Building Epcot Center 1982

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"The nation's top construction experts say the impossible had been done," stated an article in the Orlando Sentinel (October 24, 1982) in connection with the opening of EPCOT Center.

During the three years it took to build the park, more than 10,000 construction workers from 18 unions were involved to pour cement, install beams, and clear away 54 million cubic feet of dirt. There were 22 general contractors and 500 subcontractors involved in what was the nation's largest private construction project that ended up costing about a $1 billion.

Disney retained the services of one of the nation's top building management firms, Tishman Realty and Construction of New York.

"Can you have it ready by October 1?" Card Walker, board chairman of Walt Disney Productions, asked John Tishman, board chairman of the management firm.

"October 1 is no problem," Tishman answered. "1982 is."

"I'll tell you what," Walker responded. "On the assumption that no contractor gets things done on time, instead of opening at 9 a.m., we'll open at 9:02 a.m. That will give you guys some extra time to finish up."

Tishman turned the project over to Milt Gerstman who had built the World Trade Center in New York City, the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City, the John Hancock Center in Chicago, and Century City in Los Angeles, among other projects. Basically, he was given three years to build what had been scheduled for six years of construction.

The delay was the result of lack of pavilion sponsors to help finance the project. Walker put a temporary stop to the project in 1976. When EPCOT Center opened in 1982, it had more than 20 participants who reportedly paid Disney between $10 million to $50 million apiece over a 10-year period.

In return, their names and products were exposed to millions of Disney visitors. Sponsors were also allowed to use the Disney name in promotions and publicity and each had their own Disney marketing representative to help develop promotions. Many of the sponsors also had exclusive corporate lounges in their respective pavilions.

Michael Donnelly, coordinator of promotional activities for Kodak, said in 1982 that it would be difficult to measure the impact but that the company's intent "is not to promote sales per se" but the hope that visitors would leave with a "good feeling" about Kodak after experiencing Journey Into Imagination.

Dick Courtice, Kraft's vice president and director of The Land pavilion, also said it would be hard to measure the impact. He said he didn't think exposure would prompt the typical homemaker to go out and buy two more boxes of Kraft cheese. But, he said, that if a shopper is in the store examining a couple of products, pleasant memories of The Land might tip the scales in Kraft's favor.

He estimated that if 10 million people passed through the attraction that it would have meant that Kraft's investment resulted in paying 50 cents per person.

"I can't send them a brochure and a long story for that price," he said.

With some major sponsors in place, plans to built EPCOT Center were restarted in 1979.

"But Card Walker told John Tishman that when construction started, you'll be aboard," Milt Gerstman said. "There had been no written contract, just a handshake between Card Walker and John Tishman."

A formal contract was signed by both parties in 1979.

Ron Hanna, vice president for Palmer-Smith Co. of Southfield, Michigan (which built the France, Japan, and China pavilions and the Horizons pavilion) stated, "There was an awful lot of construction in a short period of time. The men got so tired and there was an awful lot of overtime. Money helps. But we were really compressed on the time schedule. It was a once-in-a-lifetime project. Disney knows what they want it to look like, but we know how to build it. How do you marry the two? Disney had written off a couple of projects getting done on time but we did it and they were open."

Dick Schurrer, manager of Florida operations for R.P. Daily and Co. of Detroit (which built the Mexico pavilion, the Odyssey Restaurant, CommuniCore, and other projects) and his crew became angered when Dick Nunis, in charge of all the Disney theme parks, told a reporter that he didn't think the boat ride in the Mexico pavilion would be ready on time.

Schurrer said in October 1982, "There was a tremendous amount of electrical work to be done [on the attraction]. We had some long discussions with our electrical contractor and he jumped in and got the job done and I told Dick Nunis that that's the one ride that hasn't broken down It was like that all the way from the first day. My workers, almost to a man, worked overtime for the better part of the last 15 months. Toward the end of June, it was nothing but seven days a week and 12 or 14 hours a day."

Joe Harrison, senior project manager of the Inland Construction Company of Chicago (which built the Germany and Italy pavilions, and Journey Into Imagination) stated, "Within a month we were working seven-10s and seven-12s and the last three months it was just about around the clock. A lot of our labor force was very unproductive. We were just worn out. We had guys working 70-75 days straight without a day off. We had concrete finishers. Some of them worked 24 hours straight. Some of them worked 36 hours straight."

"There was limited manpower resource in the area," he added. " Everybody was fighting everybody else on the manpower. The size of the project made it very bureaucratic in terms of paperwork. But the main thing was the tremendous amount of changes. The impact of that really compounded on everybody. It made it financially difficult.".

Jim Hillyer, who was the Florida area manager for Darin and Armstrong of Southfield, Mich. (which built Spaceship Earth, The American Adventure, and other projects) recalled, "We had 1,400 changes in one pavilion. While in the performance of one change, we were getting a change on that change. The Imagineers had drawn a picture, but it had yet to get to the engineer's office to see if it would come together like they wanted it to.

"We worked a lot of long, hard hours," he added. "The engineers would bring the problem to Disney's attention. Disney is about the finest outfit I ever worked with. They are businessmen and they are very successful businessmen and successful businessmen do not get known as nice guys. Neither side left the table smiling but things were resolved. They are fantastic showmen. I went out there on opening day and I saw stuff that wasn't up there two days before.".

Ed White, who was project manager for Frank J. Rooney Co. of Fort Lauderdale (which built The Land pavilion and had earlier worked on the Magic Kingdom), said, "They [Disney] couldn't give you time extensions. That was locked in. We immediately realized that there would be an excessive amount of revisions that the owner required. We had more than 1,300 changes we had to go through. We built the largest pavilion, and by far the most complicated, and we were the only one that had a totally completed pavilion. Disney was very excellent to work with. They were very cooperative. They are demanding in the sense that they know what they wanted."

Milt Gerstman recalled, "If you were in the biergatern [in the Germany pavilion the week before EPCOT Center opened], you'd have said it was impossible to open on time. A lot of people said it was impossible. But it's the difference between the trained eye and the untrained eye. The trained eye knew it could be done. When it has to be done, it can be done. The contractors thought they were building just another building though maybe a little odd-shaped. It became different when Disney came in. The contractors built these stage structures out of wood. They didn't know what they were."

"Then Disney came in and the senseless support became a stagecoach," he said. "The senseless façade became a bank. The workers would built a beautiful concrete wall, all smoothed out, and Disney would come in and the wall became a rock. That's when the buildings became different. That's when the contractors suddenly respected Disney's great talent.".

As a Tishman engineer recounted to The Orlando Sentinel in October 1982 about the 16th century house in the United Kingdom pavilion that required a roof that sagged and walls that tilted with age: "I've spent my entire engineering career making sure that beams, columns and other structural elements are straight. At Epcot, however, I have spent a good deal of time just making sure they are crooked."

However, buildings were only part of EPCOT Center.

One of the things that made a Disney theme park different from other entertainment venues is the landscaping. It was Walt Disney's vision that the trees, shrubs and flowers would not just be an attractive background but should play a part in the storytelling he was trying to create.

As a result, Disney theme park landscaping had to accomplish three things:

  • Provide shade, shelter and beauty for the guests visiting the park.
  • Conceal visual intrusions whether it was using the berm to hide the outside world or using horticulture to hide a show building or backstage areas.
  • Support the storytelling by creating the right look for the setting from the exotic jungles of the Jungle Cruise to the Wild West cactus of Frontierland.

Morgan "Bill" Evans was the original landscape architect for both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom (and the surrounding area). He talked early in 1982 about the landscaping for the upcoming Epcot Center. .

In 1975, he had been forcibly retired, along with other Disney Legends like Yale Gracey and Roger Broggie who had hit the mandatory retirement age of 65 years old. But Bill remained a landscaping consultant with the Disney Company until his death in 2002 at the age of 92.

In 1980, he and former partner Joe Linesch, created the design for the landscaping at EPCOT Center. Evans later consulted with Imagineering on the landscaping for every other Walt Disney World park including Disney's Animal Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney Hollywood Studios), and Typhoon Lagoon, as well as Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Disney California Adventure, Tokyo DisneySea, and Walt Disney Studios Park. Amazingly, he also contributed ideas for the landscaping of Hong Kong Disneyland.

Evans was the one who set up the Disney "tree farm" near the Magic Kingdom to acclimate and experiment with trees and plants to determine what would grow in Central Florida so they could be utilized for the still under construction theme park.

For instance, eucalyptus was rare in Florida before Evans' tree farm. By 1982, there were approximately 20 varieties of eucalyptus on property.

"We tried everything—trees from Tennessee, Georgia, Texas and—most of all, California," he said. "We even brought Sequoias, which did surprisingly well for the first two or three years. What we didn't know was that the experimental tree farm soil was a hundred percent better than the earth we were destined to plant in."

Much of the soil in the Magic Kingdom came from the excavation of the Seven Seas Lagoon in the front of the park. It was used to cover the concrete utilidoors structure.

"We turned the ground upside down and wound up with heavy clay on top," Evans said. "It was like planting in a marble bathtub. Some of the poor little fellows just drowned in their own tub. Others failed because they missed the cool Pacific mist. The EPCOT Center site is going to be at least a 100 percent better from an agricultural standpoint."

"EPCOT Center is going to be a tougher assignment than the Magic Kingdom," he added. "We're trying to create a typical landscape from foreign nations. We're trying to show trees typical of Japan, Canada, Mexico and China. We have France, England, Italy, and Germany. Japan and China are particularly fascinating. There will be Chianthus Petusa, a Chinese fringe tree that is covered with white blossoms, the Japanese pagoda tree, the Chinese scholar tree and the Japanese black pine which looks like a giant Bonsai."

For the China pavilion, Tony Virginia who was Walt Disney World Director of Horticulture, acquired a 100-year-old weeping mulberry he found in New Jersey. The tree was 15-feet tall and very wide and distorted, the "look" sought for the area.

The tree was prepared for the long trip south using a procedure known as "B & B," ball and burlap. The root ball was held together with burlap. The tree was laid on its side aboard a flat-bed trailer. Trees as large as 25-five foot flowering pears from New Jersey had already been moved to Walt Disney World.

Some of the largest trees at EPCOT Center (30-foot to 35-foot oaks) had to be transported vertically. They were loaded aboard flat-bed trailers at Preview Boulevard at Lake Buena Vista (where they had been grown from saplings) and moved to a temporary holding area in the EPCOT Center parking lot. Routes were selected to avoid overhead wires, highway overpasses and monorail beams (generally sixteen to 18 feet above the ground on the route originally planned to move the trees). A permanent road avoiding the monorail was built.

While attempts were made to use trees authentic to the different countries, sometimes "look-alike" understudies had to be used to achieve the right appearance. Hemlock is a tree common to Canada and would be necessary to create an authentic landscape but hemlocks would not survive in Central Florida.

"They need cold, cold winter weather and they don't like humidity," Virginia said.

Instead, Disney substituted Cedrus Deodora, a cedar native to the Himalayas that looked similar to the hemlock but had the advantage of thriving in Central Florida.

Roughly 12,500 trees, representing 125 species, more than 100,000 shrubs of 250 species, 14 acres of Emerald Zoysia grass, and more than three acres of annual flowers were planted for the opening of Epcot Center.

"And I won't tell you how much Argentina Bahia sod," Virginia said with a smile. The drought-resistant grass was used extensively "wherever we haven't installed irrigation."

Annuals, which normally last 45 days before replacement, began being installed the middle of September 1982. Most of the annuals were planted in Future World, including 40,000 square feet of hillside beds at The Land pavilion. In total 3.5 acres of annuals (more than 40,000 plants) were planted before the park opened.

In the World Showcase Lagoon, on what was then known as "the islands of the world," slash pines predominated among a half-dozen island tree varieties so that it would "look like Florida woods—like we just carved it out" stated Bill Coan, the project landscape architect.

When I interviewed Evans extensively in spring 1985, he told me, "I'd like to underscore the fact that the reason Disneyland and Walt Disney World are really good from a landscaping standpoint is that they have the very best maintenance. It doesn't make any difference how carefully you contrive the planning or how good the material is or how efficiently it is all installed. The whole thing depends on maintenance and those people are doing a first class job. Walt believed people would know the difference between good landscaping and bad landscaping and [Disney] is the best.".

It all came together as announced on October 1, 1982, 30 years ago, and, as always, the Disney magic hid all the sweat and tears it took to make it look seamless.



  1. By nickjandrews

    I worked on a $3billion fiber project, installing over 2000 miles of fiber optic cable in 12 states. I worked on two toll roads in north Denver totaling about 23 miles. I worked on I-4 in Tampa, building 800,000 square feet of earth-retaining walls. I have worked on all kinds of military bases and projects. But to be a part of something like building the Magic Kingdom or Epcot Center would be the ultimate!

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