On Sunday, September 30th, the official Disney fan club, D23 posted in early celebration for Epcot’s 30th anniversary (which was on Monday, October 1). Unlike the October 1 celebrations, which were free and open to the public, the D23 party required a ticket (an up-charge of $65 for the regular World Passport access and $185 for the upgraded World Key access). However, the D23 party provided a much more intimate look at Epcot’s history and attention to detail. It lasted all day, and included well over a dozen panelists drawn from those who helped build the park, design it, or craft its entertainment and musical experiences.

Before we start, a disclosure: I was given free access to the panels as a member of the press. However, my wife paid for the up-charge WorldKey admission.

Logo for the D23 event.

The day began with a kickoff by the head of D23, Stephen Clark, in the venue (the former Millennium pavilion, now called World Showplace). We were shown a 30 minute video by Marty Sklar, who would later that same day arrive at Epcot for the evening dessert reception. (He could not fly in Saturday night since he’d been hosting a fundraiser at his house, and thus could not make the Sunday morning start of the event.)

On screen, Marty walked us through the early history of Epcot, from its progression as a city of the future to the theme park that we know today. Of particular note were concept images of early Epcot, especially World Showcase, which was meant to be more of a mall once upon a time, with no individual architectural styles.

Scale model and some prominent Imagineers

Imagineer Jason Surrell then played host to several men who had been charged with designing and building Epcot. Alas, most of the true architects are long dead, but the stories from these men in charge of purchasing, hiring, or entertainment were still highly engaging and entertaining.

Steven Vagnini, from the Walt Disney archives, and historian Michael Crawford showed many slides and concept art work from the development of prior Epcot attractions. The audience was asked not to take photographs in this section, and video was disallowed for the entire event.

Former Disney Imagineer Bob Garner and Disney author Tim O’Day then discussed Epcot on film, and Bob shared many interesting tidbits that I had not heard before.

Host Jason gave up trying to corral their stories and just listened in.

After a two-hour break for lunch, we reconvened to a panel hosted by Jason Surrell, Jason Grandt, and Alex Wright, all from Walt Disney Imagineering. These guys put on a bang-up show at last year’s Destination D event, and they were at the jokes again this time. They showed us many up-close details about Epcot, not all of which were secrets, but most of which you would never notice on your own.

Jason Grandt (the "handsome one") is still single, plays with dough, and is allowed to carry watermelon boxes as a foreigner. And is prepping for the zombie apocalypse.

Disney legend Ron Logan then led a panel of folks who helped create the entertainment experiences throughout Epcot history, with particular emphasis on the opening of Epcot in 1982.

After their presentation, Daniel Joseph from Imagineering gave a presentation about the region of illusions and special effects for Park attractions, ultimately walking us through the Epcot rides and highlighting illusions when they appeared.

Ron Logan leads a panel of entertainment luminaries

Imagineer Tony Baxter was up next, showing us early concept art for the Seas pavilion, the Land pavilion, and the ride that became Journey Into Imagination, which has design roots going back to Tony’s Discovery Bay concept for Disneyland, in particular the Dreamfinder as a modern-day version of Prof. Marvel. This was the other presentation at which photography was not allowed.

We were treated to an excellent video ride-through of the attraction that also seamlessly wove in concept art and still photography as part of the presentation. The two actors responsible for developing and playing the role of the walkaround Dreamfinder character were also present – Ron Schneider, who developed the character initially, and Steve Taylor, who worked the role for the next 15 years.

Tim O'Day, Greg Ehrbar, and Russell Brower

The music of Epcot was center stage on the next panel with Russell Brower, Steve Ehrbar, and Tim O’Day. They talked about many of the folks who created the magic from the past, including their mentors. The panel concluded with a live performance of Golden Dream by Billy Flanagan, a singer whose experience with Epcot when back to its origins. Playing on-screen, meanwhile, was a photo-montage in the style of the American Adventure, but with Walt Disney as the only subject of the rotating still images.During the instrumental part of the arrangement (to allow for spoken word segments), rather than hear from the familiar clips from astronauts or presidents, we heard audio snippets from Walt himself, his wife, and his friends about his dream for Epcot.

This part of the presentation was hugely moving. If ever there was an audience of people who were sentimental about a man we had never met, this was it. For many attending, myself included, Walt Disney was dead before we were even born, but this does little to diminish the admiration of the man and his dream. It was a beautifully crafted testament.

With that, the panel and the events were over. Participants received a simple button saying “We Did It” on it, a reflection of the motto during construction of Epcot, when they urged each other on saying “we can do it.”

There were tons of Kitchen Kabaret concept images

As a member of the press, I did not attend the dessert reception and meet and greet, though my wife did. Present at this event were some of the panelists, and virtually all of the Imagineers from the day’s events. Marty Sklar had made it to Epcot by this point. Participants could nibble on desserts and enjoy intimate conversations with these luminaries. On their way out, they were given a handsome parting gift, in the form of a replica ticket from the first day, which was highly decorative, encased in clear plastic.

I like D23 events, and always have. An organization like the Walt Disney Company should rightly have an official fan club. If it were me, I might make the fan club dues a little less expensive, in the hopes of getting more people to join. The events they throw, however, have no peer since they have access to the Disney personalities who design and create the products we love, as well as a seemingly unlimited supply of concept art that we all enjoy seeing so much.

That said, it does seem as though the wider Disney company’s strategy regarding fans is shifting. For years, Disney parks celebrated their milestone anniversaries with very public celebrations, all of which were included with the price of admission. Five years ago, Epcot did something similar for its 25th anniversary, although those celebrations were confined to a single day, rather than a larger scale Park wide promotion.

Of course, D23 did not exist five years ago. D23 did exist last year, when the Magic Kingdom marked its 40th anniversary. That marked the beginning of the shift. If you wanted to see big splashy celebration with a lot of emphasis on history and insider details, you needed to join D23 and pay the ticket for the Destination D event.

I guess the company is making a conscious decision to keep the in-park celebrations to a minimum, perhaps under the assumption that the everyday visitor simply doesn’t care that much about the anniversaries. This year’s events were roughly similar. The in-depth examination and panels took place at the up charge D23 shindig, while the public events and celebrations on the anniversary were much less extravagant. However, they did at least have some public panels on October 1, which is more than can be said for the Magic Kingdom a year earlier.

Five years ago, Epcot took an unused storeroom and turned it into a museum of artifacts, showcasing art history. It was simply divine. A theme park fan could lose hours in there, and still come away drooling. This year, Epcot had no such museum, though it did dress-up one display window at the Art of Disney store.

What do you think? Should park anniversary celebrations be only for those who can afford the upcharges? What would Disneyland’s 50th, arguably the most successful marketing campaign in the history of that park, been like if D23 were around at the time? That and other food for thought can be posted below in the comments section, just scroll on down to find it.

Of course, Epcot turning 30 years old was the main impetus behind my newest book, Epcot: The First 30 years. We suspected Disney would not put out a photo retrospective of their own, and it turns out we were right.

With over 500 photographs, this book provides a fan’s perspective of the Park’s history and changes through the years. Color (http://tinyurl.com/92of595; $29.99), black and white (http://tinyurl.com/8o45duh $14.99), and Kindle (http://tinyurl.com/9l3bgjm; $9.99) versions available.

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