Unless you happened to vacation at Walt Disney World Florida in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you might not be familiar with Horizons, a dark ride attraction at EPCOT widely thought of as the greatest vision of “future living” ever created. The two-story, spaceship-shaped pavilion located on the east side of the park’s “Future World” housed a remarkable 54 Audio-Animatronic figures, 770 props, 12 projectors, and a pair of massive OMNIMAX screens (groundbreaking technology at the time) spread across 24 sets set in the year 2086. Upon its opening in October of 1983, Horizons showcased man’s relationship to the sea, land, air, and space through a beautiful series of stunning futuristic vignettes. In a 1989 interview, Michael Jackson cited Horizons as his personal favorite Disney attraction (alongside Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain). Many still consider Horizons to be the greatest Disney theme park attraction, ever.
However, when the 1990s rolled around the ride had significantly lost its popularity with the general public. With tastes rapidly changing and short attention spans increasing, many park guests no longer had the patience to sit still for 15 minutes, and priorities began shifting towards more “thrill-based” rides such as Test Track and Mission: SPACE. In December of 1994, Horizons closed its doors indefinitely without any formal notice or announcement. Serious Disney park goers were devastated by the sudden news and regretful they weren’t given the chance to say a proper goodbye or ride one last time.
“Hoot” (left) and “Chief” (right) in the Art Deco Apartment scene at Horizons. Photo courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times.
Let’s fast forward exactly one year later to December 1995, as two best friends in their late twenties were working mind-numbing desk jobs and living in a shitty downtown Orlando apartment. Dave Ensign (aka “Hoot Gibson”) and Ed Barlow Jr. (aka “Thunder Chief”) had been insanely huge Horizons fans ever since it opened when they were 15 years old. They were thrilled when the announcement came in: Horizons was to be re-opened for a limited time due to the closure of two other attractions that were down for refurbishment in Future World (Universe of Energy and World of Motion). That’s when this story really begins: Hoot and Chief set out to document the ride and get as much photo, video, and audio coverage as they could before it closed again. Not knowing exactly how much time they had to get it done, not knowing how it would be done, just knowing that it had to be done.
Audio-Animatronic figure with Bionic Fonzi in the Desert Habitat Kitchen scene. Photo courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times.
Their next several workdays in the office following the announcement involved making an extensive checklist as they broke down all 24 scenes in the ride and itemized a list of props, hand-painted backdrops, and set pieces. They wanted to document every detail in the ride at all costs. Over the following weeks and months, they equipped themselves with mag lights, still cameras, and huge JVC VHS and Super 8 camcorders. They quickly realized that properly documenting everything on their checklist the way they wanted to would require exiting the “OMNIMOVER” ride vehicle while it was in motion. How would they be able to pull this off without getting caught, and just how extensive was the security on Disney park rides?
In a pre-9/11 Walt Disney World, security measures were basically implemented only when the park noticed significant and repeated incidents of park guests climbing out of their ride vehicles. Only then would they apply whatever security measures were necessary for that particular attraction: Universe of Energy was monitored on closed circuit television; The Living Seas and Haunted Mansion had intrusion mats (a security system that completely shuts down the ride when stepped on by someone who had exited their vehicle); and Spaceship Earth eventually got infrared sensors. To their good fortune, Horizons was perhaps the only Disney attraction ever built without any security whatsoever.
Hoot and Chief started Phase I of their operation with a very basic strategy for exiting their OMNIMOVER ride vehicle: “Jump out, get shots, jump back in.” However, after this went on for a while they wanted to spend more time on the sets, so they began testing different strategies using trial and error to get a larger gap of empty ride cars. Chief would hang out right near the loading area and watch people board the ride using the mirrors in the entry hallway, and Hoot would stay at the front entrance where people entered the building. Chief would count the ride vehicles; there always had to be at least six empty vehicles ahead of them and six empty vehicles behind for them to remain unseen. Upon boarding the ride and rounding the corner they’d jump out and run like the wind to get as far ahead as possible. By keeping count of the car numbers they had a precise idea of how much time they could spend in each individual scene, sometimes 30 seconds, sometimes a minute or two.
Chief jumps back into his OMNIMOVER vehicle. Courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times YouTube channel.
Chief hangin’ out in the Undersea Classroom scene. Photo courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times.
Over the course of the next several months Hoot and Chief had mastered their technique, meeting at EPCOT in the evening after a long day of work at the office. They got very good at knowing how much time they could spend in each scene simply by doing it over and over. But soon this became boring and repetitive; they wanted to explore the ride more, and make it to some of the areas they weren’t able to get to. This began Phase II of their efforts, exiting their ride vehicles and staying inside Horizons while it was operational, sometimes for as long as 4-8 hours at a time!
Finally free to explore and hang out in the ride as long as they wanted, the duo went deep behind the scenes into the “guts” of the ride. They were surprised to find huge empty rooms, amazingly high catwalks, dirty Flintstone cartoons scrawled on the walls, empty beer cans from 1983, even a “Scent Cannon” used to create the smell of orange “citrus blossom.” A weird abandoned maintenance room soon became their “base camp” where they could set down their equipment, go on little trips to take pictures, record audio, etc. and then come back without having to lug their backpacks and gear with them everywhere they went. This process became so routine that they quickly became totally familiar and comfortable with their environment as they ate dinner there and washed themselves in the Mesa Verde Kitchen scene’s waterfall. They even began inviting some of their friends along on their adventures including “Sunnycide” (Hoot’s girlfriend who years later became his wife and still is to this day), “Bionic Fonzi” (webmaster of the best Horizons tribute website at the time), and their pal Spike Tripper.
Hoot’s girlfriend Sunnycide with Robo Chef in the Art Deco Apartment Kitchen. Photo courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times.
By the late ‘90s, Horizons was miraculously still in operation, and Hoot and Chief were at the top of their game. Of course that kind of confidence can only give way to a higher risk of danger. One evening Hoot haphazardly stepped onto a piece of rotten plywood and fractured his right foot; another night Chief cut his head wide open. The danger they put themselves into was actually far higher than either of them realized at the time. Many of Horizons’ sets operated on a carousel-style turntable system, and if you were not paying attention while traversing from scene to scene one could easily have their arm or leg completely severed by the heavy machinery. Disneyland’s Carousel of Progress ran on a similar turntable system, and in 1974 when the theatre was reopened as America Sings, an 18-year-old cast member named Deborah Gail Stone was crushed to death when she became caught between the rotating theater wall and the non-moving stage wall.
Hoot crawls through filth to get a close-up of Holo-Girl. Photo courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times.
Becoming too comfortable in their environment eventually led to Hoot and Chief being seen, only twice: once by a little boy and his father, and another time by an overweight maintenance man who turned his flashlight on them and attempted to give chase. They hid in a hole underneath the Sea Castle scene, which was a square of the background painting cut away like a doggy door revealing an unfinished room. There they hid while Horizons cast members stopped the ride and searched for them. Over two hours later when the employees gave up chase, Hoot and Chief, masters of their domain who outsmarted all, discreetly hopped back into the first empty ride vehicle they saw. They exited the ride holding hands and pretending to fawn over one another. It happened to be the first ever “Gay Day” at Walt Disney World, and if anybody confronted them at the unloading dock they had planned on screaming “discrimination!” While that was the best plan they could improvise in the moment, they were ultimately able to blend into the crowd and leave the park without being stopped by security. Hoot and Chief were back at EPCOT two days later to resume their secretive operation.
Friend Spike Tripper lounges in Nova City’s modern living room. Photo courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times.
Horizons closed its doors once again on January 9, 1999, this time permanently. On this sad but inevitable day they both knew was coming, Hoot and Chief kissed their favorite Animatronic figures goodbye and boarded one of the last cars to make it through the dark ride. Upon exiting the OMNIMOVER vehicle for the final time, they toasted with grape juice outside the building amongst other die-hard fans who had showed up to pay their goodbyes. It was officially over for them and everyone else, and that was followed by an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. The Horizons building stood unoccupied for well over a year before it was slowly torn down.
March 2009: Ten years have gone by, and two mysterious and anonymous Horizons fans by the names of “Hoot” and “Chief” surface on the internet for the first time. They begin sharing their scanned photos, digitized videos, and story via their blog, Mesa Verde Times (still active and worth exploring if you have several days to kill). Besides their incredible story—told out of sequence one blog post at a time—what is most impressive is the amount of ride details they were able to document in the years before it closed. There were so many details on Horizons that you’d see dozens of new things every time you rode it: hologram effects, voice-activated refrigerators, plastic fruit, the 2086 Athene Home Computer, Pepper’s Ghost illusions, clear plastic touch screen restaurant menus, the tropical breeze machine, laser disks, UFO cakes. So much rich detail, so many things that were visible but unexplained to the average guests, so many things that were almost impossible to see from your ride vehicle unless maybe you had amazing superhero eyesight. The birthday scene for example actually had an entire background painting behind it that was impossible to see, but it was there. In order to see it you would have had to climb on top of the birthday set, as Hoot and Chief did. They risked life and limb to make sure Horizons would be remembered, and now it has. Thank you, gentlemen!
One of the myriad of maintenance rooms at Horizons. Photo courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times.
The 2086 Athene Home Computer: None of these details could be seen from the ride vehicle. Photo courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times.
Hoot defies weightlessness at Brava Centauri’s Space Colony. Photo courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times.
Cecil “Chief” Ed Barlow Jr. passed away on May 29, 2014 at the age of 45 after a hard battle with cancer. Ed was loved by many and had a huge turnout at his memorial service. At Chief’s final request, his ashes were scattered at the Magic Kingdom by Hoot, just around the corner from the location where the two best friends met.
Dave “Hoot” Ensign recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign to fulfill his lifelong dream of building his own mini golf park in Orlando, FL. The park has a mid-century western theme and will be called “Westward HO!e in One.”
Chief (left) and Hoot (right) in Orlando, 1988.
A very 80s TV commercial for Horizons.
One of Hoot and Chief’s many “behind the scenes” home movies. Courtesy of the Mesa Verde Times YouTube channel.
Special thanks to Josh Randall and Nathaniel Thompson