Why EPCOT’s Iconic Horizons is Still Beloved 20 Years After Its Closure

Over the near 50 years that the Walt Disney World resort has been open, hundreds of attractions and shows have come and gone. However, few have left a lasting legacy like EPCOT’s Horizons. Despite closing over 20 years ago, the attraction is still mourned by both die hard fans who had the chance to experience it during its 16 year lifespan and younger generations who can only experience it through YouTube videos. 

[Disney]

So why is this particular dark ride so well-remembered by Disney aficionados? Here are five of the biggest reasons.

It was definitive EPCOT.

Horizons opened to the public on October 1, 1983, exactly one year after the opening of the Epcot Center theme park. However, despite this delayed opening, the ride was a lynchpin of the EPCOT project from the start. When the decision was made to build EPCOT as a theme park (as opposed to Walt Disney’s original, more elaborate idea of a city-of-the-future), the idea of the “Century 3” (named as such to represent the third century of American life, which had begun in 1976) was one one of the earliest on the table for the park.

-Disney

The attraction, which would eventually involve sponsor General Electric, was designed to be a look back at “past visions of the future” (i.e. how historical figures imagined the future would look) while the second half focused on the the future of America in the new millennium. Eventually, the focus on America was softened somewhat to appeal to international guests, and the ride’s second half instead looked at the overall future of humanity and how technology could allow the human race to colonize areas as diverse as outer space, the ocean floor, and vast deserts.

In addition, Imagineers began incorporating elements from EPCOT’s other proposed pavilions into the ride’s future scenes, making the ride a “thesis statement” of the whole EPCOT concept by showing how each of the Future World pavilions could lead to a better future for all of humanity.

It was a sequel to a classic.

As the the development of Futureprobe (the Century 3 moniker was replaced when it was determined that foreign visitors could be turned off by the America-centric name) went on, the attraction slightly morphed into a loose sequel to the classic Carousel of Progress attraction, which not so coincidentally had been sponsored by GE throughout its runs at both the 1964 World’s Fair and Disneyland. While the former traced a “typical” American family through the 20th century, Horizons (the final named settled on after it was determined that Futureprobe had some… uncomfortable medical connotations) focused on a “family” of the future in its second half, showing off prospective technologies by having members of said family living in the varied environments we mentioned above.

-Disney

While the connection between the two rides was never officially established, it was heavily alluded to thematically and through nods in Horizons. Thanks to these links, being able to ride the original Carousel at the Magic Kingdom, then riding its unofficial sequel EPCOT later on their trip became a bit of a right of passage for many Disney fans.

It featured classic Disney elements.

When Horizons officially opened in 1983, EPCOT guests were treated to a massive dark ride that used every “trick” Disney Imagineers had come up with in the near-30 years they’d been working on theme park attractions at that point. The attraction featured 54 full-scale Audio-Animatronics and an Omnimover ride system, both of which are staples of the classic Disney attractions style. While Horizons wasn’t the last large scale dark ride of this kind made by Imagineering, it was the final one whose creation was led by members of the the first generation of Imagineers.

It was ahead of its time.

While Horizons was full of classic Disney elements, the attraction did introduce some major technological advancements. First, the attraction’s middle-portion featured two huge OMNIMAX screens. These large domes, a precursor to modern IMAX screens, were cutting edge at the time and played footage of advancing technologies that served as a bridge between the “past visions of the future” and “actual” future portions of the average attractions.

[Disney]

Horizons’ second major innovation was its climax, which featured the first interactive simulator ending in theme park history. Guests were allowed to choose which of the three previously shown futuristic environments (the Brava Centauri space station, the Mesa Verde desert farm, or the Sea Castle research base) they would like to travel to. The guests would push a button corresponding with the environment they wanted to visit, and each car would experience a 30 second simulation of whichever environment they picked. Conceptually, this ending paved the way for many of the major interactive and simulator attractions that have been built across the theme park world in the 40 years since, up to and including Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.

Before we reveal the fifth reason we think Horizons still resonates with guests two decades after its closure, you’re probably wondering why it closed in the first place. After all, why would an attraction that had all that going for it be closed a scant 13 years after it debuted?

Well, like many of EPCOT’s defunct attractions, Horizons fell victim to a flaw in the park’s sponsorship model. In 1993, General Electric chose not to renew its 10-year sponsorship of the attraction, leaving Horizons in a state of flux. Over the next six years, the ride would open and close numerous times while Imagineering tossed around several ideas ranging from a refurbishment of the existing attraction to a complete overhaul of the pavilion’s concept. All the while, Horizons was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair thanks to the lack of sponsorship money.

[Disney]

Eventually, the desire to build something new – plus alleged structural issues with a sinkhole developing under the Horizons show building – led Disney to go with the second option and in 1999 the attraction was closed for good. Horizons was torn down the following year, with Mission Space built in its place.

Despite the fact that Mission Space has been a part of EPCOT longer than Horizons was, many fans still deride the former as a poor replacement for the latter,  and we think we know the biggest reason why:

It painted an optimistic future.

Beyond all the classic Disney homages and futuristic technology, perhaps the biggest reason Horizons still resonates with so many EPCOT guests is the ride’s optimistic vision of the future. The future depicted in Horizons, and overall the entirety of the the original EPCOT Center, is one of limitless possibilities. One in which mankind is able to put aside its differences and use technology to do everything from regularly traveling to and living in space to colonizing the ocean floor and terraforming once barren deserts into agricultural wonderlands.

The author with a Horizons poster at the EPCOT Preview Center in 2019 [Brian Delpozo]
That sense of optimism and adventure is one that continues to resonate with fans, young and old.

Did you get the chance to experience Horizons during its all-too-brief run at EPCOT? Do you lament it as a great loss to the heart of EPCOT, or do you feel it was time to out the ride out to pasture as the 1990s ended. Let us know in the comments below.

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15 Replies to “Why EPCOT’s Iconic Horizons is Still Beloved 20 Years After Its Closure”

  1. Horizons symbolizes my childhood in a way that the rest of Disney does not. That ride solidified my love for science and helped pave the way for my career in medicine. No exaggeration

  2. Feelin’ all the feels! I only got to ride Horizons once during my 1st ever trip to WDW in 1989. It was one of the rides I remembered most. I so Much wanted to visit the under sea lab. I thought it would be like being a mermaid. I will also admit I was 12

  3. I worked for an electrical distributor and sold GE light bulbs. In 1990 I went to “Lamp School” at Disney World, sponsored by GE. At the end of the ride, there was a lounge that was available to electrical distributors. We were told that anytime we were at EPCOT, all we had to do was show our business card and we (and our families) could enter, to sit and relax in the air conditioning.

  4. Brilliant in conception and realization. Perfect blend of fantasy, visual wizardry, film, scoring, positive futurism, and believe scenes could have been updated with constant new technology. It was a trip that one could not help being uplifted by. Should NEVER have been removed as it was the heart of the park, and nothing really took it’s place. What a crime and LACK of imagination that everything has to be IP-driven now. There is a place for a dark ride with heart that acknowledges creativity, education and futurism, mans’ betterment and what he can accomplish when not obsessed with greed and guns.

  5. Brian, You absolutely nailed the reasons why Horizons was/is so iconic. I rode it twice in 1983 and was so inspired I hired on to work at EPCOT Center (and actually got to be the operations lead at Horizons. The ride was that uplifting. We’ll never see the likes of it again.

  6. My memory of Horizons is an odd one. My family was on vacation, and we had just ridden Body Wars. My dad had terrible motion sickness. After Body Wars we got on Horizons. When it got to the part with the orange orchards, his stomach gave up the fight, and he puked everywhere. He spent the rest of the day lying on a bench while we enjoyed the part.

  7. Oh, I DEFINITELY preferred “Horizons” to “Mission: Space.” (No spinning me around like a milkshake in a blender, for starters.) Much of today’s EPCOT has lost what it began with: the optimistic spirit of a Utopian future, and a permanent World’s Fair. But rather than “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” or its own “Horizons” title track, the song I often heard in my head on this ride was from Universal’s BUCK ROGERS TV series: “Far Beyond My Time.” I felt like Buck flying into the future every time I took this ride. Miss that future. Mad as hell it didn’t happen.

  8. The Original Epcot was so much fun.
    Loved Horizons.
    Going to World Key to make on-site “ADR’s” of the day.
    The original Figment attraction is still my favorite.
    Captain Eo.
    WOM.
    Having waffles with fruit toppings at Pure & Simple inside the Met Life Pavilion.
    Kitchen Kabarat.

  9. It was great for the whole family! Our kids especially liked the ending. The music was a hugh part of all the future world rides. If we can Dream It, Imagination, Living with the Land as well as the soundtrack in The Living Seas and Universe of Energy. My kids as young as they were preferred Epcot over The Magic Kingdom. We all would sing the tunes for the rest of the day. It’s a shame what Disney did to Future world.

  10. From the first time we rode it ( 1989) my wife and I), we loved it. We are pass holders and have had the chance to ride it many times until it closed. It is the best ride that ever was and should not have been closed. With the original Imagination with Figment it was our favorite. Completely agree with the author.

  11. I started going to WDW regularly in 1999, so I missed being able to ride Horizons. I’ve seen dozens of videos, so I know I would’ve loved this attraction in person…it has such an optimistic vibe. I also listen to the beautiful music from Horizons quite often. What a great message, “If we can dream it, then we can do it…yes we can!”.

  12. Will always be a favorite. It’s a shame that EPCOT has chosen to go in such a different direction that it’s origination.

  13. i am glad my grandchildren got to ride horizons.since then i have seen disney change from its origanial concept to nothinr more thana pverpriced average thrill ride park ,bring back horizons for mr great grandchildren.