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Top 10 Reasons Epcot’s Horizons Was The Greatest Dark Ride of All Time

On January 9, 1999, I took the day off of work and headed to Epcot with a small bag filled with snacks. After just over 15 years in operation, Horizons was announced to be having its last day of operation. I spent the entire day continuing to go around and around, clinging to the memories I had made since I was a kid. After nearly 20 trips that day, I was the last guest to step off the ride before it closed for good.

Copyright Walt Disney World

Copyright Walt Disney World

There was something absolutely magical about the attraction that still fascinates me to this day. It remains the greatest dark ride of all time and here are 10 reasons why:

Copyright Walt Disney World

Copyright Walt Disney World

10.  Proximity From Guest To Show Scene

 

Let me explain. Normally, when you ride an omnimover system, your field of vision is blocked at least partially depending on which direction the car is turned. For example, as Doom Buggies leave load at Haunted Mansion, your field of vision is blocked by the car ahead which happens several times throughout the ride.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Horizons had a unique ride system that featured cars that were suspended in mid-air and driven from the top and behind the rider. Each vehicle was a long bench that faced outward with an unobstructed view of each show scene giving guests a perfect view every time.

Copyright Walt Disney World

Copyright Walt Disney World

9.  Capacity

 

Thanks to the bench seating, you could fit four guests easily within each car. This meant their hourly capacity was 2,784 guests, which rivals people eating attractions like it’s a small world and the Wedway Peoplemover. Even if the line was out the door and was using extended queue, it rarely topped 20 minutes.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

8.  An Unofficial Sequel to the Carousel of Progress

 

The common thread between Carousel of Progress and Horizons was the original sponsor for both attractions: General Electric.  In one of the original pitches to GE, the idea was Horizons would be a proper sequel to the classic attraction.

Horizons Epcot

In many ways, it still was. The Carousel of Progress follows a family through several generations and demonstrates how past technology influences what we see today.  It ends with the kids becoming a little older, but not fully grown and how they use current gadgets and gizmos. Horizons picked up where the Carousel family left off. We’re now following them into the future and they’re going off to college.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Are they the exact same characters? No, but the family dynamic is pretty similar. The mother and father have sent their kids to college and they keep in touch via holographic video phone. Even “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” played in one of the “Looking Back at Tomorrow” scenes.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

7.  Details, Details, Details

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

My favorite detail in all of Horizons had absolutely nothing to do with the ride, special effects or new technology. There were all kinds of details crammed into this ride. My favorite? Just as you were entering the desert farming scene, roughly three feet from your car stood a small waterfall. As you rounded the corner, you could hear the water rushing down into a small pool at the bottom (and occasionally get a few drops of water on you).

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

At the bottom of the falls near the water’s edge was an animatronic kitten that was scanning the pool. Her motions frantically twitched back and forth as she thought she saw something move underneath the surface. Every few seconds, a fish would jump out and the kitten would paw at it, trying to snatch the fish from its natural habitat. After over 16 years of trying, that kitten never caught that fish… nor did it grow older, for that matter.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

6.  The Orange Smell

 

Just after your vehicle passed the kitten and the waterfall, your nostrils were smacked with the scent of fresh oranges. The scene depicted futuristic harvesting machines on a “desert farm,” which just so happened to be an orange grove.  Thanks to a fairly hidden scent cannon, the aroma filled the air just long enough for you to take in a strong whiff on what I consider to be the greatest artificial smell to be featured in an attraction ever.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

5.  Hope

 

In a world filled with depressing images of what our future will be like if we don’t change our ways, Horizons gave us hope that a future could be better than we ever imagined. Even in 1983, Imagineering understood the world was changing and that the way people communicate, work and play was all changing rapidly. While we may not currently have space colonies or classrooms underwater, the hope was that we could all work together to further explore our potential as a species. More than any other pavilion at Epcot, past or present, Horizons made us feel like the future was going to bring us together.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

4.  Omnimax Screens

 

Although I’ve never dropped acid, skimming across a microchip ten-stories-tall was pretty trippy. Thanks to two omnimax screens tipped on their side, Horizons ride vehicles entered a dome where they were suspended in mid-air amongst two huge screens.

 

You could get lost in the DNA chain or feel the rumble of a space shuttle taking off.  The sounds echoed, the screens were overwhelming and the entire thing just swallowed you up. The audio in your vehicles had to sync up perfectly with the action on screen and even this was a new technological breakthrough for a ride.

Epcot Dedication Plaque

3.  Horizons Represented Epcot 

 

“EPCOT Center celebrates human achievements and innovation born from imagination. It is a showplace dedicated to entertain we hope, with a purpose. Our goals for EPCOT Center are quite clear; we want to first entertain, then inform and inspire all who come here and above all, to instill in our guests a new sense of belief and pride in mankind’s ability to shape a world that offers real hope to people everywhere in the world.”

– E. Cardon Walker, Epcot Dedication Plaque

 

With every other attraction, you could certainly check several of those boxes laid out by Card Walker in 1982, but Horizons truly was the embodiment of what Epcot was trying to achieve.

 

2. Linked Storylines

 

The overall story arch of Horizons was fairly simple.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Act One: Past – Examining how we used to look at the future.

 

Act Two: Present – This scene was represented in the omnimax domes and was our current view of what we were doing today to create a better future.

 

Act Three: Future – Based on what we know now, this is what the future can be.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

In addition, the queue gave us glimpses through actual windows of what future living could be like in the desert, space and undersea. Not only are these concepts fleshed out in the ride, so are the transportation vehicles used in each scene.  There are literally dozens of props, characters and themes interwoven throughout the entire ride and far too many to list in this small space.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

1.  Choose Your Own Ending

 

Long before any ride had attempted it, Horizons had three different endings to the attraction that was completely chosen by the riders in each vehicle. Based on the majority of the vote, guests could end their journey by going through the dessert, space or undersea.  It’s as if each omnimover ride vehicle hooked itself on a miniature simulator and was able to fly around complete with realistic vibrations under the seat to match the action on screen.

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

Courtesy Martin Smith Collection

No matter how many videos I see of the ride on YouTube, nothing replaces being there, smelling those oranges and being in that ride vehicle. For dark ride fans, it was like a spiritual experience. Hard to describe and it really did have a strong impact on my life.  Did I miss any points that you enjoyed about the ride? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Come back to Theme Park University and we will discuss the construction of Horizons, go behind-the-scenes and discuss the Horizons that never was! Many thanks to Martin Smith who was so generous to share his collection of photos he has acquired of Horizons over the years.  Take a moment to visit his site MartinsVids.Net!

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4 Comments

  1. vegaskippy
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Have you visited “www.horizonsresurrected.com”? It’s a work-in-progress to recreate the attraction, digitally.

    • Josh Young
      Posted January 29, 2015 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      Not only have I been to the site, but I got a chance to do a virtual version of it when Chris Wallace brought it to the Contemporary Resort and set it up in a ballroom for private viewings. It was incredible.

  2. Sarah
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Josh, I couldn’t agree more with you on all the points mentioned in the article. My first trip to Epcot was 1988 at age 15 and I had never seen anything like it. My senses were on overload and when I got off of Horizons, I couldn’t fathom what I just witnessed. It was the only attraction that I exited and looped right back around to board again. I’m one of the biggest Figment Fans on the planet but Horizons stole my focus and gave me an experience no other pavilion could match.

    I miss it dearly…and I know by today’s standards, it wouldn’t impress those “darn modern folk!!” But talk about nostalgia! I’m sure I’m the only girl in my town that goes out for a jog listening to the Horizons full attraction loop on my ear buds!!! Mission Space upset my stomach the rest of the day and scared the hell out of me because I’m claustrophobic. Horizons never did that….what a shame.

    And even though I would never endorse or suggest it, if you haven’t read the Mesa Verda Times where 2 buddies ran around the inside of Horizons taking photos and capturing audio, well it’s worth the time if you’re a Horizons fan. Dangerous? Yes! Stupid? Yes! But I learned so much more about the attraction that showed me what Disney Parks were all about.
    http://mesaverdetimes.blogspot.com/

    Sarah

  3. Dan Heaton
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Definitely. I totally agree with of these reasons and still consider Horizons to be the greatest dark ride and possibly one of the best theme park attractions period. It remains my favorite. I just love the entire feeling of the attraction and agree that even the best online videos don’t recreate that experience. The IMAX scenes would still be spectacular today. If people accept staring at a little screen on Spaceship Earth, how could they not love this? The details are so good, and the ride system works so well to convey each scene in the best way possible. It’s incredible, and I still miss it.


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