When Walt Disney decided to branch out from his Disneyland theme park in Southern California, he set out to build an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, nicknamed EPCOT. Walt's original vision for Epcot, and Walt Disney World as a whole for that matter, was not centered on a theme park.
His desire was to build an actual community, along the lines of Disney's Town of Celebration in Osceola County, that would explore the latest advances in technology and allow its residents the freedom to create a world where family, community and technology could thrive.
After Walt's death in 1966, the company decided that his ultimate goal was too costly even for a company of Disney's magnitude. For example, the original diagrams for Epcot included a huge glass dome that covered the entire city to protect it from the elements. Under Walt's brother Roy's direction, the original plans for Walt Disney World morphed into what we now know as the Magic Kingdom. By the mid 1970s, as a tribute to Walt's dream, the concept of Epcot was expanded to include what we now see as Epcot Center.
In 1975, then-Disney president Card Walker outlined plans for the new park. It would be divided into two sections: World Showcase, where countries from around the world would present foods, arts, wares and other cultural aspects of their life, and Future World, a land dedicated to technological ideas and experimentation.
So what exactly is Epcot? Think of it as a kind of permanent world's fair and interactive science museum spread across a sprawling tract of land broken up into pavilions. Roller-coaster fans, take note: with a few exceptions, the park is low on high-speed thrills. Instead, guests will find a mixture of educational attractions, cultural entertainment, shops and restaurants.
The park is accessible by car, from the Magic Kingdom and Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC) via monorail, or by boat from adjacent hotels such as Disney's BoardWalk, the Yacht & Beach Club resorts and the distinctive Swan and Dolphin hotels. The main entrance plaza opens up into Future World, a cluster of technology-themed pavilions surrounding the 17-story Spaceship Earth, a geodesic sphere visible from miles away.
Oct. 1, 1982, saw the opening of this Disney dream. Future World opened to wondrous applause, with the World Showcase premiering the next night to equal fanfare. The Showcase started out with nine countries: Mexico, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, France, Canada and the United Kingdom. Future World started out with six exhibits: Spaceship Earth, Communicores East and West, Horizons, The Land, Journey Into Imagination and the Universe of Energy.
For a while, Disney concentrated on the World Showcase portion of Epcot, opening Morocco in 1986 and Norway in 1988. In Future World, The Living Seas pavilion was added in 1986, and The Wonders of Life made its debut in 1989.
There was only one problem: as is the case with Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom, tomorrow always comes. Future World's high-tech early 1980s look quickly aged, and the company began work to renew the area in 1994. Epcot traded in its twin Communicores for a new area dedicated to new technology called Innoventions.
The east side of the complex, with its mega-shop and restaurant didn't change that much, but the west side is now completely different. Purely educational areas were spiced up with Internet connections, foreign language translators, a high-tech AT&T exhibit and tons of Sega and other video games. Epcot also jazzed up the Universe of Energy's show, adding a cute story featuring Ellen Degeneres and Bill Nye, The Science Guy.
In 1997, the old World of Motion pavilion was suposed to have been replaced by Disney's fastest ride to date, Test Track. Test Track is a mile-long ride that gives riders a bird's-eye view of the rigors GM cars and trucks go through during testing phases. The attraction has been plagued with delays and design problems since its inception and wears and seemingly-permanent "Coming Soon" sign.
How to get there: Epcot is located near the center of Disney's property, between the Magic Kingdom and the Downtown Disney area. Guests should take exit 26B north from I-4 and follow the purple signs to Epcot's main gate.
Epcot parking lots are not very far away from the park's entrance. There is a tram that runs from the entrance throughout the parking area, but most spaces are close enough for guests to walk.
Be sure to remember where you park, because the lot is so large that airplane passengers can see it from miles away. Follow the No. 1 rule of theme park parking: write down the name and number of your parking lane. At Epcot, this is especially important because the sections are named for esoteric ideas rather than traditional Disney characters names. Instead of parking in Goofy, Donald or Minnie, Epcot's guests park in Amaze, Journey and Imagine.
Amenities: Disney prides itself on being a full-service outfit and not without good reason. Every detail of visitors stay is accounted for from dining to shopping and anything in between.
As is the case with all the Disney parks, Epcot's pay telephones and rest rooms are located strategically throughout the park. Wheel chairs, strollers and lockers are available for rental near the front entrance. Disney has kennels to board visitors' pets and a package pick-up and shipping for guests who don't wish to lug their goodies around the park all day. The Guest Relations windows are located to the left of the front gate as visitors exit the park. There is also a Guest Relations office inside the park near Spaceship Earth for visitors who need assistance making reservations, exchanging vouchers for tickets and those who simply need more information about the park.
Some of the best restaurants to be found in any Orlando attraction are inside Epcot. Most of the countries offer upscale dining that is far better than average. Reservations are suggested, if not required, at most. Check with Guest Relations to make sure you'll get a seat.
The countries in World Showcase also offer quick versions of food from their respective lands. Burgers, fries, pizza and other American favorites can be purchased at The American Adventure and at several locations around Future World. The Land pavilion offers a large food court with choices to suit every taste bud; and The Living Seas restaurant offers great seafood of all kinds. Although to some, putting a seafood restaurant in an aquarium is a bit like putting a Chic Fil A inside a hen house.
Shoppers can delight in futuristic gadgets and gizmos of all sorts near the front of the park, along with the typical Disney memorabilia. Each of the countries in World Showcase pack their own individual flair when it comes to merchandise.
Analysis: Epcot offers a more sedate, sophisticated experience than what you'll find at the Magic Kingdom or at the Disney-MGM studios. Some of the lands have rides, but they are generally built around educational exhibits and samples of history, culture and science.
There's a lot to appreciate in the design. The focus on new technologies and the array of countries represented make it one of the most varied theme park experiences in Central Florida. If you can't find something to pique your interest, you're probably too picky.
Technology aside, Epcot hasn't really advanced all that much since its inception. It's added jazzy new elements to its existing rides and shows, but Spaceship Earth is basically the same ride as when the park began. The country's exhibits haven't changed all that much, either.
Some may question the decision to exchange Communicore's strictly educational technology with the Innoventions wall-o-Sega; but with the "Bill Nye, The Science Guy" exhibit, Internet access, foreign language exchanges and other education technologies in place, Innoventions strikes a balance between fun and learning. And while Epcot may not have turned out exactly like Walt's vision, it has become a testing ground for modern ideas and is still a place visitors of all ages can enjoy over and over.
If you're into travel, culture, electronic entertainment, shopping, dining, and an educational experience, Epcot is the theme park for you. If you're looking or lots of thrill rides, it might be a good idea to stick to the Magic Kingdom or Universal Studios Florida. The rides at Epcot typically are slow-moving carts that stroll past exhibits.
Because Epcot is the second largest of Walt Disney World's four theme parks and the World Showcase pavilions are situated around a large man-made lagoon, be prepared to do a lot of walking. Can you do Epcot in a day? Probably not, especially if you intend to explore every pavilion thoroughly. With 11 "countries" and virtual excursions to outer space, the bloodstream and the bottom of the ocean, set aside at least two days to see it all.
World Showcase opens one hour after Future World, and is open one hour after Future World closes at night. To beat the crowd, try moving directly to the far side of World Showcase as soon as that part of the park opens in the morning, then move backward toward Spaceship Earth. Because the park is so large, the park can accommodate more guests and the lines seem a bit shorter than those at other Disney parks. Epcot is a good place to visit during Central Florida's frequent afternoon storms because there are countless places to duck the rain.
Photos courtesy of the Walt Disney Co. and Orlando Sentinel files.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times