Friday, January 30, 2009

A Quick Word to the Wise

To the marketing gurus behind the new Walt Disney World website: Spaceship Earth is many things, including an architectural icon, an engineering work of wonder and a symbol of hope and progress. But calling it a "giant golf ball" is demeaning and insulting. Sadly, it's also not surprising.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- Number 1

There are literally hundreds of "best" things about EPCOT, from the Fountain of Nations ... to the music that plays throughout Future World ... from the music-filled dinner at Biergarten ... to the "undiscovered" back alleys and side paths in the Morocco and United Kingdom pavilions.

Likewise, there are, unfortunately, a large number of things that aren't just worthy of improvement, but are downright lousy. That creaky wooden stage area at the Fountain of Nations ... the Beverly soda at Club Cool (though this falls into the category of "strangely worthwhile" to me) ... the out-of-place Character Connection ... the travesty of turning Akershus into a "princess" dining facility ... the carny-style sales carts that line the streets prior to Illuminations ... the doesn't-fool-anyone "Eiffel tower" ... the ghost town that was the Wonders of Life.

Yes, as many readers have pointed out, EPCOT Central tends to find more wrong with EPCOT than right -- much like the teacher who believes a student should be getting an A, not a B-minus. It could be so much more.

There are bad things about EPCOT, and there are resplendent ones. So, for this final list, EPCOT Central will work its way backward, writing first about its No. 1 worst at Epcot and EPCOT Center, and ultimately ending on a positive note, with the finest, most majestic and memorable offering EPCOT has ... and perhaps has ever had. What is it? Read on to find out.

The Worst and Best of EPCOT Center-- #1

Worst: CommuniCore
The idea could have been turned into something extraordinary -- the familiar "world's fair" concept of allowing American (and, today, global) industry to showcase their work and how it will impact our future. A place where we could see, feel and interact with the technologies and the ideas that would shape our Future World. But it never, ever worked. From the start, CommuniCore lacked vision. The "Astuter Computer Review" was rightly one of the fastest-shuttered attractions at EPCOT Center. The computerized coaster was a blast, but even in 1982 seemed like something you could find in other places. The flag game was silly. The computer technology on display was rudimentary even by the standards of the early 1980s. This was supposed to be the "community core" of EPCOT Center, but felt more like the kind of place you wander through without quite knowing what to do. Later, Innoventions would offer more current technology, but with a heavy-handed sales pitch in most cases, and even if it had a more understandable layout, the result was still the same: mostly boredom. CommuniCore should have been one of the centerpieces of EPCOT Center, but wound up as a series of unimpressive "sideshows." From the moment the first artists renderings of EPCOT Center were released, it seemed CommuniCore might be a blueprint for literal community centers that could be replicated around the country, a centralized hub for technology, information and education. But it never happened, not in the real world, and certainly not at EPCOT. Especially given its prominent location at the heart of EPCOT Center, CommuniCore was a bust. Alas, it was replaced by a bust, as well.

Best: Horizons
"All shiny and new" -- that's all you needed to know. Our future was going to be amazing, and we were the ones who were shaping it. There is no question that Horizons exemplified everything Disney did best, as well as encapsulated EPCOT Center's theme brilliantly. Although it wasn't the visual icon of the park, like Spaceship Earth, it may as well have been. I'm not sure many would have complained if Horizons had been dismantled and then put back together inside the geosphere, since it was the perfect EPCOT attraction. Some have pointed out recently that Mission: Space isn't a pavilion but just a ride. The same was true for Horizons, of course. A recent post on the wonderful Progress City blog describes a post-show that never came to be, which would have "filled out" the pavilion. But unlike Mission: Space, Horizons wasn't just a ride; it was a lengthy, immersive, family friendly experience that combined Audio Animatronics, smellitizers, film and even interactivity -- long before the latter was possible with CG technology.

Optimism abounded in Horizons. The attraction wasn't afraid to suggest that our future was a good one, and in our hands it was safe. Keep in mind, Horizons was conceived and built not long after the end of the Vietnam War, as the country was coming out of a recession and energy crisis, after an attempted presidential assassination and the Iranian hostage crisis. We had experienced a fair share of trauma, but Horizons assured us it would all be OK. Of course it was a fairy tale. Of course it was borderline silly. But optimism always is. Horizons was uncommonly brave for being so sure of its happy theme despite evidence to the contrary. The future couldn't be anything but promising if we could dine with friends from Africa under the sea, or watch a storm gather in the desert while hovercraft harvested oranges, or imagine ourselves as part of a family that floated together in an outer-space home. Getting dizzy while diving into the double-helix of a DNA strand may not have taught us anything, but it was infinitely more inspiring, more astounding, than a ride designed primarily to get you sick.

We face new horizons today, but at EPCOT, without this remarkable attraction, they don't seem quite so shiny, quite so new.

The Worst and Best of Epcot-- #1

Worst: Imagination! Pavilion
It's cringe-worthy. Just as Mission: Space splits the family due to its unrelenting intensity, so does the awkwardly named Imagination! Pavilion. (I discovered that the exclamation point is being used by visiting Disney's equally cringe-worthy new "Epcot Theme Park" webpage, which actually compares the majestic Spaceship Earth to a golf ball and includes a picture of the Innovations entrance that hasn't even been touched up in Photoshop -- the "ghost" effect of carelessly removing the word "West" is evident. Meanwhile, "Disney's Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure" is touted as the premiere new "attraction" at Epcot Theme Park. OK, sorry, I digress. Badly.)

From the start, the Imagination pavilion -- excuse me for not using the exclamation point anymore -- was iffy. Yes, it was for kids, but it was almost only for kids. It was as cloyingly sweet as drinking Coke with a mouthful of Bubble Yum. Yes, Figment and the Dream Finder were there, and they had the advantage of being the unofficial mascots of Future World. But adults had a very hard time finding something to love about this place, and if it was fair to "balance out" EPCOT and provide something for the kids, well, fair enough. But then, an iffy pavilion went tragically wrong. A late-'90s, Disney-specific fascination with a gear motif invaded. An already icky-sweet kids ride became a travesty, that ultimately was reworked into an almost-travesty. And a 3-D film that provided more than a few laughs on the first viewing became, somehow, a permanent Epcot attraction. Look here, Disney -- Honey I Shrunk the Audience not only isn't very good, but I can get a better 3-D experience in IMAX theaters around the country today. There's absolutely nothing special about this film anymore, and it certainly doesn't stir the "imagination."

Then again, this is Disney's public acknowledgement of how it perceives the concept of imagination. And that, sadly, says an awful lot.

Best: Illuminations -- Reflections of Earth
Several readers guessed this was coming ... and there is, in the opinion of EPCOT Central, no single better attraction, present or past, at Epcot. Illuminations -- Reflections of Earth is a stunning achievement, one that frankly transcends mere entertainment (which is how, no doubt, most guests perceive it -- just "the fireworks show") and becomes a majestically memorable artistic experience. Without a single Disney character (unless you count very brief glimpses of Mickey Mouse), without a single reference to a Disney work, it embodies all that Walt Disney himself believed: the promise of mankind, the ways in which we are all connected, the glory we feel when we achieve great things, the perserverence we display when challenged. It combines an artistic expression of the creation of the world with a literally glowing display of the diversity, the beauty and the power of our planet and ourselves.

Illuminations -- Reflections of Earth offers soaring music, dazzling lights, and impressive firepower, and few who see it walk away unmoved, even if they can't quite explain why.

It's a beautiful end to a day at Epcot, and a perfect representation of everything the park could be. Illuminations -- Reflections of Earth may have been created to celebrate the millennium, but it continues as a way to celebrate every day, to remind us that we are all on the same journey, ready to make another thousand circles 'round the sun, not knowing the future, but confident it is good.

Bravo, Disney. Bravo, Epcot.

May Illuminations -- Reflections of Earth never go away. It's perfect as it is. Don't tinker with it. Be proud of the fact that if there are flaws in Epcot, this is gloriously, spectacularly, wonderfully perfect.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- Number 2

As EPCOT Central moves closer to revealing its Number 1 "Best and Worst of Epcot," it's rather remarkable how the exercise has revealed just how much EPCOT started with a pitch-perfect theme that needed fine-tuning and care, and how The Walt Disney Company has allowed it to devolve into just another "Disney Park." That doesn't mean, though, that the very best that EPCOT has to offer isn't something very special indeed ...

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- #2

Best: The American Adventure
Ben Franklin doesn't make it up those stairs quite as smoothly anymore, and except for the stirring short film at the conclusion, little in The American Adventure has been altered in 27 years, even while America itself has seen remarkable change in that time. How wonderful it would be to see a new scene that acknowledges the Vietnam War, American innovations in technology, or the role of activists like Gloria Steinem and Cesar Chavez, who were still struggling for equality when the show opened in 1982. (Yes, they are both briefly represented in the film.) But carping aside, there are fewer finer examples of Disney showmanship than The American Adventure. No doubt, some readers will take exception to the pro-American theme and the schmaltzy sentimentalism that glosses over what Walt Disney once called "the hard facts that created America."

"Disney Parks" have all but forgotten that rather important element of Walt's opening-day speech at Disneyland, but here, under the veil of Disney optimism, those hard facts are on full display. People die, there are consequences, there are tears that are legitimately earned. The American Adventure is a masterful blend of Audio-Animatronic actors, spectacular set design, a compelling story and memorable music. It is perhaps the pinnacle of Disney Imagineering, and it truly thrills the heart -- not just the body.

Some will say it's boring and it's just a good excuse for a 30-minute nap. I feel sorry for those people, and sorry for the EPCOT that could have been (and, in the spirit of The American Adventure, perhaps still can!) -- it's a pavilion and a show worth visiting time and time again, one that leaves the mind and spirit soaring, and reminds EPCOT guests that pessmism is impossible when they remember the challenges faced by those who have come before us. No theme park in the world offers anything like The American Adventure. No one has dared since. Not, sadly, even Disney.

Worst: Mission: Space
It's a hell of an experience, there's no doubt. But in the end, it's not much different than any other spinning ride, just a lot more elaborate; and you're not actually doing anything except staring at middling CG imagery on a small screen. The lift-off and moonshot moments are thrilling and disconcerting and unique -- but they also make some guests fearful that they may be experiencing a heart attack or stroke, particularly after the dire warning signs plastered on billboards that are big enough for Times Square. Love it or hate it, Mission: Space could, with a few tweaks to the storyline (are we on a training mission, or did we really go to Mars?), have imparted some real insight into the space program and the challenges the world faces in conquering that final frontier.

No, it's not the attraction itself, for all of its inherent flaws, that kicks this one up to the No. 2 spot of EPCOT Central's "Worst of Epcot" -- it's the ride's intensity, which makes it one that only a relatively few people even want to try. It's not appropriate for everyone, which the warning signs make abundantly clear. True, Disney theme parks have had basic roller coasters ever since the Matterhorn opened at Disneyland in 1959. But they were tame, fun attractions that even roller-coaster haters, if forced, would admit weren't nearly as bad as they had feared. Perhaps the whole family wouldn't ride them together, but they could.

Mission: Space takes the opposite approach. It's not for the faint of heart. People who have survived the most extreme of traditional roller coasters quake at the mention of Mission: Space. It genuinely repulses some people. And for those who are not tall enough, brave enough, old enough or in good enough physical condition to ride it, it is forbidden. It splits up the family in exactly the opposite way Walt Disney intended for his theme parks. Uncle Walt once sat on a bench while his daughters enjoyed a dilapidated merry-go-round and felt there should be someplace the family could go to have fun together. Today, he'd be sitting on a bench outside Mission: Space feeling the same thing ... and wondering what happened to his vision.

The Best and Worst of EPCOT Center -- #2

Best: The Living Seas
Imagineers never could crack the ride portion, and that doomed The Living Seas from the very start. It's a shame, because the original attraction, which existed from 1986 to 2003, was one of the most evocative in all of EPCOT Center. But its lack of a compelling ride element caused too many guests to overlook it. Certainly the opening film, with its dramatic narration and astonishing visuals, set the stage better than any other pre-show, creating a legitimate sense of interest and excitement among guests. The exhibition areas were fantastic, and the set design of the interior truly transported guests into a different place. It was at The Living Seas that I first saw a manatee, learned about the damage done by a ship's wake (not good marketing for the Disney Cruise Line), saw the living creature inside the delicious conch fritters I enjoyed in South Florida, learned more about dolphins (porpoises) and understood what a deep-sea diver has to do to prepare. No, it was no Sea World, but it was extraordinary. Beyond that, and thankfully the "updated"/Pixar-ized pavilion still offers this, the 5.7 million-gallon tank was a place in which a guest's mind could get lost. Yes, for most it was a "point-at-the-fish-and-say-how-pretty-it-is" kind of place, but for those who wanted to know more, who were intrigued by what The Living Seas had to offer, it was also the kind of place in which you could spend almost an entire day and still come away wanting to see, learn and know more. It was inspirational. It wasn't just a bunch of talking cartoon sea creatures.

Worst: Italy
There was a lovely, more-or-less authentic Italian restuarant that opened our stomachs to the notion that the mom-and-pop pizza place down the street was the Italian equivalent of McDonald's. And beyond that, there was (and is) nothing. A couple of shops, a few fake statues, a lovely mirror-image replica of St. Mark's Square in miniature. And that's it. The gondolas moored at the front of the pavilion still hint at what could have been -- a gondola ride through the country. But this ain't Italy, folks. Not even close. EPCOT's Italy offers no hint of the complexity, diversity and beauty of the country, and if Germany's Bavaria-heavy pavilion next door is guilty of some of the same sins, at least it offers a genuine entertainment experience at the Biergarten. Italy used to give you some authentic Fettucini Alfredo (it doesn't even do that anymore) and a few occasional street players. Mostly, it's a big waste of space that is of slightly less than passing interest. Does mediocrity really warrant its inclusion on a list of the worst that the "original" EPCOT Center had to offer? Yes. Because even a guest who knew nothing of the project's troubled development was left wondering why there actually anything here. It was and is just a big, fat nothing, a perfect example of why far too many people write off EPCOT as "boring." In the case of the Italian pavilion, they're right.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- Number 3

The responses and comments have been great … keep them coming! Of course, this list is just EPCOT Central’s view, which is hardly definitive. And don’t forget – it’s divided into the best and worst of “lower-case” Epcot, as well as the historical best and worst of EPCOT Center. And sometimes, there’s an interesting intersection …

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- #3

Best: Spaceship Earth
The ending still doesn’t work, and many have argued that Dame Judi Dench sounds like a smug schoolteacher. But generally speaking, Spaceship Earth retains is place as one of Epcot and Walt Disney World’s very best not because it tells a particularly coherent story or leaves riders feeling clasically “thrilled.” No, what it does so remarkably well today is exactly what it has done remarkably well for 27 years: It sets the tone for the entire theme park. It offers a well-told tale of where we've been, where we are and where we may be going, optimistically and, speaking as one who actually likes the new, screen-based, Horizons-like ending, with a touch of humor. Even more importantly, Spaceship Earth is the sort of ride that only Disney creates -- or, more accurately, created. Every moment of the long ascent is filled with audio-animatronic magic, and the burning of Rome, short as it is, provides that only-at-Disney jolt to guests who don't expect these sorts of touches at a theme park: "Did you smell that?!" The revamped theme of innovation isn't as specific as the history and future of communications, but in a way, it is the scene-setter EPCOT has always needed. The re-imagined Spaceship Earth would have been right at home at EPCOT Center. Today, alas, it's a bit of an anomaly in the schizophrenic, identity-less Future World. Nonetheless ... it works.

Worst: Universe of Energy/Ellen’s Energy Adventure
Take a perfect theme for an EPCOT pavilion, dumb it down and make it irrelevant and ... you've got the "new" (circa 1996) Universe of Energy. Oddly, Ellen's Energy Adventure has been in place almost as long as the original Universe of Energy attraction, but it feels dated and lackluster in a way that even the admittedly draggy first effort (see below) never did. Ellen De Generes is a great comedian. She's a charming host, and it's hard not to at least be amused by her presence. Once. Ellen's Energy Adventure is the sort of ride that, once experienced, you never want to go on again. Painfully unfunny comedy such as the "humorous" radio broadcasts after the dinosaur sequence; the horrifyingly dated use of "Jeopardy!" and Bill Nye the Science Guy; a "plot" that doesn't make sense even in context; and a murky message made so elementary as to be pointless all combine to make this one of Epcot's absolute worst. There's so much potential here, but even as the entire developed world has made energy use, conservation and development one of its most important priorities, Disney hasn't done a damned thing with the Universe of Energy. In an age of the internet, hybrid cars, consumer solar arrays and hydrogen-powered vehicles, this attraction mentions none of them, leaving it painfully, achingly stuck in the waning days of last century.

The Best and Worst of EPCOT Center -- #3

Best: Universe of Energy
Yes, it’s true that some guidebooks listed EPCOT Center’s Universe of Energy pavilion as the single worst attraction in Central Florida. Boring. Plodding. Simplistic. Biased. And there’s a lot of basis for those negative criticisms. But there’s another way to look at it: The Universe of Energy combined film, audio-animatronics, smell, music, sound and color into an experience that may have seemed dull to some, but was almost certainly never forgotten. The attraction violated Walt’s own vision, put forth during the development of the World’s Fair, that film-based experiences weren’t interesting or involving. Maybe not in a movie theater, but in a traveling theater they became fascinating, particularly when they contained incredible images presented on massive screens. The Universe of Energy had not one but two separate musical themes, and any EPCOT enthusiast c an tell you they may have been trite and jingly, but they were memorable. The audio-animatronic sequences were the heart of the attraction, but today they’re extraneous and feel completely out of place, where in the original incarnation they provided a fantastic centerpiece that truly added to the story. There’s no doubt, particularly in today’s world, that the core message that fossil fuels were really our only good energy option was misguided and painfully tilted toward the interests of Exxon – but it was delivered in a mightily persuasive way. You may not have believed or welcomed it, but you couldn’t argue that it wasn’t told compellingly. Likewise, with its size, its shimmering solar panels, its “Radok blocks” pre-show, its skillful and technologically sophisticated pairing of epic-scaled ride-through and vivid films, the Universe of Energy was a fantastic example of EPCOT Center’s vision.

Worst: World of Motion
There's a painful truth hidden amid loving memories of the "old" EPCOT Center: A couple of the pavilions were, well, not good. The World of Motion was one of them. Yes, it was a quintessential Disney attraction, there's no denying that. It was lavishly produced, beautifully executed, a long and detailed ride-through that in many ways represented the very best Disney had to offer. But it was as bloated as a movie musical from the early 1970s, mistaking "big" for "good," mild humor for passable comedy. On every trip to EPCOT Center from 1983 (my first visit) to 1996, when the attraction closed, I desperately wanted to discover that I was wrong about World of Motion. It never happened. Its history-of-transportation story never felt fully fleshed out, and its music was terrible. Keep in mind, this is coming from a big fan of X Atencio and Buddy Baker. There were, though, a couple of saving graces: the glimmering, shining "city of the future" in the center of the attraction; the gleaming, absolutely beautiful mirrored circle of a building; the curving ascent to the ride that took you outside the show building for a moment and effortlessly conveyed, both to riders and to guests looking at the building, the concept of "motion." EPCOT Central has defended World of Motion in the past, and the flawed attraction is, all things considered, still marginally preferable to Test Track. No, it wasn't very good. But at least it tried.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

EPCOT, Obama and the Future

Today, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered an inauguration speech rich with promise and hope, and as he spoke, my mind surprisingly turned to EPCOT Center.

Twenty-six years ago, Disney created a theme park of remarkable scale and ambition, one that attempted to tell us where America and the world had been, where we are going, and what we may find when we get there. The theme was also filled with promise and hope, with optimism and pride. And for the past decade and a half or so, it has been considered outmoded and cheesy, irrelevant to a nation obsessed with commercialism, consumerism and brand identity.

And yet, on the first day of the Obama Administration, our president admonished us for having forgotten those very ideals, those lofty dreams, the idealism and vision that helped create an entire nation out of nothing during the course of just two centuries.

President Obama said, "Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them ..."

These were words that had me recalling the very feelings I first felt as a teenager visitng EPCOT Center. Our country is strong. Our world is strong. Our future is strong, if we just have imagination and a sense of purpose.

Earlier in the speech, he said, "We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."

Science. Technology. Harnessing the sun and the soil. Joining imagination to purpose. As he said this, I recalled Spaceship Earth, the Universe of Energy, the World of Motion, Living With the Land, Communicore, The Living Seas and all of the audacious ideas and concepts they tried to present. I thought about World Showcase and its humbly unspoken message that we all live next door to each other, we are all working together for the vision of the future that is just on the other shore, so close by, waiting to be explored.

As Obama related the struggles of our forefathers, I recalled that The American Adventure offers a similarly stirring story. But is so often overlooked these days, and Disney has responded not by improving and refining it, but by installing the Kim Possible activity, by encouraging young guests not to explore the true stories of the world's nations and peoples, but rather the fictional adventures of a Disney cartoon.

Today's EPCOT reflects our times.

It is crass consumerism, pointed "brand positioning" and unabashed, meaningless "entertainment." It is like everything else, and our society has come to value things that are like everything else. We want our movies to be the same, we want our TV to be the same, we want our cars to be the same. We value profits and economic growth over hard work and sacrifice, over imagination and progress.

"Progress" was a word Walt Disney used frequently. Obama uses it, too. Maybe it will become part of our vocabulary again. "Progress" is different than "growth." "Progress" is change, imagination, inspiration and promise. "Growth" is selfish gain.

Maybe you don't want to be told these things on vacation. Disney has made sure you don't have to be.

Maybe Disney just wants to make sure EPCOT makes the most money it can. Surely after losing billions of dollars on Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris and Prince Caspian and ABC Family, Disney can afford to have one theme park that isn't as much a slam-dunk as the others?

We are faced with the opportunity to answer a call to try harder. To come together as an American and a global family. To see ourselves in the faces of those who look and live differently. To shine a light on the path that leads to the future.

These are all things that EPCOT Center tried to do.

It's a shame that EPCOT has given up this attempt. Because more than ever, as we were told today by our president, we need to set an example for what we can be, what we should be. The next generation of EPCOT did lower its sights, and now we see the outcome.

The time has come, Obama reminded us today, citing Scripture, to put away childish things.

Here's hoping someone at Disney was listening.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- Number 4

Many thanks to EPCOT Central readers for great comments and feedback on the first entry in this series. Here's hoping that the No. 4 ranking of the best and worst, current and historical, at EPCOT will trigger equally good, bad, passionate and interesting responses!

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- #4

Best: Living With the Land

Otherwise known as "the boat ride in the Land," this is one of the very last traces of Epcot's roots, and thank goodness Disney hasn't done away with it ... yet. Despite its leisurely pace, its informative nature and its lack of zany, crazy singing Disney/Pixar cartoon characters, Living With the Land is one of those extraordinary experiences that typically has most resistant guests expressing genuine surprise and delight that it's such a memorable, unique attraction. A few years ago, Epcot lovers held their collective breath as Disney did away with the live narrators who had "piloted" the boats since 1982. The most astonishing surprise: The ride improved. No longer was there a chance of getting a newly trained or bored host who recited lines in a flat monotone, or overly peppy guides who hoped one of the guests would be a talent agent and that this was his or her big break. Now, the experience is the same for every guest, and it's a great experience, one that opens a door onto a realm of our everyday life that most of us take for granted. Living With the Land educates, entertains, stimulates and fascinates -- even the early limited-animation animatronic/diorama scenes have an unexpected, rather beautiful quality. This is one of Epcot's very best attractions. It used to be simply first among equals when EPCOT Center's Future World was filled with elaborate, multi-faceted pavilions dedicated to thrilling our minds and spirits. Now, it's one of the few holdovers of that long-gone EPCOT that leaves many guests thinking, "I wish more of Epcot were like that!" Let's hope Disney doesn't do away with this one. It shows off what makes Epcot unlike any other theme park in the world.

Worst: Soarin'
Oh, don't worry -- EPCOT Central is braced for backlash on this one, but here's the reason: Soarin' has absolutely no thematic connection to the Land pavilion or Epcot. It's just a transplanted ride, albeit a wonderful one, plopped down in Walt Disney World. Given it's California theme, it would make as much sense at Disney's Hollywood Studios. And that's a big black eye for Epcot. If taken on its own terms, Soarin' is a terrific ride that combines the feeling of being on a "real" ride-through attraction (sitting in a chair, buckling a seat belt, being lifted) with a stunning IMAX film experience. But it's exactly the same ride that exists at Disney's California Adventure; not even a modicum of effort was made to alter the ride for Florida guests, so, incongruously, guests are taken on a scenic journey over the Golden State that has absolutely no relation to anything else at Epcot. Imagineers even kept, bizarrely, the final scene that takes place over Disneyland in California. With a handful of new shots, this could have been "Soarin' Over the Land," showing off wheat and corn fields, shrimp boats, cotton fields and the like. That might have made some sense. As it is, particularly for those of us who spend time at the California parks, it's just one more example of Disney doing things on the cheap and hoping that guests won't notice that there's really no point to it at all.

The Best and Worst of EPCOT Center -- #4

Best: Norway Pavilion

Poor Norway. An extraordinary country with thousands of years of heritage and culture is represented at Epcot by a restaurant frequented by Aurora and Jasmine, among others, and a creaky ride that sometimes barely functions. Kids deserve to have a good time at Epcot, of course, but there should be some responsibility taken by the parents. Instead, it seems most guests don't want to actually engage themselves in this theme park, they want it to be a passive, come-to-me experience that fulfills the every Disney dream of their four-year-old daughters. Nevermind that The Magic Kingdom and countless resort character dining experiences are just a short drive or bus ride away (not to mention in Future World), as long as there was money to be made, Disney was going to rip it out of guests' wallets. As soon as the Norwegian government stopped funding the Norway pavilion, Disney reckoned it was theirs to do with as they pleased, even if their changes had nothing at all to do with, well, Norway. Knowing full well that many parents will be offended, EPCOT Central will say it anyway: For adults without kids, the Norway princess dining restaurant is a painful, unhappy experience. Rubbing salt on the Scandinavian wound, it sometimes seems Disney hasn't even tried with Maelstrom. The ride has always been too short, but for years was that all-too-rare Disney experience: A ride-through that combined great visuals, sound and animatronic effects with some genuinely unexpected touches. A recent ride showed two torn cyclorama screens, polar bears that growled but didn't move, a tree troll that just barely was able to lift its eyes, and a set of cast members who looked like they were desperate to be anywhere else. The final film, which retains its beauty and awe despite hilariously embarrassing 1980s fashions and technology, didn't even play. As we walked through an empty theater with scratched-up seating and dried on gum all over the carpet, my friends and I shook our heads and said, "What a shame." Then again, I'm not supposed to be writing about the worst of curret Epcot, rather the very best of "old" EPCOT Center. And for quite a wihle, Norway had the single best dining option in Epcot, one of Disney's most imaginative and charming rides, a tiny-but-informative museum exhibit that truly offered (a tiny bit of) insight into Norwegian history, a perfectly themed play place for kids and some of the nicest cast members at the park. Oh, and rice cream, too. It had more character and appeal than perhaps any other pavilion, despite its relatively small size. Now it's mostly a sea of strollers and screaming kids. Ah, but what it used to be!

Worst: The Making of Me
It should have been terrific -- a Disney-produced film about the miracle of human reproduction. Instead, we got Martin Short. Maybe he's an acquired taste. Maybe you just have to be conditioned to like him (or Canadian), but the guy has rarely been funny or even charming. It was like watching your "funny" uncle tell you about the "birds and the bees" because your parents were too embarrassed to say anything. He wasn't funny, his "facts" were slightly suspect, and you came away not actually learning anything. Yes, there were some lovely in utero images and some nice music. That's about it. Anyone over 3 came away wondering why they bothered, anyone under 3 was confused, and most of us got a good chuckle that Disney was trying to offer some insight into the most human, the most basic of functions: sex. Without the sex.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Best and Worst of EPCOT -- Number 5

For the next couple of weeks, EPCOT Central will offer its own take -- open to debate and admittedly quite subjective -- on the five best and the five worst attractions and offerings at Epcot.
But Epcot, as fans know, isn't a static, never-changing place. So, the list will offer up the five best current offerings at Epcot, as well as the five best historical attractions at EPCOT Center. Likewise, it will consider Epcot's five worst, as well as EPCOT Center's five worst.

Your thoughts, comments, suggestions, feedback and arguments are most welcome, with the hope that EPCOT Central's list will never be seen as "definitive," but instead open the door to lively conversation, both online and in the real world.

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- #5

Best: China Pavilion

As a top-class World Showcase pavilion should be, China offers much more than the attraction at its center, the CircleVision 360 film Reflections of China. More to love, then, that the film itself is terrific. Exemplifying the best of "old" EPCOT Center and "new" Epcot, the film retains the structure it has had since 1982, which ran for 21 years under the name Wonders of China. It's a beautiful film that transcends the notion of mere travelogue by truly taking guests to a place most of them have never seen, and presenting it in breathtaking, informative way. But China is much more than this film. The extraordinary Dragon Legend acrobats would be worth the cost of admission to Epcot alone. Even more, there are genuinely compelling exhibitions and authentic, immersive shopping experiences -- some of the items are truly exquisite, and there's nary a Mickey or Donald to be found. The dining may never be a journey of discovery, simply because this sort of "mass-appeal" Chinese food is so familiar to most people. Still, Epcot's China presents a beautiful, multi-faceted face in a compact space. You'll never mistake it for the real thing, but you'll also come away realizing that the real thing is vastly more complex and awesome than you may have imagined going in. It's truly a pavilion to be savored and explored.

Worst: Test Track

If judged solely on adrenaline rush and repeatability, Test Track scores high. It's an undeniably fun, sometimes genuinely thrilling ride. True, almost everyone reading this drives his or her car faster every single day, but not on road like this! No, conceptually the ride is pretty good. It's in the execution that it fails miserably, and its huge flaws are only amplified with every passing visit. It starts outside the pavilion, which is a visual mess. There's an exquisite, sleek metal-and-glass building behind there, but you'd never know it. Once through the soulless queue area, the pre-show is a primer on how not to make a pre-show. Few guests pay attention, but rather gab and text throughout. They just want to get to the ride ahead. There's nothing captivating about it at all, wasting an opportunity to set the tone and impart some worthwhile information. Inside the ride, the cavernous inside of the show building feels half-abandoned, as if Imagineers stopped at "good enough." It's difficult to make out most of what's going on, and most riders frankly don't care. What's the point? The final 30 seconds are an undeniable rush. The rest is, to cite the latest entry into the Collins English Dictionary, meh.

The Best and Worst of EPCOT Center -- #5

Best: The World Key Information System

This was the promise of EPCOT Center -- a world we had yet to see, but could experience today! Back in 1982, touch-screen computers and laser discs were truly leading-edge technology. Yet here they were, ready and waiting to be used! Want to know more about something at EPCOT Center? Just touch the screen -- literally, that's all you needed to do. Many of these screens were housed in the CommuniCore area, just at the base of Spaceship Earth, but there were also stations scattered throughout EPCOT, kind of like Vacation Club kiosks today, but useful and thematically appropriate. And if that's not enough, you could make same-day dining reservations by video conference call. (Technically, this was separate from World Key, but combining them seems to make sense.) Though simple by today's standards, this technology was truly a marvel, and would probably be impressive on its own even to those of us currently living in the 21st century. For a time, EPCOT wanted to fulfill the promise of showing us how the world of tomorrow might work, and WorldKey was a wonderful example of that. It wasn't a commercial, it was real, applied technology. It wasn't trying to sell us a new DVD, movie or TV show, it was just showing off what our Future World might be like. It was everything EPCOT aspired to be, and EPCOT was the only place you could find it.

Worst: El Rio del Tiempo
Few Disney attractions have ever gotten off to a better start. The small loading area imparted the flavor of old Mexico, a happy, lovely feeling also conveyed by the costumes of the few cast members working here. The literal "river of time" down which boats floated wound past the still-existing cyclorama of an ancient pyramid and exquisite outdoor scene. On the opposite "shore," the San Angel Inn and small marketplace completed the sense of being in a different time and place. Imagineers weren't aiming for verisimilitude, they wanted to evoke an emotional response. It worked. And then, the ride. A pointless mixture of poorly shot film scenes projected oddly into static displays, it played like the Spanish-class report of a very creative high-school student. The Mexico City scene at the end clearly hoped to be an impressive finale, but came off instead giving a creepy, black-light vibe; a glow-in-the-dark Elvis-on-velvet painting wouldn't have seemed out of place. No sense of Mexico's vast and impressive history, or of its people or places, was truly conveyed, though the song (quite arguably) was at least fun and cheerful. "El Rio del Tiempo" was a beautiful name for a ride that should have been splendid, but wasn't. (Sadly, in EPCOT Central's opinion, the "El Gran Fiesta" update has only exacerbated the problems.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Opposite of Brand

For decades, The Walt Disney Company was a peerless leader in brand development and management. Long before business schools had even defined such concepts, Walt Disney knew that there was Walt Disney, the man, and "Walt Disney" the concept.

Disneyland may be best known as a "theme park," but in essence it was conceived a brand experience. Even if attractions and themed lands like Pirates of the Caribbean and Tomorrowland weren't based on a specific movie, TV show or "entertainment property" (as the phrase is known today), they defined Disney simply by being part of the experience. Prior to their appearance at Disneyland, no pirates had sailed the seven seas in a Disney movie, 999 "happy haunts" were not part of a pre-existing TV series. But because they were created and brought to life by Disney, they became Disney.

Likewise, when he introduced the concept of EPCOT to the world two months before his death, Walt Disney had never revealed publicly his fascination with urban planning and design, transportation technology and sociological issues. But as soon as Walt Disney talked about EPCOT, it, too, became Disney.

When the EPCOT Center theme park finally opened 16 years after Walt's death, it wasn't easy to see how it correlated to his final dream. It was filled with rides, shows and attractions, and even if they weren't the "city of tomorrow" Walt once promised, they were identifiably Disney. They took everything his organization had perfected in the previous five decades and combined them in a way that had never been seen before. The dinosaurs of the Universe of Energy, the dramatic storytelling of Spaceship Earth, the silly inhabitants of the World of Motion, the Dreamfinder and Figment ... all of these things were unfamiliar and new, yet unmistakably Disney.

Disney used to be in charge of its brand, used to revel in the unspoken message that it could define itself any way it wanted to do so. The moment something was created by Disney artists, it became Disney.

Where, then, did Disney lose the ability to define itself?

When did Disney change from being in the creativity business to being in the "brand-management" business?

There can be fewer better (or worse, if you prefer) examples of this than EPCOT Center.

From 1978 to 1982, Disney embarked on a massive marketing and publicity blitz to ensure that every American (for these were, by and large, the days before instantaneous, international communication) knew that "Disney" was now defined by the concept called "EPCOT." Anyone with any awareness of entertainment and popular culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s knew that EPCOT was the newest Disney creation ... even if they didn't quite know what it was.

Viewed from the perspective of today's (ahem) more enlightened marketing perspectives, what Disney did would be seemingly impossible today. The company that was known for lame comedies starring Don Knotts and Dean Jones was dominating the news with a bold message that everything you knew about Disney before would have to be rethought. Disney didn't just mean pixie dust and cartoons, it meant something unexpected, bold and totally out of the ordinary.

That's one of the reasons that it's so disappointing to walk through EPC--, um, Epcot today. Later this month, Disney will introduce a new "Kim Possible" activity at Epcot's World Showcase. Instead of learning about other cultures, sampling their wares and cuisine, and experiencing the underlying message that we're all in this together, Epcot guests can take active part in a commercial for a Disney cartoon. World Showcase just happens to be a great spot for this kind of "synergistic" brand enhancement.

Already, we've seen the Three Caballeros become the representatives of thousands of years of Mexican culture; a journey through the history of this awesome civilization has become a great way to sell some more Donald Duck plush toys.

And, of course, we've seen the awesome mysteries of the oceans that surround us become a tune-filled, happy ride through Nemo's undersea home, with the other high point of Epcot's Living Seas pavilion being a chat with a cartoon turtle, while the real ones go more or less unheralded.

EPCOT Center once "branded" Disney as a remarkable organization that created theme parks unlike any other in the world, with extraordinarily detailed experiences that surrounded guests with truly three-dimensional sets, "actors" and spectacle, that brought a sense of story, purpose and theme to previously unimagined heights.

Had that EPCOT Center concept been allowed to flourish, grow and change, with an eye toward maintaining the notion that "Disney" did not need to be narrowly defined as "benign entertainment for children," it could have been extraordinary.

EPCOT once had a remarkable brand, one that could have been further explored and developed and turned into something that could stand alongside "Disney" as meaning the best that imagination has to offer.

Now, EPCOT is just a meaningless word within the "Disney" brand, and all of its promise and hope have been drained. As a brand opportunity, is has been squandered. It's just 162 acres of staging ground for "brand managers" to play in ... even as they ignore the very concept of what a "brand" actually is. Or could be.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Holiday Hiatus is Over!

EPCOT Central will return on Monday, Jan. 11, after an extended holiday break. Thank you for your patience while EPCOT Central, like so many of you, were dealing with work deadlines, family pressures, shopping, wrapping, cooking and eating. Even in the Community of Tomorrow, the stress of the holidays will get in the way!