCOT at 40

The transformation of EPCOT reflects a changing worldview

by Joe Kleiman

Publisher’s Note: EPCOT is undergoing a multi-year transformation, much of which has been a big part of the Walt Disney World Resort’s 50th anniversary celebration. It also leads up to EPCOT’s own 40th birthday, happening on October 1, 2022. New attractions and shows, themed dining, reimagined “worlds” and more are all contributing to EPCOT’s new look, feel and vibe. Walt Disney World graciously invited IPM to explore these new elements across the Resort over the last year. In addition to Joe’s look at EPCOT’s evolution, I encourage you to read his contextualization of the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind pavilion, check out the related podcasts and previously published articles, and look at my own interview with Imagineering’s Kristine Bunnell. All can be found in this special mini-section and on our website. Happy Birthday EPCOT, and Walt Disney World!!

— Martin Palicki

Communicore Hall and Plaza. Artist Concept Only ©Disney

Even when EPCOT Center opened at Walt Disney World on October 1, 1982, it was never meant to be complete. The Journey Into Imagination ride would not open for another five months, the Horizons pavilion was a year away, and The Living Seas would open three years after that. Nearly every Future World pavilion received some sort of major overhaul over the years, with some, like Mission: SPACE and Test Track, drastically changing the pavilion’s original experience. In World Showcase, new pavilions Norway and Morocco joined the international neighborhood.

Today, EPCOT is in the midst of the largest transformation in the park’s history, driven by a changing business structure and by how the Internet has brought us closer as a global society. The process is inspired by the past, representative of the present, and designed to be adaptable for the future.

The world’s fair analogy

When it opened in 1982, EPCOT Center was often referred to as a “permanent world’s fair.” Split into two sections, Future World and World Showcase, it was loosely based on the 1964-1965 New York’s World’s Fair, with its huge corporate pavilions and historic international villages. EPCOT Center’s policy of showcasing the best of American industry came from the proposed Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), a planned city within the Walt Disney World Resort that Walt himself had been developing. After Walt’s death, concepts from his vision of EPCOT were repackaged into theme park form.

Artist rendering of CommuniCore Hall and CommuniCore Plaza Artist Concept Only ©Disney

Future World pavilions were developed that would showcase specific themes, each sponsored by a corporate leader in that sector – The Bell System (communications), Exxon (energy), General Electric (future technology), General Motors (transportation), Kodak (imagination), Kraft (agriculture), United Technologies (the oceans) and Sperry Univac (computer technology). Future World pavilions added later also featured corporate sponsorship, with healthcare insurance company MetLife behind Wonders of Life and Compaq (acquired by Hewlett-Packard the year before the pavilion’s opening) sponsoring Mission: SPACE.

Sponsorship also played an important role in World Showcase, where pavilions were designed to reflect historic landmarks, providing a timeless, romantic view of each nation. Originally, a mix of private companies and national agencies sponsored many of the World Showcase pavilions.

It was through these pavilion sponsorships that Disney was able to offset some of EPCOT’s initial construction cost. In fact, many argue, without that sponsorship model, EPCOT never would have been built.

Changing business strategy

Today, only one of the Future World pavilions retains corporate sponsorship. Chevrolet, a General Motors subsidiary, sponsors Test Track. The gradual move away from corporate-sponsored pavilions is balanced by a rise in Disney-branded attractions within the pavilions.

In 2007, six years after United Technologies ended its sponsorship, The Living Seas was rethemed to the Disney-Pixar Finding Nemo franchise. The same year, the Rio del Tiempo boat ride in the Mexico pavilion was rethemed to the classic Disney film The Three Caballeros, starring Donald Duck. Later, the Norway pavilion saw multiple attractions added based on the Disney film Frozen. The inclusion of Disney IP is part of a greater synergistic move by the company to cross-platform through media, consumer goods and parks, a move that resulted in the merger of the consumer products and parks divisions in 2017.

Changing perception of the world

As part of EPCOT’s current transformation, Future World is no longer and has been replaced by three distinct neighborhoods that complement each other and World Showcase – World Discovery, World Celebration, and World Nature.

In 1982, the year that EPCOT opened, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) published its annual ARPANET Directory, a listing of every person and organization who had an email address that year. There were fewer than 10,000. At the end of 2020, there were an estimated 4 billion email users worldwide. The ability to instantly communicate through digital devices has brought the world closer together. The new design template for EPCOT acknowledges that.

Barbara Bouza, President of Walt Disney Imagineering, is an architect by trade, as are both her predecessor, Bob Weis, and EPCOT portfolio executive Zach Riddley. The new approach is one that – much like more recent world expos in cities such as Milan and Dubai – examines the roles of connecting people with one another, with nature and with architecture.

Says Riddley, “EPCOT has always been about what’s possible, but it’s also about connecting to the global community.”

Connections Café & Eatery in EPCOT features three original floor inlays inspired by Walt Disney’s 1966 “Florida Project” site plans.©Disney (David Roark, Photography)

A strong example of this new approach is the conversion of the park’s central pavilion CommuniCore from a large concrete structure built in the early 1980s to a much more open environment consisting of a large retail space (Creations) and eatery (Connections). Connections houses its kitchen in the center of the space, with large windows on all sides allowing diners to view the park’s gardens and people-watch. “You can see multiple destinations from the inside,” says Riddley. “You can see into these buildings. They’re bright and transparent.” USB charging ports are found throughout the restaurant, as are tributes to both the park’s history and the original Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow concept. On one wall, a giant mural honors agricultural traditions around the world, showing that while different, we are very much the same.

According to Bouza, “I like this concept of marrying what we do with really understanding the rich legacy of Imagineering. I’m very focused on how we’re starting to look at the future, but also, how do we leverage our history?”

Case in point: Although not part of the original transformation, the original CommuniCore name will soon return. Plans for EPCOT include CommuniCore Hall, which will feature a stage and indoor exhibition area. It will be accompanied by CommuniCore Plaza, acting as a central hub for the park. Throughout the park, wayfinding has been standardized by using an updated version of the 1982 EPCOT Center font and expanding the use of the original circular pavilion icons. Throughout the park, the geodesic tile structure of the iconic Spaceship Earth pavilion can be found on surfaces ranging from wall patterns to manhole covers. The EPCOT logo itself has been updated, with its rings now colored to showcase the visible spectrum, representative of all nations and communities of the world.

“The way we talk about EPCOT is the magic of possibility, and the possibility that inspires us. This is a park about humans, about things that resonate with us, and that underlies the thread that runs through all the stories we tell,” says Riddley. “All of our parks have an ongoing evolution and Walt had a great quote that we always talk about: ‘EPCOT will always be in a state of becoming.’ For us, that’s never more true than what you see now, and even with this part of the transformation, we’re setting the stage for the next fifty years.” • • •

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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