(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: the future of Walt Disney World’s Epcot is big and bold, but is it true to the spirit of the park?)
Nostalgia is the currency of the Walt Disney Company, and it was on full display during the D23 Expo last weekend. This year’s Expo was, despite being just three days long, the biggest yet. The first day highlighted the upcoming streaming service Disney+, the second day talked about all of the various studio arms of the company and their upcoming releases, and the final day was all about the theme parks and their upcoming updates. Those updates ranged from the unsurprising — confirming a lot of rumors about what the Marvel-focused Avengers Campus would be — to the unexpected, like the announcement of a Mary Poppins attraction in Epcot inspired…by the sequel, not the iconic original film.
Welcome to the Neighborhoods
Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising news came a bit earlier in the presentation, when Bob Chapek, Chairman of Parks, Experiences and Products at Disney, announced that Epcot was getting a branding overhaul. Now, of course, you can experience the two halves of Epcot: Future World and World Showcase. Soon, though, you’ll be able to experience the four “neighborhoods” of Epcot: World Showcase, World Celebration, World Discovery, and World Nature. The basic layout and design of Epcot isn’t changing; the latter three neighborhoods make up what still is Future World, just with different branding.
Notably, one of the upcoming arrivals in World Celebration — which is the dead-center stretch of what’s now Future World — is a statue of Walt Disney himself. Disney appears in statue form in the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Park, and Disney California Adventure, but this will be his first bronzed appearance in a park inspired by his quest for optimistic futurism. This statue has, in the initial reaction, gotten a lot of praise, among those in attendance and those people watching along virtually. Of course, comments like those in the linked tweet — the idea that Walt is seeing his dream realized in the new Epcot — simply serve as a reminder that the exact opposite is true, and that the reality of what Epcot is, and is turning into, is a bit vexing.
I’ve written about Epcot and its history before, so I won’t spend the rest of this column rehashing things that are readily available for you to access. (Though I will note: a lot of this history is readily available to access, so you can avoid falling into the trap of saying that Walt Disney’s dream of Epcot is the Epcot we’re getting in 2021.) The short version is this: Walt Disney’s vision of EPCOT, or the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, was an enclosed city in which people would live, work, and play, and do so safely as a way to combat the urban blight of the 1960s. Whatever you think about Epcot now, or EPCOT Center when it opened in October 1982, or the idea to have an enclosed city in the swampy marshes of Central Florida, it is fair to say that Walt Disney’s vision is not what opened in the 1980s. And that vision doesn’t line up with what we have now.
If You Can Dream It…
This isn’t to say that Walt Disney would have loved or hated what EPCOT Center ended up being, or what Epcot is now. (Seeing as Walt’s been dead for over 50 years, and I am not a mind-reader, I have no idea what Walt Disney would think of Epcot, and neither do you. Unless you’re gifted with second sight, which I’m guessing is not the case.) At the very least, it means that the Epcot we have now, and the Epcot that will be unveiled beginning in 2021 as part of the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World, is a lot different.
Change is largely a good thing. There are a number of attractions and areas from the Disney theme parks from the early days that have been replaced over time, for the better. At its heart, the very idea of EPCOT Center was led to inspire change. In the same vein as that enclosed city, its purpose was to both celebrate the multiculturalism of the planet and to highlight how we could live smarter in the 21st century and beyond. Future World, when it opened, was meant to reflect our ingenuity in exploring the natural world, and how such an explorative notion could send us to outer space and beyond. Future World was a multi-faceted organism, a wonderful balance of education and entertainment.
But if you look at the future of the four Worlds that will encompass Epcot, it’s hard to wonder if the park ought to be named IP-cot instead, because of the intellectual property boosting it up. There will be, as previously hinted before, attractions themed to Guardians of the Galaxy and Ratatouille, along with current attractions themed to Frozen and The Three Caballeros. The Seas pavilion, home to an incredible series of aquariums, is still themed to Finding Nemo. Epcot used to stand apart from other Disney theme parks, in an era when you could find Disney characters at every turn. Now, its themes are defined by the characters and films that can exist in the park, not the other way around.
The End of an Era
That said, seeing the end of the concept of Future World as a title doesn’t mean that Future World hadn’t already kind of gone away already. When, you could ask, did Future World really vanish into the past, no longer feeling like the current narrative or aesthetic throughline of the parks? An easy marker would be 2006, when The Seas pavilion was redesigned to house those Pixar characters, as it was one of the most visible ways in which Disney characters had essentially invaded the park.
Or maybe it was in 1996, when the Universe of Energy attraction was overhauled to incorporate the presence of Disney-adjacent celebrities Bill Nye and Ellen DeGeneres (years before she was the voice of Dory) for Ellen’s Energy Adventure. Or within its 21-year history at Epcot, maybe it’s the fact that the ride inside the Energy pavilion never changed. Years after DeGeneres’ career was kickstarted both by her role in Finding Nemo and by the advent of her talk show, you could still experience a version of modern energy concerns circa the mid-1990s.
With each passing year, the ride grew mustier and more old-fashioned, both in its reflection of energy and technology, and in its humor. (I cannot help but wonder how much someone at Disney was doubly displeased when Michael Richards’ career was torpedoed by his own racist comments, seeing as Richards makes a cameo as a caveman in Ellen’s Energy Adventure.) Instead of changing, the Universe of Energy, and Future World itself, stayed the same and began to feel like a part of a time capsule.
The Future is Storytelling
Over the weekend, Todd Martens at The Los Angeles Times asked the question, “Is Disney’s intellectual property squeezing the theme out of our theme parks?” When you look at Epcot, it’s easy to see that the answer to the question is “Yes.” The parks are now driven by intellectual property, instead of creating something new. In a world with smart homes, self-driving cars, AI, and more, you’d think that a place called Future World could thrive without relying on characters from beloved films to lure in audiences.
But World Celebration, World Discovery, and World Nature rely entirely on storytelling — the apparent foundation of an upcoming revision to Spaceship Earth, which would imply a vastly different ride than has been the case since it opened — and recognizable faces. And with the arrival of new attractions in World Showcase, it ensures that a set of pavilions meant to celebrate the genuine heritage of different countries will now instead honor the Disney films set in those countries.
Bob Chapek’s presentation on Sunday at the D23 Expo served as a necessary reminder that the Epcot people evangelize about is one that now exists in hazy memories. Even the Epcot of 2019 isn’t the Epcot of the early 1990s, and so on. The park is finally going to be changing in advance of its own 40th anniversary, but that change is going to drastically shift the vision that willed it into being. We’ll get a new statue of Walt Disney looking admiringly over the neighborhoods that used to be Future World, but those new neighborhoods portend a much different, theme-less future indeed.
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