Epcot was becoming the park of yesterday -- here's how Disney is making it the hot park of tomorrow
Once upon a time (as recently as last month), the Disney World theme park that was the easiest to skip on shorter family trips was one that Walt himself helped to dream up, Epcot.
With close to 40 years under its shiny silver geodesic sphere, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow had, in some ways, become the park of yesterday. Sure Figment was still cute and looking at hydroponic tomatoes was fun, but it was easy to see how some kids would rather do something else with their limited days at Disney.
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Disney's Hollywood Studios had added Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway and Toy Story Land all within the last three years. Animal Kingdom had opened the immersive Pandora land four years ago and the Flight of Passage ride within that land continues to be one of the best rides in the state.
Over at the Magic Kingdom, while there's a new-ish hit ride -- 2014's Seven Dwarfs Mine Train -- the park is also home to timeless classics such as Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain and Dumbo that don't age in the same way as attractions based around innovation and technology.
But Epcot's newest attraction was Frozen, which opened over five years ago, and was really a repurposing of an existing Norway ride rather than a new-build. And while the park had seen a ramp-up in festivals, debuted some new short movies and opened a quick-service BBQ restaurant, other than the repurposed Frozen ride, not much of substance had been added to the once futuristic park in more than a decade.
Thankfully, it was time for Disney to bring Epcot into tomorrow instead of just leaning on its legacy of yesterday.
Quick look back at Epcot's beginnings
Historical lookbacks point to Epcot as the part of the "Florida Project" (that became Walt Disney World) that Walt himself was most excited about. The Magic Kingdom, which was obviously similar to Disneyland, was going to serve as the gateway to be able to afford to build a nearby model "community of tomorrow" that would use monorails and innovative city planning initiatives.
Unfortunately, Walt passed away in 1966 -- five years before the opening of the Magic Kingdom. The Disney company then shelved the idea of building a futuristic city to instead focus on things they knew would work, like theme parks.
The Epcot of Walt Disney's dream was never to be.
But when the time came to build the second theme park in Florida in the late 1970s, Disney's Imagineers took their ideas for the new gate from Walt's dream of a futuristic city ... sort of. No one actually would live at this Epcot, but it did become a place for Disney to showcase ideas and innovations in its Future World pavilions.
Meshed alongside that in a sort of two-parks-in-one approach was the concept of bringing the world's cultures and people together in World Showcase.
However, life moves quickly, and while the park did have new technology on display when it opened its gates in 1982, by the '90s, the "future" had arrived and Epcot had to evolve.
In the 1990s, the park backed away from some of its initial offerings and added some more thrills and experiences such as Test Track and Mission: Space. The 90s were also the decades that saw the introduction of the popular Epcot Food and Wine and Flower & Garden Festivals, which is likely what helped stabilize attendance and keep it as the third most visited of the four Disney World parks.
In 2005, the Soarin' attraction was added, along with The Seas with Nemo & Friends, but until recently, that had marked the end of rapid Epcot evolution.
But, with the park's 40th anniversary looming just over the horizon in 2022, Disney is now maintaining the classic feel of Epcot while slingshotting it further into the future.
Related: What has changed -- and stayed the same -- over 50 years of Disney World
Before we look at what is going on in the park, in 2019 there became a new way to get Epcot from the sky. The Skyliner debuted on Sept. 29, 2019, linking Epcot with the brand new Disney Riviera Resort, Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, Hollywood Studios, Art of Animation Resort and the Pop Century Resort.
Now, you could fly from your room at those hotels to Epcot, or even spend your morning at Hollywood Studios and then fly to Epcot in the evening for some rides and a meal in one of the World Showcase countries. Factoring in the monorail, boats and of course the buses, Epcot became the Disney World theme park with the largest number of ways to travel to the food and fun.
Related: How to use points to purchase Disney tickets
From 2 lands to 4
While Epcot started as essentially two parks smashed together into one: Future World and World Showcase, in 2019 it was announced that the park would be evolving into four components -- World Celebration, World Discovery, World Nature and World Showcase.
These would not just be new names to old areas of the park, but there would be new offerings coming to each newly defined space. This ranged from a new entrance, a Moana-inspired journey of water, new gathering places, new restaurants, new shops, new places to explore and, of course, new attractions.
Speaking of which ...
Two new rides -- one thrilling, one for all ages
Epcot will have not one, but two new attractions -- which is massive considering how long the park had gone between new additions until now.
As of Oct. 1, 2021, the park continued its march toward integrating popular Disney cartoons and other intellectual property into its offerings with the addition of the adorable rat, Remy, in Remy's Ratatouille Adventures in the expanded France Pavillion of World Showcase.
This ride already existed in Disneyland Paris, but fit right into Epcot's France Pavillion as the third moving attraction in World Showcase, and the only one in that portion of the park. Until the ride's opening and the addition of the Beauty and the Beast sing-a-long in the same pavilion, that back portion of Epcot had been more of an adult's foodie playground than one for the whole family.
It's a cute ride, but if Remy was the only new attraction addition to Epcot, it would probably be less exciting of a renovation. However, Disney gave Remy to kids of all ages and is giving Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind to us "big kids".
Guardians isn't just a copy of a ride from another Disney park somewhere in the world, but instead, it is an all-new design.
When it opens next year in 2022, this ride will breathe new, much-needed adrenaline into the park as an anchor of the World Discovery neighborhood as the first-of-its-kind "omnicoaster" that will not only include traditional roller coaster style thrills, but also allow Disney to control where you are rotated and focused during the ride.
Related: 22 new things coming to Disney World for its 50th celebration
New places to eat
Sometimes, dining can be a true experience at Disney World that rises to the level of an attraction.
Epcot wasn't short on dining options, but its newly opened restaurant, Space 220, falls into that dining as entertainment category as you rise in an elevator 220 miles above Florida to enjoy your burger and space martini in an environment like none other.
Related: These are the best restaurant at Disney World
Epcot was already a foodies park, but this takes it literally to another level.
If you like your meals more earth-bound, you can head to Remy's version of France in the expanded Ratatouille section of the France Pavillion for your pick of freshly made crepes. Spoiler alert: The classique is a great choice ($16) with its classic trio of ham, egg and cheese.
Add to that the Regal Eagle BBQ in the America Pavillion that opened shortly before the 2020 shutdown, and there's plenty of new snacks awaiting in the almost 40-year-old park.
New finale to the day
A theme park day isn't complete until there's a grand finale that involves music, fireworks and an optional emotional tear or two.
To that end, Epcot has been working on its new nighttime show, Harmonious, for a while. And as of Oct. 1, you can see the show and its music, fireworks and exactly what those large barges that now live in the lagoon all day can do as they help put on what Disney describes as its biggest nighttime show yet.
This show, while not yet my all-time favorite Disney production, does continue the theme of Epcot bringing Disney characters and cultures to the center stage. We've seen this in the new movies and attractions added to the park and you'll find Moana, Aladdin, Coco, Brave, Lion King, Mulan and Princess and the Frog in Harmonious.
But ... it's done in a way that leans more into the actual cultures and languages depicted in some of those films than just the cartoon soundtrack itself.
Early reactions to the show are still a little bit mixed, but there's no doubt that kids in the park have a better shot connecting with and enjoying this show than some of the previous ones.
Not done yet
Epcot still has a few tricks up its chicly retro-colored sleeves.
The park's iconic attraction, Spaceship Earth, which lives inside the geodesic sphere is set to get "new magic". (And not just the new outside lights and colors that are also pretty epic and 100% worth watching in the evenings.)
It was first announced in 2018 that the attraction would be closing for two years in order to receive fresh narration, new scenes and updates to existing scenes. Its focus is also set to shift from one of innovation and technology to one of storytelling. The attraction was originally scheduled to begin its closure in May 2020 for those renovations but that date was delayed and we don't yet know precisely when Spaceship Earth will blast off to its next iteration.
Also pushed into the future due to the months-long pandemic closure last year is the Epcot Play! Pavillion that will eventually find its home in the World Discovery section of the park.
The future is less clear for the once-announced Mary Poppins-styled attraction in the U.K. Pavillion that hasn't really been officially mentioned since the pandemic. But, even if it is shelved, there's clearly interest from Disney to add even more attractions in the World Showcase when the time is right.
There's a lot happening at Epcot as Disney World blows out its 50 candles. The colorful construction walls haven't all come down but enough is up and running that it's already a different Epcot.
If you were an Epcot purist that didn't want more than a few Hidden Mickey-style subtle odes to characters sprinkled in the park, you may not like the direction it is heading as it doubles down on Disney characters. But the park is evolving in a way that also stays true to its routes. There are certainly more characters now, but the park is integrating them into the countries, rocketing them into space and even celebrating the countries they are from at the end of the day. It's different -- but it's good different.
As Walt once said, Epcot is -- as it always will be -- "in a state of becoming". It's a park that was designed to change with the times.
And becoming right now is a can't miss park for the Disney-loving families that want to experience the latest dining experiences, rides and shows. Consider yourself sufficiently warned that you may need an extra day on your next trip to Disney World as the "skip it" park is reclaiming its title as a must-visit spot.