(A version of this article was published for Pirates & Princesses on September 25, 2022.)
EPCOT – Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow
In Walt Disney’s later years, his greatest dream – EPCOT Center – was to be an actual functioning city. But not just any city – one set in a progressive future, incorporating advanced concepts in transportation, industry, living arrangements, and community balance. Of course, Walt’s EPCOT Center never came to be, but the spirit of his vision was captured by his team of dreamers and Imagineers some sixteen years after his death.
The place Walt envisioned to be a planned community became a World’s Fair-style showcase of innovative concepts (Future World) and cultural representation (World Showcase). Like the World’s Fair, guests at EPCOT Center were able to wander through a myriad of technological demonstrations and taste a bit of heritage from around the world.
Upon entering EPCOT’s main gate, guests first come upon Spaceship Earth – the icon of the park which serves as the heart of EPCOT. And once upon a time, after passing through (or around) Spaceship Earth, guests at Epcot entered CommuniCore – the “brain” of the park.
For this edition of Dearly Departed Disney, let’s explore the brain of EPCOT’s early days, as we wander through CommuniCore.
EPCOT’s CommuniCore – short for “Community Core” – was the embodiment of what early EPCOT was meant to represent – a group of interactive exhibits inviting guests to experience the future first-hand. The pavilion opened with the rest of the park on October 1, 1982.
While the name suggests a singular hub of information, CommuniCore was actually broken out into two crescent-shaped buildings, known as CommuniCore East and CommuniCore West. The buildings were located immediately behind Spaceship Earth, and were separated by a grand open courtyard space, from which rose the CommuniCore Fountain.
Both buildings were constructed with ceilings tall enough to hold a singular never-built attraction. A PeopleMover-style loop was intended to meander through the upper levels of both CommuniCore buildings, giving guests a bird’s-eye view of EPCOT’s wave of technology, as well as a peek outside while traveling between the buildings. Unfortunately, this attraction never came to be, leaving guests to explore all that CommuniCore had to offer under the power of their own two feet.
CommuniCore’s layout within Future World served a dual purpose. Its central location and multi-faceted focus areas were meant to evoke a futuristic version of Main Street, USA. But digging a little deeper into the cranial concepts of the park, one could see how the entrance placements into CommuniCore’s two buildings connected them to each of the six Future World pavilions, creating a natural parallel to each pavilion’s scientific focus.
CommuniCore was, at its foundation, a collection of science and technology exhibits created to teach guests about cutting-edge scientific advances. Let’s explore what each of CommuniCore’s two buildings had to offer guests.
Contrary to cartographic intuition, CommuniCore East was located to the rear left of Spaceship Earth when looking at a map of EPCOT. This half of the pavilion was connected to the World of Motion, Horizons, and Universe of Energy pavilions. Let’s look at the related exhibits and the rest of what CommuniCore East had to offer.
The TravelPort – Sponsored by American Express – was a companion to the World of Motion pavilion. It was anchored by a 14-foot globe showing various destinations from around the world. Guests could use one of the touch screens in this area to preview a vacation anywhere in the world. Imagine planning a trip to Greece while visiting EPCOT? Being the sponsor of TravelPort, American Express Travel Service could then help guests do just that. Also – being the official charge card of Walt Disney World, American Express could also provide cardholder services and sell traveler’s checks (remember those?).
The spiritual sister to Horizons was Computer Central, sponsored by Sperry (later Unisys). With computers being the new and flashy future of the early 1980s, Computer Central gave guests a peek at the future via the modern marvels made possible by the computer. The primary exhibit in this area was a bird’s eye look into a recessed, sub-level room containing some of the computers that ran EPCOT.
Trivia Tidbit: this sub-level computer room was actually part of a Utilidor-style lower level which was constructed under a portion of Future World. Instead of hiding this computer hub, Imagineers decided to incorporate them into the CommuniCore’s presentation of cutting edge computer technology.
Accompanying Computer Central was the Astuter Computer Revue – a show designed to make computers seem accessible (ie – less foreign and intimidating) to everyday users. The show featured “Earlie the Pearlie” singing and dancing around the computers that ran the park. Of course, when singing and dancing is on the docket, it’s a good bet the legendary Sherman Brothers were involved with the music. The Disney Legends wrote “The Computer Song” specifically for this attraction.
The Astuter Computer Revue has the dubious distinction of being the shortest-lived opening day EPCOT attraction, closing in January 1984. It was replaced with Backstage Magic, which ran from February 1984 until this portion of CommuniCore closed in November 1993. Backstage Magic told nearly the same story as its predecessor, but used different characters in telling the tale.
The Manufactory at Computer Central
The Manufactory was a collection of smaller games and activities meant to entertain guests. A highlight here was SMRT-1, the purplish-blue robotic mascot of the pavilion who would interact with guests using phones on his pedestal and run trivia games.
Other popular exhibits included Compute-A-Coaster, where guests could design their own rollercoaster (with the help of an animated beaver, of course). Compute-A-Coaster would serve to inspire later Disney attractions such as Cyberspace Mountain at DisneyQuest and Sum Of All Thrills at Innoventions. The Great American Census Quiz offered guests a choice of America-based topics, to challenge themselves in trivia. The Flag Game invited guests to design their own flag (while listening to patriotic American music).
Sponsored by Exxon (who also sponsored Universe of Energy) the Energy Exchange served as a companion to the Universe of Energy. This area was anchored by a miniature oil rig model, but also featured a kinetic windmill. This area featured a number of interactive exhibits based on wind, solar, nuclear, oil, and gas energy. Guests could pedal to see how much power they could generate compared to a gallon of gasoline, or use a handheld crank to illuminate a light bulb.
This area Forum allowed guests to electronically share their thoughts on current events.
FutureChoice Theater was a 175-seat theater where guests could watch short films on current events and vote on their opinions through a multiple choice poll based selection buttons in their armrests. Topics ranged from thoughts on nuclear energy, to political freedoms, and also some less heavy questions.
The Person of the Century poll began in January 1990. The poll offered quite a varied choice of close to 100 famous candidates, including Lucille Ball, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Mikhail Gorbachev, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa, among many others. Alternatively, guests could write-in votes of their own choosing. The poll was intended to tally votes over the remaining decade of the century, until the year 2000, with an ultimate plan for Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner to reveal the winner in a televised special. The poll was quietly discontinued in March 1991, reportedly due to a less-than-serious abuse of the write-in candidate option. That’s ok though, we still have Time magazine to rank the most influential people of the 20th century.
One last exhibit that holds a fond corner in the memories of many early EPCOT guests was the World Population Clock. This giant counter – complete with wooden figures – provided a constant reminder of the increasingly crowded world in which we live.
On the opposite side of the fountain, CommuniCore West faced the Journey Into Imagination (with Figment), The Land, and The Living Seas pavilions. Given that those pavilions were not as technology-driven in their messages, their ties to CommuniCore West were much hazier than those of their eastern counterparts. Here are the highlight areas which made up CommuniCore West.
Sponsored by Bell System (later known as AT&T), FutureCom was a collection of interactive exhibits focused around communications concepts. This collection related best to Spaceship Earth’s story of the progress of communication throughout history.
The Fountain of Information was a kinetic sculpture composed entirely of various communication forms, such as books, blinking neon lights, vinyl records, street signs, film, letters, and more. The fountain used lights, colors, and motion to illustrate the vast interconnected web of communications technology.
The Age of Information was a more whimsical musical diorama offering a look at how new technology advances would serve to connect our world. The diorama featured the song “Bringing the World Closer to You.”
The Intelligent Network Map was a large interactive map of the United States showing the flow of information across the country. Guests at this exhibit could retrieve published information using the ARIEL (Automatic Retrieval of Information Electronically) system. Hmmm, sound familiar? Think of this as the World Wide Web, before the World Wide Web.
Several games located throughout FutureCom would prove to be earlier generations of popular technologies we use today. The Face-To-Face game demonstrated video conferencing. Phraser would speak words that guests typed out on a keyboard. Electronic Finger Paint allowed guests to make a digital masterpiece on-screen. In a harbinger of future cyber-security issues to come, Chip Cruiser encouraged guests to fire at “contaminants” before they “affected long distance service” (in other words, killing computer viruses).
Other games included A-Mazing Microchip – where kids could get lost in a tiny maze that was just their size, and Scramblin’ Faces – where your picture would be made into a slide puzzle to solve.
This area was originally planned to showcase “TRON Arcade”, but opened in February 1988 as Expo Robotics. Inhabitants of the area included robotic arms named Pixel and Ironside, who performed tricks with spinning tops (such as balancing them on a sword blade and on a length of string). Other robots located in this area could play music, draw pictures of guests’ faces from a video monitor, or even draw Disney characters on T-shirts.
Known by several names, including “Ask EPCOT” and later “EPCOT Discovery Center”, this little corner of CommuniCore was the educational outreach wing of the pavilion. It served as a library and information center, inviting guests and educators to further explore the themes of EPCOT’s Future World.
This area was also home to a research librarian who could answer questions about any topic in Future World and World Showcase. The Teacher’s Center offered educators classroom lessons for all grade levels, based on Future World themes for all grade levels, continuing EPCOT’s role of education beyond the gates of the park.
Eating, Drinking, and Shopping
Both sides of CommuniCore offered food for hungry learners, and CommuniCore East purveyed lots of classic merchandise that would kill on eBay today.
Located in CommuniCore East, Stargate Restaurant offered typical theme park fare (pizza and burgers) for lunch and dinner, but distinguished itself as one of very very breakfast spots in EPCOT, the highlight of the breakfast menu was the Stellar Scramble.” The Stargate was not as future-themed as the name suggested, and it was eventually reimagined as Electric Umbrella.
Located in CommuniCore West, Sunrise Terrace served up fried chicken, seafood, and salads. Over time, the fried foods were replaced with Italian fare (lasagna, pasta, pizza, antipasto salads. Later in its culinary life, Sunrise Terrace was split into Pasta Piazza Ristorante and Fountain View Espresso and Bakery.
Guests itching to take home some of that futuristic EPCOT magic could shop at the Centorium – located in CommuniCore East. This was the largest merchandise location in all of EPCOT Center. The Centorium sign featured the logos of all Future World pavilions, except Wonders of Life.
According to a 1983 Birnbaum Guide, this epic merchandise location sold inspired items such as solar toys and sculptures, natural food cookbooks, sprout jars, electronic toys and games. Over time, The Centorium’s merchandise became more Disney-focused. Ultimately, the location was reimagined in 1999 as MouseGear.
The Brain – Reimagined
After serving as EPCOT’s version of Main Street, USA for over a decade, CommuniCore’s once cutting edge technologies – really began to show their age. Personal computers were no longer brand new to the public, nor were some of the abilities of the featured commercial computers. Seeing a need to refresh CommuniCore’s content, the pavilion started to close in stages in 1993. January 30, 1994 sounded the final bell for the brain of EPCOT. Imagineers immediately took to updating the pavilion for a new generation, and the area opened once again on July 1, 1994 as Innoventions, with almost all of the pavilion’s previous exhibits being replaced.
It may be close to thirty years since CommuniCore last welcomed guests, but in May 2022 Disney announced a return of the CommuniCore name to EPCOT. Disney concept art illustrates CommuniCore Plaza and CommuniCore Hall as gathering spaces – part of a grand reimagining of EPCOT’s Future World.
Will CommuniCore make a triumphant return to the hearts of EPCOT guests? Only time will tell.
An EPCOT Original
CommuniCore’s place in EPCOT’s original design was nearly flawless. The concept of the pavilion being the brain to Spaceship Earth’s heart was well thought out by Disney Imagineers, as it seamlessly wove together Future World’s various concepts. The idea of CommuniCore as EPCOT’s version of Main Street, USA was perfect in its theoretical design, though its widespread layout and significant distance from the other pavilions in Future World likely prevented many – if not most – guests from appreciating the intended nostalgia.
In the end, CommuniCore did a perfect job of inviting guests to experience a taste of the future. And now, looking back some forty years at the pavilion’s earliest days, it is quite striking just how cutting edge and prophetic some of those concepts proved to be.
Thanks for traveling with us back to EPCOT’s earliest days. Please follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to explore many other former attractions and experiences from Walt Disney World, including Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. We may even visit Disneyland and other Disney Parks. Can you guess what our next article will be?
Sources referenced in writing this article include:
Walt Dated World – Communicore and Centorium
Disney Parks Blog – Vintage EPCOT: A Look Back at EPCOT’s CommuniCore
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