Most true Disney fans have been to the EPCOT theme park and enjoyed a ride around the test track, or maybe even took some time to drink around the world. But, many modern Disney fans do not fully understand what EPCOT was meant to be and how it came to be a theme park instead.
EPCOT actually stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a name which does not exactly lend itself to a theme park. This leads many to wonder, how did this theoretical experimental community become a travel destination, filled with rides and attractions.
To answer that, we must go back in time, long before Disney World even began.
EPCOT Theme Park and the 1960s
By the time the 1960s had rolled around, Walt Disney was sitting pretty in many aspects of life. He had a large and beautiful family, he owned one of the most successful entertainment companies that had inspired many hit movies, and the world’s most beloved theme park: Disneyland.
If you know anything about Walt Disney, you know he loved progress, improvement, and innovation, and nothing was ever enough for him.
Walt was a doer, filled with endless drive to work, improve and create. Disneyland, and Walt Disney Productions were not enough.
Additionally, Walt often worried about the future, and how to leave it better for his children and grandchildren.
The idea for the EPCOT theme park begins here. Well, let me rephrase that. The idea for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow begins here.
How Disneyland Ushered in the Existence of EPCOT
When building Disneyland, Walt meticulously planned out every painstaking detail. Roads (walkways) were planned to cause traffic to flow evenly, trash cans were placed precisely to ensure cleanliness, and buildings were placed for the best views.
After the park opened, Walt observed that many guests enjoyed the ease of meandering through the planned pathways. Guests reveled in the happiness and carefree feel of Disneyland’s streets, in a time where real world cities were growing exponentially larger and more chaotic.
By this point Walt had already been thinking expansion, more specifically, a new park, this time on the East Coast. But rather than a theme park, Walt envisioned a whole new concept, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
There was only one problem. He’d need a theme park to finance it.
Turning Swampland into Dreams
Soon, Walt decided on Florida as the location of this new project. The land was cheap, and the weather was good year round. Additionally, Florida had large swaths of land, enough land for Walt to complete everything he desired, without being boxed in like Disneyland had been.
Walt worked to secretly purchase 47 square miles of property, piece by piece, in the swampland of Florida, outside of Orlando.
Why the secrecy? After the success of Disneyland, the surrounding land was quickly purchased to build hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc. to profit off of the crowds brought in. Walt needed a lot of space to accomplish his Florida dreams, which meant he needed a lot of connecting land, far from anything else. He also knew that as soon as his secret got out, the price of land would skyrocket, inhibiting Disney’s ability to get the full amount of tracks he needed.
As he went through the purchasing process, Disney began to petition the state of Florida to allow incorporation of his land into its own city, which was granted. This means Walt had full governing control over all aspects of the new “Reedy Creek.”
Once the future home of the Theme Park had been purchased, Walt’s plan was clear: build a Disneyland clone to fund the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
EPCOT’s Original Plan
In 1966, Walt released a short movie outlining his plans for the EPCOT Theme Park, except it was not a theme park. EPCOT was slated to be an entire city of the future with modern and futuristic technologies for urban living. It was the ultimate test of ideal city planning and structuring.
The utopian style city was to be laid out in hub and spoke design, similar to how Walt laid out Disneyland. In the center would be shopping, dining, and business. The next outer layer of the circle would be schools and recreational areas. On the perimeter of the circle would be the housing areas, with density decreasing as you moved out from the center.
For transportation, guests would utilize monorails and people movers to get around the city. One of the biggest complaints of the time were the lack of pedestrian courtesies. Because of this, all automobile traffic would be underground, leaving pedestrians to move about freely above ground, a concept a lot of cities are adopting today.
In the city of EPCOT, residents would be required to have jobs, and rent their homes.
EPCOT was described by Walt as being ever changing and every improving. The city was to be the testing grounds for new technologies, and constantly updating. In fact, after showing the models used in the short film, Walt explained they were a simple starting point, to be changed again and again.
Walt had many ideas for these new technologies, including many of which he had been utilizing on a small scale inside of Disneyland. But, he knew he could not do it alone.
By releasing the short film, he was hoping for companies to help sponsor the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and help with the futuristic technologies.
The Idea of Visiting the EPCOT Theme Park
While the original idea was not to be an EPCOT theme park, it still was in a way. While EPCOT would be a city with permanent residents, Walt still expected visitors. In fact, he wanted EPCOT to be a tourist destination as well.
He wanted guests to visit, learn, and explore the city, and bring ideas back to their home cities. Originally, Walt did not even want the Magic Kingdom to be a part of the plan. He never wanted a sequel to Disneyland.
He was soon convinced another theme park would help draw crowds to EPCOT, and help fund the building of the city.
In Walt’s ideal world, guests would fly into the Walt Disney World Airport. (A small version of this airport, called the Lake Buena Vista Airport, was built, and ran flights to the Orlando airport and back into the 1980s.)
From the airport, guests would board monorails to the Welcome Center of EPCOT. Guests then had the opportunity to tour and explore various industrial areas of EPCOT. These areas were filled with offices and labs of large America companies and were designed to showcase new and upcoming technologies.
Visiting guests (as well as residents,) could use the monorails and people mover systems to explore the city, access their hotels, and travel to the Magic Kingdom park.
The Actual EPCOT Theme Park
Unfortunately, two short months after the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow short film was released, Walt Disney passed from lung cancer.
Walt’s friends and Imagineers worked hard to bring the Magic Kingdom to fruition. It opened in October of 1971, and just celebrated its 50th anniversary.
While Magic Kingdom was easy to achieve, EPCOT was a whole other beast.
For years imagineers struggled with what to do with Walt’s grand and beloved project. In the end, building an entire ever evolving, ever improving city was just too difficult, and costly.
Instead, the overall feeling and theme was used to create the EPCOT Theme Park. This theme park would use the futuristic, educational, and technological aspects of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow and pair them with the concept of the now defunct World’s Fairs Walt often participated in.
The EPCOT theme park debuted in 1982, with many nods to the original EPCOT. The Future World pavilions were constructed with sponsorships from large companies that were known for progress and technology, just like Walt had wanted for the businesses inside of the EPCOT city.
In the center of the EPCOT park was shopping, and dining, just like in the center of the city. In the Commicore Halls of the opening day EPCOT theme park, guests could witness and interact with the new and emerging technologies being developed, just as Walt had hoped guests visiting the EPCOT city would do.
Overall, the original theme of the EPCOT theme park embodied the overall spirit of technology, progress, and the human spirit that Walt had envisioned for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
EPCOT Theme Park Today
Today, the EPCOT theme park has been open for 40 years, and has undergone many changes. Original themes on emerging technologies and the future, can be difficult and expensive to keep up to date.
In this modern world where Disney’s intellectual properties (I.P.s) bring in money and guests, paired with the old sponsorship model, EPCOT has often floundered to keep up with the other Disney parks.
From the get-go, the EPCOT theme park was not designed to be a park that thrived off the intellectual properties Magic Kingdom used. It was a plan and concept that worked perfectly in the early days, but does not hold up today in the competitive theme park space.
Additionally, EPCOT opened with a sponsorship model, just like Walt had wanted for the city of EPCOT. Corporations would sponsor rides and be responsible for the ride’s updates, as well as keeping the themes up to date. Some rides, such as Test Track, still have sponsors today.
Over time, businesses would often drop out of their sponsorships, leaving rides outdated and no money to repair or update them (Think Horizons). This has caused EPCOT to be a graveyard of abandoned and empty buildings more than once in the past.
Even today, the Wonders of Life Pavilion and ride buildings still sit empty, being closed since 2007, except for use as festival space. If you want to score a glimpse of this pavilion, (that was supposed to become the Play! Pavilion,) look in between Guardians of the Galaxy and Mission Space for a large gold dome.
Walt Disney always said the city of EPCOT was meant to change, improve, and mold around what the people wanted and needed, so why should the theme park be any different?
EPCOT Theme Park Renovations
Today, the EPCOT theme park is undergoing its biggest renovation since opening, and many of the core concepts are changing. While the World Showcase is remaining relatively the same in its World Fair pavilion style setup, the Future World half of the park will be almost unrecognizable when complete.
Veering away from the costly, often outdated and time consuming concept of the future, the focus will now be on how humans interact with the nature and science around them. While the theming is a bit ambiguous, it should cause less problems for fitting I.P. into the park, such as the new Guardians of the Galaxy coaster.
Would Walt be Proud of Today’s EPCOT Theme Park
It is very challenging to answer the question on Walt’s supposed thoughts of the current EPCOT Theme park. Walt was always a visionary, a dreamer, and a risk taker. But Walt was not a businessman in the traditional sense.
His brother, Roy, often had to rein in his spending. Walt preferred perfection over cost.
I think if Walt had lived a longer life, the EPCOT city would have progressed much further in planning and production. Odds are, if it had been constructed, it would serve more as a tourist attraction than an actual city, and would see the same pitfalls the futuristic components of the EPCOT theme park has faced.
I think the imagineers did a wonderful job of turning EPCOT into a commercial theme park while still paying homage to Walt’s original idea. Opening day EPCOT is one of the most beloved pieces of Disney history.
In the end, we will never know if the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow would have succeeded, or what Walt thinks of today’s EPCOT theme park.
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