Horizons - 30 Years of Dreaming and Doing
30 years ago today, EPCOT Center completed its first year of operation and celebrated by opening a pavilion that would come to be one of the most beloved and intricate pavilions to grace not only Walt Disney World, but the roster of themed experiences around the world and ever created. Much in the same way that Disneyland is defined by Pirates of the Caribbean and The Magic Kingdom’s capstone is The Haunted Mansion, Horizons provided the thematic thesis statement to EPCOT Center and encapsulated the raw ethos and optimism that Future World exuded. Horizons is and was the pavilion that, though missing today, continues to inspire the pursuit of themed design and symbolize a golden age for EPCOT Center. Horizons was unique, thrilling, thoughtful, technically overwhelming, and warm. Today, 30 years after it opened and 14 years since it closed, we celebrate it still for all of the qualifiers described above. Here now, are two pieces that I have posted before, with new facts, figures, art, and information.
On the land, under the sea, and even out in space… Horizons was the one pavilion that took the topical elements of Future World and blended them into one grand ride that served as the capstone or thesis statement for EPCOT’s forward thinking part of the park.
Even with this in mind, the reasons behind Horizons’ large fanbase, even today, 14 years after it was demolished, are quite simple: Horizons was warm and relatable. The pavilion dwelled in the serious subjects of Future World but presented them in an organic way: through the eyes and actions of a family. Nameless re-occuring characters, warm narrators, amusing situations and gags populated the fantastical and scientific settings that we had seen earlier, but under industrial pretenses. Now, the ride and the settings were personal, and felt closer to home. Much in the way that the Carousel of Progress addressed the audience, the narrators did the same in Horizons. You were being talked to, given a tour, and welcomed into the home of the family that was living in this fantastical, futuristic environment. For this reason, the Carousel of Progress and Horizons were considered to be in a symbiotic relationship and Horizons was thought to be Carousel’s sequel.
Further, the aesthetics of the environments supported the warm connotation that Horizons had. The treatments that each scene and environment were given were highly similar, even if not geographically (or spatially!) related. Each vehicle was of a concurrent shape and design to another in a scene. In fact, the design of the Solo Subs in Sea Castle were much of the same body type as the Space Shuttles in Brava Centauri. With this in mind, the familiarity of each aesthetic, of each environment you were being shown, played a subtle trick on the guest’s brains. You’d expect to see certain things, and the relatable feeling to the pavilion was created and fostered by the simple memory of the scene before it.
Horizons’ warmth was not accidental. The pavilion was the humanistic manifestation of all of the subject matter and challenge that was put on display in Future World. But in the fact that the basis for the experience was rooted in family, and in relationships, the pavilion’s intent was one that anyone could enjoy, relate to, and feel at home in.
EPCOT Center is missing this today. We all cry and clamor for EPCOT to attack the broad and sweeping subjects now missing from it, but if EPCOT Center truly wants to return, it must be based in warmth and feeling like a relatable future that one can easily imagine oneself in.
The Technical Wonder of Future World:
Although revered amongst fans for being the ethos-charged thesis statement for Future World, Horizons also is worthy of recognition for the sheer scale and scope of the pavilion. Built a full year after EPCOT Center opened, Horizons’ possessed the same thoughtfulness, attention to detail, and bold daring that went into the original 6 pavilions. Horizons was laden with Audio Animatronics, screens, projections, and a myriad of special effects that place its stature perhaps even higher that its predecessors for how well all of these effects immersed guests of the pavilion. As mentioned before, Horizons was humanistic and warm, proving the future was a relatable and familiar dream. But what made that all tick, on a holistic and physical level? Scope, scale, technology and innovation. EPCOT Center’s own values were reflected in Horizons’ presentation AND its construction.
The physical structure of Horizons beset the experience of the ride itself. Described as a “monumental gold gem” or as if a “spaceship had settled down on the site itself”, by Disney’s internal documents on the pavilion, this grand scale mirrored the almost 15 minute spectacle of futurism shown to guests. To achieve such a lengthy ride time, Horizons covered nearly three acres, had 1,346 feet of ride track that spanned two floors, and had 137,000 square feet of show space. This was achieved by utilizing 3,700 tons of steel, more of which was used in this pavilion than in Spaceship Earth. Horizons stretched 78 feet into the air and defined the Future World skyline from the central and commanding plot in Future World East.
To traverse such a long length of track, guests boarded a hybrid of Disney’s omnimover system, designed to focus guest attention on the scenes and tableaux directly facing panning cars. Never before attempted by Disney (Futurama had a similar set up in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair) these hybrid omnimovers were a marvel in themselves. Suspended by tethers from the ceiling, they glided through the building with relative ease, even allowing for the cars to rock “back” and tilt during the finale’s “choose your own tomorrow” flight sequence. Each car also was equipped with infrared sensors to relay location and narration to ride controls and to guests. This was conveyed with sub bass speakers located under the seat that could WIRELESSLY adjust volume depending on the scene guests were currently in. Viscerally, this is responsible for the memorable omnimax screen scenes, in which guests were surrounded my imagery, light, and sound. When the Space Shuttle Columbia took off on screen, one certainly could hear and feel the rumble of the rockets… despite safely gliding by a screen, in a omnimover, 67 feet in the air.
The omnimax screens were one of the key technological features of Horizons, themselves. Three screens, 80 feet high, and 12 feet wide, came at the middle of the Horizons experience and ushered guests from “looking back on tomorrow” to actually experiencing and seeing the marvels of the future world yet to come. These screens were so large that they had to be constructed separately from the main shell of the building, and helicopters were used to place the projector rigs in place. The omnimax structure can be seen in the construction photos above- look beyond the structural steel of Horizons, and look for a lattice pattern, curved so as to support the forthcoming projection surface. The same method of surrounding guests in a video projection is now employed in The Land’s Soarin’. Below, you can see George McGinnis, a key imagineer on Horizons’ creative team toying with a model of the omnimax dome and cars when the ride was to be called “FutureProbe” and had three tracks. However, the system of projection is the same, globular and lattice constructed. The projections of DNA, as seen here, were among the first computer aided graphics used for a theme park.
Thus, was the scope and breadth of the Horizons experience. Not relying on Audio Animatronics alone, the pavilion’s memorable reputation was furthered by sheer scope, overwhelming proportion and imagery, and a reliance on technology that fit the main idea and purpose of EPCOT Center itself. Therefore, Disney and WED appeared to have really took their park’s message to heart when they embarked on building and creating Horizons. The technological thrills described here were done with a purpose and with a bold daring to be different and unique in the face of themed entertainment. The commonality in ideas and actions designed to stun, inspire, and further technological prowess in an exhibition space is what defined Horizons and EPCOT Center in those early, halcyon, formative years. And it is that spirit that most long for Disney to bring back to EPCOT Center. As the ride intoned, cheerily enough, if you can dream it, you can do it.