Culture

The Evolution of EPCOT Through The Eyes of Preview Films

EPCOT concept art by Herb Ryman

EPCOT concept art by Herb Ryman

No other project in the history of the Walt Disney Company has borne Walt’s stamp more than EPCOT. At the same time, no single project has undergone as many changes as EPCOT has. Through the years between 1966 when Walt Disney first introduced the EPCOT concept as the centerpiece of the company’s Florida Project and 1982 when EPCOT Center opened, the company produced a series of promotional films to promote what EPCOT was going to be. Let’s take a look at them and see how EPCOT changed over the years, from theory to reality.

The EPCOT Film, 1966

The first mention of EPCOT – the location as well as the concept – came in this short film. Disney produced the film a year after the first press conference announcing the company’s Florida Project, and the short gave Walt an opportunity to present his grand vision thoughtfully and in detail. It would be Walt’s last appearance before his death in December 1966.

The company first showed the film to Florida legislators and business leaders in February 1967 at a theater just outside Orlando. The showing had two purposes: to reassure these movers and shakers that the Florida Project was still a reality in the wake of its champion’s death and to grease the wheels for the massive legislative push that would create the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the quasi-governmental agency Disney uses to run Walt Disney World without local interference.

Walt commissioned Marty Sklar to write the script for the film, and Sklar does a fine job expressing the EPCOT concept. Additionally, The EPCOT Film explains for its audience the successes of Disneyland and the purpose of WED Enterprises, later Walt Disney Imagineering.

In the film, Walt’s ideas are more theoretical than practical (except for the theme park). In fact, Sklar himself referred to the Epcot concept as “Waltopia.” The prototype city with its climate-controlled downtown, minimal transportation, and experimental technology in every home would rely on free enterprise to sustain new ideas:

In fact, we’re counting on the cooperation of American industry to provide their very best thinking during the planning and the creation of our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. And most important of all, when EPCOT has become a reality and we find the need for technologies that don’t even exist today, it’s our hope that EPCOT will stimulate American industry to develop new solutions that will meet the needs of people expressed right here in this experimental community.

[…]

…if we can bring together the technical know-how of American industry and the creative imagination of the Disney organization, I’m confident we can create—right here in Disney World—a showcase to the world of the American free enterprise system.

The EPCOT Film displayed Walt’s exuberant and optimistic futurism in its purest form. Alas, his death less than two months after filming essentially put the kibosh on his experimental city concept.
1978 Promotional Film featuring Card Walker

It’s funny how, just a dozen years after The EPCOT Film, Disney knew that EPCOT would work better as a theme park than as an actual city. The company produced this short to whet the public’s appetite for a new theme park based on the EPCOT ideals.

At the outset of the film, Disney President Card Walker asks a question that had to be on the minds of interested parties:

Why is Disney getting into so many things that are apparently unrelated to the entertainment industry? What can Disney possibly contribute?

The film starts out in a tone that resembles a cross between a newsreel and an educational film. In it, we explore four objectives for EPCOT with concept art and early attraction plans to bolster these objectives. Some of the attraction concepts changed little between this time and the park’s opening: the energy pavilion sounds much like the initial version of Universe of Energy, while Communicore and Horizons were also apparently solid concepts by then.

Other attractions differed from concept to execution: the pavilion dedicated to the seas contained completely different attraction concepts than The Living Seas boasted when it opened in 1986. A pavilion concept on creativity sounds wildly different than Journey Into Imagination. And, of course, Future World did not get an attraction dedicated to space until 2003.

Pay attention to the music – the theme song, “We’re Getting Ready For You,” written by David Jacobson, becomes a larger motif in future videos. Some of the footage at the end of the film, showing cast members making preparations for Epcot, will appear later on as well.
The Dream Called EPCOT, 1981

In 1981, Disney temporarily changed the Walt Disney Story theater attraction into the EPCOT Center Preview Center. The attraction included concept models and maps, as well as a film entitled The Dream Called EPCOT. I can remember seeing bits of this film as a boy (along with riding on the monorail out to the site to preview the new park) and being excited at what was in store for us guests.

The film opens with the familiar strains of David Jacobson’s music, accompanied by some of the concept art we saw back in 1978. The narrator comes in to tell us how Walt Disney World’s “Phase One” has already fulfilled much of Walt Disney’s desire for innovation and creativity. He then takes us on a brief tour of Imagineering.

By 1981, most of the concepts for EPCOT Center were in place, and the film employs flyover and flythrough shots of the model of the park throughout – and even some shots from inside the attractions! The narrator mentions Horizons and The Living Seas even though they would not open until 1983 and 1986 respectively. The film also looks at World Showcase in detail, whereas the 1978 film concentrated on Future World.

The closing sequence of The Dream Called EPCOT mirrors the 1978 film, using the same preparation footage accompanied by “We’re Getting Ready For You.” Of course, by this time we’ve learned much more about EPCOT Center than we did in the 1978 film. A card at the end makes a statement that became a slogan for EPCOT Center’s opening: “The 21st century begins October 1, 1982.”
1982 EPCOT Center Promo

Finally, 1982 arrived, and the 21st century began – or so we see in the opening graphics to the video. This film is a promotional tool that Disney produced in conjunction with the park’s opening. Roughly the first half of the film contains no dialouge and consists of behind-the-scenes shots of Imagineers and performers getting ready for EPCOT Center to open. Sculptors put the finishing touches on large pieces, dancers get in costume and rehearse, engineers test Audio Animatronic figures, painters put one last coat on backdrops – all of which takes places to the strains of “We’re Getting Ready For You,” this time as an instrumental theme on synthesizer and piano.

The behind-the-scenes footage transitions to shots of Spaceship Earth and the rest of EPCOT Center in various stages of construction. A narrator intones about how “Walt Disney’s greatest dream” is now becoming a reality. Ray Bradbury, a friend of Walt’s and a longtime proponent of the EPCOT concept, then makes an appearance to express his excitement about EPCOT’s opening. News footage of last minute preparations and the opening ceremonies gives way to a clip of Card Walker’s speech on Opening Day, October 1, 1982.

EPCOT Center celebrates human achievements and innovation born from imagination. We want to first entertain, then inform, then inspire all who come here and above all instill in our guests a new sense of belief and pride in mankind’s ability to shape a world that offers real hope to people everywhere in the world.

The EPCOT concept was Walt Disney’s greatest dream. It began as an experimental city intended to highlight innovative new technology and methods for improving urban and suburban life, but it morphed into a second theme part for Walt Disney World designed to educate guests on solutions to issues that have arisen in the modern world. Of course, Epcot has changed even more since 1982 – these days it’s more entertainment than information, though the spirit and intent remain. It’s fun to trace the evolution of EPCOT Center from concept to opening through these videos. In many ways, the videos became more than promotional tools: they gave us glimpses into the processes of Imagineering.