Sunday, April 01, 2007

EPCOT's Brand of Magic

For all the discussion of what's wrong with EPCOT*, for all the criticism (justifiable, I believe) of what it's become, there's also a side of EPCOT that all the tinkering, all the cartooning, all the Pixarization, all the teen-flavored additions can't destroy.

Every visitor to EPCOT Central probably has his or her own favorite "definition" of EPCOT. For me, the spirit that Disney hasn't yet destroyed is felt most when walking along the World Showcase promenade right after a summer sunset.

In the summer months, that happens somewhere around 8:30 p.m. The heat of the day is finished, perhaps there's been a nice dinnertime break, and now, well, you know what's going to happen shortly. That's right -- Illuminations: Reflections of Earth is starting soon. Crowds are gathering along the lagoon, some people have been there for hours.

True, in its zeal to separate every last dollar from families with small children, Disney began a few years ago allowing carnival-barker-type hawkers of needless and cheesy doo-dads (light necklaces, LED whirligigs) to set up shop right in the middle of the promenade, and their presence does detract.

But it doesn't destroy.

Because with just the barest trace of light in the sky, with a deep-purple Spaceship Earth "hovering" in the background, with dramatic lighting illuminating every World Showcase pavilion, and with Illuminations pre-show music playing gently throughout the speakers, this is truly a magic place.

It's not the sort of cheap, over-commercialized "magic" that Disney tries to sell today, it's the magic that Disney used to make so effortlessly ... the magic that comes from designing and creating a place that is unique in the world, one that exudes both charm and comfort, that welcomes you and doesn't try to "sell" you. About a decade ago, it was described as "the architecture of reassurance," but it's more than reassurance, though that is most inarguably a factor. It's an assurance and an insistence that this little slice of land in the middle of Central Florida is exactly right.

As you look to one side and see, for instance, the serenity of Japanese architecture or the statleliness of German design, you look to the other and see, across a calm, reflective body of water, a colorful reminder that our future is as optimistic as our past. Just as the Japanese, the French, the Norwegians, the Moroccans developed a style that is distincly their own, Disney (and, by extension, "we") have envisioned a future that stylistically may be worlds away but esoterically is as timeless and confident as anything else in the world.

World Showcase at this time of night is a relatively calm place, too large and, owing to its curved designed, not linear -- which means that we can, at once, make out every other bit of this section of EPCOT from no matter where we are standing, but we can't see down a "main street" in front of us. That presents us with an illusion that we're not surrounded by mobs of people all straining either to find an exit or wait for the fireworks; rather, it propels us forward at a gentle pace -- we can see what's up ahead, but we can't see the road in front of us. It's an unusually tranquil design conceit for a theme park; it doesn't create a sense of urgency in us to do anything but keep walking forward at our own pace ... or to find a spot to sit and take it all in.

That's what's best about this twilight-hued EPCOT: It lets us move at our leisure, allows us to absorb it all with our eyes and ears.

If it's possible to have a "quiet theme park," a nighttime EPCOT is it. It's a beautiful place.

* Sorry, but try as I might, I just can't bring myself to use the lower-case "Epcot." It just isn't right. "Epcot" isn't a word; EPCOT the acronym, whether followed by Center or not, still fits.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully said. For all the good I'm still finding hidden in lower-case Epcot, I don't know what my experience there (or indeed at Walt Disney World) would be without that exact "quiet" time you write about.

Unrelated--you recently said that the old pavilion logos would make a good blog entry, and I agree wholeheartedly. I'd be fascinated to hear what you have to such an entry in the works?

Epcot82 said...

Ahhhhhh ... I had forgotten about that! Yes, I have to get on that. :-)

Thanks for the note about the latest post!

Anonymous said...

I agree - nothing like WS at nighttime. I wish they would go back to having the torches on at dusk too rather than just 15 minutes before ROE.

Ivonne R. said...

I know the feeling you're talking about in regards to night time EPCOT. Although you described it very well in your posts, I wouldn't know how to put it in words. I guess that feeling is the very reason that EPCOT is my favorite park.

I would love to see a post about the old pavilion logos! You know how much I love them ;)

J Gall. said...

I'd like to talk a little about the Travel channel special if I may. My wife and I watched a little of it last night and she said two things that really reflect how wrong Disney is going. In Disney marketing concepts she is very much like a Japanese shop girl, has money to spend, has no children, loves cute things, love the Disney themeparks. We have only been to Disneyland but have been planning a winter trip for EPCOT's 25th for three years. When the section on Test Track was running she said, "People don't go to Disney for thrill rides, that's what Six Flags is for." In the earlier section on how kids didn't get EPCOT of the 80s, I was a kid during the 80s and I got it, when what appeared to be a mother said, "EPCOT IS FOR KIDS." my wife's reply was, "Of course it is. Children are the ones who need to learn new things. Learning and rides sounds like a great idea." Sorry Disney maybe you were wrong.

Lou Mongello - said...

Bravo! Excellent, well-expressed post. As a WDW "purist", I enjoyed it on many levels, and has me wishing to be able to sit along the shores of the World Showcase Lagoon, enjoy the spectacle, and slowly meander through the near-empty park, simply enjoying the true "magic" you described.

Epcot82 said...

Thanks, Lou!

Jason, it will be interesting (sad, but interesting) to see how long it takes the public to "catch up" with Disney theme parks. Could be *I* am wrong and that it will never happen, but my sense is that the more Disney tries to make its theme parks like every other, the more it will risk being seen as "not unique" in the marketplace. When that happens, the question becomes, do I save for a year to take my family to WDW for a special vacation, or do we just head to the local Six Flags for the weekend?

EPCOT was one of those things that TRULY set Disney apart; it was un-replicatable.

Sadly, it appears Disney has also not been able to replicate its success!

Anonymous said...

Yes this is true EPCOT is a very quiet and romantic park at night.i'am lucky to live in lake buena vista .And all my trips to the park start at EPCOT.I'am very upset that their will be ''NO''.festivties for the EPCOT'S 25 th birthday. But i will be their with my family and we will have our own special birthday party for the most wonderful theme park in the world.EPCOT.cliff

Geoffrey said...

It is true that one of my favourite memories of Disney and EPCOT is world showcase at night and Illuminations.

No Matter what Disney does they can't completely take away from what is one of the most romantic, sensual, and awe inspiring views at night.

I've seen many things that I consider beautiful, one being world showcase at night.

bluesky said...

I couldn't agree more! EPCOT’s WS at night is one of my favorite places in the world. I have sat and watched Illuminations from different countries around WS and for each of them you feel immersed in your surroundings. This truly is “real magic.” I still feel the same way about MK at nighttime too. It’s funny. The last time I went to EPCOT I found myself lost in the atmosphere of WS after Illuminations, I was then swiftly jarred back to reality on my way out as I looked up at the one armed bald-headed freak and all of the ugly purple doodads that have been puked all over EPCOT. Simple beauty will always win out over the “forced magic” that Disney now tries to cram down our throats.

Captain Schnemo said...

I think the atmosphere is really the only reason I'd be tempted to return to Epcot. My favorite attractions have been destroyed or ruined and I have no real interest in the new ones.

However, there really is no place on Earth like Epcot in terms of atmosphere. It's one of the nicest places in the world to just walk around.

Unfortunately, I'm not willing to pay 70 bucks (or whatever it is now) for a nice stroll.

Anonymous said...

Several observations:

First and foremost: THANK YOU for such a beautiful image! I spent MANY, MANY nights on that very FriendShip Dock at Germany in the early 90's!! It is a beautiful, atmospheric, peaceful spot! WSC after Dark is simply magic. The torches, however, are a fairly new addition--

As far as the "glow" vendors go....they weren't new when I arrived, back in 1989. There may be more of them or something, but they've been there for a LONG time.

Want a TRULY tranquil experience? Bite the bullet and forego Illuminations--and see the final American Adventure show, right at 9:00pm (assuming they still do it. I've been gone 10 years.) If it still takes place, you'll emerge about 9:30, after most of the IllumiNations crowd has departed. No matter which direction you choose to walk, you'll virtually have the park to yourself--enjoy the remaining aromas, the themed music, the expertly designed lighting on the superb architecture. Simply sublime.