Disney’s theme parks are unique in the sense that, while many love them for their entertainment value alone, they have a deep, unwavering commitment to education and enlightenment. What separates a Disney park from, say, a Six Flags park is that Disney hopes to entertain you and teach you at the same time, while Six Flags is perfectly content to settle for mindless thrill rides based on comic book and action characters.
That’s not a knock on Six Flags. There is definitely a place for that kind of entertainment in addition to the Disney model. However, the real beauty of Disney’s parks around the world is embodied by Walt’s great vision of educational entertainment, and in my mind, Walt Disney World’s Epcot is the epitome of that vision.
Each of the four major parks in the World aim to teach guests something about the world we live in. Magic Kingdom presents varied themes of the past, present, tomorrow and fantasy; Animal Kingdom shows us the beauty of the natural world and the animals we share it with; and Hollywood Studios teaches us about the sense of adventure and exploration that we get from movies and television (and that apparently the ’90s are still going strong).
Epcot is the real kicker, though, as it teaches us about the greatest accomplishment we can imagine: ourselves.
Call me melodramatic; maybe I’ve been watching too much National Geographic Channel (and their excellent series, Earth: The Biography). But you have to admit that the things humans have accomplished in our relatively short time on Earth are nothing short of remarkable.
Think about all the amazing history you learn throughout your 15-minute journey through Spaceship Earth, from the earliest hunters learning to communicate to take down the mammoth in the snow, to the Phoenicians inventing the modern alphabet, to the nerds making computers in their California garages. (Don’t forget the burning smell as Rome is sacked, or the groan-inducing scientist with the Afro in the computer scene!)
Think about all of the manpower (and brainpower!) it took to design, build, and operate the space program, and how mankind went from fighting animals with sharp sticks to sending ourselves into space and landing on an astral body. Mission: Space makes it very clear how far we, as a species, have come since our early days. You may have to resist the urge to puke (either because you hate the ride aesthetics or you’re just plain sick) but you have to admit that the idea of the ride makes perfect sense for Epcot, which is all about celebrating humanity in its varied forms.
Innoventions, aside from being a great place to escape the scorching Florida heat, showcases the ingenuity and imaginative spirit of human engineering and technology. You can perform impact testing, survive a wild storm (and learn how to protect your home from one), design your own roller coaster, and discover how to be smarter about energy usage.
Attractions like Living with the Land and Soarin’ highlight our interactions with nature and show us how we have adapted our lives to fully integrate into the environment. The Land, specifically, is an interesting experience because of the emphasis it places on using new technology to grow our food and promote sustainability.
But for all the technological whiz-bangs and historical perspective afforded by Future World, the most impressive part of Epcot – and perhaps WDW as a whole – is the World Showcase.
Sure, it needs some updating. I’m looking at you, Norway movie. It could stand to get a new country or two. Who wouldn’t love to see a permanent Jamaica/Caribbean pavilion? It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to cover up the Soarin’ show building so you can’t see it from the Showcase.
Yet the real beauty of the World Showcase is its unbridled celebration of humanity and diversity, which shines through despite these minor issues. From the beautiful carved wooden figures in Mexico, to the grass-roof stave church in Norway, to the classical gilded design of The American Adventure, Disney’s designers created a series of walk-through dioramas that highlight the cultural values and traditions of the varied nations throughout the showcase.
Some of it may be exaggerated, some of it may be outdated, and some of it may be slightly fictionalized, but the overall experience of exploring the pavilions really make you believe you are in that country. You can just imagine sipping a cold Bass in an English pub, or perusing a Moroccan bazaar, or seeing the French countryside, or strolling a romantic Mexican cantina at twilight. The fact that the cast members in each pavilion are natives of that country only helps improve the experience. I remember when I went to WDW in middle school, at a time when I was taking French as a foreign language, and I tried to speak French to all the pretty French girls and probably looked like a total fool. Yet it was an experience I wouldn’t have otherwise had if not for Disney’s unwavering attention to realism (as much as practicable).
While many of the most obvious cultural designs are also the most superficial, like the native cast members and the theming, World Showcase really shines when you dig a little deeper and try to find the hidden gems in the Imagineering. Why does the Norway church have a grass roof? Why are there totem poles in the Canada pavilion? Why is it always twilight in the Mexico pavilion? The answers to these questions show the wonderful depth of heritage and tradition that give the pavilions true character.
And then there’s Illuminations. The nightly fireworks spectacular is just that, no matter how matter how many times I’ve seen it. It is the perfect culmination of all that the World Showcase stands for: the collective brotherhood of all the world’s cultures persevering and prospering together in harmonious glory with the planet.
Pretty deep for an amusement park, huh?
Epcot is definitely not without its flaws. Horizons and the Wonders of Life are sorely missed and there are numerous outdated features. Since Epcot opened 30 years ago, Disney has opened 2 full-fledged parks and 2 water parks in the World, and they are currently finishing up a monumental Fantasyland expansion in the Magic Kingdom, yet Epcot remains slightly musty and in need of some care. Even in its current state, however, it is still the park that never ceases to amaze, enthrall, and inspire me on every single visit.
Humans have come quite a long way since we battled mammoths and painted in caves. Even in the past 100 years our world has been changed in so many ways that we can’t even imagine what the next 100 years will bring. Consider the fact that I wrote this article entirely on an iPad, a handheld computer that has arguably more power than the computers we used to send man to the moon in the ‘60s.
For me, Epcot is all about celebrating humanity’s achievements and learning how different cultures view and experience the world around us. Happy birthday, Epcot. Here’s to another 30 years of showing us how wonderful it is to be human.