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
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.
"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.