Being the only EPCOT Center characters (that weren’t wired to the floor), it fell to us to make the rounds of press and public events before and during opening. We were usually accompanied by a Kodak Representative, but when it came time to do the parade or photo shoot or broadcast, we were usually left to my own devices.
The unique nature of the character meant that I could discuss the reality of Walt Disney, EPCOT Center and the creative process without having to limit myself to the back story of Imagination, a distinct advantage over the regular stable of Disney fairy tale folk. Before each interview I would take a moment to explain the difference to my host, inviting them to ask me anything (except about the real me).
I would, however, warn the cameramen to avoid shooting my left side since this was the period where my phony arm looked particularly phony. On one Miami phone-in program where the cameraman chose to ignore my warning, we only received one call: “That arm that’s holding the dragon; that’s not your real arm, is it?”
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It’s fascinating, when opening a new park or attraction, to watch it evolve as all the dreams and plans collide with operational reality. And no park has gone through more dramatic changes than EPCOT Center. The corporate shifts of the past 20 years have virtually re-purposed the park, changing it’s core message substantially. This is especially true of Future World.
Future World wasn’t just about the Future, it was about your future. The Park was meant to resonate after your visit, when you brought the themes presented at EPCOT to bear in your own life. This was deeply felt by the WED team that created it and, because of the Disney Corporate Culture of the time, they were free to let that purpose drive every creative decision.
That’s why there was no Mickey.
Face it, gang, a decision like excluding the Disney Characters from the new billion-dollar park could only have been approved by an executive board that was 100% behind the Imagineers’ Grand Vision. They had to know what it would cost them in potential revenue to keep the Mouseka-Merchandise out of Centorium. (One unfortunate side effect of this decision was the rumor that ‘EPCOT Center is boring’. People who actually visited the park found it wasn’t true, but to everyone else the idea of a Disney park without Mice seemed a disaster.)
When we opened, Figment was a financial bonanza waiting to happen… and would have to keep on waiting-to-happen, since the Company had little faith in his marketability. That changed with time, though (I’ll never Figment’s reaction the first time he and I ran into a kid at the Pavilion wearing Figment’s head/hat on his head).
When the time came for regime change, EPCOT was an established success. In the couple of years since opening more pavilions had come along, new technologies had been introduced and the philosophy was working. EPCOT was moving forward as the Imagineers had planned. It may not have been making as much money as its sister Kingdom, but it was successfully fulfilling its higher purpose.
Then along came a new management team; one with a different way of measuring success. They perceived, and rightly so, that the Disney franchise was worth a lot more than it was taking in. And it should be said that most of their ideas were pretty good… especially that first ten years of expansion.
How did The Mouse move in? The way I heard the story is that the new owners were taking their first stroll through EPCOT Center with their families when one precious offspring expressed a desire for Mouse Attire. When their guide informed them there was no Mickey Mouse in EPCOT, the New Leader quipped, “There is now.” And the Merchandising Division smiled.
Figment was no longer the only game in town. There was some satisfaction, though: in every shop where they were both offered, the dragon outsold The Mouse.