EPCOT at 40: Imagineer Reflects on Walt's 'Florida Project' Vision for Disney World Parks (Flashback)

EPCOT's Spaceship Earth and the Monorail.
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ET celebrates EPCOT's 40th anniversary with behind-the-scenes stories and a look at the park's opening weekend in October 1982.

EPCOT, the modified vision of Walt Disney's dream for an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” opened its turnstiles for guests 40 years ago. While its mission statement looks to the future, many fans of Walt Disney World’s second theme park obsess over its yesteryear and details about the founder’s initial plans in Florida.

During opening weekend for EPCOT Center (later simplified to “EPCOT”) in October 1982, ET traveled to Bay Lake and spoke with Marty Sklar. The Imagineer could appreciate better than most how the park was a meaningful tribute to its ambitious origins.

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“Walt had a great interest in talking to people about the potential of future technologies,” the Disney legend explained. “I think a lot of it was stimulated by his own optimism about the future.” 

As one of Walt’s go-to creatives for many years, Sklar witnessed first-hand how Walt’s time at famous laboratories run by industry giants like RCA and Bell instilled a sense of responsibility. “[Walt] felt that he had a role to play in helping to communicate some of these concepts to the public and the potential for them in our future life,” he recalled.

The magnitude of Walt’s concept for EPCOT is right there in its acronym: “community.” He envisioned an urban living hub composed of groundbreaking scientific ideas and cutting-edge technologies. Before his death in December 1966, Walt even filmed a memorable short film (which Sklar was tapped to write) where he laid out his plans for EPCOT and what would become Walt Disney World but simply known then as the “Florida Project.”

In the decade following Walt’s death, his company revolutionized the theme park industry (again) with the Magic Kingdom and proved millions of people every year would head to central Florida to vacation. “It was almost 10 years after Walt first advanced [the EPCOT] idea that we finally got back to it,” Sklar noted. “At that time, we looked at what we had there. We no longer had a piece of ground that had nothing on it as Walt did in 1966.”

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In 1974, the late visionary’s science-based utopia was officially tabled in favor of expanding Walt Disney World into a destination resort, but the dream was kept alive. Imagineers realized how the ideals of EPCOT, as well as its moniker, could be used as a jumping off point for the second gate. 

“From the very beginning, [the park] was something different. This had Walt's EPCOT philosophy as the underpinning,” Sklar said. Experiments with energy sources, implementing water hyacinths, and developing new methods of transportation were just a handful of behind-the-scenes innovations at work when EPCOT Center opened to the public on Oct. 1, 1982. 

Meanwhile, Spaceship Earth, World of Motion (plus Horizons the following year) and other attractions championed Walt’s scientific interests front and center. Between the interactive technology showcases at Future World’s Innoventions and the international celebration of World Showcase, EPCOT quickly earned comparisons to world’s fairs. Sklar agreed, but with an asterisk.

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“It's a world's fair in the communications age,” Sklar estimated. “I think this is really a throwback to that kind of thing with one big difference. And that is there is a tremendous [amount of] entertainment in this project, because we are, first of all, entertainers and we never lost sight of that. We're communicating and entertaining a broad audience ranging from adults, who we think will come to this project in much larger numbers than they have even to Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, but we haven't forgotten the children, as well.”

At 305 acres, EPCOT is more than twice the size of the Magic Kingdom but on paper it still paled in comparison to the size and scope of Walt’s unrealized concept. In response, Sklar was quick to point out that no idea remains the same from start to finish for Imagineers.

“Everything that Walt Disney did in the development stages went through a process where it was massaged and developed over time. In fact, I've been with the Disney organization for 26 years and there's only one project that I know of that we ever worked on that was basically the same from the day it started to the day it ended. It happens to be a pretty good one. And that was It's a Small World,” he shared (Sklar eventually worked 53 years in the Disney family. He also opened up about his time with Walt and EPCOT for Disney+’s The Imagineering Story before his death in 2017).

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The EPCOT map looks pretty different 40 years later, but the fandom’s obsession with defunct rides and ‘80s futuristic aesthetics hasn’t gone unappreciated leading up to the park’s milestone anniversary.

When Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind opened back in May, guests discovered a queue experience packed with retro Easter eggs and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill giving shout-outs to EPCOT’s bygone era. Plus, Deadline reported Seth Rogen is developing a movie about fan-favorite dragon character, Figment, featured in the Journey Into Imagination attraction.

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In addition to Walt’s influential presence throughout EPCOT, the man behind it all will soon have a statue titled “Walt the Dreamer” for a new area, Dreamers Point. The official description suggests the likeness “will inspire guests as he gazes out at EPCOT, encouraging everyone to follow their dreams right along with him.”


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