Looking Back: Walt Disney's Epcot Center, We've just begun to dream (June 21, 1981)

Published Aug. 3, 2017

In 1966, on an episode of "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," Walt Disney first announced his intention to build "a community of tomorrow." His death soon after would lead to the demise of a true "city of the future", but the idea was kept alive within the Walt Disney company and in the mid-1970's plans were announced to begin construction on the "World's Fair" themed park to open in the early 1980's.

Over the next three weeks the Times will look back on the years leading up to the construction and opening of the "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow."

"EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise."

- Walt Disney

Epcot will celebrate its 35th anniversary on October 1st, 2017.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

This story appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times on June 21, 1981. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with previously unreleased photos taken by Times staff photographer Fraser Hale.

Epcot Center: 'Walt's dream' takes form

By Helen Huntley

Times staff writer

WALT DISNEY WORLD – The steel framework of a huge globe rises over the mammoth construction site littered with steel beams, bulldozers and trailers.

Slicing through the clutter is the sharp, clean line of a monorail track. On either side are enormous buildings in odd geometric shapes. Ahead is a 40-acre dry hole, awaiting a Fantasyland transformation into a beautiful lagoon.

This is no ordinary construction project going up on 600 acres outside Orlando. This is Epcot Center, the Walt Disney World version of a permanent world's fair focusing on the future. It is Mickey Mouse's grandest and most expensive venture. By the time it is completed, it will have cost him and his corporate partners $800-million.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

Epcot is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It had its beginnings years ago in the mind of the late Walt Disney, who envisioned a model city of the future in which 20,000 people would live and work.

The real Epcot, although still being touted as "Walt's dream," won't be a city at all since no one will reside there. That idea was abandoned as impractical long ago.

However, Epcot won't be a typical amusement park. True, its creators intend for it to delight the hearts and lighten the wallets of millions of visitors. But Epcot will be quite different from the Magic Kingdom, two and a half miles to the north.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

The center will be divided into two parts with a single admission. One will present the Disney vision of the 21st Century in a collection of exhibits called Future World. The other – across that soon-to-be beautiful lagoon – will be a group of international exhibits known as World Showcase.

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Epcot will be more adult-oriented, and it will be educational, although Disney promoters don't like to use that word for fear of scaring people away.

It will also be larger. Epcot's 260-acre "guest area" is more than twice the size of the Magic Kingdom. Epcot will be connected by monorail to the Magic Kingdom, but it will also have its own 6,000-car parking lot. It even will have its own exit from Interstate 4 – to be built by taxpayers at a cost of $16-million.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

About 2,000 construction workers already are on the job at Epcot, and Disney officials say they expect twice that many to be working by the end of the year. Another 1,800 artists, designers and engineers are working on interior designs and shows. Employment at Epcot is expected to begin at about 4,000 at the scheduled opening – Oct. 1, 1982 – and increase to 8,000 to 9,000 persons by 1984.

In Future World, huge pavilions will focus on topics such as energy, transportation, communications, the land, the sea and the world of imagination.

The pavilions will include films, rides, exhibits and, naturally, entertainment. There will be hundreds of animated figures – everything from dinosaurs and dancing vegetables to historical figures 'resurrected" from the grave.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

"We're treating serious subjects in an entertaining way," said Disney World spokesman Bob Mervine. Those who want nothing more than a fantasy experience will enjoy it, while those who want to learn more also will be satisfied, he said.

In the land pavilion, for example, visitors will be able to see a "kitchen cabaret" complete with performing broccoli, along with an exhibit on experimental farming methods prepared by researchers from the University of Arizona.

The focal point of Future World will be Spaceship Earth, a huge globe, 180-feet tall and covered in shimmering silver. Visitors will be able to circle the interior of the globe in ride cars, watching a show on the evolution of communications.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

The exhibits all will look toward the future, but they won't ignore the past. A diorama in the energy pavilion will take visitors riding in solar-powered cars back to the primeval forests that were the source of today's fossil fuels.

World Showcase will be composed of pavilions representing different countries – complete with exhibits, films, entertainment, food and imported merchandise. There even will be a replica of the Eiffel Tower.

China, Japan, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and the United States will be represented in World Showcase on opening day. Within a year, five or six more countries will be added, probably including Spain, Denmark, Israel and Morocco, Mervine said.

Admission to Epcot Center probably will be $10 to $11 for a one-day pass, Mervine said. No tickets will be needed for admission to the individual pavilions, he said. Admission to the Magic Kingdom will be separate, although Disney officials may eliminate the individual-attraction tickets now used in the Magic Kingdom when Epcot opens, Mervine said.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

Passes for three-days and four-days combining admission to both Epcot and the Magic Kingdom also will be sold, Mervine said. The idea is to encourage visitors to stay longer at Disney World.

Disney World officials also hope that Epcot will attract new visitors who haven't been to the Magic Kingdom before.

"There are 25-million tourists a year coming into the state of Florida and we're not reaching all of them," Mervine said. "We have a good image with every age group, but there are some older people who think Disney World is just for kids. We expect that some new visitors will be attracted to Epcot because it will be more adult-oriented."

Disney World, which already ranks as Florida's top tourist attraction, had 13.78-million visitors in 1980, although attendance is down about 6 percent so far this year. Disney officials expect Epcot to attract 8-million to 10-million people its first year.

The Epcot pavilions are being built by Disney in partnership with a number of American and foreign corporations. For example, the energy pavilion is sponsored by Exxon Corp., the transportation pavilion by General Motors and the U.S. pavilion in World Showcase by American Express and Coca-Cola. Other sponsors include American Telephone & Telegraph Co., General Electric, Kraft, Eastman Kodak and Sperry Univac.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

Disney will maintain ownership of the pavilions and will control the content of the shows and exhibits, Mervine said. He said visitors to the energy pavilion will see Disney's view of the world's energy future, not Exxon's. The corporations invest their money in the pavilions in exchange for advertising, promotion and sponsorship rights, he said.

Although some World Showcase pavilions are being built with the cooperation of foreign governments, all the financial investment so far is from private rather than government sources, Mervine said.

Putting Epcot together is a mammoth undertaking for Disney employees in both Florida and California. In Florida, the men and women building sets, ride machines and animated figures work in huge warehouse-like buildings on the Disney World property.

They are surrounded by signs and bumper stickers reminding them of the Oct. 1, 1982 deadline. While they are working on Epcot, they also are preparing the exhibits for Tokyo Disney World, which is scheduled to open in 1983.

The techniques Disney workers are using are similar to those used in the creation of the Magic Kingdom. However, the past 10 years have brought considerable improvement in the technology of fantasy.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

TIMES | Fraser Hale

The artificial trees, rocks, animals and people being produced in Disney laboratories are far more realistic than those of 10 years ago. The new "people" not only move and talk, but frown, smile and raise their eyebrows.

Although no one will live at Epcot Center, there are plans to build new hotel rooms on Disney World property near Interstate 4 to serve the added visitors Epcot is expected to bring.

Read Part 2 of Walt's Epcot dream.

To order reprints, license or download any Times image from this gallery, or to see other Epcot photos, please visit the Times image archive.

Jeremy King

Twitter: @TBTimesArchive