Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Best and Worst of EPCOT -- Number 5

For the next couple of weeks, EPCOT Central will offer its own take -- open to debate and admittedly quite subjective -- on the five best and the five worst attractions and offerings at Epcot.
But Epcot, as fans know, isn't a static, never-changing place. So, the list will offer up the five best current offerings at Epcot, as well as the five best historical attractions at EPCOT Center. Likewise, it will consider Epcot's five worst, as well as EPCOT Center's five worst.

Your thoughts, comments, suggestions, feedback and arguments are most welcome, with the hope that EPCOT Central's list will never be seen as "definitive," but instead open the door to lively conversation, both online and in the real world.

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- #5

Best: China Pavilion

As a top-class World Showcase pavilion should be, China offers much more than the attraction at its center, the CircleVision 360 film Reflections of China. More to love, then, that the film itself is terrific. Exemplifying the best of "old" EPCOT Center and "new" Epcot, the film retains the structure it has had since 1982, which ran for 21 years under the name Wonders of China. It's a beautiful film that transcends the notion of mere travelogue by truly taking guests to a place most of them have never seen, and presenting it in breathtaking, informative way. But China is much more than this film. The extraordinary Dragon Legend acrobats would be worth the cost of admission to Epcot alone. Even more, there are genuinely compelling exhibitions and authentic, immersive shopping experiences -- some of the items are truly exquisite, and there's nary a Mickey or Donald to be found. The dining may never be a journey of discovery, simply because this sort of "mass-appeal" Chinese food is so familiar to most people. Still, Epcot's China presents a beautiful, multi-faceted face in a compact space. You'll never mistake it for the real thing, but you'll also come away realizing that the real thing is vastly more complex and awesome than you may have imagined going in. It's truly a pavilion to be savored and explored.

Worst: Test Track

If judged solely on adrenaline rush and repeatability, Test Track scores high. It's an undeniably fun, sometimes genuinely thrilling ride. True, almost everyone reading this drives his or her car faster every single day, but not on road like this! No, conceptually the ride is pretty good. It's in the execution that it fails miserably, and its huge flaws are only amplified with every passing visit. It starts outside the pavilion, which is a visual mess. There's an exquisite, sleek metal-and-glass building behind there, but you'd never know it. Once through the soulless queue area, the pre-show is a primer on how not to make a pre-show. Few guests pay attention, but rather gab and text throughout. They just want to get to the ride ahead. There's nothing captivating about it at all, wasting an opportunity to set the tone and impart some worthwhile information. Inside the ride, the cavernous inside of the show building feels half-abandoned, as if Imagineers stopped at "good enough." It's difficult to make out most of what's going on, and most riders frankly don't care. What's the point? The final 30 seconds are an undeniable rush. The rest is, to cite the latest entry into the Collins English Dictionary, meh.

The Best and Worst of EPCOT Center -- #5

Best: The World Key Information System

This was the promise of EPCOT Center -- a world we had yet to see, but could experience today! Back in 1982, touch-screen computers and laser discs were truly leading-edge technology. Yet here they were, ready and waiting to be used! Want to know more about something at EPCOT Center? Just touch the screen -- literally, that's all you needed to do. Many of these screens were housed in the CommuniCore area, just at the base of Spaceship Earth, but there were also stations scattered throughout EPCOT, kind of like Vacation Club kiosks today, but useful and thematically appropriate. And if that's not enough, you could make same-day dining reservations by video conference call. (Technically, this was separate from World Key, but combining them seems to make sense.) Though simple by today's standards, this technology was truly a marvel, and would probably be impressive on its own even to those of us currently living in the 21st century. For a time, EPCOT wanted to fulfill the promise of showing us how the world of tomorrow might work, and WorldKey was a wonderful example of that. It wasn't a commercial, it was real, applied technology. It wasn't trying to sell us a new DVD, movie or TV show, it was just showing off what our Future World might be like. It was everything EPCOT aspired to be, and EPCOT was the only place you could find it.

Worst: El Rio del Tiempo
Few Disney attractions have ever gotten off to a better start. The small loading area imparted the flavor of old Mexico, a happy, lovely feeling also conveyed by the costumes of the few cast members working here. The literal "river of time" down which boats floated wound past the still-existing cyclorama of an ancient pyramid and exquisite outdoor scene. On the opposite "shore," the San Angel Inn and small marketplace completed the sense of being in a different time and place. Imagineers weren't aiming for verisimilitude, they wanted to evoke an emotional response. It worked. And then, the ride. A pointless mixture of poorly shot film scenes projected oddly into static displays, it played like the Spanish-class report of a very creative high-school student. The Mexico City scene at the end clearly hoped to be an impressive finale, but came off instead giving a creepy, black-light vibe; a glow-in-the-dark Elvis-on-velvet painting wouldn't have seemed out of place. No sense of Mexico's vast and impressive history, or of its people or places, was truly conveyed, though the song (quite arguably) was at least fun and cheerful. "El Rio del Tiempo" was a beautiful name for a ride that should have been splendid, but wasn't. (Sadly, in EPCOT Central's opinion, the "El Gran Fiesta" update has only exacerbated the problems.)


Anonymous said...

Having been a frequent visitor to Test Track since it opened (at least 40 times) I have to say I like the experience and the ride itself. Of course, living in the UK my visits to Epcot are restricted to 4 holidays per year... So I accept that I might not see the occasional breakdown or refurb closure.

However, ignoring the thrilling last 30 seconds the ride is informative and relatively easy to follow. I guess my insight comes from working in the automobile industry.

I have ridden with older family members, who are impressed by the scale and detail of the ride staging and younger children who find the ride exciting and educational / informative.

The previous attraction delivered this in an altogether different approach and I have fond memories of that also.

I think Test Track is a triumph of style and substance and would love to know how the entire concept could be improved.

Finally, I do agree that outside, the stunning building should be shown off in all its glory. It's not in the best shape right now!

David Landon said...

Thrill rides aren't my thing, and every time I see how the sleek World of Motion pavilion has been defaced to fit someone's idea of what looked cool in the mid-90s, I just can't go in there. So I've never been on Test Track.

I agree that the China pavilion is wonderfully done. I haven't seen the newer film, but after reading this I'll make it a point to do so when I'm at EPCOT next year.

El Rio Del Tiempo's shortcomings are made more obvious, I think, by the fact that the rest of the pavilion is so perfect. My feeling is that the Imagineers were going for an It's A Small World vibe with the fiesta scene at the end, but it just looked cheap.

Great post!

Unknown said...

I agree with you. The queue and exterior of TT is a disaster and that 10 second "music" loop in the queue is painful.

I *love* the inside of Mexico - I often duck in there to relax or avoid a rain storm. The atmosphere of the restaurant is FL's equivalent to the Blue Bayou in DL. I do ride the boats every time I go, and again, the first part by the pyramid and dining area is stunning, but as soon as you turn the corner, it's as though you floated into some 70's style bad low-end amusement park. It's such a shame that they don't continue the exemplary themeing and atmosphere throughout the ride.

Anonymous said...

Anon, looks like I'm the only UK-based EPCOT Central reader. Cool.

Test Track would look so much better without the faux-road signs. Such a cool ride, ruined by an awful frontage, which once looked so cool (ie World of Motion)

Anonymous said...

Above comment should say "not the only". Oops.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your views to a degree. But there is something else we should touch on, Disney is trying to appeal to a much different generation than they were 25 years ago. I loved the Epcot Center of old. I could go there and just soak in the atmosphere. Horizons, World of Motion, the Seas, Imagination. I did not need thrill rides, or sensory overload. Just give me a good immersive dark ride, or 360° movie.

But think about the world, the US 25 years ago and the US today. I used to be able to tune into MTV and watch a Music Video, now do they even play music videos anymore. We live in the age of the now, the fast. We cannot wait for the 5 p.m. news, we need our news on the fly, from around the world. Heck the newspaper that comes out the following morning is rehashing of old news we heard about yesterday.

The rides and updates we are seeing in Epcot these days reflect the changing times. We might not like them, but they appeal to today's Epcot goer.

Onto the characters. I loved the fact that I could go some where and not see a character. Epcot was unique. But frankly, I go up to Orlando 3-4 times a year, and now a days with an 8 year old, I have to beg just to get a full day at Epcot, because it is boring. So characters are welcome in my eyes, because I can see past them to the true Epcot. Characters are helpful to me, it brings my daughter into the park I love so that we can enjoy it together. And heck, maybe, just maybe in the future when she grows up she will come to love the other side of Epcot like I do.

My daughter loves Kim Possible, so this new challenge game is a way of her getting into those hidden places deep inside the World Showcase. She now has to go into the Shops and see all of the UK, not just pass through it.

Think about this, the people who love Test Track and Mission Space now, would have hated the Old Epcot, and probably will not like the next generation of Epcot that will come in 25 years.

Anonymous said...

"Think about this, the people who love Test Track and Mission Space now, would have hated the Old Epcot, and probably will not like the next generation of Epcot that will come in 25 years."

My first visit to EPCOT was in November of 1990, and I was 15 years old at the time. I fell instantly in love with EPCOT Center. I had subsequent visits in '93 and '96 that allowed me to relive 1990 all over again, but my next visit in 2001 made me aware of the new "Epcot" changes (no WoM, no Horizons). I do love Test Track very much (because as an automotive enthusiast I love GM), but I also miss the classic "EPCOT Center" too. I was lucky enough to buy an EPCOT Center fridge magnet back in '93 that I see every day... it takes me back to the good days of EPCOT Center, but at the same time I still enjoy spending a day in "Epcot" when I do get back to WDW/Florida (while my wife and 14 year-old step-son dread the day there, I can't wait to get there myself and now I have the opportunity to make sure my 3 year-old son grows up liking it too). EPCOT Central - thanks for providing this outlet, regardless of the message of the topic or views made by the posters!!

Matt said...

This is the kind of post that I like to see - balancing out the cons and pros. Great! What would be even more interesting is to hear your ideas of how the "bad" could be turned "good" (although I know you're already kind of doing that in a roundabout way) - for example, by rehabbing or replacing the attraction altogether with something new.

Again, great post!

Anonymous said...

Angelo, I must disagree. I love Test Track (as the ride) but still love hearing about the EPCOT Center of old. Horizons, World of Motion, Dreamfinder's Imagination, WorldKey and the original Living Seas sound excellent.

When people pinpoint the year when things started to go wrong, they generally state 1994, when CommuniCore became Innoventions and EPCOT Center was now Epcot '94 (that name is rather cool if you ask me, but EPCOT Center's better). I was too young to appreciate, well, anything really.

Basically, I can't remember first-hand the EPCOT Center pre-1994, but still appreciate that and Test Track. I worry that I'm in the minority though.

Epcot82 said...

Keep up the great dialogue! Forward to friends who might be interested!

I'm trying to be reserved in my own comments, but I will say -- it's a narrow view to say, "My kid doesn't think it's interesting." That's where the real family time can come in ... for parents to help make it interesting for their kids and not have to rely on a now-defunct TV show to be babysitter. I'm not saying that's what YOU'RE doing, but you know it will be done. More splitting up of the family.

Really, would it have been so hard to create a "World Detective" sort of attraction, in which kids were asked to do the same thing but with a new, never-before-seen character, rather than one who simply comes from a show Disney once wanted to promote?

What pains me most is to think that there were probably multiple proposals submitted, creative and fun ones ... and this is the one that was chosen.

Spokker said...

As someone who has never been to Epcot but is saddened by the direction it has taken, I only wish I could go back in time and visit the old Epcot.

Horizons is my favorite ride I've never been on. I've poured over World of Motion stills and info for hours before. Sure, some attractions have aged, but this stuff could have been really spruced up with 21st century technology, not mutated into something it was never supposed to be.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the rest of this series. The great attractions will always exist in our memories. At least they can't get into our brains and replace our memories with a gift shop or a Pooh play area!

Dan said...

Test Track is an interesting case. The first time I rode it, in 2005, I enjoyed the whole ride, not just the big finish. I was a big World of Motion fan, but at least something interesting was in there. However, Test Track doesn't hold up well to repeat visits like the classic attractions did. On my latest visit, we rode it once, but that was it. It was fun, but nothing too memorable. I think an update would help. It's been open for 10 years.

El Rio Del Tiempo is cheezy, but I liked it as a kid because it reminded me of the old classic If You Had Wings and there was never a wait. I'm not saying it was great, but there was a silly charm to it. That's gone now, and the new version is painful.

Keep up the great work! I'm totally with you on the WorldKey information system. As a kid, those kiosks were a favorite destination.

Anonymous said...

As a kid I never had to be entertained by charachters. I loved Epcot Center for what it was... seeing things unknown to me in an itelligent atmosphere. Beg me to go to Epcot as an 8 year old? No way! More like beg me to go to the Magic Kingdom...

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of these comments. I went to EPCOT Center for the first time in 1984 when I was 7. It was the first park we planned to see on our trip. I remember at first wishing that we were going to Magic Kingdom and even complaining to my family. Not that I didn't want to see it, (it was constantly being advertized on "EPCOT Magazine" on the Disney Channel) but I was more excited to see the Magic Kingdom because that's what I knew from our first trip in '79. All of that changed from the moment we walked in and saw Spaceship Earth. I fell in love with everything we saw at EPCOT that after going to Magic Kingdom the next day, I wanted to go back to EPCOT the day after. And we did. I used to try to draw all of the pavillions in Future World because I was so impressed with the futuristic architecture, at age 7. I swear I've gone into music because of my appreciation for the amazing musical scores that you'd hear throughout the park. It was truley an amazing place! But, believe it or not, I LOVED World Showcase the most! My parents always talked to me when they'd take me places, and pointed things out to me, and actively involved me in what we were seeing and doing. And for that I thank them. I never was left on my own to miss out on how great World Showcase was, as well as many other things in life. They wanted to make sure that I appreciated it with them. And both my sister and I did. It's inspired me to appreciate tourism more and to travel. And with how little I can stand the cheap intelligence insulting new Future World changes, I would sadly now prefer to skip FW and just go straight to World Showcase to take more time in each country. I'm a teacher now, and when I go to Disney World with students and they start to gripe that Epcot is boring and they don't want to go, I always try to do what my parents did, and point things out to them as we go through it, so that they in turn can appreciate it. The kids have said that I make them appreciate things more. It's all about your perspective. If you can show people why you like certain things, they might learn to appreciate it for themselves. But giving in to ignorance, cynism and negativity blinds people to how great things can really be.

sea_bass said...

Great post. I'm definitely looking forward to the rest of this series. Can't really disagree with the overall choices, but I will pick at one part of the China section:

"It's a beautiful film that transcends the notion of mere travelogue by truly taking guests to a place most of them have never seen, and presenting it in breathtaking, informative way. But China is much more than this film. The extraordinary Dragon Legend acrobats would be worth the cost of admission to Epcot alone."

To me, the movie is OK and the kids, well, I always think it's a bit strange that the kids aren't in school. I think is a bit exaggerated to say that they'd be worth the price of admission or that the movie 'transcends' anything.

Josh said...

Love this post! This is a great pro/con/then/now idea, and I think it's very well done.

Shawn said...

I'll start by saying that I love your Blog and that it definitly saddens me to see how EPCOT has been changed over the years.
I am 15 years old, and have just the faintest memories of the disney world of old. Mr Toad's Wild Ride....The good Journey into Imagination...and more (still have a Figment beach towel!)

I have to disagree with part of your Test Track summary however.
I DO think that the outside looks absolutely terrible. Such a great ride concept and design and they have to ruin it with scaffolding! I also think that the ending show area could be drastically improved as you have mentioned. Something more than the current car show with models older than those in any magazine or ad.

However, I also really love the ride itself. As a kid, Test Track was my absolute favorite ride. It alone was what first made EPCOT my favorite park. The rush of really being able to "drive" a car at those speeds while not enclosed inside with my booster seat really had an impact on my view of the Disney parks.

That love of the ride is the reason I love the less exhilarating attractions as well though. The main dining area of the Mexico Pavilion is my single favorite room in the park because of the great atmosphere, and the opening twenty seconds of the ride never cease to amaze me.
The addition of the three caballeros have completely ruined the experience for me though. I'm not saying the old ride was anything great, but atleast it was an untainted view of the actual Mexican views and culture without the Disney stamp plastered all over it. The Donald Duck pinata in one of the final scenes just about did me in from that ride for good. Sicne the only good parts left are in the pavilion itself anymore, you might as well just grab a bite to eat and enjoy the smoking volcano while looking for the hidden smoke mickey.

EPCOT still remains my favorite Disney Park, however branded it may be. Ellen's energy adventure (the ride parts), Soarin, and the highlight of the day: Spaceship Earth, all still have a drastic impact on my life.
(Although the renovation and Siemens logo at night is a whole other topic)

Andy JS said...

I'm from England as well and I've always loved EPCOT Center (as I still call it), but when I say that I mostly mean how it used to be although there's still a lot of it the same today (I hope).

The first few trips we went on in 1988, 1990, 1991/92 and 1993 will always be some of my most magical memories. And EPCOT Center was definitely my favourite place. I don't know exactly what it was I loved so much but it just had this special feeling, especially since it was still relatively new. It was like really stepping into the future. We also loved Typhoon Lagoon and Space Mountain in the MK.

We always used to go to Florida as a family: me, my younger brother, and my mother and father. Our first trip was in October and November 1988, when I was 9 and my brother was 7. Then we went in Feb 1990 (also with a school friend so there were 5 of us), Dec 91/Jan 92, Feb 93, Dec 95/Jan 96, Dec 97, Jul/Aug 99. Our final trip with the 4 of us was in March/April 2001. Our last trip was 3 of us (without my younger brother) in May/June 2002.

We took video footage on all the trips starting with the 1993 holiday/vacation up to the last one in 2002. Before that we just had normal photos, although I think there's some old-fashioned cini-film from the 1991/92 trip. We filmed quite a lot so if anyone's interested in seeing a particular thing from a particular year, let me know.

Andy JS said...

I forget to say that we absolutely loved the Journey Into Imagination Pavilion, with the ride of the same time, plus Captain Eo and the Image Works. (Why have they moved the new equivalent downstairs? I used to love going up there). Figment is one of our favourite Disney characters and we have quite a lot of them around even now.

Can someone help me out: I found a picture of Michael Jackson, which you can currently see by typing Michael Jackson 1982 into google.co.uk (without inverted commas and must be on the UK google site) and clicking on images, or alternatively at this address:


It's the fourth picture along.

That looks like the famous Image Works light tunnel to me, but it doesn't say on the picture. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

I, like many of people who have commented, long for the old EPCOT. The first time I went to the park was in 1988 and I was totally blown away by both Future World and World Showcase. What I remember most was the inspiration that I would take away with every visit. World of Motion, Horizons, the original Imagination, and the Living Seas told stories that people could learn from and be inspired to attempt things from. "If we can dream it,we can do it" While I like Test Track and Mission Space and I love Soarin` I don`t take away the awe and inspiration that there was with the original pavillions. The attention to detail in Body Wars, the facets of your imagination,living in space or underwater, those were the things that were inspiring. I used to search for shirts or patches from the Living Seas so I could identify with it until my next visit. Now Forget It. I will just put on Finding Nemo. Disney, let the Imagineers be imagineers and build attractions that inspire us, and let someone else do the marketing.

Andy JS said...

I totally agree with the last comment. There used to be this incredible feeling of inspiration from EPCOT Center (as long as you weren't one of those people with short attention spans who found the park boring). The park was still quite inspirational the last time I went there in 2002, but I don't know really what's happened since then.

I think one of the things that happened was that in the mid 90s, the people running EPCOT decided that the park's original atmosphere had had it's time in the sun for about 15 years and now it was time for something different, so they got rid of most of the slow moving rides and put the thrill rides in.

But as everyone says, thrill rides are great for the first few years but after that they can't match the inspiration of the slower rides.

There's no reason why EPCOT can't get back to that original inspirational feeling - people don't really change over time, just technology. So if people loved the way things were from 1982 to about 1998 EPCOT can go back to the way it was then.

Anonymous said...

@Andy Js - I looked at the picture of Michael Jackson, and even though it's been at least 13 years (i went last year for the first time since feb' 96, and obviously it's all changed) since the classic Imagination, i think that's definately the tunnel, it's a great, classic pic.

Ron Jaffe said...

Having been lucky enough to have opened Epcot, transferring there from the Magic Kingdom some 6 months before Epcot opened, it was an amazing experience. Working for World Key / Guest Relations allowed me to peek behind the scenes of all the Epcot attractions, speak with the ride and show designers as they built the rides and the artisans that crafted the world showcase pavilions. It was a fantastic time.

The Epcot of today is a mish-mosh of 'leftovers'. The park has little or no cohesiveness or personality. The overwhelming blitz of merchandising just overshadows any hint of personality that the park had left from the 1980s. The World Showcase movies are 25 years old now and it shows. There seems to be little pride anymore among the workers as that which flourished in the 1980s, pre-Eisner.

No, it's not the same world now as it was 25 years ago, and the new shows just don't seem to fit anymore. The curtain has been pulled down and the money-making mechanism is all that seems to remain.

Yeah, I'm sentimental...


Ed Rhodes said...

I think Disney thought because the whole ride consisted of pretty scenic *and mostly natural* views, they thought it'd fit on The Land. It wouldn't have worked in Hollywood Studios because it's about cinema, tv, and Broadway. NOT California. I did however think Soarin' would've been better if they had givin' it it's own world-wide theme rather than just California. It would've fit EPCOT better AND each park would've had their own unique version.

squidvicious said...

Interesting (albeit nostalgic) choices. I agree about Test Track. Having only experienced it for the first time in 2006, I expected more. The "thrill" part was really pretty short, and everything leading up to those few speedy second was... pretty ordinary. I actually thought the waiting area and theming seemed more like something thrown together cheaply, like a Disney knock off you'd see at Universal or Six Flags. It is a shame that Disney [parks] are following the pattern of going for short term gains by appealing to 12-16 year olds.

On the flip side, I'd say the Mexico ride is about right. While not dynamic, I like that it feels like part of the pavillion's activity. Starting and ending in the marketplace, near the restaurant... it doesn't feel so isolated or removed like some other attractions.

PS: keep up the good work.

disneyblogcritict said...

i feel your blog is not worth reading. it is purley opion and a large lack of fact. For test track what would you have liked to see in the open areas inside? Maybe yo should research why those areas are empty and I'm sure that if hey had put something there you would have thought it was to crowded inside.