Monday, September 30, 2013

Orlando Welcomes EPCOT Center

It was December 1971 and Orlando didn't know what hit them. After seven years of speculation, drama, finagling, doubting, and panic, Walt Disney World opened on October 1 as expected and nothing in Orlando was ever the same. The sleepy cow town atmosphere was invigorated by a land rush of colossal proportions.

Suddenly the hamlet of retirees, farmers and good old boys was invaded by strange creatures: tanned Westerners, young people, hotel men, land speculators and developers descended like wasps. Barefoot, long-haired hippies were spotted lounging in Eola Park. Residents decreed that the area around Walt Disney World would become a Sodom and Gomorrah, full of prostitutes and teen pregnancies. Orlando would have to build another jail just outside World Drive. The freeways would be clogged with cars.

What a surprise, then, when Walt Disney world opened with a wimper in October. In November and December there was a shakedown, with cars lined up on I-4, but within a few months Orlando had adjusted itself to the economic growth brought about by Disney. Offices and malls opened. Cheap hotels and gas stations sprung up like crab grass. But in reality, the "disaster zone" was contained because Walt Disney World was contained inside its land parcel.

Then, in 1975, almost ten years to the day after Walt Disney's famous press conference, Disney announced plans to move forward with something called E.P.C.O.T - and the cycle repeated itself. Only this time, Orlando was ready.

The October 28, 1982 Orlando Sentinel devoted four sections of its newspaper to EPCOT Center, the "EPCOT Keepsake Edition" sections. These included overviews of the park, articles about the ideas behind the park, and even some opinion sections - voicing the same opinions that are more or less voiced today.

It's all very nice, but what personally knocked me for a loop were the advertisements that filled this section - advertisements for local businesses, all full of ebullient praise for EPCOT Center. Florida businessmen weren't blind to the danger of Walt Disney World, but they gambled that it would be a victory for Orlando instead, and their predictions turned out to be true. And yet EPCOT Center's opening turned out to be the moment when Orlando ceased to be a Florida town with a theme park and Sea World and began to move towards being the tourist mecca it is today - drawing in crosstown rivals Universal Studios and all that came with them.

As a result it's interesting to see Orlando hailing EPCOT Center at a pivotal moment in the area's history - not quite yet the hospitality metropolis it is today, just shaking out of the Mom and Pop atmosphere of the 60s and 70s. A great deal of the well wishes from small businesses found within those pages were simple in nature, clearly using the new park as a tool to get the word out:

Originally WORZ, WDIZ changed to their current call sign in 1971 for the opening of Walt Disney World, playing an Easy Listening/Beautiful Music rotation, switching to Adult Rock by the late 70s. WDIZ can still be found on Orlando radio dials at FM 100.3 today.

Other advertisements were very classy:

Burdines was a Florida department store chain based in Miami. A subsidiary of Federated Department Stores since 1952, also the owners of Macy's and Bloomingdale's chain stores, every Burdines location was converted to a Macy's in 2005. Many Macy's are still identifiable as former Burdines locations due to the distinctive Burdines Florida motifs such as palm trees, gulls and sea shells.

This poignant ad is from Robinson's - yet another defunct Florida department store chain, this one was absorbed into Dillard's.

Tire World didn't put too much effort into theirs, and neither did Tokyo House. Tire World, Tokyo House, and Albertson's have all vanished from Orlando.

This full-page spectacular by SunBank almost counts as an operating participant ad. SunBank had operated a bank lobby on Main Street to the left of City Hall since 1977, had leased space in the first and only building in the Lake Buena Vista Office Complex, and still maintains a bank in what is now known as the SunTrust building across from Downtown Disney. This is the very same building where Walt Disney World officials like Dick Nunis maintained their offices. The building is remarkably intact even today - stop in and step back in time to do some banking sometime.

Mr. Dunderbak's was a chain of German Cafes of which a handful still remain dotted through the southeast. The Tampa and Daytona Beach versions still thrive as independent restaurants, and there may still be others in North Carolina and Alabama. The Tampa and Daytona versions are true time warps, and offer great food to boot, so please take any opportunity to support them.

A slightly bizarre pair of ads from Geary Distributing, and the second ad seems to have arrived seven years too early. And just who is Geary Distributing and Scan-Am Import-Export to salute EPCOT on behalf of entire nations, anyway??

Here's a fascinating one.

In 1982, Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola equally shared corporate soft drink ownership of Magic Kingdom - Coke sponsored the Tomorrowland Terrace and Pepsi sponsored the Country Bear Jamboree and Mile Long Bar in Frontierland. Most restaurants in Walt Disney World offered both soft drinks at this time.

Coca-Cola agreed to come onboard and sponsor the incredibly expensive American Adventure show with American Express, and as a result were granted sole soft drink dominion over EPCOT Center. Pepsi-Cola pulled out of Magic Kingdom later in the 80s, leaving Country Bear Jamboree sponsorless (the oval woodcut of Zeke, Big Al and Tennessee on the attraction marquee to this day was actually designed to cover up Pepsi-Cola's oval-shaped 80's corporate logo) and Coca-Cola reigning supreme over Walt Disney World, an arrangement which continues to this day.

Also in that issue of the Sentinel, many Orlando-area contractors who helped build EPCOT boasted of their accomplishments:

And finally, most enjoyably for EPCOT Center fans, many of the major corporate sponsors took out large newspaper space to promote their new shows and attractions:

Walt Disney World themselves quietly put out a single ad, much smaller than most of the others:

Disney's first International Fellowship program had not been as large of a success as they had hoped, and Disney had plundered every division hoping to get warm bodies to operate the World Showcase pavilions, whether they be ethnically appropriate, or not.

Ginger H., a longtime Walt Disney World Cast Member whom I spoke to, was pulled from It's A Small World in 1982 to operate El Rio del Tiempo - what she called the Mexico Boat Ride - when it was fast-tracked to be ready for opening day. She hated working the ride, and told me that she was in the habit of going into the Plaza de los Amigos gift shops, borrowing a sombrero and serape, and sitting at the Mexico Boat Ride control panel with her head down, apparently asleep. As each boat would roll past her out into the River of Time, she would unexpectedly raise her head and bark: "Don't drink the water!"

Happily for her, Ginger was transferred back to Magic Kingdom within the year. And Happy 31st Birthday, EPCOT Center.

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