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 ... ?


apromiseimplied said...

I just wanted to tell you, that I love this blog and it brings me much joy to read about my favorite of all disney parks.

I grew up in Orlando, and have been to EPCOT hundreds of times, this blog really brings me back...

I love EPCOT so much, that I am spending my 21st birthday there, drinking around the world, for where else is better to drink legally the first time in my life?

Matt Arnold said...

There is a reason the front half of the park is not named "Conservative World."

Once again, I can't disagree with you more on this topic. Not only don't I want a calm, orderly future, if you've been reading the best science fiction you know that a calm, orderly future is a seriously plausible danger.

Read Brave New World. Have you taken your daily dose of Soma? It would give you the serenity you're looking for. Watch GATTACA for another example of smooth perfectionism run amok.

These and many others present a Utopian totalitarian vision, as starkly monolithic and forbidding as as Epcot's central plaza used to look-- before it was inspired by the motifs of the millenium parade to celebrate the future hand in hand.

An equally plausible future is the type of disorderly bazaar which we see exemplified by the internet.

Do you seriously not like the noise of the world in which we live now? "Noise" is just another way of saying "whatever we're not inured to yet." It's whatever attracts the attention-- such as movement, color, and change. Pluralism is noisy. Innovation is noisy. The lack of rigid control results in the noise of freedom. I recommend you read "The Future And Its Enemies" by Virginia Postrel. A dynamic and courageous approach to a future of uncertainty and risk is indicated very well by the new central plaza of Epcot.

"We need fun." "We need noise." "We need to be busy and chaotic." Yes. We need each of those things now more than ever. I do not prefer a future as grey and repetitious as the exterior of Spaceship Earth used to be.

Epcot82 said...

To Matt -- Well, we definitely disagree. I found the old Future World to be lovely, inspirational and designed in an almost Zen-like fashion that allowed me to look beyond any simple facade and into the ideas and messages that lay within. I find the "new" Future World to be loud, ugly, in-your-face and (in the case of the "Leave a Legacy graveyard") deeply depressing. I thoroughly understand your references to "Brave New World," but the old Future World was more in keeping with (in my mind) a vision of a future in which we have overcome our need for constant stimulation. Instead of thinking of it in the negative, think of it in the positive ... like a Japanese vision of a sophisticated future. (Ever been to the Park Hyatt in Tokyo? Perfect example.) The revised Future World is gaudy, ugly and is starting to resemble a carnival midway.

For APromiseImplied -- Eat, drink and be merry! Just remember that others are trying to enjoy themselves, too. It's always fun to see people who are clearly enjoying themselves (for whatever reason) at Epcot and World Showcase. On rare occasions, though, people are out of hand. I'm sure you won't be among them. Heh. Happy 21st!

Anonymous said...

I posted already to the similar topic on the Re-imagineering blog regarding this but since then I've visited Epcot again and I can see how some people called it "shaded" areas since they've turned communicore, oops, innoventions/gift shops into a much less easily accessed area.

However the shade idea is incomplete and doesn't work, unless you like your shade in a checkerboard like fashion.

Another thing I really don't understand is the motion of the objects between the Innoventions buildings, they just are things that spin around, serving no real purpose other than to show movement or I suppose, energy.

It just doesn't work, but it COULD. The idea is there but the execution is severely flawed...they have a lot of things they could do to show motion and make it look really cool and futuristic (but wait, I forgot that "Future World" isnt futuristic anymore), or even be used as some abstract kind of fans or something. Instead it just looks like a pointless way to waste electricity.

Anonymous said...

I don't object to the addition of new things, but they should at least look like they are supposed to be there. It looks like a small-town mall food court had a fire sale and the Imagineers picked up whatever odds and ends they could find and slapped them up to highlight the fact that they're doing something.

Some excellent examples of "plussing" Epcot are the fiber-optics that were installed in the sidewalk a long while ago. These didn't intrude on the look, but certainly added a splash of color and fun. Other examples are the laser image of the spinning globe on Spaceship Earth and images projected on to the side of the Imagination pavilion.

Or even just the beautiful light outlines that iconize the skyline of World Showcase at night without corrupting the visuals during the day.

I happen to think that there is enough in the way of plant life and water to prevent Future World from appearing sterile, but if Disney really thinks it's missing some zing, the additions should be representative of the area's theme. Do you really think that "20th Century Food Court" is the look of the future?

Anonymous said...

I disagree with a lot of the changes done to Epcot in the last several years but to be fair, did you try to take the picture from the same spot as the postcard?

Epcot82 said...

I found the postcard later. If you took it from exactly that angle, though, you'd have just as much of a jumble.

I agree that the fiber-optic sidewalk lights are way cool. And when did they bring back the laser ending to Illuminations? We saw the show three times when we were there and only the final time (a week ago today) did we notice this. Interestingly, the voiceover prior to the show says it's sponsored by Sylvania, but the globe reads "Illuminations" and "Siemens."

Scott said...

"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."

The Ballzac? Man, they've had that at EPCOT since that thing came out. Why a cast member would throw it at guests instead of just bounce it around I'll never know. It used to be popular in the early 90s, but it's managed to stay in Disney World today

Anonymous said...

That's actually Communicore West. :) Spaceship Earth's former AT&T Lounge faces south -- to the left would be west. I apologize in advance if it seems like I'm being nitpicky or anything else negative. I appreciate your editorials and just want to make sure you can make any corrections to help you with your cause!

Anonymous said...

Yeah I agree with Anonymous, a couple posts back. If you're going to present an argument with 'before and after' pictures, make sure they are from the same location! Your first picture is taken much farther away from the west. Your second picture is taken much closer from the east. I'd love to see two pictures from the same vantage point, but they just aren't available.

Epcot82 said...

That would be awesome! Please send it to me at Thanks!

Epcot82 said...

In response to Epkat's thoughtful comments:

We agree to disagree and have a healthy exchange of ideas!

I will indeed order the book you recommend. Looking at the abstract alone, though, let me argue you this: The clean lines and orderly architecture and landscaping of Epcot as it was from 1982-1998 allowed for an interesting opportunity. That is, the focus wasn't on the outside of the buildings, which were large, designed with a theme in mind but really just "functional," but on what was inside. The inside could be changed whenever the need arose; the outside would remain the same.

I'll keep an open mind, but I'm not sure (based on that abstract) that I'll agree with the concepts of the book. That is, planning and design based on order and symmetry have always worked better than planning and design based on freedom from restraint. Look at Hauptmann's Paris or the newly rebuilt Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Look at Washington, D.C. (where the buildings and city design, for better or worse, clearly also convey a message), and the basic layout of midtown and upper Manhattan. Then compare those to, say, the disorder and confusion of Tokyo or the never-reordered Rome.

What the re-designers of Future World did, in my view, was to once again imply that the imagination of an individual and the ideas and "messages" that each unique guest brought to the way they viewed Future World was not enough. Disney had to overlay the message it wanted to convey, of "fun" and "activity." Inspiring people to think about their future through the use of architecture wasn't enough -- now Disney controls what thoughts run through your mind.

To my way of thinking, that's much more pernicious than majestic (perhaps imposing) buildings that project calm and order. The frenetic activity in today's Future World isn't "uncertain," it's even more contrived than the original design.

I suppose that's what I think it most sad and disappointing about Epcot as it exists today and about many of the newest "embellishments" to the theme parks: They have eliminated the possibility of working your own imagination, of envisionining and feeling what you, the individual, want to think and envision, and instead have replaced that with what Disney wants you to think and feel. Strange that a company that purports to extol the virtues of imagination would limit individual thoughts so completely and egregiously.

Anonymous said...

I believe the voice over says "Sylvania, a Siemens company."

Mr Banks said...

Those that find the chaos in all the Communiclutter desirable boggle my mind. If you want chaos go to Time's Square or Vegas. Disney sells reassurance and optimism, not an assaultive aggressive cacophonous dystopia.

Ironically, most urban malls are doing it better than Disney these days.

The before and after pictures are both tragic and hilarious. If you actually prefer the after then it's probable that you were dropped on your head as a child.

Have at it. Celebrate Attention Deficit Disorder Days at Disney's Communicore. Knock your head against one of those grunge mall mauve poles. Get caught in all the metal twine like a wayward porpoise. Wrap yourself up in all those angry fish-nets. Watch your limbs fly when you poke at the magical twirling knife-blades spinning all around you.

Welcome to the junk-yard of the future. Welcome to one of the lowest points in Disney Design History.

Epcot82 said...

Apologies. That is indeed Communicore/Innoventions East. I stand corrected.

Epcot82 said...

By the way, I intended the photos to be used for illustrative rather than direct comparative purposes!

Anonymous said...

I wish I could find my source, but somewhere I read that John Hench intended the outdoor spaces of EPCOT to be a respite from the information and ideas offered in the pavilions. He felt that the restful, open spaces were necessary so that guests wouldn't become overloaded. They could relfect on their experiences in one pavilion while taking in the landscaping and be ready for the next experience ahead. They do look a bit bare in the early pics, but that is because the plantings hadn't matured.

I can understand how the designers of the current mess wanted to tie Communicore more closely together. In some ways they have created more of a social "place" out of the plaza. Unfortunately, the implementation is all wrong and in many ways, as Mr Banks suggests, the inspiration is based in mediocrity. In my opinion, the entire "retro" character is a slap in the face of the original intent of the park, and what Walt Disney himself aspired to.

Matt Arnold said...

Having thought about this for a couple of days, I've become uncomfortable treating this as a philosophical discussion about what direction the future should go, when it's really about what aesthetics will be attractive in present-day architecture. Our host conflated them in this post, resulting only in confusion.

"The future promises a well-ordered, but not stark, world unlike the noisy one in which we live." My passionate emotional reaction to that statement has to do with the politics, ecology and economy of the techno-social complex, and has nothing to do with pretty environmental design. What good does it do for this blog to invite opposition to the former when the goal is the latter? I should have considered whether the two can succeed in tandem, whether they are inevitably in conflict in this case (since I believe beautiful art is more often produced autocratically than by the bread and circuses of democracy), and whether attempting to achieve success in one at the expense of the other should even be desirable.

Monuments like the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, or Spaceship Earth are metaphors because they are so sculptural. Not so of landscaping. When a work of architecture is first and foremost a space for a functional use, such as the Communicores and their plaza, is it really a metaphor in that way? What have lively and varied color schemes got to do with whether or not we favor pluralism? Just because a free society is a cluttered society doesn't mean if the Epcot designers autocratically impose clutter, they're evoking democracy. When an architectural exteriors is not just a hollowed-out sculpture with a ride inside, it just doesn't map as metaphor on such a literal level. That's as absurd as the assertions of the Communists Party in the former USSR that certain pieces of orchestral music without lyrics were intrinsically anti-socialist.

But it works the other way around. The old plaza was not better because of offering a superior vision of the future. It was just calmer and simpler, and your tastes go more toward calm and simplicity than mine do. Look no further than MrBanks' comment in which he offers nothing but his own groundless taste that he doesn't like shopping mall food courts. I think they can be very well done in some cases, and for me the best ones evoke Epcot. (Yes, both before and after.) In any case, aesthetics offers a statement about you and me, and getting Utopia mixed up in it will just lead to arrogance.

Captain Schnemo said...

epkat said, "'s really about what aesthetics will be attractive in present-day architecture."

I don't think that's true at all. The concept of Future World should be representative of a vision of the future. Even if you think mall food courts are the height of culture and charm in today's world, transplanting those elements into Epcot doesn't make any sense.

Obviously, the future cannot be predicted, but Future World should present one possible vision of the world to come, not simply an exposition of commonplace decor from the present day. The look of FW should be unlike what we've come to expect from our daily lives.

Anonymous said...

In response to Epcat's interesting discourse, architecture and the urban environment it comprises are primarily social manifestations. We respond to it on an emotional level based upon our experiences in a social context. The design of different features and spaces will affect whether we are comfortable or uneasy, excited or calm. One of my instructors told me that his least favorite response to a built environment was that of feelinig nothing at all, that the design was so mediochre that it didn't inspire him in any direction.

But that is not to say that architecture cannot be manipulated by a political enitiy to achieve a desired response from the population. In that sense there are certain types of environments that would result from the desired goal. And as a result of the generalizing nature of our humanity, we associate certain environments with certain sociopolitical characteristics. There is a certain style of 30's architecture known affectionately as Mussolini Modern.

Disney, as the controling political entity of their parks, uses the same approach - though in this case, it has often been referred to as the architecture of reassurance. To create the special environment within the parks, special considerations that make people feel comfortable are made.

Epcot was intended to be a calm and friendly, slightly futuristic environment that reassured guests that the future is a pretty swell place. It's source material was the contemporary architecture of the late 70's that was "plussed" to make it special for the park. In a lot of ways, that approach allowed it to become comonplace as the world quickly caught up with it. Things like wall carpet were no longer unique.

Innoventions was added with the intent to bring some excitement to the park that some percieved was lacking. It certainly created a visually busy environment, but when it comes down to it, the true measure of an exciting place is the social activity that takes place there, not how visually busy it is. While I feel they have had some success on this level, with the introverted design of Innoventions and the loss of the corridors, the well intended excitement they hoped to design has become hollow and vapid.

Instead of a mall food court, I think I would compare the current design with that of a used car lot.

Epcot82 said...

That "contemporary" style of architecture represented a future that never came, and it almost become classic and historical on its own. The Contemporary Resort, for instance, still reminds us of futurism simply because it never came to pass ... yet it touches what seems to be a common chord of what "could be" -- clean lines, stark design, yet not forbidding or imposing ... almost happy. (Interestingly, the bleak, angry future visions of Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam now do seem dated.)

EPCOT Center's design was the same, which is all the more shame that they messed with it. While shag carpeting and egg chairs now look like silly '70s futurism, the simple elegance of the EPCOT Center buildings has never really felt out-of fashion or anachronistic. They represent a future that probably never will be, but as long as the ideals that the architecture represents (simplicity, wisdom, order, calmness, prosperity) are still important to our society, the stylings still seem relevant.

It's just a shame that they have been covered up and hidden by all that gaudiness.

Epcot82 said...

To Epkat's comments, which I will not debate further here (though they are indeed worthy of time and attention), I do want to add this: To say that landscaping offers no metaphor, is not sculptural, I must entirely disagree. The gardens of Future World absolutely, definitively make an artistic statement, just as gardens and landscape design has done for centuries. There's a reason Epcot's landscape design is so very different than the design you find in the Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom or the Tuileries in Paris ... they serve different purposes, make different statements and exist to support the architectural design that surrounds them. One of the things I find most disconcerting about Epcot's redesign is that the calm, ordered, beautiful, asymmetrical gardens remain (gloriously so), but no longer support the frenetic, crazed, slapdash "design" of the rest of Future World. They make antithetical statements, but the living, growing gardens (to me) make a stronger statement than the frivolously decorated buildings.

Matt Arnold said...

Epkat82, I'm very interested in reading a blog post by you about the gardens outside the Imagination Pavilion, including the various fountains there. Do you consider the motion and color in that area to be gaudy? It seemed to me that the decoration of the Communicore plaza was an attempt to spread that sort of environment throughout the park.

Anonymous said...

My friend works for Ballzac and he does get people to stop running around long enough to "play". Otherwise, it would be a very boring job and no one would buy his balls, no pun intended.

Matt Arnold said...

Before I forget: have we forgotten the real problem? There is no real point to the plaza anyway! At least the pavilions each send a message because they're about something. The plaza isn't. What memories are we supposed to take away from being there? The Electric Umbrella? Ha. The food is unimaginative, expensive, and tastes bad! That's the real problem.

Captain Schnemo said...

The fountains and gardens near the Imagination pavilion are unusual, if not unique, and look like they are supposed to be there. The crap slapped up in the plaza is commonplace and looks like an afterthought.

Epcot82 said...

Well, I agree that a few of us have become sidetracked by the plaza, because my original post criticized it for the visual clutter. But this is scene throughout Epcot, from the horrendous re-design of the entry plaza to the slapped-on "Leave a Legacy" kiosk under Spaceship Earth, to the ubiquitous outdoor-vending carts found throughout Future World and World Showcase, to the remarkably crass "semi-permanent" station for Disney Vacation Club.

Nonetheless, Communicore Plaza absolutely had a purpose. The idea, at least the way I understand it, was that Spaceship Earth was positioned as the very first thing you see and experience because its ideas were central to EPCOT Center: Through communication, we grow, we understand, we share ideas and we bridge cultures. The ride was critical for setting the tone for EPCOT Center, and Earth Station, at its base, was the first "discovery location" around the park.

Once out of Spaceship Earth, with the park's thematic concepts and tone set, entry was into Communicore Plaza. The plaza intentionally blocked the view of everything on either side; much like the railroad station and trestle above Main Street, you had to go through Communicore to find out what was on the other side.

Most importantly, however, the "tunnel vision" (albeit on a grand scale) created by the large Communicore buildings meant you could see only three things from the plaza:

1) The plaza itself, and other guests in the park;

2) Spaceship Earth rising dramatically behind you;

3) The American Adventure and World Showcase -- i.e., the "other part" of EPCOT Center -- in front of you.

Designers purposely used Communicore to limit your field of vision, to direct you to see specific things, much as modern urban planners have done in some cities. The design was quite intentional, and Communicore was created to allow you space and "breathing room" to absorb what you experienced in Spaceship Earth, as well as to decide what you would see and where you would go next.

In many ways, the design of EPCOT Center was for a "gentler" park -- instead of dumping you right back out into a crowded area filled with unrelated visual cues (think, for instance, of exiting Space Mountain), EPCOT Center would give you time and space to consider what to do, how to proceed, and also offer nearly 360 degrees of a design that reflected an optimistic view of a communal future.

At least, that's the way I've always seen it -- and why I feel the clutter and ugliness of the "new" Innoventions Plaza is so antithetical to the ideas of EPCOT Center.

Epcot82 said...

The Ballzac guy doesn't need to throw them at people, and should respect that some people just don't like those things. A lot of people, I think.

Anonymous said...

Those bouncing balls drive me crazy. It's not uncommon for me to have to avoid one and a kid chasing after it when walking through that area

Epcot2012 said...


Thanks for your thought provoking articles and for this blog in-general. I only discovered it a few days ago but have since, been completely engrossed in reading your observations about what has happened to the overall feel of the park over the last 30 years. I've always wanted to go back, but being busy with school and such, never really made it a priority. I'm glad I didn't go there only to be horribly disappointed by what they've turned it into.

Anyway, I totally agree with you about the need to restore Epcot to it's original futurist vision. And maybe even update the 'future' part since we all have iPhones now and such. Your blog was so inspiring to me that I've even expanded this line of thought into a similar project: Epcot2012. Let me know what you think.