"Living up to Walt's dream" by Bob Woodham (2009)

Epcot is one of the most-visited Theme Parks in the entire world. It's made an incalculable impact on technology, world culture and architectural design. Hollywood "A" list stars have performed there — and ask to come back again and again. A U.S. president was even inaugurated there (well, sort of... Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in Washington, D.C. in 1984 but the event was shortened because of inclement weather, so our 40th president held his inaugural parade at Epcot the following year). Yet Epcot remains the subject of spirited debate among Disney experts, fans and casual observers alike.

Monorails connect Epcot to Magic Kingdom Park; Spaceship Earth features a revised interactive finale and Project Tomorrow, presented by Siemens.
(c) The Walt Disney Company

How does Epcot live up to Walt's original dream? Is it educational and enlightening or is it fun and thrilling? And why does Epcot raise all these questions and more, while other Disney Theme Parks may not? Maybe it's due in part to Danny Kaye.

But before we go there, however, let's go back to 1966 when Walt Disney appeared in a film created to present his concepts and philosophy about his Florida "Disney World Project."

"It was the very last thing that he ever shot on film," Disney Legend Marty Sklar, Executive Vice President and Imagineering Ambassador, Walt Disney Imagineering, says. "It was shot just before he went into the hospital and he was driving me crazy to finish the script. Nobody knew why at the time." The film began with a visit to Disneyland Park, highlighting its many popular and business successes. Walt Disney then provided an overview of his Florida plans, including a Theme Park, hotels and recreation, much of which became the first Walt Disney World phase in 1971. But he continued, "…the most exciting and by far the most important part of our Florida project, in fact the very heart of everything we'll be doing in Disney World, will be our Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow..." The film followed this with animation, narration and dramatic music to detail a futuristic utopia.

Walt passed away soon afterward and, even though the Epcot project was revived, it took on the form of a second Theme Park rather than a planned residential city and industrial center. In the meantime, the Walt Disney World property had taken on the form of an experimental community of sorts already, with many of its own municipal systems and innovative techniques initiated by Walt.

For instance, take garbage (please). "I remember that once Walt and Mrs. Disney were babysitting for Ron and Diane Miller's children," Marty says. "In back of their home, there was an alley where the trash truck would come for pick-ups. They were out particularly early one morning, throwing around the trash cans and woke Walt up. He started saying, 'Why do they have to collect trash that way?' and that ended up as what we did originally with the Walt Disney World AVAC trash collection system [in which trash jets underground through pneumatic tubes]. That was really from Walt's interest in testing and demonstrating things."

Shortly after the 1971 opening, journalist David Brinkley visited Walt Disney World Resort with his NBC cameras, remarking that, while others just talked about the visions for the future, Disney was doing something about it. "It is the most imaginative and effective piece of urban planning in America," he told his TV audience. As a monorail glided behind him, Brinkley concluded that the elements, "all fit together better than any other urban environment in America."

From monorail systems to telephone fiber optics, the entire Walt Disney World Resort was modeling the Epcot philosophy. So when the second Theme Park opened as "EPCOT Center," it was the nucleus around which the other Walt Disney World wonders revolved.

But the public's frame of reference was Walt's original announcement (if they had seen it) and press interpretations of initial Epcot visions and the resulting EPCOT Center. What they did not have was Walt himself on TV, as they had in the 1950s when he was updating them on Disneyland and clarifying a new entertainment concept.

As he said in the 1966 film, "The sketches and plans you will see today are just the starting point, our first overall thinking about Disney World. Everything in this room may change time and time again as we move ahead, but the basic philosophy of everything we're planning for Disney World is going to remain very much as it is right now." While there are marked differences between the Epcot of 1966 and 1982, there is also no way to assume whether or not Walt would have followed a similar path in its development. Creative projects change by their very nature; otherwise Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would have premiered with a bed-making sequence and a dwarf named "Biggo-Ego."

"What Walt had at the time was a pretty well fleshed out outline, but he didn't do the 'script,'" Marty says metaphorically. "If we had been given a couple more years with Walt it might have been different. But you can also consider the things we built into Walt Disney World that were based on what Walt wanted to do." Walt also said that, "No one company can do this alone." Walt Disney Imagineering collaborated with some of the most prestigious names in science, technology and industry, as well partnering with corporate participants. Marty points out that, just as it had been with Disneyland and Magic Kingdom attractions, the goal was not to tell institutional, company-line stories, but to call upon such expertise to create entertaining experiences vivid enough to spur greater discovery. On Sunday night, October 23, 1982, more than three weeks after the actual Epcot opening, CBS broadcast EPCOT Center: The Grand Opening Celebration. A balance of showbiz (Marie Osmond, Drew Barrymore, Roy Clark) and gravitas (Alex Haley, Eric Sevareid, Alan Shepherd), the program attempted to explain in one hour what Walt Disney Imagineering had been developing for eight years.

Legendary Danny Kaye hosted a TV special that gave millions their first impressions of a new kind of Disney theme park.
(c) The Walt Disney Company

Danny Kaye, a versatile, almost magical talent whose personality was almost as complicated as some perceptions of Epcot, made a rare appearance as host, singing several original songs and deftly balancing the comic with the serious.

"…But maybe you're asking yourself, 'what's an EPCOT?'" says Kaye during the opening musical number, before launching into a tongue-twisting verse reminiscent of his famous patter songs. "Just so there's no confusion, EPCOT Center is located in the center of EPCOT. And EPCOT Center is made up of two parts… Future World and World Showcase. It's 2.5 miles from the Magic Kingdom, which is also part of Epcot, which is also what the entire 2,500 acre area known as the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, or Walt Disney World, is called."

Then he giggled and repeated, "Just so there's no confusion."

The special also could not adequately convey the feeling of visiting each pavilion and experiencing the attractions as well as exhibits of new products and technologies in Future World, nor the almost infinite details and discoveries of World Showcase. Epcot requires Guests to savor the surroundings and tastes, perhaps to a greater degree than most other places. The sensory details are as much the "attractions" as are the ride-through adventures. Once most Guests visited, they "got" it, and often Epcot became a family favorite among Disney Theme Parks. But some who had never visited may have only been guided by word of mouth, a few weeks of press coverage and Danny Kaye.

Over the years, additional shows on Disney Channel, network specials and parades made more of a dent in the public's Epcot psyche. Epcot also kept evolving, becoming more and more interactive and — yes — perhaps changing the world with real-life technologies, festivals and events celebrating international cuisine and horticulture, and with some of the most popular attractions in any Theme Park, anywhere.

While you're screaming along the longest, fastest course in the world on Test Track, presented by GM, you're also seeing how an auto is checked out for safety. Kids can literally chat with an animated star at Turtle Talk with Crush, inspired by Disney·Pixar's Finding Nemo, and a few steps away see actual research going on with creatures of the deep.

Mission: SPACE is a thrilling blast off from Earth to the red planet you can only experience at Epcot.
(c) The Walt Disney Company

Interactive fun has probably seen its biggest increase at Epcot. "The hands-on stuff was not in vogue when we started doing it at Epcot," Marty says. "It has become so important because that is the way kids grow up today." The Innoventions area is almost a Park within the Park, with so many participatory activities, life-size games and shows, kids in particular can spend hours there. The new Disney's Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure not only sends families to countries in search of clues, it has the added benefit of drawing attention to extraordinary Epcot details.

Perhaps the greatest combination of potential impact and entertainment is found at The Land pavilion, where you can fly like a bird on the Soarin'™ attraction one minute and see how one plant can grow hundreds of tomatoes the next. If you take the "Behind the Seeds" tour, you can see, up close, incredible things that help grow food all over the world. The staff members include dozens of college interns who then go out into the world armed with this amazing knowledge. There's no telling how it can improve the future.

"Everything at EPCOT will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who will live, work and play here and those who come from around the world to visit our living showcase," Walt said in the 1966 film. Today at World Showcase, 11 nations offer attractions, award-winning food and the chance to meet people from the countries themselves. Many of them are also college students on the World Fellowship Program who reside on Disney property in special apartment complexes.

You can explore astonishing greenhouses in The Land pavilion by boat or with the "Behind the Seeds" tour.
(c) The Walt Disney Company

Dan Cockerell, vice president of Epcot, lived in such a dwelling as a college student. There, he met his wife, who was a student from France. "It's funny, when you are another nationality and you leave your country, you become very patriotic, very prideful in what you represent," he says."A lot of our international Cast members here understand that there are some Guests who may have never considered visiting these countries, but could be inspired to visit because of Epcot. Kids might remember meeting an international Cast Member and it could influence their studies or their career someday."

Nowhere else exists such a meeting of people and cultures, much less in such a pleasant setting. Who knows how this can promote the celebration of diversity? "When I was in Paris recently, I learned that there is a yearly meeting of the World Showcase students in Europe," Marty notes. "One of the students, who is championing these meetings, is now an important leader in his country. You never know where it all could lead."

Every evening, almost all of Epcot turns out to pay tribute to the World Showcase countries when IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth fills the sky with fireworks, lasers and music in a spectacle that many feel is among the best of its kind anywhere.

What's ahead for Epcot? That's always a challenge. As Dan says, "The easy part of Epcot is that you can do almost anything — and the hard part about Epcot is that you can do almost anything. I think it has to be more and more interactive. Guests want to be involved, they want to touch it, smell it and hear it. They want to do it together."

Sounds like Walt Disney's idea all along, as far back as when his daughters played at a little park on weekends as he watched.

"We really did try to stay true to the basic underpinning of what Walt wanted to do and I think in many ways we did," Marty observes. "We felt, and Walt championed, that we could help make the world a better place and give people an opportunity to understand more about things that affect their daily lives, all the while having a good time while they are doing it. There really is no other place that accomplishes this like Epcot."