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Wednesdays with Wade: Finding Epcot

Wednesdays with Wade: Finding Epcot

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"One of Epcot Center's most ambitious projects is The Living Seas, the pavilion dedicated to man's relationship with the sea. The building itself, which conveys the organic feel of a huge shell, a monstrous wave, a palisade, sets the tone for the spectacle inside."

Richard Beard, "Walt Disney's Epcot: Creating the New World of Tomorrow" 1982

"The Living Seas" opened on January 15, 1986. It was part of the "second phase" of openings for the theme park. In recent years, cast members have taken great pride in describing the pavilion as "the first building of Disney's Animal Kingdom" since the same philosophy and guidelines of that theme park modeled those of "The Living Seas".

If the Imagineers responsible for the pavilion had gazed into Walt's fabled Magic Mirror to look a mere twenty years into the future, I wonder what their reaction would have been when they realized that this prestigious educational facility would become merely a backdrop for a successful animated feature?

While I enjoy "Turtle Talk" and am happy that the seacabs will soon find new life in a "Finding Nemo experience" before the end of the year in yet another of Disney's worst kept secrets, I can't help but feel concerned that these changes are being made simply because the newest Disney brain trust doesn't understand Epcot. It is easier to convert Epcot into yet another amusement park with a somewhat vaguely "futuristic" overlay in an attempt to drive attendance rather than take the time to examine how to exploit the virtues and uniqueness of Epcot.

The brand of Epcot used to be "Discovery" but that wasn't appealing enough for guests so now leadership is pushing "fun and family" as a new theme for Epcot. "Finding Nemo" is just one of several initiatives to court children into visiting Epcot since they can't ride "Mission: SPACE" or "Test Track" or....

Let me disclose up front that I am not a big fan of "Finding Nemo." Frankly, while I enjoy the film I feel it is one of Pixar's lesser efforts with story problems disguised by the fact that new eccentric characters are introduced every few minutes when the quest story starts to lag. I personally prefer "Monsters Inc." However, I didn't care for "An American Tail" either, feeling there were major character and story problems and yet that film like "Finding Nemo" hit the emotional buttons of a huge segment of the audience. Disney has a "Finding Nemo" attraction planned for Disneyland, a "Finding Nemo" show for the new theater in Disney's Animal Kingdom, and of course, the complete re-do of "The Living Seas" into "Finding Nemo Land." Any moment now I half expect the manatees to get their walking papers since no animated counterpart for them exists in the original film.

To be fair, guests never truly "got" Epcot. At best, it was described as a permanent (and unfortunately, never changing) World's Fair. A year before the opening of Epcot Center, there was much curiosity and controversy concerning the largest privately financed construction project in the world.

Eventually, Epcot would cost in excess of one billion dollars. It was to be "complimentary not competitive" to the Magic Kingdom which was one of the reasons there were to be no Disney animated characters in the park after the opening ceremonies. It would focus on adults and especially international guests which is one of the reasons it was the first Disney theme park to sell alcohol.

People didn't "get" the name (they even made fun of it on the "Today" show) and certainly didn't understand how it was supposed to be different from Disneyland or its clone, the Magic Kingdom. Attempts by Disney publicity spokesmen didn't help clarify the confusion:

"In one sense, you can think of the pavilions in EPCOT Center, and the Future World in particular, as a new kind of 'thrill' ride. But unlike the mere physical thrill of the up, down and around of a roller coaster, EPCOT is designed to thrill a person's most 'thrillable' sense--the imagination."

It was hoped that by "suggesting possible alternatives in the most exciting and stimulating manner possible, the designers hope to generate enough excitement in the visitors' own imaginations so that their conceptual horizons will be stretched. EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise."

There was even a written "building code" guideline:

"Epcot intends to explore technologies that are only at the research stage or are not yet commercially viable. It would be an opportunity for industry, government and academia to test and demonstrate new systems, technologies and services.

"The Epcot 'Building Code'  has seven key objectives to establish ground rules for any new building that would take place not only at Epcot itself but the Walt Disney World property.

1) To accomplish coordinated, balanced and harmonious development in accordance with present and future needs.

2) To provide the flexibility that will encourage American industry, through free enterprise, to introduce, test and demonstrate new ideas, materials and systems emerging now and in the future from the creative centers of industry.

3) To provide an environment that will stimulate the best thinking of industry and the professions in the creative development of new technologies to meet the needs of people, expressed by the experience of those who live and work and visit here.

4) To assure the safety, health and general welfare of the District's (as Epcot is corporately referred to) inhabitants, visitors and premises.

5) To establish a sound, safe and forward-looking basis for developing and maintaining the District and its properties.

6) To provide safety and good practice during construction, alteration, removal or demolition of buildings and structures within the District by establishing uniform, modern and progressive standards, rules and regulations.

7) To regulate the quality of materials and systems for all buildings and structures within the District, including their design, construction, occupancy, location and maintenance."

Well, those guidelines weren't always met but it was a nice start.

One of the most vocal spokesmen for Epcot was Imagineer John Hench. In a variety of interviews in the early 1980s, Hench stated that he believed the central motivating key to EPCOT is "survival--human survival--yours and mine. It has been pointed out that the human is unique among Earth's species in that he survives by the superior power of his mind, his power to reason and his imagination. His yearning to know and explore the world and worlds around him is the proper exercise of" Epcot.

And so, for Epcot to survive, it must now embrace "Finding Nemo." But is there a limitation to that survival? Right now, Pixar is already working on its next animated film to follow "Cars." It is the story of a French rat. Should the international cast members in the France pavilion start to wonder if another few years down the line, the pavilion devoted to Paris during the Belle Epoque will soon be devoted to...????

Or as Hench loved to say when asked about Epcot, he would quote American rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard who said, "It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow."

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