Friday, January 23, 2009

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- Number 3

The responses and comments have been great … keep them coming! Of course, this list is just EPCOT Central’s view, which is hardly definitive. And don’t forget – it’s divided into the best and worst of “lower-case” Epcot, as well as the historical best and worst of EPCOT Center. And sometimes, there’s an interesting intersection …

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- #3

Best: Spaceship Earth
The ending still doesn’t work, and many have argued that Dame Judi Dench sounds like a smug schoolteacher. But generally speaking, Spaceship Earth retains is place as one of Epcot and Walt Disney World’s very best not because it tells a particularly coherent story or leaves riders feeling clasically “thrilled.” No, what it does so remarkably well today is exactly what it has done remarkably well for 27 years: It sets the tone for the entire theme park. It offers a well-told tale of where we've been, where we are and where we may be going, optimistically and, speaking as one who actually likes the new, screen-based, Horizons-like ending, with a touch of humor. Even more importantly, Spaceship Earth is the sort of ride that only Disney creates -- or, more accurately, created. Every moment of the long ascent is filled with audio-animatronic magic, and the burning of Rome, short as it is, provides that only-at-Disney jolt to guests who don't expect these sorts of touches at a theme park: "Did you smell that?!" The revamped theme of innovation isn't as specific as the history and future of communications, but in a way, it is the scene-setter EPCOT has always needed. The re-imagined Spaceship Earth would have been right at home at EPCOT Center. Today, alas, it's a bit of an anomaly in the schizophrenic, identity-less Future World. Nonetheless ... it works.

Worst: Universe of Energy/Ellen’s Energy Adventure
Take a perfect theme for an EPCOT pavilion, dumb it down and make it irrelevant and ... you've got the "new" (circa 1996) Universe of Energy. Oddly, Ellen's Energy Adventure has been in place almost as long as the original Universe of Energy attraction, but it feels dated and lackluster in a way that even the admittedly draggy first effort (see below) never did. Ellen De Generes is a great comedian. She's a charming host, and it's hard not to at least be amused by her presence. Once. Ellen's Energy Adventure is the sort of ride that, once experienced, you never want to go on again. Painfully unfunny comedy such as the "humorous" radio broadcasts after the dinosaur sequence; the horrifyingly dated use of "Jeopardy!" and Bill Nye the Science Guy; a "plot" that doesn't make sense even in context; and a murky message made so elementary as to be pointless all combine to make this one of Epcot's absolute worst. There's so much potential here, but even as the entire developed world has made energy use, conservation and development one of its most important priorities, Disney hasn't done a damned thing with the Universe of Energy. In an age of the internet, hybrid cars, consumer solar arrays and hydrogen-powered vehicles, this attraction mentions none of them, leaving it painfully, achingly stuck in the waning days of last century.

The Best and Worst of EPCOT Center -- #3

Best: Universe of Energy
Yes, it’s true that some guidebooks listed EPCOT Center’s Universe of Energy pavilion as the single worst attraction in Central Florida. Boring. Plodding. Simplistic. Biased. And there’s a lot of basis for those negative criticisms. But there’s another way to look at it: The Universe of Energy combined film, audio-animatronics, smell, music, sound and color into an experience that may have seemed dull to some, but was almost certainly never forgotten. The attraction violated Walt’s own vision, put forth during the development of the World’s Fair, that film-based experiences weren’t interesting or involving. Maybe not in a movie theater, but in a traveling theater they became fascinating, particularly when they contained incredible images presented on massive screens. The Universe of Energy had not one but two separate musical themes, and any EPCOT enthusiast c an tell you they may have been trite and jingly, but they were memorable. The audio-animatronic sequences were the heart of the attraction, but today they’re extraneous and feel completely out of place, where in the original incarnation they provided a fantastic centerpiece that truly added to the story. There’s no doubt, particularly in today’s world, that the core message that fossil fuels were really our only good energy option was misguided and painfully tilted toward the interests of Exxon – but it was delivered in a mightily persuasive way. You may not have believed or welcomed it, but you couldn’t argue that it wasn’t told compellingly. Likewise, with its size, its shimmering solar panels, its “Radok blocks” pre-show, its skillful and technologically sophisticated pairing of epic-scaled ride-through and vivid films, the Universe of Energy was a fantastic example of EPCOT Center’s vision.

Worst: World of Motion
There's a painful truth hidden amid loving memories of the "old" EPCOT Center: A couple of the pavilions were, well, not good. The World of Motion was one of them. Yes, it was a quintessential Disney attraction, there's no denying that. It was lavishly produced, beautifully executed, a long and detailed ride-through that in many ways represented the very best Disney had to offer. But it was as bloated as a movie musical from the early 1970s, mistaking "big" for "good," mild humor for passable comedy. On every trip to EPCOT Center from 1983 (my first visit) to 1996, when the attraction closed, I desperately wanted to discover that I was wrong about World of Motion. It never happened. Its history-of-transportation story never felt fully fleshed out, and its music was terrible. Keep in mind, this is coming from a big fan of X Atencio and Buddy Baker. There were, though, a couple of saving graces: the glimmering, shining "city of the future" in the center of the attraction; the gleaming, absolutely beautiful mirrored circle of a building; the curving ascent to the ride that took you outside the show building for a moment and effortlessly conveyed, both to riders and to guests looking at the building, the concept of "motion." EPCOT Central has defended World of Motion in the past, and the flawed attraction is, all things considered, still marginally preferable to Test Track. No, it wasn't very good. But at least it tried.


Marilyn said...

I have one comment - why and when did they change EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community/City of Tomorrow) to "Epcot"? It was an acronym and when and why did it all of a sudden become a word? EPCOT is our favorite park and I don't know why they are messing ("Disneyfying" it)with it.

Sam said...

I love the smell of Rome burning on Spaceship Earth...I dont know what it was but it was very distinct and i do believe i would get high off that smell each time, lol...not quite, but something close

Epcot82 said...

Marilyn, from 1982 to 1994, Epcot was known as EPCOT Center. The most widely accepted reason for the name is that with hotels, "residents," transportation, offices, roadways, shopping, dining and the like, Walt Disney World really had become much like Walt's original vision of EPCOT. Therefore, the center of EPCOT (and it's literally at the center of the property) was this theme park ... hence the name EPCOT Center. But, some at Disney felt that even after 12 years, guests didn't understand the acronym. They thought a "nonsense word" would be better. And to emphasize the supposedly "ever-changing" concept of Epcot, the year was added to the name. Hence, the park became "Epcot '94," then "Epcot '95."

That didn't last long. In 1996, it became simply "Epcot."

It's actually been "Epcot" (or a variation of that) longer than it was EPCOT Center, but a great many guests and guidebooks still refer to it by the name it was given when it was opened. It took Disney more than five years to finish changing over many of the internal signage around the property from EPCOT Center to Epcot, and the I-4 signs still read "EPCOT Center" for a long time after the name change.

EPCOT Center was a rather "pure" theme, and a great example of the concept of a "theme park" -- it took a very strong theme, built a park around it, and everything fit into that theme, which was how the human experience of sharing one planet leads us to our future, both technologically and socially.

While it's obviously a theme that resonates in today's world, Disney has mostly made Epcot into another one of the worldwide chain of "Disney Parks," rather than continue with its own strong identity. EPCOT Central and many of its readers hope that by writing about the strength of the original EPCOT Center theme, Disney will begin seeing the potential for this extraordinary park!

FutureWorld84 said...

Thanks for sharing your ideas about EPCOT past... it makes me wish that I had been.

On Ellen's Universe of Energy... I have to say that although dated, I believe that this was one of the bests of Epcot. I do acknowledge my strong biases for Ellen.

I was surprised to see her in the pavilion and loved the randomness of her traveling back in time to the dinosaur era.(randomness is Ellen's brand of comedy and although dated, it seemed like i was watching her talk show.

kmiller15211 said...

The one thing that always struck me about these original Epcot attractions was the grand scale. I can remember being 5-6 years old and walking through the cavernous Universe of Energy lobby when you board the moving theatre cars. I fondly recall the foyer of the World of Motion, with its open air boarding. Most of all, I remember at night, when each of these gigantic and ambitious attractions were lit up by the most beautiful palette ever.

I'm not the purist that you are, I think some of the older attractions were tired, but I don't totally hate the new attractions (even though they are commercially crass), but I do miss the beauty of Epcot, which does seem to be lacking something.

Great site, by the way.

Anonymous said...

All the sub-captions in the post say the Best #4 instead of #3.
May want to fix that

Great post though, as usual I'm not old enough to know the older rides, but I love to read your opinion on them anyways!

Epcot82 said...

Thanks, Anonymous -- fixed!

Anonymous said...

While I agree that the story line in the World of Motion could have been "fleshed out" a little more, it was with the theme of EPCOT, where we have been, are now and where we might go in the future. I remember buying a futuristic looking chevy van, the APV, after seeing it at EPCOT. It was that "possibility" that was created by the pavillions, that no longet exists. Only Spaceship Earth has that original feel. I think with World of Motion there could have been "plussing" as Walt called it, but no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. I like Test Track, but after the first couple of rides, I really had no reason to go back. Now I have to watch videos of the original rides that I took to be inspired.
This site is awesome, keep up the good work.

CJW said...

As always, fabulous insights.

That is a fantastic photo of the WOM ascent! Is it your own composition? Quintessential stark EPCOT beauty. Is there a larger resolution version available for download?


Andy JS said...

Thanks, Epcot82, for another interesting post.

I have to disagree with you about The World Of Motion ride. I always thought it was pretty good. I agree with you about the original Universe of Energy ride - I always loved it and was upset when I found it being described as boring in guide books. It's maybe true that it could have been just a little shorter since obviously there were always going to be a lot of young kids on the ride. Ellen's EA was a brave effort to update the show in the mid-90s. I can understand what you say about it, but maybe it wasn't quite as bad as seem to believe, but I agree the original was better.

I think kmiller15211 made an excellent point: one of the great things about EPCOT Center wasn't just the actual contents of the attractions. It was also just staring up at the amazing architecture, first of all in the bright Florida sunlight in the morning and afternoon, and then seeing the pavilions transformed into glowing shapes of light at night, and also the sounds of fountains and waterfalls in the distance I used to love too. It made you dream of the future in an optimistic way.

One of my favourite things was when everyone was leaving the park after IllumiNations, and you'd see Spaceship Earth lit up purple - I'll never forget that experience as a young kid. Thanks again, Andy.

David Landon said...

I certainly agree about World of Motion. It would have been a great World's Fair attraction, but it was one of Future World's weaker efforts. It still beat the heck out of Test Track, of course.

Ellen's Energy Adventure's biggest failing, in my opinion, is that it's so ridiculously steeped in 1990s pop culture. It's like Disney did their best to stamp it with an expiration date. The original show was an altogether different thing, made for a different type of audience. It was like Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Ellen's Energy Adventure's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Although the Ellen show is technically inferior, it's more entertaining. Now that Exxon doesn't sponsor the pavilion anymore, I wish Disney would give us a real energy pavilion that honestly evaluates the future of energy beyond fossil fuels.

I'm really enjoying this series. Great work!

Brian said...

I think the people who installed Ellen's Energy Adventure in 1996 thought it'd run maybe ten years, max. Conditions have changed of course.

I have to say that the Energy companion site really opened my eyes to the technical achievements in that ride that most people don't pay any attention to. That, the incredible score (Waaaay better than the new SSE score), and the big bang sequence are about the only reasons I re-ride it.

As goofy and odd as that ride is, I *really* don't want to see that pavilion close, or suffer a Horizons-like fate. I would really like them to find a new sponsor who can rehab it, Siemens-style. The source material in 2009 is certainly far more interesting than it was in 1996.

Kurt Miller said...

"One of my favourite things was when everyone was leaving the park after IllumiNations, and you'd see Spaceship Earth lit up purple - I'll never forget that experience as a young kid."

- Me too. My Dad had a technique where he'd make reservations at Alfredo's as late as possible. When we came out, all of the music would be playing, the fountains would be on, and it would be completely empty. This was back in '82, so the night show wasn't as popular then. Loved it, the lit pavements, the lit pavilions, just beatutiful.

Digital Jedi said...

Universe of Energy's fatal flaw was one thing and one thing only. The needlessly long movie at the end of the attraction. Of all things they decided to make the longest and it was the energy movie at the end. The interesting stuff was relegated to one third the length of the movie combined. Had they truncated that film altogether, it would have made the attraction more memborable for most guests, as the last thing they wouldn't be saying was "geez, that movie went on forever".

This is probably the first time I'd have to disagree with you Epcot82. I thought World of Motion worked for a number of reasons, one reason being the simplistic humor. Simplistic humor will engender a good feeling almost every time, even if it isn't much. The gafaws they where going for in Ellen's Energy Adventure are what killed it, because those kind of gags, while much funnier, are only funny once.

Epcot82 said...

Digital Jedi -- I can always disagree! But I absolutely agree about the "hard" laughs in Ellen. It's why comedies, as a rule, don't have a very long shelf life. Even today, I'll chuckle at the Marx Brothers, but it's not like I don't know the joke. (Substitute pretty much any comedian, from Lenny Bruce to Phyllis Diller to Dane Cook in there). World of Motion was undeniably cute. I just never thought it worked. But disagree away!

Erica said...

I second CJW's request! Is there a possibility you can upload or provide a link for us to retrieve the picture in a higher resolution? Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

A smug school teacher?

At least better than a pompous, arrogant, dis-embodied Professor Snape growling in my ear.

Josh said...

I'm often right with you on these, but I've got to say that I was a huge fan of World of Motion, and I miss it.

Give me World of Motion any day over Test Track; that's for sure.

bluesky said...

I also strongly disagree with your WOM take. It was one of my favorite pavilions. I know that this is all subjective. But, I am from Detroit and my father has always worked for the big 3. The automobile was a huge part of my life. First WOM had more audio-animatronics than any other ride in any of the parks. It was quirky and humorous. The post ride was always my favorite part, all of the latest GM cars, Robot and Bird, future concept cars, etc. The only thing worse than the hideous abortion it has turned into is possibly Tiki Room "Under New Management." (Foam quickly sucked back in from both corners of my mouth)

Anonymous said...

I am going to point out and I don't care if people hang me for this:

Your views of Universe Energy are flawed beyond belief.

To make a long story short I grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and since we live too far away to ever visit EPCOT I decided to see what it was all about.

I actually watched both versions which I saw the old one first on YT. I can actually see the first/original putting people to sleep because it's more like a docmumentary that no one will really remember except the kick-ass song at the end.

"Here we go thru the flow, It's the Universe of Energy!". which will give people the much needed jolt out the door.

However the Ellen's Energy Adventure is not only hillarious but actually educational at the same time learning about the different ways we harness energy and how there is not going to be just one answer.

"But if we keep using our brain power we will have LOTS of ways of finding new energy". "Maybe even unlock the powers of the stars. FUSHION POWER!" :)

Anonymous said...

I LOVED the Jeopardy aspect of the (still new?) Universe of Energy and couldn't stop laughing about what happened to *Stupid Judy* at the end of the ride...I mean dream sequence as Ellen called her.
Yeah that's it: Dream sequence. Phew.

"I'll take a nap for a 100" *falls asleep and has nightmare*

"And it gets really weird from here: Suddenly there's this person who I don't even know reminding me that there is no smoking,eating video-taping or flash-photography allowed in my dream"

If you article wasn't balanced in other areas I'd have given you a three alarm fire flame.

Anonymous said...

I meant I watched both versions of Universe of Energy:

I seem to have a curse where people do not understand my posts or think I am attacking them.

I am always wrongfully accused but it's their loss not mine. :)