Defining Epcot

Editor’s note: In 1974, as the creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering, Marty Sklar and his design partner, Disney Legend John Hench, were given the assignment of turning Walt Disney’s concept for a community into a one-of-a-kind Disney park. Eight years later, Epcot Center opened its gates on Oct. 1, 1982. This is the third installment of a three-part series honoring the revolutionary park’s 30th anniversary.

More than 300 million people have visited Epcot in the 30 years since its opening. In two previous issues of Funworld, I provided an insider’s background of its development, from Walt Disney’s original concept to the day President Ronald Reagan called Epcot “truly a doorway to the Twenty-First Century.”

For this third and final installment, I sought out leaders of our attractions industry and asked them to comment on Epcot’s impact. Their replies are so compelling—and often so personal—that I decided not to write the story in my words, but instead to let their statements speak for themselves. When you read their comments, I think it will be obvious why I chose this approach.

Because of his unique perspective from the earliest days of the project, as Disney’s vice president of strategic planning (and a career that saw him become vice president of international business development for Vivendi-Universal Entertainment), Frank Stanek’s thoughtful communication is an important place to start:

“Epcot was the embodiment of a significant force of creativity that became focused on a better lifestyle, concern for the environment, and hopes for the future. Its physical presence created a vehicle by which these ideas and concepts could be communicated to a broad audience in an entertaining and educational way. It was a repository of some of the best thinking among academia, industry, and futurists of the day.

“Supported by television shows and educational materials these thoughts were extrapolated and disseminated around the world. As visitors attended the various pavilions over the years they have become exposed to a variety of subjects and ideas that are not necessarily part of their daily lives and thus have become ‘educated’.”

For others, Epcot has been a place not only of fun and entertainment, but a world to study and learn from—even to begin a career. Here are thoughts about Epcot’s accomplishments and impact from some of our industry’s leaders.

Chip Cleary, President/CEO, IAAPA: “I grew up watching Walt Disney on television and sat there transfixed as he revealed each new attraction. I remember when the original vision drawing of Epcot was displayed and wondered to myself how would the magicians at Disney do that? When I got a chance to visit Epcot, my mind was still filled with early visions of the project that I had seen. Upon entering I immediately sensed that something different and amazing was going on. The immense scale and scope of the project and its master-planned layout really caught my attention. Having visited the 1964 World’s Fair in New York as a teenager, I felt some influences there, but this was so much more. To this day I think Epcot continues to have an effect on master planning around the world. It is an amazing use of land, lake, and architecture that sets the tone to help tell the wonderful stories that the individual attractions contain. It is still impressive today.”

Bob Rippy, President, Jungle Rapids: “I visited Epcot the first year it opened, and I remember being so impressed with the park quality and how the future was so well presented that it seemed surreal. I really enjoyed the international part of the park, inspiring me to one day visit all the countries that were showcased. I can say having visited parks around the world that no one has surpassed what opened 30 years ago in Orlando.”

Kurt Haunfelner, Vice President of Exhibits & Collections, Chicago Museum of Science and Industry: “In 1982, I was a young and impressionable Imagineer. I remember feeling swept up in an enterprise far bigger than anything I could imagine—audacious in scope, massive in scale, driven by the extraordinary vision of one of the century’s most uniquely creative minds. I vividly recall the sense of common purpose and high expectation that permeated our work. It seemed to me at the time that the roughly 2,900 Imagineers committed to this task were engaged in our own ‘moon landing’ of sorts—one of those once- or twice-in-a-lifetime endeavors that engages the heart, mind, and soul.

“Looking back, the risk seems inordinately large. In our risk-averse culture of today, and much like Apollo, it’s arguable whether we’d have the audacity to do it. And, that is the point—it’s what Epcot Center means to me to this day—that with great risk comes great reward; that nothing in life worth doing is easy; and that, as Walt Disney believed and lived to his core, it is when we aspire to do great things, things that call on the best of our creativity and belief in a better world that we are truly human. I often wonder if we still believe that today?”

Monte Lundy, President, ¬≠Technifex; Founder, TEA: “The building of Epcot had a major influence on me because my first professional job was joining the Walt Disney Imagineering team as a member (albeit a lowly one) of the special effects department during the creation of the park. Talk about a dream job! Being a small part of such an incredible assemblage of visionary and intellectual talent was truly an amazing experience for me. Even after the passage of 30 years, I still marvel at the varied and innovative talent that was recruited from around the world to create Epcot. After working on Epcot, many went on to start their own companies and continue to influence what is now referred to as the ‘Experience Economy.’ Epcot has matured over the decades and proven that not every successful theme park must have a castle and fairytale themes. Epcot was and still is innovative, educational, and relevant but, most important, fun! Truly a one-of a kind!”

Craig Hanna, Chief Creative Officer, Thinkwell: “When Epcot opened, I was a young college student trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I loved the Disney parks and scraped the money together to visit Epcot during the first month of operation. What I found was an innovative, ambitious, and epic series of attractions utilizing a bedazzling mélange of technologies and storytelling devices. I left completely amped up and inspired, absolutely certain that developing parks and attractions of grand proportion was to be my future—all because of Epcot.”

Rick Rothschild, President, TEA: “Certainly having the opportunity to start as a brand-new Imagineer in 1978 working on Epcot provided a pivotal (let’s just say THE pivotal) moment in my young themed-entertainment career. Epcot was also a seminal event in our industry, as it illustrated just how powerful storytelling in a themed entertainment environment could engage an audience with subject matter well beyond the realm of pure fantasy. It launched a dialogue and long-term effect that rippled through not just the theme park industry, but flowed well into the academic exhibit and museum community, ultimately stretching the boundaries for delivering meaningful and engaging storytelling. The themed entertainment industry today owes its ever expanding breadth much to the catalyst that the concept and realization of Epcot provided. For me, the ‘gift’ of being part of the team that created Epcot 30 years ago continues to inform and enrich my career each and every day, as I continually seek to make the real fantastic and the fantastic real.”

Jack Lindquist, Disney Park Marketing Head and First President of Disneyland: “To me, one of the most significant things about the concept was the name itself … It wasn’t Disney that pushed the name or the concept; it was the media and the public that kept clamoring for it. At the opening of Walt Disney World and every press event that followed, some reporter would ask, ‘When are you going to build Epcot?’ It just wouldn’t go away. The film was intriguing, compelling, and envisioned a bold new concept, but it was the name that was the WOW. For millions, just like us at Disney, we weren’t quite sure what an Epcot was, but we knew we had to build one.”

Bob Ward, Strategic Insights & Creative Imagination: “The chief executive of Universal Studios Tour in Hollywood, Jay Stein, had been lobbying Universal Chairman Lew Wasserman to consider building a studio tour in Florida ever since Walt Disney World opened in the early 1970s. But Universal was not in the theme park business (then) and doubts persisted about the viability of central Florida. Ever persistent, when Epcot began construction he finally had the leverage needed to gain limited approval to ‘just explore the possibilities’ without any commitments. Jay brought Barry Upson onboard to lead the effort, and I was hired as director of design and planning. None of us had ever developed a theme park from scratch, but like-minded passion can be an incredible force of nature. Epcot had provided the extra kindling Jay needed to gain ignition, and the rest is now history.”

Phil Hettema, President, The Hettema Group: “Epcot was a seminal factor in the establishment of an ‘experiential design industry’ that had previously only been available within the confines of Disney. The generation of professional talent that developed during the Epcot project has now become the senior tier of the industry. The specialty design and fabrication industry that grew out of the project has now spread worldwide and has not only resulted in ambitious theme park projects around the planet, but also impacted museums, cultural centers, location-based entertainment sites, retail, and dining projects.

“On top of all the other innovation, and perhaps most significant, Epcot was the pioneer ‘second gate’ experience. Although the notion of a second gate is now often a well understood and even expected part of the master planning of large-scale projects, at the time it was an arguably outrageous notion that risked cannibalizing the ‘golden goose’ Magic Kingdom. The result, of course, was that the sum was greater than the parts, and Epcot was the linchpin idea behind the expansion of multiday destination resorts that now are found around the world.

“As a designer working outside of Disney, I’ve also always looked at Epcot as an incredibly valuable ‘test bed’ for inspiration, evaluation, contrast, and comparison. There’s hardly an idea you can come up with that doesn’t have some corollary somewhere within the Epcot project. Sometimes it’s a comparison of scale or capacity, or a display technique … occasionally saying, ‘That didn’t quite work as well as it could. Why is that?’ Carefully studying and absorbing the details of Epcot is the equivalent of a master’s degree in experiential design.”

Bob Rogers, Chairman, BRC Imagination Arts: “Prior to the creation of Epcot, Imagineering was opening one or two attractions per year, some of which were adaptations of things done previously. Then, suddenly WDI needed to jump to light speed, creating an entire theme park filled with all-new attractions unlike anything anyone had ever done. No castle in the center! Nothing recycled! WDI, led by Marty Sklar, John Hench, and others, had to recruit a lot of newcomers and entrust them with pioneering this new kind of theme park. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and was taken in. I was young, inexperienced, and unproven, so Marty and John had absolutely no evidence to suggest I was capable of the assignments they gave me. In fact, I failed my first several assignments.

“But Marty coached me and gave me another shot. I wasn’t the only one. For many of the talented professionals who today lead our industry, Epcot was the most important wave advancing their early careers. Epcot launched my company; many others experienced a sudden promotion to high responsibility at an early age but met the challenges. When we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Epcot, many of us are celebrating the launch of our careers or the birth of the small, independent company that now pays us to do the thing we love. So, happy birthday, Epcot, and thank you.”

Yves Pepin, Creative Producer & Director, Founder of ECA2: “I visited Epcot several times in the 1980s; I even shot a commercial there for Air France. I have never been bored to come back again and again. For the French guy I was, not so ‘Mickey-oriented,’ Epcot propelled forward the concept of ‘theme park’ in a real modernity and a kind of nobility. Visiting Epcot in the ’80s was conveying the excitement, on the most appealing mode, of participating in the world of our times. Epcot was, for the old Europe visitor I was, like a permanent World Expo tour, opening on global curiosity and future promises (and the food from the different countries was so interesting to experience!). A new ‘Epcot’ for the new century is still to be created, inventing a new type of master plan, new format of attractions, new relationship with the visitors, and a new way of considering the world.”

Frank Stanek, President, Stanek Global Advisors: “‘Edutainment’ is a word often heard these days that purports to be the marriage of entertainment and education. I don’t know of any entity that best typifies this word as Epcot, which has been ‘edutaining’ visitors long before the word was invented. In that sense Epcot was a step ahead and a step above what we consider to be ‘theme parks.’ It reached a zenith of family attractions that went beyond the themed attraction concept. The French were so enamored with the concept that they demanded that it be re-created at the Disneyland Paris site during our initial negotiations and only grudgingly accepted the Magic Kingdom with the idea Epcot might follow. While not the ‘living community’ that was envisioned in the 1960s, where homes and industry would be showcases for visitors to enter and ‘touch and feel,’ Epcot has become a ‘living community’ of ideas and concepts focused on a better world, a better environment, and a glimpse of future potential. This is why it will still be relevant for years to come; as Epcot is a place focused on ideas, hopes, and imagination and will continue to allow visitors to experience and interact with the ‘dreams of the future’.” 

Disney Legend and IAAPA Hall of Famer Marty Sklar retired in 2009 after 54 years at Disney, 30 of them as the creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering. Marty’s tell-all book, “Dream It! Do It! My Half-century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms,” will be published by Disney Editions in July 2013.