Disney's Epcot: past, present, and future on parade

''Epcot will take its cue from the new ideas . . . emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems.''

- Walter Elias Disney

When Walt Disney dreamed, he dreamed big.

Starting with a pen and an idea for a character named Mickey Mouse, he created an entertainment empire of cartoon and live action films, television, and two innovative amusement parks, Disneyland and Disney World. In his last appearance on television in 1966, Mr. Disney outlined his greatest dream: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (Epcot). It was to be a carefully planned city in which permanent residents live under a dome and ride ''people movers'' to work and school.

Sixteen years later, the spirit of his vision, if not its details, has come to life. The Epcot Center next to Disney World in central Florida is sure to influence world travel and leisure habits, and benefit the Florida economy, well into the 21st century. According to Disney officials, the new theme park could draw at least 8 million admissions in its first year, single-handedly boosting Florida tourism by 15-20 percent.

Instead of Walt Disney's city of tomorrow, the $800 million project, which opened Oct. 1, is more a permanent world's fair, highlighting history and looking ahead to possible futures. It aims to lure Disney World visitors to stay for additional day or two to peer into the possible future and marvel at its technical achievements.

An aspect of Disney's original plan that has been kept is Epcot's mind-boggling scope: It took 10,000 workers three years to the day (25 million man-hours) to construct 15 pavilions covering 260 acres, twice the size of Disney World.

To help fund the colossal project, Disney enlisted the aid of some of America's corporate giants, including Exxon, General Motors, the Bell System, Kraft Foods, Kodak, Coca-Cola, American Express, Sperry, and General Motors. Most sponsor a pavilion related to their products. (Kraft, for example, is backing ''The Land,'' a look at the future of agriculture; GM offers ''The World of Motion,'' a whimsical journey through the history of transportation.)

The park is divided into two theme areas: Future World and the World Showcase. The nine showcase pavilions each display the architecture and culture of a country, with the US exhibit, the American Experience, serving as the host pavilion. Shops, restaurants, and street scenes have been created with the expected Disney care for detail. (According to a Disney spokesman, the angel atop a bell tower in the Italian exhibit is ''real, 24-carat gold'' - just like the original it copies.)

But it is in the six Future World pavilions where the technical innovations are most obvious. They include 450 second-generation audio-animatronic robots, the largest animated film ever shown (155 feet by 22 feet), and computer-generated 3-D imagery. Touch-sensitive video displays located around the park are designed to be ''guest friendly'' information booths. An animated push-button character named ''Bit'' hops around the screen explaining how by touching various displayed images the foot-weary wanderer can find the next pavilion, make restaurant reservations, or speak with an attendant using two-way television cameras and speakerphones.

Spaceship Earth, looking like an 18-story-high silver-colored golf ball, is the symbol of the park. Inside, visitors board vehicles which spiral up past audio-animatronic scenes depicting the history of communication (Bell System is the sponsor). The top portion of the sphere is a vast planetarium, the largest of its kind, showing Earth suspended in space and surrounded by thousands of stars.

Throughout the park, nary a pair of mouse ears (or signs of any of the traditional Disney characters) can be seen, unless brought in by guests. Disney officials aim for Epcot to have its own identity, calling it ''entertainment with a purpose.'' Instead of indulging fantasies, says a statement from the Disney chairman Card Walker and president Ron Miller, Epcot ''celebrates the realities of human acheivements through imagination, the wonders of industrial enterprise, and the concept of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all people.''

Judging from the oohs and aahs at several exhibits, early visitors were impressed. They applauded as incredibly clear 3-D images jumped out from a movie screen and buzzed approvingly as a 360-degree movie whisked them away for a trip to remote areas of China.

But Bill LePage, who has visited neighboring Disney World 95 times since it opened in 1971 (and wears a shirt with 95 pairs of mouse ears on it to mark his achievement), was one guest who had some reservations. ''This is fantastic,'' he conceded. ''But it's for adults. My heart's at the other place (Disney World). There's nothing like it anywhere else in the world.''

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