What’s old is new again: EPCOT is EPCOT once more. After almost two decades as Epcot, Disney World’s second theme park has returned to its past and gone with all caps. When it opened in 1982, the name EPCOT stood for something. It was an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Based on Walt Disney’s unrealized dream of creating an actual, inhabited city based on utopian ideals and cutting edge technology, when EPCOT opened it was essentially a modern-day, park-sized update of Disney’s Carousel of Progress, examining both the past and future of technology, communication and society. I first went there in 1982, shortly after it opened, as an easily impressed kindergartener whose mind was blown by the Pin Art displays at the Journey Into Imagination pavilion. With beautiful retrofuturistic buildings straight out of sci-fi films and the kind of endless enthusiasm over science that was already feeling quaint by the 1980s, EPCOT felt like the nerdier but cooler older cousin to the Magic Kingdom. It also had small-scale recreations of various countries in the World Showcase, which as a kid I understood was there for the adults.
Much has changed since EPCOT first opened its gates 40 years ago this October, and although many of those awesome buildings still stand, and science (or at least the appearance of science) still underpins many of its attractions, the techno-utopian ideals aren’t quite as central as they once were. Part of the problem is that technology moves too fast for EPCOT to truly live up to its original purpose—Disney would have to update exhibits and attractions every few years to keep up with new advances, and that’s cost-prohibitive. EPCOT has also embraced a handful of high-tech thrill rides that wouldn’t have been possible in 1982 but still maintain that spirit of technological adventure and advancement. Its most ambitious thrill ride, a story-focused roller coaster called Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind that opens on May 27, might have little to do with the park’s original mission, but it’s a groundbreaking coaster that expands the storytelling scope of thrill ride technology while also injecting some much needed new life into the park. And now that I’m an adult I probably enjoy the World Showcase more than the rest of the park. It might not really reflect Walt Disney’s original goals, but EPCOT is still a fun and fascinating amusement park full of exciting attractions.
If you haven’t been, you might want to check it out. And if you do wind up at the park, here are the 10 best rides you’ll find at EPCOT today.
You should probably avoid this one if you get motion sick, migraines or are claustrophobic. It’s a giant centrifuge that simulates astronaut training for a future trip to Mars. Part of a trend where Epcot replaces older, more sober rides with faster and more thrilling experiences, Mission: Space replaced the long dormant Horizons attraction, which showed how technology could shape mankind’s future. Mission: Space might sacrifice a bit of that ride’s utopian elan, but it’s definitely more physically thrilling, and is still based in science and the future of exploration. There is a version without the centrifugal motion, which basically amounts to pushing buttons on a fake console while watching a video. It’s okay.
Disney has gradually added overt Disney references in rides that otherwise lacked them. This boat dark ride in the Mayan pyramid at the Mexico pavilion used to be called El Rio del Tiempo, and it took visitors on an alternately tranquil and lively tour of Mexican culture. (It might have been a little uncomfortable in how it dealt with certain stereotypes…) In 2007 Disney updated the ride to include the Three Caballeros, with Panchito Pistoles and Jose Carioca trying to chase Donald Duck down throughout Mexico. Some might argue that the new emphasis on cartoon birds diminishes the well-intentioned (if sometimes awkwardly implemented) cultural focus of the ride and the entire World Showcase project. If a little bit of Donald Duck is what it takes to get families to take this beautiful, festive journey, it’s worth it, though. The ride-ending animatronics, repurposed from the ‘70s attraction Mickey Mouse Revue, always warms the heart of this duck-loving Disney fan.
EPCOT’s newest ride is the stateside debut of a popular attraction from Disneyland Paris’s Walt Disney Studios Park. It somehow works much better in EPCOT than in France, though, perhaps because it doesn’t have to bear the weight of being the park’s primary attraction. It’s a fine, fun, flitty little dark ride through the world of Ratatouille, with trackless cars zipping in and out of props and sets big enough to make us feel like a rat, and multiple screen-based scenes that require 3-D glasses to properly enjoy. It’s currently one of two EPCOT rides whose lines can be bypassed with an individual Lightning Lane (which lets you pay extra through the Disney World app to skip the standby line), and although its newness ensures that it’s one of the highest demand rides in the whole park, I don’t think I’d pay extra or wait much more than 45 minutes or so to ride it again. If you haven’t experienced it yet, though, it might be worth it. It’s a charming romp through one of Pixar’s most imaginative movies, and the kind of mid-tier attraction that almost every Disney World park needs more of right now.
This automotive testing ride was redesigned in 2012. This newer version doesn’t just run you through Chevrolet’s testing procedures for new cars. It lets you design an experimental car of your own, and then loads those specs into the ride to see how your car performs. What follows is one of the fastest rides at any Disney park, with your test car blasting around the track and responding to various hazards. Test Track isn’t just frenetic fun: It smartly adapts Epcot’s original educational mission into a context with mainstream appeal.
Originally based on the Soarin’ Over California ride from Disney’s California Adventure, Epcot’s Soarin’ has followed the original’s lead and swapped out its California-based film with one that tours the world. It still uses a massive movie screen and an innovative seating arrangement to simulate the sensation of hang gliding, only now you coast over the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Harbour. Soarin’ creates an incredible illusion that is thrilling no matter where it’s located.
One of the few opening day attractions still in operation, Living with the Land (formerly known as Listen to the Land) is something I’ve grown to appreciate more and more as I grow up. Park dark ride that explores the history of agriculture, and part tour of Epcot’s experimental greenhouse, it was the original Epcot ride that most closely resembled its critics’ complaints of a dry, boring, theme park version of homework. Now that almost all of those other rides are gone, and now that I’m older and more interested in sustainability, I recognize it as one of the most pleasant experiences at the park. Between the recreation of an old farmhouse during the dark ride portion, and the serious-minded science of the second half, it all takes me back to the days of EPCOT, while also teaching me a bit about farming.
If you’re a cynic, this overstuffed cousin to the Hall of Presidents might be a little too full of American exceptionalism. If you’re a cynic, though, why are you at a Disney park in the first place? This Audio-Animatronic, multi-media show rushes through America’s history, with Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain as warm and witty guides. Don’t expect a serious discussion of America’s past or its role in the world—this is history as theme park ride, with a fantastic sense of showmanship and a couple of great robotic performances. It’s not a ride, but this fits the old Disney standard of an E-Ticket as well as anything else at Epcot—it’s a beautiful implementation of technology and showmanship in service of a rousing experience.
Lumping the entire world showcase together might seem like a cheat, but as I’ve grown older it’s become my favorite part of the park. Obviously going to a fake China in Orlando is in no way a substitute for a trip to the real place, but the pavilions have the charm and detail of classic museum dioramas that you can actually walk through. Between films, restaurants, stores, and other activities, World Showcase gives you a brief but memorable introduction to all of these different cultures, hopefully inspiring you to travel the world whenever that’s possible again. The cumulative effect is unforgettable. And some of the attractions within the World Showcase, from that boat ride in Mexico to the massive films in France, Canada and China, are worthy of mentioning on this list in their own right.
This flagship ride showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of Epcot’s original mission. This trip through Epcot’s trademark geodesic sphere is a fascinating look at the history of human communication, from the dawn of language through the development of the printing press. When I first rode it shortly after Epcot opened, it ended with a glimpse of how computers could change society. A decade later it ended with vignettes of people using the internet to video conference with each other. Epcot has barely been able to keep up with technology over its four decades, and although Spaceship Earth is still a beautifully conceived marvel of Audio-Animatronics and dark ride design, it always feels at least slightly outdated. As an overly nostalgic fan of Disney-style 20th century retrofuturism, that is a big part of Spaceship Earth’s timeless charm, though. The current version needs some work—the last fifth of the ride is essentially a slow, silent journey back to the loading dock, with an annoying computer animation playing on your vehicle’s dash screen—but the first 80% of the ride is as marvelous as it’s ever been.
We’re going to have to separate the ride from the theme here. Like many fans of old-school EPCOT, I feel like Disney’s brand new roller coaster doesn’t really fit in this park. As I wrote in my review, it almost feels like a commentary on how Disney views the original EPCOT today, and the company’s decades-long process of undoing the park that guests knew in the ‘80s. That doesn’t make Cosmic Rewind any less amazing as a ride, though. This modern day Space Mountain unites story, music, and the physical thrills of a roller coaster in an overpowering, exhilarating, multisensory spectacle that will no doubt wow guests for years to come. Yes, it’s brand new, so there might be some recency bias here, but it’s a genuinely incredible experience, even if it’s not in keeping with the traditional spirit of EPCOT. If Spaceship Earth was as great as it could be, with an actual ending that made use of all the open space during the ride’s final third, it would probably edge out Cosmic Rewind. With the current diminished state of that EPCOT original, though, I have to give the nod to the big superhero roller coaster. It’s currently the best ride in EPCOT.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.