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Monday, April 1, 2024

EPCOT Part Ten: What If Nobody Showed Up?

In 1982, EPCOT neared completion and the company prepared to open its biggest, most ambitious theme park ever. Despite opening during a recession, the company was confident that EPCOT Center would fully establish Walt Disney World as the Vacation Kingdom that Roy Disney had envisioned. That it wasn’t the EPCOT that Walt Disney had envisioned was glossed over and ignored. While the company didn’t specifically say that this park had anything to do with Walt Disney’s original plans, it didn’t discourage anyone from thinking that it did.

The EPCOT that greeted guests on opening day was massively larger than even the Magic Kingdom, but despite its size it had fewer traditional attractions. The park featured mostly exhibits, shops and dining. The decision was also made to ban Disney characters from the park. Instead, guests found bizarre park specific characters that were supposed to represent the World Showcase countries. On October 1, 1982 the Walt Disney World resort finally opened something called EPCOT- the theme park that it hoped would stop the questions about where EPCOT was and turn the complex into the vacation kingdom that Roy Disney wanted.

The heavily hyped park was met with a yawn. While the park opened to larger crowds than the Magic Kingdom did, it still massively underperformed. The company panicked and quickly injected Disney characters into the park. The huge cost involved to build the park sent the company into a tailspin that attracted corporate raiders. Disney CEO Card Walker, who approved EPCOT, had retired at an opportune time right before the park opened its doors. His successor, Walt Disney’s son-in-law Ron Miller, would unfortunately get all the blame for the company’s financial problems. The lackluster reception received by EPCOT threatened to do what naysayers had believed would happen in 1955- take down Walt Disney Productions.

Two years after EPCOT’s disastrous opening, the company cleared the decks, installing a new management team championed by Roy E. Disney. At first the new team led by Michael Eisner had planned to sell off the theme parks and resorts, licensing the Disney trademarks to the new owners. After realizing that the theme parks (other than EPCOT) stabilized the company as a whole, the new team decided to invest heavily in fixing EPCOT and extending the company’s theme park holdings. As part of this new push to bolster the theme parks, the new regime decided to double down on pretending that EPCOT as built was exactly what Walt Disney wanted. Promotional materials often referred to EPCOT as Walt Disney’s final dream come true.

As part of its efforts to bolster the Florida property, The Walt Disney Company began an unprecedented era of construction at Walt Disney World. In Anaheim, the majority of the revenue generated by Disneyland went to non-Disney owned businesses. This bothered Walt Disney because if he had owned more of the enterprises that sprang up around Disneyland, he could use the revenue to improve his park. This was one of the reasons why he wanted to own more land in Florida. Unfortunately, Roy Disney underbuilt hotel rooms, so the same tawdry, low rent leeches still sprang up in Orlando, though farther away. The Walt Disney Compamy sought to fix this with a new building boom in the 1980’s and 90’s. Would the company ever build anything resembling Walt’s original dream? While the Disney company would claim they had- in actuality, they would not.