The Futuristic Prologues and Lost Promises of Horizons

Horizons? Get over it!

There is a contingent of Disney fans who feel that the traditionalists are too stubbornly stuck in the past and cynical about the company’s current endeavors. Of course, not everybody can mainline pixie dust into their veins and accept every building, roller coaster and meet-and-greet with disinfected joy. I’ve learned that this tug of war is ultimately a pointless battle. But it did get me thinking: Why does the removal of Horizons epitomize our chagrin perhaps more than any other extinct attraction in Walt Disney World?

Looking Back at Tomorrow

As a 10-year-old in 1984, the blue sky was truly the limit. Our society embraced this new age of prosperity (whether actual or imagined) and growth, an escape for our parents from the dark cloud of Vietnam and the tumultuous battles for civil rights. We filled our homes with a new revolution of toys and gadgets. The first generation of video game consoles space invaded our homes and the earliest of personal computers started proliferating on many desktops. Movies were boundlessly hopeful and charming, pointing us towards a prosperous future, even if sometimes wrought with Stormtroopers and Biff Tannen. The music of the day reflected the joy and progress of life, set to futuristic-sounding beats and keyboards and reinventing bubble gum by way of MTV. If you grew up in a good home in a good neighborhood in the 1980s, you could really be insulated from the horrors in life that awaited you. Down the block from the house I lived in for nearly 25 years, I could clearly see the Twin Towers looming over a safe New York City skyline. The images, soundtracks and technologies surrounding us in that era all seemed to be leading us towards a new millennium full of wonder and revolution.

When I first walked into EPCOT Center in 1984, my imagination had a cinematic foundation of Star Wars and Star Trek movies, Transformers cartoons, and even old Jetsons reruns, all forming this stylized idea of the future. EPCOT Center would largely contribute to these fanciful futuristic dreams, through the architecture and technology of Future World and most specifically at the park’s pavilion dedicated to life in the future: Horizons. EPCOT put these limitless dreams within specific and realistic borders. If space battles and time machines were the blatant fiction of the future, at Horizons the future formed itself around the structure that we lived our daily lives in. And it’s unadulterated message about that future? If we can dream it, we can do it.

New Horizons

Horizons catapulted from the Tomorrowland idealism in the Carousel of Progress’s final act, now fully formed with a more progressive view of “tomorrow” and expanding on that concept extensively. Other Future World pavilions like Universe of Energy, World of Motion and The Land had their feet firmly planted in the past and present, while exploring certain technologies that would lead those concepts into the future. But Horizons unabashedly ran into the arms of the future and refused to leave.

The ride was a celebration of a 21st century life that fully realized all of Future World’s themes and technologies. We observed the city life of our kindly narrators and from there visited friends and family in the desert, sea, and outer space, learning all about trends in agriculture, mariculture, communications, science and other lifestyle topics through the prism of these vastly diverse settings. The storyline that transitioned between the settings was blatantly hopeful and awash in early ‘80s aw-shucks narration, but it was also incredibly fluid and almost hyperactive. Horizons was like Future World’s big epic film compared to other pavilions’ television documentaries. It quite simply wanted to go everywhere in 15 minutes.

Horizons was also an incredible testament to the theme park attraction ideals set forth by Walt Disney himself. The ride technology, dialogue, whimsy and wonder all very much epitomized what Walt and his Imagineers successfully perpetuated in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the 1980s, much of Walt Disney World’s ride development happened in EPCOT Center so attractions like Horizons, Spaceship Earth and World of Motion were the next generation of Disney dark rides, an evolution from favorites like the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Carousel of Progress. Eventually, the audio-animatronics-populated dark-ride format would be neglected in favor of hybrid attractions (like Splash Mountain and Muppet*Vision 3D) and abandoned almost entirely with Disney-MGM Studios, which relied heavily on stunt shows and live performances. EPCOT Center was really Walt Disney’s last shining beacon.

As we all know, Horizons never got to see the 21st century as it was closed in 1999 after many years of uncertain status. Disney had already begun its long march towards refurbishing Future World into a fresh new land to help invigorate attendance. World of Motion gave way to Test Track, Journey Into Imagination was unnecessarily dumbed down, and most other Future World pavilions grew stale due to either neglect, the restraints of corporate sponsorship, and/or the company’s lack of comprehension of the future. Horizons was replaced in the new millennium by Mission: SPACE, a motion simulator thrill ride almost entirely devoid of educational substance. This ride has been infamous in the resulting intense motion sickness and vertigo guests have left with upon their arrival back on Earth.

This was no longer EPCOT Center, this was Epcot, where the future was no longer about the destination but about the whizz-bang ultra-cool journey getting there!

Alas, life certainly imitated the arts as the new millennium has been wrought with economic, climatic, and moral recession. While there have been significant advances in certain technologies, progress in many important areas has been stunted by politics and corporate control. Ultimately the guardians at the gates of health, energy, agriculture, communication and transportation have inhibited their own growth due to political and economic regulations. The best example of this has been our inability to develop viable alternative energy sources while fossil fuel has not only skyrocketed in price but proven to be a more significant detriment to the environment. Also, the most notable advances in agriculture have been the genetic modification of food and factory farming (seen by many as a veritable crime of morality).

The technological advances that have worked are certainly pointing us in the right direction. It’s no longer unrealistic to imagine a world of video communication, portable computing or electric transportation. In many areas, people have rightly chosen to eschew a futuristic aesthetic in honor of classic concepts, such as Victorian homes, classic cars, or reading a print book. But you see a lot of that ‘80s future aesthetic creeping into everything from Apple’s hardware designs to sports car designs to newly-constructed skyscrapers. Still, as far as I understood it, by 2011 we were supposed to have been much further along than just plasma TVs, hybrid cars and iPads. This isn’t quite the future I was promised.

Robert McCall's "The Prologue and The Promise" mural from Horizons

The Prologue and the Promise

It’s ironic that we have to dig into our far flung past to find a truly progressive representation of the future. The past is prologue, they say. It’s just that maybe we have to come to the realization that it’s a prologue of a story that will not end during our own lives. Maybe it’s time to stop putting a definitive number on the future. The 21st Century! The New Millennium! By now we know you couldn’t take a time machine made out of a DeLorean to 2015 and see flying cars and hoverboards. You probably won’t even find that in 2115.

So maybe Horizons isn’t reflective of the Future we thought would be here by now or even one that’s just around the corner, but it still showed us the endless possibilities of any future and it had the capacity to be updated to reflect those very few real technological advances we’ve actually had in the last 30 years. The short OMNIMAX film could have easily been updated, shifting its focus from the micro-processor and at-the-time overindulgent “computerized view of Earth” to a more relevant and cinematically-enhanced look towards the future beyond right now. While a lot of the visions of the future in the scenes of the ride are still very progressive, it might not have taken much to enhance them with better wardrobe and new tools of the future (i.e. tablets and smartphones). Narration certainly could have been tweaked and segments of the ride could have been updated. Ultimately the ride could have either evolved as a practical view of the future or kept as an entertaining time capsule of EPCOT Center during its 1980s heyday.

But the most important thing was the Horizons could’ve continued to be an embodiment of EPCOT’s core principles. It could have been a stubborn hold-out for a future we all still yearn for, even if the dark passage of time has led many of us to no longer believe in that future. Because there would still be 10-year-olds with an unwritten future emerging from that ride and deciding they want to help change the world, to help get the world to that future.

Instead, now they leave that same space and head right for the bathroom to vomit.


Gregg said...

Very well said.. I was really bummed when they closed Horizons. It was always a favorite. I'm really happy that somehow Spaceship Earth has continued to dodge the bullet.

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Jon Plsek said...

Thanks for posting, this was really great. If the park has suffered neglect, maybe we are just experiencing a storytelling lull that will swing back to a new kind of renaissance. Soon, someone of high influence at the Disney corporation will have a sponsor meeting cancelled last minute, walk out of the old Wonders of Life pavilion, take a long quiet look around, call another exec and say "you know, I've been thinking about EPCOT..."

Walt Disney was all about optimism, and that's a story that never gets old. I like to think that the future isn't dead—it's just resting.