May 5, 2017

A Deeper Look at Westcot

Kudos to Robert Niles over at the Theme Park Insider blog and his fairly recent article questioning if Disneyland fans in Anaheim are finally getting their unbuilt Westcot park - the west coast version of EPCOT Center- partially realized in California Adventure's terrific food and culture festivals. Almost immediately, I was brought back to the original grand plans for Anaheim's second Disney park- long before the suits under Michael Eisner (with Robert Iger, by the way) cut the very soul out of the expansion project once the 2 billion dollar amount to build it was realized. Mind you, this was just for the park, and it did not include any hotels or what would become Downtown Disney.

As we all know, in its place, Disney built the much cheaper and ultimately disappointing California Adventure 1.0- a Disney park disaster equivalent to Disney's quick and dirty direct to video animated classic sequels. The park stunk. For me, the first visit anticipation of a new Disney park was ruined by the final product- and I was not alone in that assessment.

Fans knew it stunk, and deep down, I believe suits knew it as well- even if the folks working with them and the Imagineers weren't bold enough to stand up and say so. The hip and edgy contrived sibling was a test tube baby created by sharp marketing folks loaded up with charts, facts, and figures. In other words, it was a heartless disaster playing on the loyalty of Disney fans for a quick buck. (Want to see just how cheap the first version was? Go to my multi-part series here to see the concept art for the original park. It's truly "Bargain Basement Imagineering" at its worst / best. You'll be shocked at what the suits passed off as a Disney quality experience.) As we all know, eventually, the suits under Iger admitted the failure and approved a huge investment to make the park one which was no longer an embarrassment. 

In contrast to the opening day version, I love California Adventure 2.0. The whole Twilight Zone Tower of Terror into Guardians of the Galaxy mishap aside, I see it becoming a pretty wonderful and complete Disney worthy park in another half decade or so. Once the Disney Imagineers continue to add great attractions as well as remove the remnants of what was first created, seen mostly in the Hollywood Land and large parts of Paradise Pier, the park should look terrific and be filled with unique must-see adventures. Yet, along with many other hard core Disney park fans, I've never forgotten the park we should have seen built: Westcot.

Let's now take a look at what would easily have been an instant fan favorite as well as a huge money maker for the company.

This piece highlights all of the planned expansion.
Lots to see, so click on it for the largest size.

In Florida, the Imagineers had "the blessing of size". This clearly was not the case in crowded, congested Southern California, particularly in the area right around Disneyland. The great enduring success of "Walt's park" brought with it lots of cheap motels and services, fast food restaurants, and traffic that overwhelmed the streets. Available land was scooped up by investors as soon as the park was a success, meaning almost immediately. It was land that Disney itself couldn't afford to buy at the time because Walt had gone "all in" on the park project, risking everything on its success just as he had done in the past with Snow White.

When enlarging Disneyland, it speaks to the incredible ingenuity of the Imagineers that they embraced these space restrictions as a design challenge and used it to spark creativity towards a greater goal. This is the exact thinking encouraged by Walt himself. It all makes Disneyland just so charming. The park is full of attractions, shops, and restaurants in layers to be discovered all around by park visitors. 

In Florida, the extra land certainly allowed wider walkways and larger gardens, easing guest flow and making for a much showier presentation, but it also created a park environment where large, iconic buildings almost seem to float relationally disconnected from one other. All that space became a huge plus for a park design as ambitious as EPCOT Center, but in contrast, it became a crutch of sorts, a pretty serious detriment when it came to the overall design and feel of the Magic Kingdom.  

Original site plan model for the Anaheim expansion project.

The site plan map. 
Take notice of the original plan for the lake.

There was no doubt that Disney in California had to expand to accommodate its ever increasing crowds. How do you build an all encompassing Downtown Disney, new hotels, and a brand new theme park with so little room? The blessing of size didn't exist in Anaheim so the key question had to be asked: Could that fairly compact slice of land available for the second EPCOT type park build out actually become an advantage? Clearly, that's up for debate as Westcot was never built, but I would say unequivocally, the answer is yes. As with the expansion to "Walt's park", the tight space limitations for Westcot ultimately demanded a very unique and exciting version of Florida's second Disney theme park.

By necessity, the design of this park would have to be different than its older brother, and it was. Anytime people look backwards, things could be done better. So it was this time as well. The Imagineers had learned from the past as well, listening to feedback given as EPCOT Center had been around a few years. The issues regarding families with young children and those seeking thrill rides would be addressed this time around. Not with a character infusion, however. The whole park would feel fresh and different- and in at least one very significant way that would make today's money hungry suits at Walt Disney Company wish they would have followed through and built it. I won't tell you what that is right now, but trust me, you'll surely recognize it when you read it.

As seen above, this wouldn't be the first time
Disney Imagineers considered a golden hued
Spaceship Earth.

As with EPCOT Center, the Anaheim park would include two segments blended together. Future World would be complete with a new golden version of the iconic Spaceship Earth- here called Spacestation Earth. The new name and color of the icon wouldn't be the only twist from the original. This time, the giant 300 foot sphere would be in the center of a small lake with the international focused World Showcase regions of the park encircling it. 

Not only would this huge building be the centerpiece of the park, it would be seen from all over Orange County- something that didn't occur with Disneyland's larger structures. Aside from the viewing the Matterhorn, no structure could be seen from outside the park. This grand vision for Westcot's icon would become a focal point of a bigger battle with the city of Anaheim, its residents, and the Company all waging war against each other with different opinions and angles on what should and shouldn't be built. In fact, Disney also played the city of Anaheim against the city of Long Beach with its plan for the proposed California version of Tokyo's rightly acclaimed DisneySea park... but that's another story to be told at a different time.

A vision in gold.

Many local residents and Anaheim government officials weren't too thrilled with this design choice as it was viewed by them as the company celebrating and showcasing its dominance over the city and the surrounding neighborhoods. Nightly fireworks were an issue for some already. This would be too much Disney in their face for them to handle.

The residents of the surrounding neighborhood fought against Disney's plans, with the giant golden spherical icon only providing a focal point for the community build its case. The epic and much publicized battle eventually assisted the Walt Disney Company in ditching their more expensive plans- something they were happy to do after overbuilding hotels at Disneyland Paris- to build a different kind, a cheaper kind, of theme park. Note to Anaheim in its current battle against Disney- be careful what you fight for. You may get it.

Westcot's icon would have dominated the skyline, but on the plus side, the glittering, golden sphere would have been an instantly recognizable advertisement for the larger than life new park. In a small effort to address those concerns as well as the growing building costs, the sphere was later replaced by a large spire. Certainly less inspiring and definitely less majestic, the spire was more in line with what both sides truly wanted. Cheap, quick, easy to build. In other words, it reeked of the Sun icon for California Adventure 1.0. (That park once had a spire proposed as well!) But back to the Westcot and the attractions that were supposed to be...

More ideas on how to make this new Spaceship Earth unique.

Naturally, this portion of the park would highlight the future. The prevailing idea here was to build a park that glanced at the future but intentionally would be constructed without shows or attractions that had to be updated to represent an ever-changing world. Again learning from the past, the Imagineers had already discovered how difficult it was keeping tomorrow in Tomorrowland. 

In this new Epcot, there were Future World type pavilions to be found, but the topics were more generic in nature: the Land, Living, and Science, making it easier to present an entertainment focused approach. More difficult topics such as energy and transportation have been left behind in favor of considerably lighter, fantasy-based fare. Some attractions and Future World environments were based on ideas once proposed but discarded for Florida, particularly those of Imagineer Tony Baxter. This included the content of the original glass based towers for The Land. (I've got it somewhere on the blog but can't find it. The man has always proposed great projects! Look at his unbuilt concept art for Fantasyland here.)

Additionally, in stark contrast to what was built in Florida, California's forward looking area would view what was to come through much more whimsical eyes- including those of Figment and Dreamfinder in a newer take on the classic Journey into Imagination. For good measure, the Imagineers would also toss in a shimmering version of Horizons and a fresh presentation of the Wonders of Life. Now looking backward, those beloved signature attractions would be very welcome in California where the Disney theme park fanbase is much stronger- and perhaps even more nostalgic.

Beautiful, golden, and expensive.

"FuturePort" is what the concept art named it.

From the base of the park's centerpiece was Ventureport, guests could explore these attractions and smaller exhibits, but it was also the main departure point into a newly reimagined World Showcase, now known as the Four Corners of the World.

A spire in place of Spaceship Earth.

The nighttime view.

The success of EPCOT Center gave the Imagineers a chance to objectively look at the park from a constantly changing guest dynamic. The original thought in design was that adult park visitors would be the core audience. In World Showcase, guests would be enthralled with the opportunity to explore other cultures through food and drink and travelogue films without the need for Disney character meet and greets or a large number of theme park rides. As Disney looked at the facts, they soon discovered families with younger kids were almost as much a part of the park's guest roster as the Magic Kingdom. This meant kids were more easily bored with watching travelogues than adults and need something else. More rides - including those for children as well as some thrill rides- were part of the order for the new Westcot.

Latin America in World Showcase.

Space restrictions also forced a new look at this portion of the park. Instead of individual countries being represented, now they were clustered together in continents. There's pros and cons to this approach. The pros are fairly easy to describe: more countries can be represented within a smaller space. The cons? It's not as easy to get "lost" in an individual country, feeling the full depth of the place. One of the best aspects of World Showcase in Epcot is the ability immerse deeply in an experience. Getting lost in the streets of Morocco, the hidden nooks of France and Japan or the backwoods of Canada would be much more difficult to accomplish at Westcot. There would always be new cultural icons acting as lures to the next area, but the risk of sensory over saturation would be a concern. 

According to Imagineer Tony Baxter, who once gave a lengthy talk on the project, (look here for the transcript), it was more than a best of recreation of what worked well in Florida. One of the most exciting parts of the Four Corners was a major attraction called The World Cruise. Imagine getting on board a boat at 5 various ports of the world and experiencing a bit of culture, mystery and romance on a 45 (yes, 45!) minute journey on the park's waterways. Along the way in between ports, boats would enter a series of colorful, rich, indoor panoramas talking about the culture and history of the continents explored. Think about the show scenes of Spaceship Earth, the now-defunct World of Motion, mixing in Audio-Animatronic actors depicting historical events and references important to that society. The epic nature of this attraction cannot be overstated. This was Disney Imagineering going above and beyond what they had already accomplished at Walt Disney World.

All of Asia in one easy to access area.

Red Square and Paris next door to each other- only in Westcot- 
or in Putin's dreams.

Kids rides would be cleverly incorporated into the landscape via smaller "B" and "C Ticket" attractions. Travelogues to highlight regions of the world? Of course, those owl make the cut. What about thrill rides for the teens? A roller coaster in the form of a slinking dragon moving through Chinese mountains was on the agenda. Toss in handfuls of smaller exhibits to be explored, numerous and varied artists providing traditional cultural entertainment, smartly designed children's play areas, and a simulator attraction or two, and you get the idea of what the Imagineers planned to fill out the park's roster of major "E Ticket" type attractions. Let's just say this re-Imagined version of World Showcase wouldn't be met by the cries of "There's too few rides, no thrills, and nothing for my kids to do!" There was even talk of an attraction or two based on the three major religions of the world in their own version of the Middle East- complete with a reflective "peace garden". This is something Disney wouldn't have the guts to do now in our politically correct but extremist charged, global neighborhood. 

There was one other discovery to be found at Westcot- one I found delightful once I got past the cash grab aspect - was the ability to stay overnight in the country or region of your choice. Popular buildings posing as landmarks during the day (and blocking out the city of Anaheim just beyond the park) would not just house new attractions, gift shops, and pricy restaurants, they would also be the home to expensive premium hotel rooms, making this the first Disney park to truly allow guests to stay within it. 

I'll close this article with some back and white pieces of rarely seen concept art for the Westcot park created by Conceptual Design Group in Irvine, (now in Trabuco Canyon) California. (One more is at the top of this post.) These tell only part of the Westcot story, but it's a good place to end.

Would the brand new Westcot have been the hit Disney needed in order to successfully expand the Disneyland Resort and keep the cash flow moving? Without a doubt, but Michael Eisner and his suits (including Robert Iger) got cold feet and opted for California Adventure instead. Will fans ever see Westcot on that third plot of land down the street on Harbor Blvd.? Of course not! The Walt Disney Company that created EPCOT Center is gone. At least in the U.S.A., the company is more interested in shoving its latest acquisitions and film characters into the parks, hoping our wallets will thin out as we purchase cheap souvenirs. They've proved what they think by changing the iconic Twilight Zone Tower of Terror into just another attraction to sell their latest film and by placing the incredible looking Star Wars Land in Disneyland versus in the third park where it belongs.

Even though a new version of Epcot was once planned but vetoed by the suits for Disneyland Paris (the concept art is here on the blog somewhere), it could eventually end up in Asia. Particularly at Shanghai Disneyland, where the always present Chinese government could proudly show the world why they are supreme. Again, that's a story for another time and place- just as Westcot as we know it is a piece of history and an opportunity missed.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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