EDITORIAL: EPCOT – A History of Compromise, and What That Means for the Epcot of the Future

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Some say it all began when a small fish destroyed a seabase. In 2006, EPCOT’s Living Seas pavilion saw a theming refurbishment to the Pixar film “Finding Nemo” and, ever since, Disney management has looked for more ways to add intellectual property into a park with an ethos resistant to it. With Guardians of the Galaxy moving into the Universe of Energy and officially discontinuing that pavillion’s day-one branding, many believe the edutainment EPCOT they grew up with is pretty much a thing of the past.

The issue with such thinking is to ignore the fact that EPCOT has had a history of compromise baked into its origins and, due to this, we have the hodgepodge of theming and the issues resulting from it that we see in the park today.

Walt’s Dream

On October 27, 1966, Walt Disney stood before cameras to pitch his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – a new way to fix the problems that plagued the modern urban environment. An experiment with up to 20,000 participants, Walt’s original EPCOT would be something the world had never seen – and it never would.

By mid-December, Disney was dead and the company, a ship without a captain, steered clear of the unpredictable and went with the safer bet. The Magic Kingdom took priority and it wasn’t until ‘74 that company president Card Walker, tired of hearing about Disney’s final dream, announced that aspects of the EPCOT idea were underway. Even at the start, upper management had diluted Walt’s original vision by a greater extent than any Frozen ride ever could.

“I think Card saw the world as a place to sell movies and cartoons to.” said an associate of Walker’s in David Koenig’s book Realityland, “I don’t think he understood EPCOT.”

A Thematic Quandary

John Hench & Marty Sklar

Over the next eight years, the dream Walt had in mind was whittled down to EPCOT Center, but even that was fraught with questions about what a theme park named after a unrealized city should be. It started as two separate projects – the science and tech expo of Future World and the global culture tour of World Showcase. These were entities unconnected, like mini-parks that existed in conjunction with the greater (and unrealized) EPCOT idea. But these separate concepts couldn’t be sold to sponsors and soon, as Imagineer Marty Sklar discusses in his book Dream It! Do It!, a compromise was made.

“…we pushed the project models for Future World and World Showcase together – creating one project with enough potential participants combined to provide the seed money that suggested the sales effort could be a success.”

From the start, EPCOT as a theme park lacked a cohesive idea that held together all its parts due to monetary demands. While many say that everything falls under a World’s Fair concept, it is important to remember that such events last no longer than a year or two. EPCOT, forced to stick with what was built for far longer, has spent more time with antiquated displays of technology and outdated looks at individual countries than it ever has being up to date and world-conscious. The pushing of these separate projects together might have made EPCOT Center happen, but it sure didn’t foster a singular vision for the park.

Sponsors Make Their Mark

The initial concept of EPCOT Center wasn’t the only time sponsorships have affected the park’s quality or theming. Throughout the years, EPCOT’s model of using sponsors to fund development has put Imagineers with their fantastic blue-sky ideas up against not only Disney’s corporate suits and bean-counters, but also stiff-shirts from outside the entertainment industry, who lack any sense of design or artistry experience.

Take Kodak, a sponsor that demanded an updated version of the classic Journey into Imagination attraction, but failed to pony up enough money to make it even come close to rivaling its predecessor. That was an unmitigated disaster in many ways, and Disney had to revamp the attraction a few years later due to unrelenting guest complaints. Not only that, but Disney’s relationship with the yellow-box film company prevented them from working with Fujifilm on a Japan pavilion Mount Fuji roller coaster. Still not convinced that corporate sponsors haven’t always been a good thing for EPCOT Center? Look no further than how General Electric’s decision to not renew their contract for Horizons left the attraction on a death march until it closed a good five years later.

Of course, sponsorships are not an EPCOT-exclusive concept, but without the use of familiar films or characters for its rides, such as at Magic Kingdom, grey-haired executives were more concerned about their sponsored attraction’s appeal. One can assume this meant more compromise between what Imagineering wanted and what companies like Kodak would foot the bill for.

The Mouse Pays The Bills

If there’s a moment in its history that people should pinpoint for sending EPCOT down the path it finds itself on now, it’s probably an early decision by then-CEO Michael Eisner to allow Mickey and his friends into the park. It’s not like anyone was going to tell Eisner no and the majority of guests welcomed the change. But this was a compromise to fill a vacuum left by the park not having enough of its own characters that were likable and engaging to children (Figment and Dreamfinder were the only two that lasted past the first couple of years, at least until they were sidelined and basically disappeared (thanks Kodak!). With the decision to bring in existing characters, the floodgates opened and it is honestly surprising it took as long as it did for intellectual properties to take over whole pavilions.

But here’s the thing – can you blame Disney?

Well, you could blame Card Walker for making poor decisions in the 70’s, but he actually did what he had to do in order to ensure that EPCOT Center was actually built. Or you could blame Michael Eisner for his decisions in the 80’s, but without him the entire Walt Disney Company would probably not exist today. So current Disney management is faced with a park (in no way the original vision of its creator) with only two distinct “lands” and less sponsors willing to invest year after year. It’s easy to think they should go back to the education-only motif, but it’s simply not feasible in practice. EPCOT Center could have redefined edutainment for generations, but past management consistently compromised with theme and sponsors along the way. So, really, we can’t go back to an uncompromised EPCOT Center because such a thing never actually existed.

What could the future hold? Is there any possibility to get to a happy place where the attractions are great and all guests (including Epcot fanboys) are happy? Perhaps a talking space raccoon and his friends get more people through the doors and the additional ticket sales afford Disney the finances they need to depend less on sponsor money. Maybe a rat who likes to cook can give them the corporate stability to experiment with new non-IP-related adventures. Or maybe they’ll strip Spaceship Earth naked of its glorious Alucobond triangles and turn it into a permanent Death Star. Who knows. But, as we look at what is planned for the future of EPCOT, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t a single big decision in recent years that lead us here, but many the little ones along the way starting almost a half-century ago.

Read more from Nathan Hartman.

About the author

Nathan Hartman

A sunshine state resident, Nathan is an avid Disney parks wonk as well as a university film professor.

Twitter: @somestuffisaid