Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Epcot's 30th Anniversary Free D23 Seminars

There were two free seminars offered during Epcot's 30th birthday celebration, both sponsored by D23. The first was titled Designing the Future – Past and Present: A panel of Disney Imagineers remembers 30 years of building tomorrow! The second was Epcot: How it Changed the World with Marty Sklar 30 years, 300 million people. Unfortunately photography was not permitted during either presentation since most of the pictures shown were the personal photos of those participating.

The first seminar consisted of several Imagineers sharing stories of their experiences with the building and designing of Epcot. Everything from recording music for some of the pavilions at Abbey Road in using some of the first digital recording equipment in existence, to researching colors for, and the painting of, the buildings and all the tiny details that were involved in the "making of" Epcot.

While it was quite enjoyable hearing the stories from these talented people, the second seminar with Marty Sklar was even better, and is what I will concentrate this review on. Marty worked directly with Walt Disney and even helped write various materials that were used not only in some of Walt's speeches, but also in books, manuals, presentations, television, and special films. Marty was assigned to write the preface for the EPCOT Building Code because Walt wanted everyone involved with the Florida Project to be aware of, and to stay consistent with, the standards that had been set for Disneyland. The work most of us would be most familiar with however is the 20-minute movie devoted to communicating Walt's vision of the Florida Project and EPCOT, his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that was originally intended to help resolve the urban challenges found in American cities. However, what most of us didn't know is that it has two endings. One version was for the Florida legislature, with a pitch to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District that governs Walt Disney World. The other ending was used for pitching to companies and corporations to help build Epcot, which is the one that many of us have seen. Walt died just a about six weeks after this was filmed! Both endings were shown during this presentation. (Some bits of this film and memorabilia from it can be seen in the "One Man's Dream" attraction at Disney Hollywood Studios.)

Marty also showed some film clips and a clip of an editorial piece by David Brinkley in which he claims that Walt Disney World is the greatest piece of urban planning in America. My favorite though was the Danny Kaye segment of the opening broadcast where he very effectively explains what Epcot is in his own special musical style.

Another highlight was a number of early Epcot Center concepts by way of drawings and photographs of various models. One of the earliest ideas was to intertwine two circular structures, one for Future World and another for World Showcase. This version of the theme park would have been located between the Polynesian Resort and the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC). Another concept was that Future World and World Showcase would be two separate parks with two separate admissions. Then someone literally pushed the two models together creating one "Park". But the real breakthrough came from Imagineer Harper Goff, who came up with idea of a "cul-de-sac" with the nations having equal waterfront frontage. Marty also discussed how the entire project would be driven by the sponsors. He reminded the audience that at the time, Americans did not trust the government nor industry, but they did trust Mickey Mouse. One example he gave was a Mickey Mouse comic book with more than 10 million passed out, which was the biggest distributions of a comic book at the time. And the second biggest? Yes, another Mickey Mouse comic book.

Ever wonder why the walkway between Future World and the World Showcase is so long? It seems that in that spot is one of the largest sinkholes in Florida. Marty said that during construction they lost steel and even trucks in it. They still don't know deep the hole really is.

Marty also shared how a Disney Legend confounded the engineers by suggesting how to build Spaceship Earth. The technical people said that the globe would have to rest on the ground in order to stand. John Hench came up with a better solution. Spaceship Earth is made up of three parts. There is a large table held up by the angled supports that guests see today. One-quarter of the globe would hang below the table and the other two-thirds would rest on top. We even got to see his hand drawing of this concept!

My favorite "tidbit"  regarding the design aspects that he shared was the fact that at one point it was discussed that maybe they should have the main entrance between Future World and World Showcase. In essence, a guest could then enter the park and decide which side they wanted to visit first, or perhaps choose not to visit one area or the other. (Remember, one early concept was to have two separate parks!) Well, that idea was rejected by Disney upper management because all of the buildings in the Future World area were underwritten by different corporate sponsors and they had been presented with a Park concept as we know it today with everyone entering and exiting from Future World. A change like this would have required going back to each of them and getting their blessing for it.

One of my favorite segments was some of the World Showcase pavilions that were considered, but never were. We got to see several sketches of design concepts for each of them as well. Costa Rica would have featured a very large glass enclosed aviary filled with lush tropical plantings, birds etc. Israel would have been a reproduction of an historic street. Denmark's pavilion would have had an ice skating rink and a Tivoli Gardens boat ride. The Iranian pavilion was proposed to the Shah after a team spent six weeks waiting for an audience with him. Two weeks later the Shah was overthrown! Marty's favorite pavilion that never came about was the Africa pavilion. Imagine an African river rapids ride and a “rhythm” show. Not to mention what would have been one of the largest displays of African Art anywhere! Disney had acquired a massive collection of art objects in anticipation of this; but ultimately  the materials were donated to the Smithsonian for the National Museum of African art when the pavilion was shelved.

Marty also talked about the original concept for the American Adventure. The plan was to put the pavilion between Future World and the World Showcase. The structure would have been quite modern in design and guests would go underneath the structure to visit the rest of the countries. Finally it was decided to move it to the far side of the lagoon so that it would draw guests deep into the park and act as the "Host" nation. We also saw a film about the development of the American Adventure. One of the key Imagineers was Randy Bright and he walked viewers through the evolution of the attraction. Bright said the reason that the attraction is a stage show is because you can't tell important information in a ride through. While they were able to easily agree that Ben Franklin and Mark Twain should act as hosts and representatives for their respective centuries, after considering over 100 different people to represent the 20th century they couldn't agree who should do it, so there is no "host" or representative for that century. A few other interesting things: In the Civil War segment, the scene at the railroad station was filmed in Disneyland Park. The two sons fighting on either side... both were cast members; the Union soldier was the director of Kitchen Kabaret and the Rebel was a rock and facade expert.

One of the crowd's favorite moments was a medley of songs written for Epcot. Until Epcot, there were only five songs written for the Disney parks. The Sherman brothers wrote Tiki room, Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (Carousel of Progress), and Small World. X Attencio (an Imagineer) wrote Yo Ho Yo Ho and Grim Grinning Ghosts. Epcot introduced several new songs and songwriters, such as Bob Moline. Bob wrote or co-wrote music for the Energy pavilion, Canada and America. The Sherman brothers wrote all the music at Imagination (Magic Journeys, Making Memories and One Little Spark). Buddy Baker wrote or co-wrote music for China and Mexico and Camile Saint-Saens wrote music for France.

One of the last items Marty discussed was the original Epcot logo and the fact that he liked that it was being brought back in some ways for this anniversary. It symbolizes unity, fellowship and harmony around the world. The five outer rings form the shape of a flower, a celebration of life. The heart of the logo is the earth embraced by a star, symbolizing hope. The hope that with imagination, commitment and dedication we can create a new tomorrow.

The original logo is the "O" in the "30" pictured above and below.

The hour and a half seminar concluded with a Q & A session where Marty took questions from the audience.

I don't know what the other D23 event(s) were like for this weekend, but these FREE seminars were wonderful and I wouldn't hesitate to attend another one. They were well worth the investment of time, at least for this self-proclaimed Disney Geek! They even have me considering buying a D23 membership to be able to attend other D23 sponsored events in the future.                                     

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