EPCOT is an ever-changing place. Walt himself wanted the parks to be lively and up to date, never having the feel of a dusty old museum or relic. However, a balance must always be found between the old and the new. Many fans feel that during the dark days of the Eisner years, much that was traditional, classic and most of all unique was lost in favor of off the shelf rides with no real character, simply because they were cheaper to build and maintain. Regardless of personal feelings as to why certain things were done or not done, the fact remains that much has changed in the parks over the years. If you have not visited in some time, you might be caught off guard. Here, then, is a guide to the major changes that have taken place at Epcot since the park’s inception.
Epcot Disney opened in 1982 as an entirely different style of theme park. Divided into two major sections, Future World and the World Showcase, Epcot was designed as a celebration of human accomplishment. Future World was dedicated to new and emerging technology, while the World Showcase was a World’s Fair style celebration of global cultures. At the time, Epcot did not contain any of the traditional Disney characters, as it was designed to be an educational park. However, Epcot did offer its own photo and autograph opportunities in the form of new characters such as the beloved Figment and Dreamfinder from Journey Into Imagination.
The park was an instant success. Guests loved the new style and format, a definite departure from the animated film-based Magic Kingdom. Adults appreciated the educational aspect while children loved the hands-on, interactive exhibits in the same way that children appreciate science centers and children’s museums throughout the world. Yet when Michael Eisner took over the Walt Disney Company in the mid-1980s, his first order regarding Epcot was to bring in the characters. Shortly afterward, Mickey and friends began appearing at Epcot wearing 1970s-style silver space suits.
As Eisner’s reign (often referred to by Disney fans as the dark days or the reign of terror) continued, ever more sweeping changes took place in Epcot, especially in Future World. Beloved dark rides Horizons and World of Motion were sacrificed to make room for the thrill rides Mission: Space and Test Track. While most fans agree that the new rides are top quality and certainly have their place, many question why one of the largest of the theme parks in terms of square footage needed to tear down much loved rides that were appropriate for all ages in order to make room for the thrill rides that appeal only to certain age brackets. One of Walt’s original ideas behind the Walt Disney World complex had to do with land mass. Having run out of room at Disneyland, Walt bought enough land in Florida “to hold all the dreams we could ever dream.” Rather than replace attractions, why not just expand? But the Eisner years were full of replacements rather than expansions, as the accountants who ran the show struggled to improve the bottom line at every junction.
Guests who have not recently visited Epcot may not recognize the Land pavilion at all. With the addition of Soarin’, an import from Disneyland, came a dramatic renovation of the entire pavilion complex. The original Sunshine Season Food Fair was redesigned and the offerings changed significantly. The new Sunshine Seasons food court resembles an airport concourse and now offers gourmet international choices. The queue line for Living With the Land (originally Listen to the Land and guided, now on an audio spiel) has been redirected and can be difficult to find, and Kitchen Kabaret/Food Rocks closed to make room for the Soarin’ queue.
Journey Into Imagination underwent perhaps one of the most controversial of all Disney rehabs as part of the mid-1990s redo. Captain EO (itself a replacement for Magic Journeys) had long since closed to make room for Honey I Shrunk the Audience, and the Eisner team felt that the ride should match up with the film. So despite the continued popularity of the original, Journey Into Imagination was closed and reopened as a visit to the Imagination Institute. Dreamfinder and Figment were no more, and neither was the beloved attraction. Guests complained about the new ride, now simply called Imagination, and with good reason. Not only missing the much-loved characters, but also lacking plot, substance, and point, the new ride was simply bad. So extensive was the complaint list that Disney made an attempt to fix the ride. The Imagination Institute theme remained, but Figment returned as the host, unfortunately having been transformed from a loveable child dragon into an obnoxious early-teenage boy dragon. Although Dreamfinder was still missing and the ride still terrible, complaints tapered off. Now, however, with Iger at the helm, there is talk of the original Imagineer who designed the original ride taking on the task of returning Journey Into Imagination to its former glory. Only time will tell.
Continuing Eisner’s theme of adding Disney and/or Pixar characters wherever possible, both attractions and restaurants have changed drastically. The Living Seas is now The Seas with Nemo and Friends. Many of the World Showcase table service restaurants are now home to character meals having little or nothing to do with the culture of the country.
The World Showcase is now more child-friendly, since the addition of KidCot. Under the KidCot program, children can purchase a passport from any of the World Showcase shops. At designated KidCot stations, the child can then have the passport stamped from that country. Throughout the afternoons, various games and activities are also offered at the KidCot stops.
Guests who have not recently visited may be surprised at the staggered operating hours generally followed by Epcot. Unless there is a special event or holiday, Future World is open from 9 am to 7 pm. World Showcase is open from 11 am to 9 pm. Although a few Future World attractions remain open until 9:00, this is the only Disney theme park which opens and closes different sections of the same park at different times. The net result is, of course, enhanced crowding.
Epcot today looks vastly different than the Epcot of the past. Much of this is inevitable, as Epcot’s Future World, more than any other section of any of the parks, needs to be constantly updated in order to highlight emerging technology. Nonetheless, guests who remember the Epcot of yesterday should be prepared to be shocked. Many of the changes are good, however, and guests are advised to keep an open mind, enjoying the attractions that remain unchanged while allowing the new and different to pleasantly surprise them.