EPCOT at 40: A look back, forward, and behind the construction walls

From space travel to world travel, this unique theme park works to deliver on its ambitious promises in unexpected ways

Photo courtesy of Disney

October 1, 2022, marked the 40th anniversary of the opening of EPCOT, Disney’s second theme park in Central Florida. This anniversary comes during a broader celebration of the Walt Disney World Resort’s 50th anniversary and, as such, the recognition of EPCOT’s milestone has been met with little fanfare. But the history of EPCOT is a storied one, dating back to the 1960s when Walt Disney first shared his dreams of creating a futuristic community designed to showcase ingenuity and imagination. 

EPCOT’s name was meant to serve as an acronym for the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, but when Disney died in 1966, his ambitious project ultimately took a turn, becoming a traditional theme park with exploratory experiences designed to “edutain” audiences.

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For most of its existence, the park has had two sections: A Future World delving into topics such as technology, transportation, agriculture, and energy; and World Showcase, a world nations exposition offering a chance to explore the architecture, culture, and cuisine of a variety of countries.

As a teen visiting Walt Disney World on a family vacation in the ’90s, I was immediately enamored with the concept of cultural exploration. While I yearned to jet off to far-flung destinations someday, EPCOT’s sense of faux world travel appealed to my wanderlust. In college I was drawn to EPCOT again, working at the park’s Journey Into Imagination attraction (now the Imagination! pavilion). While the park was no longer striving to be an experimental society, it was here that I found a community of coworkers who became fast friends.

The large sphere of EPCOT lit up in rainbow colors for the festival of the arts in 2022
EPCOT hosts a variety of popular annual festivals. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Festivals and construction zones

Though EPCOT has changed in the 25 years since I first moved to Florida, it continues to be a special place, luring me back for regular visits. As the fourth-most-visited theme park in North America, it’s proven to be a favorite of many, largely due to the many successful seasonal festivals, which are a steady draw, especially for the 21-and-over crowd. 

The most popular of these is the EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival, which takes visitors on a culinary and booze-laden journey through six continents. Those interested in this year’s event should plan a visit any time before November 19. The park’s holiday event kicks off on November 25, followed by an art festival throughout January and February, which leads into a colorful, months-long flower fest that begins each March.

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Beyond the festivals, those who come to EPCOT today are greeted with signs of a work in progress. Before the pandemic, Disney announced a massive overhaul project that promised new attractions, shows, theming, and dedicated spaces for seasonal entertainment offerings. The COVID-19 pandemic brought much of this effort to a halt, prolonging the building already in progress, and shelving some planned developments indefinitely. Though work has slowly trudged on over the past few years, construction walls have become so prevalent within EPCOT that it’s been dubbed “Wall-cot” by fans and critics alike.

While walls remain in place throughout several areas, many others have come down with the opening of recent additions such as the Space 220 Restaurant, which impressively simulates dining inside a space station, and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, a family-friendly ride located in the park’s France pavilion. 

EPCOT’s newest attraction is a unique reverse-launch Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster with cars that rotate 360 dizzying degrees. This ride has proven so popular that the only way to ride it is to secure a coveted spot in an online virtual queue, which fills up quickly each morning. 

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Where progress meets the past

Though the status of many of the park’s paused projects remains unclear, Disney has continued to share details about some of what remains hidden behind those pesky construction walls, including the park’s reimagining from two themed lands to four: World Celebration, World Discovery, World Nature, and World Showcase. 

mickey, minnie, goofy and pluto costumed characters walk in front of the large silver epcot sphere
EPCOT’s original vision aspired to serve as a blueprint for the future. | Photo courtesy of Disney
a bronze statue of walt disney in front of epcot's large sphere
A statue honoring Walt Disney. | Photo courtesy of Disney

One of these lands, World Celebration, is currently scheduled for completion in late 2023, providing new green space and a statue dedicated to Disney, the man who started it all. The park’s World Nature land is also taking shape, with a Moana-themed walking trail peppered with playful water-based experiences, also scheduled to open in 2023. A new nighttime show in World Showcase that celebrates the Disney company’s 100th anniversary in 2023 is in development as well.

“EPCOT will always be in a state of becoming. It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future.”

– Walt Disney

But ask a die-hard EPCOT fan what they’re most excited to see in the year ahead, and their answer may surprise you. While many of the park’s flashy new additions capitalize on Disney’s popular intellectual property, bringing beloved characters to life in new ways, there’s one character whose appeal has continued to grow these past 40 years—and you can only find him at EPCOT. 

a line of popcorn buckets shaped like a purple dragon
Sales of limited Figment-shaped popcorn buckets earlier this year drew 8-hour-long waits. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Fans of Figment

Figment, an ever-youthful purple dragon, is the star of the Imagination! pavilion I worked at back in college, and while his signature ride has evolved throughout the years, Figment’s fans return time and time again to sing along to the attraction’s catchy “One Little Spark” song, coo over his holiday sweater each winter, and don everything from t-shirts to custom-made dresses and Mickey-shaped ears bearing his likeness. 

Figment’s lasting allure to generations of park goers is so strong that sales of limited-time Figment-shaped popcorn buckets famously drew 8-hour-long waits earlier this year. So, when company officials announced at the D23 Expo fan event that Figment character meet-and-greets would be coming to the park in late 2023, Disney fan sites lit up with enthusiasm.

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It’s the longstanding appeal of Figment and other edutaining mainstays of EPCOT, mixed with the park’s future-facing experiences and crowd-generating social festivals, that give this destination an unconventional sense of community. In a time when many people are stuck between nostalgia and a tomorrow that leans heavily on technology and a redefined sense of “togetherness,” EPCOT manages to deliver something for those looking forward, as well as those yearning to hold onto the past. 

Though the world today is unlike anything Disney could have imagined in his lifetime, EPCOT unexpectedly fulfills his promise of serving as a communal gathering place that’s constantly in a state of “becoming.”