Monday, May 29, 2006

V for Vacation Club

Epcot has always been a haven for marketing to guests. From the earliest conception (even going back to Walt’s day), Epcot was a place where large corporations could showcase their innovations and prove why they were the best in their field.

When done well, as at Spaceship Earth or The Land, having a pavilion sponsored by a large company is relatively unintrusive. When less successful, as at Universe of Energy or Imagination, the sponsor’s message can seem heavy-handed and a little too obvious.

And then there’s Disney itself.

Put aside your belief, for a moment, that General Motors is the worst offender with Test Track, and instead think of the ubiquitous Disney Vacation Club kiosks scattered throughout Epcot (and, indeed, all over the Walt Disney World Resort).

These kiosks completely pull you out of your vacation experience and remind you that Disney is, in the end, after your money. Completely unthemed to their surroundings, they exist purely as a shill for timeshares, and timeshare salespeople – whether they work for Disney or not – have always ranked somewhere between lawyers and used-car salespeople on the scale of respectability.

Sorry if you’re a timeshare salesperson, related to one or you’ve purchased from one – but decades worth of reading about people who lost their savings on timeshares or were unable to sell theirs when their finances got tight have hardly given timeshares a good name.

I’ve no doubt that Disney Vacation Club timeshares are nice; in fact, I’ve stayed in a couple of the rooms on occasion. But the last thing I want to be thinking about when I’ve just dropped $7,000 on vacation is how to finance another $15,000 so I can make the dream last all year long.

Isn’t it enough that Disney Vacation Club gets to shout out its message on the in-room channel, in literature found in all hotel rooms, in Disney-owned magazines and in the resorts themselves? In a way, I have less objection to those methods of selling, because at least they’re out of the parks themselves.

But now they’re all over the parks, and they are sorely out of place at Epcot. Walking along the plaza between Mission: Space and Innoventions East, I ran across this young man (above). He looked like he had many, many better things to be doing with his time than waiting for some unsuspecting guest to walk up to him and say, “What’s this all about?” That would be his cue to launch into a spiel aimed solely and squarely at getting the guest to want to know more and, ultimately, to steal from little Sally’s college fund to buy a piece of the magic.

Epcot is about future possibilities, about an optimistic road ahead, about the opportunities that are in front of us. In my book, those future possibilities don’t include trying to figure out how to find another $300 a month to pay for a timeshare.

But let’s for a second imagine that I did want to partake, that I am interested in learning more. The gale-force winds that DVC blows throughout the resorts would be enough to remind me that I should probably log on to the DVC website or call that 800 number (something even Walt Disney World reservations doesn’t have!).

I don’t need this sales pitch interfering with my enjoyment of Epcot, ruining the ambience of Future World.

Here’s hoping that Lasseter & Co. will see how offensive these elaborate kiosks are and do away with this particular piece of “magic.” Let Epcot be for imagining life ahead, not thinking about mortgage payments.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Sunset on a Spaceship

For many years, images like this could be seen throughout Epcot at sunset, when the entire Spaceship Earth geosphere would be bathed in the warm orange glow of a Florida evening.

These days, it requires a camera and some patience to recapture half of that wonderful view. The other half, of course, is taken up by that garish hand and wand.

Still ... when the picture comes out just right, it's a glorious, one-of-a-kind vision.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Enjoying Epcot

You can’t deny that this is one of the nicest times of year to experience Epcot’s wonderful landscaping, thanks to the Epcot Flower & Garden Festival. Although the walkways unfortunately get clogged with all sorts of flea-market-style stalls that look a bit out of place, it’s a small price to pay for some of the most attractively designed and impeccably maintained landscaping in any theme park in the world.

I’ve received a couple of e-mails from readers who say I complain too much on this blog about what’s wrong with Epcot.

To a certain degree, they miss the point – this blog isn’t for complaining, it’s for pointing out shortcomings and waxing nostalgic for what used to be so right about Epcot … and how to make it right again.

That said, my last visit to Epcot left me thinking more about why I do love the place so much. (And, yes, for those who are wondering, I have a professional job and career, a great home life and a full social life outside of my fascination with Epcot!)

I’ve traveled to Asia, Europe, Latin America and all around the country for work and for pleasure, and yet … if you give me a choice of any destination for a vacation, I’ll likely choose Walt Disney World and spend most of my time at Epcot. Aside from the sheer beauty of the landscaping and grounds (even in non-festival periods), there is a great deal still very, very right about Epcot.

In no particular order, some memories and impressions that I hope will remind you of why Epcot, even in its current, less-than-stellar state, is like no other place in the world:

* The American Adventure remains one of the most elaborate, most stirring, most wonderful examples of multi-media presentations anywhere.

* There are quiet spots galore – inside the Japan and Morocco pavilions; near the Universe of Energy; the English gardens in the United Kingdom pavilion; on the path between Communicore West and The Land (and many others) … and in these places, the architecture, the walkways, the ambient music and the beautifully designed details all add up to make wonderful, calm moments.

* The exhibits within the World Showcase displays seem often to go unnoticed by guests, but add terrific texture and background to the experience. Without them, Epcot would be lacking, and it’s always nice to see that Disney still cares enough to have someone design and curate these exhibits, which really make a visit to Epcot rich and educational for those who care about such things.

* Spaceship Earth remains remarkably unchanged, despite its upgrades and refurbishments over the years, from its original concept, and still makes many riders think again about how and why humans have a need to communicate.

* The pleasure of dining at Epcot is unmatched. (Sadly, Restaurant Akershus has become an all-character locale – I’ll blog about that development at some point!) I have had some truly memorable meals, and despite the fact that guest are wearing flip-flops and t-shirts, the servers never fail to impart a sense of authenticity and genuine hospitality.

* Illuminations. Has there ever been a better combination of fireworks, music and imagery? Even the most jaded person who has visited Epcot with me has never failed to be impressed by the show. Here’s hoping it will go on for many, many more years.

* Despite my misgivings about Mission: Space as an experience, the pavilion’s exterior is absolutely breathtaking and a beautiful addition to Future World.

* Chinese acrobats: never the same show twice. And always fun.

* Rice cream from Kringla Bakeri og Kafe is … well, they should call it Rice Dream, really.

* The short film at the end of Maelstrom is overlooked by the vast majority of guests, but immediately instills a desire to visit the country.

* The Fountain of Nations, with its synchronized music-and-water shows, is as much an attraction as anything else at Epcot. It feels spontaneous and alive in a way many other attractions at Walt Disney World don’t. I could go on. I won’t, but I could.

What are your favorite places in the park? What are your memorable moments? I’d like to hear.

No matter how misguided Disney’s efforts to “improve” Epcot are, no matter how little Disney management “gets” the park, no matter what happens … it’s clear to me that Epcot’s core concepts are so fun and exciting that little bits of them will always remain to provide pleasure and demonstrate why Epcot, unlike any of the other Disney theme parks, is one to which many of us can return over and over and over without getting tired of it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

More Visual Clutter

Additional images for blogpost below.

Visual Clutter

The once sleek, wide-open spaces of Epcot have given way to such visual clutter that it's almost hard to make out the park's design.

Look above at Innoventions Plaza (top image). The park's original design instilled a sense of serenity and beauty in Future World. Although the buildings of Innoventions (formerly Communicore) are overwhelmingly large, they are almost Zen in their spartan design. The simple sleekness conveyed a sense of "future" that has aged very well. The carnival-like additions to the plaza, however, already seem retro and silly.

On the other side of Spaceship Earth, as you enter Epcot, is one of the most crass pieces of visual clutter imaginable. Enter the park, and the first thing you get is a blatant sales plug for "Leave a Legacy." Directly at the base of Spaceship Earth, even before you get to the attraction entrance itself, Disney's already trying to get you to shell out hard cash. It's ugly, its crass, it's distracting and it really ought to be moved to a different location.

Mission: Space (you can read my review of that below) is a brilliant design addition to Epcot, its exterior design so sleek and simple. It fits in perfectly with the original conception of Epcot pavilions. Next door, however, is another matter. Test Track (image above) is such a visual clutter that you can't even make out the design of the building behind it. There was something wonderfully basic and elementary about the World of Motion building: a round silver structure that supposedly was modeled after a wheel. Even if the "wheel" message wasn't visually conveyed, it was a lovely structure. Now it's covered up by scaffolding and pylons and signs and other visual pollution. It's exhausting just to look at it.

Over on the west side of Future World, the glass pyramids of Journey Into Imagination are still there, and the water elements (the jumping fountain and backwards waterfall) still entertain. But when Imagineers shortened the name to "Imagination!" they must have thought, "Gee, nobody will understand," so they overwhelmed the building with signs and visual clutter. The "Imagination Institute" logo is everywhere, there's a garish neon-laced sign for "Honey I Shrunk the Audience," and even a hanging vinyl sign that looks like it was made at Kinko's. In a park dedicated to man's opportunities and achievements, the best they could do was a cheap sign that looks like it was designed by high-schoolers?!

Throughout Epcot, it's as if attractions are shouting out, competing for your attention. "Look here!" "Ride me!" "Come inside!" "This is fun!" Walking through the park puts a guest on sensory overload.

It would be great to see Imagineers take a long look at what has become of Epcot visually. The park has a beautiful design and sensibility somewhere underneath all of those garish new decorations. A few years ago, Disneyland in California became overwhelmed with outdoor vending carts (a problem that plagues Epcot, as well!) and too much visual distraction. Wisely, Imagineers and park management scaled it all back, making a much better guest experience.

If any Imagineer remembers the words "bad show," please raise your hand and proceed directly to Epcot!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Mission: Replace

I’ve finally had the chance to experience Mission: Space for myself, and it’s an experience I’ve lived to regret.

Whether due to the immense publicity around the tragic deaths of two guests who rode it or due to the sheer intensity of the ride experience itself, my overriding sensation while on the attraction was one that I have never had at a Disney theme park – panic.

True, utter terror filled me as I tried to focus on the single goal of getting off of the ride and having it be over.

Mission: Space is not for the faint-of-heart, that’s for sure. No doubt there are many people who like the ride, but don’t count me among them. After the three turbulent, fearful minutes I spent inside the “space capsule,” I could only marvel at how far Disney has gotten away from the ideals and values upon which its theme parks are built.

This is not a ride for families to experience together. Putting a six-year-old child on this ride virtually qualifies as abuse. It is neither inspiring, educational, entertaining nor fun; none of the qualities that infuse the best Disney attractions are anywhere to be found within Mission: Space.

I’m convinced that, within a few years, Disney will accept that the only thing that can be done is to replace Mission: Space with an attraction that explores the awe-inspiring majesty and grandeur of space exploration – but this thing doesn’t even come close. (In fact, its basic premise isn’t even one of going to Mars, of taking part in the first Mars mission, but rather of training for such an experience – as if instilling a sense of wonder and excitement about space travel were beyond the capabilities of Imagineers.)

The day I visited, the wait time for Soarin’, across the way from Mission: Space, was 75 minutes, but the space-themed attraction was a virtual walk-on. It seems that guests are shunning even the modified, “less-intense” ride. Technologically, Disney has created something truly one-of-a-kind; on every other level, it’s a travesty.

Mission: Space is about as far away from the original concepts behind Epcot and behind the Disney theme parks as you could possibly get, and that’s a shame. The building that houses it is stunning and beautiful, inviting and graceful. Behind that fa├žade is a shining example of everything that is wrong with Disney’s theme-park design these days.

It’s a ride that few people will want to experience, fewer still will truly enjoy and that comes replete with so many dire warnings and precautions – my favorite being, “You may experience motion sickness during and after this adventure” – that it would be comical … if it weren’t so downright, well, wrong.

If Disney absolutely had to close an attraction on Epcot’s east side, I think they chose the wrong one.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Last Traces of Greatness

All’s right with the World? Sadly, that’s not the case. Readers of websites like Mouseplanet, Miceage and Re-Imagineering know all too well that there are many, many things wrong with Walt Disney World.

As in life, it’s the little things that did it. One little tweak in the wrong place – or, worse, one little thing left undone (an attraction not refurbished, a cast member allowed to be lazy) – results in a house-of-cards effect and, ultimately, the whole thing comes crashing down.

Still, there are a lot of things for which we can be grateful, both at Walt Disney World as a whole and at Epcot. So, for just a moment, let’s take a break from complaining and pay compliments to those things done right:

* The fun, bouncy, vaguely futuristic music that plays throughout Future World, which you can hear here, and which seems the perfect soundtrack for happy discovery;

* The dinosaurs in the Universe of Energy, one of the last remaining vestiges of what Future World once was;

* The jumping fountains outside Imagination, which, 25 years later, prove that just because something is a quarter of a century old it’s not outdated;

* The beautifully maintained and manicured gardens of Epcot, which with their simple undulations and lovely mix of flowers and shrubbery, showcase a kind of perfection that was once one of Epcot’s hallmarks;

* The hidden meaning of the old Epcot logo in the ground where the two halves of Innovations (formerly Communicore West and Communicore East) come together – the geographical center of Walt Disney World, something almost no guest realizes;

* The American Adventure, which, despite the tinkering over the years, maintains a bold vision of showmanship through technology and also (whatever your political leanings may be) is a wonderful display of American patriotism;

* The cast members in the College Program from around the world, who always seem eager and happy to be working at Walt Disney World – many other cast members could learn from them;

* The view of Spaceship Earth from underneath, when the Mickey hand can’t be seen and the enormity of the engineering feat and its stark beauty can be appreciated;

* Illuminations, a tiny slice of Disney perfection – it plays to cheers and tears every night, and I’ve never heard a guest complain that it contains no Disney characters;

* World Showcase, which somehow (for the most part) has escaped the tinkering of Disney “management” and has maintained the vision set for it 30 years ago without becoming an ungodly mess of thrill rides and Disney characters;

* Living With the Land – how has this escaped “Disneyfication” over the years and been allowed to quietly remain as an example of what Epcot was meant to be … wonderfully, happily so?

Perhaps Epcot is a little like Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars -- deep down, there is still some good there.

Next time you go, open your ears (the ones on your head, not perched atop!) and eyes and find little things to enjoy. They’re last traces of greatness.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Real Wonder

What went through their minds?

When the decision was made to shut down the Wonders of Life pavilion, what could Disney theme park managers have been thinking?

Was it too expensive to operate? Guess what, guys? Running a theme park is expensive – if you don’t think it should be, you’re probably in the wrong business.

Were the attractions too old? Old, perhaps, but also timeless. Outdated? Absolutely. But that’s nothing that five or six million dollars (chump change in this business) couldn’t have fixed. Create new film elements for the Cranium Command attraction; you’re taking kid stars and a small crew here, not particularly expensive. Heck, you could have even gotten away with keeping Charles Grodin and Bobcat Goldthwait; yeah, maybe Hanz ‘n’ Franz needed to go, but you could have found a stable of relatively inexpensive talent in your Disney Channel lineup.

Granted, that Making of Me attraction was getting a little embarrassing, but it could have been redone for another few million bucks. Spend another five million upgrading the movie in Body Wars and another on giving the place an upgraded paint scheme and redoing some of the bicycling-through-the-U.S. movies (some shots just screamed 1980s) and you’d be done.

For thirty or forty million bucks, tops, you could have had an entirely upgraded pavilion.

Instead, you shut it down.

And spent five times that amount on Mission: Space. (Not to mention the fact that your parent company is spending about five or six times that on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest this summer.)

I don’t get it. I really don’t. Once again, you’ve taken an attraction that was wholly unique in the Florida market, and a rarity in the entire world, and you’ve trashed it. Literally, this time around.

It just makes no sense to me that someone thought it would be better to have a massive golden dome that sits empty and barren, prompting puzzled questions from guests, than inject some money into revising and updating it … and, in the process, losing what more than one travel writer thought was the best attraction at Epcot (the aforementioned Cranium Command).

Did it not enter your minds that a ghost-town attraction would speak unintentional volumes about the level of commitment Disney has to its theme parks? That guests might be put off by realizing they spent 50 bucks to get into the park, but their money isn’t actually going to maintaining the park?

The real wonder is how these people keep their jobs.

Wonders of Life was a great experience. For those only interested in seeing big-ticket attractions, it offered two (one of them complete with a terrific Audio-Animatronics figure). For those interested in exploring more, it offered a myriad of opportunities – all of them in air-conditioned splendor. It was a respite from the Florida heat, a way to learn a little and laugh while doing it, a place where parents and kids could spend time together, an experience that left you even just a little more aware of your own body.

Yet, without a corporate sponsor, it was left to be neglected and, ultimately, abandoned.

The Wonders of Life once perfectly embodied what EPCOT Center was all about. Today, it perfectly embodies the level of interest and support that Disney gives to Epcot. Unintentionally, perhaps, Disney created its newest symbol in that golden dome.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The sad side of Epcot

Why am I so fascinated with Epcot? Why am I so disappointed?

This clinches it: a comment by James W. Rouse, Urban Developer of the New Town of Columbia, said in his keynote address before the 1963 Urban Design Conference at Harvard University. One of the brightest minds of the era observed:

“I may hold a view that may be somewhat shocking to an audience as sophisticated as this; that the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland... I find more to learn in the standards that have been set and in the goals that have been achieved in the development of Disneyland than in any other piece of physical development in the country.”
And look what has happened.

I know there are people who regret what Disneyland has become, what Disney’s movie division has become, what has happened to concepts like The Disney Store and DisneyQuest but I’d argue that they pale in comparison to the plight of Epcot.

Epcot was the last dream of Walt Disney, as everyone reading this will know. And everyone knows that, bless ’em, the executives who were left in charge after Disney died believed that they were honoring his dream by creating the EPCOT Center theme park.

Most claim they didn’t; I think they did – honor it, that is, at least in spirit. They put an emphasis on the hopes and possibilities of the future, they opened the concept to large companies to showcase their developments; they took the idea of an enclosed mall themed to the world’s nations and turned it into World Showcase.

More than that, they kept alive at least the ideals, the basic thoughts, behind Disney’s impossibly grand scheme. (So impossible that no one, not a single person on the planet, could likely have made it come to pass without Walt.) When it was presented, when it opened, through its first decade and a half of operations, EPCOT Center proudly stood as the symbol for what made The Walt Disney Company unlike any other company on earth.

It wasn’t a theme park; there weren’t all that many rides, at least by “normal” standards. It wasn’t a science center; most of its attractions were centered around ideas, not hard facts. It wasn’t all fun and games and it wasn’t all happiness and light. It was decidedly unique.

Its towering structures glistened in the Florida sun, monolithic and sometimes overpowering, as if laying claim to the future itself. Inside the gates, many guests were undoubtedly puzzled by its concept, but just as many came away enervated, eager to learn more, eager to move into their own futures with a sense that anything was possible. (Some just came away drunk, but that’s a different story.)

What made Epcot truly meaningful was that it was so different. Twenty-five years on, it’s hard to qualify; trying to explain what made Epcot unique is like trying to explain why yellow is your favorite color; it just is.

Or, in Epcot's case, it ... was.

Now, Epcot is overrun by Disney character merchandise, by the insistence that this is fun, by the desire to be like everyone else.

The tragedy is how assertively and insistently Disney’s management in the past 10 years have forced Epcot to become like everything else. They had something that could last for the ages, something that could always be in the state of becoming, something that no one else – ever, anywhere – could duplicate.

That scared them.

I know much of what I’m writing is similar to what I’ve written before. But as I review that comment by James W. Rouse, I am saddened to see that Disney, once a force unlike any other in entertainment (or any other industry, for that matter) has become so mundane, so much like everyone else. Is there a single mind at Disney who could envision a concept so radical it would win the admiration of one of today’s most eminent scholars? Is there anyone who could dream a concept so daring that it would never be duplicated by anyone, anywhere?

There seem, instead, only to be people so scared by the idea that they are the custodians of something special that they’d rather destroy that object than protect it and care for it any longer.

As I watch Epcot become Pixar-ized and made mundane and meaningless, I am at a loss. I still love it. I love that glistening sphere of Spaceship Earth; the beautiful architecture that reminds me of a time when the future was exciting and new. I love hearing the futuristic music that makes me imagine (goofy me) a time when we’d all wear matching jumpsuits and go to work in hovercrafts. I love seeing the pristine walkways and waterways that meander past glass-and-steel structures that promise wonder and amazement. I love the concept of Epcot; I do still get excited when I return there.

But more and more, hard as it is to admit, I just get sad. I hate seeing people give up on their dreams. I really hate seeing companies, with their unlimited resources and infinite possibilities, give up on the dreams of others.

That’s terribly, terribly disappointing.