How Epcot changed the World

by David Koenig, contributing writer

How Epcot changed the World

Twenty-five years ago today, EPCOT Center opened, and Disney World, the Disney company, and in fact the entire theme park industry would never be the same.

A portion of the visitors and the media, entranced by its opulent spaciousness and high-minded messages, loved the place. Others found it sterile, derivative, filled with boring attractions that constantly broke down, and nothing like the futuristic city Walt had promised 15 years earlier and his successors had been playing hot potato with ever since.

Love it or hate it, EPCOT Center permanently changed how Disney would plan, design, build and market its theme parks.

1. The World's First Mega-Resort.

With the opening of EPCOT Center, a trip to Disney World could no longer be viewed as a day trip. The addition of a second gate nearly doubled the amount of time and money the average guest spent on property. Disney World also cleverly introduced three- and four-day park tickets—to encourage guests to spend multiple days at each park.

The later openings of Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom further expanded visitors' stays, but due to economies of scale, no addition had a bigger impact than EPCOT. There's a reason Disney's resorts in California, Tokyo and Paris have exactly two parks.

2. Goodbye, E-Tickets.

Because Exxon, General Motors and other sponsors paid $35 million apiece to help fund EPCOT's pavilions, the new park was not well suited for the Magic Kingdom's familiar A through E ticket books. With the corporations paying so much money, management needed as many guests as possible viewing every attraction—whether they had any tickets left or not. More sensitive, how did management tell one company that its attractions were worth a C-ticket and the guy next door's were worth an E-ticket?

Instead, Disney decided to eliminate the familiar A through E ticket books in lieu of an all-rides-included passport—at all of its parks around the world.

3. Hello, Grown-Ups!

Aware that in the 1970s audience interest was waning in its trademark family entertainment fare, Disney needed to expand its brand to adults. EPCOT Center then became the first Disney park to serve alcohol and made a greater attempt to tackle more serious themes in its attractions. EPCOT after dark flourished as the area's fine dining hot spot, and quickly the public got the message that Disney World wasn't just for kids. Parents—or even adults without children—could have fun, too. Disney World became a top honeymoon destination, and Disney would incorporate elements for grown-ups into all of its future parks.

4. Rooms with a View.

During the planning of EPCOT, Disney realized that the international-themed shops and restaurants of World Showcase would mesh perfectly with the types of international-themed hotels (the Venetian, Asian, Persian) it had long planned for Disney World. World Showcase subsequently was designed around a central lagoon with outgoing rivers in the back and on each side. Ideally, those rivers would one day lead to other lagoons surrounded by additional international pavilions that contained appropriately themed hotels, such as an Australian resort or a Swiss chalet. That way, guests could spend both their waking and sleeping hours inside a Disney theme park.

Disney eventually decided to use one of the side channels to lead to a lake outside EPCOT's boundaries, but surrounded by five highly themed hotels (the Swan, Dolphin, Yacht Club, Beach Club, and Boardwalk resorts).

Still, the company was convinced that hotel guests would pay a premium to peek inside—if not actually sleep inside—a Disney theme park. A hotel was incorporated into the entrance of Disneyland Paris. Other hotels were built with a view of Animal Kingdom's savannah and the backwoods of California Adventure. More are on the drawing boards.

5. Movie Madness.

Movie-based attractions used to be unwelcome at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. Walt didn't want guests sitting around watching movies; he wanted visitors cavorting as if they were themselves part of a movie—traveling in a rocket ship or a submarine, on a stagecoach or flying elephant.

But for EPCOT, Disney wanted a list of attractions that was not only long, but more serious than dark rides and coasters. Sitting in a movie theater watching a hushed-tone travelogue just seemed more dignified than barreling over a waterfall.

The company commissioned an astounding 11 major film projects for EPCOT Center, including a groundbreaking 70mm, 3-D extravaganza and three CircleVision epics. And Disney learned a trick it could incorporate into future parks: movies were cheaper to create and update than audio-animatronics.

6. Open Late.

Walt didn't like to see closed attractions, restaurants or shops. When Disneyland was open, everything inside was to be up and running. But EPCOT Center was so massive, management knew that it was going to take a long while before any of the first guests of the morning made it two-plus miles all the way to the back of the park. So they conceived a "staggered opening" schedule. World Showcase was to open several hours after the opening of Future World, allowing demand to build for the back half of the park. Everything would close at the same time.

The system worked so well in distributing crowds and saving labor and utilities that Disney eventually introduced staggered openings as well as staggered closings at all of its parks.

7. Disneyland Becomes a Second-Class Citizen.

Pre-EPCOT, Disney's Burbank executives tried to pay equal attention to both Disneyland and Disney World. Both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom were to receive attractions and updates at roughly the same frequency. And, for the most part, all marketing west of the Mississippi would be for Disneyland, and east of the Mississippi would be for Disney World.

Through the 1970s, Disney World grew to generate about twice the revenue of Disneyland. In EPCOT's first year, Disney World made six times as much as Disneyland. From then on, Disney World would be marketed nationally. And all national promotions, such as Walt's 100th birthday, would push Disney World the heaviest. Even for Disneyland's own 50th anniversary in 2005, Disney printed an eight-page national newspaper supplement—with two of the pages publicizing the dozen new shows and attractions at Disneyland and six pages urging readers to visit Disney World to see its four new parades.

8. A Changing Workforce.

Disney's standards for its employees were traditionally so high that the company was extremely picky about whom it hired and quickly burned through the chosen ones who couldn't—or wouldn't keep up. Yet Disney World wasn't built in the middle of a highly populated area. Even before the opening of EPCOT Center, Disney World was feeling the effects of a too-shallow labor pool. Suddenly, with several thousands positions about to become available to staff a second gate, Disney World had to uncover new sources of labor.

The first innovation was a College Program, designed to tap into our country's near-limitless supply of students willing spend a semester manning ride controls and cash registers for low pay and no benefits. Expressly for EPCOT's World Showcase, Disney created an international version of the College Program. Together, the two programs exposed thousands of fresh-faced youngsters from around the world to a distinctly American work environment. And permitted Disney to begin moving from a staff anchored by seasoned full-timers to a workplace of transients.

9. Management Shake Up.

EPCOT Center was several times the size of the Magic Kingdom. Its pavilions were gigantic. The systems that powered its major attractions were all multi-million-dollar prototypes. And everyone—big money sponsors, finicky Imagineers, and chairman Card Walker—was obsessed that everything be just right, as a magnificent tribute to Walt's final dream. Needless to say, costs spiraled out of control, upwards of $1.4 billion.

Certainly the investment would eventually prove worth it. But at the time the runaway construction costs put a drag on Walt Disney Productions' short-term earnings, disappointed Wall Street, helped convince Roy Disney to resign from the company's board of directors, and paved the way to the ouster of corporate management, the arrival of Michael Eisner, and the eventual infusion of more bottom-line-oriented park management.

10. Refocusing on Its Strengths.

Card Walker desperately wanted to make EPCOT something unique and meaningful. Yet, unable to come up with practical plans for an actual city, he instead settled for a theme park—certainly one with impressive sights and important messages, but a theme park nonetheless. From here on in, Disney slowly came to terms that it was an entertainment company, not a builder of cities. EPCOT Center may have been a far cry from Walt's EPCOT, but it was as close as Disney was going to get.

Brand New Today!

For more deep insight, unbelievable anecdotes, and behind-the-scenes secrets of Disney World, I highly recommend a book that's being released today: my very own Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World. It's available from your local bookseller, including autographed copies from

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Skips, Ahoy!

And if, after gorging yourself on entertainment by reading Realityland, you still haven't had enough fun, mark your calendars for Sunday, October 14 at 8 p.m. It's time for Jungle Cruise Skippers Standup Comedy Night, Round VI at the Maverick Theater in Fullerton, California (read more about it in my previous story, "Skippers Unspieled" from August 17, 2006). Current and former Jungle Cruise skippers will take the stage, including a collection of audience favorites and a few new performers. To reserve seats or learn more, head to All previous shows have sold out, so get your tickets early!

Those who can't make it, because they'll be out of town or hung over from MouseAdventure, do not fear. Tickets are also on sale for Skippers Standup VII at the Maverick Theater November 11. I've got my tickets for both dates!