EPCOT, Lake Buena Vista, FL
When I visited friends in Florida and they said, “We’re going to Disney World!” I was lucky enough to have one who said, “We’re going to EPCOT.”
The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was designed to be a kind of permanent World’s Fair, showcasing technological advances, human innovation, and international culture. While it achieves this with the typical tourist-oriented diversions and oversimplification, it’s still a fascinating concept for a theme park: A theoretical utopian community in the guise of an amusement park.
Regrettably, Walt Disney’s original plan for a clean, futuristic, sustainable community did not come to pass; EPCOT was originally designed as a city with a population of 20,000, with its own business and commercial enterprises, and only a portion of its land dedicated to recreation. After Disney’s death, his company changed the plan dramatically from a residential city to a theme park. The conflicting ideas for the theme show in EPCOT’s current form—part of the park, Future World, is dedicated to the technology and ideas of the future, while another part, World Showcase, focuses on international customs and cultures, looking back toward their pasts rather than forward to an idealized and unified world future.
Spaceship Earth is easily the most recognizable symbol of EPCOT; a geodesic dome that rises 18 stories high and contains a ride dedicated to the history and future of human communication. Science-fiction lovers might be interested to know that both the dome and ride were designed with the help of author Ray Bradbury. Other attractions in Future World include the Universe of Energy, a ride which deals with energy sources, production, and use; Mission: Space, which simulates the training and experience of astronauts; and Test Track, which simulates high speed vehicle acceleration in addition to showing the many safety and performance tests given to car models in production.
EPCOT also has its own aquarium, The Seas, which has been remodeled on a Finding Nemo theme; and its own farm and greenhouse, The Land, meant to educate visitors about human interaction with the earth. Soarin’, one of the attractions within The Land, is an experience as close to virtual reality as I have ever come, with a screen that completely fills the sight of the viewer, and a motion simulator that creates the experience of hang gliding. It’s an experience that stimulates all of the senses; not only does it look and feel as though you’re hang gliding, but there are other virtual reality touches, such as the scent of oranges being released into the air just as the ride ‘flies’ over an orchard. If you have a chance to experience this, I highly recommend it. For me, it was the one attraction that really connected me with a vision of the future.
Innoventions is the other area that has stuck with me. Almost an independent museum, Innoventions showcases technological advancement through exhibits and demonstrations. While I was there, we saw a presentation on the design and practical applications of the SEGWAY people mover, used in some cities by law enforcement. Exhibits on computers, robotics, and other technology are paired with lessons on conserving and maintaining the earth’s natural resources, all on a variety of contemporary themes.
On the other side of the park, the World Showcase features tributes to 10 countries in addition to the United States, through a combination of rides, shops, restaurants, and carefully-tailored landscapes. A pagoda stands central in the Japanese area, while Germany has its own Oktoberfest-themed biergarten. As – dare I say it – cheesy as the entire setup is, it’s also a well-intentioned attempt at letting children get up close to architecture, cuisine, and exports they might not otherwise be able to experience firsthand. A Mesoamerican pyramid introduces visitors to the ancient cultures of Mexico, which they can learn more about while riding down the River of Time. In the Norwegian area, another boat ride, Maelstrom, takes visitors on board idealized Viking ships through an introductory lesson on Norse mythology. Chinese acrobats and Italian clowns are among the street performers that give their respective areas some cultural atmosphere.
Worth checking out is the Moroccan area, the only national exhibit within the World Showcase whose government had a direct hand in its design. There is a Gallery of Arts and History, a Fes House to show the architecture and lifestyle of many of the Moroccan people, a bazaar, restaurants selling Moroccan cuisine, and replicas of the necropolis in Rabat and minaret in Marrakesh. Moroccan King Hassan II provided artists and artisans to create a great deal of the décor, which follows Islamic tradition by not depicting people, who were made in the image of God. It is perhaps the most authentic and certainly one of the most exotic of the World Showcase areas, introducing visitors to a glimpse of a non-Western culture they may never see in person.
Photos: Disney World