When Epcot opened in 1982 it was known as EPCOT. Those capital letters served a purpose: It was an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Based on Walt Disney’s unrealized dream of creating an actual, inhabited city based on utopian ideals and cutting edge technology, when EPCOT opened it was essentially a modern-day, park-sized update of Disney’s Carousel of Progress, examining both the past and future of technology, communication and society. I first went there in 1982, shortly after it opened, as an easily impressed kindergartener whose mind was blown by the Pin Art displays at the Journey Into Imagination pavilion. With beautiful retrofuturistic buildings straight out of sci-fi films and the kind of endless enthusiasm over science that was already feeling quaint by the 1980s, EPCOT felt like the nerdier but cooler older cousin to the Magic Kingdom. It also had small-scale recreations of various countries in the World Showcase, which as a kid I understood was there for the adults.
EPCOT is now Epcot, and although many of those awesome buildings still stand, and science (or at least the appearance of science) still underpins many of its attractions, the techno-utopian ideals aren’t quite as central as they once were. Part of the problem is that technology moves too fast for Epcot to truly live up to its original purpose—Disney would have to update exhibits and attractions every few years to keep up with new advances, and that’s cost-prohibitive. Epcot has also embraced a handful of high-tech thrill rides that wouldn’t have been possible in 1982 but still maintain that spirit of technological adventure and advancement. And now that I’m an adult I probably enjoy the World Showcase more than the rest of the park. It might not really reflect Walt Disney’s original goals, but Epcot is still a fun and fascinating amusement park full of exciting attractions.
It’s tempting to think that this 1986 film collaboration between Michael Jackson, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas foreshadowed the creative collapses of all three men. I was a kid when it first opened and even then the concept felt idiotic to me: How did the King of Pop become a space god with puppet friends? Sure, it’s weird and ridiculous, but in a completely awesome way—it’s as amazing and inexplicable as a sci-fi musical exclusively made for Disney theme parks by the people behind Star Wars, The Godfather and Thriller should be. It’s fantastic as nostalgia and kitsch, of course, but confident enough in its own absurdity to win over even those who hate nostalgia or kitsch.
Figment and Epcot have a complicated history. The tiny purple dragon was supposed to be the theme park’s chief mascot at launch. I had a stuffed Figment from our first trip to Epcot, and I loved it beyond reason, even though the neck couldn’t keep the head aloft and it sagged wanly against the dragon’s belly. He starred in the original Journey Into Imagination dark ride, part of the entertainment industry’s tireless mission to tell kids how important it is to make stuff up, but he was removed in favor of Eric Idle when they reformatted the attraction in the late ‘90s. A second update occurred a few years later, and included Figment’s return. Journey Into Imagination with Figment is a cute, charming trip through cartoon chaos, with the inadvertent troublemaker Figment playing the spoiler to Idle’s stuffy scientist.
If you’re a cynic, this overstuffed cousin to the Hall of Presidents might be a little too full of American exceptionalism. If you’re a cynic, though, why are you at a Disney park in the first place? This audio-animatronic, multi-media show rushes through America’s history, with Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain as warm and witty guides. Don’t expect a serious discussion of America’s past or its role in the world—this is history as theme park ride, with a fantastic sense of showmanship and a couple of great robotic performances.
Disney has gradually added overt Disney references in rides that otherwise lacked them. This boat dark ride in the Mayan pyramid at the Mexico pavilion used to be called El Rio del Tiempo, and it took visitors on an alternately tranquil and lively tour of Mexican culture. (It might have been a little uncomfortable in how it dealt with certain stereotypes…) Seven years ago Disney updated the ride to include the Three Caballeros, with Panchito Pistoles and Jose Carioca trying to chase Donald Duck down throughout Mexico. Some might argue that the new emphasis on cartoon birds diminishes the well-intentioned (if sometimes awkwardly implemented) cultural focus of the ride and the entire World Showcase project. If a little bit of Donald Duck is what it takes to get families to take this beautiful, festive journey, it’s worth it.
You should probably avoid this one if you get motion sick, migraines or are claustrophobic. It’s a giant centrifuge that simulates astronaut training for a future trip to Mars. Part of a trend where Epcot replaces older, more sober rides with faster and more thrilling experiences, Mission: Space replaced the long dormant Horizons attraction, which showed how technology could shape mankind’s future. Mission: Space might sacrifice a bit of that ride’s utopian elan, but it’s definitely more exciting, and is still based in science and the future of exploration.
The Maelstrom brought a small taste of a traditional theme park thrill ride to the otherwise sedate Epcot when it opened in 1988. Based on Norse mythology and history, the boat ride excitingly plunges backwards through rapids after a run-in with trolls and a face-to-face encounter with the one-eyed god Odin. I was 11 when Maelstrom opened, and a huge nerd for Norse mythology and Thor comics. Between the surprise and novelty of that backwards plunge, the lack of other thrill rides at Epcot, and my own interest in the subject matter, this has always been one of my favorite rides at Disney World. If you’ve never ridden it, you have less than a week to take care of that: It closes permanently on Sunday, October 5.
I’m not normally big on 4D or virtual reality rides, but this roller coaster simulator works on a couple of levels. It might be the best combination of Epcot’s original goals and its more recent focus on thrill rides. You use a touch screen to design a roller coaster, and then ride that design on a virtual reality motion simulator contraption. The sensation is smoother than you’d probably expect, and the opening video and design process hammers home the notion that math, science and engineering can actually be fun.
This automotive testing ride was just redesigned in 2012. The new version doesn’t just run you through GM’s testing procedures for new cars. It lets you design an experimental car of your own, and then loads those specs into the ride to see how your car performs. What follows is one of the fastest rides at any Disney park, with your test car blasting around the track and responding to various hazards. Test Track isn’t just frenetic fun: It smartly adapts Epcot’s original educational mission into a context with mainstream appeal.
Based on the Soarin’ Over California ride from Disney’s California Adventure, Soarin’ uses a massive movie screen and an innovative seating arrangement to simulate the sensation of hang gliding over California. It might not work as well in the context of Epcot as it does at California Adventure, but Soarin’ creates an incredible illusion that is thrilling no matter where it’s located.
Lumping the entire world showcase together might seem like a cheat, but as I’ve grown older it’s become my favorite part of the park. Obviously going to a fake China in Orlando is in no way a substitute for a trip to the real place, but the pavilions have the charm and detail of classic museum dioramas that you can actually walk through. The cumulative effect is unforgettable.
This flagship ride showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of Epcot’s original mission. This trip through Epcot’s trademark geodesic sphere is a fascinating look at the history of human communication, from the dawn of language through the development of the printing press. When I first rode it shortly after Epcot opened, it ended with a glimpse of how computers could change society. A decade later it ended with vignettes of people using the internet to video conference with each other. Epcot has barely been able to keep up with technology over its 32 years, and although Spaceship Earth is still a beautifully conceived marvel of audio-animatronics and dark ride design, it always feels at least slightly outdated. As an overly nostalgic fan of Disney-style 20th century retrofuturism, that is a big part of Spaceship Earth’s timeless charm.