Epcot is a funny thing. At the time it opened, the Disney model of theme parks was rather simple: Be Disneyland. Disneyland was so successful, Disney imported a supersized clone to Orlando to serve as the heart of its Walt Disney World project. The property was so large, however, that Disney had to ask what else could fit inside it now that they’d abandoned Walt Disney’s original idea for a fully-functional urban planning laboratory.
The imagineers came up with a couple of ideas: A permanent World’s Fair concept that explored the best that scientific innovation had to offer and a celebration of the international community. One enterprising designer had the brilliant idea of putting the two models together, and voila, Epcot was born.
The ensuing decades have been rather unkind to Walt Disney World’s second park, however. What was once a monument to the continuing inventiveness of humankind became a stale and outdated look at the technology of the recent past — neither cutting-edge enough to seem interesting nor old enough to breed nostalgia.
So, in recent years, Disney formed a new plan: Bring Epcot into the future by slightly altering its point-of-view. Ironically, that means backburnering the “Future World” concept altogether and, instead, focusing on the internationalism concept brought to mind in World Showcase.
This reimagination is a massive risk for Disney. It’s rare for the company to completely change the creative idea behind an entire park, and doing so will cost an awful lot of money. The only time it has done something this ambitious, it created the relaunched Disney’s California Adventure to great acclaim.
Can they pull the rabbit out of the hat again? To stay on top in the burgeoning theme park wars, they must. Here are a few reasons why.
Its capacity is so large, Disney needs guests to want to visit
Longtime Disney fans will recall that Epcot does not, like the company would have you believe, stand for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.” Rather, its more accurate name is “Every Person Comes Out Tired.”
Epcot is huge — deceptively so, to first timers. Each of the World Showcase pavilions is itself larger than most department stores. Additionally, the distance between them isn’t nothing. It is a full-day park not only because of its amazing rides, shows, and attractions, but also because it simply takes a long time to circumnavigate the whole thing.
For those reasons, Epcot is incredibly useful for Disney. It swallows up an enormous amount of people in its theaters and show buildings — not to mention around its enormous in-park lagoon. If guests decided to visit Walt Disney World, but to spend less time in Epcot itself, that would put a massive strain on Disney’s already-at-capacity infrastructure. Even worse for Disney, they might spend those days at nearby competitors.
If Disney gets the Epcot reimagining wrong, it would be an enormous problem for the company. Literally.
It can’t only be an event space
One of the great triumphs of modern Disney inventiveness was its idea to turn Epcot into the world’s greatest food fair with the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. It was so successful, in fact, that Disney poured resources into similar offerings like the Flower and Garden Festival and the Festival of the Arts.
These events are offered to guests free of charge — all they require is park admission. That is an incredible value-added proposition. Think about it: You can enjoy a ride on Spaceship Earth all year, but some months, you also get to explore the best Disney’s chefs can come up with? That’s fantastic.
The problem is, Disney might start to believe those festivals are enough to bring in crowds on their own. That would be a flawed calculation.
Epcot’s festivals work well precisely because they are offered free of charge. They aren’t truly free, of course — the food and classes cost extra, for example. But the cost of admission to the park is so high that a family of four could enjoy a full meal at Disney’s more luxurious restaurants for the same cost, or even less. It’s foolishness to assume people would pay that only to go to the festivals.
Epcot’s reimagining needs to allow the park to stand on its own, even when these events aren’t taking place. While many of the new attractions and spaces being built are promising — from the Mary Poppins attraction to the redesigned Spaceship Earth — the fact that central real estate is being given to a permanent festival space shows that Disney believes these are core to Epcot’s identity. That is true, but they must not subsume its entire identity.
For Epcot to thrive, it must remain a theme park first and foremost, and a super-cool event space secondary to that.
Tying everything together can be really hard
This theme park, when all is said and done, will have attractions themed to space flight, travel through China and Canada, an exploration of the interconnectedness of our species, and ... a talking raccoon.
One of those things, obviously, doesn’t mesh with the others.
If Disney is insisting on featuring super heroes and flying nannies prominently in its originally-scientifically-oriented park, that can be a very tight rope to walk. It’s not impossible, and Disney’s concept art for the new Epcot is absolutely stunning, but the margin for error is so small. It can be jarring to go from something as relatively-realistic as Mission: Space to a comic book-y version of space travel just next door.
The new Test Track, while somewhat inspired by science fiction, still exists in the same universe as we do. Does Mary Poppins or Queen Elsa? Illuminations held together the World Showcase and Future World sides of Epcot, by showing how technology first allowed the human race to grow, and later brought it together. Will the new nighttime spectacular work as well as a conclusion to a day at Epcot?
If Epcot becomes a celebration of humanity — both the things we’ve invented and the stories we’ve told — it can definitely work. But connecting the world of science fact with the world of science fantasy is a very difficult task. Having lots of pretty buildings and trees doesn’t change that.
The legacy is important to Disney superfans
For better or for worse, Epcot means something to an awful lot of people. At its 1980s peak, Epcot was a theme park designed for the left-brained among us — those who were more excited by scientists and engineers than by pirates and ghosts. It viewed its guests as smart, and challenged them to be smarter. It showed the world not as it was, nor as it never would be, but as it might be someday soon. That, for a lot of people, was really exciting.
It was an ode to progress — something Walt Disney himself cared quite a lot about. While the Magic Kingdom was based on where we as a species had been, Epcot showed where we might be in the future: Different countries and cultures brought closer together, different ways of life invented and perfected.
The techno-optimism of Epcot died in the early 21st century. It might not come back for quite some time. Disney superfans would be smart to remember that — the kids of today are not the same as the kids of the 1980s and ‘90s. Not in a bad way, certainly — but just different. They have different hopes and different dreams. As Epcot itself taught us, you have to adapt and innovate in order to create a future worth living in.
But all of that said, the word “Epcot” carries weight. Calling something Epcot doesn’t make it so — it must earn that name, and continue to earn it every day. Disney says it wants Epcot to celebrate the world and its people, to shine a light on those stories via lands called World Showcase, World Celebration, World Discovery, and World Nature.
That is a great mission, and it’s one Disney must succeed at. Otherwise, the park will always feel like a pale imitation to many.
They only have one shot
While there’s a risk in overstating how important this is to Disney, there isn’t any risk in saying they really only have one chance to get this reimagining right. Epcot is beloved in the Disney community, and if it is altered such that it becomes unrecognizable, it will be difficult for Disney to earn those fans’ trust again.
But, moreover, it will also prove incredibly costly.
If you look at the concept art for the reimagined Epcot, you’ll see that it truly looks dramatically different. The Innovations buildings are gone, as are many other now-superfluous remnants of Epcot’s glory days. In their stead are vast swaths of green space — itself a fascinating statement on modern urban planning.
But, if this new concept fails to excite the imagination of fans, it will be costly to once again remake the face of Epcot. They are spending billions of dollars to get this right and to bring Epcot into the 21st century properly. That’s after spending billions on the uneven MyMagic+ project and the divisive Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge expansion.
They’ve built infrastructure designed to bring more guests to Epcot via the new Skyliner gondola system. They’ve designed not one, but two new nighttime spectacular shows — one for the transition to the new park, and one for its first iteration.
The Walt Disney Company is pushing its chips into the center of the table on Epcot. It’s betting big that it can turn it into something guests will want not just now, but into the future. Disney usually doesn’t lose those bets.
But if they do, there’s an Epic Universe waiting in the wings, and Disney might not get a second chance.