Epcot Center changed the face of Florida tourism


ORLANDO, Fla. -- On Thursday, Walt Disney World's Epcot Center will be 10 years old, but no birthday party is planned.

Disney World, in the midst of a 15-month-long celebration of its 20th anniversary, doesn't need a separate shindig for Epcot, spokesman John Dreyer said. "We consider Epcot to be part of the whole."

But if a park's influence were the measure of a celebration, Epcot would deserve a blowout. It helped transform Disney World into a major resort and prompted profound changes in Central Florida's tourism marketplace -- from longer stays by vacationers to a boom in hotel construction.

When Epcot opened, non-believers were legion. Analysts thought the $1.1 billion park was too expensive.

Other skeptics wondered whether any amusement park could fulfill Epcot's mission of appealing to families while attracting an older audience.

But Epcot Center succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Its odd mix of thrill rides, company-sponsored pavilions and ethnic restaurants drew tourists from the start.

Epcot also gave Disney powerful leverage against competition, from smaller Central Florida parks to sunny destinations such as the Caribbean. The company's marketing staff began to tout Disney World as a "resort destination."

And in a brilliant stroke, Disney introduced a low-priced, three-day ticket at Epcot's opening. Tourists could choose between a one-day ticket that would get them into either Epcot or the Magic Kingdom. Or, by spending about 9 percent more, they could gain unlimited access to the two big parks, as well as to smaller Disney attractions. Attendance at Disney soared 81 percent in its first year, jumping from 12.56 million in 1982 to 22.71 million in 1983.

That skyrocketing attendance, however, reflected clicks of the turnstile. There weren't many more people coming to Central Florida, but those who did come stayed longer.

Epcot also was the death knell for some competing theme parks. One of the first casualties was Stars Hall of Fame, a wax museum that closed in 1984. A year later, Sea World's Florida Festival closed.

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