TIMEKEEPING: 1979 – Walt Disney World Breaks Ground on EPCOT Center

Despite another gas crisis, and a 2% drop in attendance, 1979 was still a year of construction and expansion, not the retraction in plans that the 1974 crisis had caused. While no notable opening or closures took place in 1979, several key construction projects were started. Most notably, after years of planning and design, physical construction began on EPCOT Center on October 1.

The Resort

Changes to the existing resort were few and far between. In the Magic Kingdom, Polaroid took over sponsorship of the newly-christened Polaroid Camera Center. Ground was broken on construction of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, officially putting the final nail in the coffin for Western River Expedition. Dumbo’s Circus Parade ran from January 2 until December 21, replacing Mickey’s Birthday Parade. The park saw its 100,000,000th guest, eight-year-old Kurt Miller on October 22. Kurt received a lifetime pass. The Polynesian Village received a new set of bathrooms for the Luau Cove and some re-landscaping around the Great Ceremonial House area.

As Big Thunder takes shape, both the track and rock work are clearly visible. (Photo Credit: Disney)

Behind the scenes, other projects were underway. Discovery Island was admitted to the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. Construction began on a conference center to compliment the 140 villas in the Lake Buena Vista area. Walt Disney World also began to build the nation’s first Solid Waste Conservation Energy facility, to convert garbage into energy, heat, and commercially valuable byproducts.

WDW VP Bob Allen presents Kurt Miller his lifetime pass for being the 100 millionth visitor to the Magic Kingdom. (Photo Credit: Disney)

EPCOT Center

This picture model of the 1978 EPCOT design was sent out to Magic Kingdom Club members in spring of 1979, before plans would change later in the year. (Photo Credit: Disney)

With plans near finalized, the company broke ground on the EPCOT Center project on October 1, 1979. Card Walker, Florida governor Robert Graham, and former governors Charlie Kirk, Reuben Askew and Haydon Burns participated in the ceremony beneath a near full-scale Spaceship Earth replica. The now $800 million project was fully underway, but the plans would still change.

Claude Kirk, Reuben Askew, Card Walker, Robert Graham, and Haydon Burns at the ceremonial groundbreaking on October 1, 1979. (Photo Credit: Disney)

While the 1979 concept art was much closer to what we would get than the previous model, some changes would still occur. The American Adventure moved to its final position at the center of World Showcase, flanked by Italy and Japan. East of Italy, Germany, Equatorial Africa, some form of apparently Scandanavian pavilion, and Mexico were all properly placed, though no China was pictured. To the west of Japan was first an unidentified pavilion, possibly Costa Rica as mentioned in the Annual Report, what appears to be France, the UK, and Canada. Mexico, Canada, Germany and the UK have clear show buildings in the aerial concept art.

Imagineers working on the large EPCOT model in Glendale. (Photo Credit: Disney)

Moving into Future World, the transition area is flanked by two round buildings. It’s been put forth that this was moved back and became the Odyssey restaurant after the land was determined not to be geologically stable enough for large buildings, and the Future World ponds were placed there later. Imagination, CommuniCore, Transportation, The Land and Energy show buildings now were near identical to their final designs and locations. Century 3, what would become Horizons, stood in the place of The Seas pavilion, and in Horizons’ final spot stood the Science and Technology Pavilion. (The only other reference to this that I can find comes from Herb Ryman’s Brush With Disney book.)

A scan from Herb Ryman’s book A Brush with Disney shows the only known source for the concept of the Science and Technology pavilion.

The concept art also showed close to the proper layout of the entrance plaza, monorail station, parking trams, and other incidental items. The Fountain of Nations appears further back behind CommuniCore, not in its center. The entrance fountain appears more like a reflecting pond. The lagoon has the two exiting waterways leading to the maintenance area and the eventual Crescent Lake area. Both the small islands and Friendship Boats are clearly visible on the lagoon. Spaceship Earth still appears gold in this concept art, and though that may be meant to show the sunlight reflecting off of it, the angles of shadows don’t seem to support that.

The 1979 Annual Report featured this piece of concept art flipped horizontally, for some reason… (Photo Credit: Disney)

All in all, 1979 would be a forgettable year in Walt Disney World History. The year is only notable for the construction that began in it, not really completing anything. However, with additions like Big Thunder Mountain and EPCOT now formally underway, the defining shape of most of the theme parks experience of the 1980s was gestating. However, if you really want to visit a piece of 1979 Disney World history, there’s always the Luau Cove restrooms…

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9 months ago

I love the misspelling of Vader as Vadar on that kids shirt. I’d buy it.

9 months ago

Loving this Timekeeping series- the amount of detail put into it is wonderful!