Dreaming Tomorrow's Dream
The main news from this year’s D23 Expo was the new Epcot, which I am calling EPCOT (a decision purely due to the format of the new logo). The news, or lack thereof (depending on how you look at it), has divided the East Coast Disney community. I first visited Epcot in 2004, it’s a park that’s very close to me. So I wanted to look into the core ethos of Epcot, new EPCOT and use my personal experiences to come to a philosophical conclusion as to what I think this all means.
Epcot isn’t Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It never was and never will be. Then-CEO Card Walker decided it would be best to just take on the values of Progress City and turn it into something Disney was already good at – theme parks. The result is a monumental theme park that, in 1982, celebrated science, education and culture. There were no Disney characters, no Disney rides. Attractions celebrated technology, space, culture and imagination. “It was like Tomorrowland, without Disney,” a friend told me. “Tomorrowland on steroids”
The park has seen a few changes in its life. Notably, the removal of attractions such as Horizons and World of Motion which was replaced by Mission: Space and Test Track, respectively and the park’s mascot has seen numerous changes to his ‘Imagination’ pavilion. The educational and philosophical attractions have been replaced with what people know Walt Disney World for. Rides. Thrill rides. Based on the characters they saw on screens. Epcot lost its charm.
The first time I went to Epcot, I remember it being different from the other parks, but I was too young to remember why. I met Figment but it never really made sense who he was or what he represented. I was 7. The messages and ideals of Epcot didn’t really click at the time. It was only when I really got into Disney History that I connected to it properly and when I returned to Walt Disney World after 11 years in 2016, I fell in love. Epcot is about progress. It’s about community. The power of education, of science and our planet. It’s about the curiosity that we all have in common. It’s the philosophical embodiment of Walt Disney. But that’s the Epcot in 1982. Epcot in 2016 was messy. It celebrates human achievement, yes. But it doesn’t harness progress. It doesn’t show cutting edge science. Attractions that celebrate curiosity have closed and buildings that housed wonder are abandoned. Where did it all go so wrong? Let’s start at Future World.
Futurism is laborious - and I do not mean that in a derogatory sense. Epcot’s Future World is either an example of poor naming or a too ambitious theme. Disney Parks are ‘always in a state of becoming’, but a land based on the technological advancement of society during the computer age is a difficult task to keep on top of. Of course, external elements definitely have a role to play in the decay of today’s Epcot (Euro Disney, Hong Kong Disneyland to name a few). Objectively, there should’ve been more attention paid to the park. It’s difficult to chase tomorrow because there will always be a new tomorrow. The success of Future World depends on constant evolution. The lack of that evolution is clearly the reason for dwindling guest numbers. The same issue exists in Tomorrowland. Disney simply cannot evolve their lands quickly enough. It’s practically impossible.
It seems the approach to the new EPCOT is to take technology out of the equation, instead focusing on the human condition, curiosity and storytelling. It’s a potentially sound concept, though it’s largely dependent on the creatives involved.
That ethos for the park would be successful. Because many individual factors have generally denigrated our discourse. Current education, social media, mass media - the idea of the "big Earthly family", to quote 1999’s Tapestry of Nations, is more important than ever. Even within the online Disney community, tempers rise and civility falls. If EPCOT can remind us of anything, it’s the importance of humility and to recognise our shared aspirations to better human-kind.
It’s why I believe that storytelling rightfully lies at the heart of New EPCOT. It’s through storytelling that the human experience grows. It’s how we relate to each other, oppose each other. It’s how ideas are developed and built upon. The innovations at the heart of the Epcot experience would not be possible without storytelling. It’s not just me saying this either. Legendary Imagineer Eddie Sotto said this on the concept of ‘tomorrow’ in Disney Parks:
“People today are realizing that 'a bright future' depends less on technology to save it, and primarily on the human ethics and brotherly love that society severely lacks” (Sotto 2019).
There are already those who disagree with my interpretations and say that this isn’t what Disney is going for at all. While I believe there is at least a glimmer of this hope in what Bob Chapek has shared so far, he was purposefully vague on the details, so we won’t know for a while.
Finally, I want to add a note about learning and attractions. In EPCOT discussions, I far too frequently read that ‘guests don’t go to Disney to learn’. Which is a frankly misinformed stance to take. Learning through any attraction, media, art does not have to be explicit. You are learning in Hall of Presidents, you are learning on Big Thunder Mountain, you are even learning in Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. Because the themes are lessons and the story is the teacher. Katz’ Hypodermic Needle theory, from the 1930s, is a foundational mass media theory that explores a passive audience and how creators can ‘inject’ messages to that audience. While dated, it suitably disproves the notion that learning is explicit and not entertaining.
I, therefore, refute any evidence that the decline in attraction attendance at EPCOT is down to theme redundancy. When examples such as Universe of Energy and Journey into Imagination are brought up, the reason why wait times on these attractions are/were low is because of maintenance. The story may need to be adjusted to keep up with modern guest demands but the theme should remain the same. Good themes do not become outdated, that understanding leads to poor and misinformed conclusions. While I don’t think guests would go into a classroom for an hour and learn a lesson (that’s been tried before), I think guests would be more than happy to see an older Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye revisit Universe of Energy to explore renewable energy and what science is doing to make tomorrow better for everyone. Because it’s within that scientific and human discovery that Epcot garnered its fanbase to begin with. Suggesting that learning in society as a whole is not ‘enjoyable’ is a fabrication – that is to say that there is no evidence to suggest it.
Take the BBC’s Blue Planet II (2017). In China, the programme was in such demand, it slowed the internet bandwidth across the country. In the UK, the programme had a big enough impact, the government sped up efforts in plastic recycling. It is entirely possible to watch/experience something educational, enjoy it, and make an impact. That alone was the purpose of Epcot. It cannot fade away at this important moment in the world’s lifecycle.
Author’s Note: The legacy of Epcot cannot be forgotten. Joshua Harris has an excellent project, E82 – The Epcot Legacy, which explores the history and philosophy of the theme park. It’s been my bible on Epcot for many years, and I highly suggest you take a look here.