Editor’s note: In honor of the 30th anniversary of Epcot at Walt Disney World in Orlando, this is Part II of a three-part series on how the park came to be and the impact it has made on theindustry at large.
In my first entry of this two-part story about the creation of Epcot at Walt Disney World, I identified four principal segments in its development: (1) Deciding what to do. (2) Creating the concept and convincing Disney management to fund it. (3) Selling it to corporate and international sponsors, and (4) Building it.
In this second article, I’ll provide some of the background about selling the project to sponsors, and some of the challenges of creating the Epcot Center that opened 30 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1982.
Although the size, scope, and scale differed from the Epcot Community Walt Disney originally envisioned, Walt’s belief that “… a project like this is so vast in scope that no one company alone …” can accomplish it—that it would take the support of many talents, organizations, corporations, and nations to make it a reality—was just as true about Epcot the Disney Park. Once the opening day concept and scope had been approved and funded by Disney’s board of directors, the Imagineers and our Disney Park partners began an enormous, around-the-world effort to obtain the support and participation needed from companies and countries.
We knew there would be questions about the influence of sponsors on pavilion subjects like energy and food; nevertheless, we conceived our primary role at Imagineering as storytellers—communicators of accurate information in ways that made the subjects interesting, informative, and of course, fun whenever possible.
Obviously, we recognized that we were in competition for peoples’ time with the Magic Kingdom Park, golf, lounging by the pools, and all the other amenities of a Walt Disney World vacation. Many times during the development of our stories for Epcot’s attractions, ride-throughs, theater shows, films, and “hands-on” experiences I told the Imagineers we were creating “turn ons.” We knew it was impossible to tell a complete picture in 20 or 30 minutes about energy or transportation … or China and the American experience. Beyond the entertainment, we wanted our Epcot guests to come away wanting to know more about each subject, about each country. We wanted them “turned on” to the key subjects of the world they live in.
A major challenge, of course, was the credibility of what we presented. Bluntly, our guests had to know that our energy story was a balanced view, and not just Exxon’s … that although GE “brings good things to life,” they are not alone in that quest.
The Advisory Boards we established accomplished those objectives. Composed of recognized authorities from industry, academia, government, and the sciences, they played a key role in pointing us to where the leading-edge work was being done, and the talented men and women of science, industry, and the university world who were doing it. And they told us when we were on the wrong track; on several occasions, including a film for The Living Seas pavilion, they caused us to throw out several months’ work when new discoveries changed knowledge of what could live at the ocean’s deepest depths. We started over to make our story accurate and “leading edge.”
This idea of an Advisory Board later became one of the most important creations enabling Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Roy E. Disney took a personal interest in the Advisory Board we formed; it became a key to our knowledge of how to work in this complex realm of live animals. Their support was essential to gaining the trust and involvement of the American Zoological Association, the nonprofit organization that accredits zoos and aquariums and maintains rigorous standards for animal care and welfare.
Perhaps two communications we received when Epcot Center opened on Oct. 1, 1982, said it all. One, from CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, recognized Walt Disney’s hand in the project. “This universality of Disney,” Cronkite wrote, “carries on after his death, and continues in projects he had put on the drawing board before he died … It perpetuates that theme of his that we are indeed one people.”
The second message came from the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. In part he wrote the following: “There is far more here than thrills and delights of amusement, for Epcot is truly a doorway to the Twenty-First Century and destined to become an integral part of the American experience.”
Those of us who spent those eight years from the day in 1974 when Disney CEO E. Cardon Walker called me with the challenge: “What are we going to do about Epcot?” may still wonder how we accomplished our goal. As the construction management firm’s CEO, John Tishman of Tishman Construction, wrote in comparing it to another Tishman project: Epcot “ … was actually a larger construction project than the (New York) World Trade Center had been in terms of the amount of area covered, the number of buildings—each one distinct—and the complexity of all the elements …” Responding to a question in 1981 from Card Walker about the project’s schedule, Mr. Tishman said this: “Oct. 1 has never been the problem. 1982 is the problem!”
Yet 30 years ago this October, Card Walker’s words were unveiled on Epcot’s Dedication Plaque. Its final sentence shares all of our hopes and dreams for the project:
“May Epcot Center entertain, inform and inspire and above all, may it instill a sense of belief and pride in man’s ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.”
Disney Legend Marty Sklar retired in 2009 after 54 years at Disney, 30 of them as the creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering. You will find more detail about the development of Epcot, and all the Disney parks around the world, in Marty’s new book, slated for release next year by Disney Editions.