Over the course of its 25 years, Epcot has often been described as a permanent world’s fair. It’s an interesting, and very accurate reference that is likely lost however, on the vast majority of guests, especially those under the age of fifty, who walk in the shadow of Spaceship Earth every day.
Built as showcases primarily for industries and governments, these fairs and expos have by and large become anachronisms in these early years of the 21st century. People attended these often massive expositions to view the wonders of technological progress and celebrate the accomplishments of the industrial complex. They also sought to bring themselves closer to other peoples and cultures from around the world, by visiting pavilions hosted by numerous nations. The countless media outlets available today have largely rendered world’s fairs obsolete. People need only go as far as their televisions or their computers to be exposed to the latest hallmarks of progress, or to explore distant lands.
Epcot was clearly designed and built around these very same concepts of progress and international cooperation. But its similarities to one fair in particular are striking. While most associate the Disney company, and Walt in particular, with the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, it is in fact its 1939 predecessor that Epcot most closely resembles. Especially the EPCOT Center that existed from 1982 through the early 1990s.
Both 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs occupied the same location in the Queens borough of New York City. It sprawled over 1,216 acres of former marshland adjacent to Flushing Bay. That’s four times the size of Epcot. An illustration from a 1939 pre-opening guidebook provides an idea of just how large it was:A close examination of this aerial view reveals how Imagineers likely took inspiration from the fair’s extensive layout, when mapping out EPCOT Center. Known as the Theme Center, the Trylon and the Perisphere, like Spaceship Earth for Epcot, serve as the Fair’s focal centerpiece. Immediately surrounding these dramatic icons are seven different zones and focal exhibits, each with a distinct theme: Communication, Transportation, Community, Food, Health, Production, and Science.
Beyond these areas, at the rear portion of the grounds, was the Government Zone. Radiating out from the Lagoon of Nations were over twenty large pavilions featuring the likes of Italy, France, Japan, Great Britain, Brazil and the U.S.S.R. The Hall of Nations surrounded both the lagoon and the Court of Peace, and offered slightly smaller scale pavilions representing an additional forty countries. The nearby Court of States featured pavilions from 22 different states. Centered directly behind the Lagoon of Nations and the Court of Peace was the United States Federal Building, anchoring the area in much the same manner as the American Adventure in World Showcase.
It’s interesting to compare the overall layout of the Fair to this concept art of EPCOT Center, featured on a pre-opening postcard:And the similarities extend well beyond layout and design.
Take for instance the theme of the Fair, as expressed in its official slogan:
“Building the World of Tomorrow with the Tools of Today.”
And then compare this excerpt from Card Walker’s dedication of EPCOT Center--
“Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, wonders of enterprise and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all. May EPCOT Center entertain, inform and inspire, and above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.”
--to the following statements from the aforementioned Official Guidebook of the New York World’s Fair 1939:
To the millions of visitors the Fair says: “Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. Here are the best tools that are available to you; they are the tools with which you and your fellow men can build the World of Tomorrow. You are the builders; we have done our best to persuade you that these tools will result in a better World of Tomorrow; yours is the choice.”
The same forward thinking idealism that EPCOT Center embodied, was very much alive and well in 1939. Sadly, it would soon be dampened by Germany’s invasion of Poland and the onset of World War II.
For Part Two in our EPCOT 1939 series, we will take a closer look at the Perisphere and determine the Epcot attraction it was most similar to. The answer may just surprise you.