Blurring Fantasy and Reality:
Disney's EPCOT Dream and Tomorrowland


Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2017, Volume 16, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2017/lelekis_elam.htm

 

Debbie Lelekis and Madelaine Elam
Florida Institute of Technology


Walt Disney first described his dream of a living community to the public in his EPCOT promotional film recorded on October 27, 1966. It was then that he portrayed it as a showcase to the world of the "ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise," but that vision was significantly scaled back when Epcot Center opened in 1982, sixteen years after his death. In that first unveiling, it was clear that his intention was for the community to "always be in a state of becoming...never ceas[ing] to be a living blueprint of the future." We see a glimpse of what this community might have looked like in Brad Bird's film Tomorrowland (2015). The film reflects elements of fantasy that are representative of the blurred distinction between Disney's aim to entertain and the initial mission of EPCOT which centered on the promotion of technology and global communication. By connecting Disney’s utopian dreams for EPCOT and its evolution into reality back to the film Tomorrowland, we explore these frictions within the representations of these futuristic cityscapes.1  

In an article for The Guardian, Steve Rose contends that Tomorrowland’s futuristic city actually takes us back to the "techno-futurism" of the 1960s, depicting a "pristine, shopping-mall sort of place with soaring glass spires and flying trains and happy people of all nations." While Rose suggests that the film "retrofits a backstory" onto the Tomorrowland area of the Magic Kingdom theme park, the city presented on screen really has stronger ties to the original plans for the community of EPCOT.  Rose's description of Disney's theme park as a "place of paradox and contradiction" is useful though. Disney creative executive, Marty Sklar, has said, "Walt Disney had one foot in the past, because he loved nostalgia, and one foot in the future, because he loved new technology" (qtd. in Patches). As Rose suggests, Disney World is presented as "eagerly forward-looking yet stiflingly conservative," and it is "neither pure fantasy nor is it quite reality." These tensions are at the heart of our analysis of the film and its connections to EPCOT. We see the dissonance between these concepts when comparing Walt Disney’s vision for EPCOT and the Disney business model that emphasizes corporate logos and sponsorships, in addition to the frequent invasion of fantasy and magic in areas that are supposed to be focused on the development of innovative technology and global communication. Rose asserts that those strains between fantasy and reality were apparent from the beginning, embodied in what he refers to as the hybrid term, "imagineers," which was Walt Disney's name for his creative team.

Before his death, Walt's vision for his "Florida Project" (sometimes referred to as "Project X") was less about replicating the success of his California theme park in the Sunshine State and more focused on his concept for a city. The model of "Progress City" that was later displayed in the Carousel of Progress attraction at Disneyland depicts his conception, which as Brent Lang notes in his Variety article on the film Tomorrowland, was "surprisingly in step with current ideas of urban planning." That link is not surprising though when we consider the resources and ideas that Walt was familiar with and drawing upon during his planning phase. Most notably, he was influenced by urban-planner Ebenezer Howard and architect-planner Victor Gruen, and their books Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902) and The Heart of Our Cities (1964) were commonly seen on his desk. (Garden Cities of To-Morrow was originally published as To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898, reprinted with the revised title in 1902, and then republished in 1945.) Disney's approach toward city building is described by Sam Gennawey in Walt and the Promise of Progress City as "less revolutionary and more evolutionary [because] he learned from the best, reconfigured their ideas and qualities, and created something that was not only substantially better than what came before, but that would also continue to improve over time" (271).

Walt wanted to return to the human-scale community and his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) was conceived of as a garden city of concentric rings, echoing Ebenezer Howard’s model of life-centered town planning. Historian Lewis Mumford (author of The City in History) writes in the introduction to Howard's book, that the key principle was the balance of the community to combine the benefits of both town and country, including "rustic health…activity and urban knowledge, [as well as] urban political co-operation" (34). Disney's conception of EPCOT follows Howard's plan for a "compact, rigorously confined urban grouping" with the city at the center, surrounded by a green belt and family dwellings, but he also seems to have been influenced by Howard's ideas about the "inter-relationship of urban functions within the community and the integration of urban and rural patterns, for the vitalizing of urban life" (34-35). In The Heart of Our Cities, Victor Gruen describes the primary purpose of the city as "bring[ing] together many people so that, through direct communication with each other, they may exchange goods and ideas without undue loss of energy and time" (21). Furthermore, he adds, "Progress, that subconscious striving toward unknown aims, which appears to be one of the most deep-seated instincts of the human race, would have been impossible without the city" (Gruen 21).

We can see the impact of these urban planning ideas on Walt Disney in the development of his early plans for EPCOT, and then the visual impact of these concepts comes to life in the film Tomorrowland.  Disney's concept for EPCOT is best expressed in the acronymed title he gave the city, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, in which his plans and dreams for a better world would be born. It was an experiment in that, while utopian visions had appeared in historical texts, a city of this scale in both size and purpose had only been something of dreams. It would be a community because in the original designs for EPCOT, there were to be conference centers, shopping pavilions, housing, and recreation, all designed to provide comfort for the residents. It would be a city of tomorrow due to the incorporation of the technologies that would be designed, developed, and tested in EPCOT, before being released to the world. It is important to note that Disney hoped that this city would not become static, but rather keep evolving, producing new technologies and answers to questions. This Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was to be a template or prototype for future ventures in urban planning. With the aid of the knowledge provided in the Gruen and Howard books, Walt Disney researched and designed a revived and utterly unique city plan that he thought could be the start of making the world a better place.

The community aspect of EPCOT was vital to Disney's idea. According to Walt Disney, the land in Florida that was to be named Disney World was divided into different areas for various purposes. The main hub or attraction, The City of Tomorrow, would be comprised of four concentric areas, each consisting of different levels of business, recreational activities, or housing. The Urban Center was to be the main area of business, shopping, and apartment housing. This is where the main hub of activity would be located, including social, cultural, and economic interests. The towering high-rise that would dominate the skyline is a thirty-story hotel and convention center that would house visitors and promote ideas of the future. The shopping areas of the Urban Center were conceived to reflect different countries’ cultures and products; this section later would evolve into the World Showcase as part of the modern Epcot theme park.  

Located just outside of the main business and shopping arenas, the high-density housing areas would offer apartments for small families or single adults. Additionally, all of the hub would be enclosed, so as to control the environment, protecting the visitors and residents from the heat and humidity of the Florida climate, as well as from the occasional severe storm and (rare) cold snap. It would have exemplified a typical American community outside of the hub, with features such as light recreational activities (parks, ball fields, playgrounds), churches, and schools. As mentioned in the EPCOT promotional film, the schools would be instrumental to the ideal of EPCOT as it would "welcome new ideas so that everyone who grows up in EPCOT would have skills in pace with today’s world."

The last sphere was to be the lower density housing, the equivalent of a suburban space in America. In this area, larger families would live in single family houses, separated by green lawns. There is an animated clip portion of the EPCOT promotional film that exemplifies the transportation design that allows for little to no interaction between residential areas and motorized vehicles. The citizens of this section would have lighter recreational activities and would move around by way of paths designed for and limited to pedestrians, electric carts, and bicycles. As the EPCOT film lays out, gasoline powered vehicles would use the back roads within the residential areas and travel a constant-flow road, with no street lights or stop signs, in and out of the Urban Center and EPCOT. Delivery trucks, carrying supplies and materials, would not be seen by the visitors and residents of this city, as they would have their own subterranean roadways to themselves; this construction would have taken a feat of engineering when one takes into consideration Florida’s wet and swampy ground, but the accomplishment would add to the idea of utopia, the illusion of perfection, in that no one would see the less attractive workings of the city.  This design of the EPCOT Center was one to promote safety and harmony of both humanity and the environment.
           
This concept appeared to be an idealized design of an American community. What would set it apart from the typical American neighborhood, however, was the incorporation of futuristic technology. The last word in Disney’s acronym was "tomorrow," indicating that the technology and other aspects of the utopian city would be reflective of what the future might hold. Some of this technology would include the different modes of transportation within the EPCOT Center: the WED People-Mover, the monorail system, and a subterranean vehicular system. Futuristic technology would be an important aspect of the design of EPCOT in that it would make it unique to the world outside of Disney World. This is the extent of the planning of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow in the late 1960s, but Walt Disney’s goal was for it to continue to evolve.  It was still very much a dream in that there were many ideas circulating around and not much in the area of hard, solid facts.

Walt Disney was an optimist and often expressed that optimism for the world and for the future in his films and attractions at his theme parks. One of the most notable of these was the Carousel of Progress. This attraction first debuted at the 1964-1965 World's Fair in the General Electric Progressland pavilion. In this show, Disney's Audio-Animatronics portray a family living in different decades with progressing technology. These Audio-Animatronics used in Carousel of Progress were the first of its kind in the entertainment industry. As noted in Dream It, Do It by Marty Sklar, other than the Abraham Lincoln Audio Animatronics at the World's Fair, these were indeed the very first of their kind. In the film Tomorrowland, there is a nod to this original technology when the same term, Audio-Animatronics, is used to describe the human-like robots that are depicted as recruiters to Tomorrowland, as well as militaristic guards that pursue the main characters of the film. The Carousel of Progress is a four-act show displaying a family in different eras and how their lives improved with advances in electricity. From its creation, the narrative of the ride has been influenced by its ties to the sponsor General Electric. It tells the story of progress due to electricity in the home, but Disney also hoped to benefit from the financial support of GE, which further illustrates the dissonance between some of Walt’s utopian dreams and the Disney business model. GE’s sponsorship was not renewed in 1985, and as a result, most of the GE logos were replaced by gears and mechanical designs and renamed Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress.

The first act of the attraction depicts the 1890s. At the very end of the 1800s, the first edition of the Audio Animatronic family appears in a kitchen, complete with a telephone, a coal powered stove, gas lamps, and a refrigerator (called an ice box, as it uses large quantities of ice to keep it cold). In the family's dialogue, there are historical references to the Wright brothers and other statistics on technological innovations in the United States. The family remarks on the futuristic technology, including electric lights by Edison, while using technology from the period, such as phonographs and stereoscopes.

The visitors are transported next to the 1920s era, where we meet the father of the Audio Animatronic family in a slightly updated kitchen, with electric lights, stove, vacuum cleaner, and refrigerator. All this new technology is shown as a convenience to the family, until the power goes out. The family is shown using radios, lights, and indoor plumbing, but complains about the stifling heat.

The next act is the "Fabulous Forties," where "things are better than ever," according to the father, who now commutes to and from the city for work. The dishwasher and improved refrigerator are displayed in the kitchen, but one of the main draws is the new television set shown in another room; the father thinks that while it is primarily a form of entertainment and news, the television could be a way of "learning Latin and Greek," hinting at the possibilities of educational opportunities.

The last act of the Carousel of Progress takes place in the 1960s, which was the time frame in which the attraction debuted. The latest forms of technology that are utilized by the family are household appliances that respond to vocal commands, personal computers, and automated toilets. The grandfather muses over the old technology and how far they have come while the daughter states that there is "a whole new century out there," echoing Walt Disney's hope for the future and progress.

After the World's Fair, when the attraction was moved to Disneyland in California, some elements of the 1960s part were updated and the Progress City model was added so that people could see it after the main show.2 When the attraction moved again to Orlando in Florida, other updates were made to reflect new technology that has been introduced to the modern American home. The most recent example of this is the addition of virtual reality headsets seen in the last chapter of the Carousel of Progress.

The attraction is complimented with a song entitled "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." Richard and Robert Sherman were tasked with writing a versatile song for the attraction, creating a tune that could be adapted to represent the four eras that the ride takes visitors through. Within the ride Carousel of Progress, the song, "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" goes through different variations as it progresses through the century, from a ragtime piece to a swing piece, and so forth. The very last section of the show, when the audience returns to the theater with the ride logo, features a modern version of the song, complete with modern harmonies, vocal descants/solos, and synthesized music. They wanted the song to capture the ways new technology was making life better each day and how that would influence the future. Robert Sherman refers to Walt Disney as a "Futurist" who was extremely good at selling the future as positive and optimistic. The song was an attempt to capture that quality of Walt Disney. Robert has described how the Sherman brothers began writing the lyrics to the middle of the song as Walt's dream for the future; then they expanded the lyrics to be more applicable to all dreamers, stating that "Man has a dream and that’s the start / He follows his dream with mind and heart." Finally, they went back and added the beginning of the song that is repeated as the chorus, linking the idea of the future with a "beautiful tomorrow." The lyrics are always urging us to look forward to the future by reminding visitors that "There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow / Shining at the end of every day / There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow / Just a dream away." Sherman admits that they wrote the song about Walt Disney; after his death, it became the theme song for the Carousel of Progress. In an interview, Marty Sklar, who worked at Disney for nearly five decades on projects including the Carousel of Progress, explains, "Walt Disney was the eternal optimist, and he really believed that things could be better. And Bob and Dick Sherman wrote that song as a personal ode to Walt. They really meant it...That was Walt’s anthem, and they recognized that." Walt sang the song with the Sherman brothers for a promotional video for the World's Fair and an instrumental version also plays in the background during his EPCOT promotional video.

The film Tomorrowland builds upon this optimism, recruiting people from our world who are the brightest and show the most potential for contributing innovative ideas to be the inhabitants of the city of Tomorrowland, and the structure of the city in the film appears to have much in common with Walt's original plans for EPCOT before it became the theme park that we now know. It does not seem to be a coincidence that the song "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" plays during an early scene and serves as a strong link between Walt Disney's optimism and vision for EPCOT and the film Tomorrowland.      

The film opens with a scene at the New York World's Fair in 1964 where eleven-year-old Frank Walker (later played by George Clooney) first meets Athena and David Nix (who turn out to be citizens of Tomorrowland). He meets them at the Hall of Invention to show off his jetpack prototype, and the building is visually similar to the Carousel of Progress attraction at Epcot, which was also first unveiled at the real 1964 World's Fair as mentioned above.  

In these early scenes in Tomorrowland, Frank jumps into a boat on the Small World ride and is soon transported to the city of Tomorrowland. In an article for The New Yorker, Anthony Lane compares Frank's experience "downward through a vortex" to Alice and her fall down the rabbit hole that takes her on a trip to Wonderland. The White Rabbit from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is spotted in a scene at the World's Fair as well, as Frank races to catch up with Athena before boarding the Small World ride. The rabbit might hint at references to time and Tomorrowland being a Wonderland-like place where time seems to work differently. There is a subtle undertone to the rabbit’s famous line "I'm late! For a very important date!" in this scene. In a later scene, Athena asks, "Which way do you want to go? Backwards or forwards?" which seems to challenge the notion of time as linear. Lane also highlights how Tomorrowland is so "fuzzily defined," questioning, "Is it a real destination? Is it a state of mind? No, it's a super-concept…[and] also, of course, a zone that you can visit at Disneyland." Later in the film, when the main characters go to Tomorrowland, they shoot up into space, but then fall back downwards and go through space/time to what seems like another dimension.
 
In the present timeline of the film, the character Casey Newton is recruited to Tomorrowland by Athena (who has not aged since she is an Audio-Animatronic), but this time it is for a much more urgent mission: to save her own world from destruction and to end Nix's authoritarian reign over Tomorrowland. Casey and Frank are linked by their keen ability to see how things work and by their optimism as children. When young Frank first grabs the attention of Athena and Nix with his jetpack invention, he explains that he created it because he "got tired of waiting for someone else to do it," and in response to Nix's questioning about its purpose, he retorts, "Can't it just be fun…If I was walking down the street and I saw some kid with a jetpack…I'd be inspired. Doesn’t that make the world a better place?"

Casey has a similar attitude in a flashback scene that shows her as a small child looking up at the stars in wonder; when her mother asks what she would do if she got up into space and there was nothing, she replies, "What if there’s everything?!" Later, Casey tells her little brother that "Even the tiniest of actions can change the future," and "It's hard to have ideas and easy to give up." These are notions that reverberate later in the film when Casey and Frank face Nix in Tomorrowland. Both Frank and Casey are more jaded as they get older. Casey's stargazing scene is immediately followed by the image of her seemingly destroying NASA property, and it's not until later that we find out that she was only trying to prevent them from shutting down the launch pad, which would cause her father to lose his job. This scene begins with Casey riding her motorcycle through the dark; her face is masked by her dark helmet; even her gender is ambiguous in her all black attire. In a contrasting scene at her home with her family, Casey is upbeat and easily fixes something that her engineer father is tinkering with in frustration.  It's in this scene where she utters the "Two Wolves" parable that encompasses the main theme of the film.  Essentially, the concept is that there are two wolves: "One is darkness and despair, the other is light and hope. Which one wins? Whichever one you feed." The ingenuity and optimism of young Frank and Casey is put in stark contrast to scenes from Casey's school where each classroom experience presents only pictures of war, destruction, and catastrophic weather.  Casey's English teacher is the only one who even acknowledges her attempts to raise her hand and speak, but when she asks, "Can we fix it?" there is no real response.  It isn't until Casey reaches Tomorrowland that she is given an opportunity to really use her talents to potentially make the world a better place.      

Another character in the film describes Tomorrowland as "a place free from politics and bureaucracy, distractions, greed – a secret place where they [the geniuses, the artists, the scientists, the smartest, most creative people in the world] could build whatever they were crazy enough to imagine." The city was established by the group Plus Ultra, which was founded by Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and Gustave Eiffel. While it was not shown in the theatrical release of the Tomorrowland film, there was a short animated scene that was meant to address this founding group. This part was cut from the main film, but appears as an extra in the DVD set. There is also a book called Before Tomorrowland that gives a background to the Plus Ultra group, as well as Tomorrowland. The kind of people that Plus Ultra wanted to recruit sounds very similar to what Walt Disney envisioned for his community of tomorrow in the original EPCOT plan. In both the real and fictional communities, there was a desire to gather together these innovators into one place where they could work on inventions that would bring about positive changes for humanity.

On Frank’s first visit as a child, Tomorrowland is still under construction as Nix is overheard talking about different phases. Frank's subsequent jetpack flight gives the audience stunning glimpses of the city. In an article on the creation of the film's "futurescapes," Ian Failes describes how "noted concept artist and futurist Syd Mead also contributed concepts for Tomorrowland's city views." In this article, the previsualization supervisor for the film, Tefft Smith II, explained that a "lot of it was working out how much of Tomorrowland to reveal before the main part of the movie takes place" because they "wanted to show enough of Tomorrowland to get people excited but not enough to spoil the big reveal that happens later in the film" (qtd. in Failes).

That truly impressive unveiling of Tomorrowland occurs during Casey Newton's first experience of the city. She mysteriously receives a T pin from robot-recruiter Athena. It is worth noting that there are at least two versions of the T pin used in the film. One is an orange T with a blue background while the other is an orange background with a blue T. The differences occur as different characters receive the pins. The young Frank Walker get a blue with orange T pin earlier in the timeline of the film while Casey gets an orange one with a blue T. This may be to help the audience distinguish between the two timelines of the film, when Young Frank first goes to Tomorrowland and later on when Casey experiences the "trailer" for Tomorrowland. This pin transports Casey to Tomorrowland in a six-minute long sequence. Her arrival is greeted fittingly by a prominent sign bearing the famous Einstein quote, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."  The vision of Tomorrowland that Casey sees is bright and colorful, suggesting a sense of multiculturalism that perhaps echoes the World Showcase aspect of Disney’s Epcot.

This Tomorrowland is a vibrant city with lots of movement and plenty of technology on display, from a futuristic monorail to electronic newspapers. Notably, families are still depicted as important and cohesive units, and Casey witnesses a scene between a young woman and her parents before she joins her friends and fellow cadets who are about to begin a space mission. Innovation, exploration, and curiosity seem to be the key elements of Tomorrowland as it is presented to Casey in this first glimpse, which she finds out later has been prepackaged as a sort of "commercial" for new recruits.  Visual effects supervisor Eddie Pasquarello echoes this in his statement, "Of course, Tomorrowland never looked better than in this utopian view," which was created after ten months of work by a crew "dedicated only to this sequence to make it possible" (qtd. in Failes).  

When Casey actually visits Tomorrowland (with a grownup Frank), she finds a city that is run-down and under the complete control of Nix. The community is now the opposite of the hopeful place that Casey encountered during the vision initially displayed to her through the pin. Nix is a dictator figure, and his new status is further emphasized by the militaristic clothing that he wears. In this version of Tomorrowland, Casey finds a place that is being fueled by fear. Nix is an embodiment of the darker of the two wolves from Casey's parable.   

In Tomorrowland, tachyon particles have been harnessed in a device called the Monitor (a structure that looks strikingly similar to the design of Spaceship Earth in the real Epcot theme park), allowing the viewer to alter space/time and see backwards and forwards in time. This creation was designed by young Frank before he was banished from Tomorrowland and sent back to our own world. The word tachyon derives from a Greek word, which means “rapid,” and these are hypothetical particles that would move faster than the speed of light, a process that would violate Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity (Tipler and Llewellyn 54). Although they are being used in a fictional way in the film, two real scientists discussed the notion of particles moving faster than light in 1962, but they used the term meta-particle (Bilaniuk, Deshpande, and Sudarshan 718). The actual term tachyon was coined in 1967 by Gerald Feinberg (1089-1105). Like other works of fiction, including Star Trek, Babylon 5, X-Men, and Watchmen, which have drawn upon the actual science behind the term, Tomorrowland introduces the use of tachyons as the source of superluminal communication. The problem is that Nix is using the Monitor to make people on Earth think negatively, and it’s convincing the whole world to feed the wrong wolf. The Monitor is not just receiving signal from Earth, it’s giving people the idea that the world will be destroyed, so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Casey is brought to Tomorrowland by Athena and Frank in order to try to stop the world from ending in fifty-eight days, according to Frank’s calculations. When she asks Nix why he will not just let everyone into Tomorrowland, he argues that nothing would survive because humans on Earth are driven by savagery. Nix has lost faith in humanity’s ability to be galvanized by the possibility of losing everything. In one of his most eloquent speeches, Nix asserts the following:

You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation, explain that one. Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, the algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there's a possibility of a better future, but you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality.

He thought humanity would respond, but instead people have "repackaged" and embraced the apocalypse. He says people "steered for the iceberg anyway." Casey's solution is to stop the signal and turn off the Monitor so that the negative messages won't be transmitted to Earth, and people can begin to try to change things. By the end of the film, Casey and Frank have triumphed, and we see them recruiting a new crop of dreamers for Tomorrowland.

In a featurette for the film, director Brad Bird explicitly states that the film is "connected with Disney in a really interesting way." Producer and writer David Lindelof further reflects on Walt Disney's interest in the future, and "all the possibility it could bring." Actor George Clooney adds to this discussion in his description of Disney as a man who looked to the future with the idea that there is hope for a positive outcome, and Imagineer Tom Morris echoes this when he says, "He [Disney] came up with systems that would make people work together better."  This statement is followed in the featurette by clips of Disney's work with animatronics, mass communication, and urban planning, culminating in views about his Florida Project, the community design of EPCOT, which was eventually modified into Epcot Center after his death. Lindelof credits Disney for sparking the optimism that led to the themes explored in the film. Additionally, Bird highlights what he calls the "evocative" nature of the very word "Tomorrowland," which conjures notions of the playfulness, promise, and freshness that is so vividly depicted in the visuals of the film.

Between the original concept of EPCOT and the visual depiction of its chief characteristics in the film Tomorrowland, Walt Disney's original dream was significantly altered, but not completely abandoned. Rather, there was a downsizing of the dream of EPCOT, turning it into a theme park that would showcase Disney's vision for globalization and advanced communication. At first, after opening in 1982, there were attempts by the Imagineers to continue to "nurture Disney Studios' ties to progress by hosting the Epcot Forums, where great minds like Ray Bradbury, atmospheric physicist Carl Hodges, and Girard O’Neal, inventor of the particle storage ring, met to discuss the future of science," and there was a center for teachers to pick up educational materials for their classrooms (Patches). In an article in Esquire, Marty Sklar, explains that they were "really looking for people who were doing far out things...[that] the public should know about" (qtd. in Patches). As Jeff Kurtti argues, "In the end, Epcot carries through much of Walt Disney's visionary philosophy, although in a decidedly different way than he intended" (117). One of Walt"s closest lieutenants, John Hench, said in a 1993 interview:

Walt had this ambition to open this place which, when you really analyze it, was a place where people could get better information. He thought that all the evils of the world were because people didn't get the right information, so people didn't react right. People were capable of all kinds of evils because they were operating on the wrong information. So he thought he could build a place where he could straighten out some of those things.  (qtd. in Kurtti 117)

This quote connects Epcot to Tomorrowland and the wrong message that Nix was sending to people on earth when he was "feeding the wrong wolf." According to Richard Beard, Epcot sought to be the "voice of optimism" as a counter to the negativity and cynicism in the world; it was to be a "permanent world's fair of imagination, discovery, education, and exploration…[that would] inspire the visitors…so that they [would] be turned on to the positive potential of the future and [would] want to participate in making the choices that will shape it" (28).

Despite the facts that Walt Disney Productions had political power, the support of millions of fans, and the creativity needed to pursue a plan like EPCOT, by 1975, the plans had clearly shifted from a living community to one "oriented to the communication of new ideas, rather than to serving the day-to-day needs of a limited number of permanent residents" (Walker). In Walt Disney and the Quest for Community, Steve Mannheim describes Epcot Center as touching upon "all of the elements of Disney's original EPCOT philosophy to varying degrees except one: it is not a living community of people" (133).

When it opened in 1982, instead of a city with a towering central convention center and radial design, Epcot had become a theme park that featured Spaceship Earth, a geodesic sphere created by John Hench after consulting with Richard Buckminster Fuller, an architect and engineer. The sphere is considered to be the result of the evolution of Disney's city dome idea from his original EPCOT design, which was thought to be financially unfeasible. Mannheim notes that Fuller’s designs of a geodesic sphere at the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 1967 in Montreal and his 1969 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth were the inspiration for Epcot's sphere and its name.

Spaceship Earth is recognized around the world as the symbol or icon of Epcot. This golf ball shaped structure houses a reiteration of Walt Disney's hopes for his EPCOT dream. Keeping with the ideal of "always be[ing] in a state of becoming," Spaceship Earth has undergone cosmetic and thematic changes, but the core ideal, looking to the future with hope and optimism, echoes throughout the ride. The latest edition of Spaceship Earth encourages the EPCOT visitors by reminding them that the future will be shaped by their actions of today. Spaceship Earth sets the tone for the rest of the visitors' experience at EPCOT, which was meant to plant the seeds of hope and optimism in the minds of the next generation – the hope that children and grandchildren would be developing and using this technology to shape their world.

Similarly, as stated in the EPCOT film, part of the original plan for EPCOT was for it to be a place that would "always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems" in order to solve the world's problems and showcase these solutions to the world, almost resembling a permanent World's Fair (see Pederson). According to R.A. Pederson in The Epcot Explorer's Encyclopedia, the CommuniCore attraction (1982-1994) embodied this idea by providing the opportunity for companies like General Electric, Apple, Exxon, and AT&T to present products that could make life easier and make communication more efficient. In today's Epcot, an area of the park called Innoventions, which is a word that is a portmanteau of invention and innovation, is an attraction where people can learn about the world and interact with new technologies through hands-on exhibits. As Beard points out, the Electronic Forum, an attraction within CommuniCore, resembled ancient forums where ideas and news were exchanged; instead of talking about the latest gladiatorial battle, however, the Electronic Forum featured an opportunity for visitors to share their opinion on different issues via polling and transfer of information, which can be seen as an attempt to reconnect with Walt Disney's original dream for EPCOT to be a place where new ideas were to be grown and released to the world.

While Innoventions initially fulfilled the idea of information transfer to the visitors of Epcot, most people associate the Disney parks with entertainment and escape from reality in these magical worlds that Walt Disney has created. This ideation has caused a contradiction of values within Epcot, in that Epcot was based on reality and fixing the world's problems with inventive solutions while the rest of Disney was based on fantasy and magic. In the beginning, there was very little emphasis on Mickey Mouse, the world of talking animals, and fairy tale creatures in Epcot even though that dominated Disney’s past endeavors. The significance of this absence could be interpreted as a move away from the land of fantasy and into the future of technological advancement in order to create a better civilization, a world of reality in a land of tomorrow. In the animated fantasy movies that had long been Disney staples, magic had often been the key to conflict resolution. Epcot had offered technology and global cooperation to solve the world's problems. Jeff Kurtti points out that the Epcot Center was a unique park in Walt Disney World, "so new it was treated as its own organic, self-contained culture with no relationship to the Magic Kingdom or other Disney products" (89). As the Epcot Center was geared for an adult audience, there was no mention or appearance of the fantastical Disney creatures or merchandise. This gradually changed as Epcot became recognized as a Disney brand, starting with the outward appearances of certain buildings, minor inclusion of Disney merchandise, and increasing when the Disney characters invaded the rides and attractions of Future World and later the World Showcase. The invasion of Disney magic had begun.

In 2000, the exterior of Spaceship Earth, which until this point remained unadorned, featured a big, sparkly sign reading “2000,” which seemed to be conjured by Mickey Mouse's hand; the wand that appeared below it, affixed to the exterior, hinted at the optimism that would come with the new millennium. After a year, the 2000 was replaced by the iconic name, "Epcot." This was the first change in the external appearance of Spaceship Earth since its construction. While this sign was only there from 2001 to 2007, it caused a few moments of disconnect with the visitors: why would a place that is about a reality that can be improved by means of creativity, innovation, and ingenuity feature a magic wand and a fictional figure whose connotations summon a different Disney ideal? Epcot was a park that demonstrated that the best solutions to the problems that plagued mankind were found in reality. It was unlike its sister park, which catered to dreams of escapism and fantasy. The appropriately named Magic Kingdom is symbolized by a castle and a talking Mouse. Spaceship Earth, an iconic symbol of Epcot, was given a modern addition that foreshadowed what was to come. While the hand and the wand have been removed, the early twenty-first century idea of incorporating a fictional Disney icon into a theme park whose purpose had been to portray the reality of the possible future was a step out of the philosophical boundaries that had been set for EPCOT.

Additionally, there have been changes to other areas around the Epcot park. One of the first attractions to introduce Disney characters was Finding Nemo as part of The Living Seas, now called The Seas with Nemo and Friends. One of the features within The Seas with Nemo and Friends is Can You Find Nemo?, a ride that blurs the line between fantasy and reality by using different media to display the clown fish Nemo and his friends against the backdrop of the real aquariums, creating the illusion that they are swimming with the real fish and aquatic life. Additionally, keeping with the theme of oceanic protection and preservation, “Turtle Talk with Crush” allows children (and adults) the opportunity to talk to the famous sea turtle about the ocean habitats and ways humans can keep the ocean clean.

Just next door to the Living Seas, another Epcot attraction has succumbed to the touch of Disney magic. In The Land, the hang glider simulation ride Soarin' takes visitors on a high-flying trip around the world. The original Soarin' was an aerial tour of California, ending with a fly over of Disneyland; the very last scenes are of Tinker Bell flying in and joining the fireworks display where the iconic Mouse insignia appears. As of June 2016, Soarin' now takes visitors on a trip around the world, ending with a flyover of Epcot, Tinker Bell, and the Mouse insignia over Spaceship Earth.

There has been an increase of Disney characters within the World Showcase at Epcot as well. Walt Disney originally intended for part of EPCOT to feature shopping areas that reflected the cultures of different countries around the world, which is one of the few elements of his original dream that has been carried into the present Epcot. However, when Epcot opened, there was no mention of any Disney characters or merchandise within the World Showcase country pavilions. Each pavilion was supposed to be sponsored by the country's government and/or a company based in the country. In the case of Norway, it had originally been funded by both Norwegian companies and their government to highlight the corporations of the country and products of that culture, and it remained a successful venture until 2002 when both the Norwegian government and corporations dropped their funding, leaving it solely to Disney (see Pederson). Specifically, the Disney princesses have designated countries in which young visitors can meet and greet them. In the China pavilion, the heroine from Mulan appears; in France, Belle from Beauty and the Beast graces the streets. In the United Kingdom, Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Alice and her cohorts appear as characters and topiaries. This is an interesting tactic to bring in younger tourists (particularly families with younger children) into an otherwise grown up area of the park. Two of the films listed here were part of the Disney Renaissance in the 1990s, which revitalized their films. Disney scholars refer to the decade between 1989 and 1999 as the "Disney Renaissance" because it was during this time that some of Disney's most popular films were produced, creating a renewed interest in the Disney brand as a whole. The films generally included within this term are The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999). By the 2000s, the characters were incorporated into the meeting areas around the World Showcase. In the early 2000s, there were more subtle notes of Disney within the pavilions. In the French pavilion, for example, Mickey and Minnie Mouse stuffed toys featured berets, while in Mexico, artisan glass makers created some of the famous Disney characters or logos. These are subtle changes that did not influence the overall appearance and aesthetics of the country pavilions. However, in more recent years, the invasion of the Disney fantasy and magic has become more prevalent within the World Showcase.

This is apparent in recent alterations to the Norway ride in Epcot's World Showcase, which incorporates elements of the fictional Scandinavian country of Arendelle. As of June 2016, the "Frozen Ever After" ride has replaced Maelstrom in the Norway pavilion in the World Showcase. The Maelstrom ride displayed elements of Norwegian history, culture, and industry, from the Vikings, to grumpy trolls in an enchanted forest, to the oil rigs and cruise liners. The ride fit in well with the Norway pavilion, as it fit in with the culture, but its attendance numbers were lacking. This fact soon changed with Disney's Frozen, an animated film set in Arendelle, a fictional country based loosely off Norwegian culture, which was released in 2013. The film was a huge hit, especially with the younger generation. The park replaced the outdated ride with this new one based on Frozen. Featuring the latest and most life-like Disney Animatronics, the visitors are taken on a post-Frozen trip through Arendelle.

The inclusion of magical and fantastical elements in a theme park that had been previously dedicated to solving the problems of today in hope of making the future better is a prime testimony to the blurring of fantasy and reality, but may be considered congruent with Walt Disney's dream for its continual evolution. In a speech written by Sklar for Disney at the 1965 press conference where Walt Disney World and EPCOT were first announced to the public, Disney stated, "we will continue to move forward…because we're curious…curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. We are always exploring and experimenting."

Even the film Tomorrowland has not completely escaped the invasion of the fantasy part of the Disney brand. Disney films traditionally begin with the iconic logo of the castle, but a few films have been permitted to alter it. Tomorrowland is among the rare exceptions with its city skyline replacing the castle. An article by Jason Guerrasio chronicles the most striking examples of the modifications to the opening logo. Eddie Pasquarello, the co-visual effects supervisor for Tomorrowland, contends that no other film has made changes that were as elaborate. Most have not deviated from the basic castle structure, but Tomorrowland re-envisions the logo with the city's tall tower in the center, surrounded by the outline of a futuristic city. The basic layout of the skyline resembles the castle's framework, and this similarity is further emphasized in the scene when Casey sees the city for the first time from a distance in a field. The closing credits restore the fantasy element when a hand reaches out to touch a Tomorrowland pin, and we are taken back to the familiar castle logo, reestablishing the element of fantasy over the vision of a technologically advanced future.

 

Notes

1. There is a distinction to be made between the various uses of this acronym. EPCOT refers to Walt Disney's original dream for a utopian community, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The Epcot Center was the resulting park that opened in 1982, but was later shortened to just Epcot. We distinguish between EPCOT and Epcot because there is a vast difference between the dream (a living community) and reality (a theme park that emphasizes an optimistic look to the future).

2. The Progress City model was a diorama of extensive size and detail that showed the plans that Walt Disney had for EPCOT. Eventually, after Walt Disney's death and when the Carousel of Progress was moved from the 1964-65 World's Fair to Disneyland in California, the EPCOT name was dropped (as it had appeared in the EPCOT promotional video), and it was renamed the Progress City model. However, when the Carousel of Progress was to be sent to the new Walt Disney World, the model was cut in pieces for shipment purposes. Some of those outer pieces were discarded and are lost, leaving only the urban center and some of the outer green ring and buildings. It remained in this state until 2013, when a restoration project was undertaken by Disney Imagineer Jeff Williams. Now visitors can see what is left of the model by riding the WEDway PeopleMover in the Tomorrowland section of the Magic Kingdom, and images are featured on Sebastien Barthe’s website The Original Epcot.


Works Cited

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“Walt Disney’s Original E.P.C.O.T. Film (1966) HD FULL VERSION.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLCHg9mUBag

 
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