When I think of Epcot, all I see is purple. My very first memory of the park is a mountain of purple glow encompassing my entire field of vision, standing majestically above me, grand and miraculous. This was the nighttime view from inside the Monorail’s front car, gliding past Spaceship Earth on its way into the park in November 2000. My seven-year-old self was in awe.
My family spent the remainder of our evening in Epcot, though my first proper, full day in the park wouldn’t come until a few years later in 2004. This timeframe is a mile marker between two distinct periods in the park’s history. Gone were some of the flagship attractions that embodied its inaugural era, like Horizons and the original Journey Into Imagination. Not yet arrived was anything in World Showcase incorporating Disney characters into attractions. It is within this contextualization that we find what I now appreciate as a fascinating case study: What does Epcot mean to the person like me who never knew it in its fabled glory days?
“The answers lie in our past.”
To the Guest who never experienced it, 1982, opening-day EPCOT Center is almost as mythological of a setting as Oz—a place discussed with intense intrigue, often expressed with language so romanticized it sounds like fantasy. A different breed of theme park, EPCOT Center sought to entertain, inform, and inspire (all three of those words decidedly in that order, which will be important to remember later). It informed its Guests about the world around them and excited them about opportunities of the future, using Disney’s storytelling excellence to do so. It enthralled people (or, again, as far as I can perceive, it did).
While these ideals are still embodied in the park to a certain degree, the Epcot of today is very different from the EPCOT Center of 1982 (its name/punctuation change in the mid-’90s reflecting this). The pace of attractions is faster. There is a greater emphasis on thrill. Educational value is perceived from a “showing” rather than “telling” approach. Disney characters serve as cultural guides to international locales where before there were no recognizable franchises.
Regardless of opinion as to whether today’s version is superior or inferior to what came before, it’s a statement of fact in saying the park’s early years presented the Guest with a wholly unique theme park experience that has not been replicated since. Many Guests who fell in love with the park during its first decade or so feel a sense of attachment to this former iteration and cling to the possibility of the park returning to a former glory, or at least embodying its same spirit in new additions. Most people who enter Epcot‘s gates today, though, simply take what’s in front of them for what it is now, perhaps because of preference, but likely because of a lack of exposure. And who’s to blame them?
“Let’s travel back in time together.”
How was I to know any of that as an 11-year-old when I spent a full day in Epcot for the first time? The extra baggage that many enthusiasts rightfully carry with them into a day at Epcot is simply nonexistent to many people, and that’s sometimes difficult to remember. With that in mind, based on my age, since Epcot was physically unable to enchant me in its supposed-idyllic period, and thus unable to hold the same revered place in my childhood that seems to define so many fans’ Disney journeys, what did that first visit as a kid mean to me? What was the value in my encounter with the park?
If I could boil it down to one theme, it would be interactivity prompted by curiosity. If an attraction concluded with interactive exhibits, I stopped to participate—and not just for a brief pitstop, but for a significant engagement. My parents and I thought the Kodak picture station inside ImageWorks (an activity showcasing essentially a precursor to Snapchat filters) was a blast. My brothers and I spent the better part of an hour playing Toon Tag inside Innoventions. I purchased an Epcot passport and toured World Showcase with my dad and grandfather, collecting stamps and signatures from all 11 nations. And I’ll be darned if my favorite attraction wasn’t Journey Into Your Imagination with Figment, not knowing the passionate disdain that many adults vocally pointed in its direction, wishing its original incarnation would replace its revised edition.
Ultimately, being able to not just observe a story within a theme park, but engage with it and learn from it—making valuable discoveries not just about yourself, but about the world around you and beyond you—was the coolest thing on the planet for my 11-year-old brain that didn’t yet understand that its top three Strengths were Input, Learner, and Intellection. Though I wasn’t consciously perceptive of it at the time, Epcot was a space to interact with the elements of my personality that had prior been restricted to books, text on a page. I remember my class at school was studying the American Revolution at the time, and I was so proud that I recognized a few of the scenes in The American Adventure. This was real life (or a manufactured representation of it, at least), and it was amazing.
If I’m interpreting sentiment toward the park’s beginnings correctly, I believe that’s the essence of what EPCOT Center was, and what Epcot still successfully became to me, even in 2004 with no knowledge of any prior iteration of the park.
“Now knowledge can travel as fast as these new books.”
The focus becomes, then, assessing whether this same idea fared across yet another generation to remain a priority for today’s Epcot youths, as we’re now significantly removed from 2004 and by comparison eons away from 1982. We’ve established, no matter how you slice it or how you feel about it, Epcot is different now than it was on its opening day.
This is not a conversation topic exclusive to Epcot, though. In almost every theme park attraction, changes are made as time progresses, some barely noticeable and others significantly so. Hardly anything exists in its purified opening-day form. Even Pandora – The World of AVATAR has already dimmed the intensity of its bioluminescent glow since it opened just a few months ago. The difference with Epcot is that the whole park essentially functions cohesively to serve the same purpose. It isn’t divided into thematic neighborhoods as concretely as other Disney parks. Elsewhere, a changed attraction only changes the message of the “land” it inhabits. At Epcot, though, without the separation of such districts aside from the two halves of the park, any change made affects the purpose of the entire park.
Epcot‘s existence itself is an adaptation of Walt Disney’s 1966 vision for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a functioning, futuristic city. It is only keeping with tradition, then, that modern Epcot has, perhaps unintentionally, become an adaptation of its initial iteration. An adaptation of an adaptation is about as far from its original concept as a game of Telephone, which presents a frustrating dichotomy. How can Epcot inspire guests in the same way it did when it opened if it’s constantly changing its identity? Simultaneously, though, how can we expect a theme park that embodies pressing toward tomorrow by trying new things to carry forth its message if it refuses to do just that? Both sides of this coin are valid and intriguing.
“Call it the first back-up system.”
As I grew older, my Disney fandom gained more depth and became more mature. I began to realize Epcot was a place of history, challenge, consideration, and, looking forward, controversy. The pressure to introduce new concepts and new attractions to draw more Guests is a challenge every theme park faces. Epcot‘s pressure, though, is particularly unique in that the approach to doing this can’t follow a predictable, traditional path. Epcot‘s subjects are so varied and its menu so diverse, and while that presents an exciting palette to enjoy as a Guest, it leads to its major decisions being influenced by interpretation of its purpose.
What is that purpose exactly, you ask? As it stands today, we can look to two main sets of guidelines. The first is an element I’ve discussed here on WDW Radio before (in the context of Disney’s Animal Kingdom): the dedication plaque at the park entrance. Presented on the opening day of every theme park and placed prominently for any Guest to observe thereafter, a dedication plaque serves as the closest thing to the definition of the succeeding theme park as one could ask for. In my opinion, every item in a theme park should align with the purpose of the park as stated on its dedication plaque. If it doesn’t, the attraction either doesn’t belong, or the plaque needs to be revised to reflect the park’s current vision.
The dedication plaque for Epcot, presented opening day 1982, reads:
To all who come to this place of joy, hope, and friendship, welcome.
EPCOT Center is inspired by Walt Disney’s creative genius. Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, the wonders of enterprise, and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all.
May EPCOT Center entertain, inform, and inspire. And, above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man’s ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.
All right. So that serves as our first set of guidelines stepping forward. They’re standards that I believe most would agree upon that have made Epcot brilliant for decades and can continue to make it brilliant stepping forward. It is in the interpretation of these words that things get a little tricky.
Our second set of guidelines in seeking an articulate definition of what Epcot is comes from a much more recent source. In 2016 at Destination D, Bob Chapek (Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts) stated that efforts were underway to create an Epcot that will be “more timeless, more relevant, more family, and more Disney.” There’s some tension with these terms, namely toward anyone who believes 1.) Epcot is already any or all of those things, or 2.) Epcot shouldn’t be any or all of those things. If Disney is saying the park isn’t those qualities in its current state, then the company and the person who believes otherwise have two very different ideas of what Epcot should be, and that could lead to some crossfire as more projects are announced and implemented. There is at least comfort, though, in knowing that intentions for the park are being strategically maneuvered from a big-picture perspective. Chapek’s remarks let us know that Disney is approaching the park’s future in a macro way, rather than haphazardly creating random experiences one at a time and hoping they culminate into something worthwhile.
“An adventure that we’ll take and make together.”
We now look ahead, some with excitement and others perhaps with a bit of trepidation. Over the next several years, Epcot will welcome a shiny new central plaza, an attraction starring Guardians of the Galaxy in replacement of Universe of Energy, a Ratatouille dark ride in the France pavilion, and additional unannounced-but-promised mysteries.
I may not have been alive to see the park in its premiere state, and no amount of videos or books serve as a proper substitute for the experiences and memories many people have. However, in the memories I do possess and the things that did inspire me within this unique place, I got the same purpose, just from a different capacity. Maybe I “didn’t know any different.” Maybe I experienced what some would call the “second-rate” revision. But to me, it was all I knew, and from what I can gather, I got the same end goal. If the park is still producing the same resulting message in its Guests, is it bad if the specific medium of experiences caters to modern trends in theme park appeal? That’s the divisive hot topic.
Ultimately, I believe Epcot has always faced the extremely challenging goal of meeting the expectation of what a modern theme park is while shaping its new additions through the vision and purpose of what the original EPCOT city and the initial EPCOT Center stood for.
This doesn’t mean that every new project will hit that purpose directly, but I think we negate the spirit of what the park is if we dismiss the possibility that it can. Like any park, there are certainly misses. There are attractions that stray from where their focus should have been, aren’t executed well, or aren’t received with their intended impact. The difference at Epcot is that these misses are more glaring when the park sets its standard of intellect so high. A miss at Epcot might be full marks anywhere else. Epcot doesn’t aspire to just be a fun place to spend a day of vacation. It seeks to do so much more. Its victory comes in its application as its Guests go forth and inhabit their world thereafter, as they contribute to this, our spaceship earth. In its 35 years thus far and as it steps into a new era of its future, filling the real world with as much innovation as is present within its pseudo-world gates is the true success of this park, an experimental prototype of how we can make our world better by being better people.
(IllumiNations image belongs to author’s personal collection. All other images © Disney.)
To learn more about Blake and read his recent posts for WDW Radio, visit his author page by clicking the link on his name at the top of this post.