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Disney's Epcot celebrates 25 years

Orlando Sentinel

Original Article »

October 04, 2007

Epcot turns 25 on Monday, still blessed and cursed as the bricks-and-mortar legacy of Walt Disney's last, most ambitious and most quixotic dream.

Disney did not initially envision Epcot as a theme park; he saw it as a community that would invite the world in and mix American ingenuity with free enterprise.

"The most exciting, by far the most important part of our Florida project, in fact the heart of everything we'll be doing in Disney World, will be our experimental, prototype city of tomorrow," he declared in a film made to reveal his dreams, just weeks before his Dec. 15, 1966, death. "We call it EPCOT."

As Epcot marks its 25th anniversary, many fans and critics still measure it against what it never became, Walt Disney's "city of tomorrow."

Still, on Oct. 1, 1982, Epcot opened as an instant leader in the theme-park business, and it remains so.

Attendance annually tops 10 million, making Epcot the world's third-most-visited theme park, behind only its older siblings, Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. Its culinary and cultural fare in 11 country pavilions and nine industrial pavilions remain unique offerings. Shows such as the IllumiNations and the International Food & Wine Festival set industry standards.

"I always think of Epcot as the place where Walt's dreams truly came true," said Jim MacPhee, Walt Disney World's vice president for Epcot.

'Original concept died'

Though few at Disney would admit it publicly, Walt Disney's most utopian Epcot dreams -- for a domed city of 20,000, an industrial park and airport -- were already looking impractical and maybe undoable by 1974, when Disney officials announced planning would begin.

"The original concept died in 1967, a year after Walt's death. It was never revived," said Frank Langley, a Walt Disney World publicist in the early 1970s who is writing a book on Epcot.

Walt Disney Imagineering legend Marty Sklar led efforts to translate the founder's idealism into something the company knew: entertainment. Walt Disney's values of enterprise, industry and world culture were applied not to a city, but to another of Walt's loves, world's fairs.

"Epcot is really a big extension of his ideas of ingenuity and discovery and opportunity to meet people from all over the world," said Sklar, now WDI executive vice president and ambassador.

The theme became discovery, not fantasy. Mickey Mouse, princesses and thrill rides were for other parks. "We didn't want to build another Disneyland," Sklar said.

Marketing evolved

Instead, this was to be where a young boy could spend hours just watching, talking with and learning from real foreign artisans; a place where visitors could explore Moroccan food, French wine, Japanese music, English gardens, acrobatic shows or technology demonstrations.

"It achieved what we set out to achieve," said Steve Baker, who was development director at Epcot from 1978-88 and who now heads the Orlando-based consulting company Baker Leisure Group.

But over time, nations' and corporations' marketing strategies evolved. It became tougher to find sponsors that could both draw new crowds and put up $50 million to build new pavilions, Baker said. Epcot opened with nine World Showcase pavilions and space for nine more. The 10th, Morocco, opened in 1984. Only one, Norway, has joined since.

Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said Disney still gets plenty of interest from many corporations and countries wanting to add to Epcot, but "The addition of a pavilion has to be made at the right time, with the right idea."

Thrill rides added

Most changes in recent years have been replacements or revisions of attractions, many with tie-ins to Disney movies and TV shows. Mickey Mouse now greets children at Future World, while princess characters Belle and Jasmine hang out at their native countries' pavilions. Some of the more passive, educational showcases are giving way to thrill rides and fantasy-oriented shows.

"In the beginning there was a lot more historical review of how we got to where we are. . . . I think we're now presenting that 'discovery' is an experiential thing," said Eric Jacobson, Walt Disney Imagineering's senior vice president for creative development. "So you can soar over the Earth; you can dive into an undersea environment; you can go back in a time machine; you can be shrunk to the size of an ant; you can go to Mars; you can experience what it's like to be in a test vehicle."

Baker and others suspect the pure "world's fair" concept is losing appeal for 21st-century sponsors and crowds.

Globalized commerce and entertainment, cable TV, the Internet, easier world travel and immigration have made the world much smaller and innovation more accessible, said consultant Dennis Speigel of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati. That's why no other company ever tried to copy Epcot's themes.

"They've lost that cachet," he said. Yet, he added, "Epcot is still huge. It's still remarkable."

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