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Keeping Walt’s Vision of EPCOT Alive

October 1st of this year marked the 35th Anniversary of EPCOT’s opening day. Since there’s a lot out there on the web to help us relive or discover that landmark day in Walt Disney World history, I am going to stick to my mission statement and explore how one part of the redefinition of EPCOT’s mission statement still may carry some of Walt’s original ideas for what he called “The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”. For those who would like to learn about or explore some of the Park’s background which Walt had imagined and planned, take a look at my previous posts The Unfulfilled Promise of  E.P.C.O.T. which offers Walt’s original vision for EPCOT and The Legacy of Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T where I look at the parts of his plan that are still evident throughout Walt Disney World.

I’m not sure that we can find any of the actual prototyping that the Community WaltWDW-Water-078 hoped would lure big thinkers to EPCOT and encourage the development of life changing creativity. It’s still has the vestiges of a community in the World Showcase. Visitors can interact with ambassadors from different countries who still bring a touch of far off places to the permanent world’s fair. Granted, they are mostly involved with selling something or showing us to a table and serving food. But, I’ve found it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the expat Cast Members who are usually happy to talk proudly about their home country and what it’s like to spend an extended time in the U.S. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can, if you take the time, immerse yourself in the culture, art and products of 11 different countries.

small world

Disneyland Small World dedication

Walt didn’t pass up an opportunity to remind us we lived in a larger world, filled with different people. The Disneyland opening ceremony of It’s a Small World featured over 50 foreign consulate representatives along with children wearing the traditional dress of many countries. Some of these children helped Walt pour water collected from every ocean plus major rivers and bodies of water from around the world into the flume, truly symbolizing the attraction’s theme of global unity. That message was re-affirmed at EPCOT’s opening ceremony  with a special “International Ceremony of the Waters”. Cultural representatives from 29 nations traveled to Epcot from around the world. Each one brought with them a container of water from their nation and poured it into the Fountain of Nations.

fountain of nations

EPCOT Fountain of Nations dedication

While the future of EPCOT is still up in the air and will continue to be redefined by 21st century Disney management and Disney Imagineering, I would be hard pressed to call EPCOT a view of tomorrow. That would have required more attention to the club coolexperimentation Walt had hoped would result in something that would change or improve people’s lives. The only real experimentation going on at EPCOT is trying Coca Cola products at Club Cool. That and Disney working on new things to keep visitors coming to the Park while they complete construction on new attractions in an effort to redefine the Park’s story.

However, I believe that Walt and the WED staff of the sixties and seventies, would not be unhappy with one growing part of EPCOT – the festivals that have become annual occurrences. Walt’s vision of EPCOT was shaped by his turn of the century birth and early 20th century life experience. It was filled confidence that science could solve many of the world’s problems.  Nascent space travel programs, the eradication of terrible diseases like polio were in the news every day, as were problems of poverty, hunger and a desire to move up the economic and social ladders in cities, here and around the world. Walt’s life was certainly defined by his generation’s versions of those changes and issues.

epcot downtown

Herb Ryman Concept Art

It does seem, though, that Walt’s original vision of a community that would attract industry and people to solve problems, educate and improve the world by developing and testing new applications of science and technology is giving way to Park that uses technology, some of it created by the Disney company, to entertain. But, that spirit to open people’s eyes to possibilities for a better world is in full display at the three annual festivals that lure thousands to a park that some would ordinarily have passed on (“Too much walking”, “So many attractions are closed”, “The attractions are so old” “Nothing new to see”).

F&W logo

The oldest one is The EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival. F&W expands the on the menus of the permanent World Showcase restaurants and adds culinary offerings from additional countries, including Belgium, Australia, Brazil, Greece, India, Ireland and others. Visitors get the chance to sample foods from around the world without reservations, big meal prices or long time investments. Themed offerings like Brewer’s Collection, Cheese Studio, Chocolate Studio, or Coastal Eats, make it possible to sample and learn more about culinary, ingredients, beverages, styles and regions. The festival features more than 100 inventive chefs from many countries and the Disney World property, exposing us to ingredients and preparation techniques we might not have had an opportunity to try. As someone who loves to cook, I’ve come back from the Festival or seen reviews of dishes, ingredients or techniques that I can incorporate into my own cooking. Food has become an ambassador, perhaps encouraging or inspiring some to guests to visit other places in the world.

epcot f&w

2015

Flower-and-Garden-Festival-2017The same spirit of invention and education can be seen at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The Festival promotes the beautification our world. It’s also an opportunity to teach existing, new and innovative ways to translate professional landscape ideas and techniques to our homes and gardens. I would say anything that helps to reduce the destruction of green areas of our fragile planet is good for the Earth and good for us, its inhabitants. No one who visits Disneyland can miss the importance flowers, trees and other landscaping played in Walt’s vision for a modern them park. At the earliest stages of Disneyland construction, the team started planting, to insure Walt’s vision of a beautiful park would be realized on opening day.

Walt Disney World was an even bigger job to tackle, since much of the parks are built on what was once swampland. At WDW, trees and greenery are used to separate and keep the theming in place. Trees at the Wilderness Lodge, for example, keep guests glimpsing, close by, non-wilderness sites like the Future World architecture. In the Festival Center they present, they have a section called Horticulture Heritage which gives guests a peek into the importance Landscape had and has at The Magic Kingdom. To put a bow on things, Garden Rocks, a mini music festival, runs concurrently. Natural beauty and music are good ways to get us to disconnect from our devices and use our senses to rediscover the world around us.

FlowerAndGarden-FestivalCenter-03012017-11

EPCOT_FestivaloftheArts_STYLEGUIDE_111416The most recent addition to the EPCOT is the Epcot International Festival of the Arts.  First presented in January 2017 it featured pieces from Disney historical artist Mary Blair and Herb Ryman art of Epcot, to current Disney artists Joe Kaminski and Costa Alavezos. I think it’s great that guests are being introduced or reminded of the artistic legacy that helped to build the entire Disney empire. Guests are not only surrounded by incredible visions, they’ll watch the creative process live. New art is created and revealed each weekend, so guests can look forward to a new experience every time they go. Other presentations include music and food. Study after study has shown how important the arts are to children and our overall happiness. Since 2018 will be only the second year of this Festival, I’m sure much will change as it has for the other two, more mature events. I would expect, given the planning and thought that Disney puts into all of its projects, that the Arts Festival will offer guests more reasons to visit EPCOT. This is the only EPCOT festival that I haven’t had the chance to experience for myself.

arts fest art

We’ll never know whether Walt’s original vision and purpose for EPCOT would ever have been realized. Recent and announced changes will continue to take the park in new directions that indicate movement away from the prototype community Walt had hoped to create. The Disney organization still l has a lot of work ahead to re-imagine the Park so it remains relevant and popular with guests. Walt had hoped that the Magic Kingdom would help to pay for the development and operation of his Community of Tomorrow, which was where he wanted to focus time attention and the financial means of the Disney Company to change the way we live. That lofty goal will need to be replaced by a more traditional Disney theme park that needs to attract guests and their vacation dollars in a park with unique entertainment value. There has been a recent flurry of announcements about changes to EPCOT including an update to Mission Space, a new ride based on Ratatouille, and replacing The Universe of Energy with a Guardians of the Galaxy coaster. There have been hints and rumors at more changes. I look forward to seeing the new park succeed.

walt film for epcot

Walt presenting “The Florida Project” 1966

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Walt Disney Goes to the Fair

world fair ticketjpgIn last week’s NYC D23 event recap “Behind the Scenes Experience: Magic in Manhattan & More”, I did a quick flyover of Disney’s contributions to the 1964 NY World’s Fair. There’s way more to that story. Just as Walt used the Silly Symphonies shorts to test and perfect animation skills needed for his animated masterpiece, Snow White, he used the NY Fair to improve Disneyland.

Walt grew up at the tail end of the World’s Fair era and probably attended at least one. The Fairs were opportunmoses newsweekjpgities for countries, companies and organizations to offer a taste of current accomplishments and future promise.  Although today you could argue we can get much more from the internet and we don’t have to wait years for it to come to our part of the world.  But, we also don’t get the advantage of being able to “touch” things. But there was a time that cities like NY and Paris would spend tons of money to bring the world to their Fairs. By 1964, fair mania had begun to wane. So, it’s no surprise that when Fair organizer Robert Moses was looking for a sure-fire way to drive attendance, he approached Walt to contribute the Disney touch. Walt jumped in with great enthusiasm. But not just because he liked World’s Fairs.

As usual, I won’t assume all my readers are familiar with the subject matter. So, first a little background on the ’64-65 NY World’s Fair. The brainchild of Moses, the self-styled urban planner, road builder, and master of disaster (couldn’t help let my negative view sneak in), the Fair was intended to last three years, make money for investors, and create a public park as a City legacy. It was billed as an international festival dedicated to “Peace Through Understanding” and a showcase of American industry. Walt even promoted it in a dedicated episode of The Wonderful World of Color called “Disneyland goes to the World’s Fair”.

In typical Disney TV fashion, the episode not only educated us on World’s Fair history, but plugged the Disney attractions. The work on the Fair put an enormous strain on WED, which had been working furiously for four years since Disneyland’s opening, adding new, innovative attractions like the Matterhorn Bobsleds (first steel rollercoaster) and building the world’s 8th largest navy for the Submarine Voyage. Why, then, with the success of Disneyland, would Walt turn his attention away from his latest labor of love?

Walt & Roy

Walt & Roy Disney

Walt may have been motivated to invest heavily in the Fair by two things. First, he was already considering locations for an “East coast” Disneyland and wanted to gauge interest. The “smart” money was saying Eastern intellectuals wouldn’t take to the wholesome entertainment that had drawn millions to Disneyland. Second, Walt’s typically ambitious plans for Disneyland, were, as usual, outpacing funding. Many would, rightfully, argue it was Roy Disney’s financial acumen that helped make everything possible. But, Walt had already proven through the Disneyland TV program deal, that using his instincts he could find ways get what he wanted by using other people’s money.

To maintain control over the Disneyland project, Walt had created a separate company, WED Enterprises (Walter Elias Disney), to do the development. Walt saw an opportunity to get deep pocketed corporations, inexperienced in theme parks, to fund newwed logo technologies and attractions. WED was already staffed with many future Disney legends like John Hench, Rolly Crump, Marc & Alice Davis, Mary Blair, and Bob Gurr who would drive theme park innovation, design and engineering for decades. Walt simply asked them to work on a few more projects. It seems he always made it sound so easy, no one questioned the effort it would take. They just went to work creating miracles.

Ultimately, the Fair drew less people overall than had been expected, lost money and a planned third season was cancelled. But, the popularity of Disney’s four pavilions, Pepsi’s It’s a Small World, GE’s Progressland, (including the Carousel of Progress), Illinoi’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and Ford’s Magic Skyway convinced Walt that an Eastern theme park would work. (He probably knew already, but needed to convince others)

As a Disney fan, today, I remember visiting Small World, COP and the Skyway at the Fair as a child (No memory of Lincoln). Little did I know then that the Fair would launch many celebrated innovations that would change theme parks and more forever. Before we get to the pavilion work, I want to mention one of the less celebrated Disney innovations introduced at the Fair, perhaps, more impactful to the world than any of the headliner attractions.

progressland lines

Walt, never let a good problem go to waste. Long waits at Disneyland attractions were commonplace from day one. The Fair, no exception, had similar lines. Walt had his people study the lines at the fair to devise new methods for queue management. In my recent tour of the Fairgrounds in Flushing, NY (see my previous post) I learned that the lines for the COP were crazy long, especially in the hot humid months of July and August. The solution was razing an unfinished building behind the Progressland pavilion and turning it into a covered overflow queue area. This area had the first use of the now familiar switch-back queuing system. Before you dismiss the significance of this creative solution, think about how often you encounter this kind of line system. It’s everywhere there’s a line that needs to be managed.

The four Disney attractions had some common elements that put them, consistently, at the top of everyone’s list of Fair favorites. First, if you keep my queue story in mind, except for Lincoln, which was a stage show, they were designed to maximize rider capacity. Attractions, today, like Small World and Pirates move people through by the hundreds an hour. Early Disneyland’s low capacity rides like The Rainbow Mountain Stagecoach Ride and The Phantom Boats didn’t last long. At the Fair, WED Imagineerssmall world boat tackled capacity issues with the debut of three different ride systems. Small World and Skyway were originally planned as walk-throughs. But, herding large numbers of people efficiently through was not Walt’s of showing off. The Small World boat system, designed by transportation genius, Bob Gurr, proved so efficient that it has been used in other attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and other theme parks.

Small World still moves ‘em through in all of its worldwide incarnations. But, the ride system in the Ford Magic Skyway proved to be even more groundbreaking. The only requirement Ford had was that guests ride in actual Ford cars. Gurr and the WED Ford-Magic-Skywaygeniuses modified the cars so they were individually propelled underneath by a track. Sounds simple now. But, according to a Gurr, the Ford system took longer to design than to build Disneyland. He tells a story that because the cars were different lengths and had no bumpers, around certain turns they would smack into each other. The banging magic skyway carcaused broken lights and damage. The Imagineers solved the problem with track design and a complex set of rules about which cars could be next to each other. And they employed a full time crew of car body repairmen during the run of the Fair to fix damage that still occurred. The Magic Skyway transport system is the grandfather of theme park, dark ride systems and is still used at The Haunted Mansion as well as powering the recent Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure rides in both U.S. parks and many other rides. If you get on a continuously loading ride anywhere with all the cars connected, and it turns as the ride progresses so you face the action, you’re probably riding Skyway’s descendant, an Omnimover or a version of it.

Much of Disney’s early animation success was built on the use of music to enhance the entertainment value of his films. Since Walt viewed theme parks attractions as another story telling method, the second common Fair attraction element was music. The Sherman brothers created two of the most famous ear worms in entertainment history. Both It’s a Small Word After All and It’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow, not only, stick with riders long after exiting the attraction but they artfully reinforce the overall theme of both experiences. Since Walt did not copywrite Small World, his gift to the world has become the most publicly played song of all time.

The ride systems were certainly innovative and continue to be improved upon. Yet, it’s a different gadget that we all have come to love in Disney attractions and in lots of other walt-disney-tiki-roomplaces. Legend has it that the first Audio-Animatronics appeared in the Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room in 1963 because of a small mechanical bird Walt found in an antique shop. But, as usual, after simple figures in the Tiki Room and Jungle Cruise, Walt wanted to do more. He used the Fair to apply the patented technology to depicting people. The Lincoln figure turned out to be the most complex, “robot” at the time. It was so convincing, many guests left the show thinking that it was a real actor. AAs are used in many Disney park attractions and other theme parks. There are about 300 figures alone in Small World. Pirates in Disneyland has 53 AA animals, and 75 pirates and villagers. It wasn’t easy lincoln aagetting Lincoln to behave. In fact, the President missed his targeted opening date. Walt had to tell a room full of VIPs that he wouldn’t present the show until it was perfect. Finally, the WED Imagineers solved the problems and the show opened to rave reviews. The same design was used for the COP figures. These days, it’s hard to think of Disney, or, for that matter, many theme parks without thinking about AAs. Decades after their introduction, they continue to be added and improved in new attractions and new theme parks.

cop act 1Everyone at WED who was involved with the Fair has said that while Walt was involved with all the projects, there’s more of Walt in Carousel of Progress than anything WED ever did. The show captured much of the sensibilities with which he infused all his creative work. It has a nostalgic Midwestern feel. The GE sponsorship allowed the characters to celebrate one of Walt’s favorite themes, the march of innovative technology making lives better. The design of the rotating theater was a way to mimic the quick transitions done in film. The Carousel Theater was guest-friendly and efficient enabling the theater sections to entertain six audiences simultaneously. With a new show starting every four minutes no one had to wait for long show to end to enter. WED employees who were around, say Walt put the final touch in place by adding a “weenie”, the dog, to each of the scenes.

Walt also had a giant model of “Progress City” seen through the windows in the last scene, which guests could get a better look at when exiting the theater. Take a look at my posts, The Unfulfilled Promise of E.P.C.O.T. and The Legacy of Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T. to learn more about Progress City and Walt’s interests in urban planning and leveraging cop last sceneAmerican industry’s innovative abilities. Walt had already begun buying up land in Florida, so those plans must have been already percolating. You can still sneak a quick peak at a portion of the model of Walt’s ideas for the city of the future when you ride the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover.

The Magic Skyway had similar city of the future themes, focused on humorous AA scenes of innovation over the centuries, like the invention of the wheel. The Skyway track system concept was used to create the WEDWay PeopleMover ride at Disneyland a few years later and was to be an integral part of Walt’s Prototype Community in Florida. Disney Imagineers also contributed tiny scale models of Scenes from 11 nations, past and present in the International Garden as guests entered the Ford pavilion.

thames model for ford

Always the innovator and always the promoter, Walt saw the Fair as a multi-faceted opportunity dinos in disneylandto extend the Disney brand and worked it out so that Small World, Lincoln and COP would have future homes at Disneyland. Sadly, the only physical part of the Magic Skyway salvaged was the dinosaur AAs, which found a new home in the Primeval World diorama along the Disneyland Railroad.

Much of the work that went into the creation of the attractions continues to impact how theme park entertainment is designed and executed. All the Disney parks around the world except for Shanghai have a version of Small World. And boat ride systems are used in theme parks around the world. The Fair themes of peace and innovative advancement were central to how Disney built his company.  While many of the attractions were designed to educate the public, Disney Fair attractions, made the medicine go down easier by infusing humor such as in COP, whimsy in Small World and wow factor experienced in Lincoln and Magic Skyway. The two years in NY may represent the beginning of the end for what people nostalgically think of when they “remember” World’s Fairs. The contributions of Walt and his magical Imagineers are probably one of the reasons the 1964 Fair remains an iconic example of creativity, innovation and invention.

 

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