Epcot celebrated its 35th anniversary last fall. With that important milestone came a commitment on the part of the Walt Disney Company to add new experiences to its broad mix of attractions.
The addition of Frozen Ever After to the Norway pavilion in the World Showcase section in 2016 helped kick-start Epcot’s transformation which, when completed, will be perhaps the biggest expansion in the park’s history.
By the time Walt Disney World celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021, two major new attractions will have joined the Epcot fold: Ratatouille: The Adventure, based on the hit attraction at the Walt Disney Studios in Disneyland Paris, will be added to the France landscape in World Showcase, while in Future World, a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster will replace Ellen’s Energy Adventure, which closed last August.
These additions will add new life to a park that many guests felt had grown stagnant over the years.
Even Marty Sklar, one of the key Disney cast members involved in the creation of Epcot in the late 1970s/early 1980s, felt the park was long overdue for changes. And he expressed that opinion five years ago.
Until his death last July 27, Sklar remained proud of the park and its many accomplishments, but felt that it was time to revisit it and come up with some new guest experiences.
For one thing, he said, new pavilions could be added to World Showcase. “The reason we did the World Showcase like we did,” he said, “with those, if you will, those empty pieces, was because we wanted to be able to come in from the back to build another building, like we did with Norway, like we did with Morocco. They were easy to do then and it still could be easy.”
When it came to potential World Showcase occupants, “I’d love to see them have something from South America. And I’d love to have Australia. We’ve got enough Europe, I think. Some other parts of the world would be great.”
Sklar even went as far as to float the idea of another Epcot-style park on WDW property.
“It’s time for a new Epcot for the new century,” he said. “The issues are out there and maybe it’s time to take a serious look at them. Epcot is still doing that, but I think it should do more, personally. I’m not being critical.
“The public is ready for it. They were ready for it when we started.”
The evolution of Epcot, from a napkin sketch by Walt Disney into the two-pronged entertainment venue it became, took years of hard work and meticulous planning. It began in 1973 when then-Disney CEO Card Walker turned to Walt Disney Imagineering’s Sklar and posed this simple question: “What are we going to do about Epcot?”
Walt Disney’s original vision for Epcot was to create, on virgin land, a city of the future, a planned community where people could live, work and play in a people-friendly environment. Walt, in fact, was obsessed with the plight of America’s cities and wanted to do something to rectify the situation.
Some people called it a Utopian concept. But after Walt’s death in 1966, many within the Disney hierarchy called the idea near impossible, particularly without Walt’s vision and drive. Epcot took a back seat after Walt’s passing, with emphasis placed on the opening of the Magic Kingdom in central Florida and establishment of the world’s first year-round destination resort.
A few years after Walt Disney World opened in October 1971, Walker approached Sklar with the “what are we going to do about Epcot?” question.
Sklar took the unprecedented step of seeking the opinions and expertise of a variety of people outside of the Disney company who possessed a wide range of backgrounds, all experts in their fields.
“The big thing was that we decided we had to test the water, so we held what we called The Epcot Future Technology Forums, starting in 1976,” Sklar said. “Ray Bradbury [the noted science fiction writer who contributed to Epcot’s communication theme] was the first speaker. And we invited people from academia, from government, from corporations and just smart people that we found through our research and it was really fascinating because we had these long discussions.
“We’d show Walt’s film [the so-called Epcot Film, which Walt recorded weeks before his death, which outlined his plans for Epcot] and we had translated that into potential directions. It was very early on. And after every one of these conferences, these people would say to us, ‘The public doesn’t trust government to do this, the public doesn’t trust what industry tells them, but they trust Mickey Mouse. So you guys have a role in this.’
“Well that was very nice to hear people say that, but what the heck do you do about that? I went back to Card Walker, who was a marketing man from his experiences with the Disney Studio, and we decided to go back to the whole idea that Walt had said, that no one company can do this by itself.
“And that’s when we started going out to all the big corporations and said, ‘OK, here’s what we’re planning to do and we want you to be part it.'”
Getting American industry to fall in line “was a huge selling job,” Sklar remembers. “There were a couple of key moments in it. For one, we found a man who came to one of our conferences. His name was Tibor Nagy. And he was one of the chief scientists at General Motors and he’d come to this conference intrigued. ‘What the heck is a Mickey Mouse organization doing in this other field?’ he said.
“And he got intrigued with the project. He was on a committee at General Motors called The Scenario 2000 Advisory Committee. Now remember this was 1978 and the chairman was Roger Smith. Ty called me and said, ‘I’m gonna go to Roger and suggest that you get invited back here to make a presentation about this project.’
“We packed up two truckloads of models and artwork and we hired John McClure, Sr. John had been the art director for the Hall of Presidents, but more importantly, he was one of the great art directors in Hollywood. He did Hello, Dolly and he did Cleopatra, among other things, so John set up our presentation.
General Motors “gave us the whole design center in Warren, Michigan. They had an area where they introduced their cars. It was big … huge. They gave us the whole thing. We set up these models and Card Walker put together all the people that were key to the project — Donn Tatum, Dick Nunis, Jack Lindquist and the new Disney Channel people, who were just getting started. Everybody that was gonna be part of making this thing work,” was there.
“We made a big presentation to Roger Smith and his Scenario 2000 Advisory Committee, and when we were finished, Roger said, ‘I want to do this. There’s only one problem: I’ve got to convince my management.’ He was the vice president of finance at the time, later chairman.”
“Jack Lindquist and I were left behind and the next day at 7 o’clock in the morning, we made a presentation to Pete Estes, the president of GM, and they became the first ones to sign a contract at the end of 1978,” which resulted in the World of Motion pavilion.
From that point on, companies seemed eager to be part of this exciting Epcot project.
“That broke the dam, if you will, and Exxon was right behind them,” Sklar said. “We made so many presentations that we figured out that we couldn’t get the top people to go to Florida or California, so we went to RCA and said, ‘Do you have a place that we could set up as a presentation center?’ and they did.
“They had a recording studio at Avenue of the Americas and 46th Street where Andre Kostelanetz used to do his recordings and they said we could have it for a year. And so we rented it and we brought all our models and artwork and we put a staff there and any time of the day or week, if we wanted to set up a meeting, with companies headquartered in the New York area, as most of them were in those days, they could call up and say, ‘Yeah, I’d like to have my chairman come in and see your project.’
“I went back over my records,” Sklar added. “One year, I think it was 1979, I was gone 26 weeks. Most of those were back and forth to New York for presentations.”
After much wrangling, the game-plan was to create two separate sections of one park, one focused on American industry and new technologies, the other on showcasing as many countries as possible in a permanent setting.
“That’s how we communicated to the companies,” Sklar said. “We started out with trying to do two projects. One was international and the other was so-called Future World area, and we found that we couldn’t get enough sponsorship for both, so we pushed the two of them together basically and that became Epcot Center.
“These projects are so expensive,” he added. “Without the sponsors, particularly in those days, you couldn’t do those kind of things.” At that time, “Disney didn’t have the wherewithal to finance something like that by itself.”
So Sklar and Co. pressed on, doing their best to entice the movers and shakers in the business world to buy into Epcot. Even though many of them didn’t quite understand what an Epcot was, they were intrigued nonetheless.
“There were a lot of visionaries in the companies that we dealt with who rolled the dice with us,” Sklar said.
The companies who sponsored pavilions in Future World were: Bell Systems [Spaceship Earth]; Exxon [Universe of Energy]; General Motors [World of Motion]; Kodak [Journey Into Imagination], and Kraft [The Land]. Horizons, sponsored by General Electric, opened in World Showcase in 1983, while The Living Seas, backed by United Technologies, opened in 1986.
Journalists who were privy to Walt’s original ideas and concepts and who had, in fact, seen detailed drawings of a domed city with futuristic modes of transportation, had a hard time accepting this new Epcot.
“Walt left a very sketchy outline,” Jack Lindquist said. “It was developed at that time [in 1966] to influence the Florida legislature. We needed something bigger, bolder, more dramatic than another Disneyland.”
So Walt asked Herb Ryman, his go-to Disney artist — who in 1954 had drawn the first rendering of Disneyland which Walt used to show potential investors — to help conceptualize Epcot. “Draw me something to talk about, Herbie,” Walt said.
But what Ryman came up with was bigger and bolder than almost anyone had imagined. It turned out to be more fantasy than fact-based.
Still, “The media wouldn’t let that Epcot go away,” Lindquist said. “They had that image [of a domed city] in mind, but nobody knew what Epcot was.”
“I’d say we are doing exactly what we talked about when Walt was alive,” Disney Legend John Hench said when asked if the company was departing from Disney’s original plan. “Walt introduced ideas as, you might say, the title in Scene One. He knew better than to drop the big scene into people’s minds at the beginning.”
What this new Epcot wouldn’t be was a venue similar to Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom in Florida. It had to be bold and different, a clear departure from anything anyone had ever created before.
Epcot opened on Oct. 1, 1982, as a two-pronged entertainment venture: Future World, which showcased many of American industry’s newest innovations, and World Showcase, described by many as a “permanent World’s Fair,” which featured nine pavilions on opening day [Morocco and Norway would be added a few years later]. Even before the park opened, plans were set in motion to add three additional pavilions to World Showcase: Israel, Equatorial Africa and Spain. Those pavilions never made it past the drawing board.
Epcot always had a special place in Marty Sklar’s heart. He played such an important role in its concept and development that you can say without hesitation that Epcot was “Marty’s park,” much in the same way Animal Kingdom is Joe Rohde’s.
Marty returned often to Epcot and, in fact, was there in February 2017 for the inaugural Festival of the Arts, where he gave several presentations.
“I’m really excited about the first-ever Festival of the Arts,” he said during one of those presentations. “It’s wonderful to see the works of the Disney artists on display. Forgive me if I get a bit emotional. I worked on Epcot from 1973 until it opened in October of 1982 … almost 35 years ago. Today, Epcot is the sixth-most visited park in the world. You’ll have to forgive my pride in what’s been done.”
It’s safe to say he’d be proud of what’s to come as well.