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Epcot, the theme park that once represented Walt Disney's vision of an experimental future, is about to get a transformation that will bring it more in line with the parent company's current strategy.

There was a time when Epcot, the second piece of Florida’s sprawling Walt Disney World resort, functioned as a source for slow-paced education about energy, technology, farming, and world cultures. Speedy thrills were for other lands.

In more recent years, the park, which opened in 1982, has added more adventurous (and crowd-generating) components: the speedy Test Track; the multi-sensory Soarin’; the blastoff-simulating Mission: Space; the wildly popular movie-based Frozen Ever After.

But The Walt Disney Company still wants more for Epcot as it pours money into upgrading its theme parks around the world — and especially in Orlando, where competition from smaller rival Universal Studios have proven fierce in the years following the addition of Harry Potter attractions.

“If you look at what Disney’s done since Universal opened Wizarding World in 2010, they focused on each of their four parks in succession,” said Robert Niles, founder and editor  of Theme Park Insider. “Magic Kingdom, then Animal Kingdom, then Hollywood Studios has been getting the most work… It’s Epcot’s turn now. At some point, they were going to get to Epcot.”

Earlier this month, at the fan convention D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek laid out the plans, meant to shift Epcot to a heavier-trafficked, family-friendlier, more-branded destination. Disney has not put a price tag on the changes at Epcot; Chapek said teams are working to finish in time for the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World in 2021.

“Work of this magnitude obviously is going to take some time,” he said.

The new additions include: a new ride based on Remy the rat chef of the Pixar film Ratatouille, patterned after the popular version at Disneyland Paris; renovations and a facelift to the front part of the park, known as Future World; a new film for the China section; a new space-themed restaurant next to an updated Mission: Space; and, biggest of all, a major attraction based on the blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy films.

“Our work on the park is centered around a few guiding principles,” Chapek said. “We want to keep it true to the original vision while making it more timeless, more relevant, more family, and more Disney.”

The family element seems especially important, especially when it comes to a park beloved by locals for its selection of beers and annual food-and-drink festivals. Chapek, who hinted at an upcoming “major transformation” at the park in November, said the company is taking the consideration of families with young children especially seriously.

“They love Epcot,” he said. “But they want it to have a litle bit more of that Disney wow factor.”

Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

The germ of the idea that became Epcot started with founder Walt Disney, who wanted to build an actual futuristic city, according to D23, Disney’s official fan club. He came up with the term Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow in 1966 and discussed the concepts in a film that year. But he died at the end of that year, and the company went on to open Magic Kingdom in 1971.

EPCOT Center — a theme park rather than livable city because “it could not be both a showplace and a place to live,” the official history says — followed in 1982 at a cost of around $1 billion.

But the park, which later changed its name to Epcot, held onto some of those ideas about experimentation. It boasted two parts: Future World, with attractions centered around communication, energy, motion, and agriculture,  and World Showcase, with sections devoted to nine countries.

“What EPCOT is is an exceptionally well-done, very different, World’s Fair,” the Christian Science Monitor wrote in a story about the opening.

“It is a world of improbable cleanliness and astonishing architecture, a world of such odd sights as a million-pound silver sphere, looking like a giant golf ball, poised on four supports so that you can can walk underneath; waterfalls that flow uphill; performing vegetables; and animated humanoids so lifelike that one man commented, ‘If I were an actor, I’d be real worried,'” the story said.

Tom Fitzgerald, a creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering who worked on the original park, is also leading the update. During the announcement this month, he described Epcot as a place where “the real becomes fantastic and the fantastic becomes real.”

“Epcot has always been, from day one, an optimistic celebration of the real world brought to life through the magic of Disney,” he said. “It’s really kind of a living showcase of the world we have created and the world we continue to create together.”

The Age Factor

But observers agree that the living showcase is showing its age.

“Epcot has needed rehabilitation now for a long time,” said Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services. “It was always, from the visitor’s viewpoint, a passive park. People went there to eat and enjoy cultural attractions, but that lost its halo, I think, over the years.”

Test Track, a high-speed car ride, added some excitement — and something fun for older kids and teens — when it opened in 1999. And the park made several adjustments in the years that followed, said Brad Rex, who was Epcot’s vice president from 2001 until 2007.

“Epcot is very popular, and the investments that were made in the five years I was there were critical to its current popularity,” Rex said in an email.

Mission: Space, which simulates a rocket blastoff, opened in 2003, followed by Soarin’, a crowd favorite recently updated to make riders feel like they’re flying amid world monuments and habitats. The Seas with Nemo & Friends, a ride through a real aquarium with animated characters from the movie Finding Nemo, opened in 2007.

“One of the key points of our strategy at the time was to make Epcot ‘Fun and Friendly for Families,’ and that strategy has continued with the addition of Frozen, Soarin’ Around the World redo and expansion, and the new announcements,” said Rex, who is now president and CEO of eHome Counseling Management Partners.

Frozen Ever After, which opened last year, has become the ride with the most requests for FastPasses — the system that lets guests reserve a time in advance to user a shorter line — at Epcot, Chapek said.

“We want to build on that success so that World Showcase celebrates both real countries and the worlds that they inspire,” he said.

Coming Attractions

Bringing in Guardians of the Galaxy, Speigel said, will help attract a wider variety of guests to the park — families and teenagers in addition to the couples who come to stroll, eat, and drink.

“I think they’re trying to blend the product properly,” he said.

And Niles, of Theme Park Insider, said the shift fits in with Disney’s overall strategy.

“What Disney’s announced is a change of direction for the Epcot theme park, but I think it’s a smart one because it helps to bring Epcot more in line with what Disney is today, which is a franchise-driven company,” he said. “It’s not so much into the modernist futuristic kind of technologically idealistic company that it was back in the ‘70s when Epcot was designed and early ‘80s.”

Todays Disney, Niles said, is “a big Hollywood entertainment studio” driven by franchises and intellectual property. After acquiring Pixar, Marvel Comics, and the Star Wars universe, the company has poured significant money into integrating those brands into parks.

“The public wants franchises, it doesn’t necessarily want nonfiction-driven entertainment,” he said. “While there are some fans disappointed by the fact that Disney seems to be moving away from the original intent of Epcot, Disney’s moved away from the original intent of Epcot two or three times already. It will reinvigorate the park.”

Even before the announcements earlier this month, longtime fans of the original Epcot — already heartbroken that the old Maelstrom boat ride in Norway had been replaced by a similar ride built around Frozen’s Anna, Elsa, and Olaf  — were bracing for the worst. The Guardians of the Galaxy coaster will replace Ellen’s Energy Adventure, in the Universe of Energy building.

Some disenchanted fans have started referring to the park as #IPCOT on social media, using the abbreviation for “intellectual property.” The hashtag is not meant as a compliment.

Rex, the former vice president, said such concerns are expected.

“Every time an attraction is replaced, some fans complain,” he said. “However, from my experience, when they go on the new attraction, they are thrilled with the different experience. You have to keep things fresh.”

The Larger Strategy

Among the world’s most-visited theme parks, Epcot ranks sixth, according to the latest global attractions attendance report from the Themed Entertainment Association and the economics practice at engineering firm AECOM.

Last year, 11.7 million people visited the park, a drop of 0.7 percent from the previous year, according to the report. Other Disney parks also saw declines — including the world’s most popular, Magic Kingdom, which saw numbers drop slightly to 20.4 million. Disney noted throughout the year that visitor numbers were down in part due to a new pricing system that charges more for the busiest times; revenues still increased.

The company has also been working to increase attendance at other parks at the Orlando resort, most recently Animal Kingdom. Pandora — The World of Avatar opened earlier this year as part of an effort to turn that park into a full-day experience.

“All the parks have had or are having major additions and it would impact Epcot’s attendance if it were the only park to remain static,” Rex said. “These new attractions will add capacity and spread out demand, which will improve wait times and the overall guest experience.”

And CEO Robert Iger has also said Disney sees great potential in expanding the characters from its movies into its parks.

“Usually when we talk about the studio, we talk about the studio results as it relates to box office and the bottom-line for that business,” he said last year during an earnings call. “But you also have to think about it in terms of how we mine these assets not just in the United States, but globally at our parks and in consumer products.”

Speigel said the driving goal is increasing the number of people who visit the park — and the amount of time they spend at Disney.

“When it comes right down to all of it, what they’re really doing with these facilities is keeping people on property,” he said. “And the longer they can keep them at Epcot now, that’s time they don’t go to Universal.”

More in Store

Even while making a host of announcements, the Disney executives kept some plans under wraps this month.

“This really is just the tip of the iceberg for what we’ve got in store for Epcot,” Chapek said. “Transforming that special park in preparation for Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary is going to be a very big priority for us.”

Industry watchers had expected to hear an announcement about more countries coming to the World Showcase at the fan event.

“I think they would like to have something to offer South America, given the importance of Brazil to the Walt Disney World market,” Niles said. “All of that comes down to who are they going to get as partners to work with or what kind of IP they can put in.”

As for the park’s future, Rex said he thinks its moving in the right direction.

“I think Walt Disney would be absolutely thrilled to see these new attractions and additions,” he said. “Epcot was designed to continually evolve and be a very diverse park, attractive to everyone—truly a ‘community of tomorrow.'”


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Tags: disney, theme parks

Photo credit: Disney announced changes for Epcot at D23 Expo this month. The outside of the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy attraction is shown in this rendering. Disney Parks and Resorts

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