If you’ve read my work here on the blog, or if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, or if you’ve ever talked to me in person, then you’ve probably noticed that I mention one particular attraction a whole bunch. I mean, like an absurd amount.
Really, if you’re also a follower of other Disney fan accounts on social media, you’ve probably noticed that lots of other people also talk about this defunct dark ride too. It’s been a long time since it closed, and people still discuss it with a nearly cult-like fervor.
I’m talking, of course, about Stitch’s Great Escape.
I’m talking, of course, about Horizons.
Now, you might find yourself nodding in agreement here because you too miss this classic EPCOT Center attraction. Or perhaps you don’t understand what the fascination is with some old ride, so you’re just rolling your eyes (like my wife, who’s probably wondering why she has to edit yet another post about it [Accurate. —ed.]).
With this post, I’m actually aiming to reach those who are unfamiliar with Horizons. Those who never got the opportunity to ride it, and who (even if you did) might wonder why people go on about it so much. If you do know and love Horizons, you’re of course welcome to follow along as well and wax nostalgic as we go down this path. My goal here, though, is to try to explain this obsession a little bit so that us fans don’t just all look crazy. It may or may not help.
Horizons opened on October 1st, 1983, and was sponsored by General Electric up until it closed in 1994. It was reopened in 1995 (without a sponsor), because both World of Motion and Universe of Energy were closed for renovations at the time and Disney management didn’t want too much of Future World closed all at the same time. It was finally shut down for good in 1999, to make way for Mission: SPACE. Since then it’s garnered an impressive following across social media, perhaps unlike any other defunct attraction, and there are websites dedicated to its memory. Some have created computer-generated ride throughs, and there’s even a decent amount of fan-made merchandise out there too.
The roughly fifteen minute ride was narrated by a husband and wife who were “from the future”, and were showing guests what their daily life was like. They brought you through an undersea city, a terraformed desert, and even a space station where people lived and worked. Finally they showed us their high-tech urban home. Throughout the journey guests met other members of the narrators’ family, which tied everything together. There was an underlying story thread about everyone needing to be on time for a birthday party, and towards the end of the ride the entire family got together for the celebration–a young boy sat in a living room with his parents, while other members of the family sang happy birthday from holographic video phone screens (sure, we now have phones in our palms that can access almost any bit of information you could dream of, but they’re not holographic). In the final moments of the ride, a touch panel lit up in the ride vehicle, offering a choice to each guest. There were three options: desert, space, and undersea; guests would pick one, and a majority rule determined which ending that vehicle would view on a screen.
So why does this attraction, out of all of those that have come and gone over the years, retain such a rabid fanbase?
Let’s take a step back, for just a moment, to get a sense of what EPCOT Center was in olden days (i.e: the 80s). It was wildly different from the Magic Kingdom; There were no rides based on movies, no roller coasters, no parades. The slow dark ride attractions that made up Future World each had a particular focus: World of Motion offered a history of transportation and a look to what might be coming down the road, Universe of Energy showed a (loooooong) look at different power options, and Spaceship Earth invited guests into the giant “golf ball” to learn about communication. Each attraction was intended to showcase the past, present, and future of its respective topic. While designed to inspire and educate, they were also intended to entertain and as such were done in the signature “Disney” style with lots of humor and fun. They even had great theme songs (go up to any fan of EPCOT Center, say the words “it’s fun to be free”, and see what happens). It was Disney for nerds, a theme park for those who–like Walt Disney himself–were futurists. People who appreciated looking forward, and back, and who wanted to do so with sea serpents and sleeping monks tossed into the mix.
Most of those old EPCOT Center attractions are long gone now, or have been renovated into shadows of their former selves (cough–Journey Into Imagination–cough). Some of them, like World of Motion, still retain a pretty strong fan base themselves. None, though, seem to be as adored and missed as Horizons.
All of the attractions were fun in their own ways (OK, maybe not Universe of Energy). In a sense, though, Horizons was the culmination and combination of every other idea that Future World offered. Rather than focus on just one specific topic, Horizons instead showed guests how all of the respective ideas of the other attractions–transportation, communication, agriculture, etc–could come together in one incredible look at the future.
Horizons boiled down all of the concepts presented by the park and demonstrated how they could serve as inspirations for a possible tomorrow. It showed a future that looked to be something out of a science fiction story while still being completely plausible. To many people, that vision was extremely powerful. It’s not just what it showed, either, but how it showed it. It wasn’t dragging on with the science of how any of it would work, it wasn’t preachy about how we’d need to fix the world to get there, it wasn’t showing things so fantastic that they stopped being realistic. It was just a family from the future, taking guests on a little tour through their everyday life, and there was something simply incredible about that.
Let’s not forget, too, that the folks who keep the fandom alive now were much younger in the Horizons days. When it closed in 1999 I was in my early 20s, and when it first opened I would have been somewhere around third grade. I basically grew up seeing this inspirational vision of tomorrow. Especially as we all grew up, and the world seemed to keep going in the opposite direction from this possible future (and, I suppose, as we developed more cynicism than we had as kids), Horizons was something to cling to. Something to showcase what could happen, even if reality was consistently proving otherwise.
The world kind of sucked, and as we got older we were able to see that much more clearly, but this ride at a theme park still showed us what the future could be. It gave us a bit of hope. I think that, at its core, is why so many of us still hold on to Horizons. Why we keep this fandom going on social media, why we talk about the attraction fondly, and why we wish that it was still around. Because as things around us just seem to get worse everyday, we could simply use that fifteen minutes of inspiration. We could use that journey through time, where a friendly couple takes us through a plausible–but ever less realistic–future.
There’s another reason, I think, for the ongoing Horizons fandom. At the Destination D expo in November of 2016, Bob Chapek stated that the plans for EPCOT would make it “more Disney, timeless, relevant, and family friendly”, and some of us recalled when we already had all of that in one attraction. It was Disney in the way that it portrayed things, with lots of humor and a storyline rather than just an impersonal look at future possibilities. It was timeless, since the future is something that we’re always working towards. It was absolutely relevant–the concept of working together towards a brighter tomorrow never really stops being so. It was family friendly, since it was a slow dark ride rather than the thrill rides that seem to be taking over the park, and it was fun and entertaining and had ideas presented to all ages. So while the current Disney management continues to strip away everything that made the park special (well, I did say that we developed more cynicism as we got older), some of us have been holding on even harder to what made us fall in love with it in the first place. It’s becoming a collection of future-themed rides with only the loosest of themes, and some of us fondly and sadly miss when it was a park full of inspiration. Horizons has, in its way, become a focus for that–a rallying cry for fans of EPCOT Center even though (or perhaps especially) because we know those days are long gone.
If you never got the chance to experience Horizons, well… you could try checking out ride through videos online, but I don’t think that it would be the same. You might get an inkling of how special it was, though I suppose now it would seem quite dated (there was a whole bit about the microprocessor as an exciting new technology that would revolutionize everything) and the narration will likely come off as a bit cheesy nowadays. It was definitely a product of its time, and unless you were seeing it as a kid in the 80s I don’t know if you’d be able to really get it.
If you did go on Horizons, though, you likely understand and agree with everything that I’ve said here. If you miss this ride like so many people do, you may have read all of this with a nostalgic tear in your eye. Seriously, we should have a support group or something.
All these years later, some of us are still inspired by Horizons. Though the ride itself is long gone, it instilled in us a hope for the future. Even when things seem pretty bleak in the world, we remember undersea cities and living on space stations and think…
“If we can dream it, we can do it”*
*Right, so I know that I’m just killing my nice dramatic ending, but I have a side note/public service announcement that I need to add here. That quote? It’s often attributed to Walt Disney, but in fact it was written by Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald specifically for Horizons. It’s probably one of the most mis-quoted things in all of Disney fandom. So now that you know this, the next time you hear someone credit Walt with “if we can dream it, we can do it” you can tap them on the nose with a rolled-up park guide map and firmly say “NO”. It’s the only way they’ll learn.