Sunday, November 29, 2009

Captain Oh-No

Here's a shocker to those who say EPCOT Central wants to turn Disney's most ambitious theme park into a shrine to the 1980s:

Bringing "Captain EO" back to EPCOT would be a bad idea.

A really bad idea.

The idea has been making the rounds -- and allegedly has gotten as far as an executive screening at Disneyland -- because of last June's tragic death of pop star Michael Jackson. Twenty-three years ago, "Captain EO" was a sensation at Disneyland, and there are many who would love to see the 3-D musical adventure once again.

Sure, it would be fun. Once.

But quite apart from the nagging, persistent allegations of child abuse leveled at Jackson, there are two huge reasons "Captain EO" should remain vaulted, particularly at EPCOT:

1) The 3-D is simply not very good. It never was, really. The 17-minute movie was quite literally too dark to ever "read" quite right, despite its popularity. But the 3-D technology used to make the film has progressed enormously in the past two-and-a-half decades, and already there's a huge difference between the 3-D techniques used in movies like "A Christmas Carol" and "UP" and the relatively rudimentary processes used at Disney theme parks. Once you see a theatrical 3-D presentation like "Carol," it's hard to accept theme-park 3-D technology as anything other than a cut-rate version of the real-thing. Why bring back "Captain EO" if it's not going to be digitally enhanced and presented in one of the new 3-D technologies? It's just not impressive.

2) It's dated. No matter how much you adore Michael Jackson and his music, everything about "Captain EO" feels stuck in 1986, from the music itself to the character and production design, to the makeup, to the "analog" visual effects. "Captain EO" is a curio from the past, not a vision of the future of entertainment.

It would, no doubt, be great fun to see "Captain EO" in 3-D once again. But after the first blush of novelty, do we really want a divisive, controversial and, frankly, dead pop star to be the centerpiece attraction of a Disney theme park, especially one that ostensibly celebrates our technological future?

Nostalgia alone isn't enough to fuel long-term interest in "Captain EO," and hopefully once Disney realizes how much it will cost to refresh, revive and restore this 70mm, low-tech wonder, they'll come to their senses.

If they're really serious about reviving something memorable from the 1980s, there's this little thing called Horizons ...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Two miles deep in that darkness, an amazing world ..."

"Until now, scientifically inconceivable. Yet there."

It's a stark reminder, as The Living Seas at EPCOT Center used to remind us so dramatically, that beneath us is "a world where we have spent less time than on the surface of the moon."

But, gosh, cartoon fish are just so much more fun, aren't they?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

EPCOT: What Doesn't

How could Disney get something so spectacularly wrong, so consistently?

Put simply: Innoventions is awful. Making the problem even more fascinating: It shouldn't be.

As Disney demonstrated in its Theme Parks & Resorts pavilion at the D23 Expo earlier this year, it has world-class designers who can create exhibitions that showcase imagination and creativity and fantastic design sensibility. The D23 Expo Theme Parks & Resorts pavilion was a shining example of how to engage and fascinate large groups, how to move them through, and how to lay out exhibits in a way that made sense and was tremendously appealing.

And as family-oriented science centers across the country demonstrate every day, learning can be fun and engaging, and education can be packaged in a way that appeals to guests who are 5 and guests who are 50. Just because an exhibit is designed "for kids" does not mean it has to be boring for adults or childlike in its execution.

So, why does Innoventions get it so wrong?

The original incarnation of Innoventions, CommuniCore, was a whole lot better, combining better design, better exhibits and more forward-thinking technology (for its day) than Innoventions does. It took the themes of EPCOT Center and created "spin-off" exhibits that actually did offer more insight and exploration into those subjects. As an experience, it supplemented a visit to EPCOT Center -- and, not coincidentally, provided a lengthy, welcome respite from Florida heat (or rain, depending on the time of year).

From a design standpoint, CommuniCore was divided into four quadrants that helped make navigating it easier. Everything in CommuniCore was designed to reflect EPCOT's theme of a future world in which we all connected to each other and in which communications technologies would allow us to learn more about the world around us, and to participate in it more fully. A Utopian ideal? Absolutely, but then EPCOT didn't pretend to posit that we could (or wanted to) achieve anything less -- and was blissfully unaware or unconcerned with charges of totalitarianism or socialism. Politics wasn't the agenda ... offering a vision of an idealized future was.

Of course, CommuniCore had a decidedly commercial bent. Everything was "sponsored by" or "presented by" a sponsor company, often the same ones who sponsored Future World pavilions. It was also a place where guests could explore not-ready-for-prime-time technologies like PCs, personal videogames, fiber-optic-driven communication, video conferencing and instant polling.

Twelve years after opening, CommuniCore gave way to Innoventions -- which may have outlived its predecessor by three years (and counting), but is one of Disney's worst concepts ... poorly designed and executed, to boot.

Like a goofy PBS kids' science show no one wants to watch, Innoventions takes a hodgepodge of ideas -- ranging from personal financial saving to trash management -- and mixes them all together in a zany mish-mash of styles, designs and themes. Although there is allegedly a master plan and design, Innoventions feels thrown together, despite repeated attempts to redesign and rebuild it.

There's precious little learning or discovery going on. Yes, you can drop a hammer onto a TV screen, and allegedly learn how safe your TV is thanks to Underwriters Laborator. Sure, you can ride a Segway for about two minutes (if you can handle the lines). You can see a very dull "House of Innoventions" ... if you can figure out where to enter. But learning? Actual science? Real discovery and enlightenment?

Compare Innoventions to the truly extraordinary California Academy of the Sciences in San Francisco, which, granted, is about four times the size of Innoventions ... but also encompasses a planetarium, a tropical rain forest and a full aquarium.

On the other hand, COSI in Columbus, Ohio, was for many years about the same size as Innoventions* ... and is world-famous for its blend of science, entertainment and interactivity.

Around the country, and around the world, there are science centers that beat Innoventions hands down. The truly discouraging thing is that CommuniCore beat Innoventions hands down.

In its current incarnation, Innoventions may occupy the physical center of EPCOT's Future World ... but it is far from being its heart.


* Thanks to an anonymous EPCOT Central reader for pointing out that an earlier description of COSI's size was incorrect.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

EPCOT: What Works

Take equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan's Flight, mix with EPCOT Center's original mission, stir gently, and bake at Walt Disney Imagineering for a few years ... and you've got what EPCOT Central considers to be a hidden gem of EPCOT: Maelstrom in the Norway pavilion.

When Restaurant Akershus was still operating in its original, princess-less incarnation, and the Norwegian government was still contributing to the operating costs, the Norway pavilion represented the very best of EPCOT. It had charm to spare, it was a convincingly authentic reproduction of its sponsor nation, it offered good shopping, had a terrific (and under-patronized) restaurant, presented cultural artifacts, provided tourism information that introduced guests to a relatively sparsely traveled country, and was anchored by an attraction that -- to top it all off -- even incorporated a travelogue-style film.

In short, it had everything you could hope for in a World Showcase pavilion.

Today, the Norway pavilion is missing some of those critical components. No longer partially funded by the Norwegian tourist board, there's no longer any hint of a tourism kiosk; you'd be hard-pressed to find any information about travel to Norway, actually. Restaurant Akershus, of course, is now a princess dining location that offers Disney princesses from Germany, France, the Middle East and other countries, but not from Norway. The little travelogue film is horrendously dated (though a few judicious cuts would actually make it more or less timeless).

But there's still Maelstrom. And despite its detractors, who claim it's too short and not thrilling enough, it's a ride that really works.

Yes, it's only about four minutes long -- but even there, that's longer than most Fantasyland dark rides at The Magic Kingdom. Maelstrom wasn't intended to be a destination, E-ticket-style attraction; it was designed to be a nice C- or D-ticket ride that complemented everything else the pavilion had to offer.

Heading into a fortress-style building, the initial queue area is without doubt charmless -- it's wholly functional, not particularly attractive, but it leads to a gorgeous, eye-catching, beautifully detailed mural depicting the history of Norway, from its earliest hunter-and-gatherer residents to the massive cruise lines and oil rigs of today. There might not be much to do in the Maelstrom queue, but it's never long and there's enough here to keep a guest occupied through repeated visits for the few minutes of waiting.

Maelstrom is dark and atmospheric. It promises the "spirit of Norway" and it delivers -- there's a bit of history mixed in with a bit of mythology. Guest who don't care a whit about the history or beauty of Norway will enjoy seeing vikings, polar bears and trolls. Those who have some interest in this ancient land can listen closely to the narration and dialogue (which could use some serious audio tweaking) and find enough to spur a desire to learn even more.

What Maelstrom does well -- terrifically well -- is take us away to another place, even for a few minutes. No, its "waterfall" isn't particularly thrilling, and it feels a little creaky 20-plus years after opening, but for those few minutes we're surrounded by Vikings, the Northern Lights, the crashing North Sea ... and we even get to speed backwards.

Today's EPCOT insists on big, big thrills. Maelstrom is a little thrill, a heart-lifter, a trip down memory lane to a time when the goal of Disney theme parks was to offer truly immersive experiences that could be shared by every member of the family.

When the brief ride is finished, it drops guests in a typical Norwegian seaside village -- one that will look remarkably, undeniably authentic to anyone who's walked the harbor streets of Bergen and seen the quaint, crooken buildings of its Bryggen area. Like the Mexico pavilion, it's eternally dusk here, and this little holding area is evocative and filled with detail.

It's always a shame to see 90 percent of guests head through the doors that open onto a theater and zip right out the other side. They miss a five-minute film experience (do they really not have five minutes?) that is rightfully maligned for a few shots that might even have looked dated in 1988, but otherwise captures the awesome majesty, simple charms and ancient legends of Norway. To EPCOT Central, the "Spirit of Norway" film is a must-see on every trip, a presentation that expands on the momentary charms of the ride that came before it to introduce us to a country that feels familiar -- but is actually astonishingly diverse and unexpected.

Of course, it doesn't help that most Norway cast members actually urge people not to see the film. "If you choose not to watch this presentation, you may exit the doors ahead of you," is more or less the announcement, and those who stay are in for a treat.

Together, Maelstrom and "The Spirit of Norway" still represent the World Showcase concept at its best, taking us out of the Florida heat and into a romantic, unexpected land. Despite the lamentable changes to the Norway pavilion, this pair is still classic EPCOT, through and through.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Not for Children Only ... and That's OK

"When I was 6, EPCOT was so boring to me. I'm glad they changed it."

"I may not care for Nemo, but my 5-year-old loves it."

"When my teenagers go to EPCOT, they're bored silly and want to leave."

"EPCOT needs more rides for kids."

These are some of the comments (some real, some paraphrased) that EPCOT Central readers have offered recently, and it's an interesting observation -- because it assumes that Walt Disney World as a whole and EPCOT specifically need to appeal to kids.

"I thought," Walt Disney said back in the 1950s, "there ought to be a place where parents and kids can have fun together." The result was Disneyland, a place with a carousel and a (now-defunct) tobacconist, a place with a treehouse and a (now-defunct) silent-film cinema.

Walt Disney, thankfully, didn't think, "There ought to be a much cleaner, better-run amusement park where my kids can have fun." He knew the joy of an amusement park ride so cleverly conceived that guests of every age enjoyed it.

Disney has long marketed Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom to kids. There's little arguing with the success of that -- though an effective debate could be made that Disneyland was just as popular when its marketing was aimed at both kids and adults.

But EPCOT Center, from its inception, has always been a different story. EPCOT was a decidedly, almost unashamedly, adult park, and that concept certainly made as much sense in 1982 as it does today: A day or two at the Magic Kingdom to entertain and bring joy to the little ones could be followed by a day or two at EPCOT, where the discoveries and pleasures were directed at older guests. After all, not everyone who visits Walt Disney World is an 8-year-old kid ... and many, many guests don't even bring kids -- a fact that Disney, over and over, seems to ignore.

But being "grown up," Disney-style, somehow quickly got equated with being "boring." Imagine a family of four visiting Paris or Rome or San Francisco or New York and saying, "Well, there wasn't much for the kids to do." Imagine spending a day at the Louvre or the National Gallery and saying, "I loved it, but we left early because my little boy was just so bored."

EPCOT isn't for children only, and that's not a bad thing. It's designed to spur the imagination and a sense of discovery. To some people, unfortunately, that means it's boring -- just as some people could walk among the pyramids of Egypt, perhaps, and find nothing to interest them. Not everyone needs to love EPCOT, and not everyone does. That's OK, because there are three other theme parks, two water parks and a whole host of activities at Walt Disney World to occupy a day that might be spent at EPCOT.

Disney, though, doesn't seem to see it that way. Like most entertainment companies, it's obsessed with numbers: If EPCOT's attendance falls, if its exit polling data isn't as high as every other park, if EPCOT is perceived as "less popular" than the other parks, then it must be a failure. We've seen that mindset in play at Disney's California Adventure -- which, it shouldn't be forgotten, got rave reviews from most mainstream media when it opened, and wasn't quite as much a creative failure as revisionist history holds it to be, but is now the subject of a billion-dollar makeover that emphasizes kid-oriented fun, not California-themed discovery.

In this new "kids at all costs" Disney era, it would indeed be interesting to see what might have become of the never-built Disney's America, which probably would have been considered a catastrophic creative disaster, rather than an interesting, offbeat foundation on which to build.

Which gets us back to EPCOT, a park that was built not to entertain the younger set, but to inspire all ages. EPCOT's deck has long been stacked against it -- it is virtually impossible to take a subject like "the history and development of energy technologies" and make it understandable, palatable for guests of every imaginable age, education level and language. But the Imagineers saw that as a challenge, not necessarily a problem, and tried their best to create something that would work for everyone. Some results were better than others. But they were always fascinating.

The same, unfortunately, can't be said for the once-is-enough Seas With Nemo and Friends, or the surface-only thrills of Mission: Space or Test Track. They're cute and fun rides, there's no doubt, but they are designed to appeal primarily to younger visitors, and to amuse, not inspire.

A revised, revisited, renewed EPCOT -- should such a thing ever become a priority for Disney -- can take its inspiration from the original concept of a park that would engage every age. No, it wouldn't be as universally well-received as a park dedicated to Disney characters, or a park about the movies (if it really is that anymore) or about animals. It would be almost a "niche" park.

EPCOT would appeal to a particular sensibility. Not everyone would love it ... but those who did would adore it. They'd visit it again and again, and like a museum or a science center or a grand city filled with opportunities for discovery, it wouldn't be just for children. And that would be OK. Because EPCOT would appeal to the curious child in all of us -- and open a child's mind to the opportunities of adulthood.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

EPCOT: What Doesn't

Longtime readers know that there's a difference of opinion among some EPCOT Central followers -- while some believe the views expressed here are constructive thoughts reflecting on how EPCOT could be even better than it is, others take the perspective that EPCOT Central complains too much and wishes EPCOT had never evolved. You can guess which camp I fall into. But with a nod to those on the other side, they'll have plenty to carp about with this one -- because it's EPCOT Central's view that the attraction that is most ineffective is also the one that recently got the biggest makeover:

The Seas With Nemo and Friends.

Even before experiencing the "new" Seas pavilion, this makeover seemed wrong-headed ... and now, having been through the attraction several times since its reincarnation, EPCOT Central believes it to be one of the absolute worst things that's ever happened to EPCOT.

The key lies in that word "attraction," because when they re-thought the Seas pavilion, EPCOT Imagineers took a multi-layered, though unfortunately never fully evolved, experience and turned it into ... a ride.

They went so far as to change the name of the pavilion from the evocative and far-reaching "The Living Seas" to "The Seas With Nemo and Friends," emphasizing that there's a ride, and there's a show with Crush, and the rest ... well, the rest doesn't much matter.

The wonders that fill the depths of three-fourths of our planet aren't of any concern anymore; the only thing that matters it that 6-year-old kids get to shout out, "There's Dory!" The world around us is meaningless compared with a Pixar character.

The biggest shame is that there's so much to explore. As the pre-show used to remind us, we've spent less time at the bottom of the sea than we have on the surface of the moon. Getting five miles down is infinitely more complex than going 238,000 miles up. There are mysteries we can barely fathom, and one word from that pre-show film evokes more memories of how much more stirring EPCOT Center was than Epcot: "chemosynthesis." Huh? What? What does that mean? How do living creatures do that? And were the oceans really formed by "the deluge"? (Most scientists agree: Yes. How extraordinary!)

After hearing an absolutely stunning narrator encourage us to open our minds to the possibility of life under the surface of the water, we had a chance to "descend" below the waves ourselves in a "hydrolator," then ride through the incredible sights of undersea life, before using our own sense of discovery to learn from real, live people about the animals, plants and creatures that share our world.

There can be absolutely no doubt: The seacab "ride" was a failure from the start. It didn't go much of anywhere, held no excitement other than seeing a man-made coral reef. And because there was no context to what we were seeing (no signs, no narration, telling us about the engineering, creative or technological achievement of what we were looking at), there was little to engage guests. And holding that disappointing sense of, "Is that all this is?" they were dumped into a massive museum-like display area that many guests had trouble navigating.

Obviously, there were problems with The Living Seas -- no matter how compelling, exciting and wonderful many (but not enough) guests thought it may have been.

But the cure proved to be worse than the disease.

Today's audiences ride silly, clam-shaped vehicles past a series of screens onto which cartoons are projected. There's as much science and connection to the wonders of the oceans as Space Mountain has to the history and science of actual space travel. (Space Mountain actually offers some pictures of real nebulae in the queue area.) Disney has literally stripped the pavilion of any attempt to inspire, educate or inform -- and now more than ever, guests simply breeze past the old "Seabase Alpha" and either leave altogether or head to Turtle Talk to see more digital animation that distracts from the reality of ocean life. Yes, there are still some displays in the old Seabase Alpha, but fewer than before, with fewer cast members to answer questions and less depth to the overall experience.

Basically, it's just a cartoon, one that would be more at home in the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland than EPCOT.

Frankly, it's not a particularly well-done ride, either. Instead of Disney's classic Audio-Animatronic figures, guests see projections of cartoons. During a couple of portions, to add insult to injury, cartoons are projected onto the glass tank to make it appear the cute, computerized fish are "in" the water. Once again, the message is clear: Don't wonder about the amazing things in the world around you, just enjoy the cute Disney characters.

The change from The Living Seas to The Seas With Nemo and Friends has been disastrous.

And it speaks volumes about the frustrating, troubling message that Disney increasingly sends to youngsters: If some element of your life can't be commercialized and branded with the "Disney" name, it doesn't matter.

The Living Seas was a disappointment. The Seas With Nemo and Friends is a failure, pure and simple.