Horizons 1 is now departing. Our final destination today – the twenty-first century.
Since Disneyland first opened in 1955, Disney Parks have been practically obsessed with predicting the future… and more often than not, they’ve gotten it surprisingly right. The idea of lifting the curtain of time and exploring innovation and invention has been a driving force behind the Parks, as evidenced by Walt’s dedication of Tomorrowland in 1955: “A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man's achievements... A step into the future, with predictions of constructed things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals. The Atomic Age, the challenge of Outer Space and the hope for a peaceful, unified world.”
Through Tomorrowland, Disney accurately envisioned (and perhaps inadvertantly shaped) the look and feel of the Space Age. As tomorrow leapt forward, so did Walt’s vision, always retaining an optimistic and bright sense of unity. Eventually, though, the idea of showcasing actual scientific innovation became too daunting a task for designers constantly faced with progress moving too quickly. That's why, in the 1990s, Disney radically redesigned the Tomorrowlands across the globe from science fact to science fiction – lands that would be unaffected by the flow of time.
But Tomorrowland wouldn’t be Disney’s last attempt at imagining how society, enterprise, culture, and life might look in the distant future. Enter Horizons – one of the most cherished, beloved, and celebrated rides ever created by Disney’s Imagineers. This classic dark ride whisked guests away from today and into that vista of wondrous ideas, transporting them into the future they most wanted to see.
Our in-depth Lost Legends series seeks to tell the full, behind-the-scenes stories of forgotten classics before their tales are lost to time. We've looked back on the complete histories of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the original Star Tours, TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, Adventure Thru Inner Space, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and so many more. And yet again, we’re calling on you to comment and share your memories to preserve one of Disney's greatest masterpieces ever for future generations who might one day wonder, “What was the big deal?” So off we go to the twenty-first century to bring Horizons back to life...
EPCOT – a vista of wondrous ideas
The story of Horizons begins with the story of EPCOT. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow envisioned by Walt Disney had been a utopian city (a place where people would actually live and work) built upon emerging technologies, transportation systems, and building materials. A showcase of urban design and organization (which, after all, was what his Disneyland park had been at its core), Walt hoped that his EPCOT would sincerely redefine the layout, infrastructure, and style of American cities from that point forward.
He said: “EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”
To secure funding for EPCOT, Walt had to first agree to build a version of Disneyland in Florida (which, of course, became Magic Kingdom). Unfortunately, Walt died five years before Magic Kingdom would open, and long before the possibility of EPCOT could've seen the light of day.
After Walt’s death in 1966, projects across the parks entered a state of limbo with seasoned Imagineers questioning how to proceed without Walt’s guidance. EPCOT was no different, and it quietly disappeared from public perception. The idea of Walt's citiy of tomorrow had been written off as an impossibility.
By the late 1970s, though, Walt Disney World was ready for growth in the form of an unprecedented second theme park on the property. At that time, the EPCOT concept was revived and tweaked. Rather than a functioning futuristic city, EPCOT Center would be a theme park modeled after the ideals and core values of Walt’s concept – community, culture, and futurism.
A World’s Fair
According to Disney Parks folklore, one team of Imagineers felt that EPCOT Center should represent cutting edge technologies, while another thought the park should be about globalism, culture, and worldwide perspective. The story goes that one day, two circular models representing the two visions for the park were literally positioned next to each other and the proverbial light bulb clicked – Epcot would be like two parks in one: a grounded, stunning exhibition promoting both innovation and culture with two distinct realms: Future World and World Showcase.
Consider what a tremendous shift the very concept represented. After all, at this time in Disney history, there were only two 'Disney parks' in the world: the original Disneyland and its younger sister, Magic Kingdom. That meant that for millions upon millions of American families who'd visited "Disney" or dreamed of doing so, "Disney" was synonymous with castles, fairytale lands, princesses, and meeting beloved Disney characters straight from animated films.
EPCOT Center would be different. It would be a living showcase of corporate innovation, emerging technologies, cultural stories, and the true tales behind science and industry. No princesses. No characters. No movies. No Mickey.
The model was simple: Disney would build its own, permanent World's Fair.
In the century prior to EPCOT Center's opening, World's Fairs had been sincerely international festivals of collaboration, showmanship, and innovation. Take, for example, 1889's Exposition Universelle in Paris (with the Eiffel Tower built as its central icon), 1915's Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco (with its icon – The Palace of Fine Arts) or 1962's Century 21 Exposition (hosted in Seattle, with the Space Needle commissioned as its icon). At these global celebrations, corporations and countries would build stunning, massive pavilions in which they could show off their newest advances to the eager public, who would show up in droves to see the technologies that would soon be in their own homes, roads, schools, and workplaces.
The most prominent example for Disney Parks fans is the 1964 - '65 New York World's Fair (in Queens, with the Unisphere icon). Prior to the opening of the '64 - '65 World's Fair, Walt and his team had been approached by three corporations (General Electric, Pepsi-Cola, and Ford Motors) and tasked with creating revolutionary rides to tell each company's stories. The results would become the Carousel of Progress, "it's a small world," and another Lost Legend: The Peoplemover, respectively.
As Disney's permanent World's Fair, EPCOT Center would host enormous, cavernous pavilions, each focused on an overarching theme or topic within science and industry. Like at a real World's Fair, each thematic pavilion would then feature multiple rides, shows, demonstrations, restaurants, and show floors within which the story of that topic could come to life – a perfect mix of Disney's showmanship with plenty of room for sponsors to showcase their own advances in each area.
In Future World, the pavilions would represent oceans (The Seas), ecosystems and nutrition (The Land), creativity (Imagination), transportation (World of Motion), energy (Universe of Energy), innovation (Communicore), and communication (Spaceship Earth). But one pavilion in particular would be the “thesis” of EPCOT Center. One attraction would combine ocean, land, imagination, transportation, energy, technology, and communication to tell one cohesive story through the eyes of a familiar American family.
Horizons brought to life the optimism, wonder, and futurism that propelled Walt Disney, promising "a great, big, beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day." Now, let's explore the progress that brought the ride to life! Read on...