EPCOT Center becoming a theme park rather than a functional city may have been quite different than Walt Disney had envisioned but there were some parts of his vision that were maintained. CommuniCore and its successor, Innoventions, celebrated advancing technologies and even gave visitors a chance to interact with upcoming technologies. Located in the heart of Future World, it functioned like a family friendly exhibition hall as well as a gateway to the pavilions surrounding it. Join me today as we enter into Epcot’s most diverse pavilion.
Epcot’s Main Hub
While the CommuniCore pavilion was mainly focused in two twin structures behind Spaceship Earth, they encapsulated the main thoroughfare of EPCOT Center. While Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom used a similar circular hub in front of their castles, EPCOT used its main hub as another, more diverse “land.”
The center of CommuniCore functions much like the crossings in other Disney parks but it features a large fountain called the Fountain of Nations. Today, you may stop occasionally and watch the water dance to various musical selections.
Today, sadly, two major parts of this fountain seem to have been forgotten. The first, and the reason it is called the Fountain of Nations, is that its waters originally hailed from 29 different countries. Representatives from various countries were on hand during the dedication to pour their contribution into the fountain. Now, over the last 33 years, I am sure this water has long been replaced but such a significant part of its history has been nearly forgotten. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find anything about the Fountain of Nations on the Walt Disney World website while planning.
Second, and to me more wasteful, is the massive stage that sits on the back of the fountain. Over the years and on occasion this stage would feature live performances. Possibly the biggest production was Splashtacular featuring Mickey and friends, dancers, and the fountain itself adding to the spectacle. The stage is now nearly abandoned due to water from the fountain interfering with performances and crowd control near the stage.
For me, this is as big of a symbol for Epcot as Spaceship Earth has been. While Spaceship Earth continues to represent inspiration and ingenuity, the Fountain of Nations represents wasted potential. With forgotten history to an unused stage, this fountain has become just a fixture that sits there. Comparing EPCOT Center through the mid-90s to the Epcot of today, there proves to be a lot of this wasted potential.
CommuniCore East, West, and Beyond
The original design of the two semi-circular buildings making up CommuniCore East and West might have been one of the most Walt-inspired designs in the park. They used large windows to draw in natural light, created comfortable walking paths, and were designed to expand. In fact, it seems there were more plans for CommuniCore than could have possibly been used in its lifetime.
Inside each side of Communicore were sponsored exhibits that allowed visitors a closer look at technologies coming from many of EPCOT’s sponsors as well as looks at how some of Disney’s own productions worked. You went to Magic Kingdom to watch fantasy come alive, you went to EPCOT to see how they did it.
Many of these exhibits wowed young minds by showing them technologies that are still trying to find their way into our everyday lives. Long before Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s doomed Tay, EPCOT guests interacted with unofficial Communicore mascot SMRT-1. This little character, like Figment, became an unforgettable part of the EPCOT Center experience.
He was a little blue and purple robot who stood in the middle of a big ring. One of my favorite memories of CommuniCore was arriving in this huge place full of the latest technology, new ideas, and hands-on activities and heading directly to my favorite robot friend. There were phones attached to the ring in which you could speak to the robot when your turn came.
My mom tells me that he would give some trivia questions and play different games, but the only thing I remember (and stuck with me my whole life) was him turning to me and asking some seemingly random questions. And at the end of his ‘interrogation’ he guessed what month I was born in!
As a kid, this was mindblowing! Even to this day I can see the way the lights in his electronic mouth moved to indicate speech. Something about this little robot made him feel like a friend. Something special I would never have been able to see anywhere else.
While guests today enjoy interacting with Crush the Turtle or being named That Guy at the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, SMRT-1 predated all of those by by about 20 years and was able to leave an impression for a lifetime.
Today, SMRT-1 could be replicated by our smartphones but back in the 80s and early 90s it was just one way that EPCOT made use fall in love with the future of technology. Other unique experiences offered included video calling and touch screen interfaces. Many of these were available to guests a good 25 years before the first iPhone hit stores.
Innoventions: Road to…
Innoventions took over the CommuniCore buildings in 1994 and, for preteen me, seemed absolutely awesome. The new theme blocked out the natural light and transformed the halls into a futuristic circuit of technology and video games.
With this new theme Epcot crammed sponsors in amongst Disney’s own properties. SEGA and other video game companies were able to showcase their latest arcade and home system offerings while pioneers of household technology brought in new concepts to demonstrate.
Innoventions was definitely much more geared towards testing and advertising products and Disney themselves took some of the most advantage of this new focus. From Bill Nye the Science Guy to Disney Interactive video games, Innoventions did a lot of advertising of products that kids could buy back home.
That, however, did not mean they had abandoned bringing in technology for the guests to test out. In fact, that was the draw for me as a child. In fact, this was where I first got to test out night vision goggles. This was the kind of technology we only saw in movies! And here I am, getting to try it out while out at a theme park!
My greatest memory of the new Innoventions is actually one of wonder and jealousy. In the mid-90s, virtual reality seemed to be where video games were headed. Around 1996 Disney opened up an exhibit in Innoventions to show how they were progressing with virtual reality and gave some of the audience a change to test out what they had to offer.
As a young boy, this excited me. Then to find out it was a virtual reality experience based on riding Aladdin’s magic carpet has me ecstatic. I was a video game nerd, a tech nerd, and a huge Aladdin fan. I longed to be selected. And then they chose my grandmother. I loved my grandmother but was I ever jealous! Overhead monitors made it possible for us to see what the players could see but it just wasn’t the same.
When I finally returned to Walt Disney World last year, I managed to make a trip to DisneyQuest. Imagine my surprise when I discover the Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride. This was exactly what I had seen my grandmother ride almost 20 years beforehand. So, I finally got to ride it and that memory with my grandmother became complete. And, for me, it was well timed. My grandmother, sadly, passed away about two months after I finally got to share that experience. It provided a little Disney Magic that I was allowed to share that with her towards the end of her life.
But that room where she originally rode that virtual magic carpet stands mostly empty. In fact, I was recently inside it to pick up an Annual Passholder gift. The main features of the hall are now air-conditioning, bathrooms, and payphones. Yes, payphones.
Today, Innoventions takes up less than a quarter of the space it had originally inhabited. While CommuniCore was built to expand, Innoventions was what actually created the building expansions. Now, Innoventions West is made of character meet and greets and the aforementioned payphone hallway. Club Cool is the closest thing to an exhibit on that side of the plaza.
Innoventions East retains a little bit of the original vision. StormStruck is an exhibit to teach about some ways to prepare homes for natural disasters while Colortopia, presented by paint company Glidden, gives a very small amount of information about the effects of various colors.
There is one exhibit that I feel taps into the original spirit of EPCOT and that is the Sum Of All Thrills presented by Raytheon. This attraction allows visitors to build a virtual roller coaster using some simple tools, but they must balance power to the twists and turns to make it safe. In fact, CommuniCore featured a similar attraction called Compute-A-Coaster. The difference here is that once you’re done, you load the design onto a magnetic swipe card and bring it to an attendant to load into a robotic simulator. You strap in and are taken for a virtual ride on your created coaster.
This attraction, in my opinion, not only captures that small spark of edutainment that made EPCOT such a wonderful place for me as a child but found a way to continue that educational experience outside of the park. You’re allowed to take your card home and on the back is a website that allows you to do more design work on your personal computer. The website from Raytheon also features a variety of mathematics games and resources.
And that gives me hope. Every visit, I see a healthy line at Sum Of All Thrills and could only imagine it would be busier if more people realized that Innoventions was still tucked in there. Sure, not everyone is going to walk away thinking “math is cool” or “I want to be an engineer when I grow up” but it gives the basic tools for a young mind to start down that path.
Unfortunately, half of this remaining hall continues to be blocked off and boarded up. There are no discernible signs of new attractions expected to open in the near future.
The Future of CommuniCore/Innoventions
With most of the pavilion forgotten or turned into character meet and greets, it’s hard to see where this pavilion will go. But if the ideals on that dedication plaque near Epcot’s entrance find new life, Disney could do something quite special.
The character meet and greets aren’t likely to go anywhere. They’re popular but on top of that, they’re useful. Larger than life characters are capable of leaving a great impression on children and Disney has a greater range of characters than ever before.
In fact, with Big Hero 6’s Baymax and Inside Out’s Joy and Sadness, you actually have some of the best characters for some of the EPCOT concepts already in there. Joy and Sadness can relate to the human mind and be a gateway to the Imagination pavilion. Baymax opens a door to how technology can make advances for human health and thus a gateway to the Wonders of Life pavilion (if you don’t know that one, we’ll get to it).
Disney Imagineering could really be at it’s best bringing this pavilion back to life and using their deep library to enliven ideas of science, technology, and innovation. And they could even create original characters to capture our imagination like SMRT-1 did for Jerry or how Figment has managed to do for 30 years.
As for the central hub, it’s time to give the Fountain of Nations the reverence it deserves. It symbolically combined so many cultures, it really needs to do more than dance to a song every 15 minutes. A morning show could be brought back to the stage, even if something must be build to keep the stage dry. In fact, since its history connects to the theme of World Showcase, it may be good to use the stage show to celebrate innovation around the globe.
CommuniCore was also made twice the size necessary so that they could run a PeopleMover system through the top for guests to preview the attractions. Perhaps you can do that, allowing guests to see their favorite characters below and using that to determine their path through EPCOT. Maybe then visitors will be drawn through the park by their own wonder rather than what thrills the park can offer.