Sunday, January 8, 2017

HORIZONS: A Detailed Look Into an EPCOT Classic

By Ted Linhart

There isn't a former Disney attraction that inspires as much passion presently as Horizons. From 1983-1999 GE’s follow-up to the Carousel of Progress took EPCOT guests on a ride into the 21st Century for a purportedly realistic look at life in the future. Join us today as we take a detailed look back at Horizons via a 1983 cast member booklet and a GE corporate magazine as we remember the most legendary dark ride to have ever come out of the minds of Imagineering...

Horizons inspired my passion for collecting documents related to the Disney Parks and today’s article will look at two publications from its early years: 1) a 1983 cast member booklet and 2) a GE corporate magazine where the company’s executive responsible for working with the WED Imagineers interviews himself about its history. Let’s explore the idyllic worlds of Nove Cite, Mesa Verde, Brava Centauri, and Sea Castle...

The cast member document contains the distinctive Horizons logo on the cover and a copyright of “1983 Walt Disney Productions”. Inside, on page one, is a history of EPCOT and the spirit behind its creation: “EPCOT Center has been created as a demonstration and proving ground for prototype concepts and technologies. It showcases new ideas and systems that may someday serve people everywhere.”

Page two provides a brief history of the human focus on the future. It notes that in “ancient times” people thought the future could be magically foreseen. In “modern times” we use science to predict the future including activities depicted in Horizons such as “desert farming, undersea mining, and outer space manufacturing”.

Pages three to seven of The Horizons Experience describes the layout of the ride with a title for each section:

  • The entry area is called The Futureport where guests are “immersed in an environment of tomorrow”.
  • There is a dedicated Load Area where the ride vehicles are called “suspended gondolas”.
  • The portions of the ride that occur before we meet Mother & Father, where we see past views of the future, are titled Early Inventions, Looking Back At Tomorrow, Jules Verne, Robida, Art Deco, Neon City and Future City.
  • The middle section of the ride with the bold, funky music and the light show of DNA strands is simply titled Omnisphere and the language to describe it in the booklet is quite flowery: “Here through spectacular projected imagery we visit micro- and macro-worlds and the far reaches of inner and outer space.  The startling imagery surrounds us above, below, and on all sides with wonders both natural and manmade: the space shuttle rising skyward atop a fiery pillar; graceful floating colonies in space; the microscopic landscape of the revolutionary computer chip; the architecture of growing crystal structures engineered by man for the age of technology; the mystery of the DNA molecule and the minute diatoms that inhabit our aquatic frontier and the enormous power of the sun being harnessed to build the future.”
  • Now we enter the main part of the attraction where we observe life in the future.  The brochure calls these Tomorrow’s Windows and describes twenty distinct scenes:
  1. Urban Habitat:  Introduction to Nova Cite.
  2. Desert Farm:  Introduction to Mesa Verde.
  3. Desert Habitat-Kitchen/Communications Room
  4. Sub Repair: Introduction to Sea Castle. 
  5. Dive Chamber
  6. Floating City Classroom
  7. Undersea Resort.  [Author’s note. I was fortunate enough to eat in a real underwater restaurant in The Maldives – the closest I have ever been to living in the real Horizons]
  8. Undersea Farming
  9. Transition Area
  10. Outer Space
  11. Airlock: Introduction to Brava Centauri
  12. Space Colony
  13. Health & Recreation
  14. Main Shuttle Port
  15. Crystal Manufacturing Lab
  16. Holographic Party Line
  17. Launch Tubes / Aerial Images
  18. Choose Your Tomorrow Selections – Arguably the most memorable and unique part of Horizons. I can still remember the first time I rode it and chose “Space” on all four buttons for our first ride back to Futureport.
  19. Simulations
  20. Tunnel To Unload

  • The Horizons experience ends with the Unload Area / Exit.

The next section is called The Horizons Story and details the history of the ride.  The first paragraph is titled Remembering The Future and describes Horizons as “a synthesis of all the other themes in Future World - communications, agriculture, transportation and energy”.  Horizons designer Tom Fitzgerald calls Looking Back At Tomorrow “one of my favorite parts of the show. What made it so interesting for me was that the ideas these men had were right.” The passage goes on to comment on the design style of robots and spaceships in the Jules Verne and related eras.

The Family and The Future is the title of the next section and covers the way Horizons uses one family to tell its story – a la Carousel of Progress. Mr. Fitzgerald is quoted again: “Some people feel the family unit may not exist in the future, but I feel that advances in transportation and communication may actually bring families closer together.

A short but very important section is titled An Achievable Vision and here we read about how the view of the future in Horizons is not fantasy, it represents true possibility. More from Tom Fitzgerald: “It’s based on things we are already doing or are very close to doing. This is not Buck Rogers.”

Next in the cast member booklet are large entries about Future Plants and The Garden which address the fact that the show’s designers wanted to create new plant life for the various horticultural scenes in the attraction.

The next portion, Omnisphere, describes the technology used in the transition from the look back at tomorrow to the family scenes. “This presentation uses highly specialized Omnimax projection equipment and screens to create dramatic film effects… The Omnisphere presents startlingly dramatic images and effects as guests pass by the giant conclave screens in their suspended gondolas”.  It goes into more details about the mechanics of the sounds system which you can read in the picture above.

The Finale looks at the effort involved to allow riders to choose the method of their voyage home and watch the ride on the screen in front of them. The man chosen to produce the film segments was David Jones who “had considerable experience with prototypes and miniatures before he turned to a career in film. His expert credentials were well established by the futuristic models he built for Star Wars, Close Encounters, China Syndrome and numerous other feature films and major television shows.”

In The Models David Jones describes the process and magnitude of the production models for the endings. “These are three of the largest miniatures ever built for film. They had to be large because we’re using them for three of the longest continuous sequences ever done with miniatures… The largest model piece is 32 feet wide and 82 feet long. We had to set up a special facility in an airplane hangar to get enough room to work.”

More details are found in Film Production. A human camera operator could not keep all the models in focus while also avoid bumping into objects and stopping to take single exposures very frequently. “Enter ACES and ELMER, two automatic camera control rigs. These programmable computer controlled ‘robots’ can move the camera with such patience and precision that they make even the impossible possible. When ACES’s movements were combined with carefully calculated lens settings and lighting conditions the resulting film created the illusion of a high speed, point-of-view ride through a scene from the future.”

The final paragraph of The Horizons Story is called “Doing The Homework” and summarizes that when people look back at the ride from the real 21st century they  will know that the attraction’s creators “have really done our homework”.

Presented By General Electric is on the next to last page and it covers the history of GE and its relationship with Disney.

The Epcot Center Adventure directly addresses the audience for this booklet which is the EPCOT cast member. “As a host or hostess at EPCOT Center, you are an ambassador of the Spirit of EPCOT.  Your role in Horizons also makes you an ambassador of happiness, hope, optimism and goodwill.”

The final page contains Horizons Facts and Figures including that it contains 770 props, lasts 14.57 minutes, and takes up 101,325 square feet.

The second document about Horizons we will explore today is a magazine produced by GE which contains an introduction by Leonard Vickers, who was VP of Corp. Marketing at the time. He writes at the end of the introduction “Any society that doesn’t try to stretch its horizons is destined to see them shrink. Like [Jules] Verne, GE believes  “If we can dream it, we can do it”...

The first article has an unusual format in that the interviewer and the interviewee are the same person. His name is Ned Landon, a 30-year employee at GE who was the representative on the WED team designing Horizons. This format was chosen because “Ned is a journalist/writer by background, and because he is knowledgeable about the Horizons story from its beginning.”

The article is written in a Q&A form and is heavily illustrated with pictures from the construction of Horizons. Here are some of the highlights from the interview:

  • The most “wild-eyed” prediction in Horizons is “that people will go into space for recreation – for the fun of it – for the excitement of doing things in zero – or low – gravity conditions.”
  • Horizons was originally going to be called Century 3 or Century III, a tie-in to the Bicentennial, still a big deal when the attraction was first being designed. This association was deemed too close to an America-only event and Horizons was for people from all parts of the world. The next name was Futureprobe but this sounded like a medical procedure. Horizons was developed next and it fit. “If you try hard enough, you can get to where it is – and when you do, you find there’s still another horizon to challenge you, and another horizon beyond that.”
  • GE’s technology plays a role in the ride’s construction. The ‘choose-your-own-ending” uses the company’s Talaria light-valve TV projectors. The ride vehicles are made of Lexan polycarbonate and powered by GE motors and drive systems. The Gemlink video conference, a robot, amplifiers and other GE items are also used in Horizons.
  • There is a middle trifold that contains a tribute to the artist Bob McCall whose famous mural The Prologue and The Promise graced the Horizons Pavilion until it was removed in the mid 1980s. The fold out has a reproduction of the mural. McCall spent 10 months planning the 19x60 painting and his wife helped him. 
  • Some of the GE people who worked on the Carousel of Progress were “instrumental in getting GE’s EPCOT Center project off and running”.

There is a second article in the magazine written by a Donna R Carpenter called “Disney’s House of Magic” and it profiles some of the key WED people who worked on Horizons. The first is Tom Fitzgerald who helped write the show’s script. He was inspired to work at WED after attending the 1964 World’s Fair and saw Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. Today, Fitzgerald is the VP, Senior Creative Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering and is in charge of creative direction for EPCOT.

The next executive mentioned is Special Effects Manager Dean Sharits who designed the sets for Horizons. Sharits says that experts from other fields were consulted. “For the space colony we worked with Prince physicist Gerard O’Neill. And we talked to NASA and Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Lab about growing crystals for semi-conductors in space. For the desert portion we worked with Carl Hodges, director of the Environmental Research Lab at the University of Arizona.”

Alex Taylor who designed the futuristic plants and trees is featured next. “Every time I designed something I thought was totally new, I would take it over to our horticulturists and they would tell me it was already existed.  I began to despair of ever coming up with something nature hadn’t already done.”

Filmmaker Eddie Garrick was in charge of producing the Omnisphere theater. “But the equipment to photograph some of the images desired for a screen that big – molecular structures, underwater scenes – and to animate others – computer data, Landsat photos – had not yet been invented. So, Garrick, who has produced TV specials for National Geographic, helped design it.”

The final section about the ride itself focuses on the attractions’ ending. Marty Sklar is quoted and says “Horizons is the type of pavilion that I think Walt had in mind when we visualized EPCOT.  It’s a synthesis of all the other pavilions in that it encompasses energy, transportation, communications and so on.  And it incorporates a lot of firsts for us as a company.”

The final pages recap GE’s relationship with Disney going back to the 1964 World’s Fair. The last quote comes from Robert Pulver who was manager of Horizons for GE “With Horizons now a reality we’re working with the Disney organization on expanding the Carousel of Progress. Typical of our two cultures in ever-changing times, when we asked to meet and discuss our ideas, they said they, too had specific ideas and welcomed a meeting. And so the GE-Disney connection goes on.”

So there you have it. An inside look at the development and construction of what for many is the Disney attraction that most embodies Walt Disney’s vision for the future. If Horizons still existed today I don’t think it would seem out of date. The 21st century has just begun and much of the imagery is still an aspirational look at life in the future.


Ted Linhart was born and raised in New York City and works at NBC Universal where he is an SVP of Research for the company’s cable networks. Ted has a passion for television and has long been a collector of many items. He is also quite passionate about the Disney Parks and, in particular, Walt Disney’s view of the future which was cemented the first time he went on Horizons in 1985. Over the past several years, Ted has been collecting letters, documents, brochures and other ephemera relating to the history, construction, and evolution of Disneyland, Disney World and EPCOT. Ted started posting pictures of his collection via his Twitter account @TedonTV and followers started asking him to post more pictures online.  That led Ted to create his blog where pictures of each of his items are archived.

You can find all of Ted's article here.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic article from my favorite extinct attraction.