World of Motion’s Grand Staircase

In 1982, every Future World pavilion was a like a Kardashian: Simple in mind, and possessing its own bold, unique shape. Every design was a carefully considered echo of its pavilion theme. Shells for the Living Seas. The Wheel for World of Motion. Male Pattern Baldness for Wonders of Life.

Then, around 1994, Innoventions arrived and plunged Epcot into the Dark Ages. Beautiful, iconic shapes were just not hip and edgy enough, and these stunning pieces of architecture were either shuttered (Wonders of Life), demolished (Horizons), or made to wear the millennium equivalent of Aunt Clara’s pink bunny costume from A Christmas Story (Spaceship Earth).

World of Motion was not immune to the changes. Test Track ushered in “Epcot’s first thrill ride!” and with it came drastic changes to the pristine wheel-shaped structure. A high-speed loop encircled the building like a strand of barb wire. An ugly tent monster sprung up over the entrance, where a kinetic bank of FastPass machines and Single-Rider  marquees welcomed guests into a hammering queue area, complete with sadistic Crash Dummy torture, squealing tire sounds, and an automatic seat cushion squasher that simulates the squirming pressure of a million butt cheeks.

Simple and elegant it was not.

Timeless beauty.

In a way, World of Motion was already a dichotomy when it first opened in 1982. While the outside was all gleaming lines, the ride itself was perhaps one of the silliest in all of Epcot. It had jokes about Used Chariot Lots, cyclists falling into mudpits, and wild-eyed sea serpents. It was zanier than anything not starring a singing milk carton. When the pavilion featuring the giggly purple dragon has loftier artistic visions than yours, it’s safe to say your head could be on the chopping block once management decides they really need a thrill ride.

So help me, I loved that ride. Not the least of which is because of the stately beginning. Before you got to those light-up footprints circling over your head. Before you came upon those first sorry cave men, blowing on their reddened feet, you had to climb World of Motion’s grand staircase.

The zen of theme park design.

Remember that scene in Titanic, when Bill Paxton maneuvers a submersible camera over a barnacled staircase of a sunken dining room? (I think it was after the spitting sequence but before the nude scene). Even in the depths of the ocean, the ship’s majesty shone through. World of Motion’s staircase was like that. A gorgeous spindle in the center of a sparse atrium. Omnimovers departed the load zone and rose like a luxurious PanAm airliner into the sky above our heads, making a leisurely turn around a gleaming column before entering into the story of transportation. And then hilarity ensued.

Here’s a picture of World of Motion under construction (lots of thanks to Disney World Secrets on flickr for the use of the photo):

The building is already framed, the roof is going up, and one section of the pie is missing, like the elusive Sports wedge in Trivial Pursuit. That is the entrance atrium. Note the white circular slab. It’s just a footprint, but it will soon hold that pivotal column, upon which will wrap the bannister of a slow-moving dark ride through time and comedy.

Let us go back even further, to a construction picture graciously provided by Imagineering Disney. Universe of Energy and Spaceship Earth are well on their way, but nothing yet exists of World of Motion, except for that same simple white concrete disk. It is a stake driven into the wilderness. Greatness will rise here.

One of the time-honored melancholy pursuits of a parkeologist is seeking out those lost ruins of history. For all the thrills that come with the opening of a new attraction, there is a sadness in the heart as beloved pieces of the past are taken away from us. Who among us has not gazed out on the docks of the old Swan Boats, or tracked the demolition of a Skyway station, or peeked round the walls of an abandoned water park, and not felt a pang of loss?

Before Test Track went down for refurbishment earlier this year, I decided on a whim to see if anything might remain of the grand staircase. I did this on impulse, a day or so before it closed, having never had the thought before. I went in cold. Which was to say, I did not take the time to familiarize myself with any pictures of World of Motion’s glorious past. Surely some architectural feature remained. The column had to provide some sort of structural integrity to the building. Would I find it there, maybe with a few obnoxious load-and-stress tests strapped to the side of it and some mindless robot endlessly hammering a crash dummy in the head?

Alas, it was not to be. The once-sleek atrium of the early 80s has been somewhat enclosed and expanded, with a ceiling full of common air ducts and show-lighting. The floor is bare concrete, with a metal-railing queue twisting through piles of automotive junk and haphazard displays.

Test Track’s version of the Grand Staircase, buried behind frosted glass on the left.

Test Track does have an entrance stairway of its own, when the cars are first entering the ride (where they do the seatbelt check). At first I thought this might be it, but I quickly realized that it was set much too far back to have been part of the Grand Staircase. A quick look at some blue prints, as shown by enfilm, depict the respective World of Motion and Test Track layouts. The staircase in the World of Motion drawing is in the northwest quadrant. In the Test Track drawing, there is nothing there.

World of Motion

Test Track

I wish I had refreshed my memory before going in. How could something so central to the original pavilion — so critical that they laid its foundation first, before even putting up the walls — disappear so completely? One minute there was a tower to the gods. The next minute, only a paved wheelchair-friendly surface and a driving technobeat.

There are many who wait with anticipation for Test Track 2.0 to open this fall. They wait for the next big thing. But I also can’t wait for those walls to come down, and for the doors to be thrown open. I still hold out hope that there is something there, something I missed. A column of bedrock sunk fifty feet into the Floridian soil, or a conspicuous opening in the ceiling, where the staircase once stood. A reminder to the past, even if it’s just a simple grave marker.

Greatness Rose Here.

Comments (9)

  1. Great, great piece. I also often wondered if the Test Track “staircase” was in the same location as the old WOM one, but alas, no. The blueprints are fantastic, though. Until I saw them, I did not realize how close in proximity the old and new staircases actually were!

  2. We mentioned this blog post in the last episode of the WDW Big Q podcast. We discussed what elements of Epcot past we would like to visit and the grand staircase made the cut.

    Really enjoyed this post.

  3. That ascent really was majestic.

  4. World of Motion was one of my favorites. As interesting as being in simulated car crashes is to a person who was in a bad car crash, I think I’ll maintain my tradition of never having ridden TT or TT 2.0. I will forever remember the ride that was there, with the goofy sea serpent and all.

  5. Nicely done. Interesting sidenote about how park attendees are anticipating TT 2.0 (i.e. the “next big thing”). Attractions just aren’t that durable now, and that’s unfortunate. Reading an article on anther site (about a different park), the author noted somewhat disapprovingly that the park hadn’t opened a new attraction since August 2011. Not even a year ago! Today it seems parks need to add something new every year, month, or day or else people see that as lack of effort. And, that pretty much mirrors our “disposable society”. Too many people prefer something new every year even — if it’s junky — over a high-quality and durable attraction. Well, my cardboard soapbox is starting to give way (they don’t build ’em like they used to). Thanks again for the nice article!

    • It’s tough, especially in Orlando, where the competition is intense. I’m excited to see what Universal does with the Jaws area, and what Sea World does with Antarctica. Mainly because I know it’s going to force Disney to keep upping their game. I’m hoping that the days of adding “Cinderellabration” and “Lucky the Dinosaur” as new attractions won’t fly in the face of major rides from their competitors.

  6. Good article, I was not aware of the history of the pavilion and now you also have my interest peaked.

    I was looking at the photos closely and I would speculate that the circle on the ground in the black and white photo is not the base of that staircase. If you look at the helicopter construction shot, you will see that the concrete ring is as wide if not wider than the crane parked next to it. In the ground level shot you can see tire tracks in the mud which would imply the ring is not large enough to be the one in the overhead shot. You will also see the overhead shot clearly shows a center piece as well, with ample space between this center circle and the outer ring, along with a narrow border on the outer ring (in comparison to its diameter). In the ground level shot, it shows a wide border instead.

    I think it is more likely the ground level concrete ring is a part of the sewer/drainage piping which can be seen in the distance. Especially since it has cable hooks sticking out of it for easy placement. Anyway, just my thoughts.

    • Good analysis and it’s entirely possible. I didn’t really mean to claim that it definitively was the base of the staircase. But I think it’s still possible, and maybe even likely. The location still “feels” correct, and it could be the center part of the wider base in the helicopter shot. Though it just as easily could be a storm drain or a monorail pylon base or something. My point wasn’t so much about the pictures, as it was about how awesome that thing was when it existed.

  7. Nice archeological, I mean parkeological research.

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