Monday, March 12, 2007

Is Bigger Better?

EPCOT Center was never your average theme park. From the moment it was conceived as a way to bring some of Walt Disney’s final vision to life, EPCOT Center was different than anything Disney had ever attempted.

Though, certainly, it never came close to the “city” concept Walt envisioned, it did attempt to bring many of that idea’s core components into the world: It put human ingenuity on display, showed us how some of the most important issues facing the world were being addressed, reminded us that we’re all in this together – and presented these difficult concepts in a fun, engaging way. No theme park was ever, or has ever been, like it.

One of the most clear differences between EPCOT Center and “regular” theme parks was its presentation of themed pavilions. Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World had conditioned guests to expect elaborate ride-through attractions from Disney theme parks, but when it came to EPCOT Center, those weren’t enough.

Subjects like human communications, energy, transportation, imagination and the future were far too large in scope for a single ride. Though Disney had effectively explored some of the territory that EPCOT Center would cover with Adventure Thru Inner Space at Disneyland (introducing the basic ideas of physical science to guests), it was a short attraction that barely scratched the surface of what was possible to convey in a three-dimensional, immersive environment.

EPCOT Center’s ambitions were grand, and the way it achieved them was even grander. Instead of simply “going on a ride,” guests of this theme park would explore massive pavilions dedicated to exploring multiple facets of a subject. “The ride” was just one part of these enormous structures, each housing a ride, interactive areas, exhibits and sometimes even shows and multiple attractions.

It wasn’t enough to spend 45 minutes in line for a five-minute ride – not at EPCOT Center. Of course, the ride could be an end unto itself, but for Imagineers who designed EPCOT, the goal was to make the journey and the destination one and the same: discovery.

Not every pavilion was intended to offer the same mix. At the Universe of Energy, for instance, the ride was so gigantic in scale and offered such an astonishing mix of media that it took up virtually the entire building. Wonders of Life, on the other hand, presented a ride, an Audio-Animatronics based show, a film, interactive exhibits and stage presentations and even offered a quick-service dining area, all intended to promote better understanding of issues regarding the human body and its health.

To various degrees, The Land, The Living Seas, World of Motion and Journey Into Imagination offered a mix of shows and rides. Spaceship Earth, the park’s iconic centerpiece, primarily offered a (long) ride-through attraction, but at its base was what was designed to be the park’s entryway: Earth Station. While on one hand simply an updated version of “Guest Relations,” it was also the place to learn about EPCOT’s attractions, make reservations and – importantly – try out new communication technology.

World Showcase was much the same: Even in country-themed pavilions that had no rides or experiential attractions, there was a mix of shopping, dining and cultural education that made a simple “walk-through” of the pavilion difficult except for the most un-discerning of guests.

I realize you know all of this. But in the past few years, something has slowly happened to many of the pavilions, something that undermines this basic concept that made EPCOT so unique.

The “pavilion” concept is giving way to something much less, even though it is presented as something more. Test Track, Mission: Space, The Seas With Nemo and Friends – each of these (relatively) recently renovated “pavilions” emphasizes a single attraction, something to wait in line to see before moving on.

Of course, it hasn’t always been possible to completely remove what made the original pavilion so rich. At the former Living Seas, for instance, the centerpiece salt-water tank still exists … but that’s not why guests visit: It’s for the animated turtle named Crush. Most of the elaborate, deeply educational displays have been replaced with smaller, less interactive areas.

Test Track, likewise, still maintains a version of what was once called the “TransCenter,” but even more than before, guests make a beeline out of it at the end of their Test Track experience. The goal is riding the ride, then getting on to the next thrill.

Mission: Space, sitting on the site of what was once one of Disney’s most sophisticated ride-throughs, Horizons, likewise offers an exhibit area at the end of the ride, but virtually no one bothers to stop in it, and if they do it’s to play a video game or send an e-postcard to friends.

The key difference is this: The ride is the goal, nothing more than that. There are some minor distractions offered up once the ride is finished, but they’re no more than amusing diversions. They are not areas to linger in, places to explore and learn.

Learning at EPCOT, it seems, is finished. Though millions of tourists every year (families included) flock to vacation experiences that promise to blend entertainment and education, Disney has all but given up on that concept at EPCOT.

No doubt, some say good riddance. They welcome $175-million rides that give three minutes of thrills, attempt no greater edification, and then are finished. They are touted as bigger and better than what came before.

Bigger, yes. I’ll grant you that.


J Gall. said...!

Caddy Wumpus said...

Amen to that, Jason.

This isn't nostalgia talking, but Horizons (and the Mexico pavillion, where the puppets had six-shooters!) was the highlight of my first EPCOT trip in 83.

I was nine at the time and it really changed my outlook on life. Space travel and sea habitats all looked...well...possible. When I think of it, I enjoyed EPCOT much, much more than the Magic Kingdom.

It didn't seem educational to me at the time, just different, but I was educated just the same.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree. I've always EPCOT, but even as a kid we never spent much time in any of the interactive areas. The only exception, Imagination. I still do the same thing. Get through the ride, take a quick gander through the post show area and move on.

Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with all this although I have to admit that I think it was the intent all along to have "headline" ride-thru attractions to draw guests to the different pavilions. Certainly the edutainment value of supportive shows at Epcot have waned in this past decade, but I feel there is an even more important piece of the puzzle that is missing.

Epcot is missing a theme center. I'm sure this was originally intended to be function of Earth Station and Communicore, but these didn't coalesce into a strong enough statement for guests to fully grasp and for some reason were scrapped. Consider what is there now: you have a strong introduction to the park with Spaceship Earth offering that communication is important to developing ideas and cooperating globally. After that comes a large plaza with a pin trading stand, surrounded by dark buildings full of techy exhibits. Something is terribly wrong.

Earth Station might not have been the perfect introduction to the themes of the park, but at least it oriented guests. Communicore at least had exhibits that supported the themes of some of the pavilions. Whether all this is important to the average guest is another point of discussion, though it would certainly be more helpful than what is there now. It's more important for people to understand what Epcot is about, than to have another character connection. There needs to be creatively designed elements at the heart of Epcot that convey what it is about.

J Gall. said...

I agree that themeing is soringly lacking but if anything the Disney company knows that the interact stations are really EPCOT's bread and butter and they don't want to spend that much money for them. The KidCOT stations in each of the World Showcase pavillions are a great example of this. They still want to provide the park with some type of "learning" atmosphere. They just have not idea how. And the cheaper the better.

Rough and Tumble Boy said...

"They welcome $175-million rides that give three minutes of thrills, attempt no greater edification, and then are finished."


Can you imagine using that money to upgrade Horizons rather than rent a bulldozer to build Mission: MySpace?

Epcot82 said...

It's all a moot point now, but had they done that, they could have created perhaps the ultimate Disney ride, one that combined brilliant A-A figures, a sensory environment, a cohesive story and amazing technology with some great imagination and thinking about the future. Wow. With half of that money, Disney could have held up Horizons as the prime example of what they do that no one else can even attempt.

Which can't be said for most Disney attractions anymore.

GreenCapt said...

Holy crap! Would THAT not have been the ultimate pavilion! Imagine riding through Horizons with your whole family (travel group, etc) and then having the end of ride choice be either going on to walk-through interactive pavilions or *then* deciding to take the new step and 'live' the adventure by going on the simulation ride (which could have been built behind the existing pavilion).


Anonymous said...

In the case of the early EPCOT Center attractions, "bigger" was really better. There was a scale to the attractions and the park that matched the importance of the themes being presented. In the case of Horizons, it wasn't a matter of merely showing films of mankind's current achievements, they were shown in IMAX, on no less than two screens! (They originally considered three!!) The scale and complexity of Horizons was so incredible, I still find it incomprehensible that Disney considered it expendable in order to build a spinning attraction. I appreciate Mission Space for it's optimistic theme, but the scale of it's presentation is not appropriate for the grand topic of space travel. I agree that it could have been built as a secondary show to Horizons -- an exploration of the Space theme.

The large-scale theory applies to the content of the production as well. Despite it's large scale presentation, even Soarin' disappoints when one considers the type of film could have produced for a park like Epcot -- a film that went beyond a bunch of pretty pictures to inspire it's audience. Soarin' is very enjoyable but for the most part pointless. And Ellen's Jeopardy scenes are hardly worthy of Energy's expansive screens. The content of these shows needs to match the grand aspirations of what EPCOT Center was about.

Anonymous said...

Seeing Alex Trebek and Jeopardy (a bad recreation of an old set) up there on those huge screens IS really disappointing!

Captain Schnemo said...

It is sort of ironic that Disney has been so averse to examining the future because of the speed at which those things go out of date, but they were completely willing to spend millions to lock into a specific moment in pop culture history.

Given that we're all still driving around with fossil fuel-powered cars and getting our electricity from 18th century fuel sources like coal, they could have stayed on-topic and still had something that didn't look as dated as the current show.

In this case, it's not simply a matter of Disney having different priorities or not agreeing with us about creative issues, this is flat out objective stupidity.

It seems to me that the corporate culture probably views anyone with an intelligent thought with a suspicious eye.

Anonymous said...

If Disney had kept up Horizons, EPCOT Center would never had died. But on the other hand, they seem to be pleasing the people who couldn't give a crap about whether Disney's scale could match up to the simplistic Universal Studios.

I ask you, is this innovation? Or is Paul Pressler now behind the wheel at EPCOT Center?

It all started with Winnie the Pooh, the Country Bears, and Mr. Toad...