Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series on how Epcot, the park, came to be and the impact it has made on the industry at large from FUNWORLD Magazine written by former Imagineer Marty Sklar. It gives a good context for how Epcot came into being and we look forward to parts two and three, and feel it’s a refreshing bit of solid information that has sadly been ignored amid all the fluff being bandied about the internet lately going into Epcot’s 30th.
It seems strange to begin a story about Epcot’s 30th anniversary with a flashback to 1974. Let me explain … 1974 was a scary year for the theme park and resort business. The worldwide energy crisis drove major gasoline price increases—regular gasoline skyrocketed in price from 38 cents per gallon to 54 cents—causing the enactment of extreme measures across the country. The national speed limit was lowered to 55 miles per hour, and daylight savings time began four months early. Newsweek magazine reported, “The one bad spot is Florida, where long lines—especially near the tourist centers of Disney World and Miami—have caused some counties to adopt odd-even programs” (dates for purchasing gasoline).
Walt Disney World, in its third year and well on its way to being the country’s favorite vacation destination, was strongly affected. Attendance dropped by almost 800,000 guests from the previous year.
So it was a surprise to me to receive a call from Disney CEO E. Cardon Walker about a signature project that had remained dormant since it was first unveiled in a film I wrote that was not seen by the public until spring 1967—a few months after Walt Disney’s death in December 1966. “What,” Card Walker asked, “are we going to do about Epcot?”
I had just been promoted to become the creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering—the beginning of 30 years in that role for me. From day one, the challenge of that responsibility for what would become 11 Disney parks on three continents around the world was daunting, even as I reminded the Imagineers of our role.
“There are two ways to look at a blank sheet of paper,” I told the creative team. “It can be the most frightening thing in the world, because you have to make the first mark on it. Or it can be the greatest opportunity in the world, because you get to make the first mark—you can let your imagination fly in any direction, and create whole new worlds!”
For the next eight years, the Imagineers, in partnership with the operations staff at Walt Disney World, would test that axiom. Today, as Epcot prepares to welcome its 30th anniversary on Oct. 1, it celebrates as the sixth most-visited park in the world, trailing only its Disney brethren the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea, and Disneyland Paris in yearly attendance.
It took a healthy belief in the future of Disney Parks and Resorts for Card Walker and the Disney Board of Directors to make that call in the face of all the negatives we faced as a country and as a company in 1974. But we began.
In retrospect, I can clearly identify four principal segments in the development of the Epcot Center we unveiled in 1982:
- Deciding what to do
- Creating the concept and convincing Disney management to fund it
- Selling it to corporate and international sponsors
- Building it
Walt Disney’s concept for an Epcot community was a grand vision that drove the planning for all of Walt Disney World from the beginning. Transportation and energy systems; experimentation in construction methods such as the off-site building of completely furnished hotel rooms for Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Resort; and the care and responsibility for maintaining the Florida environment and ecosystems—all had been thought through following Walt’s often stated desire: to “meet the needs of people” and set an example for planning and building for others to learn from and emulate.
One of the first decisions we made was to hold a series of meetings to identify issues and challenges Epcot might address. We called these meetings “Epcot Future Technology Conferences.” The first was titled “Concurrent Forums in Agriculture/Food Production and Energy.” It was held at the Walt Disney World Resort May 15-16, 1976, bringing together 40 “experts” from industry, academia, and government in the fields of energy and agriculture. I created an Epcot Background write-up that became the standard introduction in the printed material for all the conferences we held—six in total. In part, it read as follows:
Walt Disney did not go to Florida just to build another “theme park” or even a destination resort. He had something far more important in mind. Walt was looking far beyond his lifetime … to the creation of what he called “EPCOT – an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.” This is what he said about Epcot in 1966:
“I don’t believe there’s a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities. But where do we begin … how do we start answering this great challenge?
“Well, we’re convinced we must start with the public need. And the need is not just for curing the old ills of old cities. We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land and building a special kind of new community.”
We believe today that the creative insight which led Walt Disney to propose EPCOT is as valid as it ever was, and needed even more …
We then stated the Conference Purpose: “To introduce the EPCOT concept to noted experts … and elicit critical reaction to this concept … To stimulate comment and discussion … between these communities and EPCOT … To establish EPCOT as an ongoing meeting place where creative people of science and industry, from around the world, may gather to discuss specific solutions to specific needs of mankind.”
In all candor, we at Disney were not prepared for the enthusiasm for the Epcot concept we presented. Perhaps it was the popularity of the Walt Disney World Resort with the public, or the backstage tours where we emphasized all the innovative systems already in place. Perhaps it was the attitude and enthusiasm of all the Disney people they encountered, from Cast Members operating an attraction to corporate executives and Imagineering designers. Perhaps it was the legacy of Walt Disney, still the master communicator a decade and more after his passing.
Invariably, we left the Epcot Future Technology Conferences both challenged and exhilarated—and with a folder full of names of attendees who wanted to continue to be involved. Flattering, but how? The idea we came up with turned out to be vital to the development of our Epcot pavilions and, years later, of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park: We established advisory boards in the key subject areas: energy, health, communications, the land and the oceans, and transportation. In several cases, the advisory boards literally changed the direction of our creative development.
Now it was time for the Imagineers to plan, develop ideas, create conceptual illustrations and architectural drawings … and to work with the marketing teams to convince corporate sponsors and countries around the world to participate.
The 21st century was drawing near; the curtain would go up on EPCOT Center on Oct. 1, 1982!
via IAAPA – FUNWORLD Magazine September 2012.
Disney Legend Marty Sklar retired in 2009 after 54 years at Disney, 30 of them as the creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering. You will find more detail about the development of Epcot, and all the Disney parks around the world, in Marty’s new book, slated for release next year by Disney Editions.