Saturday, September 30, 2006

Where's Spaceship Earth?

It's a topic that's already been discussed here and, with some lovely visuals, at Re-Imagineering. Nonetheless, after this last trip to Epcot, it can't be repeated enough: Epcot's central plaza has become a overcluttered, carnival-style eyesore.

Look above at the way EPCOT Center was designed. If you're wondering where this image is taken from, it took me a while to recognize it as well. That large gray structure under Spaceship Earth in the 1982 postcard is the exit area of the attraction. To the left is Communicore East (now Innoventions East).

The peaceful, almost serene calm of the scene underscores the idea that our world of the future can be orderly, calm and quite lovely -- that technology can bring us some peace from the chaos. The future promises a well-ordered, but not stark, world unlike the noisy one in which we live.

The redesigned Future World (below) says exactly the opposite: We need fun! We need noise! We need to be busy and chaotic! (Heck, on my last trip, I even saw -- I'm not making this up -- a cast member throw a large ball directly at guests trying to "engage" them.)

And missing in the redesign? Well, where, exactly is Spaceship Earth? Oh, there it is, behind the clutter, behind the "festivity," behind the madness. It's not looming majestically over everything -- it's hidden. I'm beginning to think Disney might be ashamed of it ... ?

No, No, Norway

Let me first say: I love Norway.

Thanks to my visits to the Norway pavilion at Epcot, it's one of the countries I most want to visit in my life, and I've spent time learning about its culture and people.

The Norway pavilion at EPCOT Center inspired and intrigued me perhaps more than any other.

The Norway pavilion at today's Epcot stinks.

It's poorly conceived, poorly staffed and poorly maintained. It is an enormous disappointment desperately in need of re-thinking. First, let's remember what the Norway pavilion used to be like. Opened in 1988, it was the last of the World Showcase nations to be constructed (hopefully not the very last!).

Though many people feel they "know" Norway since it's a Germanic, European country (and, therefore, must be like Germany, Sweden and Holland, right?), the Norway pavilion proudly offered a Viking ship and stave church at its entrance, as if to say, "This is not the Europe you think you know."

Maelstrom, the pavilion's centerpiece ride, revolved around Norwegian troll mythology, and though the ride was (and remains) disappointingly short, it managed to pack into a few minutes some exciting new technology. Upon its conclusion, riders were invited to watch a short "travelogue" on Norway, focusing on the people whose spirit makes them different than other Europeans. After exiting the ride and the film, a travel kiosk staffed by a Norwegian student offered details on touring the country for those who were inspired to know more after the immersive experiences.

Shops featured Norwegian clothes, crafts and snacks. For a dining experience, Norway offered both a traditional bakery and an unusual smorgasbord buffet at a restaurant called Akershus. While most of those elements are still in place, it's what has happened to the in the past 18 years (and particularly the last five) that is devastating.

The Viking ship, once a play area, has become a static "photo opp" thanks to the overzealous Disney attorneys (who would probably shut down all theme parks if they could -- lest someone fall or get sunburned!). Seizing on this now-kidless area, mangement decided to put a heavily traveled smoking area next to the ship.

The stave church is mercifully still in place and currently offers a fascinating (albeit tiny) look at Viking history -- I actually learned a bit looking at this little exhibit. Unfortunately, instead of trusting inquisitive guests to open the door and explore themselves, Disney management has hung an obtrusive banner over the two entrances ... though I seriously doubt a colorful marketing banner would ever hang over the doorway of an authentic church.

Maelstrom is still around, but it seems the ride has hardly been touched by Imagineers over 18 years. It's creaky, it's jarring and its Audio-Animatronic figures look like wax dummies more than ever. Is it fun? Yeah, a bit. But it sorely needs to a full rehab; when your boat comes to a sudden stop and turns to go over the waterfall backward, the experience feels labored and difficult, not surprising and fun.

No one even bothers to try to get guests to stay for the five-minute film after the ride. Guests brazenly march through the auditorium, determined to see the next thing instead of look at some lovely images of Norway. (And they are very lovely indeed.) The cast member working the attraction during a recent stay actually encouraged guests to leave by saying that the movie was "a little boring." It's not -- not in the slightest. But it is horribly outdated. Watching a modeling session in a Norwegian shopping center is like reliving your senior year of college: shoulder pads, garish eye makeup and vaguely "futuristic" haircuts. In one scene, a scientist works on a computer -- but it's a terminal from the mid-1980s that bears little resemblance to the thing I'm using to write this. It's laughable.

Norway is hoping this will make the country look exciting and progressive? During my recent visit, the Kringla og Kafe bakery and its little seating area looked like they hadn't been cleaned for days. There were empty tables, but no one wanted to sit at them they were so sticky and dirty. For a country that prides itself on cleanliness, Norway's Disney incarnation gives the impression of slovenly grime.

Worst of all is what has happened to Restaurant Akershus. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you already know my thoughts on this. But my recent visit provided me the opportunity to see it first hand, and it was genuinely sad. The restaurant has become an all-princesses character dining location, completely removing any semblance of cultural authenticity or appeal for adults without children. Indeed, it's difficult even to get in to the Norway pavilion through the sea of strollers that now clogs the entry! The restaurant is now the "Akershus Royal Banquet Hall," and exists solely for little girls and their accommodating parents.

Please understand, I am not a curmudgeon, a fuddy-duddy or a mean adult. I think kids should have an opportunity to have fun while at Walt Disney World. (Though being screamed at by my mother or father for being a little cranky in the heat, as I have so often seen, is not my idea of fun at any age!) But to take a truly unique and unusual culinary location, particularly one where the food was as fine as it was at Akershus, and turn it in to Princess Central -- despite the fact that, when I last looked, the number of Norwegian princesses in the Disney Hall of Princesses was exactly zero -- is really unpardonable.

It showcases Disney's brazen desire to make money at all costs and to "monetize" everything they possibly can. It is a cynical restaurant location, one that undermines the basic concept of Epcot's World Showcase and that is, by all accounts, a very unpleasant place to be even for parents of young girls. But it makes money, and that's Disney's sad raison d'etre these days. "Screw creative integrity, let's make a bundle!"

Akershus and Norway display that mindset brilliantly.

One area inside its Puffin's Roost store is now filled with all sorts of Disney Princesses junk that has nothing to do with Norway. A cart with even more Princesses stuff is set down in the middle of the pavilion, lest any father or mother walk away with a few bucks still in their billfolds.

Most distressing to me is the fact that Disney has shut down Norway's tourist kiosk. There's no information on traveling to Norway, no cast member stationed there to talk about his or her home country (during my last visit in 2001, I spent about 40 minutes talking to a cast member about my desire to visit Norway), not even a simple brochure with lovely photos. There's still a sign overhead claiming to offer travel information ... but when I asked a cast member if the kiosk would ever open, she not-so-helpfully responded, "Oh, I think that's just there for decoration."

Ironically, next to the now-shuttered travel kiosk is a plaque that states the Norway pavilion was opened by Crown Prince Harald in June 1988. The opening was broadcast on national Norwegian television. No doubt the prince and his subjects were tremendously proud of the pavilion -- and justifiably so at the time.

I wonder what they'd think of it now.


Postscript: After writing this, I read on Wikipedia that the Norwegian government, "against the recommendations from their American embassy (sic)," stopped making payments to Disney in 2002. That may explain the loss of the travel kiosk. If this was another of the "we hate Eisner" scenarios, let's hope Bob Iger's diplomacy can work with the Norwegians as well as it did with Roy E. Disney.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What a Wonderful World (Showcase)

Though it would benefit enormously from the addition of a country or two (or more); though many of its shops have lost their individual personalities in favor of increasingly generic Disney-branded stuff; though it has been almost ignored by Disney since its inception (save the addition of two countries); though it lacks any sort of "E-ticket" thrill ride; though it is resolutely low-tech ...

World Showcase remains simply awesome.

Each time I travel to Epcot, it seems to me more and more that World Showcase really is the heart of the park. Future World is where the action is, Future World is fantastic and wonderful to explore ... but World Showcase is where the charm lies. It is a beautiful place.

It's really a shame Disney's management doesn't see how special their cross-section of the world is and do more to make it bigger and more representative of our planet's nations. Nonetheless, I can hardly think of a better place to spend a day ... and that's why on each successive trip to Epcot, I find myself spending more and more time there. It is a genuinely special place.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Diggin' The Land

It was a great vacation.

Although Walt Disney World as a whole was more crowded than we had anticipated, particularly the resorts and the Magic Kingdom, we found Epcot's blessing of size continues to be one of its greatest advantages -- it rarely seems or feels crowded.

Out of five park days, we spent three either mostly or all at Epcot. Despite that, there were many things left undone and unseen.

(A digression: One thing I did manage to do, though, was take a few minutes to check some of the recent posts and responses here, and I appreciate your thoughts and comments. Bear in mind that, as a former journalist, I believe that there is a key distinction between "complaining" and criticism, and I've tried to ensure that my negative comments are always offered as -- I hope -- helpful criticism for anyone from Disney who might be reading. If you feel I'm only complaining, not being positive enough, remember that honest criticism has always been one of the great instigators of change. I don't believe for a moment that anything written on this blog will, of itself, lead to much-needed change at Epcot, but I do believe that Epcot Central can be one in a chorus of voices that, as they get louder and louder, are impossible for Disney to ignore. With regard solely to myself, I try to offer criticism in the hope that it will inspire thought and lead to discussion that -- whether it is in concert with my own ideas or not -- results in a better future for Epcot. As the park itself used to point out in several attractions, discussion and debate are positive and essential to a progressive future.)

One of the things I was most struck by, however, was the renovation of The Land pavilion. I'll give credit where it's due, and it's most definitely due here.

Although the food court area has lost much of its charm and feels a bit sterile, the rest of the pavilion not only looks better than ever, it has become a shining example of how Epcot can retain its core ideals but also grow and expand to please thrill-seeking audiences.

Entering The Land, it's amazing how the pavilion has kept the same overall feel and mood of its 1982 incarnation. There's something about a fully integrated, fully enclosed, multi-faceted pavilion that's both retro and cool. The Land, for lack of a better term, still feels a bit groovy.

More importantly, The Land makes all guests feel welcome. There's nothing here that's overly juvenile, nothing that screams Disney and "characters" so loudly it makes your head hurt. Sure, there's The Circle of Life with its Lion King characters, and though I have not seen it in many years, it's only one of several components to the pavilion. More importantly, the movie imparts some honest information and spurs thinking among more inquisitive young viewers.

But The Circle of Life is hardly the centerpiece of The Land. Marginally, that distinction belongs to Soarin', but in a wonderful and (for me) unexpected touch, Imagineers have not redesigned The Land to focus solely on Soarin', but instead kept Living With the Land as the literal and figurative heart and soul of the pavilion.

I had read some speculation and a couple of "advance reviews" of the new incarnation of Living With the Land, and even made some derogatory comments about its lack of a human host. That was before I rode it. Living With the Land has genuinely been improved. The Audio-Animatronic and greenhouse sections of the ride flow smoothly together. The short film segment acts as a nice bridge between the two, and the greenhouse area is truly interesting and engaging.

Living With the Land is quintessentially Epcot. It engages and entertains, it informs, it educates, it spurs thinking and -- as almost every first-time rider finds out -- it's actually fun. It's a huge relief to see that Disney, when it wants (or, perhaps, when it's spurred on by a sponsor?), can do a redesign like this one.

Then, of course, there's Soarin'. Ever since my first ride at Disney's California Adventure, I've found Soarin' to be good, not great -- to be evolutionary, but hardly revolutionary. It's tremendously well done, but there are some suspiciously cheap shortcuts, like not decorating or theming the theater or the ride vehicles, and not taking the utmost care to always ensure that the film is projected at the best possible quality. That said, it's a very good ride, hopefully soon to be made more terrific when (if?) Florida gets its own unique film -- which would be an opportunity for Imagineering to prove they learned from the relatively minor mistakes made the first time around (like those jarring cuts from shot to shot).

I know, I know, I'm carping. But Disney used to hold itself to a higher standard, and there's no legitimate reason the company should be slipping! Still ... Soarin' is a very strong addition to The Land and, most importantly, it fits. If it's not educational, it's at least interesting and fun to watch after the rush of the experience has passed. It makes you want to get out into the world and see it. And, even more importantly, it is a great complement to Living With the Land, showing many of the environments described in that attraction.

Thanks to its recent renovation, The Land is a perfect EPCOT Center-style blend of education and entertainment, of visceral and intellectual excitement. It looks good, it offers a plenty to do, and it even has two good dining options. (The food court, in addition to being a bit antiseptic, might try to tie in a bit more to The Land's overall theming and messages; even telling us how much of the food we're eating is provided by the pavilion might be a fun way to bring it all together.) Most astonishingly, given the "sell-sell-sell-and-sell-some-more" attitude that is growing ever stronger at Disney theme parks, The Land doesn't even include a gift shop! What a fantastic and welcome relief.

The Land proves that you don't need massive infusions of Disney characters and film-based "overlays" to get people enthusiastic about the EPCOT Center-style philosophies; you just need a strong concept, a good story and solid execution. The Land has it all -- wandering through it almost felt like being at EPCOT Center again!

Friday, September 15, 2006

35 Random Thoughts

I'm heading off on a long-planned vacation today, including a lengthy stop at Walt Disney World and Epcot. I'm almost hesitant to go to Epcot after all I've been writing; will it be better or worse than I remember? What kind of changes will I see first-hand?

Meanwhile, some random thoughts on the past, present and future of EPCOT Center and Epcot that are running through my mind.

1. Do something about the wand … please!

2. Traveling the world is something that no one should miss the opportunity to do, but so is seeing Epcot.

3. Disney’s upcoming “celebration” products use a generic “Disney Theme Parks” logo that looks terrible; is Disney intentionally trying to ruin its Theme Parks business by making all of its parks seem alike, much like Six Flags?

4. I really miss Horizons – or, more to the point, I really intensely dislike Mission: Space.

5. Clam-mobiles?!

6. I’m almost going to miss seeing 1970s cars in the Canada movie.

7. Epcot has the coolest, most unique landscaping of any theme park in the world.

8. Love the Fountain of Nations; who doesn’t?!

9. Why don’t they make more Epcot-specific merchandise?

10. Given how large the Mission: Space pavilion is, it’s too bad they didn’t put in a cool space-themed restaurant.

11. Rio del Tiempo aside, the Mexico pavilion is pretty extraordinary and deserves more than a casual glance.

12. The museum-style exhibits in World Showcase deserve more attention from guests and from the park’s marketing “managers.”

13. Those marketing “managers” seem to know less and less about marketing every day.

14. Is piranha still on the menu at the Coral Reef Room?

15. It’s too bad they don’t still create unique matchbooks all around Epcot; matches are for much more than lighting cigarettes!

16. How did Epcot move from getting us jazzed about “Corporate America” to making us so cynical?

17. Who won the Person of the Century poll?

18. Is it really that hard to find a sponsor for Wonders of Life, and if it is, couldn’t Disney fund it on its own?

19. What purpose do those awnings in Innoventions Plaza serve?

20. The woman who used to narrate the opening film in The Living Seas had the coolest voice.

21. I miss the giant IMAX-sized DNA strand … they should add that to Soarin’ and really freak people out!

22. Is it really that hard for Disney “managers” to understand the concept of “family entertainment”?

23. Take down the wand!

24. Epcot’s entry plaza looks like a giant war memorial.

25. If the France pavilion’s Eiffel Tower is based on “original blueprints,” as tour guides allege, how comes it looks so … odd?

26. Aerial shots of Epcot show what an amazing amount of land is still open for development in both World Showcase and Future World.

27. Norway is the most charming of the World Showcase pavilions.

28. I miss the “authentic,” non-princess version of Akershus.

29. It seems a woefully low percentage of guests really take the time to explore the China pavilion.

30. Illuminations: Reflections of Earth may be the best show Disney has ever created.

31. The Simpsons notwithstanding, Epcot simply isn’t “boring.”

32. Why does Disney care so little about what its biggest fans have to say?

33. Has there ever been a more pointless piece of real estate than Odyssey Restaurant?

34. Please. The wand. Do something.

35. Epcot has moved from being opimistic and hopeful to being crass and cynical (represented so well by the sideshow-style hawking kiosks where they try to sell you on the Disney Vacation Club and Leave a Legacy). I hope one day someone at Disney will re-discover Epcot's true voice.