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Expo 2012: Disney Legends - A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow?

What happens when the future catches up with Epcot?
Let’s ask those who helped create it…

by Jeremy Schoolfield

No one really talks about this anymore, but originally the name for Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park—as envisioned by Walt Disney himself in the 1960s—was an acronym: The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. And when it opened Oct. 1, 1982, it boldly proclaimed its forward-thinking mission, with half the park christened “Future World.”

But what does that original promise mean now as Epcot celebrates its 30th anniversary? When objects and concepts and products we once dreamed about are now a reality … what’s a theme park to do?

“You think back 20 or 30 years, it was a lot easier to talk to people about the future. Now it’s hard to get people to focus down the road 10 or 15 years,” said IAAPA Hall of Famer Marty Sklar during the Expo’s annual “Legends” panel. “I think it’s because things change so rapidly that the future is on us before we get a chance to talk about it. It’s hard to do something in three dimensions and have it remain timely.”

The panel—moderated by BRC Imagination Arts’ Bob Rogers—gathered a group of six men who all worked on the creation of Epcot in one way or another. Over the course of 90 minutes, they shared stories of what it was like to build one of the world’s most popular theme parks, the impact it’s had on them and the industry at large, and more. But the conversation kept circling back to Epcot itself, and what it could and should be in the 21st century.

“What we think about Epcot now is not so much predicting the future, but inspiring generations to move into the future, make it their own, and have an optimistic view of it,” said Eric Jacobson, who oversees all of Walt Disney World’s creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI).

Tony Baxter, vice president of creative development for WDI, said it’s important Epcot maintain its special, unique niche inside the broader Disney Parks & Resorts portfolio: “To me, Epcot is the real world made magical; Magic Kingdom is the magical world made real.”

But if Epcot is moving away from predicting the future, it continues to help shape the future. Its legacy continues to be demonstrated through the thousands of creative minds who helped make it that reality who have since gone on to imagine more amazing environments all around the world. TEA President Rick Rothschild and Technifex President Monty Lunde are two of those people; Rothschild said Epcot showed designers “how to make educational subject matter compelling to people, be based in reality, and impart knowledge. That brought about a huge shift in the museum and academic communities that we’re still feeling today.”

“We started essentially exporting what we learned from Disney,” Lunde said. “There was this exodus from the Epcot heyday, and we created, essentially, a broader industry by making our talents accessible to other entertainment companies.”

But it goes beyond even education and entertainment, Sklar believes. He sees the ever-evolving Epcot as a metaphor for the attractions industry’s collective outlook on our future.

“We can excite people, we can reassure them, we can make the world more interesting and fun for them. If each of us brings the passion we have to creating stories that help the positive potential for things in the future … that has to be communicated to people. If we address it that way, I’m optimistic about the future.”