Sunday, November 01, 2009

EPCOT: What Doesn't


Longtime readers know that there's a difference of opinion among some EPCOT Central followers -- while some believe the views expressed here are constructive thoughts reflecting on how EPCOT could be even better than it is, others take the perspective that EPCOT Central complains too much and wishes EPCOT had never evolved. You can guess which camp I fall into. But with a nod to those on the other side, they'll have plenty to carp about with this one -- because it's EPCOT Central's view that the attraction that is most ineffective is also the one that recently got the biggest makeover:

The Seas With Nemo and Friends.

Even before experiencing the "new" Seas pavilion, this makeover seemed wrong-headed ... and now, having been through the attraction several times since its reincarnation, EPCOT Central believes it to be one of the absolute worst things that's ever happened to EPCOT.

The key lies in that word "attraction," because when they re-thought the Seas pavilion, EPCOT Imagineers took a multi-layered, though unfortunately never fully evolved, experience and turned it into ... a ride.

They went so far as to change the name of the pavilion from the evocative and far-reaching "The Living Seas" to "The Seas With Nemo and Friends," emphasizing that there's a ride, and there's a show with Crush, and the rest ... well, the rest doesn't much matter.


The wonders that fill the depths of three-fourths of our planet aren't of any concern anymore; the only thing that matters it that 6-year-old kids get to shout out, "There's Dory!" The world around us is meaningless compared with a Pixar character.

The biggest shame is that there's so much to explore. As the pre-show used to remind us, we've spent less time at the bottom of the sea than we have on the surface of the moon. Getting five miles down is infinitely more complex than going 238,000 miles up. There are mysteries we can barely fathom, and one word from that pre-show film evokes more memories of how much more stirring EPCOT Center was than Epcot: "chemosynthesis." Huh? What? What does that mean? How do living creatures do that? And were the oceans really formed by "the deluge"? (Most scientists agree: Yes. How extraordinary!)

After hearing an absolutely stunning narrator encourage us to open our minds to the possibility of life under the surface of the water, we had a chance to "descend" below the waves ourselves in a "hydrolator," then ride through the incredible sights of undersea life, before using our own sense of discovery to learn from real, live people about the animals, plants and creatures that share our world.

There can be absolutely no doubt: The seacab "ride" was a failure from the start. It didn't go much of anywhere, held no excitement other than seeing a man-made coral reef. And because there was no context to what we were seeing (no signs, no narration, telling us about the engineering, creative or technological achievement of what we were looking at), there was little to engage guests. And holding that disappointing sense of, "Is that all this is?" they were dumped into a massive museum-like display area that many guests had trouble navigating.

Obviously, there were problems with The Living Seas -- no matter how compelling, exciting and wonderful many (but not enough) guests thought it may have been.

But the cure proved to be worse than the disease.

Today's audiences ride silly, clam-shaped vehicles past a series of screens onto which cartoons are projected. There's as much science and connection to the wonders of the oceans as Space Mountain has to the history and science of actual space travel. (Space Mountain actually offers some pictures of real nebulae in the queue area.) Disney has literally stripped the pavilion of any attempt to inspire, educate or inform -- and now more than ever, guests simply breeze past the old "Seabase Alpha" and either leave altogether or head to Turtle Talk to see more digital animation that distracts from the reality of ocean life. Yes, there are still some displays in the old Seabase Alpha, but fewer than before, with fewer cast members to answer questions and less depth to the overall experience.

Basically, it's just a cartoon, one that would be more at home in the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland than EPCOT.

Frankly, it's not a particularly well-done ride, either. Instead of Disney's classic Audio-Animatronic figures, guests see projections of cartoons. During a couple of portions, to add insult to injury, cartoons are projected onto the glass tank to make it appear the cute, computerized fish are "in" the water. Once again, the message is clear: Don't wonder about the amazing things in the world around you, just enjoy the cute Disney characters.

The change from The Living Seas to The Seas With Nemo and Friends has been disastrous.

And it speaks volumes about the frustrating, troubling message that Disney increasingly sends to youngsters: If some element of your life can't be commercialized and branded with the "Disney" name, it doesn't matter.

The Living Seas was a disappointment. The Seas With Nemo and Friends is a failure, pure and simple.

29 comments:

St. Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
St. Chris said...

The Nemo ride has the most entrancingly beautiful queue I've ever seen, but the ride itself is a severe letdown: razor-thin on story (following Marlin as he tries to find Nemo, as in the movie -- but this time Nemo is intentionally hiding from his panicked father?) and ending with a song from a show in another park altogether. Much of the exposition is shown on video screens.. Video screens? Yes, but they're embedded in a coral-reef set, so that makes it okay in someone's book, I guess.

The Finding Nemo characters "in" the aquarium are made to appear via the "Pepper's Ghost" illusion, the same reflection trick that makes the ghosts dance in the Haunted Mansion -- but here, instead of being reflections of hidden animatronics, the illusory fish are reflected from (again) video screens. They're two-dimensional images, virtually projected in a plane behind the aquarium glass. They look wrong. They don't blend in. (In contrast, Crush is believable in Turtle Talk, because he's a 2-D image in a 2-D context.)

Divers in the aquarium used to be free to swim up to all the windows and interact with the guests in the sea cabs, but the windows visible from the ride are now marked off as a forbidden zone so the divers won't share the stage with the Nemo characters.

I miss Seabase Alpha so badly. It sure needed improvement, but you're right: This is anything but.

Future Guy said...

I blame United Technologies. If they hadn't vetoed WED's original concept for the Seas pavilion in favor of a cheaper option, then not only would the Nemo rehab have been unnecessary, but it would simply have been too expensive an undertaking for today's management to stomach.

When it came time to rehab the pavilion, we would have gotten a minor plussing of the original ride, a new preshow film, and maybe Turtle Talk.

And the (Disney) world would be a better place.

Anonymous said...

as an Epcot evolutionist (i.e. apologies), I think I generally agree. you do complain too much.

i kid... the Seas was a yawn, but the revamp isn't very good. as Chris said, the queue is nice, but the ride itself is short, hollow, and really there's just not much to it. even excusing the "we're not going to preach or teach", it's just not very engaging. riding it the first time i thought "when it is going to start?"

the projection technology is neat, but gimicky. see it once, it's ok. but it doesn't work over and over.

all this said, 8 year olds seem to love it.

i think the biggest disappointment with all of it is that Disney continues to pander to the lowest common denomenator. on one or two rides, ok. but when taken to the extreme, pandering (like most things done to excess) rarely succeeds in the long term.

Jeff said...

8 year olds like lucky charms, demi lovato, mcdonald's and lame cartoon network shows. i'm always incredulous that adults agree to live in a world in which "my daughter loves it" is a legitimate excuse for crap.

St. Chris said...

Beautifully stated, Jeff. Seems to me, that was Walt's whole point in creating the parks.

Anonymous said...

I agree. The new "Living Seas" is flashier, but it's a let down. The old attraction is more "sciencey" and has rather serious tone. I appreciate that in spite of its slow-moving feel. EPCOT is SUPPPOSED to be serious educational entertainment. The dumbed-down Nemo and Friends theme, while prettier on some levels, just has the depth of a puddle.


I for one applaud the whiney tone of this site. We need to re-evaluate what is deemed "progress" at EPCOT. Simply change for its own sake is a tyranny unto itself. Let's hold Disney's feet to the fire and expect great things from EPCOT, not merely novel entertainments aimed at a generation of ADHD adults and kids.

The Stainless Steel Rat

Anonymous said...

"8 year olds like lucky charms, demi lovato, mcdonald's and lame cartoon network shows. i'm always incredulous that adults agree to live in a world in which 'my daughter loves it' is a legitimate excuse for crap."

that's funny... a bit dramatic - like many posts here - but funny nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

I personally love "The Seas with Nemo and Friends." As a child, I was utterly bored with Epcot overall as it didn't seem to have much that appealed to my imagination and sense of wonder. It was much about learning, which is great, but not at all what I wanted to do at a theme park as an 8 year old. As an adult, Epcot has become my favorite WDW park. I've wandered, and continue to explore endlessly, every nook and cranny of the park that I can. With that said, I was completely enraptured by the entire new "Seas" concept. I think that fans (such as those whose opinions appear above) immediately are pre-disposed to dislike anything new that Disney adds to WDW's second gate, if:
1) it changes anything from its original state (which always tend to hold significant memories for all of us)
and
2) it contains any semblance of a Disney Character

I can understand this viewpoint and those thinkers have every right to express their opinions. However, it is also good to know that there are those who experience true joy and wonder every time they ride the new Nemo or see the Crush show. Disney is creating new fans who will, in 2030, curse the day the company ever decided to rip out their beloved Nemo ride for the newest blockbuster character themed experience. I myself, I'm sure will enjoy it all.

St. Chris said...

"With that said, I was completely enraptured by the entire new 'Seas' concept."

There's a concept? What's the concept of "The Seas with Nemo and Friends"? Apart from the ride and Turtle Talk, how do you explain the design of the space you're in?

You've got a straw man, most-recent-Anonymous. I don't think anyone here opposes all change in Epcot; I'd venture to say that even the purest of the purists is in favor of Epcot evolving forward.

I'm looking forward to seeing the Spaceship Earth update next year; I haven't seen it yet. Universe of Energy never really blew my mind, and the Ellen/Nye overlay merely strikes me as dated, gimmicky corporate kowtowing. I never rode Horizons (regrettably), but I like Mission: Space -- though I wish they'd back off one meta-level from the "simulator of a simulator" approach. World of Motion always felt like empty show, and honestly, I kinda like Test Track. Journey into Imagination never deeply delighted me, but the redesign feels like an insult to my intelligence. I've always loved Living with the Land and am satisfied with the automated narration. Soarin', if somewhat randomly placed, rocks.

If The Living Seas didn't appeal to your imagination and sense of wonder, then...well, you and I must have different kinds of minds. It was my favorite pavilion. Its entry experience, the multilayered submersion, ranked among the best at Disney. (Yes, the sea cabs were puzzlingly generic, as if Imagineering simply figured that guests wouldn't be satisfied if they didn't sit in some kind of ride. I'd have been just as happy, if not moreso, with a walkway.) It was a complete environment, and it showed the promise of undersea exploration and aquatic research. If you weren't a science kid, I guess I can see its limited appeal -- but I was a science kid. My imagination and sense of wonder have always been fired up by exploration and discovery. (I first saw Epcot in 1994, at age 26, but the kid in me awoke with a start.) I was enraptured.

They could have done so many things to flesh out the experience of Seabase Alpha. Perhaps they will, someday.

Dan said...

To add to the response to the latest Anonymous post, my criticism is not just due to adding a character or making changes.

If Nemo had been seamless woven into an engaging attraction that wasn't just a cartoon, I'd applaud the decision. But this ride was done on the cheap and pales in comparison to the original.

This isn't always the case. Disney has a strong tradition of improving rides (i.e. The Haunted Mansion) without ripping out their original concept. With the Seas with Nemo and Friends (and the latest Mexico ride), they've added characters and removed anything beyond the most basic charm.

I visited Epcot as a kid in the '80s, and the Seas introduction was mysterious and stunning, even on repeat visits. Yes, the ride wasn't thrilling, but I never saw a problem with a silent journey into the aquarium. It's a million times better than a cheap dark ride that loses steam on its second visit.

Geren said...

It just dawned on me...

What would have happened to WESTcot had Disney moved forward with the California Project.

Wow.

Amazing blog, thank you.

St. Chris said...

And it just dawned on me...

With Nemo's behavior in the ride, Disney is showing young kids -- its target audience -- that it's fun to hide from your parents when they're anxiously looking for you.

Anonymous said...

Reality is far more interesting than fantasy, if presented in the right way. If that can be done, the result is spectacular. Disney Co is no longer interested in the spectacular, only the sparkly.

While I mildly enjoy the Nemo ride, there could be so much more.

Anonymous said...

To expand on what Jeff stated, the reason why we live in a child's world nowadays is because there is an alarmingly deficit in responsible parents.

Example:

"Can I have that toy?"

Parents of yesteryear - "No. Go play outside."

Parents of today - "We'll see if your psychologist agrees to let you have it."

Quite simply, a majority of parents have quit parenting. They give in to their kids at the first sign of a whine or a whimper. As long as an incident doesn't end with law enforcement hauling their tyke away in handcuffs... No harm, no foul.

"Epcot" is a perfect reflection of this new pandering philosophy & "The Seas with Nemo & Friends" is a top candidate as it's poster child.

I'd rather pay $500 dollars for one day at EPCOT Center then $5 dollars for a whole year at this new "Epcot."

This is what we get with Lassiter in charge?

Airamerica said...

To be honest I can live with the ride-through portion of this attraction. I can even live without the pre-show, which was great for adults and boring for kids...

I remember hating the pre-show in my early visits but as I grew older I really began to understand and like it!

However, the final portion of the attraction (the old Sea Base Alpha area) is disastrous. It's almost as if the imagineers have given up. There is so much unused space, the exhibits are poor and the tanks look dirty and unpopulated.

This used to be an awe inspiring area, capturing the imagination of young and old alike. There was genuine areas to get hands-on and take part in practical exercises, like the old diving suits.

I even remember external exhibits showcasing technology from universities and companies dedicated to exploring the sea - where has it all gone?

I can only imagine that keeping this pavilion going cost too much money and disney decided to dumb down, to reduce costs.

rob said...

Another good story.

Anonymous said...

"And it speaks volumes about the frustrating, troubling message that Disney increasingly sends to youngsters: If some element of your life can't be commercialized and branded with the 'Disney' name, it doesn't matter"

an overly jaded view. i highly doubt that's the message youngsters get, and equally doubt that's the message Dis is trying to send. more likely, the message is simply "if we can't tie a saleable product to the attraction, it doesn't matter."

most kids probably didn't exit the previous exhibit beggin' moms and dads for that great toy hydrodulatormobile (i.e. elevator). maybe a few wanted that push manatee. but nemo, crush, et al??? you can obviously fill an entire store with that merchandise!

SQV

Jeff said...

SQV -- Overly jaded? Your last sentence pretty much confirms the view put forth.

Carvahall11 said...

"Chemosynthesis" I learned about it there. Long live Sea Base Alpha. I'm surprised they kept the walls and interior up and just painted them over. Maybe one day the youth of the future won't care so much about Finding Nemo and they'll reinvent the Living Seas. Future World needs more help than anything. Imagination needs a Dreamfinder makeover. The innovative Test Track is undoubtably losing its sponsor, Wonders of Life is dead, Universe of Energy is a comedy show... Mission Space, the Land, and Spaceship Earth with Project Tomorrow seem like the only pavilions that feel fresh and at the top of their game anymore.

Anonymous said...

"SQV -- Overly jaded? Your last sentence pretty much confirms the view put forth."

perhaps. but i see more than a subtle difference b/w a marketing and merchandising company (i.e. Disney) that wants to exploit every percieved opportunity to sell (sell sell!) vs. the implication that all aspects of one's life must be commercialized or "it doesn't matter".

the Seas (with Nemo!) is on Disney property... doesn't seem that surprising (even if disappointing) that they would take advantage of that position. when they start invading, er, "sponsoring" things like the Liberty Bell, Mt. Rushmore, the Everglades, the state of California... then perhaps the inescapable message will be "your life is ours!"

SQV

Anonymous said...

and frankly, it seemed to me for some time that folks at Dis simply don't know what they want EPCOT to be. there is no vision, or if there is vision, nobody wants to pony up the $$ to implement it. this has surely been noted somewhere on this blog throughout the years.

and when you have no vision, you often end up just taking the easy approach, doing what's convenient. Being opportunistic can be great, but can also lead to a hodge podge of themes, designs, messages, etc. and that to me is where Epcot is now. it's a mashed up version its former self and the other parks. The Seas is but another example. if the cure for the Seas was worse than the disease, then that itself is merely symptomatic of the larger problem: no real direction for Ecpot.

the answer is quite simple, have leadership with a vision - to 'correct' Epcot back to its original heading.

they obviously, right now, don't see that as a priority. or perhaps don't see Epcot as that 'broken' to do anything yet. Spending money on DCA, Shanghai DL, MK at WDW... Epcot isn't a park likely to get much attention soon.

SQV

Airamerica said...

Having read all the comments, I think it's fair to say that I don't think any of the parks are over commercialised.

If you take a step back and consider the bigger picture, Disney parks are there to feed the brand.

They help introduce a new generation to the Disney family and guarantee a 'core' of future customers will always want to buy into the 'magic' - be it film, television or theme parks.

The parks do what you'd expect and want - they entertain, they inspire and they sell products that remind you of the great time you're having and the memories that are being made. The clever byproduct is, that these memories are aligned with a Disney property.

If you take The Seas With Nemo and Friends as an example, it's a great idea to match the film franchise to the attraction. However, as this pavilion proves the execution isn't always that good and as a result the film and the attraction suffer.

Disney should be applauded for their efforts and rightfully called out when they fall short but none of us should expect to visit a Disney facility and not see merchandise that is entirely relevant to the company.

In fact, we should remember that many visitors come from overseas, where disney retail shops in shopping malls don't exist. Countries where Disney channels and TV programming isn't easily available. For these people in particular, the theme parks represent the only place where they can purchase products that are officially 'Disney'.

Sage said...

Entertain... maybe.

But let me put it this way... When I was 9, I was captivated by a movie that presented an amazing and largely untold story about the "real" world we live on. The questions it asked and images it included remained with me, even years after I forgot where I had actually seen them. It wasn't until I was 17 and visited The Living Seas again that I realized where those memories started.

Today, I'm an oceanographer.

Somehow, I don't think Turtle Talk and the "friends" treatment will have the same sort of impact.

I'll admit they are "fun." But the sad reality is, we need more ocean and climate scientists now more than ever. And for that matter, we need to inspire more 21st century artists, designers, engineers, scientists and thinkers as well. All of which are in EPCOT Center's purview.

Unfortunately, inspiration has in many places been replaced by entertainment. And while this in of itself isn't wrong, it is blind to Walt's original vision for EPCOT Center and represents a tremendously lost opportunity with one of the best educational platforms in the world.

If we want to inspire the Disneys of future generations, we need Disney to focus on being Disney again.

Dylank777 said...

When i first saw pics of The Seas with Nemo, my first reaction was: Im totally Disgusted by Disney and what they have done. They turned a great attraction possibly one of the best of old style EPCOT into a giant Pixar toystore...never mind if the new attractions like Turtle Talk or the new Peppers Ghost Fish are "good" or not which will always be an opinion (some will like some wont) its what they have done to the overall set and setting of the Pavillion that horrifys me.

This is only the latest and greatest evidence of my central thesis: Disney, as far as EPCOT is concened, is dead. Let it die to the hardcore belivers, let them change the whole park into one giant toy store, let them turn every ride into a Pixar related monstrosity that will thrill and entrertain (but not enlighten of course) all the 8 year olds of all the familys that pay thousands of dollars for a family vacation to Disneyworld. This is what those families want and what the execs think they must deliver!

Let them do so.

However saying that hurts me worse than anything ive said before! I love EPCOT dearly with all my heart and will always love the old pavillions and attraction: Horizons World of Motion, Tommorows Child Spaceship Earth, the OLD Journey! I grew up going to Disney at least once a year for our family vacation and being a "science kid" and university family EPCOT was always our highlight.

So let Disney die to you if you feel this way. Only then will the possibilities of a new rebirth somewhere else live again.

Dubai perhaps?

DTK

Airamerica said...

Sage, I agree with your sentiments about the impact EPCOT Centre had on 'our' generation - I'm doing my job as a direct result of experiencing Disney World in the late 80's and early 90's.

However, our 'romantic' view of EPCOT is a snap-shot of that moment in time. A time when the technology contained within this park was not widely available in the 'real' world.

Sadly, today, a simple pre-show information film doesn't capture the imagination of the broader audience. They can get this from the History channel.

What they can't get is a turtle interacting with them, talking to them, encouraging them to think about that creature and it's immediate environment.

This is Disney in the 00's, competing with the real world where technology pervades every home! As i've said before this may not be Walt's ultimate EPCOT vision, that was lost when it became a theme park but it is pushing the boundaries in a very 'Disney' way and I'm sure Walt would embrace that?!?!

What I don't think Walt would embrace is some of the execution, which (as we've said before) is often no better than 6/10!

C33 said...

Well I have agreements and disagreements with this.

I agree that the Nemo ride is out of place at Epcot. It's a perfectly fine dark ride (and to give it credit, does include some fascinating uses of technology to tell the story such as the Anger fish robotic arm), it just belongs in a different park. In fact, thematically it could have worked in any of the other WDW parks. Just not Epcot.

But despite that, I dont think the makeover of the pavillion was that bad. The Seas DOES still attempt to educate- witness the educational films about manitees, coral reefs and sea turtles featuring Mr. Ray and Crush. Not to mention explanatory signs. I think using the popular Nemo franchise to get guests interested in the ocean and it's wonders is a perfectly valid way to go. I miss the hydrolators and pre-show film as well, but it was still a fairly bland museum-like space that didn't have much of a Disney feel for it.

The Nemo ride doesn't belong at Epcot. But before, after all, that entire area of the building was simply closed off. The ride may not be right for Epcot, but is it really worse than nothing? I don't think it is.

Regardless, beautiful though the queue may be the ride is pretty much always walk-on. Yes one could take the view that it was done simply to sell merchandise, but let's face it, the pavillion was never going to get this kind of facelift without a sponsor unless it had a popular property like Nemo to ride on.

Yes, it's a mistake. Something that, hopefully, will one day be corrected. But the worse thing to ever happen to Epcot? hardly. Epcot has far bigger problems. The replacement of Horizons with Mission: Space and the mucking up of the Imagination pavillion are far worse problems for Epcot than Nemo.

Marilyn said...

I used to spend hours in The Living Seas Pavillion enjoying the different forms of sealife that were represented and served to educate the public about the sea and how important it is to life on earth. Now I simply use it as a pavillion to get out of the sun and heat on a hot summer day. The assault of screaming kids takes all of the joy out of a pavillion that used to be one of our favorites. I learned to love and appreciate West Indian Manatees as a result of seeing them at The Living Seas. Sea World at least hasn't lost its focus on how important the sea is.

Dylank said...

As an ultra large scale aquarium LIving Seas was perfect, and in the time period in which it existed pretty much one of a kind.

Now not so much in many ways, the nemo overlay, the existence of other huge Aquaria/nature centers like the new one in San Fransico or Aquarium of Americas in New Orleans, even the returant experiance has been replicated in Mall based venues.

I really think its time for someone else to step up to the plate with an old school EPCOT type experiance somewhere.

Perhaps its even possible to go back to Walt old Plan of the City of Tommorow, and I dont count Celebration as anywhere near that ethier.