Monday, July 17, 2006
I spent last week in an unusual situation: I was in Central Florida and I went to two theme parks, but they weren’t at Walt Disney World. Instead, I spent my time at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
These are two solid parks. Universal’s evocation of 1940’s glamour Hollywood and its celebration of the movies can’t be beat. Up until seven years ago, I wouldn’t have thought this possible, as Disney-MGM Studios gets so much right. Then, Disney Imagineers added Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, which is a great ride in the wrong park. (Did no one at least consider the idea of having the limousine be late to a movie premiere or, say, the Academy Awards, instead of an Aerosmith concert?) In 2001, the addition of the much-maligned Sorcerer’s Hat created a new icon for the park … and sealed its fate as a park that doesn’t so much celebrate movies as shill for Disney’s own entertainment.
So, Universal Studios, though somewhat over-concreted and under-landscaped, wins hands down in the battle of the movie theme parks these days.
Islands of Adventure, on the other hand, may have (arguably) the most thrilling attractions in Central Florida and one of the most elaborate dark rides ever with The Adventures of Spider-Man. It may attract the much-coveted teen audience. (Why theme park operators want this audience so badly is beyond me, since they don’t seem to spend much money and mostly just make the lives of families and adult groups miserable.) The failure of Islands of Adventure to be much more than a slightly more elaborate version of a Six Flags theme parks points out exactly what Disney does so well … and, more specifically, Epcot.
For, while I spend a great deal of my time on this blog lambasting and criticizing Disney Imagineers for what’s wrong with Epcot, it should be noted that when it comes to finding a way to create elaborate, intricately themed experiences that fully engulf a guest’s senses, Disney is the clear leader – and Epcot is perhaps its crowning glory.
Epcot, for all of its faults (and they are only getting more numerous), has at its core the concept of not just offering one-off rides and attractions in a single location, but at creating enormous “mini-destinations” within a single park.
A guest doesn’t head to The Land only because “Soarin’” is there – or, if s/he does, is quickly reminded that there’s much more to experience. An hour or more is spent inside one pavilion, and a guest feels that Disney has over-delivered a worthwhile experience. Imagination, The Living Seas and most of World Showcase (even those pavilions without a “ride”) fall into this same category: they create a wholly immersive environment, and instead of passively walking through and experiencing a single ride, guests find themselves absorbed for a half hour, an hour or longer in one place.
This is something Epcot offers that no other theme park can match – and while the other WDW parks come close at times (and the “Walt” attractions, being the predecessors to Epcot, are the best at it), it’s what Disney’s “competition” can’t even begin to do. As I watched Universal’s guests dutifully wait in line for 45 minutes to experience a 95-second roller coaster, it dawned on me that Epcot isn’t just about instant gratification, it’s about rewarding guests who have patience, inquisitiveness and imagination. Epcot, in many ways, gives as much back as a guest puts into it, and works best for those who give themselves over to the pace and the basic precepts of the park.
Spaceship Earth, the Universe of Energy and The American Adventure may seem to violate this concept. At first glance, they’re large pavilions with a single attraction at their core. Outside of this attraction, there’s not much to them. Oh … but what attractions! These are 15- to 30-minute multi-sensory experiences that seek to envelop (and develop) all of a guest’s senses. If they don’t thrill the adrenal gland, they do (at their best) thrill the heart and mind. They take their time, they offer an immersive adventure on a grand scale. They are individual “rides,” but they take the concept of a “ride” to a new level.
What, then, to make of recent developments like Mission: Space and Test Track? These attractions are where Disney is showing us the potentially devastating future of Epcot. They are massive in scale, but tiny in scope. Even their layout shows us what’s wrong: The enormous pavilions that house them are primarily given over to the queue area and/or a retail location. Interior space that Imagineers previously would have used to create “sub”-experiences of the main attraction (think of the ImageWorks at Imagination) are now used either as waiting areas or to grab more cash.
As for the rides themselves, no matter how elaborate in execution, they’re basically short thrill rides, which neither take the time to allow a guest to savor what s/he is experiencing nor showcase the remarkable detail and flair that was once a hallmark of Disney’s design. They are elaborate in design only, not in execution.
In other words, they’re a lot like Islands of Adventure, where designers seem to have lavished so much attention on the breathtakingly gorgeous “Port of Entry” they had nothing left for the other areas of the park. (OK, there are some exceptions, but you get my drift.)
Epcot rewards those with patience, those with the ability and desire to look past the immediate thrill to ideas, concepts and stimulation that extends beyond the merely physical. Epcot rewards those who love to explore. And, if Disney can grasp this concept (a critical-eye visit to Universal might help), Epcot just might continue rewarding future generations who are looking for more than just a cheap thrill.