Eccentric EPCOT Center: A Look Back at 40 Years

Happy 40th Anniversary, EPCOT Center! On October 1, 1982, Walt Disney World opened its second park, which remains the most revolutionary theme park of all time. We’ve waxed poetic about the significance of EPCOT Center many times here, so I thought it’d be fun to do in a totally different direction: reflecting on some of the more eccentric moments from Epcot’s history.

While many Walt Disney World fans consider EPCOT Center one of the most ambitious and greatest creative successes of any theme park, treating it with a reverence unlike any other theme park on earth, there are a couple things worth acknowledging. First, EPCOT Center was dramatically different than Walt Disney’s personal vision for EPCOT, which was to be a living community. Walt’s vision was going to be a foray into urban planning–not a new type of theme park.

Second, EPCOT Center was weird. What’s often overlooked by fans like me who treat EPCOT Center with such reverence is that there are some truly irreverent parts of its past. Part of this is just standard-issue 1980s weirdness, other elements likely crept in even during those early years as Walt Disney World sought to push back against any claims that EPCOT Center was too dry or boring. No doubt, some of this would make Robert Alan Epcot roll in his grave.

1980s versions of the future are definitely how we got things like the Astuter Computer Revue, whereas the quest for kid-friendly relevance probably explains things like Barbie’s Birthday Bash. Then there are long-forgotten things like Kristos–visiting alien contortionists–that “entertained” park guests in the aughts, that really defy categorization.

Before we dig into the list, I want to share a photo project we undertook 10 years ago in honor of EPCOT Center’s 30th Anniversary. That was in the blog’s infancy, so many of you might’ve missed it. We asked readers to submit their photos from the glory years of EPCOT Center, and everyone delivered in a big way, submitting over 1,000 EPCOT Center photos from the 1980s and 90s.

I then organized those into posts, some of which contain 100+ vintage photos in addition to some history about each subject. Each post will open in a new window:

There are a ton of fun, funny, and unique photos in those posts, so definitely check them out if you have never seen them. And another thanks to everyone who helped with that project. Hard to believe that was 10 years ago!

Those posts are admittedly superficial and reductionist explanation of a topic about which numerous books have been written. The full history is really quite fascinating, and this barely begins to scratch the surface. If you’d like to learn more, I’d suggest reading Walt Disney’s EPCOT: Creating the New World of TomorrowThis is one of my all-time favorite Walt Disney World books, and is available for ~$5 used. Other books to check out include Progress City Primer and Walt and the Promise of Progress City.

Okay, now let’s take a look at ‘Eccentric EPCOT’…

Barbie’s Birthday Party – Just watching the opening moments of that video above, you can tell “EPCOT ’94” is a park with an identity crisis. Rather than having this hosted by tween girls jumping out of a pink limo, it’d be more fitting if the video opened with a middle aged balding dude rolling up in a pink Corvette. Apparently, the same people who thought it’d be a good idea to give EPCOT Center a hip edge by appending the year to its name deemed that park the perfect place for Barbie to have her birthday party.

The above video is actually a promotional VHS tape that was sold for a penny with purchase of select Barbie dolls, which is itself really something. The main component of Barbie’s Birthday Party at EPCOT ’94 was the Magical World of Barbie, a stage show held in the American Gardens Theater, which is the same venue where Candlelight Processional, a solemn and dignified retelling of the Christmas story, is performed.

There was none of that in the Magical World of Barbie, a high-energy dance show in which Barbie and scantily-clad hip-hop dancing friends doing aerobics and such. Before you cry that this doesn’t fit Epcot, Barbie and her friends did travel around the world during the course of the show, and Barbie was the worldwide “Ambassador of Friendship.” Who knows, maybe Barbie also visited Epcot as a kid?

Everything about Barbie’s Birthday Party at EPCOT ’94 is quintessential 1990s gold. The only way you could get more 90s is if you threw the Ninja Turtles in Hammer Pants up there with Barbie. Maybe that was the secret sauce missing to make Barbie’s Birthday Party a long-term success that’d still be running today.

Daredevil Circus Spectacular – As an online discussion about Epcot’s thematic integrity grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Daredevil Circus Spectacular approaches 1. We call this Centorium’s Law. This show from 1987 was the first big “what the heck?!” moment in EPCOT Center’s history, and defies explanation to this day.

Billed as a “cosmic thrill show, like no circus in the universe,” Daredevil Circus Spectacular featured both outer space and international motifs because of course it did. The show included elephants (err…”elephant-like Martian Mastodons”), acrobats, motorcyclists, the Wheel of Destiny, a tightrope walker, trapeze troupe, and Disney characters in cosmic attire. If all of that sounds confusing, you’re not alone in that reaction.

It’s accepted wisdom that Michael Eisner did not like or understand EPCOT Center, and felt it was a drain on the Walt Disney Company during his early tenure as CEO. My theory is that Eisner was a huge fan of the circus, and demanded that the nascent park add one so it’d appeal to him, personally.

From there, Imagineers were left to pick up the pieces, someone adding this with thematic integrity, which resulted in the whole intergalactic thrills combined with an international cast. I’m still not sure why outer space is a stand-in for the future, but hey, it was the 80s. Reading the press release for the show is a bit of a trip in itself.

Children of the Corn World Showcase – Known as the “EPCOT Pageant Dolls” or “People of the World” characters, not a ton is known about these walk-around characters from the early days of EPCOT Center. Thanks to reader Patricia B., our EPCOT Center Vintage Characters post is filled with several great photos of them, but not much is otherwise known.

We also know that they were recycled from America on Parade, a bicentennial parade that ran in Magic Kingdom. Presumably, someone thought it’d be a good idea to re-outfit those characters for World Showcase, and have some ‘it’s a small world’ characters in real life. It’s pretty easy to see why this experiment was short-lived.

Splashtacular – I’ll be honest with you–I think Splashtacular was awesome, and I’d totally be down for a show like this again. The video above is from the Disney Channel, and I’d recommend giving it a watch. In case you’re not (yet) interested, let me entice you: Splashtacular featured the Fountain of Nations, alien/dinosaur/space action involving the robotic Terrorsaux, and a plot that feels like a precursor to Fantasmic. I love that it uses a remix of Tokyo Disneyland’s 10th Anniversary song as its theme song, too.

Speaking of splashes and Tokyo Disneyland, it surprises me that Walt Disney World doesn’t borrow another note from the Japan parks and have a summer festival akin to those at Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea, both of which have shows that heavily feature water and soak guests. It’s a way to escape the summer humidity (which isn’t even as bad as it is in Florida) and guests really love it.

The Kristos – In the grand scheme of things, a troupe of contortionists probably wouldn’t register as one of the weirder things to appear at EPCOT Center over the years. However, when that group is pitched as “Visiting Alien Contortionists” and starts out each show with ominous music and an introduction, inviting guests to meet Epcot’s newest [long pause] visitors. I’d say, yeah, it makes the list.

Despite this being one of the newer entertainment acts at Epcot to make the list (their run ended in 2006), not much is known about the Kristos. There are only a handful of videos on YouTube, and by the looks of it, their show changed over its run, with the performers originally coming out with full-body spandex and alien faces, and that later changing to exposed faces (my guess: the alien faces coupled with the music scared kids). We don’t recall ever seeing this supernatural show, and that will haunt us until the end of our days.

Astuter Computer Revue – Owning the distinction of being the first original EPCOT Center attraction to close, lasting just over a year until its demise in January 1984, most fan knowledge of this attraction comes from D23 events. It’s one of those attractions that sounds good in theory: it had a Pepper’s Ghost special effect, showcased the impact computers could have on society, and even featured an original song by the Sherman brothers. What’s not to love about all of that?!

Based on accounts of those who saw it or worked at EPCOT Center during its early years, the actual show left a lot to be desired. It was also likely a bit too cutesy about a piece of emerging technology that was starting to have a significant impact on modern living. Fortunately, the Sherman Brothers song survives; as with all of their songs, its quite catchy and conveys the tone of the attraction.

Cirikli: The Wandering Stilt Birds – This nomadic troupe of birds traveling World Showcase looking for a place to nest looks a lot like a precursor to the beloved Tapestry of Nations parade for the Millennium Celebration at Epcot.

This is a bit odd, but I think it’s odd in a good way, one that largely works at Epcot. Entertainment like this adds character and charm to the park, and has a flair of eccentricity that enhances Epcot. As with Tapestry of Nations, I’d be perfectly happy seeing these birds make a comeback.

Captain EO – It’s no secret that I was not a fan of Captain EO making an extended tribute run following Michael Jackson’s death. I was against its return because it was dated and not befitting of contemporary Future World, concern that now seems so quaint even only a couple of years later.

Nevertheless, Captain EO earns a place as the best exemplar of campy Disney fun. I doubt it was ever good in the traditional sense of the word; even in the 1980s, I suspect people saw through its overwrought style and just laughed at the movie or had fun with it. There’s nothing wrong with that.

At its core, this was a film about Michael Jackson and a motley crew of space Muppets delivering the gift of music and provocative dancing to the surly Supreme Leader as a peace offering. MJ’s music transforms all around him, and in so doing, the world. Tale as old as time, right?

The utter preposterousness of it all is part of the allure, as are the attempts to instill the story with a sense of (unearned) gravitas. It had arguably the most self-important demeanor of any permanent EPCOT Center attraction, despite being the one that should be taken least seriously.

Robots of the Future: SMRT-1, QT1, and Digit – In its early years, Epcot had a robot infestation. Unfortunately, after one became sentient and learned the ways of Mike Tyson (with the dreaded incident caught on film above), their presence was rethought.

SMRT-1 is the most well-known of the robot group. Located in CommuniCore’s Computer Central, he was a blueish purple robot who played trivia games with guests. In the 1980s, this interactive technology was revolutionary, and his influence can be felt in modern attractions like Turtle Talk with Crush and Monsters Laugh Floor. Other robots were primarily atmospheric entertainment, which continued long after CommuniCore became Innoventions.

I’m actually a bit surprised that robots haven’t continued to appear at Epcot in more recent years. They are one aspect of the future that remains out-of-reach, and about which there remains curiosity. The styles of SMRT-1 and 1980s designs wouldn’t hold up today, but there’s still plenty of potential. How cool would it be to see a futuristic robot from the Living Character Initiative?

Epcot Carnivale – It seems like there were a couple of Epcot Carnivales over the years. There’s footage from the early 1990s of characters in Mardi Gras attire arriving via a double-decker bus for a brief smile and wave show. In the late 1990s, the concept was expanded, with the double-decker now serving as the “Junkanoo Bus.”

The second Carnivale (which ran around 1997-1998) appears to have been aimed at more cultural authenticity (even though the characters still played a part). There were floats and elaborately costumed performers representing different counties that celebrate Carnivale. During the high-energy cavalcade, beads were handed out to guests while floats, stilt-walkers, and dancers made their way around World Showcase.

Canada Lumberjacks – I don’t know about you, but when I think of experiencing the culture of the world, the first thing that comes to mind is Duck Dynasty. World Showcase finally realized this vision of culture with Duck Dynasty: Canuck Edition.

While this show was only retired a little over 5 years ago (unfortunately, it’s forever burned into my memory), it already has earned a place in Epcot history as bizarre. The show featured the Paul Bunyan Lumberjacks, a group of Floridian performers, doing the kind of competitive ‘extreme’ lumberjacking you might see at 2:30 a.m. on ESPN2.

In addition to the athletic lumberjacks of the group, there was a rotund emcee, who provided dull-witted comedy and oddly-placed messages of conservation. In addition to the show being offensively bad and pandering to the lowest common denominator, it was obnoxiously loud, and could be heard all the way across World Showcase lagoon.

Honorable Mention: Captain Saltyhinder – While never seriously on the table for the Living Seas pavilion, much less an actual ‘weird thing’ in EPCOT Center, Captain Saltyhinder deserves some recognition here. This is particularly true since the world first became aware of his existence 5 years ago, when John Hench’s sketches of Captain Saltyhinder were shown at the Epcot30 events.

As this D23 post shares, one of the difficulties Imagineers faced after the smash success of Figment and Dreamfinder, was that sponsors for other pavilions wanted what Kodak had with Journey into Imagination and its lovable characters. One of United Technologies’ requests for the Living Seas pavilion when they signed on as sponsor was for the pavilion to have a pair of host characters.

Imagineer John Hench, was not too keen on such a formulaic approach, and mockingly sketched up a duo of characters–tongue firmly in cheek–called Captain Saltyhinder and his mackerel sidekick. Captain Saltyhinder is a sea captain/deep-sea diver, greeting park guests with his mackerel sidekick in hand, which would spray children with water.

I think that about covers it for this look back at Eccentric EPCOT. If you have any favorite memories about the oddities of EPCOT Center, please share them in the comments below!

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Your Thoughts

Do you have any favorite weird moments from EPCOT Center’s past? Any quirky extinct attractions or entertainment that you particularly miss? Do you wish they’d bring the circus back to Epcot? Any questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

30 Responses to “Eccentric EPCOT Center: A Look Back at 40 Years”
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