John Hench and Marty Sklar Talk Epcot 1980

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

With all the changes occurring at Epcot and with more to come in the immediate future, I always like to pause for a moment and take a look at how it all began. The EPCOT Center that debuted in October 1982 was much different than the theme park that most guests know today, and even different from the plans being worked on a year earlier.

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, which ended up costing about over a billion dollars back when a billion dollars was not as common as it is today.

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 first?" Card Walker, board chairman of Walt Disney Productions, asked John Tishman, board chairman of the management firm.

"October first 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.

EPCOT concept art drawn by Herb Ryman.

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 ten million people passed through the attraction that it would have meant that Kraft's investment resulted in paying fifty 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. With the ongoing challenges of locking down sponsors to pay the costs for most of the pavilions, the details for pavilions remained fluid almost until the park opened.

In 1979, the press was given just general outlines but without many–if any–specific details. The Imagineers worked mostly in secret in California. In 1975 when work began in earnest nearly 600 people were working on the project and by 1979 that ballooned to 1,200.

Since Walt Disney's initial announcement in 1965 at a press conference at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando, the plans for EPCOT had been reworked, revised, modified and adjusted to the economic realities of the time.

I did not visit EPCOT Center for the first time until after it had been in operation for about ten years, but fortunately I know where to look to find some idea about what was originally intended as it approached its debut.

Edward Prizer was a reliable source that, thanks to the articles he wrote, still provides some amazing insights into the beginnings of Disney in Orlando for those of us who have tracked down some of his work.

In 1961, Prizer left his job at the Associated Press in New York. He saw that Orlando was on the verge of growth and, in 1962, he purchased for $17,000 a small, pocket-sized tourist guide (restaurants, churches, area attractions like Gatorland) with a readership of 1,700 called the Orlando-Winter Park Attraction.

He ran the publication from his home with his wife, Artice, and shifted the content to more news about the development of the area. His wife hated trivia and wanted substantial stories. The magazine quickly evolved to include lengthy feature stories, real estate news, tourist news, business news and new development issues like Disney coming to Orlando.

Prizer changed the name of the magazine to Orlando-Land in 1969 and sold it in 1988 for $1.7 million with more than 30,000 dedicated readers. He remained as an adviser and wrote a column titled Inside Orlando for eight years until he officially retired in 1996. The magazine evolved into the more commonly known Orlando magazine.

He died at the age of 80 in 2003, roughly a year and a half after the death of his wife.

Prizer was in Orlando when it was all happening. He was in Orlando for Walt's press conference announcing the construction of Walt Disney World. He was in Orlando when the Magic Kingdom Park opened. He was in Orlando when EPCOT Center opened.

More importantly, he wrote about it. He interviewed the people involved, so the articles were not mere publicity puffery supplied by the Walt Disney Company, but filled with exclusive information that still has not appeared anywhere else.

In early 1980 at the invitation of the Walt Disney Company, he flew to Glendale, California and was taken by Jack Lindquist, vice president of marketing, through WED Enterprises (now known as Imagineering) where he got to see the models, concept art and more related to the EPCOT Center development.

Future World East under construction.

He met with and interviewed Imagineers like Ward Kimball, Randy Bright, Rolly Crump, Harper Goff, Tony Baxter and more. The interviews included this "lost" exchange between John Hench, who at the time was the senior vice president of WED, and Marty Sklar, who was the vice president of creative development.

At this point Hench and Sklar were talking about things that might be done or could be done and were shaping ideas to see Prizer's reaction which was wildly enthusiastic.

Clearly, both Imagineers were passionate about the opportunity with Epcot to share new perspectives and knowledge with Disney guests.

Since this was still two years before the park opened, some of the things discussed never appeared or evolved in different ways.

I feel it is important and insightful to hear directly from the people who were involved in a project and so I am sharing that conversation with readers of MousePlanet who are interested in how things came to be.

In addition, I have always found that Hench often provides a greater perspective on "why" something was done and what it was supposed to mean. When I met him, he was always charming, analytical and challenging when it came to thinking and seeing things from a different perspective.

John Hench: "The Transportation Pavilion (that finally became the World of Motion pavilion) is a step forward from Small World. We've learned how to control reverbs. In Small World, you hear the sound that is with you plus infinitely staggered signals with the same beat.

"The same signals slightly delayed give you a sense of space. We tried it on a sound stage. We walked around the stage and couldn't believe it. We kept working until we got the speakers just right. We're always building on whatever we know how to do, pushing a little further.

"In Transportation, we are using a different vehicle, a six passenger vehicle. We have an open corridor. There's sound stereo close to the head and incidental sound off in the background. We've developed a new approach to sound – digital sound – that has remarkable clarity.

"Spaceship Earth tells you you're not alone on this earth. It takes you back and shows you how you've come to this point. It will give people a lot more appreciation of who they are. Ray Bradbury (the science fiction writer who wrote the storyline for the attraction) took the metaphor of a wall. It touches on the first recorded primitive experiences. Information on wild animals was recorded in paintings on cave walls. It was a matter of survival for succeeding generations.

"They became more elaborate. The Egyptians transformed information into hieroglyphics. The Phonenicians broke the walls up into clay pottery. With Gutenberg's invention of printing, the wall became a library wall. Now, we have an electronic wall attached to the rest of the earth.

Future World West and the western part of World Showcase under construction.

"For Spaceship Earth we have a model to work out relationships. It shows where the track will come. The whole course of the show will be laid out in five-second increments. The first model is one quarter of an inch to a foot. The next is one inch.

"Walt believed if people got the right information, they would take the right action. He envisioned a place where people could come and get the best information so they would have no trouble deciding on the best course of action. That was Walt's special ability. He could reach people. He had a deep understanding of people.

"Guests will go to a Telcom Center (an extension of Spaceship Earth at the exit of the attraction). We'll demonstrate new ways to present information, electronically, visually. It's an update of City Hall in the Magic Kingdom. Bell Labs is bringing new technology to the information plaza. Guests can make reservations, leave messages.

"In the Communicore there will be opportunities to get involved in communications systems. We'll have a functioning TV studio. We'll do interviews and opinion polling. A Future Choice theater will have buttons to push for audience reactions.

"Guests will go across and through this hub several times in moving between pavilions. We try to make choices as simple as possible. It's been found that anxieties are created at World's Fairs where people continually have to make decisions on where to go next."

Marty Sklar: "We're starting work with American Express on a Future Travel Port for the Communicore. The name may be changed. It will be the travel agency of tomorrow. You can come in with your family, specify your vacation interests and actually experience the places you'd like to go. You may even get an information printout."

JH: "We asked ourselves why don't we push these services people need? Push 'em forward. Guests can look at the dining room of a resort and hear the waves on the beach. They'll get a lot more information on what they're going to buy."

MS: "We hope to have a place in Communicore where people can find out about a career. We'll make it as close to real as possible and simulate experiences."

JH: "The Fantastic Flick Camera will show predictions of the future as done by motion pictures over the years. The main thing is to reassure people about the future."

MS: "Show them there's a purpose for prediction. Many predictions set the tone for what is to follow.

"We're going to bring the DACS Center (the massive computer set-up that controlled a myriad of activities and communications at Walt Disney World including running audio-animatronics for attractions) out of its hiding place. We'll put on a show. We have a special device to slow down the action of a computer and show how information is received.

"Another exhibit is called Solutions. It will present ideas being implemented by cities around the world to cope with problems. The basic premise of the shows in EPCOT is that the future is a moving target. You have to change."

JH: "The AT&T communications center will show how a household can function with new communication techniques. We want to make the information relative to something. It will show the tremendous impact of communications systems on lifestyle.

"Then there's the Egghead Arcade. We're bringing a new attitude and new sophistication to arcade games. Games can be made more interesting and relevant. We'll devise engineered games. For a point: man's relationship with the machine."

MS: "We met Dr. Carl Hodges, consultant on the Land pavilion, when we were looking for people to invite to a conference on energy and agriculture. He's director of Controlled Environmental Lab at the University of Arizona. We sent people to the university to see what he was doing. Their report was so glowing we couldn't believe it.

"So we sent two other people. Their report was the same. We got Card (Walker, president of the Walt Disney Company) and others and took the company plane to Mexico where Dr. Hodges has a shrimp farming operation in partnership with Coca-Cola and the University of Mexico at Sonora.

"He showed us a cylindrical tank and said there are 500,000 shrimp in there. Just hatched. They came out elegant, flawless specimens. On shrimp boats, time elapses before the shrimp get back to shore. It affects the flavor. Not these. The pavilion will show future steps for growing food both on land and water.

"We took a Kraft executive to Dr. Hodges' farm. After he'd seen it, he called his research people in and said to them: 'What have you guys been doing?'"

A picture postcard of The Land pavilion from the opening year of 1982.

JH: "The whole philosophy of the pavilion is not to exploit the land but cooperate with it. We are inspired by the book Symbiosis Between Man and Nature by Rene Dubos including this passage: 'It is not true that nature knows best. It often creates ecosystems that are inefficient, wasteful and destructive.

'By using reason and knowledge, we can manipulate the raw stuff of nature and shape it into ecosystems that have qualities not found in the wilderness. Many potentialities of the earth become manifest only when they have been brought out by human imagination. Symbiotic relationships mean creative partnerships'."

MS: "We have brought in experts from all over. We have advisory panels for the pavilions. Our function is to provide credibility, integrity and the ability to communicate through entertainment."

JH: "These people respond to Walt's ideas. They need a forum, somebody to communicate for them. This has got to be an ongoing thing. New people are coming in all the time. They're the kind of people who say things don't have to be this way."

MS: "Many people no longer trust government or industry, but they still believe in Mickey Mouse. Our messages are very short in the physical sense. We have to get across an idea in a few seconds. There can be no ambiguity. We're doing what I call 'turn-ons,' encouraging them to find out more about a subject, providing the way.

"Walt was a stickler. He didn't want to come around a corner and see a blank wall. There had to be a weenie down at the end of every street. We have to have a model on a scale where you can walk through, see everything you can see on a ride."

Preparation for the Epcot Opening festivities began nearly four years beforehand, with the minute-by-minute planning starting in March 1982. Twenty different committees were involved in creating the dedication ceremonies from design of invitations to finance to talent booking to transportation and more.

Before the official opening in 1982, there were Cast Family Previews for the new park on September 24, 25 and 27 from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Construction workers and their families previewed Epcot Center on September 26. The demand by the cast members to visit the new project was so great that three additional nights (September 28-30) were added from 4 p.m. to midnight.

Full menu selection was available at restaurants throughout Future World and World Showcase, with alcoholic beverages sold at retail prices. Normal cast member discounts were in effect except for tobacco products. Complimentary wheelchairs and strollers were available. The cast parked in the regular guest parking lot.

While the official opening of Epcot Center was at 9 a.m. on October 1, 1982, the park was unofficially open to select Disney guests the nights of September 28-September 30 as well.

"Guests visiting the Magic Kingdom on those three days will receive an information brochure about the 'sneak preview' of Epcot Center at the Toll Plaza. Walt Disney World Resort guests and Lake Buena Vista Hotel Plaza guest will also be notified of their opportunity to preview Epcot Center prior to October 1, 1982," stated a memo from September 22, 1982.

Epcot Center opened as announced on October 1, 1982. The cost of a one-day ticket was $15 for an adult, $14 for a junior and $12 for a child. However, members of the Magic Kingdom Club or Walt Disney World Resort guests could knock a dollar off the price of each ticket.

Also available as ticket media were 3-, 4- and 6-day World Passports that included transportation, admission, plus unlimited use of attractions at both Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. There were no single-day Park Hoppers. In addition, an Annual World Passport good for an entire year was available at a cost of $100 for an adult and $80 for a child.

During the early weeks of October, the opening hours were Future World from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and World Showcase from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.(At the end of October and through the month of November, Future World was open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and World Showcase 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The only exception was the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 25, when both Future World and World Showcase were open from 9 a.m. to midnight.)

A 1982 park map for EPCOT Center.

Richard Cason, his wife and four children (Jennifer, 16; Chris, 15; Ricky, 14; and Jody, 13) were the first family welcomed into Epcot Center on October 1. They were from Winter Park and got up at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at the park at 6 a.m., only to find the gates wouldn't open to the parking lot until 7 a.m. Cason said he "drove around the loop" before making it into the parking lot. "I just told the kids to get out and run for the gate," he told reporters at the Opening Ceremonies.

The family received a silver pass from Chairman and CEO of Walt Disney Productions, Card Walker, allowing the family admission into Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom for life. Due to space limitations, only the first family, press and a few special invited guests saw Walker read the dedication plaque and there were brief remarks by Florida Governor Bob Graham and the president of AT&T William Ellinghouse, since Spaceship Earth was also dedicated that day.

There were marching bands and dancers followed by the release of 15,000 balloons and 1,000 pigeons. All other guests were kept waiting in the parking lot and only saw the ceremonies later that evening on the news.

Throughout the early weeks of October, there were individual dedications of pavilions, lasting from 20 minutes to an hour, almost every day. The first one was Spaceship Earth on opening day, October 1. These mini-ceremonies led up to the official dedication of Epcot Center, which was a three-day event that began Friday evening, October 22, and concluded on Sunday, October 24.

During the month of October, some of the attractions like Spaceship Earth and Universe of Energy were sometimes closed for hours because of operating difficulties. Other attractions like Journey Into Imagination would not open for months and World Showcase restaurants were overwhelmed by eager guests.

However, despite all difficulties, it was apparent that EPCOT Center was Disney's newest success.