The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, known as “Epcot” (originally “EPCOT”), is unique. It’s not about rides, though it does have rides; and it’s not about theming, though it does have themes. What it is about is exploration and discovery—of people, places and things—for Epcot is two distinct “worlds”: Future World and the World Showcase. Think interactive museum of science and industry meets world’s fair: a mind-expanding journey through the past, present and future of technology and the diverse cultures and histories of countries near and far. This is a place where learning new things just happens—through touch and taste, sound and vision; where the electromagnetic frequencies of the mind will be as stimulated as the heart’s sensitivity to humanity and the environment. Epcot is unlike any other Disney experience. It is also unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in one place.
Ride in on the monorail (or come from the parking lot), and you enter Epcot’s Future World, where you’ll be greeted by the park’s most recognizable feature and one of Disney’s most iconic: the geodesic sphere of Spaceship Earth. Come via the water side, by boat or on foot from the one of the Disney Boardwalk hotels, and you enter through the International Gateway, situated between the United Kingdom or France. Each will draw you in to depths unexpected and captivating.
At first sighting, Spaceship Earth’s geodesic sphere conveys it all: World. Future. Shiny. Bright. Here you will find an expanse of wonders within inviting pavilions dedicated to discovery. Where a museum of science and industry treats its young visitors to interactive displays designed to teach through experience, Epcot’s pavilions take that immersive strategy to unparalleled heights to appeal to all ages. After all, that’s what Disney does best.
Innoventions—Design your own thrill ride on an interactive touch screen with the help of mathematical tools and a willing virtual robotic tester—then board the KUKA RoboSim 4-D simulator and experience it for real in Raytheon’s Sum of All Thrills. In three minutes, you’ll have harnessed the laws of physics by applying them to various track segments, such as corkscrews, inversions, bank turns and drops. While designed to inspire the next generation of engineers, mathematicians and scientists, Sum of All Thrills will get you thinking—maybe even obsessing: If you’d shortened the height of the inversion, maybe you would have had the velocity you needed to make the straight-away more exhilarating. Or maybe…. Wait, how long is the line? And that’s only one attraction within one of the two Innovention pavilions. [Editor’s Note: Since the writing of this article, Sum of All Thrills, sadly, is no more.]
Test Track—Where Sum of All Thrills is but a small—albeit mind-blowing—attraction within the much larger Innoventions experience, Chevrolet’s Test Track is a full-blown design experience in which you have about five minutes at a touch screen to customize one of four basic vehicle types for optimal performance across one or more key areas: eco-efficiency, responsiveness, aerodynamics, and power. You then board the test car, which has been pre-loaded with your design, and run it through a comprehensive series of “Tron-”style road-test simulations culminating in 65 miles per around a steeply angled circle track. Even when the ride is over the experience continues. Create your own 30-second spot with the car you designed, highlighting the key feature, and send it to yourself and others for all to marvel at. Use the same design kiosk in the queue to practice your design skills and better get to know the many options for enhancing vehicle efficiencies and appearance. You can also pose for a scenic photo of your own choosing, with the car you designed or from a selection of possibilities. Where does the time go?
Mission Space—Then there’s the thrill of G-force…. Learn how to function as part of a team on a deep-space mission to Mars with Gary Sinise leading the mission. By time you’re entering the craft (a.k.a. “simulator”) with your three shipmates you feel suited up and possibly concerned about how well you’re going to play your assigned roll, whether it’s navigator, pilot, commander or engineer. You’ll find yourself quickly bonding with your companions, if you haven’t already in the pre-flight orientation, particularly upon noticing the little convenience bags located in front of each of you in the shuttle. Depending on whether you selected the orange, “more intense” version of the ride or the green, low-intensity version, reaching for that little bag might be tempting—providing the G-force doesn’t make it impossible to lift your arm. Either way, you’ll have a unique experience that combines teamwork with the kind of storytelling that is pure Disney.
The Land and The Seas—Not all thrills require safety restraints. Some sneak up on you when you least expect it and others lay in wait of your discovery. You may walk into The Land pavilion thinking agriculture is boring, you can’t grow a plant to save your life, and “sustainable” is just what’s trending today. In and out, on to the next thing. Then you board the Living with the Land attraction… “Wait, that’s edible?” “What’s neem?” “So that’s what a peanut tree looks like!” “Ohmygod, you can grow stuff without dirt?” Next thing you know, you’re contemplating getting a fish tank so you can grow an herb garden without dirt. If you’re not careful, The Land can change how you think about food and the science behind feeding the world (which is more than just dirt!).
Unlike The Land, whose food court holds more of a presence than the wonders hidden within, The Seas is immediately more immersive, beginning with boarding a “clamobile” to go in search of Nemo in the “Big Blue World.” The ride culminates with an up-close view of the massive 5.7-million-gallon saltwater aquarium that houses over 6,000 residents, including sea turtles, dolphins, rays and sharks, but the real aquarium experience is on the second floor, where a near 360 degrees of viewing will captivate and entertain. Downstairs, the pavilion space pours into environmental tide pools, each with individual aquariums and interactive games incorporating the cast of “Finding Nemo”—both real and animated. Sea horses, eels, anemones and a hard-to-spot stonefish are among the fascinating, and without even trying, you’ll learn things. Most importantly, and at the core of much of Epcot’s Future World, is the very serious and real emphasis on conservation efforts and raising awareness of the manmade threats to our natural world. An aquarium exhibit of two rescued manatees is both a sad story and a hopeful one. And it’s not the only such example. In contrast, Turtle Talk with Crush is a Disney tour de force that is well worth enduring an audience abundant with tots. Besides, they sit up front so they can interact with the star. And anyway, you’ll be laughing too hard to care.
Energy—In Ellen’s Energy Adventure, laughter is the main vehicle used to explore energy as comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, along with sidekick Bill Nye the Science Guy, embarks on a journey to discover the origin of energy and its impact on our lives and the planet. Part sitcom, part game show, part dark ride, part IMAX movie Ellen’s Energy Adventure is a captivating 45-minute experience that presents a larger-than-life view of the many ways in which energy is being harnessed around the world and beyond. And with 37 of those minutes spent actually sitting, Ellen’s Energy Adventure should be seen not only for the entertaining treatment of scientific concepts, but for its energy-saving potential in the larger-than-life Epcot experience.
Spaceship Earth—The queue for Spaceship Earth conveys little about the Spaceship Earth experience, except maybe the idea of transport, as the queue is about as engaging and innovative as the queue for the People Mover ride or the train at the Magic Kingdom. Yet you wouldn’t be far off. From the one mural at the point of entry, you might infer Spaceship Earth is a rocket launch to the Stone Age. And again, you wouldn’t be far off, just minus the vertical countdown to an intense take-off followed by a fast-paced ride. What is immediately obvious as you enter the staging area is that you’re embarking on a journey like no other, and it’s worth remembering that it’s all taking place in a geodesic sphere as you spiral up the evolution of human communication in the language of your choosing. A more fitting lead-in to the Epcot experience is impossible to imagine, as Spaceship Earth celebrates human innovation born of the need to be connected—to each other, to the world, to the past, present and future. On Spaceship Earth, you make a difference. You have an effect on the outcome, and therefore no two experiences are the same. And when it’s over, you’re released into the future, where you can interact with the technology being applied for a healthier, happier, more energy-efficient life. Oh, and you’re still in a geodesic sphere!
This is the world’s fair side of the park, where 11 countries edge the World Showcase Lagoon, each representing the most recognizable and significant aspects of its character and world presence. This isn’t a miniaturized experience that makes you feel like Gulliver traveling abroad, but a series of full-blown destinations all beautifully replicated, expertly edited, and brilliantly presented to satisfy the seasoned traveler to the tourist.
Even if you’ve never been to the United Kingdom, for example, you’ll recognize it like a favorite character from a favorite book. It’s how you always imagined it: Dickens and Peter Pan, Shakespeare and Mr. Toad. If you have been to the U.K., you’ll appreciate the faithful representations of architecture and landscaping, and of course the charm of the “shoppes” and the corner pub. The cast members are all properly adorned for the turn of the century and the wares are appropriately British. Enjoy your morning coffee watching London wake up and the streets come alive with stoop sweepers and a traveling troupe of punsters. Like most of the World Showcase countries, the U.K. has both a signature restaurant and “street food” all authentic to the U.K, down to the fish and chips and the brews and ales. Even without a ride or attraction, the United Kingdom provides plenty of interactive fun through its talented entertainers who can convert the shy to “Shylock” through fun and imaginative improv that unites all who participate. Mary Poppins and Alice have even been known to make an appearance, which feels perfectly natural and justifiable for the United “Magic” Kingdom. So, if you’ve never traveled “across the pond,” you’ll leave Epcot’s World Showcase feeling as if you have—and maybe believing it. And maybe you’ll set your sights on going, now that you know so much about it.
And that’s just one country out of eleven in your “world-wind” journey around the World Showcase. France, Canada, China, Japan, Morocco, Mexico, Norway, Italy, Germany and America await, each staffed from the stores to the eateries with local country-people all happy to talk about their homeland should you wish to know more.
Highlights—What had until recently been the Viking museum in Norway, showcasing the country’s seafaring evolution from lore to a global presence in energy production, is now even more fun and popular with the switch from the charming Maelstrom attraction to the state-of-the art, beautifully and authentically realized Frozen. Both the attraction and the revitalized quaint museum should both be on the must-see list.
Journey to China, where a flawless replica of the Terracotta Army, reduced to 2/3 life size, can be viewed from all sides, along with a number of just as impressive and fascinating figures and artifacts dating back to the 3rd century BC. The Reflections of China 360° movie empties into this chamber of treasures and is considered one of the hidden gems of Epcot, and a life-saver on particularly hot or rainy days.
Another indoor Mecca is Mexico, where an entire city, replete with local craftspeople, street carts, tequila bar and restaurant with a view of a simmering volcano and Mayan pyramid, has been realistically reproduced within a pre-Columbian pyramid. The queue for The Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros is usually next to empty, belying the brilliance of this dark ride’s concept in partnering Mexico’s rich history with Donald Duck’s infamous exploits that drive his two companions to run a-fowl. You might even learn some Spanish after all that!
For really getting to know a country, there’s nothing like trying the local cuisines: Consider France’s renowned pastries and gourmet restaurants, the pasta and pizza of Italy, the Oktoberfest-style “Biergarten” of Germany, and the Mediterranean specialties of Morocco. There’s Japan’s sushi and sashimi, teriyaki and udon; and Norway’s atypical selection of sandwiches and traditional breads, both sweet and savory. You’ll be wanting to pace yourself and will likely fail in favor of indulgence. And then there’re all the indigenous “adult” beverages, from wine and beer to aquavit and tequila, and of course all the specialized coffee drinks that’ll help revive the spirit after all those spirits.
It’s possible to do the whole of Epcot in a single outing, particularly if all you have is one day budgeted. We’ve done it, and it was one helluva day. Our heads were spinning, our minds were buzzing, and by morning our legs needed a lot of coaxing to walk again. It’s doable, but not recommended. If you managed to read this entire piece, you can likely appreciate the depth of discovery and exploration this massive enterprise encompasses. Yes, it’s museums, yes it’s exhibits and pavilions. It’s also films and performances, rides and attractions, games and galleries, people and technology, all set in an environment originally created as an experimental prototype community of tomorrow. So yes, you will learn things, but the only test is endurance.