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.
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.