Home » Disney World’s “Discovery Park” is Dead. Here’s What EPCOT’s Future Holds Instead…

Disney World’s “Discovery Park” is Dead. Here’s What EPCOT’s Future Holds Instead…

The questions have been asked for decades: “What is EPCOT, and what should it be?”

The answer, however, really depends on who you ask… and when…

The big picture arc of EPCOT’s life and times isn’t a surprise to longtime fans of Disney Parks. It began when, in 1982, EPCOT Center opened as the first in a new kind of Disney theme park that didn’t have anything to do with princesses, pirates, castles, or carousels. Instead, that “EPCOT 1.0” was positioned as a “permanent World’s Fair” – an expo of gargantuan, monumental “pavilions” focused on science and industry (in Future World) and culture and cuisine (in World Showcase).


Early EPCOT’s most obvious hallmark, though, was the presence of lengthy, informative dark rides exploring the past, present, and future of topics such as communication, energy, oceanography, agriculture, transportation, and imagination. For some, it was a golden age of Imagineering’s push for an intellectual, “adult” park that was meant to inspire real innovation and real optimism for the real world.

It didn’t last long. Disney World’s second gate garnered an infamous reputation as the park kids dreaded spending a day at. What seven year old would opt into heady reflections on human communication or the real, grounded possibilities of tomorrow over Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Peter Pan’s Flight? And so, a new EPCOT was born…

EPCOT 2.0: The Discovery Park


Hollywood heavyweight Michael Eisner became the head of Disney just two years after EPCOT opened, and pretty quickly, the star-studded CEO found that he had no idea what to do with Disney World’s brainy, cultural World’s Fair park. But it wasn’t until the late ’80s and early ’90s – as deep-pocketed sponsors failed to renew their ten year deals with the company – that he was able to take action.

The ’90s are remembered as the start of EPCOT’s “Discovery Park” era, when Imagineers were tasked with rethinking the park’s appeal and attitude. The idea, in short, was that EPCOT could still be a park with brains, but that it needed more brawn to go with it. Beginning with 1989’s Lost Legend: Body Wars, a new course was set: that EPCOT could be a park of semi-scientific thrill rides doing what Eisner did best: pulling in Hollywood talent and – of course – the stories and characters born of Disney’s pop culture rebirth.


One by one, those big, intellectual, dusty dark rides of the past fell in favor of snappier replacements. The “Discovery Park” era saw the additions of Body Wars, Innoventions, Test Track, Mission: SPACE, Soarin’, and Journey Into YOUR Imagination – for better or worse, each imagined as a way to embrace the less preachy, more fun “Discovery Park” ethos. Likewise, character integrations and celebrity cameos like The Lion King (in The Land pavilion), Finding Nemo (in The Seas), Michael Jackson (in Captain EO), and Ellen Degeneres (in Universe of Energy) became emblematic of the plan for the future. 

Insiders even suggest that Disney was within inches of greenlighting an entirely new wrap to the park’s Future World, officially designating it “Discoveryland” and sweeping through its ’80s concrete expanses with forests, gardens, water features, earth tones, and even a few thrill rides embodying the more grounded, warm, and natural vision of the future we envision today versus the starker ’80s. Even though that general placemaking didn’t happen, the “Discovery Park” mindset stayed. 


Whether it aged well or not if yours to decide… but the largely IP-free “Discovery Park” era at least gave EPCOT a sleeker reason for being in the New Millennium – thrilling, semi-scientific, and big picture. But now, a new era is upon us… 

EPCOT 3.0: The Festival Park


It was the 2017 semi-annual D23 Expo when Disney officially fessed up: EPCOT would finally get the official, master-planned, all-at-once, interconnected reimagining that fans had spent years daydreaming about. In an open-ended, multi-year expansion rivaling that of Disney California Adventure a decade before, EPCOT (and particularly its Future World) would get a much-wanted refresh. 

Of course, there’s no denying that the 2020 pandemic interrupted the expansion’s rhythm, making this much-needed, master-planned reimagining feel as piecemeal and disconnected as the park had felt in the 2010s. But as a result of the effort, EPCOT ended up with a refreshed, retro-cool ’80s design language, new restaurants, new attractions, at least two new substantial rides (Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure), a new grouping system (Disney’s scapegoat “neighborhoods”), and a brand new central core to the park’s former Future World. 


As is customary with EPCOT, the results of that refresh will be debated forever. But let’s be clear: all of this is about one thing in particular – establishing EPCOT as Disney World’s Festival Park.

EPCOT’s Festival calendar has been expanding for decades to the extent that today, the park’s un-programmed state (what fans call “Diet EPCOT”) exists in only two week chunks between festivals. Even then, the food booths never disappear. They’re simply re-programmed as “Holiday Kitchens” or “Culinary Art Booths” and swap their menus for ever-smaller portions at ever-increasing (and almost absurdly profitable) tapas sampler rates. It’s a model that works. 

Increasingly, we’ve seen Disney develop their parks for this audience. In 2019, Disneyland used some of its valuable real estate to create the Tropical Hideaway – a “Dole Whip & chill” enclave meant to expand capacity by giving locals a place to sit while they wait for Lightning Lane return times. It happened again with Disney California Adventure’s upgrade to San Fransokyo Square – by any measure, just a food court. And now, EPCOT’s Celebration Gardens points the way forward: a programmable space meant to be filled with food booths, musical acts, and seasonal celebrations.


It’s not like Disney’s working overtime to turn EPCOT into Disney World’s “Festival Park.” Quite the contrary, that’s what the park has been for decades. Locals and visitors have flocked to the park’s celebrations, making them the lifeblood of EPCOT. So is it really any surprise that Disney is finally leaning in and physically arranging the park and its schedule to factor in festivals? The only downside here is that at least the “Discovery Park” has aspirations; at least it tried to be something. As a “Festival Park,” will EPCOT continue to grow and evolve? Or now that it’s armed with Cosmic Rewind, Frozen, and Ratatouille, will executives decide that the higher ambitions of that 2017 announcement are unnecessary?