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EPCOT, When It Sizzled

8 February 2010 Stories and Appreciations 7,328 views No CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

If you want to get a Disney nerd’s candy-coated heart going, ask him or her what they think of EPCOT. Ostensibly the last great dream of Walt Disney — who died in December 1966, some 16 years before the theme park futuristic opened its gates — EPCOT is either Disney’s greatest park or its most epic failure, depending on how deep the commitment of your Disney nerd runs. (A good way to tell is by counting the number of collectible pins on their lanyard. If they have pins, much less a lanyard, they’re hardcore Disney nerds.)

Some argue that EPCOT was wrong from the beginning. EPCOT stands for “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow,” and that’s what Uncle Walt was fixing to build. Disney didn’t want a world’s fair-type theme park hinting at a possible future; he wanted to build the actual future, and to move 20,000 carefully-screened residents into its plastic townhomes.

The idea was a tough sell even while Disney was alive. In his biography of Disney, Bob Thomas relates an exchange between Disney and an employee:

With his customary distrust of politicians, Walt Disney sought unprecedented freedom to develop a model city without interference. Donn Tatum pointed out that what he really wanted was “an experimental, absolute monarchy.” Walt raised an eyebrow and asked puckishly, “Can I have one?”

When Disney died, the original EPCOT died with him. Disney executives mumbled something about “finding a practical approach to EPCOT’s complexities,” and in October 1982, the WaltDisCo opened the permanent world’s fair we know today. A little more than a year later, in November 1983, this Disney nerd visited EPCOT Center for the first time. City or no city, I was overwhelmed.

I can pretty much recreate the EPCOT of the 1980s from memory. I remember seeing the park’s signature attraction Spaceship Earth for the first time, a benign Death Star on stilts. I remember walking through Future World, staring slack-jawed at the gleaming futuristic structures, listening to Buddy Baker’s endlessly-looping adventure medley, and imagining that I’d jumped 25 years into the future, all the way to the distant year of 2008 — when every city would have its own monorail system and touch-screen video telephones. It was an entire day of firsts for me: the first time I heard Camille Saint-Saens, the first time I fully understood what symbiosis is, and the first time I’d sampled an exotic foreign cuisine (erm, Canadian).

The discoveries continued and stacked up in the days that followed. I saw my first piece of technology-driven interactive art (the wonderful “Stepping Tones” room inside the Kodak-sponsored “Journey Into Imagination” pavilion.) I watched travelogue films that took me deep into France and China, two countries that my 16-year-old self knew only in superficial, goofy stereotype. Hell, I even willingly ate vegetables for the first time ever, so cowed I was by the cosmopolitan qualities of future living. If broccoli was to survive until the 21st Century, the least I could do was give it a grudging taste.

So went that trip to EPCOT, my first of several. I didn’t realize then that EPCOT’s multiplicity of corporate sponsorships (many of the park’s attractions were underwritten by AT&T, GM, Exxon and the like) basically allowed a bunch of corrupt entities to stamp their brands directly on the heads of impressionable kids — and to be honest, in retrospect, I don’t much care. I took away something different from the original EPCOT, something that I still have in me today: A sense of wonder and excitement that stirs in me whenever I take the light rail line from Downtown Seattle to the airport, or whenever someone hands me a smart phone whose interface and utility was impossible to imagine even ten years ago. It’s because of EPCOT that I have a subscription to Wired, a love of interactive art and a penchant for music that sounds like it was jammed out by eccentric robots.

But as they used to say back in the 20th Century, you can never go home again. A few years back, in December 2007, I revisited EPCOT after a nearly 20-year break. I liked some of the new attractions that were built in the intervening years (that Test Track is a hoot-and-a-half), but for the most part I felt disappointment; it was readily obvious that even the lesser enthusiasm of Walt’s immediate successors had long run dry. The 21st Century-model EPCOT is worse than out-of-date; it’s lousy with CES-styled dog-and-pony shows and snarky, semi-educational films featuring former “Saturday Night Live” cast members.

Today, EPCOT stands at an awkward crossroads. In essence, its entire Future World section needs to be re-conceived, gutted down and rebuilt. (The World Showcase section of EPCOT, with its travelogues, ethnic-lite dining and postcard-inspired architecture, could also use a little help, though not nearly as much.) And though Disney is unlikely to spend that kind of money or to listen to the suggestions of Disney nerds like me (I wouldn’t, either), I would like to put this one thing out there, in the hopes that it reaches the right ears: It was never about the technology, the corporate sponsors or even the showmanship. EPCOT was once all about the clear, concise and personable way in which it related complex ideas. It was a trait that the park shared with its spiritual creator, one Walt Disney.

It’s all too easy to push those time-travel buttons when you know where they are. Last night, I watched a short video prepared by America 2050, a coalition of brainiacs devoted to “develop(ing) a framework for the nation’s future growth.” Through currently-available technologies — smart phones, bullet trains, electric vehicles — a Sox fan takes a quick trip to Detroit to check out a baseball game.

“Journey to Detroit” gave me that EPCOT feeling all over again. It’s precisely the kind of thing the park used to do better than anything or anyone: It takes the future out of the realm of the unattainable and deposits it into a world we can easily recognize as our own. After watching the clip, I dared to imagine daily life three decades from now. It would be a shame if Disney chose not to go there.

Geoff Carter


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