EPCOT: The Past, Present, and Future of a Unique Theme Park

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EPCOT Past, Present and Future, Images: Disney
EPCOT Past, Present, and Future, Images: Disney

Happy Birthday, EPCOT!

With Disney’s EPCOT theme park celebrating its 35th birthday today, it’s time to take a look at the park’s past, present, and future. Join us for a whistle-stop tour through the history of one of the world’s most unique theme parks.

Walt Disney Introduces E.P.C.O.T. in 1996, Images: Disney
Walt Disney Introduces E.P.C.O.T. in 1996, Image: Disney

The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

EPCOT must have the most fascinating history of any theme park in history, and must also be the park that looks the most different from its original plans. At first, EPCOT wasn’t designed to be a theme park at all, but a city.

Walt Disney’s vision of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was laid out to the public in a 1966 film in which Walt introduced his city plan. The city would be based on a radial plan with enclosed “cultural, social, business, and entertainment at its heart” with no motorized vehicles. “Business and commerce” areas would be in the next ring, followed by “high-density apartment housing, then the broad greenbelt and recreation lands, and finally the low-density, neighborhood residential streets.” Transportation was also planned, with cars and trucks sequestered in tunnels beneath the city while monorails and WEDWAY People Movers (that ride you see moving around above your head at the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland) service residents and visitors on the surface.

The E.P.C.O.T. film is a fascinating thing to watch, and I can’t help but wonder what might have become of the dream if Walt hadn’t passed away before it could come to life. Sadly, all that remains of the original grand plans is the original model, which you can see if you take a ride on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover over at the Magic Kingdom

EPCOT Opening Day Ticket, Image: Matt Novak via The Smithsonian
EPCOT Opening Day Ticket, Image: Matt Novak via The Smithsonian

EPCOT Centre’s Opening Day

After becoming a second park for the Walt Disney World resort rather than a city, EPCOT Center opened to the public on October 1st, 1982. In Future World, the half of park guests enter first if arriving through the main entrance, eight pavilions were open. These were Journey Into Imagination, Communicore East and West, Spaceship Earth, The Land, the Universe of Energy, World of Motion, and Earth Station. Back in World Showcase, nine countries were represented: Canada, France, Japan, Mexico, China, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. Only five of the opening day attractions are still in operation: Impressions de France, Living with the Land, Spaceship Earth, The American Adventure, and O Canada!

On the day, cast members received a special commemorative coin, dancers and bands performed “We’ve Just Begun to Dream,” and performers from all over the world put on performances across World Showcase. A ceremony also took place at the Fountain of Nations, the large fountain in Future World, in which water gathered from major rivers was poured into the fountain. Spaceship Earth was the only attraction dedicated on the park’s opening day, other ceremonies would take place almost daily for several weeks after.

A single day ticket to the new EPCOT park would have cost you $15 for an adult, $14 for juniors, and $12 for a child. Those were the prices paid by Richard Cason, his wife, and his four children who were the first family to enter the park. It was also the last time they would ever pay for admission, as they all received special passes giving them free entry into EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom for life.

EPCOT in 2017, Image: Disney
EPCOT in 2017, Image: Disney

EPCOT in 2017

Today, EPCOT (the Centre part of the name went away in 1994) hosts pavilions from eleven countries in World Showcase, and seven pavilions containing attractions, stores, and restaurants in Future World. The park has become known for its regular festivals, including the International Food and Wine Festival in the fall, International Flower and Garden Festival in the spring, and Holidays Around the World during winter. The park is the sixth most popular theme park in the world and hosts almost 12 million guests per year.

Nearly every night, EPCOT ends its operations with Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, a show on and above World Showcase lagoon with fireworks, pyrotechnics, and an enormous illuminated floating globe covered in video screens. Unlike its early years, you can also spot many Disney characters inside the park these days too. Mickey and friends regularly gather in Future World, Nemo and friends hang out at The Living Seas, and culturally appropriate characters can be spotted all over World Showcase, such as Mulan in China, Aladdin in Morocco, and Mary Poppins in the United Kingdom.

Incidentally, a single day ticket to EPCOT today will set you back between $106 and $127 for an adult, and between $100 and $121 for a child, depending on the season.

Concept Art For the Guardians of The Galaxy Attraction, Image: Disney
Concept Art For the Guardians of The Galaxy Attraction, Image: Disney

The Future

During July’s D23 Expo, EPCOT found itself featured prominently at the Disney Parks panel with lots of news coming out about the park’s future. Two of the biggest changes are the two new rides coming to the park. Firstly, a Ratatouille ride will move into the France pavilion in World Showcase, adding a much-needed new attraction to the rear half of the park. This will almost certainly be a copy of the excellent trackless ride currently at the Walt Disney Studios park at Disneyland Paris and is a welcome and appropriate addition to this area of the park.

More controversial is the decision to replace the Universe of Energy with a Guardians of the Galaxy themed ride which will feature young Peter Quill visiting the park as a young boy. Many Disney parks fans worry that EPCOT’s original vision as an educational park is being lost to an increasing number of character-based attractions and that the park will soon lose its unique identity. It’s hard to disagree with the facts when Maelstrom’s history of Norway lost its place to Frozen, Donald Duck inserted himself and his buddies into Mexico, and now Marvel superheroes are usurping Bill Nye. However even I, as something of an EPCOT purist, have to admit that times do change and that today’s kids may not be quite as thrilled by a boat trip watching vegetables grow as their parents may have been at a similar age.

Over the decades, EPCOT has changed unimaginably from the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow laid out by Walt Disney in 1966, and the changes continue to press on faster than some of us prefer.

We can only imagine what EPCOT will be like in another 35 years, but I hope it will continue to entertain, inform, and inspire all who come to that place of joy, hope, and friendship and Disney Productions CEO E. Carden Walker said on its opening day 35 years ago.