Dear Powers-That-Be at Disney,
Nowadays it seems that “Epcot” is just a name for a theme park, a word with no real meaning. EPCOT, though, used to stand for something: Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. It was a term coined by Walt himself for his vision of a futuristic city.
The creative vision of the future that led Walt to create EPCOT is as important now as it was then, and perhaps even more so. In the 50’s and 60’s, people dreamed of an exciting future full of robots and rockets. In the 70’s and 80’s, when computers were really becoming mainstream, they offered an incredible digital frontier that captured imaginations. Now, though, what do people dream about when they look ahead? As the concept of a bright and shining future gets further away from our collective consciousness, the need for a place like EPCOT is even more critical.
EPCOT used to represent inspiration. It showcased examples of humanity’s potential. It was a place where we could see amazing possibilities like underwater cities and space colonies, where we could learn about the history of transportation, and where we could discover how advances in communication helped shape our past and future. It was a place where a man and his purple dragon showed the wonders of imagination, where guests could explore other countries, and where innovation met invention.
I use the past tense, because the park seems to be none of those things anymore.
At Destination D in November 2016, Bob Chapek told the audience that EPCOT would soon be undergoing a “major transformation”. He said that it was going to be “more Disney, more relevant, timeless, family oriented, and true to the original vision”. This sounds great to say in front of hundreds of Disney fans (the announcement was met with thunderous applause, particularly the “true to the original vision” part) and the idea of a big EPCOT overhaul is pretty exciting. However, as of yet we’ve seen nor heard anything more about this plan so we’re still left with nothing other than hope that EPCOT will return to its inspirational themes.
The reality is that, for the past several years, many see the park becoming a shadow of its former self. Fans of EPCOT, people who grew up going there and who loved its inspirational and forward-thinking vibe, are disappointed in the direction that it has been taken by Disney executives. Hashtags like #ReturntoCenter and #BringBackTheFuture (and, as a result of recent surveys, #SaveFigment) have gained a fair amount of support on social media as loyal fans try to get the message across: they miss what EPCOT used to be, and they wish it could become that again.
It’s true that many of us really do miss the atmosphere and the attractions of the EPCOT Center of the past. Horizons in particular became a sort of rallying cry, a long-defunct favorite now seen as a symbol of what the park represented and what many feel it no longer does. The ride’s vision of possibilities, shown with the sort of storytelling that we expect from a Disney attraction, and even its tagline of “if we can dream it, we can do it” has become emblematic of the inspirational feeling that people really miss about EPCOT. We miss the fun look at history in World of Motion, and the unbridled whimsy of the original Journey Into Imagination. The park was a place of education as well as entertainment, a place that addressed real topics like science, energy, and nature yet still retained Disney magic–and did so with catchy theme songs like “It’s Fun to be Free” and “One Little Spark”.
These days there are still a few cool things happening in the park, things that inspire and educate. Classic attractions like Living with the Land and Spaceship Earth remain, both of them throwbacks to the park’s beginnings. Newer experiences like Test Track and Mission: SPACE fit well within the Future World mission to entertain, inform, and inspire (loosely, perhaps, but they do in their own ways). Events like Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, and the new International Arts Festival invite guests to discover new experiences from around the world. On the surface it appears–on paper, anyway–that EPCOT is continuing to fulfill its promise.
What the guests and long-standing fans of the park are seeing, despite all that, is different. We’re seeing possibilities get pushed aside for thrills, culture get replaced with characters, and real inspiration fall by the wayside.
We understand that things need to change. Disney parks are constantly evolving, and that’s one of the exciting things about them. We accept, perhaps grudgingly, that the days of Horizons and World of Motion are gone (though I’ll not sure we fully accept the retirement of Dreamfinder). We understand, when we’re talking about a community of tomorrow, that it needs to keep evolving as tomorrow continues to become yesterday. What we’re asking for isn’t some unrealistic rebuilding of dead attractions. We simply want a return to the themes and goals that EPCOT was based upon. We want inspiration and possibilities, visions of the future, insights into other cultures, and we want to see how imagination can lead to wondrous ideas.
While we keep hoping for a return to form for the inspiring EPCOT that we loved, though, rumors suggest plans that go in the opposite direction. There have been frequent mentions of popular characters–like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Cars–getting shoehorned in with (seemingly) no regard for theming. We have Magic Kingdom for beloved characters, and we have Hollywood Studios for attractions based upon popular movies. We don’t need more of that in EPCOT. We need a focus on the possibilities of the future and inspiration to face the challenges it will take to get there. Obviously I understand that these are rumors, so they should be taken with a big grain of salt. If these rumors are to be believed, though, it seems that the intent is to push the park further away from the science and education focus that was originally envisioned for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. They point to an upsetting possibility–that Disney executives want to take EPCOT in a direction that fans definitely don’t want it to go.
Is there a middle ground between the science-and-education park that fans want, and character-driven attractions that will entice guests? Probably. If a new ride based on Inside Out is really being considered, which would definitely draw in fans of the film, have it focus on the science behind emotions and use those characters to educate as well as entertain. The futuristic setting of Big Hero 6 would be a great way to introduce robotics to kids and adults as they visit the park. There’s an opportunity to use Marvel properties (once contract issues are sorted out, of course) in a way that can showcase science and technology. Even using characters in World Showcase, to show how real cultures influenced animated features, could be great if done right. While I personally don’t think that EPCOT needs characters to drive its message (other than Figment and Dreamfinder, and maybe Dr. Bunsen Honeydew with Beaker), I understand the desire to use popular franchises to draw people in. As long as it’s done well, with respect to the theme of EPCOT, and not just “hey, these characters have a spaceship and lasers so they’re futuristic”. It’s not about rides full of characters, it’s about attractions that showcase humanity’s history and potential.
Entertainment showing post-apocalyptic wastelands and xenophobia, rather than exciting lands of tomorrow and acceptance, seems to be more popular these days than ever. Inspiration has been lost somewhere over the years, and we need a place where families around the world can go to get it back. We need a place where we can learn about energy and embrace other cultures, where laughing purple dragons can take us on journeys into imagination, and where we can look ahead to new horizons. We need a park that showcases science and real possibilities for our future. Something like this is perhaps more important now than it’s ever been.
We need, now more than ever, an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.