A few days after the Keys to the Kingdom tour, I went on the Undiscovered Future World tour at Epcot, along with my brother and his girlfriend. My parents paid for all three of us to go; it was a really nice Christmas gift!
We had been told to meet in the Guest Relations lobby to the left of Spaceship Earth at 8:30 in the morning. We wanted to avoid a repeat of having almost been late for the previous tour, so we arrived half an hour early and were the first ones there. We got stickers to wear with our names handwritten on them. We also met our tourguide Will, who was wearing a plaid vest, and told him about the Keys tour we’d been on a few days earlier.
By the time the group had assembled and was ready to go, there were eighteen of us. Will was kind of short, which would make for a difficult time following him through the dense holiday park crowd. My brother kept calling him ‘Little Will’ behind his back.
“This tour is going to visit some backstage areas,” said Little Will, “but there’s going to be less backstage than the Keys to the Kingdom tour, and more stories about the history of Epcot.” Again, no cameras were allowed, but nobody seemed to have a problem with my notepad, so I took twenty-two pages of notes during the tour.
All things considered, I was less impressed with this tour than I had been with the first one, as many of Will’s stories would be basic lessons in Disney history and simple descriptions of the various attractions we passed, things that anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Disney and Epcot would already know well. And some of his ‘facts’ sounded a little too happy-shiny-revisionist-Disney and didn’t mesh with other things I knew. I’ll present what he said here as my notes reflect it, and I’ll try to be objective, but my opinions of the tour might still show through. (Again, I didn’t write down his exact wordings, so every quote I attribute to him is really just a paraphrase. And I can’t claim that any of the information below is my own, but if you make use of what I’ve written, please give me a little credit!)
“Epcot opened on October 1, 1982,” Will said as we all stood outside Guest Relations. He read the opening-day dedication to us, the one that’s on a plaque at the front of the park, and told us about the original concept for EPCOT and what Walt envisioned as the community of tomorrow. “The ‘C’ in ‘EPCOT’ meant either ‘City’ or ‘Community;’ Walt transposed the two words often. Originally this park was named EPCOT Center, because it was located at the literal physical center of Walt Disney World. But that’s no longer the case, so the word ‘Center’ has been dropped, and ‘Epcot’ is no longer all capitals, since it now stands for nothing.”
He went into an explanation of how Epcot (the city) was to be designed, with a PeopleMover to carry people short distances and a monorail to bring them long distances. There were to be three levels to the city, including one underground. “But in Florida you can’t go underground, or you’ll be flooded. So the plans had to change.”
“The World’s Fair expositions showcased technologies and culture pavilions much like Epcot does today. The centerpiece of the 1939 World’s Fair was a geodesic sphere much like Spaceship Earth. Ray Bradbury was one of the principal consultants on Spaceship Earth; the concept behind it is that Earth itself is a spaceship, floating through space. Spaceship Earth is covered with triangles made out of a metal named Alucobond. It’s durable and self-cleaning.” He passed a small sample around the group so we could examine it up close. “There are 11,324 triangles on the sphere. Notice that you keep dry underneath even when it’s raining; that’s because the gaps between the triangles are a gutter system which catches rainwater and puts it into the International Showcase lagoon. Spaceship Earth is 180 feet tall, and the Mickey arm is over 200 feet at its tallest point; with that height the arm is required to have a flashing light at the top to warn airplanes, but that light is designed so that it doesn’t look out-of-place among all the other lights up there. In contrast, the Tower of Terror is only 199 feet tall, so that it isn’t required to have a flashing light.
“The ‘Epcot’ sign atop the arm is covered with a shimmering material named ‘starfetti.’ There are over two hundred thousand starfetti on the sign. Each one is on a pin to let it turn back and forth. If one falls off, there’s another one behind it, so that we don’t keep having to send people up there to repair it.
“Spaceship Earth is the most visited attraction at Walt Disney World.”
We moved into the park a little more, and walked through the left-hand Innoventions building. “Innoventions was created in 1993 as a way of mixing education and entertainment. It’s called ‘edutainment.’ The word ‘innoventions’ itself is a ‘Disney term,’ a made-up word, like ‘starfetti.’ It’s a combination of ‘innovation,’ which is to take something that already exists and make it better, and ‘invention,’ which is to create a new thing. Before Innoventions, this used to be Communicore. Communicore was a dry, sterile place. Innoventions is more hands-on.”
We passed by the Segway exhibit. “Walt Disney World has more Segways in use than any other company.
“Over here you’ll find the House of Innoventions, which has its roots in Disneyland’s House of the Future. That exhibit showcased fantastic futuristic technologies such as automatic dishwashers and phones which dialed themselves. But eventually the present caught up to the future, and the exhibit was torn down. But the House of the Future was made entirely of plastic, so the wrecking ball just bounced off it, and it had to be cut apart piece by piece.”
We stopped in front of a wall decorated with milestones from Disney’s past, and Will spoke about some of the technologies developed over the year, and ended by pointing out the little Tom Morrow 2.0 figure waving to us.
“This is the Innoventions Fountain,” Will told us as we returned outside and stood beside the large fountain in the center of the park. “It’s also called the Fountain of Nations. At 120 feet wide and 180 feet long, it’s one of the largest fountains on Walt Disney World property. It holds 150.000 gallons of water and can spray 30,000 gallons per minute. It contains about 150 jets, each of which can shoot fifty gallons of water a hundred fifty feet in the air.
“On opening day, representatives from many nations poured twenty-two jars of water from all around the world into the fountain. This is similar to the way Disneyland opened its Small World attraction. Walt himself poured a jar of water from the Mississippi River into the Small World waterway on its opening day.”
We slipped into the back hallway of Innoventions West, into a large area which was empty except for some tables and chairs. Large pictures on the wall represented some of the technologies which Disney had developed. And this is where Will covered lots of things I already knew. “1923 was the beginning of the Walt Disney company … it began with the Alice Comedies … Walt originally created a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but the rights to it were taken away from him, so on the train ride back from New York to LA, …” And so on and so forth. Much of this even duplicated what was said in the ‘history lesson’ part of the Keys tour the other day.
“Steamboat Willie was the first Mickey cartoon that came out. Plane Crazy was the first they worked on. … Walt invented the multiplane camera. … Audioanimatronics started with the Buddy Ebsen nine-inch dancing man, which is currently on display over at the Disney/MGM Studios. It was restored, and it probably still works, but none of the Imagineers wanted to turn it on, so the last time it operated was many decades ago. … Later, Walt developed Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln for the 1964 World’s Fair. … Disneyland was built on about 160 acres, but Walt wanted more, so there are about 30,500 acres at Walt Disney World today. … Here is a photo of the original plan for the WDW property which Walt televised in his first public announcement of it. … A reporter from the Orlando Sentinel broke the news about Walt’s plans, and when asked how she figured it out, she replied, ‘Walt knew how to pronounce Kissimmee.’ … One of the original ideas was to build a huge dome over the entire property to shelter it, but that was quickly dismissed.”
I didn’t follow this history lesson very closely. It was dull. I wanted to know more about the attractions at Epcot, not the background of the company! But I still scribbled some notes into my notebook, and Will noticed and said, “I see Brian’s the only one taking notes. You’ll all have to copy off him, ‘cos there will be a test later.” Ha, ha.
After a while, we got up and headed towards the Living Seas. On the way we stopped by a couple of concentric rings on the pavement behind Innoventions West. “This is the Inventors’ Circle,” Will told us. “It was created in 1989 during a renovation of Journey Into Imagination. There are five circles, and the plaques around the circles are memorials to discoveries and inventions throughout the ages. Outer discoveries build on the inner ones. For example, the innermost ring contains things like ‘Fire’ and ‘Alphabet,’ and if you go out from ‘Alphabet,’ then the outermost ring contains ‘World Wide Web.'”
The Living Seas
“Walt had a fascination with the sea,” said Will, “and the Living Seas reflects that.” I was distracted from his lecture by a Finding Nemo display in front of the building. It was a small backdrop on which models of the fish characters were hanging, some part of it was blowing a stream of soap bubbles into the air, and in front of it two people in kelp walkaround costumes were dancing around and signing autographs for kids.
“Most of the attractions here in Future World have a ‘water feature,'” Will said. “The water feature here at Living Seas is the wave that splashes against the rocks in front of the building every couple of seconds. The water feature for Spaceship Earth is the big fountain behind it. You’ll see the water features for other attractions as we visit them.” (Actually, I noticed during the tour that each Future World attraction area has a ‘water feature’ except the two new ones, Test Track and Mission: SPACE.)
“The outside appearance of Living Seas is designed to make you think of being under the ocean. The building itself is in the shape of a nautilus shell. The railings are wavy, and the plants look like seaweed.
“Now I’m going to bring you into a backstage area. No pictures, please. You’re now all honorary castmembers.”
He led us around the right side of the Living Seas building, towards the Coral Reef restaurant, then into a door to the left just outside the restaurant’s entrance. “This is the Living Seas Conference Center,” he told us as he brought us into a lobby which looked like it was permanently trapped in the year 1985, what with its mirrored walls and oversized desk and a TV set built into the vinyl seating along the wall. “The Living Seas was built in a partnership with United Technologies. But they recently dropped their partnership, so now this VIP lounge is vacant. It’s kind of like the Victorian apartment that Walt had built for himself above the firehouse at Disneyland, which he originally used to greet visiting stars and dignitaries; it’s now vacant, so it’s used for all sorts of purposes.”
He continued to lead us through the United Technologies area. The hallways were narrow and twisty, and the place was barren and deserveted; the whole decor made me feel like I’d just stepped into a time portal back to the mid-eighties. Finally he brought us into a very nicely-appointed VIP lounge done up in the same motif as the restaurant, with large windows looking into one of the fishtanks, and a piano with transparent sides, and several dining tables. “We’re above the Coral Reef restaurant right now,” said Will.
“These windows are held in place by the water pressure on the other side, plus a little leak sealant around the edges. Drain the tank, and these windows would probably fall right off. They’re six inches thick at the top and eight inches thick at the bottom, and they’re made of acrylic, because if they were glass then you’d feel like you were looking at the fish through a coke bottle due to the refraction.
“The aquarium here at the Living Seas is 203 feet across and 27 feet deep. Here’s a recipe for making your own aquarium: start with over six million gallons of water, and add 27 truckloads of salt plus some trace elements, and two thousand fish of 65 different species. Five million gallons are in the aquarium itself, while one million gallons are in the filtration system, which takes about two or three hours to treat water. We have 42 people who work here; 17 of them are full-time dedicated to maintaining the aquarium, while the rest are interns, mostly studying marine life.
“You might remember that the Living Seas used to have some slow-moving seats that people would ride past the aquarium before they got into the attraction itself. Those were removed because they were so slow that people were standing up and getting out of them and risking hurting themselves.
“The coral in the aquarium is Disney coral, not real coral. That’s because harvesting coral is illegal.
“The sharks are fed by dropping their food into the water and banging the side of the tank with a stick to call them. We don’t want to have people feeding the sharks directly, because we don’t want the sharks to equate ‘human’ with ‘feeding.’
“The dolphins are kept in a separate tank away from the other fish because they’re too strong, they might hurt the other fish when they’re just trying to play with them. There is a dolphin tour which involves swimming with the dolphins here. I’m told the guests are instructed that they can’t go after the dolphins to pet them, they have to let the dolphins come to them, because the dolphins are territorial.”
After gazing at the sea turtles and the manta rays for a while, we departed for The Land.
“Walt wanted to make sure that any property he developed preserved one-third of the area for nature. Here at Walt Disney World we’re doing better than that; two-thirds of our area is still nature. Walt also did his best to work nature into his parks and keep it alive.
“The building for The Land, with its transparent sloping top, is supposed to look like a cross between a greenhouse and a volcano. The red-and-black paved walkways leading up to The Land’s entrance are meant to look like a lava flow. There are intricate mosaics on the walls to the right and the left of the building’s entrance; they use 139,000 tiles, including some made of fourteen-karat gold. The mosaics were done by a family which is famous for doing artwork like this. The mosaics on the right side and the left side are completely identical tile-for-tile, except for a single tile that’s different on the right side: instead of being gold, it’s green. It’s the birthstone of the family’s firstborn son. That was the family’s way of signing their work.” I didn’t catch the name of the family who made the mosaics. If you want to look for the tile, it’s in one of the gold sections to the right. Look at The Land sign on the wall — I think it’s a bit to the left of the ‘T’, and slightly above it. It’s very small and dark green and it looks more like a missing tile at first.
“All of the veggies grown in the greenhouses here at The Land are used in the restaurant inside.
“The attractions here in The Land have all changed since they first opened. Food Rocks used to be Kitchen Cabaret, but it was changed because kids didn’t know what a ‘cabaret’ was. The Lion King show here used to be Symbiosys, but that was dry and boring, so it was changed. Living With The Land used to be Listen To The Land.
“There are several balloons hanging from the ceiling here in The Land. The largest one in the center is meant to be Mother Earth. Each side has a painting of the sun on it; the sun painting on the side facing the restaurant depicts the sun as a female figure, to represent foreign cultures which see the sun as female. The four other balloons represent continents and seasons. One is Asia and summer, one is the Americas and winter, one is Egypt and autumn, and one is Europe and spring. Also notice that the largest balloon has ‘raindrops’ beneath it, and on the ground below is a fountain. That’s the water element of The Land.
“The umbrellas over the tables in the cafeteria area are decorated with moons and suns as depicted by various cultures.
“Okay, now I’m going to give you all a half-hour break so you can get something to eat if you’d like. Meet in front of Food Rocks at eleven.”
While people dispersed, I asked Will what he knew about Food Rocks being closed soon to make way for Soarin’, which is already being built in the area between The Land and Imagination. “Food Rocks will become a queue area for Soarin’,” said Will. “I don’t believe they’ve decided yet exactly what it will be named, whether they’re going to have ‘over California’ in the name.”
My brother, his girlfriend, and I got some muffins from one of the cafeteria counters. I took a peek into the doomed Food Rocks attraction, at its displays touting the benefits of a good nutrition including plenty of grains and starches and carbohydrates, and I couldn’t help but think that Atkins killed it.
At eleven we all re-gathered together and Will handed us over to Brent, who took us through the doors used by the Behind The Seeds tour, into the castmember area for the greenhouses. “There are thirteen interns who work here in the greenhouses,” Brent said. “There are four greenhouses on show, plus another six or seven in the back.”
But I found it a little hard to pay attention to him; I was more interested in looking the other direction, towards the construction going up for Soarin’. It looked like they had some of the building’s internal frame put up, but there wasn’t enough yet for me to figure out what was what.
Then Brent led us inside the greenhouse, to an area with the plants where we could see the Living With The Land boats drift by. I waved to one of them. The people on it waved back and snapped pictures.
“This is an allspice tree,” said Brent. “And here are some plants being grown by hydroponics and aeroponics. The roots of these plants are being constantly sprayed with water. If we lost power in here for twenty minutes, they would dry out and die. And this is a sensitive plant,” he said as he showed us a mimosa much more alive than any I’ve grown here at home, with lots of delicate starburst pink flowers. It made me sad that my own mimosa keeps dying.
“And this is rosemary,” Brent continues, snipping off a leaf to pass around so we could smell it. “And this is hot pepper, and the red peppers on it are very hot! And here’s a spearmint plant.” He snipped off another leaf to pass around. “You can do hydroponics like this at home if you wanted to. It’s not very hard, and it can produce a lot of food. This one greenhouse alone produces twenty-five to thirty tons of food each year.”
We left The Land and headed straight into Imagination, into the shop entrance, then took a right turn past a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign and walked up the staircase into the upstairs area. It was a large room, empty but for lots of big round tables and chairs. The transparent wall gave us lots of sunlight and a nice view of the monorail going past.
“The Imagination building was originally supposed to be used for The Land. That’s why it has a similar transparent top. But plans were changed while the park was being built, so this building was left empty for a while until they figured out what to do with it.
“There are three attractions in Imagination. One is Journey Into Imagination, which was renovated a while ago and Figment was removed, but there was so much of an outcry from people who love Figment that it was renovated again and Figment was put back in. The second attraction is Imageworks. This upstairs lounge is where Imageworks used to be. You would ride Journey Into Imagination, then come up the escalator into this area. Problem was, people didn’t realize there was anything up here, so they were passing the escalator. So Imageworks was moved downstairs. The third attraction is the Magic Eye Theater. It’s shown three shows so far: it opened with ‘Journeys,’ which showed a bunch of 3D movies including a neat one where a little bow blows petals off a flower. Then came ‘Captain Eo,’ and today we have ‘Honey I Shrunk The Audience.’
“Imagination used to be more dry than it is now, but over the years it was repainted with brighter rainbow colors, and fountains were added outside. One of the fountains is a backwards waterfall, and the other is a leapfrog fountain where water bounces back and forth. The person who designed these fountains is named Mark Fuller. He is now the CEO of a company named Water Entertainment Technologies, or ‘WET.’ The leapfrog fountain is his favorite.
“Many of the technologies used here in Imagination and elsewhere in Epcot were designed by the Disney Imagineers. They were originally named ‘Illusioneers,’ and Walt put them into a separate private company named ‘WED Enterprises’ — now WDI, ‘Walt Disney Imagineering’ — so that he could keep secrets from his shareholders about what sorts of new technologies he was working on.
Will pointed out one of the monorails going by. “The current monorail trains here at Walt Disney World are the Mark 6 models, which were added in the early nineties. Walt got the idea for a monorail after a trip to Germany with his wife. They rode a suspended under-the-rail monorail, but Lillian got sick from the way it swung outwards on each turn in the track. So later they were driving and they passed under an above-rail monorail, and Walt followed it all the way back to the station, and asked around to find out more about it. He brought the idea for the monorail back with him, but whereas the German monorail was boxy, he designed his monorails to be streamlined like a rocketship. His philosophy was that the future is not to be feared, and that new technology has to look attractive. There are twelve monorails here at Walt Disney World, and the track is between 7 and 65 feet above the ground.”
Will noticed me getting all of this information down into my notes. “This is going to be on the test,” he said. Ha, ha.
He pointed out a small potted ‘Hidden Mickey’ tree in the corner of the room: it was trimmed into the shape of a sphere, with two smaller pom-pom-like branches above it.
Then we left, but I hung back until the last moment; while everyone else was filing down the stairs, I raced around and peeked into each doorway upstairs. This was my general strategy whenever Will would bring us into an area that’s off-limits to normal guests: I would make sure I was right on top of him so I’d be the first one into an area with him, close by so I could hear everything he said and write it down, and then as we left the area I would lag behind and explore as much as I could while he wasn’t looking.
Universe of Energy
We walked from Imagination all the way over to Universe of Energy, which is probably as far as you can go between two attractions in Future World. The dense crowds didn’t make it easy to follow Little Will, so I stuck to him as well as I could.
As we walked we passed by two walkarounds I hadn’t seen before: Space Mickey and Space Goofy, dressed up in their Mission: SPACE costumes, signing autographs.
Finally we re-congregated by the castmember gate to the right of Universe of Energy. Will opened it and let us through, and we gathered around him beside the building’s side door. “The Universe of Energy was renovated in 1996 to add Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye. It’s all about Ellen’s dream where she thinks she’s a contestant on Jeopardy, and Bill Nye is there to help her, and they travel back in time to see the dinosaurs…” Yeah, yeah, all of us know this stuff, tell us something interesting!
Eventually he got around to the good stuff. “There are 200 trees in the ride, and 30 dinosaurs. The painted backdrop is 513 feet long.” He passed around a square sample of thick rubbery dinosaur skin. “There are 2,000 solar panels on the top of the building, with a total of 80,000 photovoltaic cells which together provide about 15% of the power for the ride,” he said as he let us in the side door into a hallway, and retrieved a spare solar panel to show us. The panel itself was big and bulky, probably a bit more than three feet tall, and I guess it had forty individual circles of solar cells on it, though I didn’t count.
“The shape of this building is meant to look like a prism or an energy wave. Note also the ‘water feature’ out front, the pool.
“On the other side of that door is the ride itself.” Dinosaurs rumbled enticingly from behind it. “But we’re not allowed to go through there while the ride is in operation, so we’re going to go back outside instead.” Aww!
Wonders of Life
“That strand of DNA weighs 25 tons and is 76 feet tall,” Will told us as we stood in front of the Wonders of Life. “I don’t know whether the building is supposed to look like anything in particular, but *I* think it looks like a white blood cell, and the fixture hanging from the ceiling inside looks like a cell nucleus. But that’s not official or anything. The attractions inside are arranged to look like a health fair.”
He then, incongruously, went into a description of Disneyland’s old Upjohn Pharmacy, which went away in 1970. “They gave out free samples of vitamins,” said Will, “and that was the only place at Disney that you could ever get anything for free. They even had a jar of live leeches on display, because that’s what doctors used to use in old times, to drain blood from patients.”
We went inside the building. “The attractions in here are Cranium Command, Frontiers of Medicine, The Making Of Me, and Body Wars. Body Wars is like Disneyland’s old Journey Into Innerspace which itself had the same sort of ride system as the Haunted Mansion does.”
He pointed out a Hidden Mickey in the Body Wars painting. It’s a detailed profile of Mickey’s head, but its location is too complicated to explain here, so I found a picture of it for you instead.
We stood in front of Mission Space, and Will told us about Walt’s old TV series and an episode titled ‘Man of Space’ or something like that (I didn’t catch the name) which laid the groundwork for Walt’s interest in space exploration, and then about the Mission To The Moon attraction at Disneyland. “That ride had a very long line on July 20 1969 during the real moon landing.” He mentioned the Mission To Mars attraction in WDW’s Magic Kingdom which later became Alien Encounter, and which is currently being made over into a new ride named Stitch’s Great Escape.
He then proceeded to outline the plot of the Mission Space ride, giving away what happens during it. D’oh! Not that it’s a big secret or anything, but on my first time through I thought it was kinda cool to not know what was going to happen.
My brother spoke up. “We were hoping to get some Fastpasses to this, can you hook us up?” Will said, “Let me go check, I’ll be right back.” He returned after a minute. “The bad news is that the Fastpasses are already gone for the entire day. The good news is that I managed to get you all re-entry passes. You can use these any time during the day, just go to the Fastpass line.”
My brother joked, “Wow, these are great, d’you think we can sell them?”
Will didn’t catch the joke. “You could go to jail for that,” he said, somewhat indignant. My brother and I rolled our eyes.
Will led us to the left of Test Track, down the service road and through a gate. We stood backstage under the track while he tried to speak, though a car loudly whooshing by every couple of seconds kept interrupting him.
“Test Track has its roots (*whoosh*) in Disneyland’s Autopia ride. Originally (*whoosh*) Autopia had no center rail to guide (*whoosh*) the cars. People were ramming (*whoosh*) other cars on the track, and turning around (*whoosh*) and driving the wrong way, or even (*whoosh*) trying to run down the cast members who were there to help (*whoosh*) people out of the cars at the end of the (*whoosh*) ride. There were forty (*whoosh*) cars in the ride, and by the end of (*whoosh*) the first week, only two (*whoosh*) of them still worked; the rest (*whoosh*) had taken too much damage. (*whoosh*) So the center rail was added.”
Okay, you get an idea of how annoying it was that he had to keep stopping talking every couple of seconds. I’ll stop with with the whooshes now.
“Test Track started with 40 cars, but that number was brought down to 26 cars to allow enough space between the cars on the track so that the safety mechanisms can be effective in case of a problem. Each car has three onboard computers, and each computer is powerful enough to power the entire Magic Kingdom. Each car drives 365 miles every day. The tires originally used on the Test Track cars were under so much stress that they would fall apart in a matter of days, so Disney worked with Goodyear to improve them.
“Test Track is known as a ‘prototype ride.’ That is, it’s new technology, there’s no other ride like it at the Disney parks, so if anything goes wrong it’s up to the people here to figure out solutions. But now it has a sister attraction, Journey To The Center Of The Earth at Tokyo Disneyland, so they can ask our people here if they have any problems.
“The track supports are on ball bearings so that they can give a little as a car goes overhead. That’s why the track sways. Don’t worry, it’s supposed to do that.”
We went further into the backstage area around the east side of the park, behind Test Track, and we saw the garage where people were doing maintenance on some of the Test Track cars. The cars were sitting on mini sections of track which were on trolleys, which themselves were on a track which went from the ride into the garage, to facilitate moving the cars back and forth. The maintenance area itself didn’t look all that different from a regular auto mechanic garage.
We were behind Test Track. Immediately ahead of us was the back of the Mexico pavilion. “You might be surprised at how close these two buildings are back here, when in the park there’s a considerable walk between them,” said Will. “All of the international areas can be accessed directly from backstage. That’s so that we don’t have castmembers in German costumes walking through the Mexico area, for example.”
Our flock strolled behind Will as he led us across the asphalt, past a couple of delivery trucks, into a building marked ‘Epcot Cast Services.’ “There are fifty-five thousand castmembers who work here at Walt Disney World,” Will told us. “Five thousand of them work here at Epcot. Worldwide, Disney has more than a hundred thousand people working for it.”
The Cast Services building looked like a small company of its own. The area outside the front door was sheltered by a roof, and televisions above were tuned into CNN, though nobody else was standing there to watch them. Inside, the building was full of busy people and corporate newsletters tacked to the walls and signs pointing to what was where and a Christmas tree in the hallway. “Down that hall is the wardrobe department which keeps all the costumes used here. And down this way is ATLAS, All Things Labor And Support, which is our HR department. Company D is the company store where castmembers can buy things such as park tickets for their family. There’s even a notary public right there on site.”
Will led past a “Partners in Excellence” display which listed people who had been recognized by their teammates for consistently going above and beyond the call of duty, and into a side hallway whose walls had been painted with lots of Epcot scenes and Disney characters. “These paintings were all done by the various departments here at Epcot, as a way of being recognized and reminding people what they do.”
We left the building and walked past a bunch of trailers and pre-fab buildings. “This one is the library. There are a bunch of books and movies in there which castmembers can check out.”
He then brought us into a trailer where a conference room was set up for us, with tables and chairs and a small fridge with bottles of water and juice. “This is the Cultural Diversity conference room. Have a seat,” Will said. “And put away your notes, Brian. It’s time for a test. Ha, ha, just kidding.” Ha, ha.
“I’d like to introduce you to Marisol. She’s here from Mexico City, and she works at the Mexico area.”
Marisol gave us a short presentation about what it was like to represent her country here at Epcot. “I am here on a special ‘cultural representative’ visa,” she told us. She explained the process of how she came to be auditioned and hired for her job here in the Mexico area, and how she and other castmembers are certified to be allowed to wear language pins under their nametags signifying what languages they’re fluent in.
Then she began telling us what it was like to live in Mexico: the language, the people, the traditions. At length she stopped, and asked, “Any questions?”
The entire room was glassy-eyed. This really had nothing to do with Epcot. We weren’t seeing anything interesting. Marisol was nice, but if we wanted to know about Mexico, we’d go to a travel agency. This was just killing time.
“Anyone? Any questions?” Marisol repeated. “Oh, well, then let me tell you about the food we eat in Mexico. It’s really not that different from the food we sell here in the Mexico area at Epcot.”
A while later: “Anything else? Any questions? Anyone? Okay, then let me tell you more about our language.”
And later still: “Any more questions? Anyone? Anything else I can tell you about Mexico?” Silence. Fortunately, Will finally woke up and brought an end to the cultural lesson, and we said goodbye to Marisol, and continued around the outside of the International Showcase, behind China, towards the marina where the fireworks barges are stored.
We passed by a building with a sign which read “Pargo Service – Department 84M.” (Near as I can figure, a pargo is Disney’s name for an electric golf cart. I don’t know why they don’t call them ‘golf carts.’) We also passed by the double-decker bus used for the characters to drive around Epcot and give a show in a few locations. It was double-parked.
The marina is a small inlet, connected to the International Showcase Lagoon by a waterway which goes under the drawbridge by China. The fireworks barges were docked there, as were two Friendships whose engines were being worked on by a few mechanics.
“I believe the fireworks display here at Epcot has only been cancelled eight times in its history,” Will said. “It was introduced in 1988 as ‘Illuminations,’ and in 1999 it was changed and renamed ‘Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.’ There are three parts to the current show; the first is titled ‘Chaos,’ then comes ‘Order,’ and then ‘Meaning.’ There are about twenty-four hundred special effects used in the show, and about a thousand shells are fired off during it. There are also three laser lights used in the show. One is mounted atop Mexico, one is on Canada, and the third is atop America.
“The huge flame during the show is created by a barge known as the ‘inferno barge.’ When the barge carrying the Earth globe is brought from here into the lagoon each afternoon, it has to be turned so that Hawaii is facing towards the China area in order for it to fit past the drawbridge.”
There wasn’t much more to see in the area, so it was time to end the tour. Will brought us behind the China area again and through a door, and suddenly we were inside the China shop. The door we’d just come through was labeled “Emergency Exit.”
“You all saw the Leave A Legacy plaques as you came into the park,” Will said. “Epcot is Walt Disney’s legacy.
“Oh, wait, I almost forgot.” Will reached into his fanny pack and presented each of us with a silver pin in the shape of an upside-down triangle, on which was printed ‘Undiscovered Future World.’ It didn’t look as nice as the Key pin I got on the other tour.
“Also, for having taken this tour, you have the privilege of being able to watch the Illuminations fireworks show tonight from a special viewing area between Italy and Germany. The show starts at 9:30” (that’s the holiday time — the rest of the year it starts at nine) “so show up at the viewing area fifteen minutes early, and just give your name and the castmember there will let you past the rope. In addition, for any of you who would like to have lunch at the restaurant here in China, I can get you a twenty percent discount.”
My brother liked these perks. So the three of us followed Will into the restaurant and he told the greeter to give us a discount. But the place was extremely busy, so it was a little while before we were seated, and then after we ordered it was something like forty-five minutes until our food arrived! The waitress apologized profusely and said something about the chef having to cook the different kinds of rice in a specific order, because if he cooks the fried rice before he cooks the white rice then the white rice would get some of the fried rice oil on it. Or something like that. We didn’t quite catch the gist of it, but my brother talked her into dropping one of our entrees from the bill while still giving us our twenty percent discount, and it was very tasty food, so all’s well that ends well.
The rest of the day was much fun. We wanted to ride Test Track, but the wait time sign listed a 120 minute wait for single-riders and a TWO HUNDRED MINUTE WAIT for standby, so we said, “Um, nope.” Instead, we skipped past the line for Mission Space (which by then looked more like an unruly mob) and showed our re-entry passes and walked right onto the ride. Ahh, it’s nice to be special!
We watched the Candlelight Processional that evening, and then we showed up early at our special fireworks viewing area. We gave our names to the castmember and he let us in, but before he could close the rope again some other family’s kid gleefully dashed in to join us. The castmember had to fetch him and explain to him that this was a special area reserved for tour people, and that he wasn’t allowed in.
My brother really got a kick out of being someplace that ‘normal’ people weren’t allowed to go. 🙂
And then two or three other folks from the tour showed up and joined us, and we talked about the tour and about some of the other Disney tours. There’s one named ‘Backstage Magic’ which covers the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Studios, and I want to go on that one. I also want to take the tour which begins at the train shed in the morning and rides the train into the Magic Kingdom on its first morning run.
And then the fireworks show began, and I’ve rarely had as good a view as I did from that area; and as soon as it started the castmember let down the rope and a bunch of kids flocked around us and commented on every colorful explosion and sparkle.
It was a terrific end to a terrific day.