Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Things We Lost in the Lower-Casing
I’m going to admit something that may seem heresy to some and will likely seem to most to be completely out of synch with everything I’ve ever written about EPCOT Center:
I never really liked the World of Motion.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Journey Into Imagination, either.
Now, look, I know that both of these attractions have huge fan bases, and that many lament their passing. Strangely, so do I. A lot. Ironic, since I wasn't terribly enamored of them in the first place.
True, I didn’t find them to be completely realized attractions that represented the best creative display Disney could offer. However ... they did something that Disney seems to have given up on doing, something that represents the spirit that "EPCOT Center" lost when it became "Epcot."
They offered elaborate, immersive experiences filled with detail and creative inspiration. (Note that I didn’t say “creative success,” because I’d rather something try to be great and fail than simply aim to be mediocre and succeed.)
World of Motion and the original Journey Into Imagination – the entire original Imagination pavilion, for that matter – sought to deliver experiences that, up until that time, were quintessentially Disney. These were the sort of meticulously designed, remarkably engineered attractions that represented the pinnacle of Disney's capabilities: They took the basic ideas behind the storytelling, which Disney had perfected in moviemaking, and re-imagined them in three dimensions. Like Disney cartoons, they might not have told complete, linear stories, but they did impart a definite sense of plot and purpose.
Their forebears, of course, were the landmark Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean: attractions that were so groundbreaking, so revolutionary, that despite being 40 years old they still draw round-the-clock crowds and delighted response from guests. Like classic movies and books, they are quite literally timeless – not rooted to a particular place or time (except in the most oblique sense), not created to be fashionable or “relevant,” just incredible examples of a sort of artistic perfection.
The designers of EPCOT Center recognized that these attractions weren’t simply great experiences –- they were so wonderfully unlike anything that had ever been offered by a theme park before, they had quickly come to define the Disney difference; indeed, they became synonymous with "Disney" in the eyes of many theme-park guests. This is what it meant to be Disney.
It made perfect sense, then, that the foundation for EPCOT Center’s experiences would be rides and attractions that used the same medium: three-dimensional “living” sets and “actors” who told a compelling story as guests rode past and through the scenes.
Disney had no trademark on this concept – which, at its most rudimentary level, had been used in carnival funhouses for decades. Anyone could have created similar attractions, and for a while, some tried. When I lived in Texas in the early 1990s, Six Flags still offered an attraction called Spelunker’s Cave, populated with strange little characters. Knott’s Berry Farm’s Calico Mine Train and Log Ride followed similar models, all recognizing the brilliance of what Disney had created.
But Disney did it best, and after a while, other theme park operators realized that they couldn’t compete with perfection. Cheap thrill rides and basic midway offerings (usually dolled up with a haphazard “theme,” of course) became the norm.
Disney stood alone. EPCOT Center’s Universe of Energy became arguably the most elaborate ride-through attraction ever conceived. At least, that is, until Horizons came along, offering an experience so memorable and perfect in tone and execution that it maintains a loyal following even though every bit of it was demolished in 1999.
Spaceship Earth uses Audio-Animatronic figures, narration, music and smell (what a brilliant addition!) to impart an incredibly complex message that leaves a few scratching their heads and other so moved that they set a career path after riding.
Together with the (in my mind) less-successful World of Motion and Journey Into Imagination, these grand, intricate attractions formed the heart of Future World – itself, arguably, the heart of EPCOT Center.
And then came the lower-casing, brought about by upper-case MBAs.
These attractions were expensive to build and maintain. Focus groups and exit surveys showed that people wanted more thrills. And, so, a great deal of EPCOT Center’s heart was ripped out and, with it, an enormous amount of the creative edge and leadership that Disney had spent so many decades developing.
I may not have loved World of Motion, but I know this: I miss it. Because what replaced it, as technologically advanced as it is, feels, well, less. It doesn’t feel like something no other theme park could ever offer. Is it an enjoyable ride? You bet. Is it so uniquely, utterly, compellingly Disney that I could never imagine seeing anything like it anywhere else? Nope.
Remember the awesome spectacle (not the stentorian narration!) of the images in the original Universe of Energy movies? True, these weren’t Audio-Animatronics, but they still represented the best of what Disney could create. Now we’ve got a talk-show host, a retired actress, a forgotten kids’-show actor and a historically accurate representation of Alex Trebek and Jeopardy! as they existed 15 years ago. What was fresh for a moment is stale in a way that the elaborate ride-throughs never became.
Horizons allowed us to savor what we were seeing, to ride it over and over and find something new each time, to appreciate the craftsmanship and creativity that went into its design and creation – as well as simply to be entertained. Apart from getting people horribly sick, the ride that replaced it is, in the end, nothing more than a tricked-out centrifuge with a small video monitor in front of you. Have I come to enjoy Mission: Space? Actually, yes – but it doesn’t make me yearn any less for what it replaced.
That’s because its predecessor wasn’t simply a great ride – it was the very definition of Disney, the difference that set EPCOT Center apart from any theme park anywhere in the world. No one could even attempt such exquisite, fanciful, elaborate attractions. No one dared try. Disney was the master of this craft, and EPCOT Center was the perfect place for the evolution of these experiences.
When EPCOT Center became just Epcot, all that changed. I enjoy what’s there, I really do – but I long for a time when Disney tried harder and achieved more.
By the same token, I love staying in chain hotels – just last night, I was at a Marriott. It was comfortable, it was convenient, it offered me everything I could possibly need.
A few weeks earlier, I stayed at a Ritz-Carlton. It was luxurious and it offered more than I could possibly want.
The Disney that created EPCOT Center and its remarkable, multi-faceted attractions and pavilions was like the Ritz-Carlton. It gave me experiences I never knew I craved, it offered me opportunities to explore and be amazed that I never imagined I’d have.
Like those Marriott hotels, Epcot is fully serviceable. There’s little actually wrong with it, I'll admit that. Not technically.
But when you go to a hotel expecting the Ritz but you find a Marriott, well, you’re disappointed.
You remember that the uninspired-but-pleasant building you're in once offered so much more. You wander around, looking in nooks and crannies, wondering where all that fine detail and effort have gone and why they didn't want to maintain it in the first place.
The Marriott's fine. The Ritz was so much nicer.