EPCOT; Walt Disney World adds nine new nations and a city of the future
Another Disney dream world opened last month. It is a world of improbable cleanliness and astonishing architecture, a world of such odd sights as a million-pound silver sphere, looking like a giant golf ball, poised on four supports so that you can can walk underneath; waterfalls that flow uphill; performing vegetables; and animated humanoids so lifelike that one man commented , ''If I were an actor, I'd be real worried.''
This new world is, of course, EPCOT: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Before his passing in 1966, Walt Disney imagined a utopian community where people would actually live, a sort of Sturbridge Village of the future. Walt Disney World itself was conceived as a step in this direction, and many of its innovations - people movers, modular hotel construction, a pneumatic trash-disposal system, and a network of underground service corridors - have received wistful praise from city planners.
But the name EPCOT is merely ''historic,'' say the Disney people. EPCOT is not a prototype community - indeed, I overheard several visitors wondering what the initials stood for. What EPCOT is is an exceptionally well-done, very different, world's fair.
One way in which it is different is in its beautiful and clear organization. ''One of the worst things about a world's fair is that every facility is trying to outshout the others,'' said WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises vice-president John Hench in ''The Art of Walt Disney,'' by Christopher Finch (New York: Abrams. $60). EPCOT is divided into two distinct sections: Future World and World Showcase. The difference between the two is carefully articulated. Future World's themes are such topics as motion and energy; its futuristic skyward-pointing buildings of glass and aluminum are tightly grouped around Spaceship Earth. World Showcase pavilions each focus on a different country. Charming and human-scale, they face toward a central lagoon along a beautifully landscaped mile-long promenade.
Another difference: EPCOT is permanent. Ray Bradbury, science-fiction author and a friend of Mr. Disney, says, ''Walt and I used to grouse all the time about how dumb it was to tear fairs down.''
Mr. Bradbury had come to Orlando to see the Spaceship Earth pavilion, the 180 -foot geosphere mentioned earlier, which contains a series of dioramas on how communications developed from caveman to satellite. Mr. Bradbury conceived the idea for the pavilion, inspired by the fascinating tale of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy.
Schliemann - a man to delight Walt Disney's heart - read about Troy as a boy in Germany in the early 19th century, a time when it was not believed that Homer was a real person, Mr. Bradbury explained. But Schliemann dug where Homer had indicated, and found - Mr. Bradbury's eyes gleamed triumphantly at this point in his narrative - ''not one Troy, but ninem .'' This gave Mr. Bradbury his idea for the pavilion, which is ''going down into layers of time.''
Actually, after you sit down in your little car inside the pavilion, you first go upm , through a red-tinted mist (the Disney people have discovered a way to make fog without dry ice or chemicals).
First, a Cro-Magnon man is realistically projected onto a transparent scrim. His grunting to his fellow to aid him in hunting a wild beast represents rough speech, the first communication. Then the first diorama shows a shaman ''telling'' (no sound here) his small audience about the great hunt, while cavemen-artists are painting the wall with a hunt scene strongly reminiscent of the cave paintings at Lascaux.
These reproductions are museum-quality. As you pass through - far too rapidly to take in the details - you sense, somehow, that all the ancient languages are accurate, that the letter the pharaoh is dictating to the scribe is an actual letter from a pharaoh, and that the page that Gutenberg is examining is a replica of a page from the Gutenberg Bible.
Not only sounds, like the tapping of Egyptians carving hieroglyphs, but smells are employed. Before we arrived at the fall of Rome, I thought for a few seconds that something was on fire.
Much of the ingenuity of all this is behind the scenes. For instance, to cut air-conditioning costs in half, the Disney people employed what they called an air cannon, which only cools the path the cars ride on. The air a few feet away remains hot and muggy. And to prevent rainwater from cascading down the sides of the giant sphere, it is all gathered at the top and funneled inside the building , eventually replenishing the giant lagoon in the center. Too, the ''audio-animatronic'' talking and moving figures look like dummies, but inside, they are a marvel of steel skeletons and pneumatic tubing.
Lines are long at EPCOT - though they move quickly. I arrived at 9:03 to find an immense line forming at Spaceship, by far the most popular pavilion. So I wandered into the Universe of Energy, where there was no line at all. The star turn, so to speak, at this pavilion is that the theater - quite ordinary at first view - rotates and (to many oohs and ahs from the crowd) divides up into sections for a magically smooth ride through an audio-animatronic dinosaurs' swamp, complete with damp air, primeval-looking trees, and a faint swampy odor, courtesy of more air cannons and a device the Disney people call a ''smellitzer.''
Then the cars - run by computer with magical smoothness via a thin wire embedded in the floor - slide into a second theater for a film on how energy is formed. This includes sweeping scenes of Alaska, the Middle East, the North Sea - all the bitter, desolate places at the far end of your thermostat. Alternative forms of energy were mentioned, but not at length. I left, impressed by the care that had gone into the exhibit, and by the amount of effort it took to produce the fuel we use so casually, but without the feeling that much change was happening on the energy front.
When I emerged from the Universe of Energy, a line had already formed outside , but no one was in front of the World of Motion, so I just strolled in. Humor is the hallmark of this pavilion, devoted to the history of transportation. For instance, cavepeople fan their tired feet; a fast-talking salesman in Rome attempts to sell a used Trojan horse; and Leonardo da Vinci, abandoning painting the Mona Lisa, fiddles with a flying machine, while his annoyed model rolls her eyes and taps her foot impatiently. The Disney people feel that programming the eyes of the models is most important; the lady is so real, she could be da Vinci's masterpiece come to life.
The Journey into Imagination pavilion is only partially complete; the main part of the exhibit opens next month. But it promises to be one of the most enchanting. Here the Disney people are on home ground; the dull restrictions of reality can be abandoned, and whimsy rules the day. The most dramatic exhibit at present is the very effective 3-D movie, done with two synchronized, polarized cameras. I kept lifting my hand to bat off dandelion spores, bolts of lighting, and so on that seemed about to strike me in the face.
The secondary entertainments are delightful, too. There's the amazing Sensor Maze, which begins with a corridor of neon rainbows, in which a specific color follows each visitor who passes through. Inside is a device called the Stepping Tones; at every step a light goes on and a musical note sounds. I saw one grown man, obviously trying to play a tune, doing a sort of do-si-do. Another delight is the Dreamfinder's School of Drama. In this, visitors stand on a bare stage and see themselves projected on a TV monitor into one of a number of settings. One tiny boy, shy at first, enthusiastically entered the action; the video screen showed him wildly capering about in a surreal landscape. Outside this pavilion is a delightful garden, with several witty fountains; the most striking shoots water, in the form of a leaping serpent, very precisely from one small hole to another.
The most informative pavilion, and the one that best addresses the problem of its subject matter, is The Land. The ride focuses on the need to bring marginal agricultural areas into production to feed the world's burgeoning population, which is expected to double in the next 60 years. The canopied boat ride first takes us through models of three biomes: a Puerto Rican rain forest, with ''rain'' dripping continually from the areca palms; a desert, complete with blowing sand; and the American plains, in which a cloud of locusts swarm realistically in the background.
But the most interesting part of the ride is the working greenhouse area, where one sees such things as tomatoes on a sort of conveyor belt, their roots occasionally passed through a tank where they are sprayed with water and nutrients. There is also a rotating drum of lettuce, leaves facing the central light, that is designed for use in outer space. Another new technique demonstrated here is intensive cropping: Lettuce floats on a plastic board, while fish swim in the water underneath; above, cantaloupes on an A-frame protect the lettuce from the sun. Also shown are new food crops that may grow in importance; for instance, the winged bean, which is very adaptable to the tropics, and the buffalo gourd, adaptable to the desert.
All this is ''fairly common technology,'' says Dr. Hank Robitaille, a Disney agriculturist. Much of it, he says, is already in production in certain areas, primarily in desert regions in Abu Dhabi and Morocco. ''Greenhouse agriculture has been important in the US for a long time. The problem now is that the cost of energy is high.''
''The show is going to be constantly changing,'' said Dr. Robitaille, echoing a comment that is made about every exhibit.''Computers and robots are going to make a lot of changes in agriculture in the next 10 years.'
By and large, the pavilions of Future World focus more on the past than on the future. But perhaps that's wise. Architectural critic Peter Beard commented (in ''The Art of Walt Disney'') that Tomorrowland was the only disappointing part of Walt Disney World ''for it is just another one of those futuristic projections that have been proven false ever since the New York World's Fair of 1939.'' He added, ''The realm Tomorrowland is the vast infrastructure no paying customer ever sees.''
Technology at the service of history then. The history, with props and details authentically and beautifully done, is presented in a way to appeal to almost all ages and backgrounds. Adults may find that, for them, the medium is the message - but what a unique medium!
The other half of EPCOT, World Showcase, is a ministroll around the world. Facing toward a huge artificial lagoon are the nine ''mini-countries'' - Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, the United States, Italy, Germany, China, Mexico - all separated by walkways that echo the flora of the country depicted. No pavilion is intended to represent any one particular town. Instead each attempts to show an amalgam of the most charming styles and sights of the country represented. For instance, the United Kingdom pavilion shows architectural styles from Elizabethan to Victorian. The China pavilion has a replica of the Temple of Heaven and a garden complete with interestingly weathered rocks for contemplation. The Canadian has a mini-Butchart gardens and a replica of the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, while the French has a small Eiffel Tower (100 feet) presiding over a Paris mansion and cafe, a village ''rue,''m and a garden inspired by Seurat's ''A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.''
It is interesting that one of the pavilions represents the People's Republic of China. Watching the 360-degree movie, which surrounds spectators with the Great Wall, the sacred city of Lhasa in Tibet, the surreal landscape of Kweilin, the huge and elaborate ice sculptures of Heilongjiang - is almost like being there. There were a number of problems in making the film. For one thing, the 360-degree nine-camera format is difficult to shoot because there is no place to hide the cameraman, props, and lights; too, some of the less-accessible locations were hard to reach with the 300-pound camera. More important, however, was the initial reluctance of the Chinese to participate. However, the Disney representatives broke the ice by a showing of ''Fantasia'' in Peking. Even so, some of the filming in sensitive areas was done by Chinese crews.
The most remarkable audio-animatronic figures in all of EPCOT are in the American pavilion, a handsome Georgian brick building, patterned after Monticello. The reason for this is that it's the only pavilion containing these figures in which the audience remains stationary.
The MCs for the pavilion are a mechanical Mark Twain and Ben Franklin, who host a series of figures through a pageant of American history. Susan B. Anthony , Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe, Frederick Douglass, and others rise out of the giant stage, speak their piece, and return. A giant scene changer, located underneath the audience, moves them noiselessly in and out of place.
All of the pavilions have (or will have) restaurants - often more than one. These are hard to get into: reservations, which must be made in person, are usually filled by the beginning of the day. If you can only eat in one, the one not to miss is the French pavilion. Paul Bocuse, Roger Verge, and Gaston Le Notre - three of France's greatest chefs - designed the menu, which features nouvelle cuisine.
All the recipes, according to the dark-haired and robust Mr. Bocuse, in Orlando for the opening of EPCOT, are from the Michelin-starred restaurants of the three chefs. There will be a different menu for each season. Messrs. Bocuse and Le Notre had only praise for American produce; they had no difficulty at all adapting their dishes to what was available here. Entrees at the French restaurant are about $12, quite reasonable for a meal of this quality.
If you cannot get a reservation at the restaurant, at least sample the wares of the patisserie next door. The line is long and slow, but Mr. Bocuse promises that the size of the patisserie will be doubled soon. The pastries are typically French and very good - really worth the wait.
On the EPCOT drawing board are pavilions for Morocco, Spain, Israel, Venezuela, and equatorial Africa; additional shows and attractions for Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan; Horizons, featuring a family habitat of the next century, lifestyles of the future, underwater and outerspace communities, and a zero-gravity crystal farm; and The Living Seas. Practical details
Once you have paid your admission fee ($15 for adults, $14 for juniors, $12 for children) all the attractions, most of them sponsored by large corporations, are free. There are also three- and four-day passes good for the Magic Kingdom and Disney World. There are plenty of covered benches and bathrooms. Crowd control is wonderful, but anyone who objects to very long lines, even ones that move fairly quickly, would have problems here. EPCOT is also at the moment naturally in the throes of a shakedown period, which the Disney people estimate should last six months. Be flexible. If you see a long line, go on to next exhibit. And don't try to do too much.