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Epcot, The Engineering Of An American Adventure

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by , 09-22-2011 at 02:15 AM

One of my favorite attractions in all of Walt Disney World is The American Adventure inside of the United States pavilion at Epcot.

The American Adventure was originally planned for a different location within Epcot. The first location was right between Future World and the World Showcase in a modern structure described by Disney “as a sleek contemporary edifice, a mammoth ultramodern structure on stilts, somewhat akin to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.” The building would act like a bridge and a visual barrier between the two lands. Guests would pass underneath and the ride or show would be on the second level. The idea was to make a dramatic statement like the one you experience as you walk underneath Spaceship Earth. Your first view of the World Showcase would be revealed once you exit from under the American pavilion.




Two factors were considered that forced the pavilion to be located at the back of the lagoon. The first was the appeal of having the host pavilion act as an anchor on the far side of the lagoon. The second factor was the feeling that placing the facility between the two lands would suggest that the United States was aloof and not part of the family of nations.

Once the decision was made that the pavilion would be part of the suburban cul-de-sac that is the World Showcase lagoon, the architecture would have to reflect a more traditional and historic America. So, out went the modern architecture and in came the Georgian manor. Just like many of the structures throughout the parks, the pavilion uses forced perspective. Forced perspective is used in films to increase the sense of depth but is frequently used at theme parks to make buildings seem taller yet have an intimate, childlike quality. In the case of the American pavilion, the formula is reversed. Since the show inside of the building demanded a huge structure, the Imagineers needed a way to diminish the size of the façade so it would be sympathetic with the countries on either side. Forced perspective allowed a five-story building to live comfortably within a two-story façade.



The challenge was to boil down the American experience and tell that story in the originally allotted 29 minutes. They started with some of the nation’s most iconic moments, such as the nation’s founding, slavery, the Civil War, Native American Genocide, and the Great Depression. Should they include other issues such as immigration, poverty, crime, pollution, and assassinations? The solution was to find a balance between entertainment, enlightenment, and inspiration. They decided, “If an event, no matter how tragic, has led to some improvement – a new burst of creativity, a better understanding of ourselves as partners in the American experience – we have included it.” At no point is war glorified.




The project took three years of research and went through six revisions. Imagineers Gary Goddard and the legendary Marc Davis took the first crack. Randy Bright was responsible for the final show. Bright, along with Robert Moline, are responsible for the theme song “Golden Dream.”

The original plan was to have three hosts, each representing a different American Century. Ben Franklin was an obvious choice as was Mark Twain. It was thought that Will Rogers would be credible as the 20th Century representative. However, that idea was dropped as the editing process continued.




At the time, the show was the most ambitious multimedia presentation ever conceived by Disney. The stage is huge – 130 feet by 50 feet. The screen was the largest rear-projection screen ever constructed at 28 feet by 155 feet. Below the stage is a 65-foot by 35-foot scene changer – called the War Wagon – that moves show sets into place horizontally. The ‘drawer’ moves into place and the appropriate set piece rises up from below the stage. There are seven more lifts along the sides and above. According to Disney, more then two dozen computers are used to control the show.


Throughout the show, “no motion pictures or photographs were made of events that took place before the camera was invented.” That is why the first photograph appears during the Two Brothers sequence. This idea came from Marc Davis who said, “we can set up the rules for these worlds, that we create any way we please, but once we do set the rules, we must be absolutely consistent in the way we follow them.”

In 1993, The American Adventure closed for a major rehab. When it reopened, it featured a longer film at the finale as well as new Audio-Animatronics figures. These latest generation figures featured ‘compliance’, offering more realistic movement.

The American Adventure opened as the host showcase nation on October 1st, 1982.

One of the best books written about this attraction is Building a Better Mouse: The Story of the Electronic Imagineers Who Designed Epcot by Steve Alcorn and David Green in 2007. I knew the attraction was a complex machine but after reading this book, I am amazed that this miracle of entertainment runs every 45 minutes for 10 hours a day or more.

Building a Better Mouse is the story of the crew from Imagineering Division 510 who were the electronic engineers responsible for making everything work at Epcot. Under an incredibly tight deadline, they had to invent, install, and test the electronic systems in time for Epcot’s opening in October 1982. This is the story of the monumental struggle to create very complex show systems just in time, and a personal story about the small band of Imagineers who pulled it off.

Division 510 was made up of three disciplines: show, ride, and audio. The show unit created the electronic systems for everything guests would see including the audio-animatronics characters, lights, and special effects. The ride unit worked on the things that moved or show pieces that moved. The audio unit created the audio magic that enhances the guest experience.

So, why would somebody work 100-hour weeks for weeks on end with full knowledge that you are probably going to get fired once you are done? According to the authors, it wasn’t “because the atmosphere was electric, nor because of the excellent medical, dental and stock benefits, nor even because of the prestige of working for the Mouse.” The reason people gave up their lives was the swag. They were being “bribed” with “calendars, posters, license plate holders, bumper stickers, buttons, animation cells, jackets, tee shirts, books, tickets to the parks, newsletters, ceramic figurines, telephones and a countless myriad of…things, all stamped with smiling mice, fairy tale castles and big silver geodesic domes.” A typical day, during the last couple of months, included “6:00 AM to noon the contractors work on punch-list items, with the lifts stationary. Noon to midnight is spent animating the figures. Midnight to 6:00 AM is our stage control test-and-adjust. We’ve got meetings now at 6:30 AM, 11:00 AM, and 11:00 PM.” All that effort was rewarded on September 27, 1982 when the entire show ran from start to finish without stopping or crashing. The attraction was ready for the public on opening day, October 1.

Okay, confession time. I was privileged to be the Project Manager for the update to the City of Rancho Cucamonga's General Plan. One of my challenges was to collaborate with the community and draft a vision for the their future. I was trying to figure out a framework that would embody the can-do spirit evident in that community. While sitting in the grand theater awaiting the start of The American Adventure, I could not help but stare at the statues that lined the walls. Each one represented the best qualities that we as Americans occasionally demonstrate. I was inspired. I decided to frame the guiding principles discussion as the Spirit of Rancho Cucamonga and it worked. Today, these principles guide development within the city. The project won an American Planning Association award earlier this year.

Inside of the lobby of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland are the original models of the 12 Spirits of America. A plaque reads, “These ‘Spirits of America,’ carved for The American Adventure, symbolize many diverse people working together in unity to fulfill the hopes and dreams of our country’s pioneers.”

We have an extra bit to add to today's SAMLAND. Since Epcot's Food and Wine festival starts on September 30th, we thought we'd introduce you to a new guide to this popular event.

I am a big fan of the Disney Food Blog and find it a wonderful way to relive past culinary delights or to anticipate new finds for my next trip to the theme parks.

Their new e-book, the DFB Mini-Guide to the 2011 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival is a treat for those of you thinking about visiting this year's festival. The cost is a reasonable $13.95.

Bottom line. If you are going to the Food and Wine Festival in 2011 then you should have already purchased this e-book. If not, but are a big fan of the event, you may want to consider buying it as it is one of the most comprehensive summaries of the festival with lots of photos. If you don’t care about the Food and Wine Festival this is not for you.

Taking advantage of the e-book format, there are plenty of internal links and links to the Disney Food Blog website. The book promised “in-depth descriptions of events, seminars, demonstrations, and tasting option at the festival.” It also provides you the nuts and bolts on reservations and everything else to take advantage of the event including a day-by-day schedule of events.

The information is legible and well organized. The introduction is perfect for new comers and provides a good overview of the various activities. If you need more information, press the link and you will be guided to the proper page later in the book. In many respects, the information is much more comprehensive and useful then official Disney sources. Everything is laid out from the big picture down into the details. There are lots of helpful tips on how to maximize your time and get the best out of the events. Just like talking to a friend who has been many times before.

Since I will be attending the event, I was very interested to read what was new. The Ocean Spray sponsored Cranberry Bog will be a highlight I am sure. This year’s new booths will come from Hawaii (a plug for a Disney resort no doubt?), the Caribbean Islands, Portugal, and Scandinavia. The book has a handy guide to the changes in the menus of the other booths. Veterans will find this list most useful. Already marking up my copy as my must-do list.

Although Food and Wine seems like something you just do on a spontaneous level, you just can’t. If you want to get the most out of this huge event a bit of planning will really make a difference. I am not a big fan of food fairs where you stand in a line, order a tiny dish, and walk around trying to find someplace to sit only to find a place to lean as the only option. Not really my thing. Go to page 41. Here are all the tips I need to make this a fabulous experience. Thank you AJ. If you are on the Dining Plan there is clear information on how to maximize that program while attending the festival.

Probably the highlight for many will be the detailed descriptions of each booth. Containing photos of the architecture and samples of the food, you will really be in the know.

By the time you review all of the (pricy) signature events, it is refreshing to read about low-cost seminars, demos, and activities. One of the strangest moments in the book is the Eat to the Beat concert section. Not only are the artists listed but there are links to their greatest hits available for sale on iTunes ad Amazon. Half-marathon fans also get a detailed description of their event.

I think for many readers, the Touring Strategies are where this book pays for itself. Whether it be a one-day or two-day visit, you will have a great guidemap. For those on a budget, this will make the event something to remember.

For veterans, the various food and drink “crawls” could provide a bit of variety. Grab your copy and I will see you at the festival.

I received this e-book from the author at no charge for the purpose of this review.

In October, my new book, WALT and the Promise of Progress City, will be available. Just in time for your holiday gift list! We'll have more information for you very soon.


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  1. JeffHeimbuch's Avatar
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    One of the drafts I just put into The 626 queue was on this very topic! However, yours just blew mine out of the water, haha!

    Great piece, Sam. I agree with you, "Building A Better Mouse" is a FANTASTIC book. I had an opportunity to speak to Steve a few months ago (I'll be running that interview soon!), and they both provide some fantastic insight into what it was like building EPCOT. I don't think there is a better "building of an attraction" book out there, so I highly recommend it to everyone looking for a great read!
  2. mratigan's Avatar
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    Hey I live in Rancho. for reals
  3. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mratigan
    Hey I live in Rancho. for reals
    Go Rancho Cucamonga! Great city, great people, and continuing to work there on the Development Code update.

  4. Timekeeper's Avatar
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    Nice story about the American Adventure.

  5. JiminyCricketFan's Avatar
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    I enjoyed that story thoroughly! Thanks for the details.
  6. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    If anybody is going to the MiceAge/MiceChat meets at the Magic Kingdom on October 1 at 9a, 2p, and 7p at the Main Street Station hosted by Kevin Yee please introduce yourself. I am looking forward to the event.

  7. DisWedWay's Avatar
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    I would love to have worked with Ward Kimball on American Adventure, after I saw the detailed models and all the Americana going into them. Posing for one of the notable figures for the attraction was rewarding. PD