EPCOT's 'Horizons' peers into the future of the American home

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The people at Disney have once again peered into their crystal ball, this time producing Horizons, a new pavilion at the EPCOT Center's Future World. It's sponsored by General Electric and deals, not surprisingly, with the future in the home.

It's a home most middle-class Americans would be comfortable in. The viewer is borne in smoothly running cars past dioramas of animated mannequins representing ''families'' so typical they could be selling detergents. The mother in her living room chats with a three-dimensional image of her daughter via holographic telephone. A family has just checked into their room at a spaceship hotel; their dog and luggage are floating merrily around the ceiling. Another mother prepares her family for a scuba lesson - the only kind of ''walk'' possible from their underwater home.

The idea of the pavilion was to present a future that seemed friendly to the average person. ''Almost all space movies are predicated on war,'' said Walt Disney World spokesman Charlie Ridgeway. ''Everyone has a laser gun on the hip. We just don't think the future has to be that way.''

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The most exciting part of the ride is the Omnimax movie (a large film format adapted to a fisheye lens). It is shown on a concave screen 80 feet high and 240 feet long. You don't see all of it as your car trundles past, but I saw a rocket taking off, seemingly a few feet away, and a rotating view of a double helix that seemed to float in the air. And when the movie camera zoomed forward over the New York cityscape, our car vibrated so realistically that I was positive we were zooming forward with it. I was startled, and, as Disney ''imagineer'' Marty Sklar commented with a deprecating smile, ''It's not easy to startle people now.''

As you stumble back out into the brilliant Florida sunshine, you might ask yourself why bother with a house on the ocean, when a house under the ocean is just as comfortable and a lot more impressive.

But you may have to wait awhile - this is the future, after all. Except, alas, for the holographic telephone, most of the technology for all this - the underwater community, the spaceship hotel - is available, but the expense is ''prohibitive,'' according to GE's Manuel Aven and Charles Bean. ''People grumble over even ordinary costs, of telephone bills for instance,'' Dr. Aven pointed out.

The opening of Horizons was a spectacular event, complete with thousands of blue, white, and silver balloons; a band; dancers; and white pigeons by the score. Louis XIV would have been satisfied with it. It also marked a year - and a successful one - since EPCOT's debut.

Things seem to be hopping in the Disney conglomerate. Here at EPCOT, the seven pavilions of Future World will be joined in 1986 by the Living Seas, referred to as the world's largest saltwater aquarium. A Morocco pavilion will be added next year to the nine ''countries'' of World Showcase. The opening of the first overseas Disney park in Tokyo in April is almost overshadowed.

According to Disney chief executive Ron Miller, there may be another overseas Disney park in the future, probably in England, France, or Spain. The climate, rather than closeness to a large population, is the most important factor, said Mr. Miller, saying that the company might create a resort out of ''nothing,'' as in the successful project here in Orlando.

Mr. Miller had a few remarks to make about the Disney movie division, which has recently been marked by a contrasting lack of success at the box office. (''How often can you write off $10 million?'' he asked plaintively.) His comment on the movies: ''We were stuck in the early '60s, while rest of the country changed.''

To me, this seemed to have some applicability to the highly successful EPCOT. Disney's first proposal to GE for the Horizons pavilion was rejected because it was too oriented toward the past. And my only criticism of Future World, gorgeous and delightful as it is, is that enchantment with the past occasionally overshadows interest in the future, or even the present. You don't get the impression that there are single-parent households underwater, for instance - though I appreciated the working-mother, househusband-father team in the desert scene.

EPCOT takes on the educational role that world fairs often filled before television. Strolling through the park is a bit like being on television: mood-altering music, which you don't always notice; the workings just offstage; folkloric dances everywhere (I prefer the serendipity of stumbling on these unexpectedly, but you can get a schedule at Earth Station). The people who work at EPCOT contribute to that impression of unreality. Disney spokesman Charlie Ridgeway said, ''Everyone is a performer. If they're sweeping streets, they do it with a little bit of a flair.''

There have been a few changes in the World Showcase section since the opening last year. The China pavilion has a beautiful one-room museum exhibiting Tang funerary figures. It's the sort of thing I hope will be expanded as EPCOT expands. At the moment, the emphasis is on restaurants and shops.

But in a way, the shops give you a feeling for each country, because the salesclerks are from the places they represent. For example, I went into the China pavilion to check out prices, and walked out with a mug I'd had no intention of buying. The Chinese sometimes urge a Westerner to shop the way a fan might cheer on the local football team. (Prices, by the way, were reasonable , I thought: A silk blouse like one I saw in Hong Kong for $18 was $50; a mug that went for $1.25 in Peking was $7.50. And anyway, Florida is closer.)

In the French pastry shop, a lady inquired about the nature of a pastry several times, receiving a repeated insouciant reply from the salesclerk that sounded something like ''Eppel tahteh.'' I left before she had translated this to ''apple tart,'' thinking that the buyer was receiving a very good training for overseas shopping.

Outside the pastry shop, there's an area decked out to look like a street in a provincial French town, with round metal tables and a fountain playing nearby. I sat down, joining a small, patient child wearing a magnificent Davy Crockett coonskin cap despite the sweltering heat and an elderly couple tucking into their chocolate mousse cake with utter satisfaction. I dug into my own, looked over at the fountain, and thought of one lady I had met who had said, ''I'll never get to Europe; this is as close as I'll get.''

Practical information

The Disney hotel reservations system will make reservations up to 10 years in advance, which can make it hard for those who don't plan quite so far ahead. Some flexibility is required if you wish to stay at one of the more popular places - particularly the Polynesian Village or the Contemporary Hotel. Last-minute tries are sometimes successful, as some rooms are left open for those who want to stay an extra day; ask at the visitors desk around 3 or 4 p.m. This isn't something to count on, and you should have standby reservations.

While attractions at the Magic Kingdom are neatly fitted into a fairly small space, EPCOT pavilions are separated by long stretches of beautiful landscaping, so you might want to not try to do too many things with little children. More launches and buses have been added, should you be at the far end of the lagoon when exhaustion strikes.

A one-day ticket for either EPCOT or the Magic Kingdom is $17 for adults, $16 for kids age 12-17, and $14 for children 3-11. A 3-day ''passport'' for both parks costs $40, $38, and $32 respectively; the 4-day pass is $50, $47, and $40. For general information, call (305) 824-8000.

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