Epcot Center celebrates human achievements and innovation born from imagination. It is a showplace dedicated to entertain we hope, with a purpose. Our goals for EPCOT Center are quite clear, we want to first entertain, then inform and inspire all who come here and above all, to instill in our guests a new sense of belief and pride in mankind’s ability to shape a world that offers real hope to people everywhere in the world.
- E. Cardon Walker
The words Card Walker spoke at Epcot Center’s dedication in the fall of 1982 established a public purpose for the company’s latest monumental endeavor. Epcot Center was a new concept in theme parks, but not completely unfamiliar to the world or even to Disney. Unlike the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland before it, which were predominantly designed to immerse visitors in the absolute fantasy of fairy tales and flying elephants, Epcot’s intent was to feed into the feeling of a world’s fair. Since the 1850s fairs and expositions were used as a method of garnering support for new technology, promoting tourism and creating a public face for corporations and countries. Without taking anything away from their impact on human culture, world’s fairs were basically monumental advertisements.
Walt Disney’s original vision for Epcot was a technological utopia. It would be clean, bright, efficient and was a direct output of the marketing tone of the New York World’s Fair which Disney played a large role in shaping. In contrast to the Fair, Epcot would be a real functioning city with sleek transportation, clean air and a culture that fostered learning and advancement. Walt’s death in the last days of 1966 ended whatever slim chance Epcot had of existing in his image. Fast forward thirteen years through Vietnam, the counterculture movement, disco and we arrive in the late 1970′s and the end product of the idea of Epcot. In the months preceding and during the three years that had passed since Walt Disney Productions had broken ground on the project, the world had experienced upheavals that ran across the gain of the optimistic message that the park intended to communicate. In the summer of 1979, just months before the first shovel was turned on the Epcot project, Three Mile Island rocked the world’s collective faith in emerging energy. During construction, the Iran hostage crisis began and ended, “Imagine” songwriter John Lennon was gunned down in New York, and attempts were made on the lives of President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. In 1981, AIDS was first observed in the United States and later led to a worldwide fear of a viral pandemic. These were problems no theme park could ever tackle head on.
In the midst of these events, Epcot Center, now a park themed to technology and culture, opened with celebration and Walker delivered his ambitious mission statement. The dedication speech jived well with the corporate sponsored attractions and exhibits that made up Epcot Center. The Universe of Energy backed by Exxon and World of Motion from General Motors entertained with a history of oil production and celebrated human advances in transportation only three years after the second U.S. oil crisis. The Land spoke of sustainable farming and new methods of agriculture while world hunger became an ever-present subject in the news. Famine had rocked Ethiopia and the West was watching on the news every night. CommuniCore showcased technological innovations that hadn’t really been part of the American thought process since the future home concepts that were popular in post World War II America.
Cyclically, Americans embrace putting on cultural blinders in the years that follow social or economic turmoil. Epcot was conceived at the beginning of an upheaval and became reality near the end. Just as some Epcotesque park would’ve likely been popular in the mid-century as a reaction to the turmoil of the ’40s, it was a solid response to the social climate the baby boomers had grown up in. The park appealed to adults nostalgically before they’d ever seen it. It was positivity and reality suspended in a most artful way. The architecture, music, and message all pointed at a grander tomorrow and promised it was right around the corner. It wasn’t a think tank for ideas or solutions to problems. It was just a warm arm that seemed to imply that great things were already in the works and the children of this generation would inherit technological and social paradise. Epcot actively chose to ignore the negative. There was an implied hope for the future but without any real plans to get there. It felt good and that was good enough.
There’s a light on in the attic.
Thought the house is dark and shuttered,
I can see a flickerin’ flutter,
And I know what it’s about.
There’s a light on in the attic.
I can see it from the outside.
And I know you’re on the inside… lookin’ out.
- Sheldon Allan Silverstein
Each of the original sponsored pavilions in EPCOT Center’s Future World included a lounge for executives and employees of the sponsor company to meet and relax while visiting the park. Most guests would never notice these private spaces since they were often hidden behind unassuming doors or in less than noticeable spaces, often on the second floor up above the guests. This tradition continued through the years to include later additions like the Red Planet Room inside HP’s Mission: SPACE and Test Track’s VIP area which lets visitors look down on guests as they enjoy the ride. Over the years, as pavilions lost their sponsors, many of the lounges closed their doors and became storage or event space. Often, park management transformed these rooms into offices for operations.
The corporate lounges for United Technologies (Living Seas), MetLife (Wonders of Life), Kodak (Journey Into Imagination), and Kraft (The Land) are still largely unused by any guest. The only original attraction that still includes an operating VIP area is Spaceship Earth. Situated above Project Tomorrow, Spaceship Earth’s post-show, is the Siemens VIP Center, originally called Base21. The entrance is just beyond the exterior door on Project Tomorrow’s west side and might as well be any other “Cast Members Only” door. Once inside, the contrast to the rest of Epcot becomes obvious. The small room is clean and bright and has obviously not been exposed to the wear and tear of millions of guests. Inside the door is a wall mounted information screen with a numeric keypad. A PIN code, generated by a Siemens employee, allows access to the VIP Center. Directly across from the entrance is a frosted glass door etched with the Siemens corporate logo. Once the guest keys in the PIN, the room lighting changes from white to a deep red, and the frosted glass door becomes transparent. Seconds later, the formerly opaque door sides open automatically. Guests then pass into a room with a decorative corporate displays, a couch, and beyond a spiral staircase leading up next to an elevator. Visitors to the VIP Center barely have enough time to take in this scene and process what just happened, before the elevator opens its doors and live voice invites the guest on board.
After a short ride up, the elevator opens into a reception area. To the left is a concierge desk where guests have their VIP status confirmed by a Siemens host and are given a short tour of the space before being given free run of the lounge. Beyond the front desk, a small beverage and snack area sits beyond a ring of lounge seats. Moving further, inset into an interactive wall of screens explaining what Siemens does, are, in this writer’s opinion, the nicest restrooms Epcot has to offer. A wireless cell phone charging station is another perk of access, and the Siemens host provides an adapter to anyone who asks. A short hallway curves toward the lounge. On the interior arced wall is another display using more electrochromic glass. A guest accessible touch panel controls some of the interior lighting, including an illuminated glass block floor that curves around from the entrance, back into the areas set aside for conference meetings and presentations. The conference room includes retractable projectors that deploy down from the ceiling and a videoconferencing system. Once in the main room, a large, curved wall of picture windows overlooks Innoventions plaza, providing an excellent view of the tarps above and pin trading station below. How many fans of EPCOT Center would love to see that view from 1982? Thought so. By far the best reason to find a way to visit the Siemens VIP Center is the exclusive access to Spaceship Earth. Behind the concierge desk is a door that leads to a small set of stairs. This is where it starts to feel like Epcot controlled territory again. At the bottom of the stairs, a sign greets guests informing them that they “are now entering the attraction area”. Beyond the door, guests find themselves in the unload area of Spaceship Earth where a Cast Member is waiting to direct visitors into their time machine vehicle for a wait-free ride.
While it is completely appropriate for paying sponsors to have these private rooms inside the park, it’s unfortunate that the lounges in the pavilions that lack sponsors haven’t been used in much of any way. Even the Siemens lounge sits empty and quiet much of the time. Underused space inside some of the most expensive real estate in Orlando just doesn’t make good sense. Original EPCOT Center fans would love to visit these hidden spaces. Just seeing the park from a different vantage point would be a huge thrill, and opening these rooms up and using the space for attractions for all guests would create a new draw in Future World, one that it needs badly. The second floor of Journey Into Imagination, once home to Image Works, an interactive playground of color, sight, and sound, is the most glaring example of empty attic space in Epcot. The cordoned stairwell in Imagination’s gift shop taunts guests who remember the glory days of the Rainbow Corridor as it seems to cry out for a new reason to exist. A re-imagined Image Works could even leverage some of same technology Siemens has already brought into the park, albeit currently only for it’s private guests. Additionally, the Siemens lounge includes technology that is current, but feels more futuristic than the rest of Future World! That’s a problem. These empty spaces provide a great opportunity to create complete pavilions, as opposed to just rides, opening more exhibits and areas where guests can wonder at their own pace. Visitors to Epcot want new experiences in new spaces and opportunity to be inspired by their surroundings. If only Future World could attract the attention of the one additional corporate sponsor it really needs, the Walt Disney Company.
For years after its opening in 1982, Future World existed as EPCOT Center’s corporate sponsored, idealized look at the world that was always right around the corner. Educational and entertaining, Future World included major pavilions dedicated to the sciences, each with its own ride attraction. The Bell Systems sponsored Spaceship Earth, a massive geodesic sphere devoted to communication, stood as the park’s icon. Spaceship Earth housed a slow-moving ride through the sphere’s interior, where animatronic figures played out the story of human history from the stone age to the information age. Exxon presented the Universe of Energy, which made use of a massive bank of rotating projection screens and animatronic dinosaurs. General Motors showcased their automobiles at World of Motion and Kodak sponsored a pavilion encouraging guests to use their imagination, and take lots of pictures. Kraft Food’s Listen to the Land ride included a tour of agricultural techniques inside a domed greenhouse, while General Electric’s Horizons merged all the other pavilion’s themes into one with a look at life and human relationships in the future.
Without exception, these rides followed the model established by the classic WED designed dark rides of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. A guest climbs aboard a vehicle, and is slowly moved through scenes set with a mixture of three-dimensional animatronic figures and props, as well as screen projections and matte paintings. The guest experience on one of these classic rides was like moving in and out of a stage performance. Viewers meandered in and around the life-size dioramas without fear of distracting the performers or obstructing their neighbors view. Each ride created a slightly different experience based on wherever the viewer decided to focus his attention at any given point in the journey. The amount of content included in each attraction was more than a guest could ever take in before being shuttled off to the next scene. In addition, the viewer defined transitions between these observed details changed each time, further altering the linear memory of the observer. These attractions created an “Active Viewer Experience”. The choices the viewer made about what to see, when, and in what order, modified the experience each time. The result was attractions that could be visited again and again, without them becoming stale or repetitive.
Future World’s pinnacle Active Viewer attraction was Horizons, opening a year after the rest of EPCOT Center, it relied heavily on animatronic and diorama elements, but set them in a rich, realized environment, as opposed to the exhibit style of attraction threaded together with narration that earlier Future World attractions had used. Matte paintings of the fantastical Brava Centauri and Mesa Verde filled in the dark spaces that Spaceship Earth and World of Motion left blank. The rider saw the same scenes from multiple viewpoints with repeated back-and-forth conversational dialog. Instead of gaps between vignettes, the designers created overlaps. Horizons added another viewer controlled element, the choice of visiting one of three future world destinations in the form of a point-of-view film displayed for each ride vehicle. In hindsight, it was this projection screen technology that would become the go to form for future attractions in EPCOT Center and later Epcot. Horizons, ironically, may have sown the seeds of demise for the Active Viewer experience.
In 1996, World of Motion closed and in 1999, Test Track, a thrill ride that simulated riding along in a car being put through a series of safety and performance tests, replaced it. Horizons closed in 1999 and Mission: SPACE, a thrill ride that simulates a launch and journey to Mars on a spacecraft, took its place in Future World. Both Test Track and Mission: SPACE are, for the most part, a “Passive Viewer Experience”. Upon opening, Test Track relied heavily on movement of the vehicle to entertain the rider. It included some sparse set design, but lacked a detailed environment. Test Track recently underwent a refurbishment and reopened at Epcot late last year. The aesthetics of the ride changed, but the ride experience itself is still fairly passive. Interactive elements added to the pre-show engage the guest, but thrill is still the point. Mission:SPACE relies entirely on a ride mechanism that generates g-forces and the intense physical effect of a motion simulator. Although an argument could be made for the Living Seas attraction, no Future World ride since Horizons has managed to create a true Active Viewer Experience.
The shift to Passive Viewer Experiences (Mission:SPACE and to a lesser degree Test Track) create a similar ride experience every time. The the viewer doesn’t need to decide what details to focus on. The ride decides for you, and it’s the same experience on each subsequent ride. Apart from the motion, Mission: SPACE is entirely a film. Each ride is exactly the same as the last. Test Track allows the rider to choose what to look at, but because speed is the main element, details are few. Is the redesigned Test Track is a true design pivot in Future World? A return to more rich, Active Viewer content, or is it just a bump in the road of the Passive Viewer Future World?