Epcot at 40: How Walt Disney World inspired me to become a technologist

Epcot at 40: How Walt Disney World inspired me to become a technologist

People celebrate in front of Epcot.

Opening of the Epcot Center, October 1982

The Walt Disney Company/Media Archive

It was in 1972. I was three years old. Back then, our nuclear family was me, my mom, and my dad, living in Queens. My brother was not yet born, and it was very early for my immediate family and my formative memories. Although I don’t remember the smallest details of this period, I remember it as a happy time.

The family vacation that started it all

One of my earliest memories was of our vacation that year to Florida and Walt Disney World, which had only been open for about a year. We stayed at the Polynesian Village Resort, one of only two properties to open in the park, the second being the Contemporary Resort.

I don’t remember much about Le Polynésien in 1972, but I do remember visiting Le Contemporain.

The Contemporary was, for its time, an ultra-futuristic, state-of-the-art resort hotel, with a giant open interior space from which all floors could be seen in an interior “Grand Canyon” lobby. The park’s transportation system, the all-electric monorail, stopped inside the lobby — you never had to leave the hotel’s air-conditioned confines to get on.

Also: This Hotel Uses Technology In A Really Scary Way (But Some Will Like It)

Inside the contemporary complex.

The lobby of Disney World Contemporary Resort

The Walt Disney Company

The original hotel had only 383 rooms in one building (it had 655), but for a three-year-old it was gigantic and impressive. I haven’t been there for 50 years, but I remember it very well.

This hotel was originally part of a grand master plan by Walt Disney himself, but was never fully realized, as he died of cancer in 1966 before construction of the park was complete. According to his wishes, in addition to the theme parks, Walt Disney World was to contain the experimental prototype of the city of tomorrow, where people lived and worked in utopian and futuristic happiness. EPCOT was to be the first “smart city”, with amenities and automation that people could only dream of at the time.

Instead, we ended up with the perpetual World’s Fair theme park we have today, celebrating its 40th anniversary this week.

Disney Futurism and the World’s Fair

Walt Disney’s Prototype City was influenced by the design of the 1964-65 World’s Fair, an exhibition of the future of American industrial prowess: consumer goods, transportation, technology, and the space age. It was held at Flushing Meadows in New York, represented 80 countries and attracted 51 million people.

The Walt Disney Company (and Walt himself) was heavily involved in several exhibits, showcasing technologies it would later use in its parks.

Unisphere and New York State Pavilion at night.

The Unisphere and New York State Pavilion at the 1964–65 World’s Fair

New York City

My parents grew up not far from the site and worked there. During my childhood in the 1970s, my father took me to see the remaining structures. These included the Unisphere (undoubtedly the inspiration of the EPCOT Geosphere), the New York Hall of Science, and the New York State Pavilion with its giant, space-age Colosseum-like ellipse and its circular observation towers.

Ten years after the end of the fair, as shown in the documentary Modern ruin: a universal exhibition pavilionthese buildings were already dilapidated and neglected, but they were still impressive.

Today, we call this architectural style and aesthetic design retro-futuristic. This design philosophy carried over to all aspects of Walt Disney World, including the monorail transportation system and EPCOT, which was built in the late 1970s and opened in the early 1980s with a Future World pavilion ( now extinct), which I also visited shortly afterwards. its opening in adolescence.

The influence on a generation

Disney was a big influence on kids growing up in the 1970s because we didn’t have as many entertainment choices on TV as young kids today. The Wonderful World of Disneya show that aired on NBC in primetime on Sunday nights from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., which featured Disney cartoons and movies (often split into parts over multiple weekends), had an opening sequence featuring Tinker Bell , featuring images of the park and brief concept images from EPCOT.

In retrospect, I recognize this as consumerist propaganda, but as a child I was hypnotized by it. Every kid I knew watched this show religiously and as a result begged their parents to take them to the park for a Sunshine State vacation whether they could afford it or not.

The futurism of Disney World and the early concept designs of EPCOT undoubtedly influenced others. The domed city of Logan’s Racefeatured in the 1975 dystopian sci-fi film (one of the first films I remember seeing in a theater with my father), bears more than a passing resemblance to Walt’s unrealized experimental prototype city Disney.

The domed city from the movie Logan's Run.

The domed town of Logan’s Run.

United Artists Digital Studios/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Amazon)

Watching EPCOT today, you can easily imagine Michael York, Ricard Jordan, Jenny Agutter, and Farrah Fawcett—all of whom I had posters of as a teenager—running among the geodesic dome and surrounding structures.

There’s also a lot of this aesthetic in other 1970s and 1980s sci-fi movies and TV shows that kids of my generation enjoyed. Glen A. Larson (producer of Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th century, and Knight Rider) was probably a follower of Walt Disney Futurism.

The influence is evident in the works of others like Syd Mead, who did much of the conceptual designs behind blade runner, Aliensand Disney Tron. And also, in the designs of Ralph McQuarrie, who was one of the main influences behind the look of the star wars movies, which Disney would of course own and capitalize on decades later with its Galaxy’s Edge theme park.

If you look at how Apple’s “Spaceship” headquarters in Cupertino was built, there’s also part of Disney’s original EPCOT – no doubt Steve Jobs was thinking of Uncle Walt in some way or another when planning it.

Blown away by technology

The futuristic vision of Walt Disney World left an indelible impression on me long after that first family vacation; it occupies a fundamental part of my memory and influences my life in the same way as watching old episodes of star trek Is. My grandfather, Sid, introduced me to the series during the first reruns of the 1970s.

Realistic presidents in the Hall of Presidents.

Audio-Animatronics in the Hall of Presidents

Disney Parks

While EPCOT never became the future utopian city that Walt Disney wanted, it would be incorrect to say that the theme park aspects demean the experience – on the contrary, they legitimize it.

To a three-year-old, the cast members walking around the park in Mickey Mouse and Goofy costumes had nothing to do with the animatronics Tiki Birds or Abraham Lincoln.

I vividly remember my initial wonderment of the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Hall of Presidents and how these things came to life.

The realism of the Audio-Animatronics baffled me, but I knew – and understood – that they were already synthetic and robotic.

I recognized that what kept them alive was not actors in costume but technology. And even at three years old, even though I didn’t understand what “careers” were or what people did in technology, I knew I wanted to do things like that or work with something like that when I grew up.

Why am I a technologist today? Undoubtedly, the idea started with this family vacation fifty years ago. So to EPCOT, I wish you a happy 40th birthday – and to Walt Disney World, a happy 51st.

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