EPCOT’s Overhaul Needs Optimism & Ambition
Since the start of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, more substantive additions have opened at EPCOT than all of the other 3 parks combined. While its transformation is far from complete, there have already been several major components of the project that have debuted and proven popular with guests.
Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure delivered a much needed family-friendly attraction in World Showcase, balancing out Frozen Ever After on the other side of the lagoon. Harmonious is a blockbuster nighttime spectacular that draws huge crowds on a nightly basis. Admittedly, neither of these offerings do a ton for me and I have quibbles (some minor, some major) with both–but there’s no denying that they are crowd pleasers.
Then there’s the front of the park. While not addressing any urgent need, Space 220 is an excellent eatery, an interesting counterpart both to Mission Space and Coral Reef on the other side of the park. Connections Cafe and Creations Shop don’t wow, but they’re material modernizations of dated dining and retail that were previously stuck in the 90s. Then there’s the biggest upgrade of all, which is what inspired this post…
Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is the blockbuster attraction that EPCOT has needed for at least 2 decades. Purists can debate whether it fits the mission and spirit of the original incarnation of the park, but that’s not the point of this post. One thing is indisputable: Cosmic Rewind is immensely popular with average guests who actually have ridden it.
In terms of drawing power, Cosmic Rewind not just an incremental improvement over Universe of Energy; it is the kind of headliner ride around which people will plan–and even book–entire vacations. There’s a reason Walt Disney World has a nationwide marketing campaign focused solely on this one ride. It’s very good, incredibly fun, and Florida’s first (and maybe only) major Marvel Cinematic Universe attraction.
Essentially, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is to EPCOT what Avatar Flight of Passage is to Animal Kingdom or Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is to Hollywood Studios. While other additions for those two parks came around the same time as their respective headliners, it was those specific rides that had drawing power.
Once guests arrive at Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, they discover the other top-notch additions in those parks. In particular, the whole of Pandora – World of Avatar and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. At Animal Kingdom, there are other atmospheric enhancements, wildlife exhibits, and more. Hollywood Studios has gone even further, with Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway plus Toy Story Land essentially transforming that park as compared to what it was a decade ago.
The case could be made that the same has or is happening with EPCOT. The Streets of Paris section of the France pavilion is a charming opening act to Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure. The reimagined entrance area rights past wrongs and is a much more inviting space, with fantastic lighting and visual effects.
In the future, Moana’s Journey of Water will likely deliver the type of interactive play area for kids that has been sorely missing from recent expansions at Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. That and other aspects of the EPCOT transformation have been well done–the park is transforming and coming into its own.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the rest of the EPCOT overhaul that’s currently behind construction walls (known “lovingly” around these parts as the Giant EPCOT Dirt Pit™️).
One month ago, Walt Disney World finally announced the plans for this: CommuniCore Hall & Plaza. Our commentary in that post doesn’t exactly feign enthusiasm for the “reimagined” project. In the month since that news, I’ve ruminated on the plans more and also spent a lot of time in EPCOT for the sake of Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.
Seeing the massive success and popularity of Cosmic Rewind (which would undoubtedly command multi-hour waits and colossal crowds were it not limited by the virtual queue and park reservations), my recurring thought has been: Disney needs to go bigger with the EPCOT plans.
Specifically, with the central spine and what’s to become CommuniCore Hall and Plaza.
While there was some disappointment from Walt Disney World fans about the scaled back plans, it also felt like there was a sense of concession. That we’ve already endured a sea of construction walls for a few years, and that we (collectively) are just ready for the park to be finished.
That’s understandable and I share some of that sentiment.
However, I also look at the previous concept art–both the 2017 version (above) and the 2019 version (below)–for the central spine redesign and cannot help but wish we were getting either of those instead. They’re both undeniably more ambitious, each with elements evoking the sense of optimism for which EPCOT is known.
There’s also the realization that Imagineering only has one shot at this. Whatever is built in that massive dirt pit is likely it for a long time. When those construction walls finally come down, they’ll reveal the version of EPCOT’s core that will exist for decades to come. There’s no expansion pad or area set aside for future development a few years from now.
Like so many Walt Disney World fans, I am ready to visit an EPCOT free of construction walls. And while the prospect of 2-3 more years of those walls is not particularly appealing, I’d take that over 2-3 decades of CommuniCore Hall and Plaza.
That’s why, from my perspective at least, it’s more forgivable to shelve plans for Mary Poppins in the United Kingdom, the reimagining of Spaceship Earth, Play Pavilion, or even an ambitious Journey into Imagination overhaul.
All of those could be picked up again when the time is right, the budgets are healthy, and the vision is there. Those areas being ignored is only temporary–fixable in the future. (Patience is the key to being a Figment fan–we’re used to plans being postponed and are willing to play the long game!) There’s no second shot at the core of the park.
Obviously, that area was never going to be the richly-themed lands of Pandora or Galaxy’s Edge. Even in prior visions for the overhaul, it was about improving the sense of place and making it an inviting jumping off point for the other ‘worlds’ of EPCOT.
Each of those incarnations also offered iconic elements–fanciful fountains, ambitious architecture, or statement design pieces. There was the wishing tree, enchanted forest, story fountain, and futuristic multi-level festival center. These elements would bolster the entire area, while also indirectly improving both Connections Cafe and Creations Shop by virtue of what would be visible outside those giant floor-to-ceiling windows.
Reducing all of that to a planter, trees, and single-story hall–not much different from what it replaced–just feels lacking. Instead of elevating the whole area, it sounds like it’ll be fairly familiar to what was already done with trees and planters in the entrance area.
That’ll just make it blend together into a single park-like space that’s only punctuated by Spaceship Earth. (In fairness, that is still quite the ‘statement design piece,’ especially with the beautiful Beacons of Magic at night.)
In particular, scaling back the festival center plans feels a tad short-sighted. In addition to being an architectural exemplar, that stunning multi-level building was going to have a lot of event space, including top-level viewing for Harmonious. Just imagine all of that now-unrealized revenue from dessert parties and other offerings with unparalleled views!
It made sense to shelve the tiered festival center plans right during the closure and even subsequent reopening when Disney was hemorrhaging money, attendance was abysmal, and analysts were forecasting that it could take until 2024 or beyond before travel recovers. Thankfully, things have improved faster than anyone expected, demand is strong, and guest spending is exceeding Disney’s expectations. Over time, the return on investment in the multi-level festival center should alone justify its upfront costs.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind only cements all of this further. At the time when Walt Disney World announced the CommuniCore Hall & Plaza plans last month, that Marvel E-Ticket hadn’t yet opened to rave reviews and tremendous popularity. Presumably, Disney had more than an inkling that it would be a huge hit, but it wasn’t certain–there was also a point when the company expected John Carter to be a tentpole franchise.
Even if there is a brief recession or pent-up demand fizzles out, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is the kind of headliner that’s going to be drawing people to Walt Disney World–and EPCOT, specifically–for years to come. It’s the turning point for the park–the foundation for the future.
Ultimately, that’s my ‘old man yells at cloud’ pitch into the abyss for Walt Disney World to (once again) reevaluate its plans for the central spine of EPCOT and go bigger. Given the groundwork that has already been laid, it seems like the real risk is going too small rather than too big.
To be sure, I’m not expecting the company to suddenly alter course and revert back to EPCOT Center; I know that ship sailed long ago. What I want is actually the opposite–for the new EPCOT to step out of the shadow of the past and establish its own ‘center’ that wows guests for years to come. Rehashing what was previously there, adding trees, and giving it a name that leans on the past is not the path to that. This new area should be ambitious, inspiring, and imbued with its own unique spirit of optimism, kinetic energy, and excitement. At the end of the day, what’s more “EPCOT Center” than that?!
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What do you think of CommuniCore Hall and Plaza? Think I’m being too harsh on the latest plans for EPCOT’s central spine redesign? Are you excited by what’s to come, just ready for construction walls to come down, or willing to wait? Is the CommuniCore plan an exciting development, or underwhelming as compared to the previous multi-level festival center? Looking forward to any of these projects coming to EPCOT? Disappointed about anything that has been delayed or cancelled? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
It just seemed so obvious after Tom’s review and photos that the wide use of wood and wood-like colors within the CC combined with the floor to ceiling windows was designed to take advantage of the Hundredth Acre Wood that was planned for that area, and now looks to be more concrete. Even the new convention center building was going reflect the natural atmosphere that was going to be in the area. Finally, I’m old enough to enjoy spending some time sitting next to a statue of Walt Disney and enjoy watching kids play around there in the grass and whatnot.
I think it could be worth it to lose the kinetics of the Fountain of Nations for a green space, but it’s a little on the nose to pave it and put up a concrete lot.
Not to “defend” Disney on this one, but I don’t think any trees have been cut from the plans at this point. In fact, if you compare the before/after concept art (very top of post is the new version), there are actually more trees.
In interviewing Zach Riddley during the Cosmic Rewind media event, I got the impression that not everything has been finalized for the section between the planter and Creations/Connection. That would also explain why the concept art is very green there. It’s common for Disney to replace TBD substance with vegetation in concept art.
It’s fascinating that they would willingly scale back a project that was certainly going to be pushed as a major new revenue stream. If anything I figured this multi-level events pavilion was a done deal. And it’s too bad because it looked fantastic.
It’s really sad that they’ve gotten to the point of sacrificing long term profits due to short term costs. That single level building simply cannot have the same special events or party space. Heck, they even could’ve used the top level of the original festival center for weddings before/after hours. Absolutely mind-boggling that they’re not building it.
Great post, really well said.
Epcot is dead. Long live Epcot. When we walk into a space it either invites us to go further and explore or it doesn’t. One thing about Disney is that it changes. But slowly. I totally agree with you Tom in that whatever is created now will be there for years and maybe our lifetimes. I say that we need to keep our expectations high. I am okay with paying more to get more. Invite me in Disney and intrigue me into venturing further. I have had unique experiences at WDW that could never happen anywhere else. We want Magic not just good enough. Thank you Tom and Sarah
Sometimes I become rather sad when I think about how so many things in our culture are past their “prime” while the current state of music/art/architecture/entertainment has become so soulless and lacking ambition. What makes these parks great is less and less because of their present/future and more and more about their past. Beyond high tech attractions, Disney has really been falling flat with their new hotels, most restaurants, and other themed areas. World of Pandora was an insanely impressive addition to animal kingdom. Why is Epcot being treated like an outdoor suburban shopping mall?
Yes. Visited Epcot frequently in its early days along with the MK. It does seem like the original attractions are the classic magic ones that keep me interested. New stuff mostly just can’t compare with the originals. I love Japan and France and visited them mostly because of experiences at Epcot in the’80s. Long live Future World. And the experiences created by the great Imagineers who were given creative freedom to bring us the best of Disney. Here’s to Pirates and Dragons.
This is as accurate a comment as any I’ve seen on all counts!
I was really, really looking forward to the new festival center.
In regard to the World Celebration area, it doesn’t bother me much that Disney canned the multi-level festival center. I always thought that even though it would be a beautiful building, it would be used primarily for private events or ticketed upcharge “parties”. No loss there. I’m hoping that the entire area will be focused on the beauty of Epcot that I remember from the early 90’s: gorgeous and extravagant plantings in the large planters all around…more shade trees of exotic and unusual varieties…in general, a cooler, greener and more inspiring place just to hang out. For that last decade or two, Disney horticulture has just bought a few hundred begonias & a few hundred marigolds and called it a day! Bring back the creativity! (and the flock of flamingos that used to live over near Mexico)
While I can understand your perspective towards a building you largely wouldn’t be able to use–that would not have been the case. Events space was only going to be a portion of it, and only at certain times. Other than that, it would’ve been mostly accessible.
Yes the ship has sailed and I’ve come to terms with it. I agree with the article. Now it seems like the front of Epcot is like HWS prior to toy story land and Star Wars land. There were a couple of awesome attractions and the rest was just meh. It’s sad when the original ideas and plans get so whittled down.
I totally agree on this one, Tom. Destroying the symmetry of FW leaves…a mess by any version of the artwork presented. Central Spine? What spine? That 3 story pavilion was one thing that might’ve made up partially for this wanton destruction of classic EPCOT, maybe. This was not the place to be pinching pennies.
While I haven’t been there since October (really?) Mouse Gear Lite is just bland and boring, the kind of space that drives folks to online shopping. I really hope the lack of selection and obviously-stretched inventory was actually simply due to the now-ridiculous cliche of ‘supply chain issues’ we’re all so disgusted at hearing. I don’t see the space housing even a fraction of what Mouse Gear, however, and that is truly sad.
Yes, I do miss EPCOT Center!
I went to EPCOT for the first time this spring. I found it to be very disjointed. Like 2 distinctly different parks. I’m hoping, from what I learned in this article, that once the dirt pit has become something, it will all come together.
I went with my elderly mother and developmentally disabled sister, none of us were overly interested in the space stuff, although Spaceship Earth was pretty cool. We were simply trying to get to the World Showcase and the Ratatouille ride, and the Flower and Garden Festival (very cool, by the way). Everyone was worn out by the time we got there! It was really quite boring walking through the front part to get to world showcase. Also, for newbies like us, it was very confusing as the maps were not helpful to us. Thank goodness for helpful Crew Members! The Humid 90 degree weather did not help our plight either.
We did enjoy lunch at the new Connections Cafe. We all had the yummy cheese pizza. Not exactly foodies here! We just needed sustenance!
I look forward to returning to EPCOT, someday, when the construction (or most of it) is completed. Very interested in seeing what the final design will be like.
Oh this gives me an idea for what they should’ve done with the central spine… Expand the World Showcase Lagoon into the middle of communicore and supply a continuous stream of boat transportation to ferry tired guests around world showcase! Add some fountain work and some continuous loading docks like peoplemover and you have a practical and sightly winner! (And maybe remove the barges while you’re at it)
Absolutely agree, Tom!! Epcot gets away with a lot due to the stunning experience of walking towards and under Spaceship Earth at the start of your park day – it still gets my heart thumping, nearly as much as my first visit in 1982. Back then, however, there was an immediate sense of place – we were truly in Future World, as evidenced by World Key, Communicore, and architecture that was innovative and exciting for its time. The other three parks deliver this sense of place in spades – and I don’t just mean in the recently built lands. At first glance, Magic Kingdom’s Main Street connects you with a sense of nostalgia and whimsy, even if for first time visitors. Winding through Animal Kingdom’s Oasis immediately connects you with the spirit of discovery and connection to nature that you’ll experience throughout the day. The music and architecture of Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ Hollywood Boulevard sets the expectation of immersion in a fictitious, film-inspired world. Epcot’s spine has gone from feeling like a tired, 1980’s convention center in a secondary city to a depressing warren of black tunnels. I’m afraid the finished product is going to feel more like “updated convention center” than a “World Celebration.”
Miss the Festival bldg and the speakers,free flowers and bags D had during flower and garden festival. The how they did it videos were informative ie how the floating gardens were made and how D installed overnight the front display. Personally I thought that was a wow, but I guess that is gone, seems like it’s money,money, money and a step away from horticulture!
I think I would agree with you. I never saw the “before” but that was more of what I was expecting from the flower and garden show. I really liked all the topiaries and flowers, and gardens, but thought there was a huge element that might have been missing. I think, too, it being our first time, we were quite overwhelmed by the sheer size of the world showcase and what we were supposed to be experiencing! Love to go back at a quieter time, so that we can just absorb everything, instead of rushing (crowds carried us along and my party was getting impatient in the heat)
I’ve walked like a rat in amaze for too long at Epcot – I almost get lost when any temp wall is removed and we are allowed to walk into a sort of completed reimagined area like the walk past newly reopened Guest Relations to Connections Cafe. This was a BIG moment, really. I think that’s the plan, just make it so awful and unpleasant for so long, anything is welcomed. Lately, I only focus on Epcot in halves, will be nice once it becomes a whole park again.
As someone who isn’t there to see the walls all the time but will be going to Epcot this fall, I’d like to know where the walls are and what are the options to get around future world. Can we only walk around the most outside edge of the park right now? Is there a map online of where the walls are so I can see what my options are for getting around?
You can cut through the center (more or less) along a pathway in front of Connections and Creations Shop en route to World Showcase now. The rest of the center area behind Spaceship Earth is behind walls.
It’s visible on the park map: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/epcot/maps/ (Everything that’s green space behind Spaceship Earth is actually dirt/construction.)
I wish I could even wrap my head around all that is going on at Epcot. It’s all so confusing. I feel like I’m just initially turned off by the name “CommuniCore.” That’s a name some bland corporation gives to its latest sales initiative, not something that should be magical and memorable. I hope I can figure it all out someday.
CommuniCore is a callback to the original name of the Innoventions buildings, including the demolished one this replaces. It’s a superficial move meant to placate old school fans who might otherwise be critical of changes. Or at least, that’s my cynical read. 😉
While I agree with everything that you have said, as usual, I still miss Horizons with a passion, and would love that to return. Even if its only a Virtual ride like Star Tours.
I’d love to be wrong, but I can’t see Disney ever doing that in its parks–that comes too close to admitting a past mistake. (Heck, they won’t even bring back Happily Ever After, despite it being the obvious answer at this point.)
I do think we’re not too far away from themed After Hours events at EPCOT that dig into nostalgia, though.
I want to engage with this thoughtful essay, and in general agree with your ambition.
However, I am still struck by how poorly the Epcot experience of the present compares to the recent and distant past. In exchange for the two new rides (and full disclosure, I haven’t ridden Cosmic Rewind yet, but expect to like it), Epcot is more crowded, more drunk, more barge-y, and more prone to break downs than pre-pandemic. I’d welcome an inspiring central spine, certainly, but Epcot deserves (deserved) better.
Sorry to be so negative.
I agree with you when it comes to the distant past, but not recent. World Showcase has been overly drunk for a while now and the crowds are only a byproduct of attractions that are more compelling for the general public. To each their own, but I don’t think uncrowded as compared to the other 3 parks is an objective metric of success.
The barges are awful and especially unforgivable given that they add almost nothing to the show. Disney could’ve saved a ton of money and visual blight by simply making a larger globe, it would’ve worked better even with the same Harmonious music and visuals.
Good insight as always! I feel this Is a big missed opportunity! Currently they force Festival Food Both into Wold Whatever and people sit and eat in the spaces. Now they have the Two new kids playgrounds. They realize people like to chill drink/ eat in Epcot so why not creat a dynamic space and have a tasting ticketed menu On the upper deck of something like the original concept art? It would sort of be like it’s own restaurant but really for theming to the 3 yearly festivals. Then you could also have the harmonious nightly event because the views could be awesome! How would that revenue not cover the cost of construction? Do we know how Chapek’s relationship is with Imaginering? Watching the dis plus show I feel this is super important to the company and maybe Bob is just to focused on Dis Plus subscribers and not on what we think are no brainers in the parks cap ex department. Thoughts
In the long term, the special events and food & beverage revenue from the more ambitious festival center absolutely would’ve (more than) justified the higher CapEx. Not to mention that it looked much better.
Everything I’ve heard is entirely anecdotal so take it with a grain of salt, but there doesn’t seem to be much love among Imagineering for Chapek–and that predates his time as CEO. Even though he technically came from parks & resorts, he’s a consumer products guy.
I’m sure Cosmic Rewind will be a fun ride (think King’s Island and Six Flags) but does the roller coaster with the raccoon guy really fit the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow theme? EPCOT has always been my favorite. It “wowed” me. It took me to places other than an amusement park. I hope it still will.
This post operates with the assumption that original EPCOT Center is dead and has been since at least the late 1990s.
To be sure, there are still nuggets of that spirit, and core elements like the geodesic sphere of Spaceship Earth, Future World pavilion architecture, and World Showcase remain.
I guess that’s to say that if EPCOT “wowed” you in 2012, I don’t really see how that has changed in any material way–for better or worse–since then. The original Future World pavilions were long gone then and the aforementioned core elements remained. The same is true today.
I agree! We want those endless construction walls to have been worth it! The current plans do not wow me at all. It would be understandable if the company was not making so much money, but demand being what it is, I think it is just being lazy. I actually love the idea of a Mary Poppins area and I definitely think Spaceship earth needs some updates, but I totally agree that putting those on hold is fine. Get that dirt pit to yield something truly amazing. I really liked the festival building concept art. It would have brought both beauty and functionality.