Chris Wallace is a familiar name to fans of the original EPCOT Center, particularly Horizons. He’s been building a virtual recreation of the beloved extinct attraction for more than five years. Horizons Resurrected creates a 3D world that helps to explain why so many connected with Horizons in the ’80s and ’90s. The combination of grand visuals, clever music, and a fun look at the future is all there. It’s emblematic of what made EPCOT such an incredible place during its original incarnation. If you haven’t checked out this simulation, you’re missing out on something amazing.
Rumors of the end of Horizons Resurrected are unfounded; Chris is still working to make it happen with the new version of Unity web player and VR technologies. He was kind enough to take a few minutes last week to answer my questions about the project and his bond with Epcot. I was excited to learn that he’s still engaged with it and has other exciting plans. Disney fans will probably enjoy catching a glimpse of his latest project Bowli Hai in Atlanta.
First of all, I want to confirm for eager fans out there that Horizons Resurrected is still alive. Can you calm their fears?
Horizons Resurrected is indeed still alive, but two things have slowed my progress over the past few years. First, I left the interactive agency I founded in 2001 in order to build Bowli Hai — a tiki-themed bowling center in Atlanta that’s set to open in the summer of 2016. Secondly, I’ve been upgrading the project to the Unity 5 platform, which is drastically different (and improved) from previous versions.
When did you originally conceive the idea for doing this project? What drew you to such a huge undertaking?
Well, originally I had no idea it would be so huge. A few years ago I wanted to learn more about game development and VR, so rebuilding Horizons, virtually, seemed like the perfect subject matter given my interest in EPCOT Center. I originally thought, “Well, Horizons was a single enclosed building not unlike a standard video game level. Piece of cake right?”
Little did I know that the building architecture would be so complicated. Or that assets like film loops, painted backdrops, and in-scene audio would be next to impossible to locate and would therefore need to be recreated by hand. Or that the sheer scale and number of objects in the show would require intense optimization for the simulation to run smoothly on an average computer — a task I was woefully unprepared for.
It’s amazing that you never actually rode Horizons in its physical form! Given that fact, how did you connect so strongly with the attraction?
I connect very strongly to the Walt Disney World of my youth, where anything seemed possible and “awe” took center stage. When I was very young, I had only ever been to the Magic Kingdom, and I thought nothing else could be better. Then, in my early teens, I got to go to Epcot for the first time and I was blown away. Spaceship Earth instantly became my favorite ride. But for whatever reason during that trip, my family didn’t want to ride Horizons. We did everything else, but no Horizons.
I didn’t get a chance to come back to Epcot for a few years, but by then Horizons had closed and would soon be demolished. When I started regularly visiting the parks in my 20s, I finally started to get an idea of what Horizons was and what I had missed.
It has everything I loved in other Disney attractions: a long duration and epic scope, intricate place making that made you want to explore the world that you only caught a glimpse of, and a comforting reassurance that everything was going to turn out alright. I know with absolute certainty that Horizons would have been my all-time favorite ride.
So many EPCOT Center fans (including this one) still consider Horizons their favorite attraction of all time. Why do you think it remains so popular with so many fans?
I think that for many of us, the appeal of Disney parks is different than what is commonly assumed — especially by Disney’s leadership. For us, the parks aren’t escapism, an incarnation of children’s movies, or a source for visceral thrills. They are participatory works of art that create real emotional responses. Amusement is fleeting, but amazement is lasting.
Epcot, and Horizons especially, were amazing. Nothing like it had ever been done before. It blew me away because it wasn’t fantasy, it was REAL. Being a kid and having your mind blown has got to be one of the greatest feelings in the world, and that’s what Epcot was all about. And if you could distill Epcot down in to one attraction, it would be Horizons. That’s why it’s so dearly missed.
Horizons feels unique among Disney rides because it generates such passionate emotions from its dedicated fans despite closing 16 years ago. Is this true with your connection?
Absolutely. It had all the best parts of all the other beloved Disney attractions. The gentle “flight” of Peter Pan’s gondola ride system? Check. The epic length and Smithsonianesque wonder of Spaceship Earth? Check. The grandness and immersion of Soarin’s IMAX screens? Check. The meticulous detail and amazing special effects of the Haunted Mansion? Check! I mean, what more could anyone want?
You’ve compared Horizons Resurrected to an archaeological project due to all the research that was necessary about the ride. What were some of your best sources of information?
I’ve been lucky enough to be supplied with some very helpful material by many different people; I would not describe Horizons Resurrected as a solo project whatsoever. Obviously, the (elicit) work that Hoot and Chief did in cataloging the ride’s components and filming it from outside the ride vehicle has been enormously helpful to me.
Also, the excellent tribute videos by people like Martin Smith have been a godsend without which the project would be impossible. Fans with specific skills have even helped out in creating specific assets I need, like Jay Rogers did with several backdrop paintings.
But the MOST helpful material has been from sources that I can’t disclose: detailed blueprints, archived film footage, audio masters, technical documents and schematics — things that just can’t be recreated. These have been the lifeblood of the project, and what makes me really excited to share this project with the fan community.
What were your biggest challenges in developing this project?
Absolutely the technical challenges and my own limited skill set. It turns out, you can’t just build 3D stuff the way it was in real life, throw it in to Unity, and expect it to run smoothly or realistically. Sound and light bleed through walls, complicated scenes require enormous computing power to render, and the way each object looks and behaves requires careful consideration.
I’ve literally rebuilt the project several times over because I learned that some fundamental consideration of game development had previously gone overlooked and was now wreaking havoc. But it’s all part of the learning process, and progress is constant if not sometimes painful.
What surprised you the most about Horizons while building the simulation?
Besides the sheer amount of detail that went mostly unnoticed, I’d have to say the labyrinthine size of the building and its backstage areas. It was huge! Hallways, tunnels, numerous staircases, and a system of overhead catwalks, plus the multi-level GE VIP lounge! I don’t know for sure, but it’s got to be the attraction that had the most backstage square footage — most of which, sadly, there is very little reference for in photos.
One of the highlights of Horizons was the ability to choose your own ending. It’s surprising that we don’t have similar options in attractions today, especially screen-based ones. Was Horizons an outlier or just way ahead of its time?
Horizons was an interesting beast, because most screen-based simulation attractions (that would allow for a choose your ending type scenario) are designed to CONSERVE space. Horizons on the other hand was enormous. Sadly, I think the days of attractions taking up a huge footprint are behind us, so I don’t know if we’ll ever see another scenario where an individualized “choose your ending” will make sense. I hope I’m wrong though!
During a fan event for EPCOT’s 30th anniversary, you showed Horizons Resurrected in an enclosed space to heighten the experience. Do you see a future in this type of presentation? I feel like Disney has an untapped market for reproducing its extinct attractions in this way.
I’m a huge fan of VR, and in many ways that’s what a theme park IS. So I wanted to make Horizons Resurrected as immersive as possible for the 30th anniversary of Epcot. At the time, that meant a projection dome and 3D glasses — but that created a capacity problem.
Going forward, I think the way to bring Horizons Resurrected and other attraction simulations will be through gear like the Oculus Rift. I have the rift development kit 2 and will be adding rift support for the next version of Horizons that I publish. If you don’t have one, I highly recommend getting one; it really feels like you’re riding Horizons again.
How does your work on this project connect to your everyday job and other interests?
There are a few things that I absolutely love, and top among them are technology (and figuring new things out) and the environmental design that exists in theme parks like Disney. For many years, I owned an interactive agency, and learning more about game design helped us with other similar projects. Later, I decided to create a tiki-themed entertainment venture of my own called Bowli Hai, and the place making and “pre-vis” skills I’ve learned while working on Horizons Resurrected have directly played into the design process for our new facility.
What are the next steps for Horizons Resurrected?
The new “Unity 5” version should be published in the next few weeks and will feature great new audio, real-time illumination, and Oculus Rift DK2 support. It should run MUCH smoother on everyone’s computers. Then there will be the process of fleshing out each scene with AA figures, and incorporating in-scene audio (which will be tough and may require re-recording with sound-alike voiceover artists). Oh, and if anyone wants to help me recreate or composite together a complete video loop of the IMAX movie, let me know! That task is going to be a monster…
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