Few extinct attractions receive more praise than Horizons, which charmed visitors to Future World in Epcot for more than 15 years. It must confuse newer Disney World fans to hear so much about an Omnimover ride from the 1980s. Why does Horizons resonate with so many, including some that never rode it? One of my first posts for this site was about what I believe is the “legitimate nostalgia” for Horizons. It embodied the essence of the original EPCOT Center, particularly Future World. This time, I’m going to dive further into the pavilion to explain why Horizons worked so well.
In the 1982 book Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, the text from Richard R. Beard describes Horizons this way:
“Rather than emphasizing the inevitable development and perfection of incredibly sophisticated machines of the future, Horizons concentrates on the purpose of the machines. And the purpose is us: how can our lives be enhanced by future technology?”
This excerpt does an excellent job in summarizing why Horizons connects. It did more than show futuristic technologies. Instead, it presented how we would live inside that amazing world. An extended family appeared throughout the ride and connected us to each section. There are small moments of fun combined with grand scenes presenting the exploration of space, the desert, and beneath the sea.
Horizons offered a complete experience from the moment you strolled towards the pavilion. Its tan exterior might seem quaint compared to the louder designs of Test Track and Mission: Space today, but it worked. The triangular exterior resembled a World’s Fair pavilion from the heyday of those events. It also looked similar to a pyramid without the pointed finish at the top. The building was large but didn’t overwhelm you; the architecture of reassurance was in full display with Horizons. The warm, inviting outdoor space drew you towards the experience.
The cylindrical trees outside the pavilion added to the pleasant vibes. This wasn’t just a concrete space leading to an ugly queue. Even the small sign in front of the pavilion used muted colors. This feeling of comfort helps explain Horizons’ enduring popularity. Disney’s best attractions are like home; they draw you in and work like a powerful drug. Nothing about Horizons’ exterior made you worry about its contents. This was an attraction for everyone, and even the smooth automatic doors were cool. You never felt like cattle strolling into Horizons, and that was key to its charm.
Hearing the friendly tune of George Wilkins’ “New Horizons” as we strolled through the doors offered a great start. The words “if we can dream it, then we can do it” spring from child’s voices in the background of the entryway. Those lyrics also appear on the wall (minus “then”) in large type in the walkway. This line remains prevalent today, and it’s often misquoted to Walt Disney. Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald penned the words that are still relevant. The way the kids sing “yes we can” connects to the positive message. We need creativity and the will to build a better future. That phrase especially rings true given our political climate today.
How you ever looked beyond today into the future? I love the simplicity of this line, which provides Horizons with a mission statement. It’s the promise of the future that drives the narrative. The culture of fear doesn’t fit in this concept, which looks ahead to “brighter days”. It perfectly summarizes the vision of the optimistic future that was essential in the original EPCOT Center. This “dream of the children” might seem quaint but reminds us not to fall victim to hate. This world can be a pretty amazing place if we break free of our normal habits.
“New Horizons” might seem dated by musical standards, but it fit Horizons’ theme. EPCOT Center gained so much through its attraction music with classic tunes like “Tomorrow’s Child”, “Universe of Energy”, and “Listen to the Land”. They helped make the pavilions warm and inviting places that we wanted to visit over and over. The closing points of “New Horizons” connect to our current struggle. The idea of a “future built with care” and a “world we all can share” should be obvious to our modern culture, but it’s still a challenge. This optimistic look at our future remains just as relevant now as it was in the 1980s.
Beginning the Adventure
The comforting feeling continued as we walked through the interesting queue. Horizons had a very high capacity, which gave the impression that it wasn’t popular in later years. Interest had definitely slipped, but it wasn’t as bad as the empty lines indicated. Taking the time to enjoy the queue was essential. Around the corner was the large Futureport sign, which promised trips to a wide range of destinations. The sign resembled an airport screen with listings of upcoming departures yet also felt a little futuristic. By not moving too far away from the familiar, Horizons still existed within our understanding of the modern world.
After we strolled down the ramp and around the corner, our next step was quite a convincing effect. The gorgeous images of futuristic settings were set up in a circular view that seemed three-dimensional. We viewed these paintings through windows that only offered part of the picture. It felt like a lot more was just beyond our view. Accompanied by narration, these images offered a preview of what was coming in the Tomorrow’s Windows section.
We began with Sea Castle, a floating city for exploration and relaxation in the Pacific. The next painting showed Mesa Verde and its technologically advanced desert locale. The final shot depicted the space station Brava Centauri, which offered daily shuttle departures. It’s a smart way to prepare us for the adventure. When we picked our destination at the end of the ride, we already knew the choices. It’s another example of how important an immersive queue can be to a theme park attraction. The heavy lifting can happen early and allow the ride to flow seamlessly.
A Clear Perspective
It’s time to board our Omnimovers, but they’re different than the normal ride vehicles. Attractions like The Haunted Mansion and If You Had Wings turned the cars to give riders a specific view on a scene. Even so, they often required full sets on both sides of the vehicle. Horizons lined its Omnimovers along the wall so we faced out towards each scene. This allowed the Imagineers to place a lot more into tight spaces of the building using an inventive ride path. We also felt closer to the action since it passed right in front of us.
The vehicles gave the impression that you had boarded a new transportation system for a glimpse of our exciting future. World of Motion and Spaceship Earth placed us in cars that seemed familiar; Horizons felt more efficient and comfortable. We barely noticed other passengers, especially in the darker scenes. It was our own personal show and not just a way to amuse thousands of tourists. Bob Holt and Dana Dietrich (the father and mother) were talking directly to us about their lives in the 21st century. Their personal banter was a far cry from the more serious narration from hosts at the nearby Universe of Energy.
The opening scene used a simple effect of cloud-like images with colors springing out behind them. This transition made us feel like we were traveling into another time and place. Instead of just dropping us into the action, Horizons took its time and allowed us to acclimate to the setting. It’s the luxury of having a 15-minute run time versus a six-minute one. The Imagineers could slowly build the mood and didn’t need to rush us through to the gift shop. When the music shifted and we looked back at the early sci-fi visions, the progression was natural.
Looking Back at Tomorrow
It’s time to begin the first main section of the ride, which gave a warm view of past dreams. Looking Back at Tomorrow worked because it didn’t spruce up the effects or include giant show scenes. Instead, the rudimentary images from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) and other early views were pitch-perfect. Here is the stuff dreams were made of, as the narrator tells us. The hazy look to these images succeeded because it felt like distant remnants of our past. They’re still present but slowly drift out of our memory.
Our first animatronic scene was the iconic shot of Jules Verne flying his rocket to the moon. With a dog and chicken joining Verne in the ship, it’s funny without nailing us over the head. The moon even smiled in the background at the ridiculous efforts of this dreamer. This led us into the next scene of the rocket hitting the face of the moon. The gag reminded us of silly early ideas about outer space and other futuristic ventures. Three-dimensional drawings of flying machines and other forms of progress followed this scene. We’re slowly reaching for the stars! Not all of these ideas came to pass, including a woman flying on a shark. There was far too much happening in this shot to process all of it in a single ride.
This led into arguably Horizons’ most iconic scene of the robot butler and other machines helping to provide “easy living”. A variation of the Sherman Brothers’ classic “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” played in the background, and it’s a nice touch. Horizons was a spiritual sequel to the Carousel of Progress, so referencing that original theme song made sense. There’s even a black-and-white video of a guy singing it here. It’s also easy to miss the woman in the bubble bath sitting at the top of the scene. I recognize it now mostly due to the photos from Hoot and Chief’s exploits in exploring this attraction. A man enjoyed a haircut downstairs while another robot was making a giant mess in the kitchen. It’s such a busy and clever scene!
It’s time for the matinee, and those movies added a cool vintage feeling to this section. Clips of silent films like Metropolis and Modern Times felt right at home in this attraction. Hanging above the movies were black-light images in several colors that built a purposefully cheap atmosphere. More ambitious plans for this section were victims to late budget cuts, but it’s hard to notice. The limited sets did not feel out of place and fit the overall theme. Sometimes having less can still lead to great things at theme parks.
This focus on vintage pop culture allowed Horizons to avoid feeling too stuffy or dated. There was a universal appeal to these old-time views of science-fiction. They would seem no more out of place today as they did in 1983. The natural progression of these screens moved us slowly towards the more bustling scene that followed. The room depicting future ideas from the ‘50s was a crowded mess of buildings crammed together into a small space. The music shifted to an upbeat tune, and the sounds of horns blared across the room. It’s not my first choice of a room to get stuck inside, but there’s still plenty to see.
Transitions to Greatness
The next hallway was one of the ride’s most important moments. The transition scenes helped build the warm atmosphere more than anything else. The music shifted towards a sense of wonder, and the narrators restated the attraction’s mission statement once again. Tomorrow’s horizons are here today, and we’ll see them soon. The dim lighting combined with the music to create a relaxing feeling. It also helped build the surprise when we reached the gigantic Omnimax screens. We don’t expect them and are stunned with the massive image in front of us.
This scene reinforced the importance of the side-facing ride vehicles, which opened up the giant screens to our view. It’s a more convincing effect than even Soarin’ because all we saw was the images in front of us. Flying over the cityscape and catching an up-close view of the microprocessor remains stunning today, even on a home screen. The impact within the pavilion was truly breathtaking, and it only lasted for a short time. In his book From Horizons to Space Mountain, George McGinnis describes the more ambitious original ideas for this scene, which included three screens and a spiral track past the screens. It’s intriguing to consider what might have been without the budget cuts, but the final version still was impressive.
The Omnimax centerpiece represented the present day and near future, but the technologies wouldn’t be dated today. We no longer use the space shuttle, but the idea of colonies in space remains astounding. Sea exploration still has a long way to go, and up-close views of computer chips are hardly commonplace. Despite just being a giant screen, this presentation still ranks among the most impressive scenes that Disney’s ever created for its theme parks.
Another effective transition prepared us for the attraction’s second half, known commonly as Tomorrow’s Windows. I can’t say enough again about the importance of the brief moments before a new area. This animatronic-filled section included some of Horizons’ most memorable scenes and is quite different from what preceded it. It would be jarring to progress immediately from the Omnimax screen to the next show scenes. The music shifted to a more playful tune as we observed the mother and father in their futuristic home. I wanted to live in this world back when I was a kid, and little has changed over the years.
The idea of viewing these scenes through “windows” is also inspired and fits with the ride system. We’re seeing the future and its technologies as a tourist, so the slight distance makes sense. The connections to the Carousel of Progress are direct in this scene. There’s even a dog sitting next to the father to match the structure of the earlier attraction. I still love the idea of modifying the final scene in the Carousel of Progress to fit this type of setting. It would help Disney to eliminate the need to stay up to date as technologies changed.
Our next stop was the desert, which introduced the famous smell of oranges. It’s a simple effect yet worked brilliantly; some fans are still looking to recreate that scent today. This small touch heightened the scene beyond just seeing the family working in the desert. Soarin’ employs a similar tactic to heighten its images today, but nothing matches the oranges on Horizons. This scene also used a clever effect of having characters speak through video screens. We observed one side of the conversation and then saw the other person later.
This set-up was used again in the next scene with the beach boy and the daughter’s conversation. Fitzgerald actually played the guy on the video screen. He’s always late. The music became ever more fun in this section, with kids harmonizing in the background. It’s such a pleasant and relaxing environment! Our next stop was the floating city to meet the class (and a pet seal!) preparing for their diving session. Kids enjoying the technological advances were easy to enjoy for an idealistic kid in the ‘80s. The mother also really loved floating cities and became snarky with the father (seaweed!). Even our optimistic narrators get a little grumpy sometimes.
Mysterious New Worlds
Horizons succeeded by giving us a down-to-earth view of futuristic technologies. The undersea exploration vehicles don’t seem too out there, and I’m sure there are more things to discover in our oceans. This tone carried over into the space scenes, which used majestic music to accompany the structures. Our first glimpses of the space stations did not disappoint. The animation presented a believable circular structure, at least if you didn’t consider the huge cost. I’m a space junkie, so these scenes really hit home. The “Space” music clip is one of my favorites from all of Disney World.
The physical sets in front of our vehicles combined with the screen to deliver an effective view of space. Astronauts hang from the sets and help to make the forced perspective come together. The show scene felt gigantic yet did not occupy a vast surface area. The illusion drew you into the scene. We next passed a spacecraft with the attraction’s old Century 3 name waiting in a hangar bay. The following “window” into the vast space colony promised a grand setting where more than just a few could live. A painting from Shim Yokoyama revealed an intricate look at this outer-space world in the background. The shift back and forth between screens and sets worked so well here. The large shots transitioned perfectly to the zero gravity exercise. The fun in that scene also helped to avoid too much grandeur on display.
This section’s memorable scene depicted the family interacting in zero gravity. The father stood upside down at the top while the son floated high in the room. A dog also sailed up high while the mom tried to keep everything together on the bottom. It hearkened back to the focus on the family of the Carousel of Progress. The human side of the future was essential to Horizons. It was about how we would function in these environments. The technologies might be amazing, but they mean little without making life better for the people living there.
Choose Your Own Ending
After enjoying a birthday party with the entire family, it’s time to make our way back home. This transportation involved one of Horizons’ most famous elements. Riders got the chance to pick their flight path back to the Futureport — space, desert, or undersea. These three habitats were the foundation of the Tomorrow’s Windows section, so it made sense to involve them once again. The individual screens to simulate the flight might seem quaint today, but they were remarkable at the time. Even the touch screens to make your selection were amazing.
These traveling-screen scenes were short but struck just the right chord. Instead of closing with the birthday party, we got to experience a little more excitement. The three options brought guests back to Horizons to see the choices. Each one had its own good qualities, though the bright desert stood out the most for me. After passing a GE logo, we stepped onto the moving platform and back to reality. There was very little product placement in Horizons, which might explain why GE dropped their sponsorship in 1993. It barely intruded into the experience.
The Prologue and the Promise
There was one more surprise on the way out — the striking mural “The Prologue and the Promise” from Bruce McCall. The gorgeous image of people standing in front of a bright future summarized Horizons perfectly. The tall, futuristic structure resembles the tower that appeared in the 2015 movie Tomorrowland. That film shared this ride’s ideas of an optimistic future. The mural also included famous monuments from our past and present. It was a stunning creation. Sadly, GE removed the mural and added a GE logo to heighten their place in the attraction.
The fate of “The Prologue and the Promise” is a perfect metaphor for the ultimate fate of Horizons. Business needs took precedence, and it closed for good in early 1999. Mission: Space now occupies the location and provides thrills, but it doesn’t resonate emotionally. I don’t hate the attraction but feel that it could use some adjustments to maximize its potential. Horizons will live on in our memories and through excellent tributes around the Internet. It remains one of Disney’s greatest creations and my personal favorite. I try to remain hopeful that the spirit of Horizons will continue in future attractions. Can Disney lead us to the promise of brighter days?
Sources: From Horizons to Space Mountain by George McGinnis, Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow by Richard R. Beard, Horizons – Ultimate Tribute by Martin’s Videos