“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 by enhanced by future technology?” – Richard R. Beard, Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow
When it comes to picking my all-time favorite attraction, there can be only one. Horizons was the perfect blend of everything that I love about theme parks. It had a unique ride system that felt like it came out of the future. There was humor, excitement, and an optimistic look at our technological potential. I want to live in the world of tomorrow that we saw on this ride. Horizons was the epitome of what made EPCOT Center great in its original incarnation. Spaceship Earth may dwarf it in size, but this pavilion was the thematic centerpiece of Future World. It sold the feeling that if we could dream it, we really could do it. If The Tomorrow Society has an origin story, it begins with Horizons.
Horizons opened at the start of October 1983, exactly one year after EPCOT Center’s first day. GE sponsored the pavilion, and it served as an unofficial sequel to the Carousel of Progress. Bob Holt and Dana Dietrich narrated the ride and showed us easy living in the future with their family. The original Carousel of Progress theme “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” even played during an early scene. A similar nostalgia for the past was felt in the “looking back at tomorrow” section, which offered a silly look at predictions about the future in past days. Horizons mixed a charming old-school vibe with the positive look ahead that was such a part of EPCOT in the ‘80s. From the moment you walked into the pavilion and heard the George Wilkins’ song “New Horizons”, it felt pitch-perfect.
There are many websites that give a timeline of Horizons’ history, so I’m not here to re-hash that sad story. Instead, I’d like to present this pavilion as an exception to fans’ usual nostalgia. When Disney announces the closure of a long-time attraction, we often fall into two main groups. A vocal segment complains on message boards and Twitter about the loss of their favorite rides. I’ll admit that my feelings often fall into this category. It’s hard not to have a bias towards the parks that I loved as a kid, especially EPCOT Center. On the other side are Disney supporters that cite Walt’s “Disneyland will never be completed” quote and deride the first group’s resistance to change. They’re not entirely wrong either. I’m often skeptical of updates, particularly IP overlays that seem to lack originality (e.g., Frozen Ever After).
I’ve described these groups to make the case that Horizons is very different. My nostalgia isn’t just because a childhood favorite is gone. There was something for everyone in this ride, and there remains nothing like it. The stunning 80-foot Omnimax screens at the center create an effect similar to the crowd-pleasing Soarin’. I’d argue that Horizons was even more effective thanks to a ride system that placed the screens right in front of you. There were no dangling shoes blocking the view. It also employed groundbreaking visual effects designed by filmmaker Eddie Garrick that took us on a remarkable journey. The “choose your own ending” brings to mind the fun of the different ride sequences of Star Tours: The Adventure Continues. The revolutionary models for the brief trips under the sea, to the desert, and into space remain convincing. Each ride vehicle had its own experience, which was way ahead of its time.
What’s hard to convey in YouTube videos is the experience of being on Horizons. I still have a clear memory of the lighted transition rooms that were strangely ingenious in their simplicity. Nothing felt thrown together; and even a $10 million budget cut late in the design stage wasn’t a killer. In fact, I’d argue that the changes that designers George McGinnis, John Hench and others employed made the ride stronger. They were forced to cut corners, but we didn’t notice it. Horizons wasn’t a one-trick pony and had a remarkably long ride time of nearly 15 minutes. The Omnimover technology kept the lines moving swiftly with a capacity of more than 2,500 guests and created the false sense that it wasn’t popular. Horizons was a pivotal reason for the creative success of EPCOT Center.
The challenge with describing Horizons is the inexplicable reasons for why it works. Some rides go beyond the sum of their parts, and this is a prime example. Chris Wallace at Horizons Resurrected was so inspired that he’s been working on recreating it digitally for five years. His 3D version is incredible, but it still can’t recreate the feeling of being on the ride. The mix of visuals, sound, and even orange scents came together in just the right combination. GE was Horizons’ sponsor during its first 10 years, but it never felt like a corporate advertisement. The forward-thinking attraction had grand ideas about the future yet never took itself too seriously. The attention to detail also represented the best of theme park design.
It’s easy to write an article about Horizons and make a wish that Disney resurrects it. This isn’t that kind of post. I’d love to see that dream happen, but it’s a waste of energy. My goal is much simpler. I want Disney to remember a time when EPCOT had inspiring attractions that could live in our hearts 16 years after they closed. If the Seas with Nemo & Friends or Mission: Space closed today, would fans still be writing about them in 2031? The reason I call the nostalgia for Horizons legitimate is because it holds the key to Future World’s revival. The amazing structures and upbeat music are still a part of EPCOT, but many attractions don’t connect to that optimistic theme. The Tomorrow Society believes in the promise of the original EPCOT Center. Does anyone at Disney still have that dream?