The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was Walt Disney’s prophetic vision of how we would be living today; a vast city thriving on the substance of its connections. Walt wanted people to live and work there, but after his passing the Disney corporation decided they did not want to be in the business of running a municipality (ironically, Disney does operate its own municipality, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which manages the land on which the Walt Disney World Resort sits) and instead transformed Epcot into what they knew they could run well – another theme park. Famously derided by the likes of none other than Homer Simpson, who wailed “it’s even boring to fly over!”, Epcot has long been an oddity, its ultimate purpose somewhat out of sync with the predominant Disney mantra of just coming to play and be a kid again. Throughout the evolution of its exhibits from opening day in 1982 it’s always been the more mature, educational counterpart to the whimsy of the Magic Kingdom, the fairy dust harder to see in the polished presentation of the technology of the future and the many shades of our present. This is the park for the grownups. Epcot the Expo. Divided into two distinct lands, Future World and World Showcase, and presided over by the imposing sphere (or overgrown golf ball, depending on your attitude) that is Spaceship Earth, Epcot is more linear; easier to find your way around, harder to lose your way amid winding paths. Yet for some reason I never feel I’ve truly arrived at Disney until I’ve reached Epcot.
There is an indelible scent to Spaceship Earth that speaks to my distant memory like trumpets heralding the return of a long-absent pilgrim. A peculiar brew of industrial strength air conditioning, special effects smoke and wheel lubricant combines into a unique visceral trigger, the feel of the arm of an old friend draped around my shoulder. What is ostensibly Epcot’s signature attraction offers a journey back through 35,000 years of human history, with the voice of Judi Dench guiding you from a frozen plain where primitive man hurls spears at mammoths in unforgiving darkness, through the development of written language and the spread of civilization across the planet made possible by the phenomenon of communication. Drifting past animatronic humans painting glyphs on cave walls, an Egyptian slave pounding out reeds into papyrus, toga-clad Greeks delivering a lecture on mathematics and Arab scholars sharing opinions over a hookah, anyone who calls himself a writer cannot fail to appreciate the significance of what is unfolding before him and the small, yet important part that he plays in this ongoing saga. (He is particularly moved when he sees Gutenberg examining the first printed copy of the Bible.) Humanity defines itself by the sharing of its ideas, the stories we tell to each other and the method by which those stories are passed on, long beyond our mere mortal existence. A mind raised in the presence of the Internet can scarcely fathom the limitations faced by our ancestors, the incredible patience needed to etch history into brick and mortar. We live in a time when it is easy, too easy some might argue, to fire off every thought to the entire world in real time, with a few keystrokes and a click, regardless of whether those thoughts have any lasting value. The democratization of communication gives everyone equal ability to mouth off at the celebrity whose last movie we hated or whose political opinions make our skin crawl, without the need to consider our words first. Passion drives communication as it never has before, as ink no longer needs to be bought by the barrel and rationed out only to the reasoned. Spaceship Earth‘s main presentation ends with a facsimile of Steve Wozniak building a personal computer in his garage in the late 1970’s, but if the golf ball was bigger, perhaps it might be updated to advance thirty years and show us where we are now – to remind us that as trifling as they may seem in the moment, our communications are our legacy to the generations to come, as much as those dusty scrolls in the ancient libraries are the legacy of those who preceded us. Every precious word is written into the future. One way time travel, as it were.
Beyond the confines of Future World lies World Showcase, the part the kids usually find boring. It is a collection of eleven pavilions each dedicated to a different country and staffed exclusively by citizens of those far-flung lands. Walking clockwise you can stroll through Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK and finally Canada. The pavilions are sponsored by private corporations from the countries in question (with the exception of Morocco, which is sponsored by its government) and each features a signature restaurant and souvenir shops, where other attractions may vary. Mexico and Norway are the only two with actual rides inside, while Canada and China feature movies and The American Adventure contains an animatronic show about the founding of the United States. If you’re walking by at the right time you may chance to encounter characters, buskers or live bands. And for the littler ones staving off yawns there’s an interactive adventure based on Phineas & Ferb that encourages them to hunt through the Showcase in search of clues while their parents ponder purchasing a kimono in Japan or getting henna applied in Morocco. You’d think that Canada would be my favorite of the undectet, shameless patriot that I am, eh (despite my non-adherence to the rules of Canadian English spelling), but my soft spot here at Epcot has always been for the UK.
Anglophile leanings aside, regardless that a Beatles tribute band can often be found performing in a nearby gazebo and Mary Poppins is usually on hand to advise on how to say supercalafragilisticexpialadocious backwards, what endears this place to me is a memory of my father attached indelibly to it. About three or four times a day a group of improvisational players gathers in the square and invites members of the audience to take part in a humorous spoof, jape or vignette drawn from the annals of that fine British tradition of pantomime. The first time we ever visited Epcot they picked my dad to join in, and I’m sure his boisterous manner didn’t factor into it at all (he may possibly have jumped up and down to volunteer). When I walk these pink pathways and look around the corner past the pub I can see him again, reaching for the rafters as he crumples to the ground with a plastic sword tucked under his arm while the players narrate “And he died… OVER THERE!”, pointing six paces to his left and forcing him to get up sheepishly and walk over and do it all again. Olivier he was not, but he loved being part of that sort of thing, ever happy to look a bit silly to give a stranger a laugh. I come by a bit of it myself, to be honest, and I’m often the first to raise my hand when a similar enterprise arises. It feels like paying tribute to the late great old man, and so walking through the faux-UK at Epcot is too akin to the metaphorical laying of flowers for someone long gone.
But back to Future World, to The Land, and the most popular ride in Epcot, Soarin’. It’s not uncommon that the fast passes for this ride are all snapped within a scant few hours of the park’s opening, it remains that popular. Seinfeld‘s Puddy, Patrick Warburton, plays the chief flight attendant welcoming you aboard your 5-minute trip over the scenic vistas of California, set to a majestic score composed by the late, legendary Jerry Goldsmith. You are seated in “gliders” that are raised high above the floor before a massive screen, and the film that projects before you brings you sweeping through the clouds over San Francisco Bay, through Yosemite National Park, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, Monterey and Anza-Borrego to name but merely a few. The experience is not only visual as you are also greeted by the scent of citrus as you sail over orange groves and of salt mist as you watch surfers tumble. Goldsmith too modifies the arrangement of his theme as it evolves to give appropriate flavor to both the natural wonders and the human achievements rushing toward you, before a fireworks finale over Anaheim Disneyland introduced by Tinkerbell heralds your inevitable return to earth.
I’m uncomfortable with heights, so I had every reason to expect that this experience would leave me dizzy, gripping the sides of the glider in nauseated panic. But just as the theme song to Firefly insists “you can’t take the sky from me,” even acrophobics can come to understand the pull the clouds can exert upon those of us fated to stand on solid ground and gaze up at them in resignation. A few years ago when my wife and I were in the Dominican I signed on reluctantly to try parasailing, and only after putting it off to our last day. What surprised me most as the parachute dragged us up, up and away, was the silence of the sky, the utter peace to be found less than a hundred meters up. The ground is a noisy place and we’ve all become inured to the persistent drone of our 21st Century lives – mechanical equipment, inane conversations, half-assed music played on repeat. Dial all that down to zero, banish the distraction, and you find a hitherto unknown treasure buried beneath – a chance to hear the spirit speak. In a theme park dedicated to the wonders of communication, Soarin’ is a reminder of the greatest communication you can have, and one you owe to yourself sooner rather than later. It’s a chance to think about who you are, the sum of your contradictions and the difference between the face you present to the world and the true shape of your inner self that lies hidden behind it. To unite the sense of the present with the memory of the past and the dreams of the future and find that the answer leaves you smiling.
It’s possible that’s why Epcot completes the equation for me, why it’s what makes me feel most like I’m back. I could go on at length about our experiences this time at some of the other favorite attractions; my son’s insistence on riding Mission: Space four times so he could fill each different crew position, his chance to have a conversation with an animated character from Finding Nemo at Turtle Talk with Crush. Those family memories will be added to the extensive cache getting ever larger with each visit; complaining at the age of 8 that I didn’t like the food in the restaurant in the German pavilion (nein to your schnitzel!), watching IllumiNations around the World Showcase Lagoon on New Year’s 1990, listening to the Future Corps play the Jetsons Theme on a trip there with my high school band in 1993. Ask me what I did a week or two before or after those individual moments and I’ll give you a master class in blank stares. But decades later, here I am, transcribing these moments for the world and understanding that they, like those hieroglyphics on the pyramid walls, will now outlive me. Writing into the future. Just beyond the park entrance, before you reach Spaceship Earth, lie a series of obelisks on which Disney allowed guests to “Leave a Legacy” – a small, laser-etched photograph of yourself to be mounted there for all time. The program was discontinued for whatever reason so a majority of space on the obelisks remains unfilled. Yet it doesn’t really matter that I don’t have a picture of my face waiting to see me again at Epcot. The true legacy is something I take with me when I go, etched in my mind, inspiring me far beyond the borders of Walt Disney World and Florida.