Young and innocent, Epcot Center came bursting to life October 1st, 1982. A project more ambitious than any other theme park created to date, Epcot was barely ready for opening thanks in large part to some of that ambition. As chronicled in Building A Better Mouse, American Adventure, the centerpiece to the beautiful World Showcase, was still in the midst of tests as Walt Disney World’s second park opened it’s gates. Many of the other attractions were in a similar situation. Even with these issues most saw Epcot’s early days as a roaring success thanks to the park’s innovation and ingenuity.
At the park’s dedication Card Walker said about Epcot:
“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.”
And this mission held true for many years. World Showcase was not only a beautiful place to spend an evening but a place to learn about culture. Future World showcased breaking technology as well as an entertaining look into the scientific fields. Inspired by Walt Disney’s idea for a utopian city, Epcot was truly informative, inspiring and entertaining in one swoop.
Over the next few years, Future World would keep adding to their attraction and pavilion lineup with soon-to-be-classics like Journey Into Imagination, Horizons, The Living Seas and Wonders of Life. World of Showcase was not to be left out, adding the Norway and Morocco Pavilions in the decade after opening. Epcot Center had not only became a quality theme park but one that brilliantly matched its ambitious theme.
Changing names doesn’t really change much. While Epcot Center was mostly succeeding, some guests and executives saw the park as not entertaining enough. With an emphasis on informing, many guests came to the park expecting a typical Disney experience (which at this time was Magic Kingdom or Disneyland) and left disappointed in the lack of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters. While not everyone complained about this, in fact I’d say more people raved about the park, the complainers somehow caught the ear of someone high up in the Disney executive chain. This combined with a drop-off of in park investing, as much of the money was going towards other areas of Disney World, combined to make the park appear a little dated or less thrilling than some wanted.
In fairness, this on-the-brink-of-tomorrow theme involved in Future World (or Tomorrowland, for that matter) in which the area is supposed to showcase upcoming technology and innovation is something Disney has never quite figured out. Frankly, the never-ending investing that would have to be done to stay ahead of technology in the last 40 years is simply unrealistic for a theme park. That’s not to say the company couldn’t have done a better job. They surely could have and that problem started in Epcot Center way back in the 90’s.
Instead of investing in more modern attractions, or updating areas to make them more futuristic, Disney took the easier route and… uhh… changed the name of the park? First, it was Epcot ’94 in the year 1994. Why? I’m not sure. I think the belief was that the signage updated would make the park feel more current. After Epcot ’94 came, you guessed it, Epcot ’95 in 1995. This was the cheap way out and simply not a good idea. With that being said, it does feel like a classic ’90’s idea.
As I said, funds were already being stretched across the resort so Epcot was running on a somewhat limited budget. But possibly if the funds hadn’t been sent to changing the park name 3 times in 3 years then that money could have been invested elsewhere into something that would have actually benefited Epcot. As is, I only count 3 major changes in the park from 1988-1999: Illuminations added to World Showcase, a 3D show called Honey I Shrunk The Audience, and Communicore changing to Innoventions. All three of these new options were replacements (albeit Illuminations is a great replacement) instead of expansion.
In 1996, the park’s name was changed to Epcot. These name changes were made to make the park feel modern but in retrospect they are a symbolic start to a break from the original park theme.
The awkward years. The 20+ years since that name change have been awkward and less and less hopeful that the park will ever find its original theme. Epcot started as a place that was proud to not have any Disney movie characters inside of its gates, now it seems as if they can’t fit them in fast enough, cohesive theme be damned.
The first misstep was changing Journey Into Imagination into Journey Into YOUR Imagination. The ride was rethemed to fit the movie (Honey I Shrunk The Audience) in the pavilion. The original Journey is loved by almost all, the new Journey was hated by about the same amount. After a few quick years, the ride changed to Journey Into Imagination With Figment. Unfortunately, the Imagination Pavilion has lacked imagination and quality attractions since the original change.
A few years later, The Living Seas Pavilion turned to The Seas with Nemo & Friends. The Three Caballeros, Lion King and a few meet & greets notwithstanding, Finding Nemo was the first Disney (Pixar) animated film to put a large footprint into Epcot. The difference between Finding Nemo and the Lion King or Three Caballeros characters being in the parks is that the latter characters are in attractions that actually fit the theme of the area. Finding Nemo was simply put in because there was an aquarium and Disney had a film with a bunch of fish in it. The pavilion was subsequently dumbed down.
Meanwhile, other areas of Future World or have since been shut down. Wonders of Life, The Odyssey Restaurant, and Horizons are no more. Innoventions is all but shut down and not really worth anyone’s time. Ellen’s Energy Adventure has aged poorly as have several other minor attractions. A lack of investment has made Future World feel bland and behind the times.
World Showcase is still a success financially but even the theme of experiencing different cultures is deteriorating. Frozen Ever After moving into the Norway Pavilion has been discussed ad nauseam but is a clear break from all other World Showcase attractions. Character meet & greets are in nearly every country.
Festivals in World Showcase were once an extension of experiencing different cultures. Now that there are more dates with festivals than without, they seem (notably) like a blatant money grab from the company.
There are rumors of more character integration over the next few years and it would be a surprise to see something different. Attractions with original characters, what once made Epcot Center different and thrive, are not in vogue right now at theme parks.
Where do we go from here? Epcot is now at a crossroads. With recent announcements that the company will be investing and changing the park, it’s hard to know which direction Epcot will go next. While a change back to the park’s original theme and mission seems unlikely, there are ways to integrate characters to match the old Epcot’s vision.
Some of those ideas that Epcot wasn’t entertaining enough were right. If you’ve been to World Showcase with kids for an extended time, then you probably agree. That area needs more attractions that appeal to a younger age. What else appeals to kids? Disney characters. Maybe you even enjoy Finding Nemo and Frozen Ever After in Epcot. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, there’s a wrong and a right way to use characters in a pavilion. I want Disney to utilize a good plan in where to put characters and where not.
Really, my hope comes down to a cohesive theme. Future World now is a mixed bag with a loose science theme and empty buildings. With whatever renovations are coming to that area, I hope that those changes bring the area to life and connect the pavilions in an intellectual way.
I recently spent an afternoon in Epcot. After a ride on Living With The Land, seeing the interesting and innovative ways the Resort is growing and using plant life, I walked over to World Showcase. I sat down in between Norway and Mexico with a snack and drink I grabbed. Shortly, two vikings came out and interacted with guests in the Norway Pavilion. They would sneak up on guests or share some physical comedy. Meanwhile, on my right, a mariachi band had come out to serenade passers-by in the Mexico Pavilion. The area bustled with energy and guests enjoying themselves. If you catch World Showcase at the right time, there is live, cultural entertainment everywhere, mixed in with the lines for meet & greets and Frozen Ever After. There is a happy balance and interesting theme somewhere in there, Epcot just hasn’t consistently found it yet.
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