The Best and Worst of Epcot -- #2
Best: The American Adventure
Ben Franklin doesn't make it up those stairs quite as smoothly anymore, and except for the stirring short film at the conclusion, little in The American Adventure has been altered in 27 years, even while America itself has seen remarkable change in that time. How wonderful it would be to see a new scene that acknowledges the Vietnam War, American innovations in technology, or the role of activists like Gloria Steinem and Cesar Chavez, who were still struggling for equality when the show opened in 1982. (Yes, they are both briefly represented in the film.) But carping aside, there are fewer finer examples of Disney showmanship than The American Adventure. No doubt, some readers will take exception to the pro-American theme and the schmaltzy sentimentalism that glosses over what Walt Disney once called "the hard facts that created America."
"Disney Parks" have all but forgotten that rather important element of Walt's opening-day speech at Disneyland, but here, under the veil of Disney optimism, those hard facts are on full display. People die, there are consequences, there are tears that are legitimately earned. The American Adventure is a masterful blend of Audio-Animatronic actors, spectacular set design, a compelling story and memorable music. It is perhaps the pinnacle of Disney Imagineering, and it truly thrills the heart -- not just the body.
Some will say it's boring and it's just a good excuse for a 30-minute nap. I feel sorry for those people, and sorry for the EPCOT that could have been (and, in the spirit of The American Adventure, perhaps still can!) -- it's a pavilion and a show worth visiting time and time again, one that leaves the mind and spirit soaring, and reminds EPCOT guests that pessmism is impossible when they remember the challenges faced by those who have come before us. No theme park in the world offers anything like The American Adventure. No one has dared since. Not, sadly, even Disney.
Worst: Mission: Space
It's a hell of an experience, there's no doubt. But in the end, it's not much different than any other spinning ride, just a lot more elaborate; and you're not actually doing anything except staring at middling CG imagery on a small screen. The lift-off and moonshot moments are thrilling and disconcerting and unique -- but they also make some guests fearful that they may be experiencing a heart attack or stroke, particularly after the dire warning signs plastered on billboards that are big enough for Times Square. Love it or hate it, Mission: Space could, with a few tweaks to the storyline (are we on a training mission, or did we really go to Mars?), have imparted some real insight into the space program and the challenges the world faces in conquering that final frontier.
No, it's not the attraction itself, for all of its inherent flaws, that kicks this one up to the No. 2 spot of EPCOT Central's "Worst of Epcot" -- it's the ride's intensity, which makes it one that only a relatively few people even want to try. It's not appropriate for everyone, which the warning signs make abundantly clear. True, Disney theme parks have had basic roller coasters ever since the Matterhorn opened at Disneyland in 1959. But they were tame, fun attractions that even roller-coaster haters, if forced, would admit weren't nearly as bad as they had feared. Perhaps the whole family wouldn't ride them together, but they could.
Mission: Space takes the opposite approach. It's not for the faint of heart. People who have survived the most extreme of traditional roller coasters quake at the mention of Mission: Space. It genuinely repulses some people. And for those who are not tall enough, brave enough, old enough or in good enough physical condition to ride it, it is forbidden. It splits up the family in exactly the opposite way Walt Disney intended for his theme parks. Uncle Walt once sat on a bench while his daughters enjoyed a dilapidated merry-go-round and felt there should be someplace the family could go to have fun together. Today, he'd be sitting on a bench outside Mission: Space feeling the same thing ... and wondering what happened to his vision.
The Best and Worst of EPCOT Center -- #2
Best: The Living Seas
Imagineers never could crack the ride portion, and that doomed The Living Seas from the very start. It's a shame, because the original attraction, which existed from 1986 to 2003, was one of the most evocative in all of EPCOT Center. But its lack of a compelling ride element caused too many guests to overlook it. Certainly the opening film, with its dramatic narration and astonishing visuals, set the stage better than any other pre-show, creating a legitimate sense of interest and excitement among guests. The exhibition areas were fantastic, and the set design of the interior truly transported guests into a different place. It was at The Living Seas that I first saw a manatee, learned about the damage done by a ship's wake (not good marketing for the Disney Cruise Line), saw the living creature inside the delicious conch fritters I enjoyed in South Florida, learned more about dolphins (porpoises) and understood what a deep-sea diver has to do to prepare. No, it was no Sea World, but it was extraordinary. Beyond that, and thankfully the "updated"/Pixar-ized pavilion still offers this, the 5.7 million-gallon tank was a place in which a guest's mind could get lost. Yes, for most it was a "point-at-the-fish-and-say-how-pretty-it-is" kind of place, but for those who wanted to know more, who were intrigued by what The Living Seas had to offer, it was also the kind of place in which you could spend almost an entire day and still come away wanting to see, learn and know more. It was inspirational. It wasn't just a bunch of talking cartoon sea creatures.
There was a lovely, more-or-less authentic Italian restuarant that opened our stomachs to the notion that the mom-and-pop pizza place down the street was the Italian equivalent of McDonald's. And beyond that, there was (and is) nothing. A couple of shops, a few fake statues, a lovely mirror-image replica of St. Mark's Square in miniature. And that's it. The gondolas moored at the front of the pavilion still hint at what could have been -- a gondola ride through the country. But this ain't Italy, folks. Not even close. EPCOT's Italy offers no hint of the complexity, diversity and beauty of the country, and if Germany's Bavaria-heavy pavilion next door is guilty of some of the same sins, at least it offers a genuine entertainment experience at the Biergarten. Italy used to give you some authentic Fettucini Alfredo (it doesn't even do that anymore) and a few occasional street players. Mostly, it's a big waste of space that is of slightly less than passing interest. Does mediocrity really warrant its inclusion on a list of the worst that the "original" EPCOT Center had to offer? Yes. Because even a guest who knew nothing of the project's troubled development was left wondering why there actually anything here. It was and is just a big, fat nothing, a perfect example of why far too many people write off EPCOT as "boring." In the case of the Italian pavilion, they're right.