Monday, September 25, 2006
Diggin' The Land
It was a great vacation.
Although Walt Disney World as a whole was more crowded than we had anticipated, particularly the resorts and the Magic Kingdom, we found Epcot's blessing of size continues to be one of its greatest advantages -- it rarely seems or feels crowded.
Out of five park days, we spent three either mostly or all at Epcot. Despite that, there were many things left undone and unseen.
(A digression: One thing I did manage to do, though, was take a few minutes to check some of the recent posts and responses here, and I appreciate your thoughts and comments. Bear in mind that, as a former journalist, I believe that there is a key distinction between "complaining" and criticism, and I've tried to ensure that my negative comments are always offered as -- I hope -- helpful criticism for anyone from Disney who might be reading. If you feel I'm only complaining, not being positive enough, remember that honest criticism has always been one of the great instigators of change. I don't believe for a moment that anything written on this blog will, of itself, lead to much-needed change at Epcot, but I do believe that Epcot Central can be one in a chorus of voices that, as they get louder and louder, are impossible for Disney to ignore. With regard solely to myself, I try to offer criticism in the hope that it will inspire thought and lead to discussion that -- whether it is in concert with my own ideas or not -- results in a better future for Epcot. As the park itself used to point out in several attractions, discussion and debate are positive and essential to a progressive future.)
One of the things I was most struck by, however, was the renovation of The Land pavilion. I'll give credit where it's due, and it's most definitely due here.
Although the food court area has lost much of its charm and feels a bit sterile, the rest of the pavilion not only looks better than ever, it has become a shining example of how Epcot can retain its core ideals but also grow and expand to please thrill-seeking audiences.
Entering The Land, it's amazing how the pavilion has kept the same overall feel and mood of its 1982 incarnation. There's something about a fully integrated, fully enclosed, multi-faceted pavilion that's both retro and cool. The Land, for lack of a better term, still feels a bit groovy.
More importantly, The Land makes all guests feel welcome. There's nothing here that's overly juvenile, nothing that screams Disney and "characters" so loudly it makes your head hurt. Sure, there's The Circle of Life with its Lion King characters, and though I have not seen it in many years, it's only one of several components to the pavilion. More importantly, the movie imparts some honest information and spurs thinking among more inquisitive young viewers.
But The Circle of Life is hardly the centerpiece of The Land. Marginally, that distinction belongs to Soarin', but in a wonderful and (for me) unexpected touch, Imagineers have not redesigned The Land to focus solely on Soarin', but instead kept Living With the Land as the literal and figurative heart and soul of the pavilion.
I had read some speculation and a couple of "advance reviews" of the new incarnation of Living With the Land, and even made some derogatory comments about its lack of a human host. That was before I rode it. Living With the Land has genuinely been improved. The Audio-Animatronic and greenhouse sections of the ride flow smoothly together. The short film segment acts as a nice bridge between the two, and the greenhouse area is truly interesting and engaging.
Living With the Land is quintessentially Epcot. It engages and entertains, it informs, it educates, it spurs thinking and -- as almost every first-time rider finds out -- it's actually fun. It's a huge relief to see that Disney, when it wants (or, perhaps, when it's spurred on by a sponsor?), can do a redesign like this one.
Then, of course, there's Soarin'. Ever since my first ride at Disney's California Adventure, I've found Soarin' to be good, not great -- to be evolutionary, but hardly revolutionary. It's tremendously well done, but there are some suspiciously cheap shortcuts, like not decorating or theming the theater or the ride vehicles, and not taking the utmost care to always ensure that the film is projected at the best possible quality. That said, it's a very good ride, hopefully soon to be made more terrific when (if?) Florida gets its own unique film -- which would be an opportunity for Imagineering to prove they learned from the relatively minor mistakes made the first time around (like those jarring cuts from shot to shot).
I know, I know, I'm carping. But Disney used to hold itself to a higher standard, and there's no legitimate reason the company should be slipping! Still ... Soarin' is a very strong addition to The Land and, most importantly, it fits. If it's not educational, it's at least interesting and fun to watch after the rush of the experience has passed. It makes you want to get out into the world and see it. And, even more importantly, it is a great complement to Living With the Land, showing many of the environments described in that attraction.
Thanks to its recent renovation, The Land is a perfect EPCOT Center-style blend of education and entertainment, of visceral and intellectual excitement. It looks good, it offers a plenty to do, and it even has two good dining options. (The food court, in addition to being a bit antiseptic, might try to tie in a bit more to The Land's overall theming and messages; even telling us how much of the food we're eating is provided by the pavilion might be a fun way to bring it all together.) Most astonishingly, given the "sell-sell-sell-and-sell-some-more" attitude that is growing ever stronger at Disney theme parks, The Land doesn't even include a gift shop! What a fantastic and welcome relief.
The Land proves that you don't need massive infusions of Disney characters and film-based "overlays" to get people enthusiastic about the EPCOT Center-style philosophies; you just need a strong concept, a good story and solid execution. The Land has it all -- wandering through it almost felt like being at EPCOT Center again!