Five years ago, the 25th anniversary of Epcot in Florida's Walt Disney World came and went with relatively little fanfare from the park itself, leaving the organizing of major celebrations to fans themselves. Flash forward to 2013—D23: The Official Disney Fan Club has stepped into the void to showcase the park that has, since its opening in October 1982, had such a lasting impact on many who visited it.
When I heard about the D23 anniversary celebration for Epcot's 30th anniversary, I was determined to attend. Thankfully, the date coincided with a trip I had already planned to make for the Tower of Terror 10 Mile race, so I joined and purchased a ticket for the day's events.
The event was held on Sunday, September 30, the day before Epcot's official anniversary date, and attendees were given a three-hour window to check in on Saturday at the World Showplace pavilion where it was held. Attendees received a "We can do it" bumper sticker that is a replica of one given to cast members during the construction of EPCOT Center, as well as an order form for the event-specific merchandise.
I've heard people mention that they sometimes feel like D23 events are just a way to pay admission so that they can spend more money. While he amount of exclusive merchandise offered for the event was fairly minimal, it was fantastic nevertheless. There were the usual pins, but the highlight were three T-shirt designs featuring attractions that are no longer open: Horizons, Kitchen Kabaret, and Seabase Alpha.
The morning of the event started early as eager fans lined up at the entrance to Epcot, hoping to get a good seat and have their order forms in early for merchandise. Guests entering the Showplace venue were greeted with the strains of classic Epcot tunes, such as "Listen to the Land" and "Feel the Flow." The music took me back to my first visits to EPCOT Center in 1983 and 1986, and got me even more excited for the day's program.
Along with the music, a slideshow of images kept the audience distracted while waiting for the start. There were classic park images and images of construction, as well as joke slides designed to keep the audience on its toes, like EPCOT-brand charcoal in original Rome flavor (a reference to the smoky smell on Spaceship Earth when Rome is burning). I really wish they would share the special images D23 created for this slideshow; they would make a fantastic screensaver.
After some introductory remarks by Steven Clark, the head of D23, the first session got underway. Unfortunately, Imagineer Marty Sklar was not able to attend in person on Sunday due to a prior commitment, but we were able to view a recorded interview interspersed with video clips and images highlighting Sklar's involvement in the development of EPCOT Center from its very beginning (some of the video is available on D23's most recent Armchair Archivist installment). Sklar wrote the script for Walt Disney's "EPCOT film" where Walt laid out his plan for the Walt Disney World complex in a pitch to the state of Florida and potential corporate sponsors.
Sklar's wry sense of humor came through even on the video, and thankfully, we were able to see him in person on Monday as part of the D23 presentations offered for free to park guests. During that presentation, he discussed the beginnings of EPCOT Center and showed some concept art for pavilions that were never built, including Denmark, which would have included a Tivoli Gardens boat ride and an ice skating rink.
One of my favorite stories that he told was around pitching The Land pavilion, trying to convince the Walt Disney Company's then-CEO and board chairman Card Walker how entertaining it would be to watch lettuce grow, and the science advisor asking where they were going to put the bees inside the greenhouse. Sklar also stated that he plans to have a book coming out in August, 2013; based on my brief time listening to him speak, I can't wait to pick up a copy.
Panelists of the “We Can Do It” presentation included (left to right) Disney Legend, original Tom Sawyer on Tom Sawyer Island, and former manager of distribution services at Walt Disney World Tom Nabbe; Disney Legend and executive vice president of Parks, Walt Disney World Bob Matheison; Disney Legend and former vice president of the Magic Kingdom Bill Sullivan; former Walt Disney World vice president of purchasing and contract services Howard Roland; Disney author and Imagineer Jason Surrell; former president of Disney Participant Relations Jim McCaskill; former director of Walt Disney World Casting Duncan Dickson; and Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway, who helped launch the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 and EPCOT Center in 1982, among other Disney theme parks around the world. Photo courtesy of D23: The Official Disney Fan Club.
The first "live" session of the event came next, when a panel of Disney legends and EPCOT Center creators came out on stage for a question-and-answer session moderated by Imagineer Jason Surrell. The title of this session, "We Can Do It!," was the rallying cry of cast members involved in the construction of EPCOT Center, which was filled with challenges. Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway related how they had to remove tons of "muck" from the area where EPCOT was built in order to form the World Showcase lagoon. That material was placed elsewhere on the property under what is now the Caribbean Beach Resort.
In addition, a large sinkhole was discovered near the site of the former Odyssey restaurant while pylons were being driven for the monorail track. A total of seven 120-foot pylons completely disappeared down the hole; eventually, construction workers installed a platform so that the track could be placed with pylons on top.
Other humorous stories from the panel involved early discussions with ambassadors from various countries, who were courted to fill the World Showcase pavilions. All of the panelists appeared to enjoy recounting stories, and played well off one another, building and providing alternate perspectives. It was a fantastic opportunity to hear all of their experiences firsthand.
The next session featured two D23 archivists, Steven Vagnini and Michael Crawford, sharing some amazing gems from the Disney archives. This "Looking Back at Tomorrow" session was one of my favorites. Vagnini and Crawford could barely contain their enthusiasm about the discoveries they revealed, and everyone in the crowd identified with their excitement as fellow fans of the creative talent behind EPCOT Center.
The archivists showed original World Showcase drawings, memos, and character sketches, including one that received a huge response from the audience: a sketch that artist and Imagineer John Hench did as a clearly sarcastic response to a request for a Dreamfinder-like character for The Living Seas pavilion: Captain Saltyhinder with his mackerel sidekick.
They also revealed some rejected names for pavilions, including Avant-Gardens for The Land, and American Cavalcade of Transportation for World of Motion. Horizons was almost named FutureProbe until a memo from GE noting its slightly unpleasant overtones put an end to that. I sincerely hope someone is putting together a book of this fantastic material, because they would sell a heck of a lot of copies based on the response to this session.
The grand finale from the archivists came as they took a poll on everyone's favorite ending to the Horizons attraction, where riders could choose from space, desert, or undersea. Determining that there was no consensus, it was announced we would get to experience all three, as the room's video screens were filled with picture-perfect scenes that I remember from my early visits to Epcot. It was a wonderful moment greeted with thunderous applause.
Former Imagineer Bob Garner and Disney author and historian Tim O'Day hosted the clip-show portion of the day, "Makin' Memories: Epcot on Film," showing a wide variety of the video documentation that was made during the development and opening of EPCOT Center. One of the more interesting films shown was Garner with two versions of Figment, one puppet and one animatronic, highlighting the process they went through to get to the final version of the beloved character. In addition, Garner was responsible for the iconic shot of Mickey standing on the top of Spaceship Earth waving down for a television commercial; apparently Mickey was held up there with some rope across his shoes. Garner said he is still amazed he didn't get fired for that.
After hearing about the Imagineer panel at the D23 Expo, I was looking forward to "Imagineering Epcot: An Extra Perceptive Close-Up of Things," the presentation by Imagineers Jason Grandt, Alex Wright, and Jason Surrell. The camaraderie among the three Imagineers came through as they joked their way through an examination of the details around Epcot, focusing on what can still be seen today. Jason Grandt continued his study of wall carpet, presenting a memo about its purchase. I would love to have a guided tour by these three around Epcot.
The next two sessions of the day were my least favorite presentations. "We've Just Begun to Dream" was a panel of entertainment people who were involved in opening-day events. Some of their stories about opening-day snafus were amusing, but it was a bit of a letdown after the information-packed morning sessions. "EPCOT Illusioneering and Beyond" by Imagineer Daniel Joseph on the other hand was full of information but covered too much ground, in my opinion.
Highlighting the special effects that have been developed over the years by legendary Disney Imagineers like Yale Gracey and Bob McCarthy, Joseph's presentation included videos and photos showing the development of technology behind many attractions, including the innovative ride system of Horizons. I can understand Joseph's enthusiasm in wanting to present as much of this great material as possible, but it seemed to fly by without going into sufficient depth for my taste. However, mine may be the minority opinion as I know several people I spoke with remarked that it was one of their favorites. Certainly it was great to get a peek behind the curtain to look at how the magic is created.
After the brief lull in the action, things really picked up with the next session when Senior Vice President, Creative Development of Walt Disney Imagineering Tony Baxter came on stage with two of the former Dreamfinder actors, Ron Schneider and Steve Taylor. This "Journey Into Imagination" session began with Baxter going back to his work on The Land and The Living Seas pavilions, and how early concepts for those morphed into what became one of the most popular attractions at EPCOT Center.
Originally, a character known as the Landkeeper was sketched out for The Land, looking much like what eventually became Dreamfinder. In addition, Baxter headed the team for the unbuilt Discovery Bay area of Disneyland; Professor Marvel, a Victorian throwback showman and his dragon sidekick were pulled in from the Discovery Bay concepts to become Dreamfinder and Figment, who was still without a name. Baxter related the story that Figment's name actually came to him while watching an episode of Magnum P.I. when Higgins, trying to find the source of a noise, declared that it was "not a figment of his imagination."
Baxter also shared some stories about Kodak's involvement with the attraction's development, including its input that Figment not be green, the color of its chief rival in the film business (Fujifilm). Figment's yellow-and-red sweater was added as a nod to Kodak's signature colors. Another interesting tidbit from Baxter relates to the somewhat mysterious hilly sections of the attraction: originally the ride was intended to have three drops that would accelerate the vehicles at key moments; after the track was constructed, it was determined that the ride mechanics could not handle the added speed, so the ride maintains a consistent speed through those sections.
After Baxter's fascinating stories, Steve Taylor and Ron Schneider chimed in to relate their experiences assisting with the walkaround character of Dreamfinder. Schneider worked for five years from the pavilion's opening and Taylor worked the following 15 years until the character was phased out. Schneider had started out at Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe review and jumped at the chance to do Dreamfinder when he heard about the opportunity. Taylor had started out at Disney in the custodial department, then left the company and found his way back in, a career path he endorsed to the crowd.
Both men shared heartwarming tales of their experiences with children and guests. As a child of a Kodak retiree, Kodak is a huge part of my childhood, and as such, Journey Into Imagination holds a special place in my heart. This session was especially personal for me, and I found all of the information to be a wonderful addition to my childhood memories.
Finally, the last session of the day focused on one of the most wonderful things to come out of the development of EPCOT Center: the wide array of original music created for the pavilions and attractions. "The Music of EPCOT Center" panel included Emmy Award-winning composer Russell Brower, who wrote music for The Living Seas pavilion as well as Innoventions plaza, Greg Ehrbar (Yellow Shoes Creative Group), Steven Vagnini, and Tim O'Day.
The prominent composers of EPCOT music were highlighted in turn, including Bob Moline, Buddy Baker, X Atencio, George Wilkins, and the Sherman Brothers. Some unreleased songs and demo versions were also played during the session, including a demo of "One Little Spark" as sung by the Sherman Brothers. The session wrapped up with a live performance of "Golden Dream" from The American Adventure, performed by veteran Epcot performer Billy Flanigan. One of my greatest disappointments of the Epcot anniversary merchandise is the lack of a musical history compilation, like what was done for Disneyland's 50th anniversary. I certainly hope something is in the works, because I'm not the only one who is longing to get their hands on quality copies of these fantastic songs.
As a farewell, an internal Disney video from EPCOT's opening that included Marty Sklar and other key people was shown, celebrating the achievement of opening the park on time. As we exited the room, we were then handed "We Did It!" replica buttons like the ones that had been shown in the video.
This event was my first D23 event, and I was very impressed at the level of information presented. I hadn't studied too much of Epcot's history, having gained most of my knowledge through childhood visits to the park in 1983 and 1986, so I really enjoyed learning some new things about its history, especially the firsthand knowledge from those who were there.
Even though the event was a great look back at Epcot's beginnings, it was tinged with a bit of sadness for me, as many of the most celebrated things of the day—Journey Into Imagination, Horizons, Kitchen Kabaret—are now gone. The park seems to have lost that sense of hope and optimism for the future, and I hope that efforts are made in the coming years to recapture that spirit and reinvigorate the park. "If we can dream it, we can do it."
(Send an email to Stephanie Wien)
Growing up in Upstate New York, Stephanie (@MPStephanie) made frequent family trips to Walt Disney World in Orlando, which instilled an early love for Disney theme parks. When her work took her to Orange County in California, she naturally became a frequent visitor to Disneyland, and developed a love for the park that started it all. Stephanie is now back in Upstate New York and working as an engineer. She has also completed several runDisney races, including the Walt Disney World marathon in 2007 and 2008 as a part of Team in Training, and is currently training for the Goofy Challenge in 2013. She makes as many trips as she can to experience the Disney magic, especially as part of the MouseAdventure staff team.