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!


Matt Arnold said...

How exciting! I feel like congratulations are in order for Epcot. I haven't been to that pavilion since these changes were made. For that matter, I had trouble staying inside the pavilion because it reminded me too much that they took out Kitchen Kabaret. Now I look forward to seeing The Land for myself once again. I'm going to Listen To The Land on the Epcot album now. :)

Ivonne R. said...

I have to say bravo to The Land pavillion for one other thing you don't see at any other counter service location...


I am glad that I'm not the only one who enjoyed the changes to the land. The other nice part is that some of the decor already fit it in with the Soarin' theme. Like the ballons that have hung there since the pavillion opened. I do miss the fountain that used to be at the center of the food court though, but I think it definitely changed for the better.

Epcot82 said...

I will try to be less positive next time. ;-) Seriously, despite the fountain (which I am not as sad about losing, I suppose) and the lack of "Listen to the Land," I still keep thinking about how well this pavilion is done!

Anonymous said...

Keep those positives coming! Just reading "It was a great vacation" immensely boosted my hopes for my upcoming trip. I take it your spirit wasn't broken by the current state of WDW. And now I'm really looking forward to The Land.

Kinda wish they hadn't done away with the country breakfast at the Garden Grill -- my favorite breakfast at Disney, rotating restaurant, characters, and all -- but I'm eagerly anticipating Living with the Land, Soarin' (installed since my last visit), and the Behind the Seeds tour.

Epcot82 said...

This post wasn't the place for it, but I'll be honest with you -- Disney's cast-member training apparently needs a lot of help. We actually encountered openly rude and hostile cast members, as well as those who seemed that they couldn't care less about their jobs or satisfying guests. To keep "on message" with my blog, I'm not going to specifically address that in a post, but I will say that we were very disappointed by the level of service we received from cast members.

OK, on the plus side ... the spirit of EPCOT Center still exists. It's hidden, it's being covered up, but we found that World Showcase, in particular, was a real joy to visit. We probably spent 70% of our Epcot time there, which is a big change from the past. Either that says something negative about Future World or positive about World Showcase!

I'm curious, though -- has anyone else noticed problems with cast-member behavior?

Anonymous said...

Great post and it didn't hit me about a lack of gift shop until you said it.

Now only a few notes...I want the song back on Listen to the Land.

Also, I dont necessarily disagree about Soarin's ride vehicles needing to be themed, but how would they do it? I mean they really can't add much or it would interfere with the view.

Soarin' is one of those strange things that isn't really explained to anyone, it's kind-of a hanglider type ride, yet they make no real mention of that in the preshow from what I've seen.

Anonymous said...

A few things, being a first time commenter long time reader, and having just come back from two weeks at WDW and having spent two and half days of it in Epcot. One, thanks to your site, I cannot look at Leave A Legacy without thinking "war memorial". So dead on with that one. Two, yeah, they have to ditch the wand, and really the powers that be need to completely retool that initial section of Future World. I mean, when Epcot first opened- remember the information kiosks with touch screens, and the live assistants who'd help you book dinner reservations & such? Show me technology-- have an installation where we can talk in real-time videoconferencing with people in Disneyland or something. And finally, on cast member rudeness... I hate to say this, but it's actually better than it used to be. I've been down for at least a week for the past three years now, and the first time the cast members were appalling. My wife- who worked Tomorrowland in the early '90's-- couldn't believe how bad it was. This past trip, there was a noticeable improvement. A family member who is currently a cast member tells me that the 'new regime' (his words) are really making an effort to improve the park experience, but that they're having a lot of trouble finding quality employees right now and are very short staffed as it is.

Sorry for the long comment. Love the site.

Epcot82 said...

Great comment, TC, and much appreciated. No doubt there are Imagineers who must foam at the mouth when they think about what they could do with Future World. I remember the "WorldKey" kiosks so vividly! No doubt there is new technology -- and new applications for it -- not to mention many new concepts for rides and attractions that would make Future World into something exciting and vibrant again.

Wonder if any Imagineers who are reading this (and I know you're out there, as some of you have e-mailed me individually) would care to comment and provide some thoughts ... anonymously, of course!

As for the Cast Member problem, pick up this week's issue of Time; there's a great interview with an expert on the service industry. His philosophy is if you treat the employees well -- put employee concerns at the top of your list -- quality will flow naturally. Disney, however, has an HR policy company-wide that treats employees (from hourlies on up to management) as problems and liabilities, as "things," not real people. This has very clearly manifested itself over the years in how Disney has responded to issues like rising health-care costs and executive pay; its poor responses and its unwillingness to treat hourly/non-management employees as valuable assets has finally paid off with the issues that are manifesing themselves throughout the theme parks. It's too bad; Disney used to be the absolute world leader at customer ("guest") service, but not anymore. Where it once wrote the book, it now needs to do a lot of learning.

Anonymous said...

RE the cast member problem, just another observation for the mix:

Apparently, for park cast members the pay is pretty sad. That's got to discourage the best employees, who end up working out of love and then split, disillusioned, when they start to feel used.

On the other hand, to be fair, employment regulations and discrimination laws now are such that Disney as an employer probably has to tolerate a lot from cast members -- i.e., can't fire the employee for the same things that maybe they could 15 or 20 years ago.

I've always thought it would be a lot of fun to work at a Disney park.

Anonymous said...

Great article, as usual. I noticed the decided improvement in The Land the last time I was there in January. It was really great, colorful, and vibrant. When I was there two years before, there was hardly a soul in the pavilion. Even in January, the place was jumping. Kudos to Disney and Nestle.

As for Living with the Land, I think an automated boat is a decided improvement. The last time I was there, my wife and I went on the attraction and had a hard time with it. The guide was from Eastern Europe and had a very thick accent. The only thing I could decipher from her speech was "The Land". This is what I heard: "Blah, blah, blah, The Land, blah, blah, blah". The fact that it is now automated makes me want to come back even more. I want to hear what I missed.

As for Soarin', I have been on the DCA version numerous times. I was disappointed that it was the same film. I was told that the queue was themed to be an airport; I could see it, but it was done very simply. It looked like a terminal at LAX - boring.

You're right that Soarin' needs work (yes, the sharp cuts are terrible). But at the same time, it's one of those experience-only attractions like CircleVision. It doesn't have a coherent story, but it doesn't need it. It's only there to invoke an emotion or a sensation. But, unlike CircleVision, the Imagineers want you to believe you're flying. Even in CV, you know you're in a theater.

Epcot82 said...

Nice post!

Again, I was really impressed with The Land (did I mention that -- hehe). I hope the Imagineers of the future look to this pavilion as a way to do it right.

As for Soarin', though, I am just surprised that no "learnings" were put into place after DCA. It's almost exactly the same ... but with even less theming in the queue area (once you get past the lovely photographs and electronic "murals" in the first part, which are quite beautiful). And given that many people who are visiting Florida probably have no idea what California is like, it would be great to have some sort of basic "primer" as you are in the queue. Moreover, the vehicles still look like erector sets; at least a nice paint job or some attempt at styling would have been nice.

Those are really nitpicky things, though. Overall, The Land is just terrific now!

Ivonne R. said...

Moreover, the vehicles still look like erector sets; at least a nice paint job or some attempt at styling would have been nice.

Hey, hey, hey, now. The imagineer who created did use an erector set for his intial model of how the ride would work, so they were only staying true to his vision!

... :P

Anyways, thinking back on the lack of gift shop is interesting considering there used to be on there where the counter for Soarin' is now. I think that's one of the few times I can remember them getting RID of a shop.

Epcot82 said...

And bravo to them for doing it! There are enough shops that sell the same generic Disney-branded, character-slapped merchandise throughout Epcot. The counter looks really cool and themes it so well to a transportation center!

As for the erector set ... well, if every attraction were built to resemble the design phase, Disney would have some pretty ugly parks!

Anonymous said...

I thought the gift shop at The Land was actually very appropriate to the theme of the pavilion. It had some nice items related to plants, and gardens, and such.

Traditionally, Disney retail was a good thing with wonderful and unique items to shop for. It's only in the last decade that it has declinee to what it is today.