Thursday, October 20, 2016

Celebrating Walt Disney World's 45th Anniversary: Part III - The Creation of EPCOT Center

By Keith Mahne

Walt Disney once said, "I would rather entertain and hope that people learn, than educate and hope that they're entertained." That statement, made years before EPCOT was created or even conceived, became the standard by which Walt's successors designed their version of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow he had originally envisioned. EPCOT Center was more than just a new theme park; it was a creation that paved the way for Walt Disney World to become the most magical and unique resort destination the world had ever seen. Join us today for the final installment of our 45th anniversary celebration series as we cover the creation of EPCOT Center and the dawn of a whole new Disney era...

EPCOT Center groundbreaking ceremony

Since its opening day 34 years ago on October 1, 1982, Epcot has brought a whole new meaning to the term "Theme Park." Its Future World of exhibits and ride-through attractions celebrated everything from imagination to communication, energy to agriculture, while its World Showcase of films, exhibits, restaurants, and shops bring faraway lands together. EPCOT Center (as it was called on opening day) was, and sort of still is, a wonderful combination of permanent World's Fair, ever-evolving science laboratory and tribute to creative and technological innovation.

1978 EPCOT Center model (and my current desktop wallpaper)

Though plans for EPCOT were first publicly announced in 1975, Walt had been thinking about such an endeavor even before his company began working on the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. As the late John Hench, an Imagineering legend, once recalled, "I was at my desk, answering mail, and Walt walked by and stopped. He asked, 'How'd you like to work on a city of the future?' Then he didn't give me a chance to say anything, like 'Wow!' — he just walked on by."

John Hench, Marty Sklar and John DeCuir Jr. look over Epcot Center's master plan, 1976

Shortly before his death in December 1966, Walt filmed a presentation directed to industry and to Florida residents in which he outlined his concept for EPCOT. This would be a "living, breathing community," he said, where people resided and the family unit was the key, but would also serve as a showcase for American ingenuity and enterprise.

Walt during a presentation directed to industry and to Florida residents in which he outlined his concept for EPCOT, 1966

The loss of Walt and the logistical nightmare the designers faced dictated the eventual elimination of the project's residential aspect. When the Disney Company, led by then-Chairman and CEO E. Cardon (Card) Walker and then-Chairman of the Executive Committee Donn Tatum, did move forward — after the Magic Kingdom had firmly established Walt Disney World as a tourist destination — they focused first on a different kind of showcase.

John Hench, Marty Sklar and others show the very first World Showcase pavilion models to Donn Tatum and Card Walker, 1976

"In those days, WED (now WDI) was trying to sort out what they thought Walt would want to do," Norm Doerges, former Vice President of EPCOT Center, once said. "The World Showcase seemed an easier concept to come to grips with. We developed it as a project separate from EPCOT, that would be in the parking lot of the Magic Kingdom, and we were trying to sell the concept to potential foreign participants. But their support was not forthcoming because it was an American market so there was little in it for them."

World Showcase under construction

World Showcase under construction

Meanwhile, WED had been developing some sketchy ideas for EPCOT pavilions — which, Norm Doerges once mentioned, evoked a far different reaction from executives of American companies. "We would take these presidents and vice presidents to the Preview Center at Walt Disney World and they'd get very excited about EPCOT. The first was Roger Smith, who later became Chairman of General Motors, for the World of Motion pavilion. After that came Exxon (Universe of Energy), AT&T (Spaceship Earth) and so on. When GM signed up, it had the influence of getting things started. But basically at that point, we had some nice designs for World Showcase and next to nothing for EPCOT."

Spaceship Earth, World of Motion and Universe of Energy under construction

Then came the fateful day when John Hench and Marty Sklar, as they were about to give a progress report to the Disney powers-that-be, realized they were never going to obtain enough sponsorship for two separate projects. "So, about five minutes before everyone was due to arrive, we shoved the two models together!" Marty Sklar once recalled. "I think it's a better project as a result."

Marty Sklar and John Hench pose on the humongous model of EPCOT Center with the two Park ideas now joined as one

Under the new game plan, the two seemingly disparate ventures actually formed a unified whole: if Future World were to demonstrate prototypical technologies for the benefit of mankind, World Showcase would set the standards from a sociological point of view. The nations represented — Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada, Japan, China and the United States with its American Adventure attraction — would share equal footage on the World Showcase Lagoon waterfront. Each country's pavilion would be designed to represent a classic time in its history.

WED model makers working on the EPCOT model

These plans remained true to Walt's vision to a certain extent. "Walt had said, 'We'll take ideas from everywhere in the world,'" John Hench once said. "He wasn't articulate as to how, but I think he thought he'd establish a kind of place that was practical but where people would be introduced to other cultures and learn to drop their prejudices." Though EPCOT was a project unlike any Disney had ever attempted, the Company was still able to draw upon its vast experiences. Dick Nunis, former Chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, noted, for instance, that dealings with corporate sponsors at the New York World's Fair eased development of Future World pavilions in that the Disney team had experience in working with major corporations and had already proved to be highly successful in communicating on their behalf.

WED Enterprises designed and created four shows at the1964-65 New York World's Fair which eased development of Future World pavilions in that the Disney team had experience in working with major corporations and had already proved to be highly successful in communicating on their behalf.

Analysis of many Magic Kingdom elements, such as ride systems, food service and walkways, determined the optimum capacity for those aspects and set forth the standards of industrial engineering used by the Company ever since. There were, of course, still some surprises. Part of the site chosen for EPCOT's location had to be changed after it was learned that the area's old, diseased pine trees were the home of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a protected species. More unsettling was the discovery on the property of a number of sinkholes which were too large to be filled. (Disney has stated that the reason our beloved Horizons, perhaps the greatest dark ride ever known, had to be demolished was due to a major sinkhole that developed overtime underneath the show building.) After a complicated dredging process, the largest sinkhole was transformed into the World Showcase Lagoon.

After a complicated dredging process, the largest sinkhole was transformed into the World Showcase Lagoon.

EPCOT's World Showcase itself encountered challenges on an international scale. The new president of Mexico chose not to honor his predecessor's commitment to sponsor a pavilion, requiring a scaled-down version of the original. Communist China granted the Disney Company permission to film in its then-restricted country, creating the opportunity, and the challenge, of a last-minute design and construction of a China pavilion. The King of Morocco approached Disney because he wanted his country authentically represented, sending over several artisans whose presence at first caused problems with local union workers who thought their own positions were being usurped. Finally, the creation of the World Showcase Fellowship Program, in which students from each Showcase country are invited to work their native land's pavilion for a year, required special visa legislation to be enacted to allow their longer-than-usual stays.

Italy's Doge's Palace was among the first recognizable landmarks to appear across the Lagoon

Mexico pavilion under construction

China pavilion under construction

Morocco pavilion under construction, March 1984

Meanwhile over in Future World, designers were utilizing sate-of-the-art techniques in filmmaking, sound, fiber optics and telecommunications which provided the biggest problems as well as the greatest advances. The signing of two more corporate participants — Kodak for Journey into Imagination and General Electric for Horizons — added to the already full schedule. Some buildings were completed before the shows they were to house, despite the fact that the show is supposed to dictate the size and shape of the building. Then, the conveyor company contracted to manufacture the ride system for Spaceship Earth — the flagship for EPCOT, with its 18-story geodesic sphere — decided to pull out of the ride system business. This left Disney designers a mere 18 months to design and construct a new system from scratch.

Spaceship Earth topping ceremony, 1980

While once looking back on that frenzied period, Norm Doerges once recalled, "I think we worked harder on EPCOT Center than anything else. We were so committed, it was almost a religious dedication to get it done, in the face of any odds, because it was the last thing Walt had wanted. There were disagreements, but we all wanted it to be great, and it was." Epcot attracted ten million guests its first year, a welcome increase from the originally hoped-for eight million, which required the installation of temporary, tented restaurants and an even more stepped-up push to finish attractions.

EPCOT Center's road sign is put into place as opening day draws near, 1982

Visitors flood the parking entrance to EPCOT Center on opening day, October 1, 1982

Guests aboard trams to the opening of EPCOT Center

Visitors anxiously wait to see what Disney has in store for them as EPCOT Center opens its gates for the first time

Of the 27 opening day shows, Marty Sklar once said, "only one-and-a-half didn't work." The "one" was a CommuniCore show about personal computers, innovative during its conception in the 1970s, but old news by 1982, which was replaced by "Backstage Magic." The "half," initially, was Spaceship Earth, because of the ride system problems. But over time it was corrected, and when the familiar voice of the venerable Walter Cronkite was added as the original narrator and storyteller, Spaceship Earth realized its potential as the most "in demand" attraction in EPCOT Center. By 1985 operating capacity levels equaled guest demand. The Living Seas opened in Future World the next year, followed by Wonders of Life, while Norway joined the World Showcase itinerary.

Epcot, 1982

Spaceship Earth entrance during the day, 1983

Spaceship Earth entrance at night, 1983

"We have five things here," Dick Nunis once said of EPCOT. "A place that is safe, clean, friendly, entertaining and educational. I think that's what people are looking for today." Marty Sklar once added, "When I think about EPCOT, one of the first things I think of is that we made a show about watching lettuce grow, and it's one of the most popular! If I do say so myself, we're pretty good at creating that 'teachable' moment where fun and learning come together."

Card Walker and Lillian Disney at EPCOT Center's opening ceremony

Opening Day involved honoring the first official family to EPCOT Center and the official dedication ceremony for Spaceship Earth

Thanks to EPCOT, over the years Disney World has grown substantially with the addition of Disney-MGM Studios (Disney's Hollywood Studios today) and Animal Kingdom. With EPCOT now being one of the most beloved Disney Parks ever made, it is obvious that its creation, formed out of Walt's imagination, has set in motion the ability for Walt Disney World to be the true "Vacation Kingdom of the World" it has grown into today. A "World" filled with wonder and joy, filled with smiles and the sound of laughter, filled with real magic, where people like you and me can escape the worries of the world found no place else on earth... our one, true "happy place."

Part I - Bringing the Magic to Florida

Part II - The First Year of Magic


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday.

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