Time for another Disney park tour. This time we’re heading southeast to explore the theme park Epcot, a fascinating and futuristic area of the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida dedicated to celebrating technological innovation and international culture. I’m going to talk about the history of Epcot and look at all of its attractions over the course of four blogs exploring each of the four areas of the theme park, so hopefully this will be educational for guests who have been to Epcot before and fun for people who have never visited Epcot but have always wanted to know what it was like.
In my 2021 article about the history of Walt Disney World, I wrote that Walt Disney originally envisioned EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) as a utopian community and city center, one full of industrial areas, learning centers and mass transportation systems, but following Walt’s death in 1966, that concept was seen as unfeasible and instead construction on the theme park Magic Kingdom began. However the EPCOT idea was revisited after the popularity of the Walt Disney World Resort in the seventies encouraged the company to create a second theme park. It still wouldn’t be the ambitious project that Walt envisioned but would instead be something similar to a world’s fair.
Estimated to have been constructed for about $1 billion and taking three years to build, the area first opened in 1982 as EPCOT Center, later officially shortened to “Epcot” in 1994. The theme park originally opened with two areas, Future World and World Showcase. The park was initially quite popular but it faced similar challenges to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, which is that the technology became dated fast, which meant it required constant overhauls from the nineties forward. In 2019, Future World was divided into three areas and now Epcot is currently comprised of four major areas: World Celebration, World Discovery, World Nature and World Showcase.
Walt viewed Epcot as a “showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise” and as a place that takes its cue from “the new ideas and new technologies” that have emerged as a result of the creativity of American industry, even featuring monorails and PeopleMovers like the ones in Tomorrowland, only on a scale that was a lot more grand.
The first area of Epcot we’re visiting is World Celebration.
The original hub of Epcot was called Communicore, which occupied an east building and a west building and celebrated the latest technological innovations, which back in 1982 was the computer. You could also get food at the Stargate Restaurant and go shopping at the Centorium, and you could even meet a friendly robot named SMRT-1. Communicore was basically the Main Street, USA of Epcot, but it closed in 1994 and was replaced by Innoventions, a collection of exhibits focusing on technological advancements in the nineties and showcasing things like computers, video games, virtual reality and Tom Morrow, an animatronic robot voiced by Max Casella. Innoventions closed in 2019. The east building is now an eatery and the west building has been demolished to make way for World Nature’s upcoming Moana-themed expansion.
Spaceship Earth is a dark ride attraction set inside the iconic dome at the entrance of Epcot. Its design concept originated indirectly from inventor and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, the man who popularized the idea of geodesic domes as well as the term “spaceship earth,” while science fiction writer Ray Bradbury helped design the dome and write the storyline for the attraction, which was narrated by Vic Perrin of The Outer Limits fame and takes guests through the timeline of the advancement of human communication, from cave paintings to Egyptian hieroglyphics to the invention of the printing press to the evolution of electronic broadcasting. Since its debut in 1982 the ride has been updated through the years with added effects, even more technological innovations such as the internet, different musical scores and different narrators, changing from Vic Perrin to Walter Cronkite in 1986, to Jeremy Irons in 1994 and finally to Judi Dench in 2008, whose distinguished voice was accompanied by a musical score from Bruce Broughton. Plus there were eventually more games and interactive features in the post show Project Tomorrow: Inventing the Wonders of the Future. In 2019 when Future World was divided into three areas, Spaceship Earth became a part of World Celebration and the narrative of the attraction changed from one about the wonders of communication to one about the wonders of storytelling and the human experience, being renamed Spaceship Earth: Our Shared Story.
For a long time the Fountain of Nations could be seen at Epcot’s entrance next to Spaceship Earth as the water danced to Disney music, including scores from films like The Rescuers Down Under (Bruce Broughton), The Rocketeer (James Horner) and Iron Will (Joel McNeely), but the fountain went away in 2019.
Beyond Spaceship Earth on the northwest side of World Celebration is the pavilion known as Imagination! (formerly the Journey into Imagination Pavilion) which opened the same year. The art, creativity and imagination of the human mind is celebrated in this area, but it has undergone significant changes through the years as well, originally starting out as a showcase for Disney’s 16-minute 3D film Magic Journeys which played at the Magic Eye Theater before being replaced by the sci-fi Michael Jackson film Captain EO in 1986 and later Honey, I Shrunk the Audience in 1994, but after the Journey into Imagination ride opened in Future World in 1983, the area was officially dubbed the Journey into Imagination Pavilion.
Created by Imagineers Tony Baxter and Steve Kirk, Journey into Imagination is a dark ride featuring a small purple dragon named Figment (who was not a character from a Disney movie but was an original theme park character) and the original Sherman Brothers song “One Little Spark.” The ride brings you into the clouds with the bearded top hat-wearing Dreamfinder (voiced by Chuck McCann) who uses his Dream Mobile to collect dreams as well as create things. This is demonstrated when he creates Figment (voiced by Billy Barty) and soon you are taken to the Dreamport where the dreams are emptied into, and which features such whimsical things as a box filled with applause and a cage filled with music. The ride also takes you into rooms with art, literature and science themes, with Dreamfinder and Figment demonstrating all the magical things you can do in these rooms. The main message of this attraction is that imagination is the key to unlocking the hidden wonders of the world. The attraction was a huge hit with guests and Figment became a beloved character for many Disney fans. He is now seen as the mascot of the Imagination! pavilion and he is so popular that he has even appeared in his own movies and comics. Disney is currently developing a feature film about him too.
In 1999, the name of the ride was changed to Journey into YOUR Imagination which featured a new twist where park guests were turned into subjects of the Imagination Scanner and was hosted by a new character named Dr. Nigel Channing, played by Eric Idle. This version takes you on a tour of a sound lab, an illusion lab, a color lab, a gravity lab and a connections lab, but this version was not popular with audiences, with many Figment fans disappointed in the dragon’s reduced role in the attraction, so the ride closed again in 2001 and underwent another change, this time reopening in 2002 under the name “Journey into Imagination with Figment” and featuring the return of Figment (voiced by Dave Goelz) and the song “One Little Spark.” Eric Idle returned as Dr. Nigel Channing and was accompanied by Figment in five labs based on five human senses: sound, sight, smell, taste and touch.
At the end of the ride you were taken into the ImageWorks exhibit, which was located on the second floor and was basically a kaleidoscope-filled, rainbow-colored playground for your mind described as “the creative playground of the future.” Attractions in the ImageWorks exhibit included Dreamfinder’s School of Drama which allowed you to use bluescreen to star in a movie under the direction of Dreamfinder, Stepping Tones which were color panels that guests could step on to create music, the Electronic Philharmonic which allowed guests to conduct scores using sensors, the voice-activated Lumia, the Bubble Projectors and the Rainbow Corridor. This version of ImageWorks closed in 1998 and reopened in 1999 as ImageWorks: The What-If Labs. The What-If Labs featured the return of the Stepping Tones as well as new games like Figment’s Melody Maker and Create a Figment and classic games like the memory game Simon. The What-If Labs queue actually contains several Disney movie references including when the offices of Disney characters like Professor Brainard, Wayne Szalinski and Dean Higgins are in full view of park guests and when it is implied that the lab has a connection to Medfield College, the setting of several Disney films including The Absent-Minded Professor and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
Speaking of Disney films, our last stop on the tour of World Celebration is the cinema! Beginning in 2015 after Captain EO closed, the Magic Eye Theatre began showcasing short films at the Disney & Pixar Short Film Festival in 3D and 4D, with a pre-show video discussing the evolution of animation, before three short films are shown to an audience. The shorts currently playing are the excellent 2013 Mickey Mouse cartoon Get a Horse! (which originally played before Frozen in theaters), Feast (Big Hero 6) and Piper (Finding Dory).
Things are going to get a bit more galactic in the next tour as we leave World Celebration and explore World Discovery.