D23’s EPCOT 30th Anniversary Celebration: We Can Do It! – Part I (The Morning)

On September 30, 2012, D23, the official Disney Fan Club, hosted a 30th anniversary celebration for Epcot.  D23 Epcot superfans convened in Epcot’s World ShowPlace where we were treated to a day-long series of sessions with the minds, hearts and hands behind the building of EPCOT.  George Gensler posted a quick recap and photos of the event, but there was so much rich information we wanted to share a detailed account of the proceedings.  The program followed the progression of the birth of Epcot.  Part I of this report describes the morning sessions that focused on the infrastructure – from the ground up to the rooftops.

Signage in Epcot's World Show Place for D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

Article and Photos by George Gensler

We were welcomed by Steven Clark, who “rebooted” World Key Information for us, allowing us to “choose” how we would like to start the day.  Though all of our options were intriguing, we apparently chose the already-scheduled “The Dawn of a New Disney Era” with Marty Sklar video.  [To distinguish between the three Disneys (Walt, Roy, and the company), I’ll refer to the men by their first names and to the company as Disney.]

WorldKey Information slide shown at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary CelebrationRetired head of Walt Disney Imagineering Marty Sklar on video at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

Marty Sklar, retired Executive Vice President for Walt Disney Imagineering, was still in LA (he arrived the next day for the actual anniversary date of October 1st), but made a video telling us stories about Walt Disney and the planning of Epcot.  Walt never wanted to repeat himself and planned for Epcot to be a showcase for new technologies.  In a statement dear to my heart, Walt proclaimed that “Pedestrians will be king . . . without fear of motorized vehicles.”  He planned for cars and trucks to be below ground and for people to be transported via non-stop monorail trains.  Walt wanted to meet the needs of the public.

Walt Disney at an early concept drawing for Epcot

EPCOT, or the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, was one of Walt Disney's original ideas for his "Florida Project." Seen here, Walt produced a 1966 film for Florida legislators where he showcased his dream of a unique city. Celebrating 30 years Oct. 1, 2012 EPCOT Center opened in 1982 with a re-imagined concept built from Walt's original dream. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.


Sklar spoke of Roy (Walt’s brother) as an “enabler” whose primary goal was to ensure Walt’s dreams came true and he carried that goal through with Epcot.  Despite the difficulties that arose, such as high gas prices and lack of sponsorship, Roy not only kept Walt’s dream alive, but pushed it towards completion.

slides shown during D23 Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

Sklar went on to tell us about some of the changes that had to be made in order to make Epcot a possibility.

  • Did you know that Epcot was originally meant to be two parks?  Lack of sponsorship led them to combine the two Showcases (World and Future), arranging them to complement each other.
  • When Karl Hodges, a renowned agriculture expert questioned the lack of bees in The Land, which Disney countered could not be included because of the danger to guests, Disney created a hand-pollination program.  Yes, that’s right.  Every plant in the land is hand-pollinated by cast members.
  • Another expert was called in to help with Spaceship Earth.  Noted sci-fi author Ray Bradbury created the communication story that riders follow as they climb their way up and around the interior of the beloved “golf ball” at the entrance of the park.

Bradbury referred to the Disney staff as Renaissance People – high praise, indeed – and paid one of the highest compliments possible to Walt – “Disney set an example and let people imitate it.”  We should all strive to be worthy of that phrase!

Spaceship Earth at Epcot

Speaking of Spaceship Earth, for those who don’t know, Walt insisted that each park have a “weenie” – an icon to draw visitors in.  Spaceship Earth is obviously the weenie for Future World, and the American Adventure Pavilion is the weenie for World Showcase.  The American Adventure Pavilion was originally set between the Mexico and Canada Pavilions, for obvious reasons.  Dick Nunis (who, from what I’ve gleaned from everything I’ve read and heard about him, was a master troubleshooter) moved The American Adventure Pavilion to the far side of the World Showcase Lagoon.  He knew having the grand American Adventure Pavilion as a destination would draw visitors around the lagoon, encouraging them to explore the pavilions of the other countries, as well.  (I confess that I have never been inside the American Adventure Pavilion – my interest in the World Showcase has always been the pavilions of the foreign countries).

slide shown at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

Sklar hinted at the stories to come in the next panel, when he revealed the reason for the great distance between the two showcases was a giant sinkhole.  Next, Jason Surrell led the “We Can Do It!” panel, which included Disney Legends and EPCOT Center creators:  Duncan Dickson, Bob Mathieson, Jim McCaskill, Tom Nabbe, Charlie Ridgway, Howard Roland and Bill “Sully” Sullivan.

Panel of Disney Legends and EPCOT Center creators on stage for D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary

The “We Can Do It!” panel mainly addressed construction and transportation stories.  They had been tasked with the building of the EPCOT Center, but admonished for not thinking broadly enough – “You have to think beyond Disney World.”  To continue with the sinkhole story, that sinkhole cause quite a few problems for the construction crews.  Let me answer one of the questions I posed in my original summary of the event.  “Do you know what World Showcase Lagoon was originally meant to be?”  World Showcase was originally planned as a river with the pavilions on the outer bank of the river; however, that giant sinkhole prevented them from building the interior land out, resulting in the wonderful World Showcase Lagoon.  The sinkhole swallowed seven (7!) pilings, but it also provided land for the build-out of the Caribbean Beach resort.  A number of construction vehicles were nearly lost into the muck as well.

The concrete pilings posed cost, construction and transportation issues.  To save money on all three of those fronts, concrete castings were built locally.  The New York Fire Department was consulted on the best way to transport the pilings.  The pilings were loaded onto hook-and-ladder type vehicles (with a second driver on the back of the vehicle) so that each end could be maneuvered independently, making it possible to go around bends without losing the piling.

Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

Charlie Ridgway presented a slide show, with some pretty amazing pictures of the construction.  One of my favorites, though, was of the one and only time when the British and French Concords landed simultaneously at an airport.

Two Concordes land simultaneously

The panel also discussed the ethnic aspects of World Showcase.  There were meetings in home countries and here in the US.  To break the ice among the various ambassadors, they created name tags with each person’s first name, breaking protocol, but it worked.  Dick Nunis insisted that each pavilion be 100% authentic by opening day and they were.  There were more Dick Nunis stories in this panel, including his demand for attention to detail.  He had complained about a heap of construction debris and was told that the heap changed constantly because the material came in every day.  He brought them out to the heap and showed them his business card, which he’d left in the heap a week before.  After that, the heap really was cleared out.

We heard the story of the protected birds that impacted construction.  There were red-cockaded woodpeckers nesting in pine trees.  The trees are still there, in the parking lot, though the birds apparently no longer nest there.

Slides shown at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

Another highly amusing story was about the port-o-lets.  As will happen with portable toilets in warm climates, they “got strong.”  The Reedy Creek Fire Department was called in three or four times a week for “flamers,” because construction workers would toss wads of toilet paper doused in lighter fluid into the port-o-lets.

Yet another example of creative problem-solving and resourcefulness, not to mention their commitment to Walt’s dream and work ethic, is how Disney found 3D artists to paint rocks.  They went to the zoo!  Walt was never satisfied and always encouraged his team to do better and keep improving and how much better could they have done than to turn to experts who were dedicated to recreating landscape environments for the most-discerning viewers of all – the animals who lived there.

Time to move on to the next session, but here’s another trivia question for you:  Where did they get the “We Can Do It!” slogan?

Slides shown at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

After a short break, we were treated to “Looking Back at Tomorrow,” a presentation by two archivists:  Steven Vagnini and Michael Crawford.  Vagnini and Crawford took us “Back to the Corkboard” with a presentation of original sketches, concept art, logos, etc.  We learned in this session that in the original concept art, Spaceship Earth was gold.  The shortest-lived Epcot attraction was the Astute Computer Revue with Ken Jennings as Earlie the Pearlie.

Because the Disney characters were not meant to be included in EPCOT, they wanted to create a “Mickey” for EPCOT and determined that it should be a robot.  Smart I was created and then Smart II (called Tom RO2).  For World Showcase, there were 200 giant dolls, representing the various pavilions, that roamed the park, presumably frightening the children.

We were shown alternate names for The Land, including Land Alive, Naturescope, and (my favorite) Avant Gardens.

Slides shown at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

  • Did you know that Kitchen Kabaret’s star, Bonnie Appetit (who received a wedding ring in response to production notes), was originally supposed to have a co-star?  Do you know the co-star’s proposed name?
  • The Living Seas was meant to have a mascot, too.  Captain Saltyhinder, who had a pet mackerel (which looked like a tuna in a can, frankly).
  • Cranium Command was to have Reason (female) and Emotion (male).
  • Horizons, originally designed to be a sequel to the Carousel of Progress with Edison’s ghost making an appearance.

Slide shown at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

Bob Garner and Tim O’Day took the stage next, treating us to “Makin’ Memories:  Epcot on Film.”  First, we learned Garner’s very impressive resume.  He worked with Carol Burnett on the Carol Burnett Show and also wrote for All in the Family and M*A*S*H.  He’s a big circus fan and even created a model of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus (RBBBC), which is going into the RBBBC museum.  His Disney resume started at Disneyland with Jack Lindquist (Disneyland’s First President).  Bob Garner shared with us his favorite alternate phrase for EPCOT:  Every Person Comes Out Tired.

Bob Garner at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

Garner created the first movie for Epcot, “The Dream Called EPCOT” which turned out to be Walt’s last film.  The film was a behind-the-scenes look at EPCOT, using detailed hand-made models.  On of my favorite images from his “making of” clip was the American flag on top of Spaceship Earth.  Garner also showed us Figment’s screen test, in which he pointed out the advantages to Figment as a puppet over Figment as a figurine.   All you Figment fans can thank Bob Garner for the purple dragon you know and love.

Figment, the purple dragon, in a balloon at Epcot

Figment, the playful purple dragon, in Epcot's Journey Into Imagination with Figment attraction at the Imagination! pavilion © Disney Enterprises, Inc.


The session continued with a description of Circle Vision, including the number of cameras required (nine) and the work that went into making the wonderful films we still enjoy in World Showcase today.  We saw more behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Epcot and then, yet another “secret story.”  Garner wanted a great shot of Mickey on top of Spaceship Earth, but it was windy, so they tied his feet to the top of the ball and used helicopter to fly around taking pictures.  It wasn’t until the footage was being reviewed that Dick Nunis was able to point out that Michael Eisner did not want the Disney characters in EPCOT.  The footage was saved, though, and used in the campaign, anyway.

Slides shown at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

During the lunch break, we were given an opportunity to participate in group interviews with some of the morning’s speakers.  Here are some of the things we learned during the interview sessions:

  • When morale flagged, the Imagineers energized themselves by refusing to let Walt down.
  • Roy was a “make-it-happen” kind of guy, pitching in whenever and wherever to make sure Walt’s dreams came true.
  • Dedication and teamwork were the keys to building Epcot – the team worked 36 hours straight prior to the opening.
  • In the family preview party, the executives were touched to hear the construction workers bragging to their families about the work they’d done.
  • The code name Pluto was used so that people would think the project was about space, not Disney.
  • The king of Morocco sent eight artisans to work on the Morocco pavilion.  When a photo of the Morocco pavilion was shown to some Moroccan students, they argued for 10 minutes that the photo was of Marrakesh.

Keep watching for the final article in our coverage of D23’s Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration, where the afternoon sessions focused on the buildings, characters, and “magic” of Epcot.

Slides shown at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

Disclosure:  George Gensler received a complimentary media pass from Disney to attend and cover D23′s Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration, but all opinions expressed are those of the author.  For more family entertainment news, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About George Gensler

George Gensler is a copyrights specialist during the week and a runner on the weekends. She lives in New York City now, but has lived in five countries on three continents. She grew up traveling the world, but her official residence was in Southern California and every visit home included a trip to Disneyland. She has also visited every Disney Park around the world and sailed on board two Disney cruises. She threw in a visit to the Disney Family museum in San Francisco for good measure, and has had the Premier Disney Park Pass since its inception.