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Project Gemini: Disney's Abandoned Secret Plan to Transform Future World Forever

What images and impressions come to mind when you hear the word “Epcot?”

That probably depends on when you first visited.

For throngs of Walt Disney World guests in the 1980s, EPCOT Center was astounding. Vastly different from Disney’s other parks (which, at the time, were the three “castle” parks of Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland), EPCOT Center was a place of sincere, grounded, intellectual wonder – a living example of optimistic futurism, corporate power, the emerging capabilities of the computer, and the chance to see distant countries... all in a pre-Internet world.

By the close of the next decade, “Epcot” meant something else. With the new millennium on the horizon, Epcot was looking squarely like a remnant from a bygone era. The architecture of the 1980s was unmistakably dated and Epcot’s once stunning line-up of dark rides was aging, too. None did much to reverse Epcot’s growing image as the “educational” Disney Park that kids dreaded "wasting" a day at.

Image: Disney

Disney fans often beg for a California Adventure-sized re-do, dismantling and re-building Epcot from the ground up. True to Disney form, Imagineers at the dawn of the new millennium were hard at work on that very possibility. Epcot was due for a total upgrade and a massive monetary influx that would’ve changed the park forever. PROJECT: GEMINI was a potentially game-changing reinvention planned for the park in the early 2000s... But would it have solved the park's persistant problems?

With the benefit of hindsight, we can both lament and cheer the concepts from this distinctly-early-2000s overlay that never came to be. Some of the elements of Project: Gemini found life at Epcot and elsewhere. A few are stellar ideas still worth exploring. Others, we're glad to have left behind. But either way, Epcot today would be a very different place if Project: Gemini had succeeded in its entirety. Let’s find out what could’ve been.

The lost city

To understand where Epcot is today (and why Project: Gemini needed designed at all), we have to consider the park’s origins. In 1982 when Epcot opened, it was sincerely groundbreaking.

In the design of Epcot, Imagineers looked to the forgotten “city of the future” Walt had designed – the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. E.P.C.O.T. then would’ve been just as its name implies: a real city where real people lived and worked. More than just an animator and designer, Walt was a dedicated futurist who sought to use his influence to design a living model for future cities. Smartly designed utilitarian urbanism, EPCOT would’ve featured elaborate mass transportation, ineffable urban planning, and energy efficiency; EPCOT would – in Walt’s imagination – inform the construction of every major city effort thereafter.

Of course, that EPCOT was never built. But the core concepts behind the park informed Imagineers in the construction of Walt Disney World’s second theme park. There, EPCOT Center would be Disney’s “permanent World’s Fair.”

But what exactly is a World’s Fair? It’s important here to take an aside. World’s Fairs (which still happen today, albeit with significantly less international reverence) are international expositions where countries and corporations come together to build massive pavilions showcasing technology and inspiring international cooperation. At least in modern times, World’s Fairs act as conduits between the people, corporations and countries. At 2015's World’s Fair in Milan, countries from around the world came together to build pavilions showcasing their country’s innovations, cuisine, and culture.

Walt’s World’s Fair

The history of the Walt Disney Company and its namesake are tied very specifically to the 1964 – 65 World’s Fair. It was at that fair – hosted in New York City – that Walt was called upon by four corporations to design attractions.

General Electric Pavilion

  • For General Electric, Walt and company designed an innovative, revolving theater-in-the-round following one American family through time as the wonders of electricity (and specifically, of GE’s appliances) simplified and advanced their lives. This show, titled “Progressland,” would be relocated after its World’s Fair showing to a theater in Disneyland’s New Tomorrowland, where it would be retitled The Carousel of Progress.
  • The state of Illinois – represented at the Fair with its own pavilion – had Walt construct a stunning and unimaginable Audio Animatronics figure that left crowds stunned. It, too, was relocated to Disneyland after the Fair, where it became Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
  • For Pepsi-Cola, Imagineers designed a dark ride using the same ride system as the soon-to-be-built Pirates of the Caribbean. Rather than swashbucklers, the New York version was flanked by singing dolls and international wonders designed in the charming storybook pop-up style of Mary Blair. “it’s a small world” was also relocated to Disneyland after the Fair.
  • Finally, Ford Motor Company had called on Walt to design an innovative attraction where guests could be whisked around elevated tracks around the pavilion’s exterior in motorless Ford cars before traveling into the pavilion for a dark ride through the age of dinosaurs. The technology behind the ride became New Tomorrowland’s Peoplemover while the dinosaurs were added to the Disneyland Railroad as the Primeval World diorama.

Bringing it all together

So Walt Disney World’s second theme park would be Disney’s own version of a World’s Fair. The story goes that two competing Imagineering factions had different ideas about what form Disney’s permanent Fair park should take. One argued for a World’s Fair wherein corporations sponsored large pavilions, each dedicated to a single topic of science or industry. Another faction believed Disney’s World’s Fair should draw on the cultural, international-representation of World’s Fairs, with each pavilion dedicated to a country showcasing its culture, customs, and cuisine. Both views were accurate depictions of real World’s Fairs, but they seemed diametrically opposed.

According to Disney folklore, it was one fortuitous day that the constructed scale models of the two theoretical parks were literally pushed together, building the familiar “figure-8” shape we know of Epcot – essentially, two very different parks united by their similarities.

And like a World’s Fair, the system seemed ingenious.

The futuristic pavilions of Future World would be sponsored by corporations interested in seeding their products and services into the experience. Those corporations would pay for the pavilion’s upkeep and – just as importantly – its updating. After all, no sponsoring company would want its name splashed across an outdated exhibit of retro-futuristic artifacts. In exchange for broadcasting their logos and products across the experience, corporations would foot the bill and keep their pavilions cutting-edge. It was a win-win situation.

It didn’t work. The systematic failure of Epcot’s sponsorship model might be directly to blame for the need for Project: Gemini. Read on…


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There are 21 comments.

I actually like the concept you guys thought up with the going all out with the characters. My only complaint is you can't put Pinocchio in Germany because he is an Italian literary character and belong in the Italy pavilion! :)

I agree. Pinocchio belongs in Italy. Maybe Snow White's story could go into Germany. I'd like to see more entertainment geared towards boys as well. Too much princess (12-14now?) and how many boy-styled heros?

I think they should rebrand all of Epcot as the world showcase dedicate the whole park to countries and civilizations they could redo test track as a simulation down the amazon and change the whole area to Brazil. The living seas could be rebranded as Polynesia journey to imagination can turn into Egypt. Spaceship earth already fits the theme. It wouldn't be the first time a park reinvented themselves

Two words: Stark Expo

I think there are two things that need to remain constant which is spaceship earth and the world showcase. Spaceship earth is an international landmark like the castle in magic kingdom. Spaceship earth can be mentioned or drawn roughly and everyone knows it. It's akin to the Eiffel tower and the pyramids. The world showcase is like nothing else around which makes it really cool and really enjoyable! The world showcase is like getting transported around the world and being able to visit 11 countries from around the world. Where you get to see the architecture, some of their culture, and try of their food.

I really like your ideas. Discoveryland instead of "Future"land. Growth potential. Bring in Disney characters all around. Especially to World Showcase. They added characters to the lands of "It's a Small World" at Disneyland. Go bigger.

I personally think adding Frozen Ever After is the worst thing ever. As with all the other "futuristic/innovative" attractions of EPCOT past, the popularity of Frozen will eventually die out (or just get to the point that people are SO DARN SICK OF IT that it won't be a popular idea). What's worse is that Frozen Ever After replaced Maelstrom!!

Ellen's Energy Adventure was not the original show, it was an update too. That's why the ride doesn't use all of the seats, that and lack of interest, although I like it.

I don't understand why they can't get any sponsorship? $200,000 a year is not much to maintain. Especially for huge corporations. What about China? I bet they would love to sponsor a headlining attraction at Epcot $50 million or even $100 million would seem like a reasonable price to pay to bring more tourists to China and portray a new and modern China.

Is it weird that being stuck in 1982, is kind of the appeal of Epcot for me? The day the remove any synthesizer music from Future World ill be a very sad day for me.

I love the World Showcase. I agree with one of the comments before that said the whole park should be re-imagined to the World Showcase. You could even include lost civilizations like Ancient Rome, the Ancient Egyptians, the Mayans and Atlantis (was it real? will we ever know?). A Native American civilization would be pretty neat too. Expand the countries a little more. Maybe the countries can offer more than shopping and eating. Maybe more interactive fun - Learn to salsa dance in Mexico would be a great idea! Museums relating to each country's history should be a part of the experience. Bring back "roaming" characters instead of just meet and greets! Loved the days when Peter Pan and Capt Hook roamed around causing mayhem (Capt Hook literally stole my mother's shoe one time!). Maybe incorporate some historical characters as well - like a wandering Leonardo da Vinci or King Richard the Lionhearted! Playgrounds themed in the lands for the kids would be a good break too. Anyway, I agree EPCOT needs an overhaul.

One of the reasons that Discover land didn't take place and Racers specifically was that, according to a comer on Imagineers, the current ride system for Spaceship Earth was an integral part of the building and couldn't be dismantled without damaging the building. This wasn't discovered until after the plans had leaked.

Will not happen any time soon as Disney just spent millions on Magic Kingdom and now are working on upgrades to AK and almost a total reboot of Studios. Little money left for any changes to Epcot any time soon. Plus Epcot still does well with attendance with it special events each year like Food and Wine Festival and the Flower and Garden show, so no need to make these changes now with people showing up anyway.

I like the idea of using characters in Epcot. The rides that you guys propose for the characters they go pretty well; the idea of using Big Hero 6 to represent the Energy maybe this a good way to reinforced the values that those characters already represent. I think one of the movies that had a pretty strong theme is Wall-e and that it could work as part of the characters for Epcot. I just wanted also to congrats you guys in this amazing brainstorm, I found it interesting and enriching under a lot of aspects.

Being drab and outdated is one thing...but more often than not, people long for rides/attractions that were replaced rather than updated. With the understanding that EPCOT is about "tomorrow" , retro-futurism seems just as important as futurism itself. EPCOT always seemed a more "mature" park...and with maturity comes an appreciation of the beauty and importance of the past as well as the future. A future world, as seen in the mid-60s, sounds absolutely beautiful. No reason you couldn't also have a world's fair type pavilion to showcase futuristic technologies as well.

A common thesis/identity is much needed for EPCOT. I like the idea of an 'authentic' world showcase, and limited characters. Not sure I'm 100% with you on ALL OR NOTHING characters. A limited dose of the characters would be fine. But limited. As a teen in the 80's, I thrived on dark & educational adventures at EPCOT. Show the kids & adults the way, but leave room for their own imaginations by not getting distracted with too much kiddie stuff. And PLEASE, no more flavor-of-the-week celebrites hosting the rides. I like Ellen, but I hated the ride when she took over Energy. Killed it for me. Took away anything I might have gotten out of that ride. Nothing but a distraction.....possibly by design. The ride was becoming very dated.

If the Disney business people can be separated from their obsessive drive to cross-sell every Disney product wherever they can find a place to do that, WDW would be a better place.

The original World's fair idea that learning and entertainment are not exclusive, and certainly not a venue where every Disney character and product are aimed at the most infantile mind, imagine if The Land were a dark ride that compared "the Land" on Earth with "the land" on, say Mars. How did these planets evolve into what they are today, and why is it important to learn about them both?

Imagine that the "Energy" pavilion is also a dark ride, half of it is historic about mankind's search for transmittable and portable energy; the second half about the digital world, robotics, AI, and the need to find environmentally clean energy that can be stored in ways that we don't yet know how to ("batteries")

Imagine the "Mind" pavilion that also runs a dark ride that looks into the risks and opportunities when the human mind and AI finally interface. The ride can explore things such as, What is memory? What is thought? Why does the human mind create the arts, music, the things that make us human, not just STEM stuff.

Disney should speak up, not down, to us and our children. Disney should stop thinking that we are nothing but simpletons who need an adrenalin rush

I really like your ideas of characters implemented throughout the attractions. I personally think two other changes could take place: take out innocent ions and build a pavilion named NEW HORIZONS that would be essentially what horizons was but with updated technology to tie in all aspects of the updated future world side. It could still be two buildings with a skybridge attaching the ride track to the other side allowing for a very detailed indepth attraction. The second change would be a complete revamping of the end of spaceship earth. I am still appalled at the cop out Disney did for this rides once fabulous finale. Instead of the black felt and Christmas lights tunnel, there could be a celebration of mans great achievements that have occurred as the result of mans advances in communication. This should be done without video screens for crying out loud we've looked at those enough!

What a good, well thought out article.
I've found it ironic in the past few years that the MagicBand is far more futuristic than Future World. The fact that one bracelet can get me into my hotel, carry my park tickets, capture my ride photos, and the ability to reunite me with my lost children, is amazing. THAT is living in the future.

I love all of your ideas and think Disney should read your article. It is a lot of money to put up but Epcot thrives during the festival seasons, they must be raking in some dough! You have to spend money to improve to draw attendance. Fantasy Land has been upgraded, Pandora will open in May and Hollywood Studios is getting two new lands, perhaps Epcot is next? We can hope and dream! (and to the top comments on Pinocchio’s Daring Journey – the classic Disneyland dark ride – in Italy. - You did place it in Italy or changed the article before I read it!)

Can we rebuild Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in England?


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