Friday, January 16, 2009

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- Number 4

Many thanks to EPCOT Central readers for great comments and feedback on the first entry in this series. Here's hoping that the No. 4 ranking of the best and worst, current and historical, at EPCOT will trigger equally good, bad, passionate and interesting responses!

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- #4

Best: Living With the Land

Otherwise known as "the boat ride in the Land," this is one of the very last traces of Epcot's roots, and thank goodness Disney hasn't done away with it ... yet. Despite its leisurely pace, its informative nature and its lack of zany, crazy singing Disney/Pixar cartoon characters, Living With the Land is one of those extraordinary experiences that typically has most resistant guests expressing genuine surprise and delight that it's such a memorable, unique attraction. A few years ago, Epcot lovers held their collective breath as Disney did away with the live narrators who had "piloted" the boats since 1982. The most astonishing surprise: The ride improved. No longer was there a chance of getting a newly trained or bored host who recited lines in a flat monotone, or overly peppy guides who hoped one of the guests would be a talent agent and that this was his or her big break. Now, the experience is the same for every guest, and it's a great experience, one that opens a door onto a realm of our everyday life that most of us take for granted. Living With the Land educates, entertains, stimulates and fascinates -- even the early limited-animation animatronic/diorama scenes have an unexpected, rather beautiful quality. This is one of Epcot's very best attractions. It used to be simply first among equals when EPCOT Center's Future World was filled with elaborate, multi-faceted pavilions dedicated to thrilling our minds and spirits. Now, it's one of the few holdovers of that long-gone EPCOT that leaves many guests thinking, "I wish more of Epcot were like that!" Let's hope Disney doesn't do away with this one. It shows off what makes Epcot unlike any other theme park in the world.

Worst: Soarin'
Oh, don't worry -- EPCOT Central is braced for backlash on this one, but here's the reason: Soarin' has absolutely no thematic connection to the Land pavilion or Epcot. It's just a transplanted ride, albeit a wonderful one, plopped down in Walt Disney World. Given it's California theme, it would make as much sense at Disney's Hollywood Studios. And that's a big black eye for Epcot. If taken on its own terms, Soarin' is a terrific ride that combines the feeling of being on a "real" ride-through attraction (sitting in a chair, buckling a seat belt, being lifted) with a stunning IMAX film experience. But it's exactly the same ride that exists at Disney's California Adventure; not even a modicum of effort was made to alter the ride for Florida guests, so, incongruously, guests are taken on a scenic journey over the Golden State that has absolutely no relation to anything else at Epcot. Imagineers even kept, bizarrely, the final scene that takes place over Disneyland in California. With a handful of new shots, this could have been "Soarin' Over the Land," showing off wheat and corn fields, shrimp boats, cotton fields and the like. That might have made some sense. As it is, particularly for those of us who spend time at the California parks, it's just one more example of Disney doing things on the cheap and hoping that guests won't notice that there's really no point to it at all.

The Best and Worst of EPCOT Center -- #4

Best: Norway Pavilion

Poor Norway. An extraordinary country with thousands of years of heritage and culture is represented at Epcot by a restaurant frequented by Aurora and Jasmine, among others, and a creaky ride that sometimes barely functions. Kids deserve to have a good time at Epcot, of course, but there should be some responsibility taken by the parents. Instead, it seems most guests don't want to actually engage themselves in this theme park, they want it to be a passive, come-to-me experience that fulfills the every Disney dream of their four-year-old daughters. Nevermind that The Magic Kingdom and countless resort character dining experiences are just a short drive or bus ride away (not to mention in Future World), as long as there was money to be made, Disney was going to rip it out of guests' wallets. As soon as the Norwegian government stopped funding the Norway pavilion, Disney reckoned it was theirs to do with as they pleased, even if their changes had nothing at all to do with, well, Norway. Knowing full well that many parents will be offended, EPCOT Central will say it anyway: For adults without kids, the Norway princess dining restaurant is a painful, unhappy experience. Rubbing salt on the Scandinavian wound, it sometimes seems Disney hasn't even tried with Maelstrom. The ride has always been too short, but for years was that all-too-rare Disney experience: A ride-through that combined great visuals, sound and animatronic effects with some genuinely unexpected touches. A recent ride showed two torn cyclorama screens, polar bears that growled but didn't move, a tree troll that just barely was able to lift its eyes, and a set of cast members who looked like they were desperate to be anywhere else. The final film, which retains its beauty and awe despite hilariously embarrassing 1980s fashions and technology, didn't even play. As we walked through an empty theater with scratched-up seating and dried on gum all over the carpet, my friends and I shook our heads and said, "What a shame." Then again, I'm not supposed to be writing about the worst of curret Epcot, rather the very best of "old" EPCOT Center. And for quite a wihle, Norway had the single best dining option in Epcot, one of Disney's most imaginative and charming rides, a tiny-but-informative museum exhibit that truly offered (a tiny bit of) insight into Norwegian history, a perfectly themed play place for kids and some of the nicest cast members at the park. Oh, and rice cream, too. It had more character and appeal than perhaps any other pavilion, despite its relatively small size. Now it's mostly a sea of strollers and screaming kids. Ah, but what it used to be!

Worst: The Making of Me
It should have been terrific -- a Disney-produced film about the miracle of human reproduction. Instead, we got Martin Short. Maybe he's an acquired taste. Maybe you just have to be conditioned to like him (or Canadian), but the guy has rarely been funny or even charming. It was like watching your "funny" uncle tell you about the "birds and the bees" because your parents were too embarrassed to say anything. He wasn't funny, his "facts" were slightly suspect, and you came away not actually learning anything. Yes, there were some lovely in utero images and some nice music. That's about it. Anyone over 3 came away wondering why they bothered, anyone under 3 was confused, and most of us got a good chuckle that Disney was trying to offer some insight into the most human, the most basic of functions: sex. Without the sex.


Shawn said...

Although Soarin is one of my favorite rides....I have to agree with you. With a few additional shots it could have been much better and have a connection with the pavillion. I think a fly-over of EPCOT itself would have been a nice way to wrap it up.

I'm not old enough to remember "The Making of Me", but it sounds comical.

And Living With The Land is an absolute must every time we visit Disney. Something about the ride makes it astounding each and every time.

AnonyMOUSE said...

I do think The Land is certainly the last of what Future World once was. I worry for it. Does "Making of Me" need to be on the list? Because if we're putting extinct attractions on here, you'd better have a damn good reason for not having 5 or 6 entries beating out "Soarin'". I do agree that it should have some more added to show the world itself, not just California. But it's nowhere near my list of the worst in EPCOT. It's astounding. That ride film is a quick fix.

Epcot82 said...

Keep in mind, the list is divided into the best and worst of Epcot (as it currently exists) and the best and worst of EPCOT Center (as it existed from 1982 until the mid-1990s).

Everything, of course, is subjective! Thanks for the discourse -- and for reading!

Anonymous said...

I find it funny how the best AND the worst of Epcot are in the SAME Pavilion.

Spokker said...

At DCA or Epcot, while I've found the actual experience of Soarin' wonderful, the queues, pre-shows, and post-shows leave much to be desired.

As a simulator goes there wasn't much effort to theme the actual experience of getting into the hang gliders. On Star Tours for example, you're at some kind of intergalactic spaceport and you board a Starspeeder 3000.

On Soarin' you're in this warehouse where they set up a contraption that simulates hang gliding over California and let me just start the film here and away you go. See you in five minutes.

Anonymous said...

Elements of the old EPCOT Center are still present at the Land. Check out the Fastpass covers at Living with the Land. You'll be surprised!

'The Making of Me' just sounds so silly. Pointless, too.

The thing that bugs me about Soarin' is its positioning. If they wanted it in Epcot, they should have either:

a) Filmed an all-American version, and place in the American Adventure pavilion (not sure whereabouts though).
b) Filmed a worldwide version, and place in the Land. This version would show the beauty of the world. Our world. All of it.
c) Filmed a worldwide version, and place in Showcase Plaza (possibly in the Odyssey). Show off the cultures of the world.

Matt said...

This is a good post - I agree with almost everything. Though, the big detractor of Soarin' for me was the queue. Although the concept of the ride is pretty darn good, it's a transplant with no relation to the Florida parks, in a location that doesn't make sense, with the worst entry queue. The last time I rode it might be the last time, mainly because of this. I thought the queue experience is what made Disney stand out from everyone else... until I rode this. Poor. And to reiterate what everyone else said - it should've been placed somewhere in or near the Land, and been slightly reshot to echo Florida in some way.

Although I still really love EPCOT, this park kinda reminds me of the history of city planning in our major cities - there was reason and order and intent initially, then through decades or neglect and eventually gentrification, the city tries to become something new, but on top of the old grid. Disjunct.

Not to be too hard, though - it's not too far gone to recapture it's original essence. The Land is one example of what makes the park special. If I wanted something else, some generic 1-minute thrill ride, I'd go to Univeral. Disney used to top everyone through their respect of their patrons imagination, intellect, and through great storytelling & elaborate environments.

Again, nice post.

AnonyMOUSE said...

Ah! EPCOT82, you tricky bastard!

Scratch out that previous comment, I suppose. Except the whole "The Land is great, Soarin' is too" idea.

Unknown said...

The Land is one of my favorite pavilions and I have to ride the LwtL boats every time I visit. I even took the Behind the Seeds tour which was very interesting. I think that The Land is one of the last remnants of the wonder that EPCOT used to be, although I sadly don't remember much of it from when I was a kid.

Soarin' while an OK ride, is *entirely* over-rated IMO. I hear people gushing over Soarin' like it's a modern-day Haunted Mansion or Spaceship Earth. Puhleese... It's a glorified movie. It's worth riding but I really fail to see why people will stand in line for hours to ride it multiple times.

Spokker said...

People love Soarin' so much because it was the only decent thing at DCA when it opened.

I agree that it's a glorified film, but it's the music that really makes it.

I would never wait more than 20 minutes to ride it though.

Andy JS said...

Thanks so much for keeping this site going. I know that you almost stopped doing it a few months ago.

I didn't realise Living With The Land no longer had the live guides. My last visit was in May/June 2002. I used to quite like them, they were always great whenever I was on the ride. I used to quite like the ride when it was called Listen To The Land with that country music tune.

I haven't been on Soarin' but it sounds like it doesn't fit in very well. I love the Norway pavilion too. I remember thinking how great the Norway film was when we first went in October/November 1988, but I can't understand why they haven't updated it.

I was too embarassed to see The Making Of Me although I think my brother and mum did see it once. It's a shame that the Wonders Of Life pavilion is closed. I remember they were building that during our first trip and we looked forward to going inside it on our second trip, which we did in February 1990.

EPCOT Center always reminds me of being 10,11,12 years old. Great memories.

St. Chris said...

Physically, Soarin' isn't part of the Land pavilion. It's between The Land and Imagination. And in that fact lies the key of how to integrate Soarin' into Epcot:

1. Finally put Imagination to rest, and "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" with it. This has got to be coming up in your Worst of Epcot list.

2. Gut the building (but keep the exterior and that lovely balcony inside the pyramid) and re-Imagineer it as the Sky pavilion.

3. Divert the Soarin' queue to the Sky pavilion and seal it off from The Land.

And, if you don't mind, re-work it with a movie that isn't stuck in California.

Digital Jedi said...

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: The Soarin' technology should have been re-imagineered into a ride in World Showcase. A magic carpet ride over Morocco, a ride on the back of a dragon over the scenic vistas of Japan, breath-taking dives over the frozen tundra of Canada, casual glides over America's national landmarks, or even an "International Soarin'" that took us over any of these great International wonders. It astounds me that it was decided that The Land was the best location for this. It's as if themeing is casual afterthought, if it's even considered at all

Spokker said...

That's the problem with the McParks mentality, Digital Jedi. It was much easier and cheaper for Disney to clone the ride and put it anywhere in Epcot, didn't really matter where, than make a version tailor made for the World Showcase.

I'm just glad Disney was able to please stockholders that year, or not.

Diane-skillz1964 said...

I just found this blog and am enjoying the entries, but one thing NO ONE seems to say is bad is the horrible hill up into the LAND and then back out, I have to push my mom in a wheel chair and people are not caring if they are in my way or their children stand there in the way and do not MOVE(????) and that I am struggling to get up that hill and then down the ramp to fight my way to the elevator and then fight my way out of it, then on my way out to fight my way down the "handicapped" part of the hill and people are walking in front of me and think I am in their way, I am tired, MY arms hurt, my hands hurt, my legs hurt, yet they think I am in their way, I sometimes have to stop and aim the wheel chair side ways to give me a short break so I do not loose it... Such a bad design to have that horrible HILL.
I love Soaring, but to go in there and then find out I have to get a fast pass to come back hours later, I am just BEAT.

And I agree, Soaring does not belong in the land, with the California theme, I imagine they put it there to get people into the building, BUT they should have changed it to things about the "LAND" (farming, windmills, solar, aquaculture, rivers, lakes, etc) or at least Florida, but they should have kept with the theme of the "LAND".

Sam said...

i was an annual passholder for 2 years on both sides of the Living With The Land switch from guides to no-guides....and i must say i much preferred the guided version, true everyone gets the same experience now, but that was one of the things i loved about the ride was the variety, it was a different ride each time i went on it (and i did nearly every time i was at the world, about once a month for 2 years). I think its the same reason i loved The Great Movie Ride at MGM...the variety. I still love LWTL, its so relaxing from the storm scene at the beginning to a quiet boat ride through the greenhouse, but i much preferred the live-guides.

Anonymous said...

I too visited Norway after being exposed to it at EPCOT. In fact I have visited Norway twice and would list it in my top favorite countries I have visitied. Without Epcot giving me a taste I would never have thought about going there. Didn't the Norway Pavillion used to have a "travel agent" stand with info on seeing Norway after the movie? The countries and Epcot must realize the importance and power of these pavillions in bringing possible tourists like me to the real country. I don't care a thing about a breakfast with whichever silly charachter. How about breakfast with a real Norweigian and you could pick his or her brain on where to go and what to do there. That's more like it!