We come to the finale of our 40-day countdown to the premier of EPCOT. Built as an homage to Walt Disney’s dream of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, this, the second Walt Disney World park. It opened to the public on October 1st, 40 years ago today. Daniel transports us to the EPCOT 1982.
EPCOT Center 1982: Anticipation meets Wonder, and a New Face of Disney
As a child in the 70’s, nothing could shock your system like hearing Mom or Dad say, “We’re going to Walt Disney World”. Really. You’d get a slow burning sensation that developed into an ear-touching smile. Then, a jolt of adrenaline that caused MAJOR unfocused physical activity. Which was usually jumping around accompanied by high-pitched nonsensical blabbering.
Walt Disney World
I know it was different for the kids on the West Coast. They’d grown used to having Disneyland within striking distance. And of course by then had a full generation’s head start on us experiencing the Disney magic. But for most kids east of the Rockies, there were three phrases that set off this reaction: (a) get your sled, it’s a snow day, (b) yes, Santa was here, and (c) get in the car, we’re going to visit Mickey. Heck, it was exciting to get “the call” from somebody (a friend, grandchild, neighbor’s kid, or total stranger that just got the news), and oddly not be jealous, just excited with them. The Disney magic had that kind of effect on people! Even after Tinker Bell had ceased to signal “bedtime” on Sunday nights.
Now, this pretty much hasn’t changed over the years for children. Now I have witnessed this firsthand from a parent’s perspective. But back in the early 80’s, I was a young teenaged boy. And there had been a subtle change in reaction to the grand new. I guess the simplest indicator of this was what kind of reaction you could expect telling the guys on a football team you were going to visit a land of fairy tales and animated characters. I was firmly stuck between my own years of wonder and those years of fulfillment from witnessing the joy as a parent.
Yes, I loved the trip down to Orlando with my family. I still enjoyed walking around and visiting my favorite places. And sharing special moments with my parents by recreating some of the past’s magic when in the Magic Kingdom. But let’s face it: the “coolness” factor was definitely much lower. Describing the trip now needed some touches that conveyed I wasn’t trapped in my childhood. My parents sensed this, and allowed the children to pick a special stop or side trip. For instance, on one trip, I asked to visit the Old Town and fort in St. Augustine. (Just so I had some cover.) “Yeah, we went to Disney, but I also saw the oldest town in North America. That was BOSS!”
The Disney experience had started to become a little more routine by the early 80s; you certainly weren’t going to be the first family on the block to get there, and the country was ready for the next big thing from a trusted source of wholesome American culture. America was “re-awakening” after some very, very tough times, and while people had been longing for both reassuring connections to the familiar cultural past, they also wanted to connect with the promise of the future as science and technology that was seemingly exploding out of Silicon Valley and a slew of Hollywood science fiction movies and shows.
Disney shocked and primed the pump by releasing a radically different sort of film, the computer-immersed TRON, which was a HUGE departure from what was visually expected (as in, this ain’t your little sister’s Disney movie) and opened the door to what the new park at Walt Disney World might just offer: EPCOT.
It’s hard to imagine, but at the time I had touched a computer exactly twice in my life prior to the summer of 1982. It was some sort of Commodore, and I had to sneak into a computer lab after hours just to get a shot at “typing” a logic game on it. Most people hadn’t even seen a computer in person, but understood the revolution in technology had begun. Technology had become the flashpoint of society, and the opportunity to improve methods of communication was truly exciting. And Disney was about to open this window to those lucky enough to get to Orlando… this was a whole new level of excitement for a teenager!
What I knew of EPCOT 1982 was pretty thin; I had followed some of the press and knew this was something Walt Disney had started, but that it had changed over time and departed from Walt’s original vision. As more and more information became public, I became focused on the idea that this was going to be a “grown up” park, and something that I’d really like to experience. Everything I saw indicated the focus at EPCOT would be on “hands on” learning, and a visit would offer interaction not possible anywhere else.
I was ready… no, I was EAGER, to get back to Orlando, no side trips necessary! The fact that it was a Disney experience and offered some Disney magic broke down barriers that otherwise might have given pause; Walt Disney World was a perfect environment to overcome user resistance, long before that term existed.
As a matter of fact, visiting EPCOT was suggested by my father, a baby boomer that really didn’t immerse himself in PC use until well after the start of the new millennium. He knew this was different and sensed it would be exciting and important. And he was right.
Today, I can grab my chosen tool of communication (smart phone, tablet, or laptop) and quickly reach out to anyone, or seemingly EVERYONE, on the face of the earth. It just doesn’t seem possible that this was complete fantasy in my lifetime, but that was 1982…the only people I knew that had bag phones were field engineers, or maybe government officials (remember Oscar Goldman from the OSI?). The best chance to meet or talk to someone from another country in the 80s was if the high school had sponsored a foreign exchange student. Good luck if they were from the part of the world that interested you. It’s hard to convey, in modern times, the excitement that EPCOT generated: both technology and access to help learn about the planet, literally from the ground up.
I can’t say I remember much about the trip down to Florida, other than we flew to maximize our time in EPCOT (thanks, Dad!). I remember seeing the Spaceship Earth for the first time glinting in the morning sun and saying to myself, yep, it’s just as impressive as I thought it would be…huge in scale and standing proudly in gleaming silver, it definitely embodied the 80s experience; I had to drop my Vuarnets (younger readers, Google it) to look at it directly. There’s nothing like something new and fresh, and when you get to immerse yourself in something designed to stimulate all of your senses, it’s going to make an impression. We picked up our day passes and the park map & info, and after reviewing an acrobatic display, quickly started exploring.
The first experience was, as I imagine for most visitors, a trip through time inside the Spaceship Earth. Again, the Disney experience coupled a comfortable old shoe (the voice of CBS legend Walter Cronkite and Disney animatronics) to fresh and exciting (computers and something called fiber optics) to introduce you to EPCOT. It was a refreshing way to cool down after the wait outside, and was a reassuring pat that things were still Disney, and the magic and humor would still be there on your visit.
Next stop was CommuniCores, East and West. I remember there was literally a buzz of excitement as people approached the displays, and how smaller children crowded around the talking robot there. After spending some time with the exhibits and interacting with a touch screen for the first time, we moved on to the larger presentations.
Universe of Energy
I remember being wowed by the Universe of Energy, and moving in the theater seats quite differently from other attractions prior to this. My Dad and I also enjoyed the GM presentation, the World of Motion…it had lots of funny takes on the development of transportation and had Disney animatronic charm. But one of the big treats was at the Imagination pavilion, where we got to view a true 3D movie for the first time…I had used the old blue-red glasses before, but this was truly amazing technology. Guests were jumping out of their Benettons and pink Polo shirts at this attraction! I also got to meet my favorite non-Fab Five character, the purple dragon Figment, and can still hear him singing “ihhh-MAAAA-gin-AAAAA-shun” as we cycled through the attraction with him…he was so much fun, and recalled Elliott from my childhood.
The scale of the park wasn’t really apparent until arriving at the World Showcase; once there, I realized this was more than just a grown-up version of “it’s a small world”…this was like a small city. We chose clockwise and began the tour.
Although I thought we had seen some “radical” things in Future World, I think what may have been the best moments of the visit was interacting with the Castmembers from other countries and learning new things. I had done well in school in geography, so I knew the basics, but being able to converse with citizens of the world that were pretty close to my age was just amazing.
This would be one kitschy shopping trip! But much to my surprise, I was reluctant to move from one country to another as I enjoyed learning about their home towns, what we had in common, and what brought them to America. I loved seeing the craftsmen work; in Mexico, my family watched a craftsman customize a ring for my father (that he treasured from that day on) and an artisan carefully engrave a crystal mug in Germany, which is proudly displayed in a place of honor in my parent’s home today.
Maybe best of all were the adventures waiting behind the facades; the Mexican river ride and the spectacular 360 screen of “O, Canada” were just two that stand out, but the American Adventure was the show stopper for me. It was like the Hall of Presidents on steroids, and the Hall was an E-Ticket attraction to begin with. When you have an audience clapping and tearing up around you, you know this is something special. As soon as we exited and sat down to see to our turkey legs, I had one of the warmest moments of my life, taking my father’s hand and telling him how happy I was to be there with him and thankful we could experience it together.
As we departed that day, we stopped to get souvenirs. Dad bought me a white sweatshirt that had a rubberized Spaceship Earth logo. And I bought him a very futuristic coffee cup and some postcards. (Sadly limited to grass-cutting funds). When we got home, I was saddened to learn my Kodak X-15 Instamatic had failed to capture any decent pictures. But as we left that day, I remember walking past the fountain’s beautiful lights and the reflected colors of the Spaceship Earth. I planned with my father to return when we could. Thankfully, my father and I did return to EPCOT together. Which became a new ritual to add to the Magic Kingdom and one I continue with the next generation.
40 Days to 40 Years
One day soon, you will find me wandering somewhere in EPCOT. (Most likely noshing at Morocco. Or helping my daughter pick “the right one” in the oyster tank, and wondering what her memories will hold many years from now…)
Daniel is a former Cast Member, proud father and obedient husband! (His words exactly- his wife Amanda is a lucky girl)! Thank you Daniel, for sharing this beautiful family memory. How fitting that you are right now creating new ones with the next generation. Have some couscous for us!