The day before Epcot hit three decades of education and entertainment, D23 presented fans with a full day of panel discussions and never-before-seen visuals. The sold out special event took place inside the park’s World Showplace, featuring a journey through favorites from the past thirty years, beginning with Walt Disney’s original EPCOT concept and concluding with some of the most memorable parts of what ultimately became Walt Disney World’s second theme park.
As with most D23 events, the Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration kicked off with a rousing opening movie followed by a few introductory remarks from head of D23 Steven Clark. What followed was a series of nine presentations that had to be seen in person to fully enjoy. Due to the unique and rare content shared, along with plenty of amusing anecdotes, recording of any sort was prohibited and only limited photography was allowed. The exception was Clark’s introduction, shared below, followed by a panel-by-panel summary of highlights that made up an overall enjoyable and entertaining special event.
Video: Introduction of D23’s Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration
In addition to attending the event’s presentations, I also had the opportunity to interview a few of its panelists, each of whom had their own unique role in the construction of EPCOT Center years ago. My full conversations with Howard Roland, Tom Nabbe, and and Jim McCaskel can be seen in Show 391 below, along with a quick summary of everything else that was presented during the event. Read on past the video for more details and pictures.
Show 391: Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration Summary and Interviews
Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration presentations
Epcot: The Dawn of a New Disney Era
Panelists: Marty Sklar (pre-recorded)
Though Marty couldn’t be in Orlando in time for this D23 event due to attending his annual Herb Ryman Foundation fund raiser at his home, his importance in the history of Epcot can’t be understated. Marty worked side-by-side with Walt Disney in the development of his original EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) concept, one that ultimately was abandoned with Disney’s untimely death just six weeks after the famous EPCOT television special was aired. In his virtual presentation, Marty discussed how that community, enhanced by people movers and monorails, was to easily transport commuters between work and home. But when Walt passed, it left Disney designers without a direction, unclear as to where to go with the project. Sklar aided in the development of what they called “EPCOT forums,” including industry and creative people such as author Ray Bradbury, to decide on that direction. Ultimately it was decided that EPCOT Center, the theme park, could be a place to utilize the trust the public had in Mickey Mouse to communicate important issues and topics. But Disney was well aware that they couldn’t fully teach any particular topic in the park, only offering 20-30 minutes to get people interested and excited.
With its design and completion, Marty feels The Land pavilion is the closest they came to achieving Walt’s own vision of Epcot in that its Living with the Land attraction offers a glimpse into a working facility for growing produce and other food, much as EPCOT would have been a self-sustaining community.
Despite being pre-recorded and presented on video, Marty still held the full attention of all fans in attendance for the full duration, who show much admiration from the man who was so instrumental in moving Walt’s vision of EPCOT to the theme park seen today.
We Can Do It!
Panelists: Duncan Dickson, Bob Matheison, Jim McCaskill, Tom Nabbe, Charlie Ridgway, Howard Roland, Bill Sullivan, Jason Surrell
The spirit of the Disney company following Walt’s passing with regards to the EPCOT project was a motto of “we can do it,” a spirit felt by all who worked on its design and construction. But while the final result was a Disney theme park that’s still entirely unique thirty years later, its creation wasn’t without setbacks, obstacles, and plenty of amusing moments, all shared by this panel of those who played important roles in its completion. The list of bumps this crew encountered while building EPCOT Center wasn’t short. Ridgway shared the World Showcase lagoon was formed by pumping out “muck,” which ultimately was relocated to help build the Caribbean Beach resort. (Moderator/Imagineer/self-proclaimed comedian Jason Surrell then chimed in to note “It’s a perfectly lovely hotel.”) In the construction of that lagoon and its surrounding monorail supports, Disney lost seven 120-foot pylons to the lagoon’s depths.
Other moments of difficulty included having to “rip up” the ground twice for many of EPCOT’s buildings at a considerable extra cost, as the plans couldn’t yet pinpoint the footprint to lay the “pads.” Designers wondered about simpler issues like which direction the Leaning Tower of Pisa featured in the Italy pavilion should lean in, ultimately decided on sight based solely on what they felt would look right.
Working with ambassadors from the countries represented around the World Showcase was often challenging, but cultural differences were often overcome with a bit of Disney magic. Ridgway offered a story in which ambassadors arrived in tight suits, rather official in demeanor, but after being given name tags, called by their first names, and taken to a Ft. Wilderness dinner show, everyone was smiling, laughing, and quickly became friends. On Epcot’s opening day, October 1, 1982, 100% of the Cast Members in each of the World Showcase pavilions were from their respective countries, but that decision wasn’t made until just 6 months prior, previously thought that only one or two cultural representatives would be in each.
When asked what Walt Disney would think of what Epcot is now like, 30 years later, Ridgway noted that Disney was never satisfied and always wanted more.
Bill “Sully” Sullivan concluded by asking the audience to take a look at the “heavy woods” around property, noting that’s how all the land looked like when Walt Disney World construction began, without power, water control, ultimately shaped into a “tasteful atmosphere” that he asks everyone remain proud of.
Looking Back at Tomorrow
Panelists: Archivists Steven Vagnini and Michael Crawford
Die-hard Epcot fans had a chance to take a peek into the Walt Disney Archives at a variety of sketches, early design concepts, photographs, and video clips, many never before seen by the public, that offered a glimpse at how most of the park’s most beloved experiences came to be. Like most Archives presentations, photography was not permitted due to the exclusive nature of the content.
The presentation started big with a glimpse at the first-ever World Showcase drawings shown for the first time to the public, followed by variations on the famous EPCOT pavilion logos. Those familiar with the park’s past know the name SMRT-1, a George McGinnis-designed interactive robot once part of Communicore, a precursor to Innoventions. But revealed at this presentation was a concept for SMRT-2, a sequel of sorts to the original robot that would have replaced the Astuter Computer Review, but never happened.
More interesting and bizarre characters that never made it into the park shown at the event include the X. Atencio-designed Communicat, a mascot for Communicore, and a humorous character pair for The Living Seas called Captain Saltyhinder and his pet mackerel, described by designer John Hench as a “Hi-tech deep water Dreamfinder idea with mackerel Figment.”
Keeping with the theme of Epcot that never was, several of the park’s pavilions received lengthy name treatments before their simple names were decided upon. Options for World of Motion included Transportation Pavilion, Transways, Transcenter, American Cavalcade of Transportation, Transanctorium, and Transposanctorium along with a few not-so-serious suggestions like Panoramble, Guzzlerama, Legroom-o-Rams, and Stickshift-o-Rama. Likewise, The Land may have been known as Avant-Gardens, Harvest Tomorrow, Terrarama, Land Alive!, Naturescope, or Terra of Tomorrow.
The presentation ended with an extended look at fav favorite extinct attraction Horizons, originally planned as a science pavilion that would be a sequel to the Carousel of Progress, following inventors through the years. Original names for this attraction included Century 3 and FutureProbe. As a grand finale, all three classic film endings of Horizons were shared in pristine condition, much to the audience’s delight.
Makin’ Memories: Epcot on Film
Panelists: Former Imagineer Bob Garner and historian Tim O’Day
Any time a presentation has “on film” as part of the title, it’s a clue that while it will be entertaining and interesting, it won’t be particularly captivating, presenting the majority on screens rather than live. In this case, that proved to be mostly true, though moderator Tim O’Day always succeeds in keeping a presentation interesting, even if only setting up clips. Though it began a bit slowly with a variety of fly-throughs of early EPCOT models and continued with pieces of the EPCOT opening day celebration, which Disney has shown at numerous events, the highlight came in Garner sharing his equivalent of a “screen test” or “audition” for Figment, the beloved purple dragon from the Journey Into Imagination attraction. The clip showed Garner talking to the camera, offering the differences between a puppet version of Figment and a motionless Audio-Animatronics figure, which Garner obviously had a disdain for. It was a rare look at how Figment was developed.
Garner was also responsible for the famous shot of Mickey Mouse waving while precariously standing on top of Spaceship Earth, which he now admits was quite dangerous, having Mickey’s feet tied down while standing atop a ladder as a helicopter flew overhead to get the shot. He was relieved he didn’t get fired for the shoot.
Imagineering Epcot: An Extra Perceptive Close-Up of Things
Panelists: Imagineers Jason Grandt, Jason Surrell, Alex Wright
After a welcome two-hour lunch break, the event immediately picked up momentum with the comedy stylings of a trio of Imagineers that might just be WDI’s version of the Three Stooges. With more ad-lib and jokes than actual content, Grandt (the handsome one), Wright (the silver fox), and Surrell (the bald one) – their names, not mine – worked their way through an “up-close” view of various interesting details that can be seen around Epcot today, many with historical, cultural, or personal ties. Sifting through the wise cracks and planned lack of rehearsal, interesting tidbits included the fact that designers were initially told Spaceship Earth could not be built as a giant suspended dome, but John Hench begged to differ, drawing a sketch (shown at the presentation) that showed the top 75% would sit on a platform while the bottom 25% would be suspended below, which is how it was indeed built.
Many in-jokes persisted throughout the entire presentation, including the running joke of Jason Grandt’s personal obsessions with theme park design oddities like wall carpet, which was emphasized this time with an old memo to Marty Sklar about the purchasing of said carpet overseas, dug up and shown simply for the purpose of continuing this gag over several D23 events. Grandt’s peculiar sense of humor continued with a story he shared involving the fake human figures inside the Steve Church in the Norway pavilion. Grandt’s niece apparently recently asked about whether those humans are real, to which he replied that they couldn’t be real and frozen, as the glass wouldn’t hold them in if they ever reanimated as zombies. Makes sense.
Furthering the jokes, the question was at one point posed as to why Epcot’s China pavilion is particularly unique, to which Jason Surrell blurted out, “Communism!”, then becoming another running joke for the duration. Ultimately, this trio delivers on entertaining the crowd, even if their act is a bit light on any actual interesting information.
“We’ve Just Begun to Dream”
Panelists: Ron Logan, Carol Campbell, Gene Columbus, Gary Paben, Tony Peluso, Bob Radock, Steve Skorija
A group of live entertainment heads gathered to discuss the development and performance of Epcot’s elaborate opening ceremonies, led by music director Ron Logan. Logan jokingly noted that live entertainment is “cheaper” and “faster” than Walt Disney Imagineering, allowing them to try more inventive and unique spectacles without the lengthy R&D process.
But unlike Epcot’s captivating live entertainment offerings, this particular presentation was not quite as thrilling. Many stories were shared about the complexities of organizing the opening events. Apparently the park’s famous fountain wasn’t quite complete in time for the opening, requiring plumbers to be cued to make it fire for the show. The opening day festivities featured hundreds of performers, more than could actually watch it in person. They often had to “figure it out” and take chances to make it all come together.
EPCOT Illusioneering and Beyond
Panelists: Daniel Joseph
One of the most fascinating presentations at the D23 event was delivered by Imagineer Daniel Joseph of the special effects and illusions department, clearly passionate about his work and following in great footsteps of the past to create Disney magic. “Illusioneering” is a term Disney has been using for decades, though is less well known than “Imagineering,” the difference being its focus on the “how did they do that” moments that appear right in front of guests. Joseph’s own inspiration came from Epcot’s Horizons attraction as well as the late Imagineer Yale Gracey, who most famously worked on The Haunted Mansion to develop effects still used today including the singing busts, talking Madame Leota head, and ghostly ballroom dancers. Rare video of Gracey speaking in the ’80s just after EPCOT Center opened was shared, offering a glimpse at how this soft-spoken man used his own “tinkering” skills to create simple, but entirely believable illusions that repeat in the parks all day, every day of the year.
Another prominent figure in Disney’s Illusioneering history was Bob McCarthy, known as “The Wizard,” aiding to create widely appreciated effects like the smells piped in to Spaceship Earth and Horizons. McCarthy ultimately became his own work, appearing as the father in “two brothers” sequence in the American Adventure attraction.
Notable firsts mentioned in Joseph’s presentation include the unique suspended ride vehicle system used in Horizons, recurring holography and holographic-looking images, fake lava and fire, fiber optics, and even the notion of getting a photo taken on a ride, pioneered by Journey Into Imagination. Even today’s prevalence of interactive elements in the parks date back to Epcot’s early days with the Imagination pavilion’s ImageWorks featuring a rotating variety of interactive elements.
Joseph, who is currently working on effects for the new Test Track, opening within the next couple months at Epcot, ended the presentation by running through reasons why the future Epcot depicted in the past exists today, including modern day computers, transportation, and energy sources.
Journey Into Imagination
Panelists: Imagineer Tony Baxter, original Dreamfinder Ron Schneider, Steve Taylor
When longtime Imagineer Tony Baxter’s name is attached to a presentation, fans are immediately excited to hear him share some of his wealth of experience and knowledge acquired throughout decades of working on many of the biggest Disney theme park projects. In this case, Baxter was in attendance to talk about one of his most beloved, the original Journey Into Imagination, which in recent years has suffered as a result of multiple renovations that have been considered relative failures by longtime Epcot fans.
But Baxter didn’t begin by simply talking about the Imagination pavilion itself. To tell the complete story, he had to take it two steps before that to a time when he had worked on attraction ideas for The Living Seas and The Land. Those elaborate concepts were impressive, though photography restrictions during this presentation prevent them from being shown here. It wasn’t the first time Baxter had shown off these concepts to a D23 audience, but the important point in showing them again this time was to set up elements from them that found their way into Journey Into Imagination.
Most influential was the character of Landkeeper, a jolly bearded fellow who ultimately evolved into the famous Dreamfinder after many iterations. In designing a never-built attraction called Discovery Bay for Disneyland, Baxter said Imagineer Steve Kirk created a pair of characters, one a bearded man and the other a dragon he carried around. Originally known as “Professor Marvel,” this character was created with a Victorian aesthetic, planned for a carousel theater attraction. Baxter noted that this 1980 design may have been a precursor to what we know today as steampunk. But over time Dreamfinder found his way to the design Epcot fans are familiar with.
Coming up with Figment was a bit more difficult, even in name. Ultimately it took an episode of “Magnum PI” for Baxter to come up with the simple name Figment, after hearing a character on the show make a reference to a “figment of my imagination.” Figment was originally to be green in color, but the Imagination pavilion’s sponsor Kodak wasn’t thrilled with using a competitor’s color scheme, instead wanting their own red and yellow branding. Baxter credits the songwriting Sherman Brothers for making him the “royal purple pigment” shade he became, though his red and yellow sweater was indeed a nod to Kodak.
It was Imagineer X Atencio that drew the final look for Dreamfinder and Figment and after several casting calls to void the small dragon’s voice, Baxter remembers thinking he needed a “little person” to go with the “little dragon,” ending up with veteran actor Billy Barty.
From there, the story of Dreamfinder and Figment began to take shape, following a human’s own method for fueling imagination in three stages: gather, store, and recombine. It was all brought together in an understandable story using the carousel idea Disney designers previously had, though allowing ride vehicles to travel along with the Dreamfinder’s ship on a carousel, rather than moving between scenes.
Baxter interestingly noted that three parts of the Journey Into Imagination ride were supposed to be roller coaster style segments, leading into the terror, science, and on-ride photo, segments of the attraction but the ride system didn’t cooperate and wouldn’t allow it.
Following that history and a look at the attraction’s grand opening, Ron Schneider and Steve Taylor took the stage to discuss their time as “friends” with Dreamfinder in the park. Schneider told the story of how he got the role, first working at Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe and ultimately setting his sights on the new character. He said he most often gets asked by fans how to get a “dream job” at Disney, to which he replies to “follow your bliss,” and that it helps to get a job at Disney for a while, then leave the company and train in the particular field of interest, and then find a way back into the right position. Steve Taylor was “friends” with Dreamfinder longer than Schneider, for 15 years, confirming Schneider’s advice by saying he began by sweeping floors, eventually left Disney, then found his way back through other connections. Taylor also shared just how touching taking on a role at Disney could be with a story of a cancer-stricken young boy named Eric who became very close with Dreamfinder over the years until the disease finally took him.
In the end, Baxter invited the D23 audience to join on a virtual “ride” through the original Journey Into Imagination via music, sounds, artwork, and video. In the end, Ron Schneider popped back in with his best Dreamfinder voice to conclude the journey with an “on ride photo” of the audience taken earlier in the event.
The Music of Epcot Center
Panelists: Russell Brower, Greg Ehrbar, Tim O’Day, Steven Vagnini
The final presentation of D23’s Epcot 30th celebration wasn’t exactly a grand finale, but just a conclusion. Playing samples from musical pieces throughout Epcot history, Russell Brower and Greg Ehrbar shared some favorites. Brower co-wrote music for The Living Seas with George Wilkins as well as the Innoventions plaza music that still plays today in the park. The presentation worked its way through legendary Disney songwriters and composers including Buddy Baker, X Atencio, and the Sherman Brothers. It was said that Marty Sklar’s own favorite Sherman Brothers song is Magic Journeys from the old Epcot attraction of the same name.
As with many of the other presentations during the event, special attention was given to Horizons and particular its theme song composer George Wilkins as well as a few “lost” songs from the Sherman Brothers that weren’t included in the attraction. One such song, “Tomorrow’s Windows,” was sung live by D23’s Armchair Archivist Melody Dale followed by a performance of “Golden Dreams” from the American Adventure, sung live by veteran Epcot performer Billy Flanigan, who previously sung the same song at last year’s Destination D event.
The entire event wrapped up with an “internal” video featuring Marty Sklar and other Disney luminaries of the ’80s offering a congratulations that they indeed “could do it” upon completing Epcot. Attendees were given “We Can Do It!” buttons on the way out to commemorate the event.
Any Epcot fan who hadn’t attended any recent D23 events should have left this 30th anniversary celebration with a better sense of how Epcot was created, what it meant to the people who designed and built it, and what its lasting effects are in the Walt Disney Company and the world. But those who attended last year’s Destination D: Walt Disney World event may have been hoping for a bit more, with some presentations seeming too familiar, with repeat content from that and other past D23 events, even down to the musical performance finale that was far short of previous offerings. As a celebration of all things Epcot, D23 did touch upon all of the most important parts, from design to construction to completion and beyond, but not all were presented in an equally entertaining way, some fascinating and captivating while others left the audience watching the clock, waiting for the next presentation to begin. With a variety of topics, the overall event was enjoyable, even if it didn’t fully capture the “We Can Do It!” spirit that Epcot was literally built on.
More photos from D23’s Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration: