I’m serious about that title. Thanks to the many, many people who have written to me, both inside and outside of The Walt Disney Company, Imagineers and fans alike, I’ve heard some fascinating, passionate, beautiful and funny stories about how EPCOT Center changed their individual lives.
I know that there are many “entertainment purists” out there who believe that Disney’s theme parks should do no more than entertain and amuse guests, and I appreciate those arguments. From the start, Disney positioned itself first and foremost as an entertainment company, and in his dying days even Walt Disney realized that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get American industry and government leaders to buy into his forward-thinking vision of EPCOT, the City.
When the concept of an EPCOT Center theme park got underway, the socio-political climate of the United States was eerily similar to today:
* The U.S. was engaged in an overseas war that had virtually no public support;
* The American president had lost the respect of his citizens;
* The government was mistrusted and, in 1976, underwent a partisan overhaul;
* Environmental (then called “ecological”) issues were top of mind, particularly the damaging effects of industrial and automotive pollution in major American cities;
* Technology began moving at a mind-bogglingly rapid pace;
* Violent behavior was on the rise, leading to high-profile assassinations and assassination attempts;
* The role of entertainment was increasingly questioned for its ill-effects on children.
It may seem like none of this really relates to EPCOT Center ... except that every creative endeavor is a product of its times. The climate that gave rise to EPCOT Center was one in which adults were trying to make sense of the tumultuous period they had just experienced, when they were wondering if the social and political ills that seemed to exist on a global scale had any solutions at all.
EPCOT Center was not intended to make sense of it all, nor to simply educate youngsters. It was a remarkable attempt to spotlight some of the key issues of the day and underscore three important points: 1) Though complicated, they were subjects that could indeed be understood by anyone, at least at their most basic levels; 2) American industry was working to find solutions to the problems of our world; and 3) People around the world are connected by their differences and by their desire to work together to improve our common future.
It wasn’t all hype. All of the publicity and marketing initiatives in the world wouldn’t have mattered if, at its heart, EPCOT Center didn’t send a message that people who lived in the 1970s and 1980s were desperate to hear – a message of hope and understanding and optimism.
As sophisticated as EPCOT Center was when it opened in 1982, its audience quickly grew that much more sophisticated. And is it any wonder? Even as EPCOT Center promised a “wired” world (before we used that term) in which information could be shared at light speed and people could learn about any issue almost instantaneously, Disney failed to do what it took to make sure EPCOT Center kept up. EPCOT told us the world was moving ever more quickly, but EPCOT itself failed to keep pace.
Ultimately, when it came time to re-think EPCOT Center for a new generation (an exercise that, frankly, Disney should have had a team working on constantly, with an appropriate budget to ensure that EPCOT remained at the leading edge of technology and ideas), Disney got lazy.
Just as it’s far easier to move furniture around in your living room than to repaint your entire house, Disney figured if they prettied EPCOT Center up a little, no one would realize that the ideas it was serving up were about 10 years out of date.
As time passed, those ideas got older and older, until many of them seemed downright antiquated. No one could watch the films in the Universe of Energy without thinking about the Exxon Valdez or Chernobyl disasters. No one could visit Horizons and not muse how far we were, at the dawn of the 21st century, from the future that was once envisioned.
And yet ... the subjects were never any less relevant.
Perhaps, dare I say it, never more relevant?
When it’s difficult to make sense of what’s happening in the world, to keep up with developments from Japan, Korea, Washington or Mars, there’s once again a place for an experience that reminds us that our planet and its issues are ripe for us to explore, to debate and learn about.
When more and more surveys tell us that people around the globe are increasingly concerned about the world in which they live, there’s room for them to discover that they don’t have to just accept things as they are – that the future is theirs to make.
EPCOT Center blended its sunny, Disney-style optimism with an implicit believe that people wanted to know more about their world.
Back then, there were only two Disney theme parks in Florida and the choice seemed stark: the cheery cartoon world of The Magic Kingdom or the more serious-minded EPCOT Center.
Now that there are four theme parks, two water parks and myriad entertainment opportunities in Florida, it doesn’t seem far-fetched or unreasonable to examine whether EPCOT could fill an important niche. After all, local science centers around the country are enjoying record attendance – clearly, there’s a need and a desire to learn, and be entertained while doing it. (If those local venues can master this balance, can’t Disney?)
There will always be people who disdain a bit of awareness and insight, who resent being offered anything other than a thrill and laugh around every corner. Those people have plenty to choose from around Walt Disney World.
For the others, those who feel their world is a little confusing, EPCOT could be a place that offers them hope that they can contribute to their own futures.
EPCOT Center was a product of its times. The times don’t seem to have changed that much, and the ideas behind that revolutionary theme park have never been more meaningful.
It’s a shame that cartoon characters are so much “easier.”
EPCOT’s designers and managers have a remarkable opportunity to look at the world today and update EPCOT’s core attractions – and revitalize the park’s efforts to live up to the ideals set forth in its dedication plaque.
The world we live in needs someone to help explain it, even to the smartest and most aware. We need to be reminded that there is much left to discover, much left to accomplish, much left to see – other than high-velocity centrifuges, cartoon “Mexican” ducks and talking turtles.
Our real world is more fantastic, more astounding than anything Disney or Pixar could create, and we are privileged to live in it. That’s the sort of message that resonated 25 years ago in the midst of great tension and unease in society. It’s the sort of message that could resonate again.
Given how many people were inspired by an EPCOT that was more clear on its overall intent, I think that inspiration could return. EPCOT has the opportunity to amaze and excite people, not just thrill them. It has the opportunity to get them to think and reflect, not just laugh and giggle. One person at a time, one experience at a time, EPCOT could again be a most remarkable place that encourages people to dream big and act accordingly.
One person at a time, I believe, EPCOT could change the world. It’s a ridiculously lofty ambition ... but, then again, no one used to dream bigger than Disney.