Armed with his hardhat, Dick Nunis steered his electric cart through the construction rubble of Walt Disney's nearly completed futuristic fantasy -- along streets equipped with touch-sensitive computer screens for visitor information and past a garden where lettuce grows without soil in revolving drums simulating earth's gravity.
Here at Epcot Center, the $800 million Walt Disney World expansion that will open Oct. 1, the Disney team is readying the focal point of their mentor's 21st Century vision of EPCOT -- the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Disney called it a "blueprint for the future," but this is no city of residences and factories. Instead, Disney's successors have let their imaginations explode in concert with science in a park that demonstrates the latest technologies in "Future World" and provide a travelogue you can feel and taste in "World Showcase," a panorama of Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Italy, Germany, Mexico and the People's Republic of China.
"This will be an international permanent Disneyland," said Nunis, president of Walt Disney World and a long-time protege of Walt Disney. "World's Fairs have a bad name, but Disney is successful."
"When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, Walt established a new level of entertainment," Nunis explained. "When we open Epcot Center, guests will get another level of entertainment that is also educational."
In contrast to the fanciful Magic Kingdom on the other side of the 28,000-acre complex, Epcot Center is a Disneyland for adults.
"It's a place to form, demonstrate, test and use new materials, concepts situations and technologies to bring the world together with the hopes that understanding will bring better relationships--and to do it in a way to make it enjoyable," said Carl Bongirno, president of WED Enterprises, the Disney design team.
"We believe people will interface with this technology to encourage them to use it in a friendly personal way," he said.
To execute this Disneyesque goal, WED designers created 200 new special effects, 2,000 show props and 300 in-house sculptured art works including copies of great masters. They even built a "smellitzer," a cannon like device that spews volcanic and swamp odors.
They produced 700 of the familiar Disney life-like creatures programmed electronically to move and speak, ranging from a 20-foot dinosaur to singing vegetables. Walt Disney pioneered these "audio-animatronic" figures. At Epcot Center, Disney creators have advanced the technique to models who speak in dialects and to a Benjamin Franklin, who is the first such "audio-animatronic" man to walk up stairs.
For 11 different film formats from 3-D to wraparound views requiring 150 different projection systems, 16 production crews spent two years in 30 countries shooting enough film for six full-length movies. Some lenses had to be built from scratch, and customized editing equipment was designed. Cameras mounted underneath an airplane photographed glacial mountain ranges and icy crevices along the Alaskan pipeline. Crews lowered themselves over Niagara Falls and trekked to the interior of China carrying equipment on camel back.
Disney sponsors began courting "World Showcase" participants in 1974 by inviting ambassadors from 30 nations to Disney World. Each of the eight nations' pavilions presents streetscapes compressing time, materials and styles into a single combination of city, town and rural vistas of the entire country. All products and food sold in the pavilions are imported from each nation, and 90 foreign students will work in the shops, restaurants and stores for added realism.
Exteriors that look like thatched roofs, half-timber and brick or rocks are merely painted plaster or plastic. Dirt or mold from aging is a trick of the Disney artists. They paint algae on the walls of canals or soot on chimneys. Interiors, however, are the products of 50 woodcutters who crafted 223 ornate cabinets to fit the irregular shape of the set walls that may be accented with imported hand-blown or stained glass.
All landscaping is planted in vegetation typical of each country but most of it has been cultivated on a 100-acre tree farm on the Disney complex. There are 12,500 trees, 750 varieties of plants and three acres of flowers. Forced feedings in the tropical climate and Disney's purified water system created 40-foot trees out of one-foot scrubs in just three years.
In addition to concoctions created during the last three years in Disney's test kitchen, authentic cuisine comes in the form of French menus devised by globe-hopping French chefs Gaston Lenotare, Paul Bocuse and Roger Verge. One of them will be in Florida at all times. The DeLelio who operates the Roman restaurant originating "Fettucine Alfredo" will operate an Italian restaurant and make pasta fresh daily as visitors watch. Beer and wine will be served for the first time at Disney World in pubs and restaurants by such popular suppliers as Bass (England), Becks (Germany) and Dos Equis (Mexico).
The commerical trade off for Disney, Nunis explained, is sharing costs with foreign businesses and stimulating Disney World trade in their countries.
Master planning for EPCOT began in 1965, a year before Walt Disney died. "I remember him coming to a meeting one morning," said Bongirno. "The land for Disney World in central Florida was not yet public knowledge . . . he said the first thing had to be credibility. 'We will take the virgin land and attract people to it with a theme park and show the different things we do. Eventually people will go to EPCOT . . .'"
Disney's EPCOT philosophy, which embraces all of Disney World, was first implemented with the park's opening in 1971 and its advanced experimental systems for producing power, treating waste water with hyacinths, controlling pests without pesticides, cleaning streets by underground vacuum ducts and building hotels with modular units.
But planning for Epcot Center was not announced until 1976 after needed expansion and improvement necessitated by the unexpected success of Walt Disney World.
From the outset, Disney felt strongly about bringing in major corporations as co-sponsors of pavilions for financial backing and technical credibility.
"His philosophy was generated by visits to these companies and their secret labs," Bongirno said. "I remember him talking upon returning from one of these visits. He asked why this advance technology was still sitting in the lab. They said, 'Walt, people aren't ready. they won't accept it. We need education to create the demand.' He said perhaps there is a place to do that."
Disney sought through Epcot a way of bringing the corporations together to mutually solve some technological problems for the future.
For example, in the "Universe of Energy" sponsored by Exxon, Disney designers needed 12 large vehicles each to transport 100 people through a guided diorama. So Disney engineers contacted General Motors, which developed a guided system with a one-eighth inch electronic wire buried in the road. "It's a futuristic transportation system for our highways," Bongirno said.
At the beginning, Disney designers took their preliminary modules to a showroom in New York and invited American corporations' ideas. Besides Exxon and GM's "World of Motion," six other corporations joined as sponsors: American Express and Coca Cola in the "American Adventure"; Bell System in "Spaceship Earth"; Kraft in "The Land"; Kodak in "Journey Into Imagination"; and Sperry Univac in Epcot Computer Center, a firsthand look at the electronic grid operating all of Disney World. General Electric's "Horizons" will open next year.
"Government and industry have lost credibility with the public," said Marty Sklar, vice president of creative development for WED Enterprises and supervisor of its 3,000 designers. "But Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are still believable, as long as they don't abuse that responsibility. We feel that very keenly, we surrounded ourselves with experts and advisers.
"We are entertainers and communicators," Sklar explained. "That's our strength. We went all over the world to tell us what should be communicated. We didn't want, for example, just to tell Exxon's energy story."
When Bongirno joined WED Enterprises three years ago, he had 600 employes. To complete the project on time, he had to triple the force in nine months. An extensive promotional campaign drew novice designers, sculptors from as far as Europe and formerly retired Disney specialists.
Tishman Construction Corp. was hired to oversee the project and its 4,500 crew along with 13 major general contractors who won in coast-to coast competitive bidding.
Design and construction of the "Imagination" and "Land" pavilions were typical of the process.
Originally Disney creators did not plan a pavilion on "Imagination." But Kodak's interest started the Disney "imagineers" (the in-house word for designers) thinking. As usual, they started with a blank sheet of paper. The dilemma was different from anything they had encountered in years of letting their fantasies fly, said Sklar: "How to talk to people about how an idea is formed and developed."
Everything at Disney begins with a story line, which is transformed into conceptual drawings, scale models, design plans and finally, construction.
"We probably worked for a year creating the basic concept," said Sklar. The first idea was rejected as too "fuddy duddy" and all but two characters dropped. In the standard Disney team approach, "we put together a mixture of people so different it was like oil and water," he said. The ensuing months-long creative process was painful, but the result, said Sklar, was magic.
A cartoon character "Dream Finder" creates his partner Figment (of his imagination) who begin the show riding in a Victorian machine collecting rainbows, sunsets, deep thoughts and other images to store to form new ideas.
Visitors experience this on a ride. "The ride system is a primary way of communicating because it's probably the most distinctive Disney thing in our parks," said Sklar. As a practical matter, the ride accommodates more people. But it also limits the message to a very brief space.
Visitors then enter Image Works, a futuristic arcade where one's imagination has no boundaries. For the first time, visitors can touch Disney technology. With various instruments, they can lead an orchestra by an electronic philharmonic, create art with a magic pallette or particpate in a video motion picture. The Disney "imagineers" sought the best form of presentation by visiting the most advanced science and history museums in the U.S. and Europe. "We found them all wanting," said Sklar. "There wasn't enough for the individual to do."
The final set of the pavilion is a 3-D film devised by Murray Lerner (who won an academy award for "From Mao to Mozart"). After a few false starts in-house at Disney, he was hired to break out of the limits of ordinary film techniques. His solution: a magic journey through the eyes of children. Sklar even studied children's drawings to learn the correct perspective.
"Lerner wanted the finest equipment and to go beyond whatever had been done before," said Sklar. "We spent in one year "$500,000 to create a camera which never had existed." It incorporates slow motion and high speed in 3-D.
Planning "The Land," a six-acre indoor pavilion larger than "Fantasyland," was a different process. In 1976, after consultations with Kraft, Disney designers roughed out a pavilion on paper, but everything changed when at one of several academic conferences on the theme of food and agricultural they met Carl Hodges, an expert in controlled environmental agriculture at the University of Arizona. They asked him to help plan a boat tour through various food-producing regions of the world and large greenhouses where crops are grown innovatively.
"Kraft asked us to do a show on nutrition, so we came up with the idea of performing foods," said Sklar. Kraft's nutrition council acted as an advisory group for content.
Finally, Disney filmmakers traveled to more than 20 countries searching for positive ways humans have intervened to correct or improve nature's disharmony. Three researchers studied these locations and interviewed specialists. They flew a helicopter over Egypt with the chief of staff of the Egyptian Army. They discovered a Philippine institute that for centuries has been experimenting with new methods of cultivating rice.
All this was reduced to an 18-minute script on the theme "Symbiosis," which teaches about the creative partnership between humans and nature in water and land management and reforestation.
Sklar's team had to decide three years ago how long the film would be to plan and build a special loop cabinet that would preserve the film"s life.
"The criticism we'll get is this," predicted Sklar: "'you created an artificial world without hunger, poverty, crime in the streets.' Everyone knows these problems exist. So why do we have to tell them again? Why not start with what could be if new technology was applied to all this?
"With energy for example, we never set out to tell all there is regarding energy," he added. "We're doing turn-ons, saying 'get excited!'"