Big changes are coming to Epcot. Speaking at a fan convention this past weekend, The Walt Disney Co.'s executive in charge of theme parks said there would be a "major transformation" at the theme park.
Visitors can likely expect less emphasis on exhibits and replicas, and more on the characters and rides typical of most Disney theme parks.
Once envisioned as a working city, Epcot is currently part museum, part ethnic marketplace, part theme park. Disney has been making a subtle shift toward typical theme park for years, but might now be accelerating it.
"We will be doing some major transformation at Epcot in the future," Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek said Saturday at D23 at the Contemporary Resort.
"It will be more Disney. It will be even more relevant than it is today. ... And, at the same time, it will stay true to our original vision. Stay tuned, there's a lot more to come on Epcot," he said.
The company would not give details about Chapek's remarks.
This summer, a ride featuring the wide-eyed animated princesses of "Frozen" replaced the old Maelstrom attraction in the World Showcase's Norway. And most of Innoventions, which featured science and technology displays, has closed.
There has been speculation that a Ratatouille ride similar to one already at Disneyland Paris could open in Epcot's France, and that a Guardians of the Galaxy thrill ride could replace Ellen's Energy Adventure in Future World. Disney has not confirmed either rumor.
It's part of what David Koenig, an author of several books about Disney, calls "the Mickey Mousing of every Disney park on the planet."
He finds the trend dismaying. "The different lands and the different attractions, they each have sort of their own flavor," he said. "Perhaps vanilla's the most popular flavor, but I don't want to go to a business that only sells me vanilla ice cream."
Other theme park experts say Epcot needs a change because its nearly 35-year-old formula of cultural and technology exhibits can't stand on its own today.
"Epcot has an identity crisis," said Scott Smith, an assistant hospitality professor at the University of South Carolina. That will become more obvious, he said, as Disney refurbishes its Hollywood Studios theme park to include Star Wars and Toy Story lands.
Right now, Epcot relies heavily on special events such as its International Food & Wine Festival to lure visitors, said Jim Hill, an industry blogger and editor of JimHillMedia.com
Indeed, Epcot has expanded its signature International Food & Wine and Flower & Garden festivals to the point where the events take up five months of the year.
On Monday, a new event was announced: the International Festival of the Arts, running for six weekends starting Jan. 17. That excited some Disney fans eagerly anticipating a blend of Disney-themed art, food and entertainment. Others think it's overkill.
"Gee, look. Another festival at Epcot," Scott Shindeldecker wrote in the comments section of the Disney Parks Blog. "Paraphrasing The Incredibles: 'Once every day is a special event, no day will be special.'"
With its emphasis on festivals, culture and science, many consider Epcot the "adult theme park." Visitors stroll amid replicas of the Eiffel Tower and St. Mark's campanile, enjoy ethnic restaurants and take a boat ride to see produce grown with hydroponics.
Epcot is the only theme park that sells an after-4 p.m. pass, which allows people regular access for dinner and fireworks.
Epcot, originally an acronym for Walt Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow idea, had no characters or thrill rides when it opened in 1982. Future World explored technological advances in transportation, farming and communication. Pavilions in World Showcase featured cultures of other nations.
But Epcot now features more attractions aimed at the Disney demographic. The theme park opened Mission: Space, Soarin' and Turtle Talk with Crush attraction while Brad Rex was vice president there from 2001 to 2007. The Living Seas attraction also received a "Finding Nemo" attraction under his watch.
"We came up with a whole strategy to make Epcot more fun and friendly for families," he said.