Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Lack of Energy

What’s with the Universe of Energy pavilion?

It was once the single most ambitious, epic, over-sized efforts in an ambitious, epic, over-sized park, yet today – from start to finish – it’s one of the most lackluster and unimaginative offerings in Disney's theme-park portfolio.

Although I happen to think Ellen DeGeneres is a fabulously gifted comedian with a wonderful, unique delivery, 10 years of her is more than enough at Epcot. Moreover, she’s teamed with Bill Nye the Science Guy, a former Disney “property” whose TV show was only a modest hit … more than a decade ago.

Then, you’ve got a much younger version of Alex Trebek hosting Jeopardy! on a comparatively ancient version of the game show’s set in a not-very-funny little sketch co-starring an actress, Jamie Lee Curtis, who recently announced her retirement.

Calling this show dated is like calling Nicole Ritchie a little on the thin side.

And then there's the simple fact that it's just not entertaining anymore.

It's got a tired, listless quality (with the exception of the Audio-Animatronic dinosaurs at the heart of the show – which remain exciting and fun) exacerbated by C-list celebrities and humor that would barely warrant a laugh-track response on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Most bothersome and frustrating about Universe of Energy, though, is how it demonstrates Epcot’s unwillingness or inability to keep up with the most basic of world issues, to change, grow and educate based on what we know today about tomorrow, not what we knew a decade ago.

Communications, transportation, the oceans, space exploration and health are all, without doubt, major topics that affect the entire planet. They were chosen to be represented at EPCOT Center for a reason, and it's a pity that Disney's latest incarnation of lower-case Epcot has been so creatively lazy and financially frugal when it comes to updating them. (Unless, of course, there's a chance to make them cartoon heavy or turn them into meaningless thrill rides.)

That's particularly true when it comes to energy.

Now, I know virtually nothing about this topic, I’ll be the first to tell you. Still, I am aware that global warming is an energy-based subject that is increasingly in the news and increasingly accepted by scientists of all political stripe. I also know that finding personal vehicles that don’t consume gasoline is a subject that even Detroit and Washington are beginning to take seriously. Likewise, I know that heating and cooling my house has become increasingly expensive, and that I am becoming aware that there are alternative options.

My point is, I’m pretty much in the dark about energy, but I’d like to know more, I’d like to get an idea of where we’re headed in the next 20 years, and I’d like the kids in my life to be aware of the issues that are going to be confronting them.

Does that mean Universe of Energy has to become a boring, staid lecture on energy? Absolutely not.

If anything, it means that this attraction -- more than any other -- stands the most to gain from a complete overhaul that could see it become truly revolutionary. Universe of Energy can and should be one of the most exciting and mind-expanding Epcot pavilions, not one of the most dull and sparsely attended.

It is nothing short of astonishing that Disney pays such little heed to the original mission of Epcot that it allows Universe of Energy to impart old, outdated information that has little, if any, relevance to the lives of the guests who visit it. Rather than offer an experience that presents the most cutting-edge, up-to-date information in a compelling way, Universe of Energy offers stale, underwhelming information in an environment that actually seems more dated than the 1980s stars of Cranium Command.

The novelty of Ellen and Alex Trebek wore off years ago. (For the huge number of non-U.S. guests who visit Epcot each year, was there ever any novelty at all in seeing such quintessentially American pop-culture celebrities?) The discussions of solar and wind power are meaningless in a world that is more focused on hybrid vehicles and global-warming issues.

It’s far past time to give Universe of Energy the infusion of, er, energy it so sorely needs.

Come on, Imagineering – this is a great chance to thrill us again and to remind everyone, particularly Disney itself, what Epcot can and should be.


Captain Schnemo said...

I would say that if you want to address global warming, then wind and solar are vital components of that discussion, but it would be nice if they actually looked into the future instead of the past when discussing these topics. A certain amount of outside-the-box thinking is going to be necessary to solve our energy problems, and ideas like building all future shingles out of photovoltaic material is just one example. Another is regular citizens feeding electricity back into the system. Seeing that wheel in your meter spin the other way is pretty simple visual expression of how cool this is.

Of course, most forward thinking is going to be stifled as long as the attraction is sponsored by an oil company.

Regardless of my personal feelings about Ellen, I've always hated the attraction for the reason you state (it's just not the slightest bit funny, and certainly isn't going to get any funnier upon repeat viewings) and also the way we are supposed to identify with Ellen, who is playing the role of an idiot. And, in a fashion similar to the new Imagination pavilion, she gets one presentation from Bill Nye and suddenly she is no longer an idiot, but an educated person smarter than Einstein. This is pretty insulting to everyone involved.

Anonymous said...


Long time read, you know the routine ...

I never got to see the original EPCOT.
My first visit to Epcot was in April of 2004. While I loved it, and I still do (it's my favorite park) I read blogs like this and wish I could have traveled in the World of Motion, discovered new Horizons, or took a trip that truly made me think about my Imagination.

It's like I miss an old friend that I never even knew. Which seams altogether strange but like its the way it should be.

I thank you epcot82 for this site. While I don't agree with everything, I find about 90% of your postings ring very true with the state of things in the "world" and Imagineering.

Continue posting, and I'll continue reading.


J. Law

Anonymous said...

The Radok blocks were ripped out as part of the installation of the screens for the very tired Jeopardy! pre-show.

J. Law

Kevin Carter said...

I agree with everything you just said except for one thing.

"yet today – from start to finish – it’s one of the most lackluster and unimaginative offerings in Disney's theme-park portfolio."

I'd easily argue that this was the case even in its first incarnation. Aside from the Radok Blocks which didn't work correctly a lot of the time, the rest of the pavilion was fairly boring. I remember thinking the blocks were cool and the dinosaurs were cool but was bored out of my skull through all the movie portions.

This is an attraction that could be fun, but has never really been fun. I do dislike the Ellen version even more than I disliked the original. I'd love to see this and World of Motion completely rebuilt into something grand, but I'm not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

I still can't figure out why this attraction remains in "Future World." When I first rode the original, I thought it was poor execution of a good idea... I kept thinking of what might have could have been. Sure the pre-show was cool. Sure the dinosaurs weren't too bad (in the 80's). But something was missing.

I remember when Future World first started to feel dated, I figured the first thing to be gutted would be UOE. It wasn't. It was World of Motion... then Horizons... then Journey Into Imagination (JII). The original theme of EPCOT wasn't kept and updated... it was completely ignored.

JII doesn't inspire.
Test Track doesn't inspire.
Mission: Space doesn't inspire.

And Universe of Energy only continues to remind me of what could have been.

Captain Schnemo said...

It is a good point that the original attraction was not so great, despite a lot of cool ingredients. Mostly it fell down I think in the final movie, which was basically a laundry list of the ways in which energy has been generated for years without a reasonable examination of where to go from here. I suppose this had much to do with Exxon's desire to reassure everyone that the status quo was just fine.

The old show was not a home run and some parts of it were considered boring by most, but at least it didn't insult anyone's intelligence.

Anonymous said...

Yes, there are so many interesting new developments in energy they should revamp the whole thing. And Bill Nye is such ancient history, and has developed something of a poor reputation in the way he deals with fans and other people, it might be time to rethink the exhibit.

Epcot82 said...

It is indeed a valid point to argue whether UofE was ever a "home run." In execution, the project may never have fulfilled its ambitions, but the revamp did little except to underscore the problem areas.

At the very least, the original UofE attempted something that was bold and grand -- and utilized what was then the most up-to-date technology to do it. Massive 70mm animated features, incredible photography and an extraordinary ride system were at the core of the attraction and on that basis alone (not to mention the Radok blocks!), it had ambitions and aspirations to be something spectacular.

It wasn't great. It wasn't astounding. But it was certainly memorable, and didn't talk down to its audience, which the Ellen version really does.

In my mind, the ride system, the dinosaurs and the initial theatrical presentation area are all crying out to be utilized better. That leaves half of the attraction open for a major rethinking, which could, if Disney had the inclination, result in something truly terrific, incorporating truly "bleeding-edge" show/ride technology.

And, for my money, as someone else pointed out earlier, it wouldn't hurt to call attention to those solar panels on the roof ... assuming they still work?!

Anonymous said...

I think UoE is an ok ride. I've never been on the original version, but I think the current one is not too bad. There are better ways to spend 45 minutes at Epcot (like going on Body Wars 9 times), but it's a lot better then El Rio and Journey Into Your Imagination. I must confess, though, that I like Bill Nye and Jepordy (though your comments on both being dated is true), and I like the whole Ellen plot. In the spirit of full disclosure, I also must admit that I don't much care for the dinosaur parts, because they go on too long and don't have any connection with the ride. (From my understanding, there was only a tenuous connection to them in the original version, as well.) Overall, I think that the whole idea of Radok blocks in the preshow sounds cool, and if it is ever redone, should be a part of it.

Epcot82 said...

Check the link on the right side of this page for the Universe of Energy tribute site ... really excellent, and shows off the Radok blocks nicely.

Maybe it's just me, but I felt the original connection to the dinosaurs was VERY strong -- and made much more effectively when the introduction was ominous and serious-minded rather than goofy and silly. I still love the dinosaurs in UofE, and personally hope they will never become extinct!

Anonymous said...

Sadly, the current version was doomed from its conception. Aside from the Diorama, the rest of attraction could be shown in 3 bog-standard movie theatres. There is no real use for a travelling theatre, no exploitation of the buildings design - a design so shaped to make full use of the (long gone) reflective walls behind the Theatre One curtains.

Energy 82 was as eveloutionary an attraction as ToT was in `94. Now it`s a waste of a very good building and ride system. Even the motion pictures were epic in their execution and scale (subject matter not-withstanding)

You only have to ride through the diorama and (not) see all the original missing effects to see how the pavilion has fallen by the wayside.

Bring back the drama, the suspense, the attention to detail and the journey of the original.

And, yes, us non-Americans had no idea who Ellen or Bill Nye were. So shortsited of WDI. If only they`d have gone with the alternative rehab option...


Anonymous said...

Well, not being an Imagineer, I'd LOVE to know what the "alternative rehab option" was!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have seen the UoE tribute site. In fact, I read it shortly after my first ride. The site is responsible for me not minding going on it when I am at Epcot (it gives me something to look at during the five minutes where you don't move in the diorama section while it moves single-file and back to the six-pack.) I have seen videos of the Blocks, but wish I could have seen them in person. I think they were taken out before I ever went to Epcot. The comment about UoE being a waste of a building is absolutely true. The first time I rode it, I thought the moving theater thing was just a dumb gimmick.

FoxxFur said...

Am I really the only one who thinks that the Ellen version was (and is) an exponential improvement on the 1982 version? When I was young I simply HATED going on Energy. One day I decided to bite the bullet and ride it unaware of the changes and was utterly surprised and charmed by the Ellen show. I still think it's cute, it touches on the subject in a reasonable way, and it has a really beautiful soundtrack.

That said it's true that the thing puts most EPCOT visitors right to sleep. And yes, it hasn't exactly aged gracefully. It still gets laughs in the right places though and I personally ride it pretty often. And I guess it doesn't really hurt that, in my opinion, this and Symbiosis were the absolute pits for Epcot '82 attractions.

Although I'm sure somebody'll be able to convince me otherwise, how is the dated aspect of this show (in regards to celebrities and references) any worse than the dated aspects of Cranium Command, an attraction we all want to save? Granted, Cranium Command is one of the best things in EPCOT, far outpacing this nonsense by several thousand miles, but let's face it folks - that "Day in the Life Of" footage just screams late 80's in appearance and humor, even including a freeze-frame at the end! Is this really all that different? Or, for that matter, references to "swinging wakes" and "doombuggies" in The Haunted Mansion?

Captain Schnemo said...

Well, for one thing, Cranium Command is funny and continues to be funny upon repeated reviewings. Even if you like Ellen's style of humor, it's not really constructed to work over and over again. Part of the humor is the surprise of where the words are going, which doesn't hold up in the way that action-driven humor does. I can imagine a kid thinking "oh boy, here comes the food fight scene!", but not "oh boy, here's the part where Ellen stumbles over her words!".

The Jeopardy plot is also unexpected the first time, but isn't an "adventure" in any sense. It's funny to see Alex Trebek completely out of place, but not funny once you've filed the memory away and Energy becomes "the Jeopardy attraction".

Despite the fact that it's a solid attraction, I do think the datedness of the actors in Cranium Command means that it should be retired.

The difference between that sort of thing and the Mansion is that they are pop culture references that are firmly ingrained in every person's mind in a context outside of Disney. There is no sense of "timelessness" when you see Hans and takes you right back to the '80s (in a section of the park called "Future World"!). This sort of problem is prevalent in Universal as well. There is a built-in obsolescence to movie-based attractions, if they don't reach classic status. King Kong is surely a pervasive cultural element that transcends the film itself, while something like Twister is disposable entertainment, half-forgotten by the time the attraction opened.

The Mansion creates its own world, which clearly seems to be set in the past, but is unrelated to real world references. The Mansion might remind you of the last time you visited the Mansion or classic horror stories, but it's not going to remind you of Members Only jackets and Mister Mister.

FoxxFur said...

Very true.. just playing Devil's advocate I guess. I'll miss Cranium Command, but truthfully it's hurting me more and more to see the thing decline year by year with a ten month absence in between... I saw Timekeeper die the same slow death, and that wasn't pretty either. For Christsakes people keep the thing open all the time or gut it.

Epcot82 said...

That said, even if you don't know who Hanz and Franz are (or were), or know why Bobcat Goldthwait was once "hip" (was he?!), they're still amusing characters -- and they are characters, who exist nicely within the context of the situation. You don't have to know who Charles Grodin is to understand the character he's playing.

Though it does help a bit, I guess, to know that hair crimping was once all the rage.

Timekeeper and Cranium Command were terrific attractions because they created new characters, utilized fun technology, told interesting stories -- and were highly regarded by fans and critics alike. Why am I not surprised, then, that Disney closed them both?!

FoxxFur said...

You know, I've often said they could reshoot the "eyes" footage and replace all of the comedians with new ones, not change anything else, and come out on top. I was in CC less than a week ago with a teeny tiny crowd and everyone still came out feeling like a million bucks, dated or not.

I am intrigued with the idea of new comedians tho - who would be idea casting for each part?

Epcot82 said...

I'd vote for unknowns -- use The Groundlings or another improv troupe; really surprise everyone by the talent we see on screen, rather than the "personalities."

That is, of course, if CC and WOL ever open again permanently!

Anonymous said...

I think the voices are animated enough for the exact same audio to be animated. This would make the whole attraction more consistent. That way you don't run the risk of ruining the great comic timing.

Lidstrom said...

Put in some sort of thrill ride that loosely fits with the concept of Energy. That would fit with the new Epcot concept. The one that tells me "It's a half day park now."

Captain Schnemo said...

I would hope that there's enough imagination in the world to make a new attraction with a new script, although I doubt that the current incarnation of Imagineering would produce something that didn't totally suck. In principle (which is what this blog is about), however, I think if the attraction is going to be replaced, it should be something completely new. Of course, I'd have no objection to paying homage to the old one, as long as it's done respectfully (ie, completely unlike the new Tiki Room).

CC is good, but it's not exactly magical. Even if they'd replaced Horizons with something appropriate, I don't think I'd want to hear the identical script, although certainly something based on the original attraction would be cool.

Not to beat a dead horse here, but going back to the characters...I don't like them because they represent other low forms of entertainment. When I think of Hans and Franz, I remember the sketch where they liposuction -- Rosanne Barr, was it? -- and end up rolling in fat. Disgusting and hilarious, but not Disney.

And while Bobcat is actually extremely intelligent and was a drop dead hilarious (and observant) stand up comic, he is largely remembered for terrible films in which he plays basically the same "character" as the adrenaline gland.

I don't like all this for the same reason I don't like McDonald's in the parks. It drags the mundane into the magic in a way that is entirely unnecessary. I find it depressing in the same way that they have import all their magic from Pixar these days. They already outsource enough, I don't want the imagination outsourced as well...

Epcot82 said...

Lidstrom and Captain Schnemo -- I can't really disagree with either of you. However, I'll add a few comments:

* I would hate to see another thrill ride go into the Energy space; Epcot has tried too hard to "thrill" the adrenal gland as it is. Thrill the mind again! And if the guests don't get it, educate them!

* Though it lacks in some areas, Epcot will never be just a "half-day" park for me -- in fact, I usually spend two or three days on a five-day trip there (granted, sometimes half of each day), and usually still leave wishing I had seen an exhibit, tried a different restaurant or lingered around a pavilion a bit more. In that regard, Epcot still succeeds -- it's too bad you have to "dig" to find that fun, though.

* It is absolutely sad and horrifying how Disney fails at what was once its "core competencies" these days. But in a way, even if the characters were changed, "Cranium Command" would still represent a creative high in my book; it represented Disney firing on all cylinders, with fun animation, great AA work and an imaginative script. It's just a shame that, 16 years later, Disney has not only failed to improve in quality -- arguably, it's fallen a long way from those heights.

Anonymous said...

I was fortunate enough to be a cast member at the Universe of Energy when it was less than 1 year old. The entire concept of EPCOT Center was to be educational and entertaining at the same time. The original Universe of Energy (UoE) did just that but many did find the film in theater 2 kind of boring. It has the ability to have 3 different groups of 535 people in the building at the same time and it was one of EPCOT Center's innovations when it opened because of the traveling theater. The Ellen version of UoE has the same information in it, but the way it is presented many people do not realize it. The main problem with the Ellen version is that it did put current pop culture in the attraction which made it very dated very quickly. That is something the current management at Disney seems to not understand. Why do people keep returning and enjoying attractions like the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Carribean (before the put pop culture icons Johnny Depp and company in it), etc? Because they are timeless and high quality and unique. Also, the current philosophy for Imagineering is that Disney will just have Project Managers at Imagineering to manage the outsourced ride systems, show elements, etc for the new attractions at the parks. This will never produce Disney quality and lasting attractions that guests will want to see for the next 50+ years or more. What is unique about California Screamin' (at California Adventure) or Primeaval Whirl (at Animal Kingdom)? Absolutely nothing! In order for Disney to remain unique and number one in the industry, they must invest in the parks with new and one of a kind attractions. Does it cost more to do that then to buy a commercial off the shelf roller coaster? Of course it does! Does Disney charge more for their parks than say maybe Six Flags? Sure they do and they can because of the Disney reputation for being the highest quality and for providing unique magical experiences. There are no short cuts or free passes here. The UoE does need a makeover but it probably will not get the one it deserves. It no longer as Exxon or any other corporate sponsor to help share the costs of a rehab. My biggest fear is that they will decide to gut the building and put some kind of thrill ride in it or something!! What does a thrill ride have to do with the future when it is in Future World? Nothing! For that matter, what does Nemo, or Ellen, or Soarin' (over California) have to do with the Future? Nothing at all and they do not belong in EPCOT at all. EPCOT has an identity crisis because no one is willing to spend the money it takes to keep Future World (and Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom btw, what does Monsters, Inc have to do with the future and why is it being put in Tomorrowland?) new and futuristic! It is a very sad state of affairs that the only way new Disney quality parks and attractions get built is when someone else pays the bills. In 2001, 2 new Disney parks opened in the world. One of them (paid for by the Walt Disney Company) was California Adventure and was a complete failure because they cut corners and completely went away from the Disney theme park philosphy. The other park, Disney Sea (paid for by the Oriental Land Company), was an elaborate Disney quality park filled with D and E ticket attractions! Which park was a bigger success? Disney must restore Imagineering to its rightful place and reinvest in the Disney themeparks in the US if it is going to remain the leader in the industry. They cannot continue to create cookie cutter versions of Magic Kingdoms in other countries(with many missing E ticket attractions) and installing third party rides (instead of Disney attractions) in the US and remain true to the legacy Walt Disney left for all of us. It is just that simple. I had high hopes that Bob Iger would reverse many of the Eisner mistakes in the parks, but so far we have only heard him say that he wants to expand internationally and just take better care of the US parks. This will lead to stagnation and the further erosion of the Disney name!

Epcot82 said...

Amen to that!