Wednesday, October 28, 2009

EPCOT: What Works

EPCOT "works" splendidly.

Except, that is, when it doesn't.

So, from time to time, EPCOT Central will explore aspects of EPCOT that fulfill the vision of this grandest of all theme parks ... as well as those that, well, don't.

And why not start with some controversy?

Many readers abhor the revised descent/ending to Spaceship Earth, but EPCOT Central thinks it works. Here's why:

From its very start, EPCOT Center was focused on how you, the guest, would live and interact with your future world. In EPCOT's earliest incarnation, much of that exploration was done with gravity and seriousness -- a little too much. Indeed, World of Motion is fondly recalled not so much because it was actually good (it wasn't, really; though it was at least an elaborate example of the kind of Animatronic-filled ride-through that no one but Disney could do then ... or has ever been able to do). Rather, World of Motion was singled out because it at least attempted to be humorous.

There weren't many examples of that in EPCOT Center. Cute little Figment over in Journey Into Imagination was certainly fun. World of Motion was played (mostly) for laughs. And Cranium Command -- well, it was in a class by itself. But humor, for the most part, was overshadowed by education.

At the same time, Spaceship Earth, quite (OK, almost) literally the centerpiece attraction in EPCOT, was a terrific experience all the way to the top ... and then a drag on the way down. From the get-go, Imagineers sent a not-so-subtle message to riders of those backwards-swiveling "time machines": The show's over, nothing left to see.

In the mid-1990s, an attempt was made to make the descent more interesting. One idea, if it had actually played out (something that would be easy to do today but wasn't too easy in 1994), was to show today's world news from around the world. That was, at least, the idea behind the scenes of newscasters projected on a screen at the beginning of the descent. But it wasn't possible, in the pre-Internet, narrow-band days, to actually stream live news, so the concept was never realized.

Static figurines of kids and adults in an "interconnected" world never sparked the imagination, and were, frankly, boring. A lovely cityscape was built with a terrific fiber-optics depiction of "flowing information," but more often than not, it was dark and dull.

The descent never worked, was never engaging.

Now, it's a fun combination of technology and interactivity. It's understandable if your heart sinks a bit the first time you see a monitor in a Spaceship Earth time machine -- is this going to be another example of on-screen distraction that tries to hide the flaws of the ride itself? But after asking a few questions, the screen goes dark and doesn't bother riders until the descent begins.

At that point, the ride becomes a highly individualized, clever and cute diversion. Mashing your face together with a retro cartoon vision of the future, Spaceship Earth now follows its information-rich, education-focused "main show" with some fun, relaxing smiles. I've yet to encounter anyone -- even if they objected to the comedic tone -- who didn't crack a grin. And that's saying something.

It's particularly noteworthy in today's "Disney Parks" environment, because the grin comes without a single Disney character. It's the Disney touch that makes this work. It's a fine bit of Disney nonsense, in keeping with the manic tradition of later Donald Duck cartoons, Alice In Wonderland and Disney's stylized 1950s Cinemascope efforts.

The downside is a lost opportunity -- these peeks at the "future" could have been based on real science, rather than a goofy, retro vision of bubble-shaped saucer cars and robotic homes. That future is likely never to be a reality, and while it's cute to see this kitschy '50s notion of "The Future." There's no science here, only silliness. That's indeed too bad.

But it would be worse, really, to stare at dusty old statues prophesying a future in which we all connect by -- wow! -- live videoconferencing. That concept of "the future of communications" pre-dated Facebook and MySpace and YouTube, which have changed the lives of everyone on the planet, even people who don't use them.

Besides, this version (at least theoretically) is easily changeable, and it's undeniable fun to spend a few moments in the dark answering the on-screen questions about taste and preference. There's music, there's dramatic lighting, and there's a magician's flair for distraction -- you don't notice, and you don't care, that nothing is happening around you. Watching the resulting cartoon with your face is great fun. And, what's this? For once, Disney doesn't try to sell you a picture of yourself!

Spaceship Earth as a whole works wonderfully now, a lovely balance of seriousness and humor, of education and mirth. The theme is still problematic -- it's no longer technically about communication, and despite its claims it isn't really about innovation. Actually, it is about human communication and all it has meant to our planet, but since the final cartoon doesn't uphold that theme, Disney opted instead for a confusion thematic claim countered by a different thematic execution.

Nonetheless, the new Spaceship Earth descent works, and sets the tone wonderfully for EPCOT as a whole. It's about you and your role in shaping the future. It's a blend of fun and fact. It's a modern spin on a timeless tale of human endeavor.

Now, if the rest of Future World would just get with the program ...


Sarah said...

You're right, the '94 descent was never engaging. But uninspiring? I first visited in '98 at age 9. The descent, including the use of video phones and interactive classrooms captured my imagination. It's still the part I remember most distinctly, because it showed a glamorized version of technologies that were just out of reach in '98. The post-show continued themes and technologies explored in the descent* and furthered the impression that I would have interactive TV and videophone when I grew up, that it was all possible.

Am I the only one who was wowed by the fiber optics and (then impressive) technology as a kid?

*Haven't been to EPCOT in seven years - does the new Siemens post-show accomplish this?

David Landon said...

Sarah- the Siemens post show is excellent. It's the best SSE has had since the Earth Station days in the '80s.

I finally got to ride the "new" Spaceship Earth earlier this week, and I agree that the descent is a lot of fun. I've heard so many negative comments that I really didn't expect to like it, but I did.

Great post, EPCOT82!

Anonymous said...

Great post!

On our last trip to WDW, the biggest laughs my family had the whole trip was during our first experience of the new descent. We were crying from laughing so hard ... something I never would have thought possible on a ride about the history of communications. I think the new descent is a huge win for WDW - it's fun and engaging, but still on message.

And we definitely spent at least an hour doing everything in the Siemens post-show.

Atomicmickey said...

I would agree, with one caveat.

The thing about Disney rides is that they are so immersive, the experience of being in another place.

Once the monitor comes on, you're just riding backwards in a car looking at a TV.

I think there should be something a bit more in terms of lighting FX, subtle, but something that gets across the "traveling through time" idea across. An illusion something like, say, the "field of bulbs" that you get when you first leave the planetarium.

Just something to continue to make you feel like you're "in a place", instead of in a car touching a video screen.

So, I'd vote for a few special effects on the descent, but other than that the video screen works.

Anonymous said...

agreed. nicely put. i like the descent. certainly much preferred over previous incarnations. (that fiber-optics scene was essentially the same effect you could see in a Spencer's Gifts store... you know that light with the multi-colored fibers spraying out of it)

also think it's neat - and related to the ride - that you can locate your pic on the giant screen, input your hometown and the giant world map shows us all connected.

BigBob said...

At least Disney made an effort with the Siemens re-hab of Spaceship Earth.

But, I'd still prefer the original "Tomorrow's Child" descent to anything that came after it.

Dan said...

The "Tomorrow's Child" descent remains the strongest ending, with the song matching some interesting effects to provide a memorable end. And I didn't mind the '94 revamp - at least they used audio-animatronics.

That said, the new ending is a lot of fun. It goes down a bit once the surprise is lost, but it's still enjoyable. I also agree that adding some type of effects around us as we use the screen - or even some better music - would make a huge difference.

Anonymous said...

I liked the old descent, it had some of the coolest imagery. Now we get a gxddamn flash movie. If I wanted to surf the web or watch TV I would have stayed at home.

Brian said...

I've been an SSEv4 supporter for a while. I think it's quite good (and great for EPCOT as a whole) and wrote about it back in March here:

It seems that it was almost trendy to bash it for a while after it was introduced - and with this (and some other very recent blog posts elsewhere) I think people are finally starting to "get" it.

SSEv4 is very good. It's an example of what EPCOT can be great at; it squarely targets today's audiences and has some flexibility built-in so it can be easily updated (and I disagree about the endings being just "silly" - there's some concrete science behind that stuff, as there was in Horizons.)

anyhow, my $0.02.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle on this issue.

On the one hand, I think that the "flash movie" with your face on it is sort of neat the first time around.

However, I really don't think that the effect holds up very well during repeat viewings, even if you choose different options.

Why not integrate the view screen so that it is a part of the ride throughout the ENTIRE ride & not just as a diversion for the fact that the ride "phones it in" for the last 1/3 of the trip?

Also, bring back "Tomorrow's Child" which, quite frankly, evokes more of the EPCOT Center spirit in one song then Test Track does for an entire pavilion.

The Gust said...

Thank you for this post! I've been trying to say this online all the time, only to get bashed for my opinion that not only does this work, Spaceship Earth is now better than ever. Innovation/communication are part and parcel of each other anyhow. And the fact that you can COMMUNICATE on a ride about COMMUNICATION is rather profound. It's no longer implying that communication is a one-way street, a student in a boring lecture, but that it's something we all should be a part of. I liked Irons' narration, but Dench really excels in her more conversational tone, which once again emphasizes what this is all about.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree. Completely. I have an EXTREME dislike of the new SSE ending. Yes, I've ridden it, and yes, I've ridden the previous incarnation. Both endings make me tear up. However, this time I'm tearing up because the ending completely destroyed for me what used to be one of the most amazing, profound, WOW moments in all of WDW.

Don't get me wrong - - The technology's cool. Heck, I'd love to see it in the post show! But that's my problem: It belongs in the post show. It's just one more example of Disney's wrong use of technology. Disney needs to learn that technology should not BE the attraction. Technology should be used to tell a story. What would you think if the Ballroom scene in the Haunted Mansion was replaced by a dark room, where a ghost came out and said your name, after entering it on a touch screen. Hey, it's still ghosts... it goes along with the theme... But it doesn't fit with the STORY! It's just technology shoved in somewhere so they can say it's there.

That said, the old ending, even if it was outdated, embodied the spirit of epcot.

"Since the dawn of recorded time, communication has revolutionized our lives and changed our world. We now have the ability and the responsibility to build new bridges of acceptance and co-operation between us; to create a better world for ourselves and our children as we continue our amazing journey aboard Spaceship Earth."

You cannot deny that those words don't sum up what epcot is all about, Discovering, embracing humaity, with the hope for a better world. I remember my first time riding SSE, I was 8, and I was absolutely captivated. Yes, it was serious, but it was not boring in any way. It was interesting, inspiring, and the combination of beautiful scenes, the story of US, pulling on every possible heart string, and the old, wise voice of Jeremy Irons, almost like God talking, made you think "I am truly TRULY witnessing something special."

I am happy with the refurb (minus narration) of the beginning of the ride, no doubt it needed it, but the ride as a whole, especially the ending, are only a figment of what they used to be, and could be. I feel that Spaceship Earth really isn't worthy of being the centerpiece attraction of Epcot. But then again, it fits in as part of "The new Epcot".

We only have The American Adventure and the Maelstrom left... Everything else has been downgraded. I'm not saying I don't enjoy epcot, it's still my favorite park, but it breaks my heart to see that it isn't all that it could be... or should be.