WDW at 50: An EPCOT Center Retrospective
In recent months, MickeyBlog has gone retro as we anticipate the upcoming 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World.
Realistically, all roads at Walt Disney World didn’t lead to Magic Kingdom. After all, Disney had already created a theme park, the Happiest Place on Earth.
No, the new thing would bring to life the late Walt Disney’s vision for the future.
Let’s talk about the grand opening of EPCOT Center, the realization of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
(This will be a two-parter with the second half coming on April 1st…no foolin’!)
The end of October proved a fittingly eventful time in Walt Disney’s life.
First, the entrepreneur announced the futuristic capitalist paradise of EPCOT.
Less than a week later, he received the cancer diagnosis that would end his life.
So, the Florida Project comes with bittersweet memories for Disney fans, as it signifies the final momentous announcement of Uncle Walt’s career.
Less than two months later, Disney would die from his illness, leaving his older brother, Roy, and his Imagineers facing an unenviable task.
Walt Disney purchased tens of thousands of acres of Florida swampland on the sly. He wanted cheap land to build his business-oriented utopia.
After his demise, people were left guessing about his intentions. Even worse, financial resources dwindled due to a lack of trust in Disney without…Disney.
Still, his older brother and the team of creators could use the above video as a baseline. Some documents, a sort of EPCOT bible, existed as well.
Uncle Walt had taken inspiration from the 1964 New York World’s Fair, especially the cultural aspects. He sought to recreate a permanent place like that.
The back half of the park honors this vision even now, as the World Showcase embodies that concept.
The front of EPCOT changed dramatically from what its creator intended. This happened by necessity.
Walt Disney held little interest in building another theme park. His plans called for one, only because he knew it could finance the rest.
However, the blueprints showed a theme park in the far corner, away from EPCOT.
The founder desired differentiation between a theme park and the thriving capitalist city that would cement his legacy.
Obviously, the EPCOT of today experiences plenty of commerce each day. That wasn’t the plan, though.
Uncle Walt meant for the Community of Tomorrow to include working families who lived in the same place as their jobs.
They would earn their spots in the collective, so to speak. Then, they’d return to state-of-the-art houses featuring modern technology.
Yes, in some alternative realities, thousands of people live at EPCOT.
Those plans proved impossible without him, as even his brother couldn’t bring them into reality.
Also, Roy Disney effectively gave his life trying to construct Walt Disney World. He died less than three months after it opened.
Afterward, Disney’s leadership entered a transitional state, with many financial backers skeptical about the project’s future without its Disney brothers.
As such, much of what happened next at EPCOT qualifies as a compromise.
With financial resources lacking, park officials spent the 1970s maximizing profits at Magic Kingdom, a successful strategy.
By the end of the decade, the company could afford to take a run EPCOT. Disney spent the equivalent of nearly $1.7 billion on this project.
Even then, several cuts caused setbacks during both the planning and building phases.
Disney had expected several countries to sign up to sponsor pavilions at the World Showcase, paying millions of dollars for the privilege. Literally none did.
In fact, EPCOT Center opened with only nine pavilions, and one of those was The American Adventure.
Park officials wouldn’t persuade anyone to pay for a pavilion until 1984 when Morocco’s royal family took an interest in the project.
The budget shortfall led to other corporate sponsorships at Future World.
Disney persuaded more than 20 companies to pay between $10 and $50 million for ten-year sponsorship deals.
Only then could the company afford to construct EPCOT.
The EPCOT We Got
On October 1st, 1982, the park, then known as EPCOT Center, opened to the public for the first time.
Newspapers remarked on this date’s odd timing, 11 years to the day after Magic Kingdom and Walt Disney World’s debut.
Imagineers had cleverly deduced some ways to make the Disney campus feel smaller and more manageable.
A new monorail line connected the two parks, which resided two miles apart.
Once guests arrived at EPCOT Center, they couldn’t help but notice the mind-boggling construct at the front of the park.
Spaceship Earth alone took 26 months to build. Imagineers combined the teachings of Buckminster Fuller with the guidance of Ray Bradbury.
This led to a massive geodesic polyhedron that looks unmistakably similar to a giant silver golf ball.
Cast members followed Uncle Walt’s teachings by anchoring the park with a wienie, just as he preferred. It’s quite possibly the greatest one ever.
Spaceship Earth soars 180 feet high and reaches 165 feet wide. The structure is so massive that Disney had to anchor it 160 feet into the ground!
EPCOT Center on Opening Day
Beyond the stunning landmark, EPCOT Center offered a look into the community of tomorrow via pavilions.
Future World consisted of eight pavilions (seven if you don’t count Spaceship Earth) on opening day. They were:
- Communicore East
- Communicore West
- Earth Station
- The Land
- Spaceship Earth
- Universe of Energy
- World of Motion
Some of those may look familiar, while others likely have you scratching your head. You can put two and two together that Communicore became Innoventions.
Imagination! and The Land have stood the test of time, while Universe of Energy lasted until 2017.
World of Motion has been updated into Test Track, although the premise remains consistent with the pavilion’s other name, Transportation.
As for Earth Station, I won’t lie. I had to research this one. I saw it in the documents but had no memory of it…and I visited EPCOT Center in year one!
As a kid, I’d have no memory of it because it was an early version of Guest Services that sat near the exit to Spaceship Earth.
Obviously, some iconic parts of Future World wouldn’t arrive until later, most notably The Living Seas, aka The Seas with Nemo & Friends.
At the World Showcase, the opening day pavilions were:
- United Kingdom
- United States
Morocco and Norway would follow in 1984 and 1988, respectively.
Yes, only one World Showcase pavilion included a ride on opening day. If you didn’t like El Rio del Tiempo, you were out of luck.
Disney has since re-themed that attraction as The Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros.
Opening Day Prices
I’ll talk more about the various EPCOT Center attractions in part two next month. For now, let’s talk about opening day prices.
A one-day ticket to EPCOT Center cost $15 for an adult, $14 for a junior, or $12 for children. That’s like $40, $37, or $32 today.
Of course, Disney offered a better deal for an annual pass.
For $100, you could visit Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center as often as you wanted that year. That’s about $266 today.
Kids would have gotten the same annual pass for $80, which is $213 now.
Oh, I should mention one crucial element about admission tickets, too.
When Magic Kingdom opened, tickets cost only $4.75, because guests still paid per ride. So, five bucks would get you in the park, but you couldn’t ride anything.
By the time EPCOT debuted, Disney had altered that policy. Those ticket prices included access to every ride/attraction at the park.
Where you’ll really get sticker envy is when you see the prices for food and beverages.
A fountain drink cost between 65 and 80 cents, while you could grab a beer for $1.50. Even an EPCOT sweatshirt only cost $10 at the time.
That’s like paying $1.73 for a Coke, $4 for a beer, or $27 for a sweatshirt.
Okay, those last two are somewhat in line with inflation. Coke prices were excellent, though.
The Reality of EPCOT
Everything that I’ve discussed here sounds like a theme park because that’s what EPCOT was.
Without Walt Disney, Imagineers couldn’t create a futuristic community where all the workers lived on the campus.
Uncle Walt had created detailed transportation plans, largely ignoring cars, which would park hidden from sight.
On the main level of EPCOT, residents and guests alike would travel via monorails and PeopleMover trams. That was the plan.
The reality saw park planners do the best that they could in an impossible situation. They didn’t possess Walt’s business savvy, reputation, or connections.
As such, they couldn’t create a functional city, although Walt Disney World has grown into that over the years.
Instead, they repeatedly made sacrifices while performing a bit of triage. They brought as much of the initial EPCOT plans into reality as they could.
To their credit, they got the World Showcase right for the most part. It’s Future World that never quite lived up to Walt’s lofty vision for tomorrow.
Remarkably, the park has endured and maintained a reputation for excellence over the years.
No, we never received the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Still, we get to visit a vibrant, kinetic theme park in its place.
Feature Image Rights: Disney