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EXTINCT: Does the End of this Lost Legend Mean the Final End of EPCOT Center?

The power's been cut, and another EPCOT Center classic has seen its last days.

Our Lost Legends series was developed for just such occasions, and for years now we've been adding unabridged entries to this growing library, chronicling the in-depth histories of forgotten fan favorites. We've toured the streets of London on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, narrowly escaped the bite of JAWS, explored how Disney's cancelled Beastly Kingdom became Universal Orlando's Lost Continent, gotten a taste of EPCOT Center's "dinner" show Kitchen Kabaret, dissected the history of Disneyland Paris' one-of-a-kind Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune, and so many more. (Keep your eyes out for links to Future World's other Lost Legends throughout this feature.)

Today, we sadly induct another classic into our Lost Legends series: perhaps the most epic dark ride Disney ever designed: Universe of Energy. Oversized, educational, and an astounding 45-minutes, this gargantuan journey into the past was a star of Future World and an icon of EPCOT Center's early years. Today, we'll dive into the history of the concept and watch its evolution over three and a half decades, then take a cautious look at what's to come when Epcot changes forever... Ready? 

Prehistory

Dateline: 1964.

Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York comes alive! Covering 646 acres, the New York World’s Fair is a “universal and international” exposition, dedicated to “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.”

Born of the same optimism, wonder, futurism, and architecture that would create Disneyland’s New Tomorrowland three years later, the 1964 New York World’s Fair is an icon of mid-century Americana. Built around a 140-foot tall Unisphere are over 140 pavilions, each designed and constructed by 80 nations, 24 US states, and 45 international corporations eager to share the wonders of their culture, history, and innovations.

Image: PLCjr, Flickr (license)

The nascent Space Age and its vista of promise; the pre-Vietnam optimism of a Baby Boomer generation; an iconic showcase of American products in transportation, consumer electronics, and daily living… The World’s Fair was a headlining moment in modern American pop culture.

Especially for Disney fans, this international expo holds tremendous importance… it’s there that Walt Disney and his Imagineers were contracted to construct showcase attractions. For General Electric, they created Progressland; for Pepsi-Cola, “it’s a small world”; the State of Illinois sponsored an Audio-Animatronic presentation by their famous resident, Abraham Lincoln...

Image: Getty Images / Smithsonian Institute

...And for Ford Motors, Disney and company designed a pavilion where guests would sit in motorless Ford Mustang convertibles that would glide along elevated highways. They'd drive around the pavilion's exterior...

Image: Disney

... and then through prehistoric dioramas of dinosaurs come alive.

The first three were transported directly to Disneyland at the close of the Fair as Carousel of Progress, “it’s a small world,” and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. (Ford’s contribution was two-fold… the technology behind the Skyway powered Disney’s Lost Legend: The Peoplemover and the dinosaurs themselves were relocated to a new Primeval World diorama along the Disneyland Railroad.) But the real contribution of the New York World’s Fair is the inspiration it planted for what would happen nearly two decades later.

The grand idea

Image: Disney

After Walt’s passing, remaining executives and designers tried to gather up what was left of their morale to push ahead on the Walt Disney World being built in Florida. The Magic Kingdom park planned there was – in Walt’s mind – merely a means to an end. What really excited him about “the Florida Project” was E.P.C.O.T., a prototype city of the future that Walt sincerely thought would change American urban design forever.

Executives (perhaps correctly) shied away from EPCOT, though, suspecting that without Walt at the helm, building and operating a metropolitan city was beyond their scope.

Image: Disney

However, when the idea of adding a second theme park to Walt Disney World arose in the late ‘70s, executives toyed with how Walt’s EPCOT could inform them, at least in concept. Futurism, urban design, a living showcase of innovation and industry… you know where this headed: EPCOT Center was born. Literally devised as a “permanent World’s Fair,” Disney’s idea was that EPCOT Center would indeed return to the optimism, wonder, and corporate power showcased in World’s Fairs decades ago… a living playground of industry and culture showcasing innovations and cultures from around the world in two realms: Future World and World Showcase.

Image: Disney

And, even better, Disney would follow the World’s Fair model where it mattered most: sponsorship. Like at the New York World’s Fair, each of EPCOT Center’s pavilions would be bankrolled by corporations and international governments who would shell out big bucks for a piece of property in this permanent showcase.

General Motors, for example, would happily sign on to sponsor a pavilion based on the transportation industry (lest their competitors do it first), carefully planting their brand and messaging into the pavilion. And then, General Motors would be compelled to keep the pavilion up to date, stocked with their latest innovations! All Disney needed to do was sit back and get paid to design and update the pavilion’s contents when needed. If you’re thinking that sounds like a win-win for Disney, you’d be right…

Interconnected

Image: Disney

Brilliantly, Disney was able to master plan this “permanent World’s Fair,” ensuring that its pavilions not only complimented one another, but felt like puzzle pieces of the same overarching message:

To all who come to this place of joy, hope and friendship, welcome.

EPCOT Center is inspired by Walt Disney's creative genius. Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, the wonders of enterprise, and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all.

May EPCOT Center entertain, inform and inspire. And, above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.

It’s as if designers took the idea of “a world that offers hope to people everywhere” and asked aloud, “How do we get there? What leads to a better world? Where can the wonders of enterprise create that exciting, promising future?”

The answer?

Communication. Innovation. Oceans. Land. Imagination. Transportation. Health and Medicine. And Energy.

Image: Disney, via @GoAwayGreen on Twitter

And from there, the pavilions were born, each holding a key to one piece of that future for all; each a showcase of one area of enterprise offering hope; each a piece of the puzzle. And fittingly, each of Future World’s pavilions was united by something else: lengthy, informative, clever, reverent dark rides through the history of each industry and into its future. The past, present, and future of transportation aboard a Lost Legend: World of Motion; the past, present, and future of communication on Spaceship Earth; the past, present, and future of ocean research in The Living Seas… And the ride that put all these pieces together to show us our likely outcome if we heed the call of progress, another Lost Legend: Horizons.

But of all of EPCOT Center’s epic, lengthy, informative dark rides, one reigned supreme… an unimaginable 45-minute journey farther into the past than any other. That’s because, if you asked Exxon, the past, present, and future of energy originated tens of millions of years ago.

A cornerstone of EPCOT Center and an icon of the era, Universe of Energy was a stunning dark ride that shaped our Future World… and the ride that opened may not be the one we’re saying goodbye to today.

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