Epcot: You either love it (drinking around the world!), or you think of it as “that educational theme park.”
Walt Disney’s original idea for EPCOT—the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—was a place where people would actually live and work, developing innovative solutions for community problems. Walt died before his vision could be realized, and no one at the company felt comfortable taking on this behemoth of a project. Instead, they retooled the park entirely, brainstorming many different ideas about the direction it should take.
Disney Imagineers have long maintained that Epcot is the result of actually pushing together two of the theme park models that came out of those brainstorm sessions—a futuristic, technology-based park and a permanent World’s Fair park. But the family of Robert M. Jaffray, a U.S. Air Force veteran from Ohio who died in 2000, says that one of those ideas didn’t belong to Disney.
They contend that Jaffray came up with the idea for a “Miniature Worlds” theme park back in the 1950s and pitched the concept to Disney in 1963. Similarities, they claimed, include large globe-like structures at the entrance, outdoor amphitheaters, impressive flower gardens, various pavilions, a plethora of countries, indigenous landscaping, and corporate financing. But not all of the ideas for the parks were so similar. Jaffray’s “Miniature Worlds” plans were truly that: miniature. He intended for each country to be represented by buildings that were approximately waist-high.
Marty Sklar, one of the Imagineers who spearheaded the Epcot project after Walt’s death, denied seeing the Miniature Worlds drawings or ever meeting Robert Jaffray at all. Sklar cited other sources of inspiration for most of the “World Showcase” ideas. The idea for a giant sphere centerpiece, for example, came from the New York World’s Fairs, and eventually became a geodesic dome developed by Buckminster Fuller.
The lawsuit came to an end in 2004 when a judge eventually agreed with Sklar and Disney, ruling that the ideas were not close enough to merit any financial compensation for Jaffray. “While the Epcot rendering and the Miniature Worlds painting contain similar ideas, both works express these ideas dissimilarly,” she wrote.
But that’s not to say that Disney hasn’t gotten in trouble for using theme park ideas without giving proper credit. In 2000, a jury awarded $240 million to two businessmen who pitched Disney an idea for “Sports Island” in the late 1980s. Though the company rejected the idea, Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando opened up in 1997 with a very similar layout, concept, and business plan to what the two men had originally suggested. They ended up settling out of court.
September 27, 2008 was a memorable day in Disney history. On that Saturday, patrons at the Adventurers Club—a nightclub at Walt Disney World’s Pleasure Island complex—witnessed the final public performance at the venue. Considered more than an ordinary watering hole, the nightclub was filled with surprises, including animatronics, live performances, audience participation, club chants, and magical drinks.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Disney made the decision to close Pleasure Island and its bevy of bars, revamping the area to make it more family-friendly with shopping and restaurants. If you miss the Adventurers Club—or want to know what you missed out on—read on for a little behind-the-scenes trivia.
1. THE IDEA CAME FROM A THEME PARTY HELD BY A DISNEY IMAGINEER.
According to Craig McNair Wilson, who developed the shows and trained the actors, the idea for an old-explorer-themed hideaway came from “our shared love of the world of the pith helmet and all that circled around it.” A party held by Imagineer Joe Rohde, called “The Last Days of the Raj,” helped nudge the idea along. Another major influence was a play called Tamara, a show based in the 1930s that allowed theatergoers to physically follow characters from room to room in an Italian Villa (really an old Elks lodge).
“There’s also more than a pinch of Rick’s Cafe,” Wilson said.
2. THE ORIGINAL CONCEPT FEATURED BAR PATRONS SIPPING COCKTAILS NEXT TO GHOSTS.
Had the design been executed as originally planned, guests could have pulled up a stool next to a spectre. The “Illusions Bar” would have utilized the Pepper’s Ghost optical effect to fade ghosts in and out of the atmosphere. It was likely never realized because the whole Pleasure Island concept ended up being over budget, and certain details had to be sacrificed. Another idea that got the axe? A room where a gypsy named Madame Zenobia would tell fortunes and read palms.
3. IT WAS ONCE HOME TO THE MISSING LINK.
The early days of the Adventurers Club included a character named Marcel, who was referred to as the Missing Link. Part gorilla, part human, Marcel could be seen (but not heard—he didn't speak) doing chores and helping the performers. He was eventually deemed unnecessary and replaced with an Amelia Earhart-inspired character named Samantha Sterling.
4. THE HERO CHARACTER "EMIL BLEEHALL" WAS SEMI-AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL.
Created by head writer Roger Cox, explorer Emil Bleehall was meant to mirror his own creative journey. According to Cox's widow, Sybil:
"The Adventurers Club's unlikely hero, Emil Bleehall, is based on a long-standing semi autobiographical character Roger created. He is the funny little guy from Ohio who wins over the higher authorities and gains their respect and admiration with his seemingly awkward modest but ultimately unique crowd-pleasing talents. Roger felt Emil's struggle at the Adventurers Club paralleled his own story at Disney getting his Adventurers Club ideas off the ground and accepted there."
Here's Emil in action:
5. A THEMED FIREWORKS SHOW WAS NEVER REALIZED.
The back story was that the founder of the club and island, Merriweather Pleasure, had once owned a steamboat that had been blown up by Pleasure’s greedy cousins. Every night, the ghost ship would appear on the water surrounding Pleasure Island and re-enact the spectacular explosion of yesteryear before disappearing back into the night. Presumably, the idea was canned when the nightly New Year's Eve bash became Pleasure Island's big draw instead.
6. THEY DISCUSSED AN EXPANSION IF THE CLUB BECAME A BIG HIT.
"The physical design of the club grew out of Chris Carradine’s brilliant and dangerous mind," Wilson said. "Chris explained it to me on a series of cocktail napkins, late one night in NYC." Carradine envisioned that the club would have "twice as many rooms as . . . guests will ever see." Wilson suggested that they would add or open additional rooms after the club proved successful. "New treasures, now arriving from around the globe... Adventurers Club: bigger, wilder, crazier. Kungaloosh!"
7. “FINGERS” ZAMBEZI WAS INSPIRED BY ANOTHER PHANTOM PIANO PLAYER.
The team that concepted many of the club’s special effects were big fans of the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, another exclusive hangout featuring mysterious characters and magical encounters. They borrowed the idea for Fingers Zambezi, an invisible organ player, from the Magic Castle’s “Irma,” a ghost that not only plays the piano, but even takes requests.
8. THE JEKYLL AND HYDE CLUB WAS CREATED BY A FAN.
According to Wilson, the Jekyll and Hyde Club in New York, a similarly interactive restaurant but with a Gothic theme, was created by a stockbroker who was enamored with the Adventurers Club. "They even hired away several of the actors I had trained from Streetmosphere at Disney-MGM and Adventurers Club," Wilson said. "When I met the manager, he said, 'It is based on and totally inspired by the Adventurers Club.'"
9. THERE WAS AN OFFICIAL NEWSLETTER.
Adventurers Club members were so beloved that fans from around the world wrote them letters. At first, cast members wrote back, in character. But soon, they were receiving so much mail that show writer Chris Oyen created a four-page newsletter, based on a real newsletter from a real turn-of-the-century explorers’ club, instead. To make it seem as if Adventurers Almanac had really been around for decades, volume numbers were not sequential. That tactic drove collectors nuts—they thought they were missing copies.
10. A NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN CHARACTER APPEARED ON THE FINAL NIGHT.
During performances and conversations, club members often referenced a fellow explorer named Sutter Bestwick. Like Norm’s wife Vera on Cheers, Sutter never actually showed his face—until the last night. He even inducted new members:
11. SOME OF THE PROPS HAVE FOUND A SECOND LIFE.
The club was packed full of artifacts and knickknacks, some of which were dispersed to other Disney projects when the place closed. A selection of the tribal masks are now on display at the Explorers Club at Hong Kong Disneyland.
12. YOU CAN SPOT REFERENCES TO THE CLUB AT VARIOUS OTHER LOCATIONS ON DISNEY PROPERTY.
The Adventurers Club gang may be gone, but they’re certainly not forgotten. For example, if you scan the walls at Trader Sam’s tiki bar at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, you may notice some framed correspondence from club members Pamelia Perkins and Samantha Sterling. An avian "resident" of the club, Scooter the peacock, still resides in the vicinity—he's displayed at a Downtown Disney store called D Street.
There are also references to other members in the Jungle Cruise queue, and there’s a dish called “Kungaloosh!” at the new Skipper Canteen restaurant at the Magic Kingdom—although it's chocolate cake, not the fruity alcoholic drink with a cult following from the club.
There are even references at Aulani, Disney's Hawaiian resort; though designers are tight-lipped, it seems that the proprietors of "Aunty's Beach House" are related to one of the original members of the Adventurers Club.
13. THE CAST HAS REUNITED ON A FEW SPECIAL OCCASIONS.
In 2009, a private gathering for WDW Radio was held at the venue, with the cast performing. The event below was arranged courtesy of D23, the official Disney fan club, in November 2014 for a tribute to Pleasure Island:
14. THERE WERE MYSTERIOUS GLYPHS ON THE EXTERIOR THAT WERE NEVER INTERPRETED.
One article in the club newsletter recounted the fictional tale of how the real glyphs were discovered. As the story goes, a pre-Columbian statue was being placed by the front door of the club when the crane operator accidentally bumped the wall. Plaster fell away, revealing these mysterious glyphs. The article was accompanied by an “editor’s note” that said the club curator had determined that the glyphs represented jokes told by a Pharaoh who had citizens thrown from an obelisk if they didn’t laugh.
There really were glyphs painted on the building, and as Wade Sampson of MousePlanet notes, there’s usually a meaning behind things that appear to be random at Disney parks. However, no Imagineers have ever stepped forward to provide an interpretation.
Happy Birthday to Epcot, the only place where you can drink in 11 countries without ever leaving Florida. In honor of its 35th birthday, we've rounded up some facts about Walt Disney’s vision for the future.
1. EPCOT is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.
2. Epcot turned out much differently than Walt had originally imagined it. Before Disney’s death in 1966, EPCOT was actually intended to be a real community where people would live, work, and play. See his intentions here:
3. To build the park, more than 54 million cubic feet of dirt had to be excavated.
4. With its two distinct halves—Future World and the World Showcase—it may seem like two different theme parks smushed together. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. When plans for the park changed after Walt’s death, some Imagineers wanted to go with a World’s Fair theme while others were pushing for a futuristic park. Two Imagineers put their models up against each other, and Epcot as we know it was born.
5. With 11.25 million visitors every year, Epcot is the world’s fifth most-popular theme park—right behind the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland, and Tokyo DisneySea.
6. In 1991, Disney announced plans to build WestCot in Disneyland’s parking lot in Anaheim. Michael Eisner put a halt to those plans when Disneyland Paris flopped. California Adventure later opened on that spot instead.
7. Spaceship Earth, a.k.a. the giant golf ball, weighs 16 million pounds, is 165 feet in diameter and takes up 2.2 million cubic feet of space. The geodesic sphere is made from 11,324 aluminum and plastic-alloy triangles.
8. The term “Spaceship Earth” was coined by famous futurist and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who wrote a book called Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1968.
9. Ray Bradbury conceived the original storyline and penned the original script for the Spaceship Earth ride.
10. The 5.7 million-gallon body of water at The Seas with Nemo & Friends is home to more than 3000 fish and other sea creatures. The sheer size makes it one of the largest man-made ocean environments in the world.
11.Captain EO cost an estimated $30 million to make. At just 17 minutes, that makes the film $1.76 million per minute.
12. The “Living with the Land” attraction is home to a Guinness World Record—the most tomatoes harvested from a single plant in one year (1151.84 pounds).
13. The food grown in Epcot greenhouses is actually used in the restaurants there, including the Garden Grill.
14. The Sea has a panel of experts that they use for consulting purposes. The panel has included Robert Ballard, most famous for discovering the wreck of the Titanic; Sylvia Earle, the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Gilbert Grosvenor, a former president and chief executive of the National Geographic Society.
15.Twopeople have died after riding Mission: SPACE. One was a four-year-old with an undiagnosed heart condition, and the other was a woman who suffered a stroke due to high blood pressure.
16. Leonard Nimoy directed the popular Body Wars movie at the Wonders of Life pavilion.
17. The score for Soarin’ Over California was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, who said that he loved the project so much, he would have done it for free. Goldsmith’s many noteworthy scores include The Omen, Planet of the Apes, Alien, Poltergeist, Patton, and Rudy.
18. The Wonders of Life pavilion once contained a film where Martin Short explained how babies were made. Really.
THE WORLD SHOWCASE
19. The World Showcase promenade is 1.2 miles long.
21. The Rose and Crown pub in the U.K. has a special machine that can cool your Guinness to exactly 55 degrees, the temperature recommended by the company.
22. Russia, Switzerland, Spain, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, and Israel have all been mentioned as additions to the World Showcase side of Epcot at one point or another.
23. There were once plans for a boat ride called The Rhine River Cruise in the Germany pavilion. The show building was partially constructed, but the rest of the ride was trashed shortly after Epcot opened.
24. Contrary to popular belief, for the most part, the countries in the World Showcase are not funded by that country’s government. There’s one exception: Morocco.
26. Imagineers have long considered a roller coaster inside of the Japan pavilion. It would be similar to the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, but would instead revolve around Mount Fuji.
27. The American pavilion is built at a slightly higher elevation than all of the other countries'. This is to show that it's a host country to all of the other pavilions, and also to help it stand out as the centerpiece.
28. For 17 years, Epcot’s Japan pavilion was home to Miyuki, the world’s only female amezaiku artist. She learned the art of creating small, edible animal sculptures out of brown rice toffee from her grandfather. Miyuki retired in November 2013.
29. More than 30 million blooms fill the park during the Flower and Garden Festival every spring.
30. The Food and Wine Festival in the fall represents 25 nations with 1.5 million food samplings, 300,000 wine pours, 360,000 beer servings, and 100,000 dessert portions.
PARADES AND FIREWORKS
31. The puppets for the now-defunct “Tapestry of Nations” parade were designed by Michael Curry, the same man who designed the puppets for the Broadway production of The Lion King. He has also worked on five Cirque du Soleil shows and multiple opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics.
32.Jim Cummings is the man who provides the voiceover at the beginning of “IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.” You may know him better as the voice of Darkwing Duck. He’s currently the voice of Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Pete. Listen to the first 30 seconds of this video—you can probably hear a little bit of each of those characters.