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


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


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

Author Foreword: With the official closing of Club Cool, Innoventions, the Fountain of Nations, Fountain View, and the Mickey & Friends Character Spot, many are grieving the loss of Epcot icons they knew since childhood and possibly the original spirit of the park as a whole. In an editorial I wrote last year, as rumors began to surface of upcoming changes, I propose that perhaps what many consider to be the downfall of Epcot is simply the next step in an evolving park that never fully could cling to its mission due to compromise. We’ve decided to revisit the editorial in an effort to spark conversation on the ever-changing evolution of Epcot, and we hope it serves as a springboard for Epcot fans new and old. Enjoy!

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

EPCOT JohnHenchleft MartySklarright 176495 e1527632408129
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

epcot mickey and friends

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.

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6 thoughts on “EDITORIAL: Epcot – A History of Compromise, and What That Means for the Epcot of the Future”

  1. Whether Card Walker understood Walt’s original EPCOT vision or not isn’t really why it was not realized. I’m not sure anyone fully understood what Walt had in mind. It was still pretty much in the blue sky phase. Instead, the economic realities of building a functional community like EPCOT made it infeasible in the 1970s. There were continued recessions, inflation was running high, interest rates were exorbitant (the prime rate hit 21.5% in 1980), there were oil shortages, the Watergate scandal shook the country, and a there was a general malaise in the country. Corporate America was in a phase of conglomeration, and getting them on board to foot the bill was not going to happen.

    Additionally, Walt Disney Productions, as the company was known then, was not especially healthy either, to the point that they had US Steel build the Contemporary and Polynesian, and the original plan was for Disney not to operate those hotels. At one point, they were considering options on shuttering their animation studios and becoming just a park operator. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but there’s no way Disney could build out the EPCOT community alone, WDP did not want to get into the community development business, at least not in the 1970s.

    There were other companies that were getting into this, on a smaller scale. Reston, VA, outside Washington, DC, was a planned community built largely (but not founded) by Gulf and Mobil. This was a more traditional community. The type of thing Walt Disney envisioned would require massive investment in infrastructure (including an airport), going far beyond the traditional sponsorship model used at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom park, and there’s little doubt that corporate America could envision a return on investment.

    If Walt had lived, could he have convinced other corporations to come on board? Maybe. He had that gift. But given the economic situation in the 1970s, it’s doubtful enough investors would join to make the venture viable.

  2. Don’t defend their poor decision making. They’ve destroyed what made EPCOT Center a uniquely entertaining and educational destination, and are turning it into a crappy uninteresting bland theme park that Orlando doesn’t need. Disgusting. Disney should be ashamed of what not only they’ve allowed EPCOT to become, but of what they are doing, which is even worse.

  3. Walt had his dream with help from his wife Lillian (Lilly) & Roy plus a few others. Since his death alcohol was brought in against his wishes. He did not want young kids exposed to people who were drunk it would ruin the magic for them. Now we are learning that his Dream for Epcot was changed from what he wanted by leadership. There needs to be a change in leadership with people who have the same mind set as Walt installed. That is my opinion!

    • I want to add without Walt’s vision & hard work The Walt Disney Company would not exist. So leadership should follow his plan as close as they can to keep it going like he wanted. They also should price tickets to where more families could come to the parks there are many families who cannot afford it. I am old school like I believe Walt was, to him it was all about the kids for the most part & the adults also not the money that’s was Roy’s role. Believe it or not money is not everything it is important though.

  4. Nathan, I couldn’t agree more. Now while I consider myself a bit of an all things Disney Fanboy, I understand two key points most fanboys/girls do not. One, which applies to the business side of Disney parks, is if you aren’t growing, you are dying. Stagnated attendance will never bring in enough revenue to keep things going or to add new attractions. Which brings the second point I understand; nostalgia alone will never be enough to generate the attendance numbers necessary to keep that revenue up (especially in a publicly owned company). Now as someone who attended Epcot in 84 for the first of many times, I do miss all the old Future World pavilions and the Edutainment theme and style of that half of the park. And while I may personally think that the immersive style of story telling that Disney is famous for and is experts at is a far superior way to teach and learn than today’s world of “just google it” from your phone, sadly, that is the world of today and there is no going back (don’t get me started about all the people living their life through a 5 inch phone screen and completely missing out on what is real and all around them). Now I understand corporate sponsorship model and the benefits that it afforded Disney financially at the time (i.e. having more funds to build bigger, better, and more), but I also understand from company view point that they can spend less and get far more exposure with a good website/social media account than they would out of a pavilion. So if the sponsorship model is no longer viable, what is a company to do to justify the cost of renovation that will generate enough income that will pay for said renovation and more? You use what you have (as in IP’s). I have always found it amusing when people complain and say things like “Walt didn’t use IP’s”. Yes he most certainly did. And while yes, there were some “original’ rides or characters, that was almost 65 years ago and the Disney portfolio of IP’s was vastly smaller. Many of the rides at Disneyland opening day and onward were based on cartoons and movies the company had made. In my opinion, if you own it, and use it tastefully and artistically (Journey into Your Imagination being the perfect example of doing it all wrong), why not make use of what you already own. If it allows the imagineers more freedom to follow blue sky concepts, throw in an IP. It it means increasing attendance and revenue to grow the company and parks and experiences, then overlay an attraction with an appropriately themed IP. So while I may miss my old Epcot Future World every time I go, I also enjoy the new attractions in Future world and I am sure I will find much to love and enjoy with the changes that are inevitable. I personally think that if Walt have lived another 20 or 30 years, Epcot would have evolved beyond the dream and I think that he would have changed and grown the Epcot we have today far faster and more often that it has over the years. Thanks Nathan for being one of the more positive voices and outlooks (Pete and Rob as well) at WDWNT.

  5. From 2005 to 2010, I worked for IBM when Disney signed an I/T outsourcing contract. One of the things was to update the terribly outdated IBM exhibit in Innoventions. Disney Imagineers came up with some very creative yet very doable ideas. IBM wouldn’t commit to the money needed, so the most lame “refresh” was done. I was there for the Grand Opening. As a life-long Disney aficionado, I can say without reservation it was a complete embarrassment. I felt so badly for everyone who had been forced into developing and delivering this, both IBM and Disney. I have to admit, I was pleased when the exhibit finally closed. But it was a perfect example of how the sponsorships were only as good as the – initial and on-going – commitment and investment by the sponsors. As much as I’d loved to have seen Walt’s vision come to fruition, I perfectly understand why DIsney is doing what they are doing. And, for me, my enjoyment of EPCOT keeps growing as these changes occur.

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