Return to Opening Day: EPCOT Center 1982

Here we are, 32 years removed from the start of the 21st century. And that’s not just a failing of the public school system. That’s EPCOT Center. It’s recorded in the history books. The 21st century began on October 1, 1982.

We shall now read from the book of First Spaceshipearthians, Chapter 19, verse 82

We shall now read from the book of First Spaceshipearthians, Chapter 19, verse 82

What kind of sell must this have been to an entertainment company? A theme park with rides based on (mostly American) commercial enterprises, and a United Nations lagoon. It’s as far from Disneyland in theme as you can possibly get. Audio Animatronic shows about good nutrition. A giant travelling theater through the wonders of fossil fuels. Travelogue movies to China.

It is almost unbelievable that such a thing could have been considered, let alone built, let alone built at this scale. Yet there it stands, a testament to just how locked in to Walt the company still was even a decade after his death. He conducted this symphony from the grave. They built his EPCOT, even if they didn’t understand it.

EPCOT stands out not just because it was so different, but because in spite of everything working against it, it turned out to be so amazingly awesome. It’s lost a lot of its bizarre forward-thinking optimism over the years, which has been gradually replaced by more traditional theme park experiences. The outer shells — the show buildings and pavilions, layouts and lagoons — are mostly identical to the structures seen on opening day, but the attractions inside are quite different. As we continue this journey into the past, let’s take a look at the opening day attractions:

  • Spaceship Earth
  • Listen to the Land
  • Symbiosis
  • Kitchen Kabaret
  • Universe of Energy
  • World of Motion
  • Magic Journeys
  • El Rio del Tiempo
  • O Canada
  • American Adventure
  • Wonders of China
  • Impressions de France
  • And a whole bunch of smaller exhibits in Communicore and in various postshows and countries

So here’s something interesting. Our beloved Figment ride is not on the list. Journey Into Imagination didn’t open until a few months later (1983). Even long-lost rides like Horizons and Living Seas were a few years off. So how much of original EPCOT remains?

At first glance, it might look like a surprising amount. A lot of those attractions sound familiar even today. But just how close are today’s versions compared to the 1982 originals?

Let’s get the easy stuff out the way. Communicore (now Innoventions) contains not a single shred of similarity. Instead of the Astuter Computer Revue and the Energy Exchange, we have the Great Piggy Bank Adventure and Sum of All Thrills. Even the requisite gift shop has changed names. Centorium, with its beloved second floor (did you remember that?) is history, replaced by MouseGear.

That's funny. I don't see a single fire truck or playstation.

That’s funny. I don’t see a single fire truck or playstation.

Magic Journeys was evicted from the 3-D theater in the late 80s, replaced by Captain EO — coincidentally still running today, despite a decade or so hiatus. Magic Journeys did briefly move to Magic Kingdom, where it ran in the theater that now houses Philharmagic, but it’s been gone for dozens of years now.

World of Motion of course is bye-bye. Test Track replaced it in the late 90s and the entire showbuilding was gutted.

Ahhh, much better.

Ahhh, much better.

Kitchen Kabaret lasted until the mid-90s, when it was replaced by Food Rocks, and then later by Soarin’.

Symbiosis was the movie that used to play in the Land Pavilion, but Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable evicted it at the height of Lion King’s popularity. And speaking of movies, O Canada retained its title, but the original film is virtually gone, replaced by Martin Short’s version (a few of the original CircleVision clips do still pop-up in the current version). Likewise, Wonders of China became Reflections of China. The film is mostly new footage, but retains the same narrative structure, being hosted by a long-dead Chinese poet.

Universe of Energy is nothing like its former self. Aside from the part everyone remembers (dinosaurs!) it’s a completely different show called Ellen’s Energy Adventure. The dinos really make up a small part of the total running time for the attraction.

Dinosaur aficionados will note the appearance of an Allosaurus.

Dinosaur aficionados will note the appearance of an Allosaurus.

Now things start to get a little more interesting…

Take Spaceship Earth, for example. Many of the original show scenes are surprisingly intact. AA figures may have been replaced over the years, but the ascent to the starfield is virtually identical to opening day. What has been lost, of course, is the original narration and score. Vic Perrin is history, and with Judy Dench we are now on our fourth incarnation. And for better or worse (okay, worse), the descent has become a completely empty tunnel, except for some bad flash animation and a few faint blue triangles.

The same sort of treatment also befell the original Mexico boat ride. Today’s Gran Fiesta Tour has scenes and sets that are virtually identical to opening day’s El Rio del Tiempo. But the Three Caballeros substantially altered the music and all film-based portions of the ride, which change the flavor of a classic dish to something a little more slick and over-polished.

And Listen to the Land (now Living with the Land) got the exact same treatment. If you rode the ride in 1982, everything might look the same, except for some changing plants in the greenhouse, but none of it would sound the same. Your onboard Cast Member guide has been vanquished in favor of a recorded spiel. And the bouncy theme song has long disappeared.

The Land Montage

But if you really want to experience EPCOT Center attractions as they appeared on Opening Day, your best bet is to leave Future World and head into World Showcase.

At the American Adventure pavilion, the world’s greatest animatronic show is still running strong, and looks and sounds almost identical to opening day. The montage movie during the Golden Dreams sequence may have been updated over the years, but otherwise the show hits all the same notes, from Ben and Mark’s awkward banter to Famed Naturalist John Muir’s awesome vest.

And if those minor montage additions bug you, the absolute purist sampling of original EPCOT can be had in France, where Impressions de France continues to be shown in all it’s 1980s bikini grandeur. Kevin Yee recently posted a photo tour of this classic film (and provided the inspiration for this series). The France movie has always been my favorite World Showcase film (maybe because you get to sit down, maybe because of my favorite sheep). It was particularly understated, letting the music and the visuals speak in place of a narration (for the most part). It didn’t follow Canada’s and China’s lead with a host narrator, and that one shot of all the pastries must be the most drool-inducing visual at Walt Disney World.

When you think about all the great EPCOT attractions we have lost over the years, it’s nice that we still have two (often under-appreciated) original attractions so very close to their 1982 appearance. 32 years and still going strong at the American Adventure and France pavilions!

Which leads us to the last stop on our time travel journey. The Walt Disney World original. A 1971 masterpiece. Of all our parks, the Magic Kingdom had the biggest list of attractions on opening day. Are any of them left?


The World’s First Traffic Jam

In the classic EPCOT Center attraction, the World of Motion, they based an entire show scene around the idea of the World’s First Traffic Jam, complete with animatronic chickens.

But Disney World’s First (and Worst) Traffic Jam happens every night at the Magic Kingdom. I don’t spend a lot of time musing about the future here (too many old haunts to visit), but I do find it interesting that Disney has finally turned its eye towards the colossal log jam that develops seemingly every single night at the Magic Kingdom. It’s like they’ve suddenly come awake to the problem, after 40 years.

As a local, I will tell you that Magic Kingdom is by far the most involved park to visit — and you know why. The parking lot is a mile away from the park itself. Going to the Magic Kingdom requires an investment in time just to get through the gate. And if you want to go home after the fireworks (i.e. when everyone else wants to go home), it requires even greater stamina.

It’s well known that Walt want the park situated as far from the everyday as possible. The monorail and the ferryboats represent a decompression chamber. As you sail over the Seven Seas Lagoon or glide in through the Contemporary atrium, the real world melts away, replaced by a fantasy land of make believe. It’s all well and good until the kids are tired, your feet are shot, and sixty thousand strong are streaming towards the monorail station.

It seems like in the span of a few months, they have embarked on major efforts to fix this.

First we have the Main Street Back Alley coming to life over behind the Plaza Restaurant. They’ve always used this backstage area as an alternate route through Main Street during heavy crowds, but now they have plans to theme it, which I am all for. It’s interesting to think of Main Street gaining another corridor, and it should be fun to see what they come up with. Anyone who has ever been stuck on Main Street during Wishes will welcome this new path.

Not only that, but the entire Hub is being expanded — hence the recent draining of the moat. I’ve heard grumblings about the loss of green spaces, but I really think Disney has absolutely no choice in this. Either cancel the fireworks, or create a bigger viewing area. Pick your poison. All it’s going to take is for some nutjob to shout “bomb!” during the nightly performance, and there will be a mass panic with lots of injuries due to the body-to-body crowds. And on peak nights (Fourth of July, New Years), you literally cannot move. It’s horrible.

Those efforts help with traffic inside the Magic Kingdom, but they’re doing things outside as well. When I arrived at the TTC earlier this week, Wishes was just about to kick off — meaning the Monorail system was about to get put under heavy load. They actually routed those of us coming into the park onto the Resort Line. It was frustrating for me, because now I had to wait for it to stop at Poly and Grand Floridian on my way in, but I’m sure the reason was to allow faster turnaround of the Express Monorail.

And finally, there is a new Ferryboat dock under construction, both at MK and at the TTC.

The new dock, still under construction at Magic Kingdom. The ferry in the distance is docking at the original dock.

The new dock, still under construction at Magic Kingdom. The ferry in the distance is docking at the original dock.

Ferries are really their best way to add capacity. You can’t add another monorail track without a lot of expense, but you could conceivably add more ferries without much more cost than just the boat itself.

It did get me to thinking about other ways in which to solve some of their problems. I don’t have much of an answer for the monorail/ferry overload. For years I’ve wished for a bridge and sidewalk over that small canal at the end of the Walkway Around the World (the one which houses the Electrical Water Pageant during the day). This would allow me to walk to the Grand Floridian, and from there continue on to the Polynesian and the TTC. It’s a ridiculously long walk, I know, but on the bad nights I wish I had the option. I hate waiting in interminable lines.

For the Fireworks problem, I’d like to see them expand the show a bit. They’ve made the Castle the centerpoint for years, but why can’t they have multiple unique viewing spots? Some fireworks that are centered around Space Mountain or Big Thunder or the Riverboat? That would disperse crowds throughout the performance, freeing up some of the logjam on Main Street. When I was at Disneyland a couple years ago, the Christmas fireworks had fake snow, with several snow points at different spots in the park. We ended up at Small World, and it was much more relaxing and the fireworks were just as good.

Anybody else have some ideas for how to improve the bottlenecks? Maybe we need a third transportation mechanism at the Seven Seas Lagoon. Ziplines over the water? An underwater tunnel? End-of-the-day Monorail FastPass? Maybe we can crowdsource a solution to make life easier. With all the changes happening to Magic Kingdom these days, a better exit strategy would be among the most welcome.


The Thing Behind Door 24

It cannot be real. I won’t let it. Yet somehow the desperate, still-sane part of my mind will not let me forget the truly unsettling site I witnessed at the Magic Kingdom on the evening of March 24.¬†As I write this, I am still quite shaken. I don’t know what will come of this nightmare. But there is a dark presence at work in Walt Disney World. And it is clutching at us all.

It happened on an innocent trip to Liberty Square. Wishes had just ended. A light rain was sending even the dedicated spring break crowd streaming for the exit. A perfect time for me to circle through the pleasantly empty sidewalks of the Magic Kingdom.

I crossed over the bridge from the Hub, studied the empty moat for a few moments before moving on. I was hungry, and checked out the menu for Sleepy Hollow. I decided with the chill from the rain that an ice cream sandwich did not sound appetizing.

I continued on past Hall of Presidents. No more shows for the evening. I rounded the corner, into that little outdoor sitting area between the Presidents and Columbia Harbor House. And then I saw it.

No other people were around in this little corner of the park — though they were certainly on the main walkway between Liberty Square and Fantasyland. Something flashed in the corner of my eye, startled me, made me turn around.

The Western face of Hall of Presidents is rather unremarkable. Colonial brick, a few faux doors, and the Paul Revere window on the second floor. Here’s how it looked the night of my passing:

Door 24

But there is something insidious behind Door 24. A strange force that delights in the creepiness of the ordinary. Allow me to brighten the above picture for you just a bit.

Door 24 Brightened

Do you see it? That thing lurking behind the window? It’s a ghostly presence, I tell you. The vestiges of some spirit creature roaming the halls of Liberty Square. What is this demon spawn? I moved in as close as I dared and turned on the flash. Behold!

Come inside and play.

Come inside and play.

Is that not the creepiest doll you have seen outside of Gran Fiesta Tour? What is that thing doing in the window, grinning its knowing smile, its pinpoint eyes searching the streets for easy prey? It’s got an odd wooden head, painted hair, a black backdrop. It’s a warning, I tell you. We have disturbed something primeval in our travels, and now it beckons our souls to come inside Door 24, where it can show us what darkness truly looks like. Perhaps it is the same evil spawn that drove the Carousel family to madness, or etched its permanent horror on the windows of New York Street, or devoured small children whole at Test Track.

Do not set foot in Liberty Square after dark. You are not safe. None of us are.