Mickey Mouse gets some classy neighbors

Mickey Mouse is about to get some new neighbors.

There's Dreamfinder and his helper Figment, a dragon, of sorts. Then there's Bonnie Appetit, and a walking, talking version of Benjamin Franklin, and even some singing Italian waiters.

You can meet them here any time after Oct. 1, when Disney World opens its $ 800 million showcase known as Epcot Center - twice the size of the present Disney theme park, the Magic Kingdom, and very different. (Epcot stands for environmental prototype community of tomorrow.)

In a bold departure from the proven success of the Magic Kingdom, Disney has combined both international and educational (a la entertainment) exhibits. It's like adding a permanent World's Fair just two miles south of an amusement park that is one of the world's most popular tourist attractions.

Mickey's Magic Kingdom is luring some 13 million tourists a year, eager for a ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a visit to Cinderella's Castle, or a jungle cruise.

Epcot Center will aim at another group of tourists - a group of Disney officials believe has been driving right by the entrance here. They are tourists curious about the history of mankind's development of communication and transportation systems, and about energy and the future. They also are tourists who would enjoy a brief stroll down a block-long, re-created street of old England, a meal in an authentic-looking French sidewalk cafe, or a look at a Japanese shrine.

All of this being approached with same attention to detail and fun that has worked so well in the company's other ventures.

Epcot will not be a Knoxville World's Fair, it will be a Disney World's Fair. And that is an important difference.

Take energy, for example, which is the theme of the Knoxville World's Fair. A few animated cartoons help soften the effect of energy gadgetry at walk-through exhibits in Knoxville. But at Epcot, life-size dinosaurs and a simulated lava flow will greet ride-through visitors to the Universe of Energy. Quoting the late Walt Disney, Dick Nunis, Disney's president of outdoor recreation, says: ''I would rather entertain and hope the people learn than teach and hope they're entertained.''

''I always knew we could do the world showcase (international exhibits), he says. The tougher challenge, he says, was the other half - the educational and entertainment exhibits Disney people call ''Future World.''

Actually there will be as much about the past and known technology as there is about the future in the 550-acre Epcot Center. Walt Disney wanted ''to get across to the people of the world that there are solutions to the problems that exist today,'' Nunis explains, looking out on a lagoon the size of 85 football fields in the middle of Epcot. Boats will carry visitors back and forth across it.

Later, in the Land pavillion, where cucumbers are being grown up 14 foot vertical cords in a greenhouse, Nunis says Disney believed some of those solutions were known in laboratories but not to the general public. A visitor to the Land exhibit will see some less-publicized technology, including desert agriculture, aquaculture, and plants moved along a conveyor belt through nutrients. And Land hostess Bonnie Appetit will lead audio-animated food group characters such as the Colander Combo in an entertaining pitch for good nutrition.

This mix of education and Disney animation will be seen throughout Future World in:

* The World of Motion - which includes more than a dozen animated scenes depicting humorous incidents in man's development of transportation.

* The Journey into Imagination - where the host, Dreamfinder, a friendly looking professorial type, and his companion, Figment, a purple conglomerate of a creature, lead the way to what promises to be a dazzling display of abstract imagery of the arts, science, and technology.

* Spaceship Earth - the giant golf ball-like exhibit through which visitors ride along a swirling route depicting the history of man's communication, from cave paintings to space.

On the other side of the lagoon, in ''World Showcase,'' the British, Japanese , French, and Italian exhibits, all featuring typical food, drink, and entertainment, will be international neighbors with Canada, Mexico, West Germany , China, and the United States.

In the US ''American Adventure'' display, Disney artists pull out the stops and demonstrate their latest in ''audio-animatrons,'' life-size human figures that talk and move. Ben Franklin even walks up a stairway. He and Mark Twain lead a performance by 35 other figures from America's history. The audience sits in a 1,000-seat, revolving auditorium. The show is the Disney team's best shot at realizing Walt Disney's expressed belief in the ''need to re-create our heritage,'' as Nunis puts it.

Disney officials hope all this boosts Disney World attendance, which has generally plateaued in the last several years at around 13 million visitors a year. Disney forecasters say Epcot will boost attendance to some 20 million a day - including many who stay a day longer to see Epcot and the Magic Kingdom.

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