EPCOT opened on October 1, 1982, and it represents the culmination of Walt Disney’s greatest dream. From the earliest days of “the Florida Project” (a codename for what would become the Walt Disney World Resort), Walt spoke of a utopian futuristic city, then called Progress City, self-sustaining and self-governing, that would serve as a prototype for future cities everywhere. Sadly, Walt Disney did not live to see the completion of his dreams, passing away on December 15, 1966. Nonetheless, his dreams were not forgotten. After the smash success of the Magic Kingdom, the company was ready to move forward with Progress City.
For many reasons, it was decided that the project would not become an actual city, but rather another gated park, designed as a showcase of ideas, combining a look at the technology of the past and future, in Future World, with the World’s Fair-style global neighborhood of the World Showcase. The park would be named EPCOT Center , an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The park was renamed simply Epcot in 1993, as part of the sweeping changes that took place during that decade.
Epcot’s opening day was a star-studded gala, with various celebrities and dignitaries dedicating sections of the park. Representatives from 22 countries each poured a gallon of water into the Fountain of Nations as a symbol of unity. Competition was fierce between early arriving park guests, as the first family to enter the gates was to be given Lifetime Passes to the park.
The early days of Epcot coincided with the heady days of expansionism, and Phase II of Epcot was soon rolled out, adding several new attractions to the roster. Michael Eisner gained control of the Walt Disney Company in 1984, and made several immediate changes in an effort to make the new park more family-friendly. The first of these changes was the addition of the Disney characters to the park. Wearing 1970s-style silver space suits, the characters met with a mixed reception. Epcot was designed to be an educational park, and many felt that the characters created an incongruity. Others saw this as a necessary change, in order to draw in families with children.
Originally, each Future World pavilion was backed by a corporate sponsor. The sponsors financed construction, and then agreed to pay for the attraction for a certain number of years. Sponsorships changed hands over the years, and eventually some lost sponsorship altogether.
The Epcot of today has changed dramatically from its original concept. Iconic attractions Horizons and World of Motion are gone, replaced by Mission: Space and Test Track respectively. The Universe of Energy is now hosted by Ellen and Bill Nye the Science Guy. The Living Seas is now The Seas With Nemo and Friends . The Wonders of Life pavilion sits generally empty, opening only during extremely busy seasons. Even the World Showcase has changed dramatically, with Akershus, the buffet restaurant in Norway, converting to a Disney Princess meal.
The dramatic changes at Epcot have met with mixed reviews. Unlike the Magic Kingdom , where classic attractions were replaced with hasty and unwelcome quick fixes, the new rides at Epcot are well-conceived and extremely well-received. However, some fans question Epcot’s new direction, feeling that the original point of the park has been lost in celebrity tie-ins and character appearances.
Perhaps the most controversial change to Epcot’s landscape was the giant Mickey hand displayed prominently above Spaceship Earth. Originally installed for the Millennium Celebration, the hand and accompanying Epcot logo had very little to do with the park at all. Many felt that the hand detracted from the look and added nothing in return. The wand was removed in summer of 2007 in time for the 25th anniversary.
Budgetary concerns have led to cutbacks at the park as well. Future World and the World Showcase now operate on a staggered schedule, with Future World open from 9 am to 7 pm and World Showcase open from 11 am to 9 pm. The staggered schedule works to some extent, funneling guests into the proper area for viewing Illuminations, but critics stress that it makes as little sense as would closing Fantasyland two hours early.
Epcot was not immune to the sweeping wave of questionable decisions that led to the closure of much loved attractions. For reasons still unknown to anyone outside Eisner’s inner circle, the Imagination pavilion, including the Journey Into Imagination ride, the critically acclaimed Michael Jackson film Captain EO, and the Image Works playground, underwent a major rehab in the 1990s. The rehab traded Captain EO for Honey I Shrunk the Audience , and Figment and Dreamfinder for Dr. Nigel Channing of the Imagination Institute. Rather odd, really, for a park that was so desperate to add characters to suddenly slash not only Dreamfinder and Figment, but the much loved characters of Captain EO as well. The Image Works never did reopen, but was replaced by a downstairs version that proved to be little more than a giant Kodak ad.
Audiences despised the changes. Letters, petitions, and phone calls flooded corporate headquarters. The protest proved more successful than the Mr. Toad protest, probably because angry fans boycotted Kodak, the ride’s sponsor, as well. In 2001, Imagination went down for yet another ride rehab, giving Figment a more prominent role and bringing in a new version of the original theme song. Although this effort, for the most part, stemmed the boycott, it did little to convince long time fans that they should ride. Imagination has gone from being one of the true E-ticket rides of Epcot to being a sad testament to what once was.
There is hope, however. Bob Iger, long-time right hand man of Michael Eisner, has taken over as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. The new Iger era promises a return to Disney’s roots, a time when show was much more important than profit. Time will tell whether Iger’s grand ideas will come to fruition, but fans are hopeful that, once again, Epcot can return to its original vision.