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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Ooooo…..can’t agree with you about “Listen to the Land,” John. I ranked it at #2 in my ranking of the top 9 Disney park songs of all time.
Future World depresses me more than anything else in WDW. My first visit to EPCOT Center was the day after opening day, and for about a decade, it was the most amazing theme park ever built. While World Showcase is still lovely, Future World is just sad. I’m a passholder and frequent visitor to the parks, but I almost never go to “Epcot” except for the Food and Wine Festival. I miss World of Motion, Horizons, Journey into Imagination, and the original Spaceship Earth SO MUCH.
Having said all that…..
I actually think the current incarnation of Living with the Land is superior to the original. The recorded narration strikes just the right tone, neither pedantic nor fake-enthusiastic. Watch some YouTube videos of the live narration version to remind yourself how variable the quality of the cast members’ spiel delivery was. Also, “Listen to the Land” may have been the worst song ever used in any WDW attraction. “Nature’s plan will shine above”? What the hell does that even mean?
Every time I see Impressions de France, it moves further up my list of favorite EPCOT attractions. Of course, part of the reason is the departure of other top attractions or changes to them (e.g., Spaceship Earth). It still works and doesn’t feel dated (unlike the sad pop culture references in O Canada now), and I’m hoping it will continue to stand for a long time.
O Canada is partially redeemed because they held on to one of the most beautiful EPCOT songs ever. I do feel like Martin Short is trying too hard… but then, Martin Short has ALWAYS tried too hard.
hey Teevtee, God I wish I could visit that original Epcot, it sounds wonderful but alas I was born too late
Get yourself a copy of the EPCOT book I have mentioned a few times in various posts (Most recently “Gotta get back in time”). It gives a decent feel of what it was liek to be there.
When I was younger I used to dream about what it would be like to be at Disneyland in it’s earliest days… but I was born long after it had opened. Now I realize that being able to see that original largely lost EPCOT as a kind may have been even better.
I honestly don’t think there will be or ever could be another place like that original EPCOT because it was as much about the time and where both the company and the country were as it was about the actual park. Now things are very different.
oh yeah, things are VERY different these days, no one has any actual hope for the future anymore…
Love this post! Impressions De France and American Adventure are two of my favorite world showcase attractions. I hope they never change them.
I’m really looking forward to the Magic Kingdom post. And I have to say, I really appreciate the more consistent blog posts now. Keep up the good work! 🙂
Thanks Walter! I’m trying to be more consistent lately. Sometimes life and work get in the way. Glad to have more activity here though, definitely!
Well Shane might be pushing it when he says they built “Walt’s EPCOT” but they tried at least, and certainly built something very different and unexpected (of course it almost bankrupted the company but we can forgive that now).
I walked through the original EPCOT more times than I can recall. I was in love with it. I was there when it opened… I was so excited when the Imagination ride opened after seeing it boarded up for so long (it was intended to be an opening dy attraction but they missed the date). When Horizon’s opened and then the Living Seas it seemed like an unstoppable force that would grow at an amazing pace. I worked at WDW in the mid 80’s and would spend massive amounts of my off time just wandering around what was the most exciting and optomistic place I had ever been….
And then it all stopped.
After a coupel of paviliosn were added to World Showcase things just pretty much ended. They got the Wonder’s of Life Pavilion opened but it never felt quite right (despite the excellent Making of Me show). In fact I think Wonder’s of Life sort of indicates the start of the end of the classic and wonderful EPCOT that is all but gone now. It was the first Eisner era EPCOT show and tried very hard to be hip and current. Half the cast of Saturday Night Live made appearances and Body Wars was directed by Leonared Nemoy for some bizarre reason. I guess they hired Nemoy so they could say they hired a real hollywood actor / director… he did a fine job but it indicates the shift from the original intent of EPCOT into a much more muddied, confusing and disorganzied approach.
Then it all unravelled.
I will forever be in love with EPCOT Center… the original park that lasted for about 8-10 years…. THAT park was really something special and incredible. Of all the parks Disney has ever built EPCOT is the only one that has really gone through such a dramatic shift in focus and intent. DCA was saved and made much better but the feel of the place is at it always was… just better. But EPCOT changed at it’s very core… it’s heart was ripped out and I still miss it to this day.
Oh, and BTW… it’s a T-Rex buddy.
Nimoy is clearly the only choice to direct flight simulator movies, and they are underutilizing his talent for theme park movies in general. Can you imagine the artistry he would have brought to that Mission: Space opener? The visual touches he would have put on the Laugh Floor overhead monitors? That’s some serious untapped potential.
It took us till our fourth trip to actually watch Impressions de France.. and it was wonderful. No narration, no special effects.. just gorgeous photography, scene after scene. You would think it would be boring but honestly I was captivated the entire time. It has a very similar feel for me as Soarin’, obviously without the motion but the same feel of really flying over the countryside.. being there. I wish they had something similar for all of the featured countries.
I agree. France cannot be topped. I visited Epcot dozens of times before finally seeing this movie just within the last three years or so. I didn’t know what I was missing. My wife and I visited France last year and our itinerary was largely influenced by Impressions de France!
Mark, I want to go to that castle (where they stick the camera up in the spires and do the tilt-down shot). It looks so fun to explore. Of course, it’s probably off-limits to tourists.
It is not surprising that Impressions de France gets overlooked so often. It’s the type of attraction that they will never, ever spend the slightest bit of promotion on. It will be listed in the guide map, and that’s where the references stop. But I do encourage you to seek out anything listed as a bonafide attraction and try it at least once. A dozen times is too many to skip over a real attraction!
It is start to finish the best. I recently re-watched Reflections of China, because it had been a few years since I had seen it, and while it has some nice photography, France is not afraid to let the shots linger. And the music is haunting and majestic. Very well done.
Next on my list to re-watch is the Norway post-show film. It’s been a few years since I’ve sat down for that one now. Remember when they used to force you to watch it when you got off the ride?