Welcome to Jim Hill Media - Entertainment News : Theme Parks Movies Television

Why For did Epcot's Future World not turn out as WED had originally planned?

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Why For did Epcot's Future World not turn out as WED had originally planned?

Rate This
  • Comments 10

Epcot Enthusiast wrote in this week to say:

I saw a Tweet today that said that you and Len Testa were touring Future World and World Showcase recording stories for a new "Unofficial Guide Disney Dish with Jim Hill" podcast. Epcot is my very favorite WDW theme park. Could you please share some stories about rides and attractions that were planned but not built at that theme park?

Dear Epcot Enthusiast,

To be honest, it's kind of hard to know where to begin with EPCOT Center. There are so many strange & bizarre stories associated with the development & construction of this futuristic theme park.

Take - for example - how EPCOT Center was initially supposed to be built much closer to World Drive. With the idea being that you were literally supposed to be able to see Spaceship Earth looming up over the trees as you drove past towards The Magic Kingdom.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.

"So why did these plans change?," you ask.  During the initial site survey work of this project, a colony of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers was found to be nesting right on the spot where - ironically enough -- EPCOT Center's "The Land" pavilion was originally supposed to be built.

And since continuing with development of this particular piece of Walt Disney World property would have then disturbed this endangered species, the Imagineers opted to shift EPCOT Center's construction site over 300 feet to the East. Which was great for the Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, but kind of screwed up WED's plans for Spaceship Earth to be dramatically revealed while driving up World Drive.

"But why didn't Disney just relocated these birds?," you ask. Well, you have to keep in mind that this was/is a federally-protected species. So it's not like the Mouse really had any options in this particular situation. More to the point, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wasn't entirely sure (at that time, anyway) that Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers could actually be relocated.

A naturalist at the Disney Wilderness Preserve places a Red-Cockaded
Woodpecker in its new home

But times changes. And in the Fall of 2008, five pairs of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers were successfully moved from Florida's Apalachicola National Forest to the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee. And  these birds seem to have really taken to their new 12,000-acre home. At last count (which was done back in October of 2010), this Red-Cockaded Woodpecker colony had grown from just 10 birds to 30.

So who knows: If this particular relocation technique had existed back in the late 1970s (More to the point, if the Feds had be willing to sign off on the idea of Mickey moving an entire colony of endangered birds), EPCOT Center would have probably had a slightly different layout. At the very least, "The Land" pavilion in Future World would have been built in a different spot.

And speaking of "The Land" ... Thanks to "Soarin'," this Future World pavilion is quite popular with modern-day Epcot visitors. But this wasn't actually the sort of structure that the Imagineers had originally planned on building in this part of that theme park.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

What WED had originally wanted to fo with "The Land" was construct this pavilion which was made up of seven massive crystalline structures. And each of these giant crystal-like chambers was to have housed a different habitat from the Earth. We're talking snow-covered peaks, the burning desert, even the lush greenery of the rainforest.

Mind you, only five of these chambers were to have held natural environments. The other two would have been agricultural and urban environments. And it was in both of these parts of the show building that the Imagineers were looking to hammer home the basic premise of this Future World pavilion:

The Land Pavilion will graphically illustrate man's role as the "protector" of this finite resource, as well as his alternatives and choices in maintaining, and even enhancing, the delicate balance within the natural environment. Through a variety of exciting and informative shows and experiences, guests will be introduced to the basic concepts essential for understanding the need for harmony between man and his home on "The Land."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

That's how this Future World pavilion was described in Walt Disney Productions' 1977 annual report. And as for the rides & the shows that the Imagineers had in the works for this version of "The Land" back then ... Well, this pavilion's signature attraction was to have been "The Blueprints of Nature." Where Epcot visitors were to have boarded this balloon and suddenly found themselves caught up in a fierce snowstorm high up in the mountains.

As these Guests rode along in their balloon, they were to have followed along as this snow became water and then flowed through the other six of "The Land" 's natural habitats. As they floated along in their balloon observing this water from above, these WDW visitors were to be introduced to the four basic components of Nature's Blueprints (i.e. the snowflakes of Winter, the germinating seeds of Spring, the flowers of Summer and the leaves of Fall). And as the water reached the desert habitat and then evaporated, the Guests (aboard their balloon, of course) were to have followed this water vapor high into the atmosphere. Where it then was to have reformed as snow.

You get the idea, right? The never-ending cycle of Nature. How we are all interconnected. More importantly, how fragile our ecosystem actually is. Which is why man must do everything he can to preserve the balance of nature. Make sure that this cycle is never interrupted.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which was a great message for when "The Land" was supposed to be sponsored by a lumber company (which wanted Disney to help get across the message that they were doing everything they could - i.e. replanting forests after they had harvested all of the trees - to be an environmentally responsible corporation). But when that would-be Epcot sponsor dropped out and Kraft Foods then offered to underwrite the construction of this Future World pavilion ... Well, the central story, the underlying message, even the overall look of "The Land" now had to be radically reworked.

Even so, given all of the architectural work that had already gone into the creation of this giant crystalline-structure version that was to have housed this proposed Future World pavilion, the Imagineers didn't want to totally abandon this design idea. Which is why Epcot's Journey into Imagination wound up being housed inside of a crystal-shaped show building.

More to the point, given all of the time & effort that WED had put into designing those seven carefully interconnected natural habitats that were to have been the heart of the original version of Epcot's "The Land" pavilion ... Well, this wasn't a concept that Dr. Henry Robitaille was willing to walk away from.

Biosphere 2

For those of you who aren't familiar with Henry's work, Dr. Robitaille is known worldwide for his contributions to the science of hydroponics. Dr. Robitaille worked for 20 years on the Epcot project. And if you're ever floated through "Living with the Land," you've already seen a lot of Henry's cutting-edge work (EX: soil-less growing technologies) on display in this Future World pavilion.

Well, Henry genuinely believed that there was something to WED's original idea for "The Land" (i.e. creating seven interconnected natural habitats to then demonstrate how the Earth's ecosystem actually worked together). Which is why - in the late 1980s - Dr. Robitaille agreed to become a consultant on the Biosphere 2 project.

For those who don't remember this quirky scientific experiment, Biosphere 2 was this massive glass greenhouse that was built in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, AZ. Built by Space Biosphere Ventures (a company that received much of its funding from Texas multimillionaire Edward P. Bass. Whose family - at one time, anyway - used to own almost a quarter of The Walt Disney Company), this artificially closed-off complete ecosystem was initially thought to be a dry run for man building a colony on Mars.

Sadly, personality conflicts and flaws in this enormous enclosed ecosystem eventually derailed the Biosphere 2 project. Today, this massive structure is being used by the University of Arizona as an environmental lab.

And speaking of space travel ... Perhaps the greatest loss to the early, early version of Epcot Center was the Space Pavilion. Which - based on the description of this proposed Future World pavilion which can be found in Walt Disney Production's 1977 annual report - sounds like it would have been something truly extraordinary.

Space - a huge, interstellar "Space Vehicle" will transport passengers to the outer frontiers of the universe, highlighting man's efforts to reach out for the stars around him ... from the early pioneers who looked and wondered ... to modern-day space travelers and their triumphs ... to the challenges and possibilities of future space technologies and exploration.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And how exactly would this Future World pavilion have worked?," you ask. The key to pulling off Space's central illusion - that you and several hundred other Epcot visitors were actually aboard this massive vehicle that was hurtling through the cosmos - was the Omnimax Sphere. Which was to have filled this Future World pavilion's many "windows" (i.e. projection screens) with this moving-in-perfect-sync starfields.

This -- coupled with the sleek space vehicle that three-time Academy Award-winning production designer John De Cuir Sr. had drawn up as well as the inspired script that sci-fi pioneer Ray Bradbury had written for this proposed theme park attraction - would have made this version of Future World's "Space" pavilion a must-see for all Epcot visitors.

"So why wasn't this version of the 'Space' pavilion ever built?," you ask. For the same reason that many of the rides, shows & attractions that were initially proposed for Future World & World Showcase never made it off the drawing board. Because Walt Disney Productions executives had a lot of trouble lining up sponsors for EPCOT Center. Mainly because many countries & corporations just couldn't see the long-term benefit of being associated with this forward-looking theme park.

John De Cuir Sr. and Ray Bradbury examine the model for the show car which was to
have been used in the original version of Epcot's "Space" pavilion.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Plus there were mechanical issues with the original version of Epcot's "Space" pavilion. To be specific, the Imagineers couldn't figure out an affordable way to make the enormous theater car (which served as the central ride vehicle for this Future World attraction) feel as though it were actually floating in space. Which was one of the key emotional beats that Bradbury had included in his show script. That Epcot visitors - even if it was only for just a moment - had to experience what it felt like to be in zero gravity.

Mind you, it wasn't 'til some 25 years later -- when the Imagineers came across that centrifuge-based technology which currently powers Epcot's "Mission: SPACE" attraction -- that they actually found a way to give WDW visitors what Ray had been asking for (i.e. the chance to feel what it's like to float in space). But WDI did eventually make this happen. Albiet in a very different form than what De Cuir Sr. and Bradbury had originally proposed.

This has actually happened quite a bit over the course of the Walt Disney Company's history. The Imagineers come up with a genuinely great concept from a new ride, show or attractions for the Parks ... but then have absolutely no clue as how they'd pull off a particular effect, build the cost-effective / easy-to-operate-and-repair ride system that's necessary to pull off  this show concept.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Take - for example - the "Incredible Journey Within" ride that was supposed to be the marquee attraction at Epcot's Life & Health Pavilion. Guests were to have boarded super-sized blood cells and then traveled through a realistic representation of the human circulatory system, witnessing " ... the inner workings of the fascinating, complex human machine" as they rode through this Future World show.

The only problem was ... The Imagineers had absolutely no clue how they were going to create a 35 foot-tall working heart value. One that would flex & pulse continuously for 12 hours a day, seven days a week as each blood-cell-full-of-WDW-visitors then moved through that particular show scene in "The Incredible Journey Within."

Which is why it was almost a kindness that it took the Walt Disney Company so long to find a sponsor for Epcot's "Wonders of Life" pavilion. By then, the Imagineers had come up with that simulator-based technology which is used to power "Star Tours." Which made it that much easier to create a ride film that took Guests on a trip through the human body, rather than building the enormous & elaborately themed physical sets that would have been necessary to properly pull off the "Incredible Journey Within" ride.

An early model for Epcot's Life and Pavilion. Please note - that as you look to the back of
this photo - you can see some of the sets which would have been built for Future
World's "The Incredible Journey Within" ride. Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

Now I know that it sometimes depresses Disneyana fans to read these what-might-have-been articles, hearing about all of these great rides, shows and attractions that didn't quite make it off of WDI's drawing boards. Well, at least you're not as disappointed as then-President Jimmy Carter must have been when he finally got to visit EPCOT Center.

You see, back on October 2, 1978, Card Walker - the then-President and Chief Executive Officer of Walt Disney Productions - announced that the Company had decided to definitely move forward with its plans to build EPCOT Center. And at the 26th World Congress of the International Chamber of Commerce meeting (which was held that year at Walt Disney World), Walker actually unveiled Disney's plans for Future World and World Showcase.

So as President Carter and his wife Rosalynn wandered through that gallery of concept art that the Imagineers had set up in the convention center at Disney's Contemporary Resort Hotel, they got to see extremely cool things like the magic carpet ride that was proposed for World Showcase's United Arab Emirates pavilion. Which was to have sent Guests flying past scenes straight out of "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights," not to mention soaring over sequences which were to have showcased what the modern Arab world was actually like.

(L to R) as Donn Tatum and Rosalynn Carter look on, Card Walker
walks President Jimmy Carter through a gallery full of EPCOT
Center concept art. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

And did I mention this magic carpet ride was supposed to have made use of that mist curtain / project system that Imagineers eventually installed in "Pirates of the Caribbean" as a way to bring Davy Jones and Blackbeard into that popular theme park ride? Or that this attraction at Epcot's United Arab Emirates pavilion was to have featured a Disney-created genie character that would have predated the one that Robin Williams voiced in "Aladdin" by more than 10 years?

But the story of the United Arab Emirates' magic carpet ride will have to wait for a future Why For column. Sorry to be such a tease here. But this week's story is already 'way too long.

Anyway ... That's it for this week. Here's hoping that you folks have a great Columbus Day Weekend. And in the meantime, remember that - if you have a Disney-related question that you'd like to see answered in a future Why For column - you need to send those queries along to [email protected].

Your thoughts?

Blog - Post Feedback Form
Your comment has been posted.   Close
Thank you, your comment requires moderation so it may take a while to appear.   Close
Leave a Comment
  • * Please enter your name
  • * Please enter a comment
  • Post
  • Great article, Jim.  After looking at the model for the Life and Health pavilion, I was trying to figure out what some of the other attractions were for.  Towards the front, it appears that a version of the "Sensory Funhouse" would have been part of it.  But I also remember reading about some sort of animatronic show about the brain featuring cartoonish "neuron" characters was originally going to be a part of the pavilion.  I'm sure that this show morphed into what would eventually become Cranium Command, but do you have any background on what the original show was called and what it would be like?

  • why for does Jim blame space for not telling stories?  Its not like this is being published in a newspaper where size matters.

  • Jason --

    Please re-read the close of this column. I never said that I was running out of space. I said I was ending this week's Why For column because it was already too long. As in: People probably have other / better things to do with their lives than just sit online and read a never-ending story on JHM about Future World pavilions that were never built.

    There's an old show business adage that you should always leave your audience wanting more. That's the whole reason that I ended this week's Why For the way that I did. I let JHM readers know that there's even more story to tell here. Which will hopefully compel them to go check out the "Unofficial Guide Disney Dish with Jim Hill" iTunes thing that I just recorded with Len Testa and/or keep coming back to this site to see if I eventually get around to posting a piece about the magic carpet ride that was proposed for Epcot's never-built United Arab Emirates pavilion.

    Which will actually be a pretty interesting tale, given that it has to deal with the cultural sensitivities that the Imagineers often had to deal with while Disney was trying to recruit countries to come sponsor pavilions at World Showcase. Not to mention the petty jealousies / inter-office politics that often made WED a very challenging place to work at.

    But -- again -- because this week's Why For column was already getting a bit on the long side, I opted to spike that material and then save it for another time. Not because I was running out of space. But -- rather -- because I didn't want this story to drag on for so long that it eventually became boring.

    Which is what I fear this explanation about why I ended this week's Why For the way I did has just become. So I'd best shut up and close now. Okay?

  • Jim, this is a terrific article, and a great example of the type of Disney scholarship (can I use that word?) you simply will not see anywhere else, let alone for free.  Please keep up the good work,


  • Awesome article Jim.  Simply Awesome!!!!!!

  • Mr. Hill,

    As always, I find the details regarding unrealized concepts for attractions and shows that you write about in these “Why For?” columns truly fascinating.  The original planning stages for EPCOT center are full of unique ideas for attractions featuring entirely new characters such as the United Arab Emirates attraction you mention above or the characters for the Japan Pavilion’s proposed “Meet the World”.   I find these unrealized concepts particularly intriguing because they are in many ways so dissimilar from the "recognizable Hollywood franchise" character approach that Disney favors with the parks today and truly serviced the original educational aim of EPCOT more so than updates such as the current largely education free incarnation of the Seas with Nemo and Friends. Indeed, it is unfortunate that pavilions once carefully designed by truly exceptional modern thinkers and scientists such as Ray Bradbury and Dr. Henry Robitaille have given way to attractions that seek to entertain rather than “entertain, inform, and inspire” as championed within EPCOT’s dedication.  The late 70s seem to have been a time during which the Imagineers were able to boldly pursue a vision of a theme park that sought to bring about real change in the way its guests thought about and interacted with the world around them, a seemingly stark contrast from the way in which the Walt Disney Company treats EPCOT now. For example, I find the above outlined concept for a Land pavilion that explores the “blueprints of life” and the “delicate balance of nature” far more intriguing than the current Land pavilion’s direct clone of DCA’s Soarin’ and a remodeled interior that strongly resembles a bland airport waiting lounge.  

    It has often been said that Disney began adding more “thrill-based” attractions to EPCOT in order combat flagging attendance figures after the park’s opening, but considering that the park has consistently ranked #3 among the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions list of top attended parks in North America, after only the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, could that really be the case? Or perhaps this re-branding of EPCOT remains a by-product of Eisner mentality and the infamously lacking maintenance and refurbishment standards of Walt Disney World management? Of course with EPCOT much of it’s content depends on Disney’s ability to find corporate sponsors willing to fund and endorse the various pavilions, but is there hope that the Walt Disney Company has any potential projects in development that seek to address the severely underutilized and rapidly aging facilities of Future World; or should fans such as EPCOT Enthusiast expect a park that will continue to be used mainly as a place for guests to use their Disney Dining Plan table service meals before watching Illuminations?  Overall, I find the educational component of EPCOT to be a fundamental aspect of that park that was quite clearly defined within initial planning stages, but lost somewhere along the way and now sorely lacking. Thank you for continuing to highlight nearly forgotten concepts for this distinctly different Disney park that was inspired by Walt’s greatest unrealized vision.

  • What a great article. Thank you. And I actually like how you leave the reader wanting more.

  • Great article, another piece of evidence as to the crippling cost of Eurodisney.

  • Okay, two quotes bother me.  "Because Walt Disney Productions executives had a lot of trouble lining up sponsors for EPCOT Center. Mainly because many countries & corporations just couldn't see the long-term benefit of being associated with this forward-looking theme park."

    "The Imagineers come up with a genuinely great concept from a new ride, show or attractions for the Parks ... but then have absolutely no clue as how they'd pull off a particular effect, build the cost-effective / easy-to-operate-and-repair ride system that's necessary to pull off  this show concept."

    Are these the main problems? They need sponsors and they need to figure out how to build it within budget. These blue sky ideas are fine, but unrealistic especially with the results that you see now at Future World. For all it gigantic scale, everything in it is a compromise of budgets, sponsors, and ability to pull it off. Disney does in fact do a much better job than the competition, but I left feeling that it could have been "more" or "better" and there's some reason they couldn't just make it seem complete or comprehensive. If they knew they couldn't do it ambitiously, at least do it right.

    I also question why these projects seem boring. Surely, they might sound ambitious with nice special effects to pull it off, but they never tell us why it matters. If the Land's concepts on conservation matters, why is it so expensive to display? Why does going to space matters? What's the benefit of seeing the body as a miniature person besides the fact that films by other production companies did it more successfully than Disney?

    Disney disappoints. That is the consistent theme.

  • thank you for the wonderful story. I am 39 and a huge disney fan. It would be a great tribute th actually make the city of tomorrow a reality. I believe that people would pay to see that city

Page 1 of 1 (10 items)