Monday, July 17, 2006

Epcot's Rewards

I spent last week in an unusual situation: I was in Central Florida and I went to two theme parks, but they weren’t at Walt Disney World. Instead, I spent my time at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.

These are two solid parks. Universal’s evocation of 1940’s glamour Hollywood and its celebration of the movies can’t be beat. Up until seven years ago, I wouldn’t have thought this possible, as Disney-MGM Studios gets so much right. Then, Disney Imagineers added Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, which is a great ride in the wrong park. (Did no one at least consider the idea of having the limousine be late to a movie premiere or, say, the Academy Awards, instead of an Aerosmith concert?) In 2001, the addition of the much-maligned Sorcerer’s Hat created a new icon for the park … and sealed its fate as a park that doesn’t so much celebrate movies as shill for Disney’s own entertainment.

So, Universal Studios, though somewhat over-concreted and under-landscaped, wins hands down in the battle of the movie theme parks these days.

Islands of Adventure, on the other hand, may have (arguably) the most thrilling attractions in Central Florida and one of the most elaborate dark rides ever with The Adventures of Spider-Man. It may attract the much-coveted teen audience. (Why theme park operators want this audience so badly is beyond me, since they don’t seem to spend much money and mostly just make the lives of families and adult groups miserable.) The failure of Islands of Adventure to be much more than a slightly more elaborate version of a Six Flags theme parks points out exactly what Disney does so well … and, more specifically, Epcot.

For, while I spend a great deal of my time on this blog lambasting and criticizing Disney Imagineers for what’s wrong with Epcot, it should be noted that when it comes to finding a way to create elaborate, intricately themed experiences that fully engulf a guest’s senses, Disney is the clear leader – and Epcot is perhaps its crowning glory.

Epcot, for all of its faults (and they are only getting more numerous), has at its core the concept of not just offering one-off rides and attractions in a single location, but at creating enormous “mini-destinations” within a single park.

A guest doesn’t head to The Land only because “Soarin’” is there – or, if s/he does, is quickly reminded that there’s much more to experience. An hour or more is spent inside one pavilion, and a guest feels that Disney has over-delivered a worthwhile experience. Imagination, The Living Seas and most of World Showcase (even those pavilions without a “ride”) fall into this same category: they create a wholly immersive environment, and instead of passively walking through and experiencing a single ride, guests find themselves absorbed for a half hour, an hour or longer in one place.

This is something Epcot offers that no other theme park can match – and while the other WDW parks come close at times (and the “Walt” attractions, being the predecessors to Epcot, are the best at it), it’s what Disney’s “competition” can’t even begin to do. As I watched Universal’s guests dutifully wait in line for 45 minutes to experience a 95-second roller coaster, it dawned on me that Epcot isn’t just about instant gratification, it’s about rewarding guests who have patience, inquisitiveness and imagination. Epcot, in many ways, gives as much back as a guest puts into it, and works best for those who give themselves over to the pace and the basic precepts of the park.

Spaceship Earth, the Universe of Energy and The American Adventure may seem to violate this concept. At first glance, they’re large pavilions with a single attraction at their core. Outside of this attraction, there’s not much to them. Oh … but what attractions! These are 15- to 30-minute multi-sensory experiences that seek to envelop (and develop) all of a guest’s senses. If they don’t thrill the adrenal gland, they do (at their best) thrill the heart and mind. They take their time, they offer an immersive adventure on a grand scale. They are individual “rides,” but they take the concept of a “ride” to a new level.

What, then, to make of recent developments like Mission: Space and Test Track? These attractions are where Disney is showing us the potentially devastating future of Epcot. They are massive in scale, but tiny in scope. Even their layout shows us what’s wrong: The enormous pavilions that house them are primarily given over to the queue area and/or a retail location. Interior space that Imagineers previously would have used to create “sub”-experiences of the main attraction (think of the ImageWorks at Imagination) are now used either as waiting areas or to grab more cash.

As for the rides themselves, no matter how elaborate in execution, they’re basically short thrill rides, which neither take the time to allow a guest to savor what s/he is experiencing nor showcase the remarkable detail and flair that was once a hallmark of Disney’s design. They are elaborate in design only, not in execution.

In other words, they’re a lot like Islands of Adventure, where designers seem to have lavished so much attention on the breathtakingly gorgeous “Port of Entry” they had nothing left for the other areas of the park. (OK, there are some exceptions, but you get my drift.)

Epcot rewards those with patience, those with the ability and desire to look past the immediate thrill to ideas, concepts and stimulation that extends beyond the merely physical. Epcot rewards those who love to explore. And, if Disney can grasp this concept (a critical-eye visit to Universal might help), Epcot just might continue rewarding future generations who are looking for more than just a cheap thrill.


Anonymous said...

SOmehting I have noticed on the newer attractions in all the Disney parks is somehting you just brought up: queues.

As far as I can tell, the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland is the last ride Disney truly put any effort behind. I love it, the ride and the line. (That the new method of queuing the FastPass people ruins the Indy line is a whole other post.) And it is the last ride where a "multi-sensory experience" was put into the ride queue. Not a single line at California Adventure, for instance, bothers to be interesting. Waiting for Soarin' over California? Absolutely abysmal! The lines for Test Track and Mission: Space are as useless.

Some of the older rides are not so grand in the line vision. Pirates of the Caribbean--which I hear was just changed thanks to the movies--has no line, really. But I woudl suggest that part of the line continues once you're in that boat, floating serenely through the swamp, past the Blue Bayou... Is this ride or queue? Brilliantly, it's both. Haunted mansion achieveds a similar thing. Most of the line is outside and not too interesting, but then you get into the stretching room and, though technically you're still in line, the ride has already begun!

Arguable, Test Track does a similar thing. You stand in the boring line with the supremely repetitive hardware all around you, then you go into the little "prep room" to "set up" you test ride. Then you go and wait some more with, really, nothing to look at. (No haunted portraits--which were also recently changed for the worse--like in Haunted Mansion, no intricately detailed rooms filled with things to touch and see and figure out like in Indy.)

I could go on. But I am done.

Anonymous said...

E82, I agree with just about all of what you say about atmosphere-creation at WDW properties and Epcot in particular, but I do feel that there is a much larger range on the theme-park quality continuum between IOA and your typical six flags park. Most of IOA is rather elaborately themed, except perhaps for the Marvel island, which looks and feels very cheap and plastic. And that theming and atmosphere extends to the time spent in line...

re: Steve: the queues for many of the attractions at IOA are worthwhile... for example, is there a more elaborately designed queue for a roller coaster than Dueling Dragons? If so, I have yet to see it. And the queue for Spiderman sets up (or used to set up) the story you are about to experience.

It's too bad that so many people focus on getting on to a ride as fast as possible. I haven't ridden Everest yet, and sure, I'll use Fastpass in the future, but not the first time... I want to see and savor the work that was done in creating the atmosphere for the ride. DAK seems to do this pretty well... particularly as you enter the park, and are required to wind your way through to the big reveal of the Tree of Life.

Here's hoping that the atmosphere and attention to detail won't be lost on future Disney endeavors. I'm (mostly) confident it won't be.

Anonymous said...

While I enjoy all of your blogs, I also have to disagree that IOA is not much more than an elaborate six flags park...there's much more differences than similarities. In fact, the only similarities between the two parks I can see are that they both have outdoor rollercoasters. (Then again, so does DCA)

Nearly every attraction at IOA is totally above and beyond anything you'll find at any parks other than Disney.

I understand the rest of your blog, but IOA does have the Jurassic Park Discovery Center, which is a bit like what you mean, though obviously quite different.

The difference is that unlike Epcot, where the rides themselves have different interactive areas, IOA has full lands that are when you exit the attraction, you're still in the land, not exiting to a more generic bit of space between attractions which Future World really is.

Josh said...

"Massive in scale and tiny in scope" - man, you hit the nail right on the head with that one. I've tried to put my finger on what exactly bothers me about those attractions, but I've never been able to identify it so succinctly.

I do know that where EPCOT once offered an optimistic and hopeful view of the future, it now only pays lip service to the concept. Test Track? Nothing futuristic about that. Mission: Space? Vaguely futuristic, I suppose, but in a concrete, 'real' way, with no sense of hope or vision of grandeur that Horizons was famous for. Imagination? No future in that - it's not even about using your imagination to create things anymore. Soarin'? Great ride, no future vision to it whatsoever. The Living Seas (if you can even call it that anymore)? They have taken all the future out - the whole concept of descending to Sea Base Alpha, a working undersea colony - and turned it into a cartoon. Universe of Energy? I guess it still touches on the future theme a little, but again, not in any inspiring way. That pretty much leaves Spaceship Earth and Living with the Land.

Sigh. I love EPCOT, but I would surely love to see it return to the pinnacle of greatness it once called Future World.

Thanks for the great blog, by the way; I love it.

Epcot82 said...


Your comments are really insightful, too.

Actually ALL of the comments that I've received are great ... you can only hope "someone" is reading!

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with you, E82.
The Epcot of 10-15 years ago was forward looking, stirring in each person the Disneyesque "Hope for Tomorrow". It's not a bullet-proof philosophy, but it's a far cry better than meaningless sensory overload. It's about entertainment, YES! But it was an ennobling entertainment. The old Epcot got you to suspend belief but not the intellect. The new Epcot gets it backward.

Of course the ominous winds of change were felt, for me at least, when the original Figment ride (*sigh* -- that was a GOOD ride) was "rehabbed". The new ride was dumbed down with smarter technology.

Anyway, good thoughts, E82. I'm very nostalgic about the spirit of the Old Epcot, and hope Disney will do something to restore its former glory.

Steve "E72"

Anonymous said...

Great, great post.

One other thing that really disturbed me about IOA was the introduction of the carnival-type games in the Lost Continent. When I first came to IOA, this was the "land" that truly inspired me. Now, they've added carnival games that take away from the Medieval theme they originally created. Not only that, but the stands blast music. As I was walking through what was supposed to be a fantasy land, I could hear Salt N' Pepa's "Push It" blasting from one of the stands. Ugh.

My biggest fear with Epcot - as with the rest of the parks at WDW - is how things are suddenly being "Pixared." While I find Turtle Talk inspiring in its ingenuity, I can't say the same of Stitch's Great Escape or the rumored Finding Nemo attraction at AK. Rumor has it The Incredibles will be taking the place of Carousel of Progress as well. Rawr.

Epcot82 said...

The Incredibles replacing a Walt Disney original? That would be truly horrible. What a genuinely sad day that would be.

Why even call it Tomorrowland anymore?!

Captain Schnemo said...

I also have to speak up for IOA here. If you've ever been to Marvel Superhero Island with a comics geek, you can appreciate the quality and quantity of Marvelness they've poured into it. I've spent hours wandering through every corner of the land as my nerd friends are amazed by the depth of the Marvel roster and inside jokes.

The Spider-Man queue is terrific, although I never see it any more. (Those go-to-the-head-of-the-line passes are the Best Benny Ever for staying on site. I'll never do it any other way again.)

I don't know much about Marvel comics, but I know all about Seuss and I can personally vouch for the incredible level of detail in Seuss Landings, down to the "Hidden Seuss". In particular, the Once-ler's house is a wonderful little extra that most people don't even notice. If you happen to know what it is, however, you'll note that it's surprisingly well-done for just a little park flair. Sneetch Beach is also a winner, down to the transistor radio the Sneetches are listening to.

Because of the nature of the source material, most of the Islands are more coherent than the MK lands and at least on par with Epcot pavilions. Fantasyland is essentially a European strip mall of attractions, but Seuss Landings is wall-to-wall seamless Seuss design.

Considering my extraordinarily low opinion of Universal Studios, I was blown away by IOA. Post Eisner-holocaust, I'd have to say that I find IOA far more enjoyable than Epcot. It does certainly fall down when it comes to attractions that the whole family can enjoy simultaneously, although they are clearly shooting for a different market. And, if anything, Epcot is moving towards that direction, while IOA is taking baby steps improving their situation.

The key element here, however, is a dedication and respect for the source material and the founding principles of the lands. It remains to be seen if they will stay the course, but for now they are thrashing Disney in that respect.