Why Can’t We Let EPCOT Go?

EPCOT Center has been dead for 23 years. Arguably, the original concept started disappearing with the name change, and has been gone 20 years ago, give or take. The current, disjointed incarnation of the park has now existed for longer than EPCOT Center did. Let that sink in for a second.

Despite this, so many Disney fans cannot let EPCOT Center go. I’m among this group, and I still hold a sliver of hope that Epcot will be restored to its former glory. I find it interesting that despite being a less-distant memory, very few fans harbor similar sentiment towards the Disney-MGM Studios. Sure, we might still call it “MGM” but I think most people have accepted–and even embraced–the new direction of that park.

So, what makes Epcot different? Why are we still clutching the past, even as the “new” Epcot is hardly new anymore? There are a few reasons why so many Disney fans cannot let EPCOT Center go. I think the biggest reason is because it’s the only theme park that has ever aspired to be more than a theme park…

“May EPCOT Center entertain, inform and inspire.” That’s the last line of the park’s lofty mission statement, and I think the emphasis should be placed on the inform and inspire portion of that goal. While other theme parks may inform and inspire in their own ways, this is incidental to their core goal of entertaining.

That was not the case with EPCOT Center. It put education (or “edutainment”) and inspiration front and center. What was built was not Walt Disney’s vision of E.P.C.O.T., but it was ambitious in its own right. It was a different breed of theme park, and one that perhaps defies categorization as a theme park.

I often liken Tokyo DisneySea to EPCOT Center, but even that comparison can only go so far. For all of its many, many strengths, Tokyo DisneySea does not purport to be anything more than a theme park built around the concept of “the water planet.” Even though Tokyo DisneySea is Disney’s best park, its purpose is still “only” to entertain. Just like every other theme park ever, EPCOT Center aside.

EPCOT Center’s aspirations were admirable, but I don’t think the park’s mission alone would have created generations of EPCOT Center diehard fans. Rather, it’s the consummation of that mission statement that has made the fans. The actual inspiration, rather than the aspiration, that has left an indelible mark on so many guests and forged a lifelong bond with the park that once was.

As a child, Epcot sparked my imagination. I know that’s incredibly corny and cliche, but it’s also true. Figment and Dreamfinder consciously inspired me, but also subconsciously did so, as I was rapt with my Figment toys, taking them on imaginary adventures.

Other Future World pavilions made an impact, too. I “discovered” manatees thanks to the Living Seas, and an ‘adopted’ manatee was a yearly Christmas gift I received for most of my childhood as a result. Wonders of Life and Kitchen Kabaret piqued my curiosity about health and diet, albeit to a far lesser extent.

I also loved dinosaurs as a kid, but I’m not sure whether that’s attributable to Universe of Energy, or just the unassailable truth that dinosaurs are awesome. Perhaps surprisingly, Horizons, Spaceship Earth, and the entirety of World Showcase had zero impact on me as a kid. I barely recall any of them. I guess that’s part of the beauty of EPCOT Center–different people took different things away from it.

As an adult, it was World Showcase–still mostly intact from the heyday of EPCOT Center–that influenced me. My family traveled a lot when I was young, and I’m incredibly thankful to my parents for taking me camping, exposing me to National Parks, and visiting so many states. That no doubt impacted me, as I enjoy all of those same things today.

With that said, I grew up in a rural town in the Midwest. My worldview, even through college, was embarrassingly Amerocentric. International travel was not something I had done or even figured I’d ever do. (Heck, I didn’t have a passport until 2012!)

It’d be wildly inaccurate to say that Epcot alone is what changed this (in addition to Epcot, I’d also credit our first visit to Disneyland, Before Sunrise, and who knows what else), but it certainly played a huge part.

The Canada pavilion put the Canadian Rockies on my radar as a logical extension of my U.S. National Park trips, Morocco taught me that there’s more to international cuisine than Italian food, and Reflections of China romanticized a place that otherwise had negative stereotypes.

However, it was Impressions de France that made the real impact. This film made me fall in love with Paris before ever visiting, and made me back off my wildly uninformed perspective that no country could match America’s beauty.

This film coupled with a desire to see Disney’s other parks paved the way for our first international trip.

If you’re at all familiar with our adventures since then, I think the rest is history, so to speak. For that, I’ll forever feel indebted to EPCOT Center and its creators, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.

I don’t think my story is unique. When talking to other EPCOT Center fans, similar stories abound about how the park had a profound influence on them.

Epcot’s “special place” is not just in my heart, though. It’s something I’m still reminded of with regularity when visiting Epcot. While the original mission of Epcot and the park’s concept are arguably dead, they’re also arguably alive. There are more than a few aspects of EPCOT Center that remain.

Of course there’s Spaceship Earth, the park’s icon that remains a beacon of inspiration in Future World. It may sound crazy, but simply seeing Spaceship Earth, and all that it represents, puts a smile on my face. (Does that sound crazy?) I love just being around Spaceship Earth.

Elsewhere in Future World, these are mostly just vestiges of EPCOT Center. In the Seas pavilion, the non-Nemo areas still are familiar of what they once were, and the atmosphere is wonderful. I don’t doubt that this pavilion still plants the idea of becoming a marine biologist in the minds of kids who visit.

Living with the Land is an attraction that likewise stirs the mind, and gives rise to a sense of optimism about the future of eco-agriculture. The dinosaurs of Ellen’s Energy Adventure are not necessarily educational, but they are still awesome, and fond reminders of Epcot’s past.

The Imagination pavilion is a bit of a sore spot for me, but I’m glad Figment still has a home in the park even if his attraction provokes mixed emotions. The Fountain of Nations, Innoventions background music, fiber optic pavement, and dancing fountains are other spots that remind me of the past–and that I continue to enjoy.

Other fans will find their own ‘flashes’ of EPCOT Center that rekindle fond memories throughout various corners of Future World.

Moving to World Showcase, virtually everything is still reminiscent of EPCOT Center. You can complain about aspects that have changed for the worse over the years or that it’s a near-perpetual drinking festival, but I think it’s fair to say that the core of World Showcase is what it was in the 1980s.

Even in pavilions like Norway, which now is also home to a fictional kingdom, the vibe is still largely the same when meandering through. In terms of atmospheric strolls and a slice of culture, World Showcase today largely reminds me of what it did back in the day.

This is one of the reasons I heaped praise upon the Epcot International Festival of the Arts. If anything, it enhanced World Showcase more than I’ve ever seen, and sidestepped the complaints that could be levied against the Epcot Food & Wine Festival.

I’ve said it a few times, but it bears repeating: EPCOT Center fans owe it to themselves to schedule a trip around the 2018 Epcot International Festival of the Arts. That’s probably as close as we’ll ever be to getting the “old” EPCOT Center back.

My point with all of this is that, even as it seems Epcot has mostly abandoned its original mission (and recent additions have demonstrated no real mission), there is still plenty of EPCOT Center DNA in the park. In some cases, these are fond reminders of the past. In other cases, it’s actual substance, attractions or pavilions that retain their old quality.

I think this is where Epcot differs from Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Aspects of that park’s past remain, but its original premise of taking guests behind the scenes of working studio and putting them in the midst of the action died sort of all at once–and there was no chance of that ever returning. Most fans realized this.

Even though Disney’s Hollywood Studios was in need of an identity for too long, its loss of identity occurred rather swiftly…like ripping off a band-aid. Now, the park has a new direction, and one that’s exciting for a lot of people. I think these are a couple of points that have enabled fans to move on with regard to DHS.

As long as these aspects of EPCOT Center remain, fans are not going to want to move on. We want to cling to them, point to them, and hope they are indicative of the future. At the very least, we want to savor what aspects of the past remain. I highly doubt EPCOT Center is ever coming back, but no amount of rational counterpoints can sway me away from this sense of optimism.

So long as Epcot has no real vision or clear direction, my inclination is towards hope. Hope that its original vision will be the direction the park goes once its “big fix” inevitably occurs. My optimism might be misguided given which direction Epcot is actually likely to go, but I think a little optimism is exactly what Epcot needs. Not among fans, but the park itself. The optimism of the original EPCOT Center is something Americans need now more than ever, and I still firmly believe the lofty goals and aim of EPCOT Center could resonate with guests. It’s just a matter of Disney having the ambition to choose that path, rather than the easy one.

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Your Thoughts

Are you an old school EPCOT Center fan? How did EPCOT Center make an impact on you? Do you actually have hope the park will be ‘restored’ in the future? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment of EPCOT Center fandom and nostalgia? Any other thoughts to add? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

56 Responses to “Why Can’t We Let EPCOT Go?”
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