In Defense of Horizons

This article originally appeared in WDWNT: The Magazine.

If you want to start a fight on a Disney message board, you certainly have options. Main Street Electrical Parade vs. SpectroMagic (old fashioned!). Is Avatarland canceled (but a website said so!)? Alcohol in the Magic Kingdom (roving gangs of drunks terrorizing our children!). One of the longest running surefire flamebaits is the classic Epcot attraction Horizons. Many, many words have been written, spoken, and shouted over this pavilion that has not existed for nearly 14 years. For many (and I include myself in this group), it remains a personal favorite. For others, it is the most overblown omnimover in the history of Edutainment. In this article, I intend to give my reasons for loving it, and my present feelings.

Horizons and I go way back.
Horizons and I go way back.

Horizons has always been a bit of an oddball, even for Epcot. It is counted as one of the original Epcot attractions, but it did not open until a year after the park did. It was an omnimover, but not of the variety that we are used to (using a unique “hanging” design that moved you sideways through the scenes. It had the feel of watching a 3D movie pass before you. For its first 10 years, it was sponsored by General Electric (more on that later), and was often considered (though not explicitly labeled) as a sequel to the Carousel of Progress. The Sherman brothers wrote its signature song, although that song would ultimately not be used.

Even as a kid, I loved Horizons. I may well have been in the minority of three year olds who absolutely loved Epcot (and this was the 1986 EPCOT Center, not the new, more child friendly Epcot). I was a nerd early on, so an attraction that was all about the future was very interesting to me. I always found it a little odd that many of the “Future World” attractions seemed to focus more on the past. Spaceship Earth took us back in time, as did World of Motion, and Universe of Energy. Horizons was pure futurism, beginning to end.

Horizons had a coherent story. We were introduced to our narrators, a husband and wife team from the future, who were taking us into their amazing life in the 21st century. Okay, right there you see the problem. Perhaps they should have thought to set the attraction in the 22nd century, given that the pavilion opened with less than 13 years to go before the time in question began. But it seemed far off, no matter what the calendar said, likely due to the fact that almost nothing in Horizons has yet been realized, at least not on mass scale. The ride started with a “look back at the future”. This was a fairly humorous display of many of the past ideas for what the future would be like. This section was not unlike that of World of Motion next door, except that it didn’t attempt to bring us back to the past, it was about the predictions of the past.

And it was from this section of the ride that the most famous character from the attraction made his appearance. I speak, of course, of the vacuuming robot. This character was such a symbol of Horizons that for years he appeared on the park map along with the building. Additionally, he was fully represented in the exhibit back for Epcot’s 25th anniversary. While not anywhere near the level of a Figment, he was nonetheless a character back from the days that Epcot had few characters. He did not doo much, but he is well remembered. I think in the same way that so many kids feel a connection to the droids in Star Wars, almost more than the humans, we felt something for this character, if for no other reason than ‘robots are cool.’

Perhaps the most impressive section of the attraction was the omnisphere. This theater served as the midpoint of the ride. All the set pieces and other structures of the attraction disappeared, and we were confronted with a massive movie screen that looped a video describing such amazing concepts as microprocessors and DNA. In many ways this was the great grandfather to Soarin’. Almost as much as the movie, I remember the music. This section of the score was on the level of grand symphony. It really helped drive home the message that the things you are seeing truly were remarkable.

The next section of the attraction took us into the family’s life in the 21st century. Again, Horizons managed to pull off being futuristic without being too technical. The star of the show was life in the future, not the future itself. There was someone that everyone could relate to in these scenes. And the scenes were some of the most memorable of all the EPCOT Center attractions. From the smell of “loranges” to the truly jaw dropping space scene, I still can vividly remember everything. And again, the score to this attraction was truly stunning. The space scene music in particular has been played at Epcot long after the attraction it came from vanished.

The ride ended with what was it’s most unique, and perhaps best remembered aspect, which was the “choose your own ending” portion. This also was the point in the ride where it took a turn for thrills, if only a minor one. You had a choice to return the present in any of the three future scenarios your had just witnessed. This portion of the attraction could best be described as a very early attempt at an immersive simulator, but pre Body Wars / Star Tours, it was quite convincing.

In 1993, General Electric did not renew their sponsorship of Horizons. The heavily 80s inspired look at the future was already showing its age, so Disney closed the attraction. It seemed like the end, but as luck would have it (for Horizons fans at least), the planned refurbs of Universe of Energy and World of Motion ran into some snags. With both running behind schedule (I spent three entire annual vacations looking at an “Opening Soon” sign on Test Track), Horizons reopened. For the next few years, I got to take a few more rides, this time as a teenager. I still really enjoyed this attraction, although now with a little more experience in life to appreciate new things. Despite some of the dated look of the attraction, it held up better than one might expect. This is likely due to the focus on people and not technology on a micro level.

The end came in January 1999. Horizons closed for good to make way for a new Space themed pavilion. While not the first Disney attraction I had ever seen close and be replaced, this was the first time I could remember it being done in such a destructive manor. I spent an entire trip watching a demolition crew tear the building down piece by piece. Disney’s usual care at keeping active construction sites at least partially obscured did not exist here. The entire demolition was on display for all the world to see. It felt almost shocking. Almost as if Disney was trying to send a message that it really was obliterating the old EPCOT Center.

I miss Horizons to this day. Every time I pass Mission SPACE I feel my nostalgia kick in and long to take a trip into the future again. Mission SPACE has perhaps become almost as polarizing as Horizons, but for entirely different reasons. Mission SPACE will probably not survive into the distant future, even if it has already outlasted its predecessor. But I think it will be viewed in the future as a failure for Epcot. A failed attempt at overdoing thrills.

But does all this mean I want Horizons to be rebuilt and reborn? I once thought yes, that I wanted attractions I loved from the past to come back. I thought I would love the nostalgia so much that I would sit in them all day, reliving the past. Well, we all got that chance a few years ago with the return of Captain EO. And everyone was really excited…at first. What has happened in the now years since the revival is that the same forces that doomed it the first time around are back. And just like everyone else, I now skip it on most of my visits to Epcot.

This is not to say that attractions cannot have staying power. If Haunted Mansion were to be removed, for example, I suspect I and everyone reading this magazine would storm the gates of the Magic Kingdom with pitchforks and torches in hand. Some things are classics, and will never go out of style. I don’t think that happened Horizons. It started to age. I do think it could have been fixed, however. Move from the 21st century to the 22nd (given that almost nothing from the latter portion of the attraction came true), move out of the 80s views on future fashion, and the attraction would have fit nicely. There is a gap now in “Future World” when it comes to attractions that look out to the future.

I guess I come down somewhere in the middle of the Horizons debate. I certainly would love an Epcot where it still exists, but I do not know that if it did I would be popular. Perhaps a continuation of Horizons would play well with a modern crowd—it’s hard to say. I still would count it as my favorite attraction, but with the full understanding that so many factors play into that (the timing of my first visit, and my age at the time), I can understand why those with a different perspective would find that statement curious. If someone decided to rebuild Horizons, I would be first in line to ride, and I think it would have more staying power. I don’t expect everyone to share this feeling, although I would recommend an open mind. If we all dropped our baggage and prejudices about this attraction, maybe we all could really appreciate it for what it was, and what it could have been.

In Defense of Horizons was last updated December 22nd, 2013 by Michael Truskowski