Happy birthday, Epcot

Twentieth century dreams of the future looked an awful lot like shopping centers. Even in 1982 and 1985 we said that EPCOT was a mall: the acres of concrete, horticulture, planters, carpeting; there was even a food court! But the American liberal ethos, bolstered by the dynamic performance of the capitalist system before the Vietnam War destroyed the old allegiances, was composed of an amiable polyphony in which cultural exchanges would produce One World, with the United States playing host. This would become “host country” at EPCOT.

Although it stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, Walt Disney World’s second theme park never met its founder’s conception of a global village. For the first few years before Michael Eisner changed forever what Disney meant, EPCOT was a rather staid attempt at education; call it the most expensive public works project in history, financed by private capital. Visitors learned about energy from an oil company, about the history of transportation from General Motors. At Communicore you could even play with personal computers. As for World Showcase, conceived as a perpetually changing World’s Fair, visitors bought Viking helmets drank Guinness but kept their distance from couscous (for almost twenty years the Italian pavillion’s restaurant was booked solid).

But for my family EPCOT was an instant hit. Thinking I was above the worldlier pleasures of the Magic Kingdom, I liked to say EPCOT was more “educational.” My parents liked its wide spaces, the way it encouraged leisurely touring. We took trips during which we didn’t once step foot in the Magic Kingdom. Eventually the rest of the world caught up with us. So did Eisner. EPCOT Center became Epcot, as if to forcibly stop the park from maturing. Thrill rides were added. So were Disney characters. Keeping a close eye on trends and traffic patterns, Disney encouraged Drinking Around the World.

Yet for thirty-five years Epcot has kept its essence, unintentionally. At the dawn of the Reagan era, as ideologues began their assault on public education, Disney thought it could leaven the sensory assault with a few anodyne explanations of the use for solar panels around impressive Cretaceous Era dinosaurs. The education’s there if you want it. The rest of us are drinking Carlsbergs in Norway.

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