Epcot's Midlife Crisis: Disney Reveals a Huge Makeover for the Park's 40th Birthday

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Epcot's Midlife Crisis: Disney Reveals a Huge Makeover for the Park's 40th Birthday

If you ever went to EPCOT Center in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, you got to experience what is probably the most unique theme park ever built. Instead of physical thrills or rides based on movies, EPCOT was originally designed to educate and entertain at the same time. Pavilions in Future World were devoted to specific sciences or types of technology, with long, Audio-Animatronic-heavy Omnimover rides delving into the histories of communication, transportation, the energy industry, and more. It was far from perfect—the different pavilions were sponsored by companies with a vested interested in ignoring problematic aspects of their business, sometimes turning them into a kind of propaganda—but the original EPCOT made learning legitimately fun and exciting, and is still probably the most successful example of edutainment that I can think of. As a young kid who loved theme parks and learning but absolutely hated school, EPCOT Center quickly became my favorite place in the world.

Unfortunately that version of EPCOT apparently developed a reputation as the “boring” part of Disney World. Disney started to slowly back away from the edutainment model as the ‘90s progressed, renaming it Epcot, shutting down many of the original attractions when sponsorships ended, and replacing others with faster and more “exciting” rides. Today only a few pavilions and rides hark back to EPCOT’s original identity, and fans have long been nervous that classic attractions like Spaceship Earth and Living with the Land will inevitably follow such long-gone favorites as Horizons, World of Motion and the original Journey into Imagination into the theme park graveyard.

Epcot’s 40th anniversary is arriving in 2022, and it’s been known for a while that, given Disney’s love of celebrating milestones, the company would be making a big deal about it. The park has felt unfinished ever since it started to drift away from its original mission, though—World Showcase is as creatively and commercially successful as it’s ever been, but Future World is short on attractions and often low in attendance. Heading into this past weekend’s D23 Expo, revitalizing this part of Epcot—the part that houses the park’s entrance, and the part that guests have to walk through to get to the country pavilions at World Showcase—before that 40th birthday was clearly going to be a priority for Disney. And after a variety of announcements at Sunday’s Disney Parks panel at the convention, we now have a clearer idea of what to expect from the Epcot of the future.

Disney does more to leverage nostalgia than any other company today, and its D23 approach to Epcot was just further proof. From the start of the three-day fan convention Disney was reminding guests about the EPCOT that used to exist. On the show floor they had a wall full of beautifully designed posters advertising all the major attractions that have ever existed at Epcot, including many that are long gone. The thematic centerpieces of this display were two posters with the same image of Spaceship Earth but different color accents and text. The first was from the park’s original opening, and showed the iconic Spaceship Earth globe floating in the black vastness of space with two beams of light circling it. “The 21st Century begins October 1, 1982,” the poster reads, with period-appropriate logos for Walt Disney World and the EPCOT Center at the bottom. The other poster has the same image, but instead of black space with stars in the background, everything now has a purplish hue. It’s a more stylish and sci-fi depiction of space surrounding Spaceship Earth, with a new caption to boot: “On the brink of a new age, October 1, 2019.” Beneath the geodesic sphere is a single word in all caps: EPCOT.

That’s the first big news. The current Epcot, formerly known as the EPCOT Center, will be getting a new official name: EPCOT. It’s a throwback to that original name while still avoiding the “center” word that made the theme park sound like some kind of science lab. The new EPCOT also evokes Walt Disney’s original name from the ‘60s—the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a kind of futurist utopia fueled by Disney’s firm belief in midcentury capitalism. If the poster’s combination of that classic Spaceship Earth image with a shinier, more fanciful style reflects the upcoming changes made to the park itself, old-school EPCOT fans might have less to worry about than they fear.

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One name that won’t be sticking around is Future World. The front half of the park will be split into three “neighborhoods”: World Celebration, World Nature, and World Discovery. World Celebration will be the central spine of the three, featuring the entrance, Spaceship Earth, and a new structure called Dreamer’s Point, where guests will find a statue of Walt Disney and a festival center with three stories and a large rooftop garden. Disney’s pitching that as the ideal vantage point for EPCOT’s new nighttime show, HarmoniUS, which opens in 2020.

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To the west of World Celebration will be World Nature. That’s where you’ll find the pavilions for The Land and The Seas with Nemo and Friends, and a new walkthrough attraction based on Moana. Journey of Water, a maze made up of water features, will guide guests down towards the Seas building. We don’t know when Journey of Water is scheduled to open, but you can probably expect it before that anniversary celebration.

The eastern side of the former Future World, where Test Track and Mission: Space are located, will now be known as World Discovery. Mission: Space will be getting a new restaurant, Space 220, which will make it feel like you’re eating in a space station—presumably one with gravity. The former Wonders of Life pavilion will be reopened as Play!, where guests will be able to play with Disney characters in different games, including a water balloon fight with Huey, Dewey, Louie and Webby from DuckTales, and a fashion designing class with Edna Mode from The Incredibles. This is also where EPCOT’s next major thrill ride, a new Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster, will be opening.

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Disney also revealed more details about that coaster, which is coming to the old site of the Universe of Energy pavilion. Officially called Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, Disney’s second ride based on the Marvel characters will feature a unique rotating car that can focus a rider’s attention on specific story elements, and will also have a reverse launch, a first for a Disney coaster. The story won’t just include the Guardians themselves, but will also take visitors to Xandar, the alien homeworld of the Nova Corps. Hopefully that means we’ll get to see John C. Reilly finally make his Disney ride debut. Construction on Cosmic Rewind has been underway since 2017, but it’s still another two years out—it isn’t scheduled to open until 2021.

The former Future World might’ve gotten the most attention, but there’s a lot going down at World Showcase, too. The already revealed expansion to the France pavilion is on pace to open next year, with a new crepe restaurant and the Ratatouille ride that was originally created for Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris. France will also be getting a Beauty and the Beast sing-along. Meanwhile Canada and China will both be getting new films in updated theaters.

The biggest World Showcase news impacts the United Kingdom pavilion. Part of that area will be redesigned to look like Cherry Tree Lane from the Mary Poppins movies, with a new ride inside the Banks family home at Number 17. Rumors have swirled for months over what kind of ride this might be; Disney hadn’t confirm that a ride would even be happening until Sunday, though, and didn’t release any information about what specific form it’ll take. Will it be a carousel? Possibly a dark ride? We’ll find out some day.

Finally, in news that is both a relief and yet also slightly worrisome, Disney announced that it will be undertaking a significant refurbishment of Spaceship Earth. Expect scenes from the ride to be changed or removed, while others will remain in updated form. The focus of the ride will change from the history of communication to the history of storytelling, which sounds like an easy way to introduce Disney characters into a ride that has been focused on history and technology for its entire 37-year run. It’s still a much better alternative than some of the plans Disney had for Epcot’s iconic sphere in the past, including replacing the entire classic dark ride with a roller coaster. Spaceship Earth has always been the heart and soul of EPCOT, though, and any changes will give some fans pause—even with the ride desperately needing an overhaul of its final act for the last several years.

2022 is still a few years away, so don’t be surprised if these aren’t the only changes that will be coming to EPCOT before then. Will World Showcase get that long-rumored new country? Will Journey into Imagination get its much-needed refurbishment? We’ll find out in time. What we do know is that EPCOT is poised to feel more vital and alive than it has since the ‘90s.


Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He shares stories and photos from his Disney journeys on Instagram at @disney_lowdown. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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