The Significance of EPCOT Center:

Walt Disney World’s Pièce de Résistance and the case for Sentimentalism

Through the convenience of timeliness, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about EPCOT Center and its meaning as of late. I didn’t particularly intend to proffer to the plethora of EPCOT content that has recently found resurgence on the Internet, but as you can see I yielded to my thoughts. This essay marks a departure in my typical writing conventions for it is places emphasis on nostalgia instead of analysis.

Pardon the confusing nature of the following statement. EPCOT has never been my favorite Theme Park, yet it always will be. Allow me to explain. This will date myself chronologically I suppose, but I was introduced to Disney Parks at the tail end of the EPCOT Center’s “Golden Age.” Epcot 94’ and 95’ had just passed and the “Center” was forever dropped from its namesake.

I lament missing out on opening day EPCOT entities such as Kitchen Kaberet, Communicore, the original Universe of Energy, and World of Motion. However, I did receive a sort of “sentimental education” from attractions like The Living Seas, Horizons, and the Jeremy Irons narrative on Spaceship Earth. The pedagogical nature of the park didn’t particularly thrill me as much as a young individual, but rather left a delayed but indelible impression through its exhibits of edification and wonder.

EPCOT was not my immediate favorite park as a child, the Magic Kingdom was. If I had to wager I would probably bet the majority of my age group at that time would have agreed with me. I idolized the Disneyland model and developed an early appreciation for the value of themed environments. The Magic Kingdom fulfilled all the expectations set by all the promotional material that I had watched beforehand. Walt Disney World’s famed retailing of magic had caught another consumer.

Not that my childhood experience with Walt Disney World was fundamentally different that anyone else’s, but a brisk excitement lingered for months after. I clamored to go back. I must say that I was fortunate (and blessed) to frequent the parks despite their far proximity from Akron, Ohio, my parents being the generous benefactors of my travels. I did find merit in my local parks: Cedar Point and (the now closed) Geauga Lake, but they weren’t art forms. There was nothing behind the limited aesthetic. Popcorn lights and flowerbeds didn’t justify acceptable theming in my book. A cardboard cutout with a screen-printed picture of a superhero in front of a rollercoaster didn’t sell any kind of illusion to me. There was no story.

I was probably around the age of twelve when I began to look at parks differently. I read every book I could find about Walt Disney. My heroes changed from Bill Clinton, Kenny Lofton, and Bruce Wayne to John Hench, Herb Ryman, and Tony Baxter. I lamented the closure of The Timekeeper and Alien Encounter, knowing the thematic unity of the “New Tomorrowland” that I grew up with (and was particularly fond of) had died. “New Tomorrowland” represented the first in a chain of vicissitudes that I had come to notice. However, my unwavering faith in WDI had no doubt that Mission: Space would be a better attraction than Horizons, whom I briefly was acquainted with. I watched Mission: Space open from afar, caught up in the publicity and commotion over its new technologies, only to disappoint. It was at this time (2003) where I began to really appreciate the EPCOT Center of old for its amplitude.

In my book there are two monumental paradigm shifts in the history of Theme Parks and Themed Entertainment. Of course, the first one came when the Disneyland model was introduced in 1955. Everyone is aware of Walt Disney’s trademark contribution to the industry, but the second came in 1982 with the opening of EPCOT Center. I’m not a fan of the phrase, but I truly believe that EPCOT Center was the world’s greatest “cop-out.” Even though EPCOT Center was a far cry from Walt Disney’s grandiose vision of a working, breathing, city of the future, it did mark a significant landmark in the industry. When two separate models for future parks (a future themed area) and a permanent world’s fair (a world showcase) were pushed together to form a cohesive prototype, the future of Theme Parks changed. Not only could there be a successful profound deviation from the Disneyland model, but a park could represent something more. A Theme Park could educate, exhibit culture, and reflect change in modern society.

Visually, EPCOT Center was a striking departure from typical Theme Park conventions. The pavilions of Future World were given unique and monolithic forms. In aesthetics, the structures were contrasted by the clean landscape. Guest sightlines were carefully constructed; simple curved paths led guests on wide paths, which brilliantly juxtaposed the landscape in color. The pavilions carried an aggregate theme of optimism and importance; their sponsorships recalled the sterile corporatism of the famed World’s Fairs of the twentieth century. The physical separation of the pavilions allowed for effective guest distribution as well as an imposing visage, partly due to forced perspective at times, when seen from far away.

But as much as the Future World pavilions seemed daunting in their exterior, visitors found warmth and reassurance once inside the pavilions. Ray Bradbury once wrote that the constructed metaphors that emanate from the very minutiae of EPCOT Center allow the park guest to experience feelings of assurance, an optimistic argument in favor of solving the world’s problems. This sort of intellectual stimulus gave EPCOT Center a rather unique distinction, yet plagued it in reputation. What came to be known as “Edutainment” gave a somewhat negative connotation to the park with some of the younger audiences viewing the experience as a negative extension of the classroom.

This set stigma resulted in management’s demand for more thrilling attractions. World of Motion was shuttered in 1996 in favor of the more thrilling Test Track attraction. The inside of the circular pavilion was gutted of its audio-animatronic scenes, but gained a high-speed exterior track. EPCOT Center could now boast Walt Disney World’s fastest attraction. Only kept open by the construction delays in Test Track, Horizons followed World of Motion in suit, closing in 1999 to make room for another thrilling attraction, Mission: Space. Test Track and Mission: Space contributed to Orlando’s thrill-ride proliferation while simultaneously subtracting commitment to theme and warmth from Future World East.

Other changes beleaguered Future World West. The once charming Journey into Imagination was stripped of its trademark characters and upstairs post-show area, while the track was drastically shortened for a callous ride. The Living Seas abandoned all semblance of respective theming in favor of Pixarification. The Seas with Nemo and Friends, while a sound attraction, now exists as a garish pastel-colored protrusion in theme.

The problem with EPCOT Center lies in the direction of change. Regardless of the ride nature of the 21st century thrill-based additions, they did little to reflect the theme of Future World. Test Track was set in the present (and perhaps the past given its datedness at the end of its first iteration). Mission: Space projected into the future, but ultimately exhibits motion simulator technology readily available in the present. Worse, the pavilions lack the warmth and reassurance that used to grace EPCOT Center. Look at the post-shows for Test Track and Mission: Space. The first iteration of Test Track dumped guests into a moderately common GM showroom, a living commercial. Sadder, Mission: Space leads guests straight down a un-themed long white hallway upon their exit. Besides the clichéd “good-job by making it through this ride” in the attraction scripts, there is no reassurance or prefiguration of inspiration.

The fundamental irony behind the all of the changes is that EPCOT itself never embraced the innovation it preached. Monumental changes in the modern world were barely reflected in the park. The Internet, which had made the world a smaller place during Epcot’s tenure, was seldom addressed. Yesterday’s answers weren’t sufficient for the problems of the present day, and Epcot’s age began to show in the mid-1990’s.

Reverting back to a personal anecdote, Theme Parks have always been sort of a solitary experience. I often traverse the parks alone, and even with others I sort of lose myself in my thoughts. For a long time I really didn’t have many people to converse with about themed attractions past the level of “I liked that ride, and this ride etc.” (which always bothered me to an extent). But I remember the attractions of EPCOT Center opening an inner dialogue for greater thought.

Fitzgerald, in his posthumous collection of essays The Crack-Up, famously questioned the value of a memory: “It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.” I fear this could apply. If one were to travel back in time to 1993, before the “Center” was dropped from EPCOT, would it be truly better than the present? It is hard to say in confidence.

However, some things remain constant in my mind when recalling the EPCOT Center of old. I remember seeing the Mag-Lev trains of Nova Cite in Horizons and drawing the parallel of having ridden the monorail into EPCOT, a creative treatment on reality. I remember overarching hues of deep greens and blues and fiber-optic illusions embedded in long purple sidewalks. I remember EPCOT Center being important, not just another offering in a series of parks. EPCOT Center was a place of visionary influence, Ray Bradbury and Buckminster Fuller its contributors. Well-crafted iconography graced attraction signs and fully orchestrated themes permeated the atmosphere. Large pools of water in-between pavilions symbolized power and structure, yet allowed for individual introspection. It was a place of classical academic detail.

This is where the case for sentimentalism is strongest. By retroactively identifying the very ethos of EPCOT Center through its minutia, we can identify its strong suits and hope that it is being steered forward in the right direction. The proliferation of thrill rides to make EPCOT more “exciting” isn’t the problem. Where EPCOT has faulted is in its commitment to “entertain, inform and inspire.” To recall my earlier story, I enjoyed my childhood experiences at local parks Geauga Lake and Cedar Point. A day there provided much thrill and indubitably was a fun experience. But here’s the thing: thrill diminishes and wears off over time. The impressions that I gained from EPCOT Center still remain to this date, a testament to their strength.

I recall being bathed in the light of Horizon’s massive IMAX screen, viewing tableaus of an optimistic future. That single experience provided just as much inspiration to me as a young boy than any schoolteacher ever could. This kind of inspiration and assurance is lacking from the park of today. Yet, I am eager and optimistic for the EPCOT Center of the future – because that’s what my favorite park taught me to do all those years ago.