The Trouble with Epcot

by Mike Scopa, contributing writer

When we think of Walt Disney World, the first thing that comes to mind are the four main theme parks. Each one of these theme parks has carved out an identity for itself.

The Magic Kingdom's popularity stems from a foundation of Disney characters, films, and television programs. The park reminds us all of such Disney classics as Snow White, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and other Disney memories. The culture that is the Magic Kingdom evolved from these building blocks. It goes without saying that the Magic Kingdom will always be a baby boomer park.

Since the first day it opened its turnstiles the Disney-MGM Studios theme park has grown in popularity with generation X and the children of the aforementioned baby boomers. This park has, in effect, become the Magic Kingdom theme park for a particular slice of Disney clientele. These guests grew up with Ariel, Belle, and the Bear in the Blue House.

It is obvious that Disney's Animal Kingdom caters to those guests who are animal lovers and who are fascinated by the animal world.

The theme park that seems to struggle with an identity is Epcot.

Is it a futuristic theme park that focuses on tomorrow's technologies (Future World) or is it a glorified strip mall (World Showcase) for those who love to shop on an international level?

In this session, let's focus on Epcot's past, present, and future, and look at what Epcot was supposed to be, what it is today, and what it hopes to be tomorrow.

The Florida Project

On October 27, 1966, Walt Disney recorded a film in which he discussed and previewed plans for Walt Disney World, and especially Epcot. This 24-minute presentation gave an extraordinary account of Walt Disney's vision for his "Florida Project."

With a twinkle in his eye, Walt talked quite a bit about Epcot and how it would serve as the foundation for his community of the future.

However, when you view that film and then look at Epcot as we know it today, we may find ourselves scratching our heads. Are we talking about the same thing? Beyond that, Epcot seems to be a theme park without a soul and searching for an identity.

Walt said that the Master Plan for WDW involved an infrastructure that would surround the theme park (he envisioned just one... an East Coast Disneyland) area. This infrastructure included hotels, motels, and recreational facilities.

For the most part, that concept was developed. There are certainly plenty of hotel rooms on the property and an assortment of recreational options for all guests to enjoy.

Walt however, was just getting started.

He also talked of an airport that would be built in Osceola County and something along the line of "an entrance complex where all visitors will enter Disney World."

He also spoke of a 1,000-acre industrial park, also as part of the Florida project.

Lastly, he talked about the theme-park area at the northern tip of the property. It seemed that the theme park was really just a small part of the master plan.

He went on to describe a rapid transit system, and I assume he was thinking of a monorail-like network to transfer people throughout the complex. He even mentioned the Wedway People Mover.

That's how Walt envisioned Disney World.

Walt's Epcot

The twinkle in his eye became a bit brighter when he spoke that famous line:

"But the most exciting, by far the most important part of our Florida project-in fact, the heart of everything well be doing in Disney World-will be our experimental prototype city of tomorrow. We call it EPCOT, spelled E-P-C-O-T: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow."

It would be wrong for me to say that Epcot does not serve in an experimental capacity because it does, but not nearly to the extent as Walt imagined it would.

We could point to The Land pavilion and its hydroponics, and also mention how the Living Seas is always conducting research on water life. Beyond those, however, I would be hard pressed to come up with some other valid examples regarding an "experimental prototype" approach to anything. I can hear arguments regarding solar energy at "Ellen's Universe" and the point may be valid, but in all these cases, aren't we past the experimental stage?

If we look around to the Wonders of Life pavilion and Figment's Imagination pavilion and Test Track and Mission: Space, the only prototyping I see is for theme-park attractions.

At best, you may see something along the line of new technology being explored at Innovations.

Why is this so? Well, it's simply because Epcot surfaced as a theme park and not a community. Somewhere in between Walt's October 1966 film and October 1982, the concept of Epcot as a community sort of went south.

What about World Showcase? How did that become part of the equation? The original plans for World Showcase called for to place it in the location now occupied by the Ticket and Transportation Center near the Magic Kingdom.

Actually, the term and concept of "World Showcase" may have evolved from a statement Walt made in his 1966 film: "... Epcot will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise."

How did World Showcase end up where it is today? It's pretty simple. As the story goes, there were several Epcot designs being discussed but no agreement on a solid winner. The designs for Future World and World Showcase were being discussed and at the last minute, models of these components were pushed together and the decision was made to go with that "patched" design.

To this day, the transition from Future World to World Showcase seems to be missing something that offers a gradual shift from the technological to the cultural.

Theme Park or Community?

Here lies the problem: Walt Disney envisioned a community that would include, as part of the community, an area for a theme park... not a theme park called Epcot.

Epcot certainly is not, as Walt said, "... a living blueprint of the future where people actually live a life they can't find anyplace else in the world." The last time I looked, I did not spot any signs of residential life in either Future World or World Showcase.

Walt also said, "Everything in Epcot will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who live, work, and play here, and those who come here from around the world to visit our living showcase."

So the assumption is that Epcot was to be a community of people, neighbors, children, families and that they would be experiencing new areas of technology in their every day lives.

Sorry, Walt. I have to apologize for the sins of many. We are a bit... no we are quite a bit off course from what you were telling us some 37 years ago.

Along the way, Corporate America decided that your original concept probably would not generate the revenue stream that a theme park could be capable of producing, so we sort of nixed the community concept.

So Epcot became not a community but a theme park. Walt's original concept never completely made it off that film.

Epcot's Struggle

Early on Epcot seemed to hold its own regarding drawing power. However, as other theme parks emerged in the Central Florida area, Epcot found itself lagging behind.

Universal Studios, and especially its Islands of Adventure, played a big part in Epcot's struggle to maintain a healthy attendance level. The unkindest cut of all may have been Disney-MGM Studios--the opening of this theme park started a love affair with Generation X and took more guests from Epcot.

Pretty soon, it was apparent that Epcot's target audience was, at best, indescribable. The ideal Disney customer has always been recognized as being a 7-year-old child. You would be hard pressed to find children today who would proclaim Epcot as their number one choice for a theme park. I would guess that Epcot would have a difficult time beating out all the Universal Studios theme parks as well as Sea World.

The key? Thrill rides. The theme park business relies on excitement and thrills, and Epcot certainly is a late bloomer. Epcot doesn't have the Magic Kingdom mountain range (Space, Splash, and Big Thunder). It also doesn't have the dynamic duo of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Disney-MGM Studios.

A Daunting Task

The WDW powers that be tried to address Epcot's thrill rides shortcomings but certainly ran into some obstacles.

At one point in the early '80s, there were plans to build a wooden roller coaster in Epcot. A wooden coaster would provide some charm as well as a popular rickety ride. Designs were put into motion and along the way, it was discovered that in order for such a roller coaster to work well, certain height requirements had to be met for its initial climb-and-drop sequence. That was all well and good, but such height would clearly make the coaster dwarf any existing structure in the park and make the coaster visible from outside the park. That was unacceptable.

So the wooden coaster idea was scrapped. Rumors persist today that the actual model of the roller coaster that almost made it to Epcot is in the Boardwalk lobby. I have seen this scale model of a wooden coaster inside a glass container. Is it "the" coaster? Who knows?

There was some thought about an Epcot mountain range. This included a smaller version of Disneyland's Matterhorn with a bobsled attraction and a Mount Fuji, which would have contained a roller coaster-type attraction. Neither materialized due to a number of reasons, mostly economic.

I'm not sure if this had anything to do with the abandonment of Mount Fuji but the film manufacturer of the same name was rumored to have put a stop to Disney naming anything "Fuji" without its consent or at least without Disney replacing Kodak film with Fuji Film as the official film for Walt Disney World.

That wasn't going to happen, so the quest for thrill rides continued.

Then came the mid-1990s, and the World of Motion was transformed into Test Track. I won't go into the Test Track saga, but suffice it to say that this attraction had tremendous overruns and delays due to a number of issues such as tire integrity, software, and overall mechanical and safety concerns. It took a long time to work out the kinks before Test Track became Epcot's number one thrill ride.

There was still need for more excitement. Park space was a concern and if a new attraction was to surface another had to disappear. Horizons needed to go.

We all know about the hype involved with Mission: Space. It is the first Disney theme park attraction to have its own national advertising campaign. I'm sure you've seen the ads. Parents ask kids how the ride was. Kids describe the ride as tame and boring. Parents think, "Ah, that means it's for us!" We next see these parents screaming like Fay Wray on a blind date with a gorilla. Mission: Space may be the second of the thrill rides for Epcot and is in fact proving to be a magnet for the theme park.

So Epcot is making progress with thrill rides and with that will draw larger crowds.

It still suffers from an identity crisis.

Is it a theme park of the future that lets me feel what it's like to be an astronaut taking off for outer space, or an international market where I can eat schnitzel, croissants, and buy a $300 sweater imported from the United Kingdom?

Who knows?

Epcot Components

Walt's idea of some of the Epcot components never made it to the theme park as we know it today. If you recall, his thoughts on Epcot were as a community, not somewhere in which you'd see Figment, a three-headed troll, and a French mime.

In that famous film, Walt talked about the transportation systems and said, "Two separate but interconnecting transit systems will move people into and out of Epcot in speed, safety, and comfort through the central terminal. Both are electrically powered: the high-speed monorail for rapid transit over longer distances, and a concept new to the American City for shorter travel distances, the WEDWAY People Mover."

Ahh the Wedway... gee that's in Tomorrowland. Guess it never made it to Epcot.

How about his mention of Utilidors? That's right. Walt mentioned something along those lines when he said, "Let's look at another view of Epcot's transportation hub and see how traffic flows through the heart of the city on three separate levels. At the bottom of the stack is the truck route, reserved for supply vehicles. Trucks will have easy access to all loading docks and service elevators for the delivery of commercial goods."

"The middle level is the automobile thruway, exclusively for cars. Adjacent to the roadway are parking areas for the convenience of hotel guests. For the motorist just driving through, no stoplight will ever slow the constant flow of traffic through the center of Epcot."

The top level would appear to be where the Wedway would reside.

Utilidors lie underneath the Magic Kingdom and are used for bringing supplies in, taking stuff out, and traveling "off stage" from different areas of the park.

Did Walt imagine something similar to Downtown Disney, and perhaps even Pleasure Island? I think he understood the need for such an area, but obviously had no inkling as to what it would be today.

He did share his vision of this aspect when he spoke of the Epcot community and said, "Among its major features will be a cosmopolitan hotel and convention center towering 30 or more stories. Shopping areas where stores and whole streets re-create the character and adventure of places 'round the world... theaters for dramatic and musical productions... restaurants and a variety of nightlife attractions. And a wide range of office buildings, some containing services required by Epcot's residents, but most of them designed especially to suit local and regional needs of major corporations."

Forty years later, we have Disney Westside.

Residential Life

Walt imagined that people would "live in Epcot's high-density apartments surrounding the metropolitan center. Most passengers who ride the WEDWAY live beyond the apartments and stay aboard the People Mover as it crosses Epcot's sheltering greenbelt.

"Epcot's greenbelt is more than just a broad expanse of beautiful lawns and walks and trees. Here too are the communities' varied recreation facilities, its playgrounds for children, its churches, and its schools.

Beyond the greenbelt are Epcot's neighborhood areas of single-family homes."

Walt also made the connection between the resident homes and the recreational areas:

"The homes are located in a wide green area that provides light recreation activities for adults and play areas for children. Circulating through this area are footpaths reserved for pedestrians, electric carts, and bicycles. Children going to and from schools and playgrounds will use these paths, always completely safe and separated from the automobile. "

Many people forget Walt's detailed vision of Epcot.

He stated, "In Disney World, about 20,000 people will actually live in Epcot. Their homes will be built in ways that permit ease of change so that new products may continuously be demonstrated. Their schools will welcome new ideas so that everyone who grows up in Epcot will have skills in pace with today's world.

Epcot will be a working community with employment for all. And everyone who lives here will have a responsibility to help keep this community an exciting living blueprint of the future."

Quite the dream.

The Real Epcot

Is Celebration, Florida, a subset of the Epcot that was so entrenched in Walt's eyes? There are many who claim that this community is in fact part of Walt's vision. Maybe so, but it has a long way to go before anyone could proclaim Celebration as an environmental Prototype Community of the future.

Walt's ideas on Epcot are spread out all through Walt Disney World. It's difficult to imagine whether the original concept of Epcot will ever come to full realization.

However, it is encouraging to see this theme park continue to make strides towards establishing itself as a special type of place to visit.

It's odd how in a recent survey Epcot was listed as one of the most popular theme parks in the world. That distinction may have resulted from the fact that everyone sees something different in Epcot. It appeals to many people in different ways. There is no label you can place on it, in fact... shouldn't a theme park have a theme? There are theme parks based on fantasy, movies, animals, and other focused areas.

Not Epcot. It stands alone... unique. Maybe that's a good thing. Epcot has come a long way and maybe its problems are behind it.

Epcot's Future

It has taken a while for Epcot to rebound from its patchwork beginning. The main problem for its struggles could very well have been that the original concept really never had someone to drive it. There was only one pilot capable of steering this project to the finish line and that was Walt Disney himself.

But unfortunately he could not do that. If you ever get a chance to see the film I've been describing you may want to keep something in mind. With all the energy and excitement that Walt shows on film in his description of his Florida project you would have never even suspected that he was succumbing to a terrible life threatening disease.

Approximately seven weeks after making this film, Walt Disney passed away in a California hospital as his brother sat at the foot of his bed rubbing Walt's feet.

When Walt passed on, so did the driving force... the only driving force that would have seen the concepts in that film come to life.

That was the problem with Epcot.

It has taken some time to rebound, but I think Epcot is turning the corner and the future looks bright for this theme park.

I know I like it.

Next time

Halloween has come and gone, the leaves have left the trees, and the turkeys are running for cover. That means that Mousefest is just around the corner.

Next time we'll preview Mousefest 2003.

Class dismissed.