On the occasion of the Epcot 35th Anniversary, we come together with our fellow Disney fans to reaffirm Epcot’s status as one of the weirdest theme parks on the planet.
It’s hard to imagine anyone attempting anything like EPCOT Center today — let alone the carefully synergized Walt Disney Company. It was so different. It was the first park to separate itself from the Disneyland formula. And while it borrowed greatly from the World’s Fairs of yesteryear, it was bold and futuristic — a bizarre mash-up of corporate harmony and loony travelogue.
Parkeology visited on October 1, along with several of you. We skipped the long lines for vinyl collectibles and specialty cupcakes and went straight for the one remaining unchanged attraction from EPCOT Center’s Opening Day.
Impressions de France is full of early 80s fashion, pastoral countryside, and a musical score heavy on the pipe organ. It doesn’t jibe with Olaf, Crush, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. With a Ratatouille ride looming on the horizon, its days may be numbered.
When this cultural curiosity disappears, it will join a long line of theme park oddities to have vanished in the decades leading up to the Epcot 35th Anniversary.
Here are 35 of our freaky favorites from the loony bin.
Tone Lōc was a flash-in-the-pan rapper during the 1990s when Disney tapped him to play the role of Fud Wrapper, the hip-hop pre-packaged host of Food Rocks, a family-friendly show about proper diet. Lōc’s biggest hits at the time (and at any other time) were Wild Thing, a euphemism for sex, and Funky Cold Medina, some kind of love-drug. That’s good nutrition.
When EPCOT Center first opened, park-specific characters like Dreamfinder, Figment, and SMRT-1 could be found everywhere on merchandise and greeting areas, but Mickey and the gang were banned in order to differentiate the park from the Magic Kingdom. The bottom line took a huge hit and led to Epcot’s stigmatization as an adults-only venue — which it still battles today.
Skyleidoscope was one of the first lagoon shows for the park, with Journey Into Imagination’s Dreamfinder dropping rainbow smoke-bombs from ultralight planes as “Ma Dragon” and “Pa Dragon” try to stop him. That description alone is pure insanity, even if the actual show did look pretty cool.
At least one Parkeologist grew up dreaming about hot Aztec dancers because of the opening scenes of El Rio del Tiempo, the original Mexico boat ride. Early in the ride, several video panels showcased scenes of dancers in elaborate native costumes. Lost in translation, however, is that the dances are meant to pay tribute to the achievement of ancient Mexican cultures, such as the Mayans’ sophisticated mathematics and astronomy. The only thing weirder would be a duck Mariachi band.
Everyone remembers Dreamfinder and Figment on their flying dirigible. What you may not remember is that the scene takes four minutes — an eternity when ride vehicles are continually dispatched behind you. How did Disney pull this off? By building the same scene 5 times and grouping vehicles on a giant turntable while it played out. It’s a masterpiece of creative engineering — which unfortunately fell by the wayside when the original Journey Into Imagination closed forever. Martin Smith has a fantastic video that shows this in action (9:40 mark).
Today, anyone who wants to see the manatees or talk to Crush can simply stroll right on in. But back when the pavilion purported to transport you to a deep water facility called Sea Base Alpha, such comings and goings would violate the storyline. Instead, the Living Seas made visitors wait in a dark queue, sit through a 10-minute film, board fake underwater elevators called Hydrolators, and finally ride a short Omnimover ride before they could do anything inside the sea base proper. They repeated the fake elevator charade when you wanted to leave.
The original Norway boat ride turned the traditional preshow film on its head, opting instead of a 6-minute post-show travelogue of Norway — and they weren’t about to let you skip it. Upon disembarking your Viking vessel in a quaint Norwegian fishing village, guests were trapped in a small courtyard until the previous movie ended. Then they were herded into the theater and forced to watch it for themselves.
Tom Morrow 2.0 was a bizarre baby Terminator that started on the Disney Channel and became the host of Innoventions for a short while in the 2000s. He moved like a metallic Muppet and popped up in a few different locations in the pavilion over the years. According to Theme Park Connection, he’s for sale for only 28 grand.
World Showcase literally had signs in the expansion pads marking several countries as “Coming Soon.” Maybe it was the final casualty of the end of the Cold War, but for whatever reason, the new countries never materialized. In all the years leading up to the Epcot 35th Anniversary, only Norway and Morocco were added to World Showcase.
It’s bad enough that they ripped out the classic Journey Into Imagination, but its replacement — rebranded as Journey Into YOUR Imagination — actually insulted you. Eric Idle, reprising his role as Dr. Nigel Channing from Honey I Shrunk the Audience, “scanned” your brain at the Imagination Institute and found you utterly lacking in imagination. He then proceeded to take you on a tour of sparse, hastily-conceived show scenes before finally pronouncing you cured. The ride was so bad, it only lasted a couple years before the company re-hired Figment.
When Innoventions replaced Communicore in 1994, one of its first exhibits was a small room called the Walt Disney Imagineering Labs. Guests were treated to a new concept in themed entertainment — a wrap-around visor/helmet on strings like a science fiction marionette. The Imagineering Labs only lasted one year, but its Aladdin virtual reality game became the centerpiece attraction at the high-concept theme park, Disney Quest.
Captain EO was a 3-D movie extravaganza about saving the universe one song at a time starring an adult man who wanted to be Peter Pan. Captain EO replaced the original 3-D movie, Magic Journeys, and ran for almost a decade before giving way to Honey I Shrunk the Audience. When that film’s popularity eventually waned, Captain EO returned for an encore — only months after its mega-weird star passed away due to a drug overdose.
With all the crowds jammed into World Showcase last weekend for the Epcot 35th Anniversary and the Food & Wine Festival, most people couldn’t even walk, let alone pilot a motorized vehicle. But in the park’s early days, a double-decker bus ferried tourists around the 1.2-mile promenade. Later, when the throngs overwhelmed its capacity, the buses became a traveling parade of picturesque Disney characters, virtually none of whom made sense in World Showcase.
The bus eventually disappeared … only for Parkeology to find it decades later!
A live walk-around Dreamfinder and his to-scale pet purple dragon Figment were a common sight in the heady days of Future World, but eventually, the human half of this charming duo fell victim to budget cuts or something. Without a live performer to operate the Figment puppet, the purple dragon was given his own walk-around character, in the form of a 6-foot-tall Kaiju monstrosity.
Test Track replaced the original World of Motion ride in the 1990s, transforming a charming history of transportation into a thrilling race around a GM test facility. As a way of passing the time in line, they recreated a test dummy torture chamber, which included — among other horrors — repeatedly smashing a dummy’s kneecap with a steel sledgehammer.
Imagine an ice cream cone. Now instead of ice cream, imagine roast beef and cheddar. Disney’s one-handed sandwich of the future debuted at The Land pavilion’s Farmer’s Market food court. Sadly, handwiches never really caught on, but Disney keeps trying to bring them back.
In an effort to stimulate a passion for exercise to lazy vacationers, the Wonder Cycles on the main floor of the Wonders of Life combined a stationary bicycle with a video tour of Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom. The faster you pedaled, the faster the video speed. Eat your heart out, Lance Armstrong.
Who better to fill America’s “Ambassador of Friendship” post than a doll of exaggerated proportions? Barbie had her own 20-minute show on the America Gardens Theater stage in the mid-90s, taking her friends on a world tour to several countries before ending at a fashion show in Paris. Surprisingly, it did not become an instant classic.
Michael Flatley, the self-proclaimed “Lord of the Dance,” made waves for a hot minute as the star of an Irish step-dancing spectacle. While Flatley himself was much too big a star for a theme park show performing four times daily in the America Gardens Theater, he wasn’t too big to lend his name to the production. The show lasted 2 months.
The massive Millennium Village debuted as part of the Year 2000 celebration at Epcot. A catch-all for countries too cheap for their own World Showcase pavilion, the hall was home to Sweden’s climb-thru Egg Pods representing the four seasons (which everyone knows are unique to Sweden), while Israel brought in a thrilling ride system that simulated the experience of being mildly jostled while watching a camcorder video of Jerusalem.
Leave a Legacy (which already conjures up images of your last will and testament) was a high-priced program that etched tiny portraits of purchasers onto postage-stamp-sized pieces of bronze, then affixed them to marble slabs like the world’s happiest memorial wall. Sales were discontinued long before they ran out of tombstone space, but you can still find the ghosts that left their legacy at Epcot’s front gate.
The Epcot 35th Anniversary can’t compete with the weirdness of the Grand Opening of EPCOT Center. Disney tapped creepy cuddler Danny Kaye to host, but things really go off the rails when an angry Marie Osmond takes over World Showcase while a cast of giant-headed creatures wearing national costumes parades around her. The big-heads would later function as the world’s most terrifying character greets.
As a way of making EPCOT Computer Central’s intimidating high-tech bank of machinery more accessible, the Astuter Computer Revue leveraged an upbeat song by the Sherman Brothers, sung by a “rooter for the computer.” The song made it onto several incarnations of the park’s soundtrack album. It’s weird.
Ice Station Cool was the precursor to today’s Club Cool in Future World. Guests entered via an actual tunnel of slush. Around the bend, terrified children would stumble across the frozen remains of an early human ancestor, with a Coke bottle just out of reach (2:15 mark).
As part of the Millennium Celebration — a perpetual source of weirdness — World Showcase debuted an evening parade called the Tapestry of Nations. It was a never-ending cavalcade of phantasmagoria: towering metal puppet, billowing banshee creatures, and a succession of ritualistic drummers, all beating in time to the music.
After leaving the dinosaurs in the original Universe of Energy, your cars glided into Theater 2 for an extended
nap film presentation about energy. Along the side of the theater was a glowing bank of screens and digital read-outs called the Energy Information Center. Here, several shadowy figures could be seen doing sciencey things. Were they real people? Animatronics? Ghosts of Energy past? The world may never know.
At the end of Horizons, your narrators asked you to vote on which ending you would get. Everyone chooses. Majority rules. Putting a passive rider in control of a moving theme park attraction was such a ground-breaking and bizarre idea at the time. Who cares if it just determined which video to play?
Eventually, they just replaced it with a ride that makes you sick.
EPCOT Center began life as an acronym, but apparently somebody thought that was too weird, so in 1994, they changed it to just a non-sensical word with a year: Epcot ’94. Epcot ’95 followed before they finally realized this pattern was untenable. As we reach the Epcot 35th Anniversary, the park is now known simply as Epcot.
Today’s Disney call centers took an evolutionary leap backward when they replaced the WorldKey Information system. WorldKey terminals provided a live video link to a customer service rep who could hook you up with dining reservations, transportation options, and black market Figment collectibles. Terminals were located all over the park, but one by one they vanished.
What’s more awkward than a Cast Member in hideous powder-blue polyester overalls? That same Cast Member silently riding the Listen to the Land boat ride with you. They would sit stonily in their seat for half the ride until you finally reached the greenhouse. Then they would take up their microphone and give you the spiel. Thankfully, it’s all recorded today.
Walt Disney himself laid out the plans for an Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow in a top-secret film specifically created for Florida lawmakers. Unfortunately, Walt died just 2 months later and the movie remained hidden for decades. Some of the ideas survive as part of Disney World itself, but the original City of the Future was never built.
Epcot was the first park to take the sensory experience up your nose. Affectionately dubbed Smellitzer, the device was used in several attractions to provide scents and odors appropriate to the scene. The smell of the Horizons orange groves exists only in our memories, but Rome still burns to this day.
No, we don’t mean that nutty Aracuan Bird that you can find in Mexico. Former Three Amigo (and greatest living theme park celebrity) Martin Short hosts The Making of Me, a film presentation about the human reproductive process in the Wonders of Life. An animated encounter between a cartoon egg and a zany sperm highlights the strangest theme park attraction ever.
In a desperate attempt to shed Epcot’s “adult” image, some poor executive greenlit a circus in Future World. Tightropes over the Figment ride. A Wheel of Death by The Land. Elephants pooping in Communicore. The Daredevil Circus Spectacular had it all.
The greatest architectural marvel in the entire Disney pantheon. And they stuck a cartoon wand on it.