The Walt Disney World Resort is almost its own entertainment nation state, made up of theme parks instead of cities. At thirty-nine square miles, it is the size of the Caribbean island of Montserrat, or slightly bigger than Jersey.
Its second theme park, Epcot, opened in 1982 as a celebration of human endeavour, a kind of answer to how the Magic Kingdom came to be. Building from Walt Disney’s original idea for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, where traffic would travel in tunnels under a lush garden city, the “EPCOT Center,” to use its original name, would combine two further theme park concepts, one of technology and another of international cultures, into what was often labelled a permanent World’s Fair. Disney’s involvement in the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair is a precursor to Epcot, where its attractions “It’s a Small World” and the “Carousel of Progress” would be relocated to Disneyland after the fair ended, while Disney’s first full animatronic display, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” would be reworked as Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents.
I would have loved to have seen the original EPCOT Center, having become aware of it – when it opened, the future was coming thick and fast, with the advent of home computers and compact discs, while British TV audiences still had its own primetime showcase for new technology in “Tomorrow’s World,” coming live from the site of the 1980 Franco-British Exhibition, proving that, in building BBC Television Centre on the land, you should still look to the future as much as you can.
Like the World’s Fair, Epcot would use corporate sponsorship to maintain and develop the rides – World in Motion, now Test Track, has always been sponsored by General Motors, now using the Chevrolet brand, while the Universe of Energy was sponsored by oil company Exxon, now ExxonMobil. However, this model has its problems: Horizons, the ride that specifically looked towards the future, lost General Electric as its sponsor in 1994, and carried on until 2004 without ever having been updated in twenty years.
The worst example of this was how Journey Into Imagination, sponsored by Kodak, went from being Epcot’s most popular ride to its most reviled, with Kodak’s reluctance, and later inability, to spend too much on updates, resulting in a cheaper ride that had its length cut from thirteen to five minutes. When the ride’s original mascot, Figment, was brought back to irritate the shorter version’s host, Eric Idle, it smacked of a lack of imagination, especially as the ride has not been updated since 2002.
These days, Epcot rarely has sponsors, the united nations of the World Showcase have been somewhat undermined by the Trumpery of “America First,” the health-oriented Wonders of Life pavilion is now the centre of the International Food & Wine Festival, while Innoventions, a technology showcase formerly named Communicorp, is mostly empty. The current edutainment-led rides at Epcot, already using some familiar Disney properties like Finding Nemo and Frozen, will be joined with rides fully based on them, with a “Guardians of the Galaxy” rollercoaster replacing the Universe of Energy from 2021 – there had already been a plan to supplant the idea of a “FutureWorld” with a more thrill-based “Discoveryland,” and it sounds like it is now on its way.
Is the future over? Even if I am no longer able to visit the future, as seen from 1982, I would have loved to have visited an Epcot that ran with the future theme all the way, visiting a pavilion titled “The Wonderful World of Graphene,” displaying roll-up computers with antiseptic surfaces, or something. Meanwhile, I could be fired like a proton through a virtual Large Hadron Collider, much like you can take a rocket to Mars on the current Mission: Space ride.
Mind you, as we hark back to the 1980s... and as “Guardians of the Galaxy” harks back to the 1980s... and as BBC Television Centre is redeveloped as apartments, using its history as a TV studio as a selling point, I am left with the ghost of a theme park I can never visit. At Epcot, the future has been cancelled.