That Olde Timey EPCOT Futurism
I took my kids to EPCOT and got caught up in all the discarded futures' past
We took the kids to Disney World over the holiday break. Day 1 was the Magic Kingdom, Day 2 was EPCOT. As we pulled into the EPCOT parking lot, my wife joked that I was bringing the family on a research trip. Turned out she was a little bit right.
Visiting EPCOT feels like wandering through an unsubtle metaphor. Today there are effectively two parks, one awkwardly layered above the other. There’s the original park, themed around futurist edutainment, and there’s the new park, with rides built around popular Disney IP (Intellectual Property).
The old park is still there. But it’s been gradually overwritten, updated. It’s like a house undergoing gut-renovation while people still live in it. The kitchen has gleaming marble countertops and a Viking induction range. The bathroom has a new rainshower with immaculate water pressure. But the living room has 1980s particleboard paneling and shag carpet. The two halves don’t really belong together. The new is not some extension of the original vision or style of the old.
I find something deeply appealing about wandering through the old husks of discarded futures’ past in this way. It’s an olde timey futurism. They don’t make futurism like EPCOT anymore. And its decline is not rooted in rejection of the vision it once espoused. It is just cast aside because it feels so out-of-place and irrelevant.
EPCOT is an acronym. It stands for “Experimental Planned Community of Tomorrow.” (I fell down a bit of a youTube rabbit hole after the trip. I found this episode of Defunctland particularly satisfying.)
Long before EPCOT was a theme park, it was something even more bizarre — Walt Disney’s most ambitious dream. Disney (who, side note, strikes me as an exceptionally weird dude) considered himself a futurist, and EPCOT was going to be his crowning achievement. It was meant to be a city, home to all his Magic Kingdom theme park workers. It would be a company town, but also a tourist attraction. There would be excellent transit (the monorail!) and no poverty. There would be no citizen input into governance, but that would of course be fine since all the happy workers would be so content to live under the watchful, caring gaze of Uncle Walt. (Does that sound a little dystopian to you? It sounds pretty dystopian to me. Like, that is definitely Act 1 in a story were things-go-very-wrong.)
This is a type of futurism with a grand pedigree. It is a futurism that enshrines the scientist, the engineer, and the technocrat as the motive forces of history. Walt, the omnicompetent planner, would supply technological innovations that provided for his people. Nothing would go wrong, because an expert-class would plan for every eventuality. (Again, let me interject, this guy’s essential talent boiled down to drawing a cartoon mouse, right? What a strange basis upon which to crown a ruling elite.)
It’s the sort of futurism you’ll encounter in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series — a type that, frankly, completely ruins the series for me (Listen to Dan Drezner and Ana Marie Cox on this point. Foundation has aged so very poorly.) It’s the ultimate fantasy of placing complete control in the hands of a deserving meritocratic elite, an elite that rules with competence and benevolence because they are the proper architects of history, finally set free of the incompetents that besiege them.
The original EPCOT project died with Walt. The actual park opened in 1982 and offered a softer, more thematic representation of Disney’s grand ambitions. There’s an around-the-world section, offering Disneyfied riffs on global cultures, and there’s a science-and-nature section, with rides devoted to agriculture, energy, the forces of nature, and technology. Where the Magic Kingdom offered rides centered on Disney-owned IP, EPCOT felt more like what you might get if you turned the World’s Fair into a permanent attraction aimed at little kids and exhausted parents.
I knew basically none of this backstory going in. I think my parents took me to EPCOT once in the ‘80s, but that’s lost in the fog of memory. We took our kids to EPCOT because that’s where the Frozen ride is. (My kids are 2 and 5. They absolutely love Frozen.) But, since we were there, we also went on the agriculture-themed “Living with the Land” ride and the history-of-technology-themed “Spaceship Earth.” What a clunky combination.
What struck me immediately was how the old vision of the park is being slowly, gradually replaced. Our first ride was in the Mexico pavilion, where we went on the “Three Caballeros” boat ride. Waiting in line, all of the exhibits were focused on Coco instead. My wife pointed out that they were obviously going to turn this into a Coco ride eventually. And yeah, they should! The Three Caballeros is a movie from 1944. It has Donald Duck in it. I have never seen it. Neither have my kids. But we’ve seen Coco. Coco is really good!
Then the kids got to meet Anna and Elsa. They posed for pictures, and the actors stayed in character. At the end of the visit, the Kindergartener leaned close to the Elsa actress, and said, in a singularly earnest voice, “your movie is very nice.” It was empirically the cutest moment in the history of Disney World (trust me. I am a scientist. I’ve probably measured these things.) Then we went on the “Frozen Ever After” ride. That ride kicks ass.
Frozen is in the Norway portion of the round-the-world pavilion. The rest of the global cultural tour didn’t do much for us. Visiting Disney’s interpretation of German and Moroccan culture isn’t what we came to the theme park for. We skipped the popular Ratatouille ride — the line was too long and the girls haven’t seen that movie yet. We headed instead for the mini-aquarium, which had a Finding Nemo-themed ride that the kids loved. It wasn’t as good as a trip to a real aquarium, but it was a nice break in the day. The toddler really likes Nemo and Dory.
Then we sampled some of the older rides. And that’s where I got the feeling I should be taking notes in a journal. “Living with the Land” is an 20th-century tour through the history of agriculture in America. It is housed in what can best be described as a basement-level mall food court from the 1980s. The instructional audio regales you with stories of how the Disney corporation is collaborating with the Department of Agriculture and university scientists on breakthrough agriculture techniques. The highlight of the ride is a greenhouse. It’s all a bit dated and off-kilter. Living with the Land has a strong Dharma Initiative vibe.
I did get a kick out of this one sign:
Then we took a trip on “Spaceship Earth,” which housed inside the iconic Dyson Sphere/giant golf ball. Spaceship Earth is a tour through the history of technological innovation, from the invention of fire through networked computing. It hasn’t been updated in at least 20 years — the last innovation is basically a computer connected to a modem. It concludes with a sort of choose-your-own-adventure futurist exercise, depicting a Jetsons-like future where we live and work in the space age Walt surely envisioned. My kids didn’t know what to make of it.
We didn’t take the kids on Living with the Land or Spaceship Earth because we wanted to ignite their agricultural or technological curiosity. We chose those rides because the lines were short. Scanning the wait times, it’s immediately clear that people come to EPCOT for Frozen, Finding Nemo, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ratatouille. (They’re building some kind of Moana ride. My kids are gonna love that.)
The appeal of the retrofuturist rides is that the lines are short. It’s a future barely worth updating, a future that they just haven’t gotten around to replacing yet.
That’s the bit that feels like one of the deep grooves of history to me. The original EPCOT was sort of a privatized World’s Fair. It was the culmination of a near-century of technological breakthroughs that directly impacted the physical world. It was a place to marvel at the march of progress — telephony and radio and television and automobiles and airplanes and spaceflight. This march of progress encouraged “imagineers” to follow that trajectory forward — to monorails and space colonies and a world that was increasingly managed, planned, and perfected by a mighty scientific elite.
Those tangible breakthroughs slowed down around the 1970s. (Tyler Cowen has ideas about why this is. I haven’t settled on a hypothesis yet.) Innovation since then has moved mostly to the realm of computers, which have gotten smaller and more powerful and then became networked. And the digital revolution yields a different imagined future now, one in which we ourselves become cyborgs of a sort (either metaphorically or literally).
My kids have no memory of scientific elites transforming the material world for our public benefit. (Hell, I have no memory of it, and I am decidedly middle-aged.) This embedded faith in technological progress is something of a baby-boomer generational phantom limb, a collective memory influencing what we depict as the natural way of things.
For all the talk of the radical technological breakthroughs of the digital era, it’s a striking reminder that the breakthroughs of the 20th century were at least as radical in scope. In the forty years since EPCOT opened (1982-2022), the Internet has transformed so many aspects of our lives. But the forty years preceding it (1942-1982) featured the introduction nuclear power, broadcast television, the Interstate highway system, the birth control pill, the polio vaccine, and space flight!
Wandering through EPCOT is a reminder of how the old material futurism and faith in a better tomorrow has gathered rust and gathered dust. In a too-on-the-nose moment, the Spaceship Earth ride repeatedly broke down while we were on it. We were stuck there for about 45 minutes. The old futurism broke down and needs repair, but it probably isn’t worth the effort.
We’ll go back to EPCOT someday. When we do, I imagine there will be more fresh IP-based rides, and fewer leftover examples of the park’s original futurist orientation.
And I think that’s ultimately a good thing.
We don’t need Walt Disney or the Disney Corporation defining the boundaries of the future. That future was never inevitable, and today it comes across as little more than the detritus of the past. The point of a trip to Disney World is to let the kids meet Elsa and Anna and go on fun rides, not impress them with how the company is, itself, engineering the future.
The Disney corporation is exceptionally good at telling stories that pique a child’s imagination.
Let that be the limit of its authority. Leave defining the future to the rest of us.
A "Dyson Sphere" is a purely hypothetical object for the straightforward reason that it refers to a structure built to encompass an entire star in order to capture as much of its radiation as possible. Freeman Dyson, an actual physicist, didn't invent the concept named after him but he did seriously think that as the energy requirements of a technically advanced civilization grew, it would perforce be obliged to this expedient. He thought that it would be a good signature to look for when searching for alien civilizations. In other words, a Dyson Sphere is an extrapolation of "the march of progress" to an absurd degree.
And yes, I realize that you probably meant to refer to R. Buckminster Fuller. But you gave me an excuse ... :-)
This was a lovely Saturday-morning read. Thanks.