Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Best and Worst of Epcot -- Number 2

As EPCOT Central moves closer to revealing its Number 1 "Best and Worst of Epcot," it's rather remarkable how the exercise has revealed just how much EPCOT started with a pitch-perfect theme that needed fine-tuning and care, and how The Walt Disney Company has allowed it to devolve into just another "Disney Park." That doesn't mean, though, that the very best that EPCOT has to offer isn't something very special indeed ...


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.


Worst: Italy
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.

41 comments:

Mark said...

Your thoughts on Mission: Space are interesting, as I find the intensity of the attraction is what makes it one of the most authentic experiences offered at any theme park. I would assume this opinion is based on the original Mission: Space experience, as the current iteration does offer something for the faint of heart.

In a century where we have already seen the birth of the space tourism industry, I find Mission: Space to be the kind of addition that keeps with the theme of EPCOT Center while offering a fresh and unique experience. Surely a Community of Tomorrow would be breaching one of the two "final frontiers" (the seas being the other), and instead of allowing guests to simply see or hear about it through animatronics and narration, it lets them experience it.

I definitely agree that the original Living Seas was one of the best. Some may have found it to be just like any other aquarium exhibit, but there were elements, such as the Hydrolators, that created a believable atmosphere that played into the story exceptionally. I must say, though, that Turtle Talk was a great "cartoon sea creature" addition that balances the entertainment/education line well and would have been great to have in the original pavilion.

Epcot82 said...

You're right, Mark. Except that Mission: Space only allows SOME guests to experience it. Look up at the stars tonight, imagine what's up there, and then say for sure that a spinning simulator that offers a "flight training" trip to Mars is the best representation of the wonder, the mysteries and the awesome infinite universe.

(And if you've been on the "green side" of Mission: Space, you know it's more than a little intense in its own right.)

Coffee House and Home said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your American Pavilion "best of" comment. I find it to be an awesome and inspiring experience.

In light of the recent inauguration, I tried to "recreate" the closing movie of the show...with a slant towards our new president. The link is here....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nm5Iso9ZC8I

I wish that there were more of these types of education and entertaining shows brought "up to date" at EPCOT.

I love your posts. Keep up the great work!

Josh from England said...

The thing with M:S is that it could have been so much better. Say if they'd made it a 'real' journey to Mars, then maybe (I'm sure you've mentioned this somewhere before?). But a TRAINING SIMULATOR? Daft.

SaMMy said...

agree completely on The American Adventure. It was a stop for me every time i went there, i love it, the music is perhaps the best in the park (other than Illuminations, of course) and i spent hours looking for the music from it, i found some, but not others...great pick there :)

Stephen said...

What I've found about Mission: Space is that, even if you're intrigued by--and able to tolerate--the ride's intensity (as I was, alone among all the members of my family), I found it offered too little for even a thrill ride lover to want to ride it again.

The first time I rode was in February of 2005. M:S was the must-ride attraction at WDW, and I was curious to feel the "zero G" simulation. What I got was an experience that was admittedly interesting, yet kind of lacking--the graphics weren't as realistic as I'd expected, the "interactive" jobs were totally lost on the people in our capsule, and all I felt by the end was a weird sensation in my stomach and my head. I didn't really get sick, but it made the whole experience sort of "meh"...the ride was cool without being really fun, and as a result I never felt compelled to ride again after that first time. And I'm someone who does everything when I visit WDW.

So yeah, while I agree that the ride is a poor addition to WDW just for the fact that it can't help but separate families, it's really just a simple feeling of disappointment that puts M:S at the bottom of my list. The concept is great, and the queue is classic EPCOT...so why is the ride such a letdown?

Also, agreed about The American Adventure...a terrific attraction that is too often overlooked. It's by no means a definitive account of American history, but I will say that some of the things I learned there have come in handy on many a history exam...

Coffee House and Home said...

Sammy, I have most of the music from The American Adventure. I, too, have looked and looked for it. Let me know what pieces you want.

I wish Disney would release the music

Rnormfoto said...

while I generally agree with your Disney assessments - (and always read you blog!) - I often find your mostly negative approach to Disney disconcerting. Perhaps you just have higher hopes for it and are disappointed- but I would love to see an occasional 'positive can't-get-enough of Disney' blog post!

Epcot82 said...

Rnormfoto, thanks for your note, and I'm glad you read the blog! In a way, criticism is in and of itself praise -- that EPCOT is worth writing about for three years should tell you that I can't get enough of it. But like a pushy parent, I want it to be so much better than it is, and I'm sad to see that it gave up on the ambition of its youth.

Anonymous said...

Could you give us a hint on #1?

Rnormfoto said...

---good point! You can't hate it that bad to write so much about it!!! I DO know what you mean - whenever i go (and EPCOT is still my favorite park) I keep thinking - geez - why hasn't THAT been updated yet? YOU know what I mean!

Mark said...

It still seems a little short-sighted to dismiss Mission: Space because not all guests can experience it. Any attraction at WDW that has a height requirement or any other types of restrictions should surely fall into the same category, including the Matterhorn, Splash Mountain, Tower of Terror, and various other attractions that, in my opinion, are signature "Disney."

I think where Mission: Space falls short in its inclusion at Epcot is that it's merely an attraction, and not a fully developed pavilion. The post-show area is severely lacking, which I think drags down the overall experience. The Seas has numerous exhibits that allow guests to learn and interact beyond the attractions available in that pavilion. The old Wonders of Life pavilion felt the same way for me too. I feel a true Space pavilion could be so much more, but something that includes the current Mission:Space attraction.

As an attraction Mission: Space is fine. The majority who ride it have a favorable reaction to it. I think I must concede, keeping in mind the scope of Epcot, it is a half-attempt at a space-based pavilion.

SaMMy said...

@Coffee House, about the only one if found is Golden Dream, but would love it if i could find "In the Days of '76", "New World Bound", and "Two Brothers". I've found a few versions of "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" as well, but not the same as from the show, i dont even know if a full song exists by that artist...

The other songs from Epcot that have eluded me are "Let There Be Peace On Earth" from Illuminations Christmas (their version, ive actually found one but it cut out halfway through) and "We Go On" and "Promise" from Illuminations.

If anyone has any of the above, my email is scs411scs(a)gmail(dot)com, and a big thank you in advance :)

Anonymous said...

Gloria Steinem? GLORIA STEINEM? She has done nil for women. How about Phyllis Schlafly instead?

Scott said...

The green side of Mission Space wasn't too taxing at all...but the orange side was a little rougher. My wife wouldn't go on it, but then again, she won't go on any of the coasters, or even Star Tours.

I can't see why anyone should be worked up by the Green Team experience. It's pretty tame, in my opinion...

The problem, as someone else pointed out, is that the pavilion isn't really a pavilion. Nothing BUT the ride there, really.

Digital Jedi said...

I don't know many rides that have triggered an aneurysm in some of it's riders, but I digress. Mission: SPACE is beyond an intense ride. I'm a thrill seeker when it comes to ridea. I'll ride anything. The thing Mission: SPACE does to my head after riding it is what keeps me off of it. It's not nausea, it's not dizziness, it's something altogether different that just makes me feel like I'm courting danger far too closely then I should be at a Theme Park. That's not a feeling an attraction should engender in anyone.

No, coasters don't count in the same vein as Mission: SPACE. Even people in poor health can ride some coasters depending on their condition. M:S precludes that possibility even for some healthy folks. It goes many steps beyond where it should.

Now, had it been an aside as part of a larger pavilion, then I doubt it would have been that big of a deal. But the fact that it is all it is, and it's nothing in line with what has made Disney attractions timeless or unforgettable.

Canadian said...

I have to politely disagree about the American Experience.

As a Canadian I find it cloying, and so gung-ho patriotic as to make a non-believer a little queasy. The Impressions de France, IMHO, does a much better job of presenting a country's best side without hitting you over the head.

At the risk of getting all 'foamy', Horizons, while technically not up to scratch, used to do a reasonable job of conveying a mission to space without terrifying half the riders. If the Disney Imagineers had started there, the ride might be successful.

I liked the old Seas pavilion, but there are aspects of the new one that work just as well. Our six year old loved the Nemo ride and Turtle talk. Unfortunately the pavilion layout seems a bit lost now.

Anonymous said...

And there's the crux of the matter: EPCOT, or any theme park, shouldn't be designed to please six year olds.

Coffee House and Home said...

Canadian, with all due respect, how else would you want the host nation to show their "colors"? I would hope that Canada would do exactly the same thing if they had such a exhibition in their (your) country.

It is a time to show the best of what American has done and I am impressed that they even chose to touch on delicate subjects such as slavery.

As an American, I am proud and honored every time I watch that show. I know lots about the negative side of our country; I go their to reinforce the positive and remind me why I am proud to be in this country.

Trent said...

To me, the beauty of the American Adventure is that while it does obviously portray America in the best possible light, it goes beyond that, it speaks to hope, resiliency, determination, strength and pride in EVERYONE, no matter their nationality or race. It's a completely American show, but the values are universal.

Anonymous said...

Piss off canadian!

Anonymous said...

Eh?

Critifur said...

Anon - Phyllis Schlafly = FAIL. Please do not start to politicize here. And definitely not with her, a traitor to women if there ever was one.

KrisL418 said...

I believe your view of Mission: Space is completely blown out of proportion and very outdated.

There is no need for the family to be separated if that's what people are worried about. There is a green "less intense" version of the ride that the entire family could enjoy (aside from people who are claustrophobic of course).

And the notion that it is too intense for people to try is just crazy. If you go to WDW you will find that not all people there are young families. There are tons of attractions for families/children. Disney is just trying to reach an older audience, such as myself being 20.

Love Mission: Space, the only thing I would change is the post show... I mean bare white hallway.

Epcot82 said...

Kris, next time you're there, check out the hoardes of (mostly) moms waiting with kids while others in the family ride Mission: Space. It's divisive. Most of the people I know have either ridden it once or, hearing of the deaths and illnesses, simply refuse. I accept your statements, certainly, but am not sure how the view is "oudated." I definitely thank you for writing and reading!

Angelo721 said...

Epcot82 ... I never thought about the Fact that M:S does split up the family. Your right. My wife and daughter will NEVER go on it, and I like to see it. So they have to spend their time in Mouse Gear or waiting for me while I ride. And does anyone know if it is a simulation or an actual mission? I assume it is a simulation, because we are supposed to be "Trainees." So shouldn't they say that more, or add some elements to the story like at the end you see a computer screen saying "Simulation End"

The American Adventure. Like SSE for me I cannot leave Epcot without seeing it. I love it. Not many things invoke emotion in me, but this show does. It is superb, plain and simple. But, I also have to beg the people I am with to go on it. Most of them think it is boring and want to skip it.

And Italy, a country with so much history, and culture. There isn't so much as an art exhibit, or a walk through. No ride or anything. This is disapointing.

Mark said...

As far as the storyline of Mission: Space goes, it is a training mission. That's the whole point of the pre-show movie, and the attraction is referred to repeatedly as a training simulator. If you were supposed to "actually" go to Mars, they would need to find a better way to load guests without it being obvious it's a simulator. There would also have to be some way to explain how guests "returned" to Earth.

And the claim that it splits up families is completely subjective. Find a split family, and I can find an entire family who all went on the ride and enjoyed it. Any attraction has the potential to be "divisive," as not everyone enjoys the same things. I still find that to be a flimsy reason to dismiss Mission: Space.

dbknight said...

I think #1 best of Epcot is going to be ROE. (It's mine).

I agree that the American Adventure is a crowning achievement of imagineering. It is sad to so the theatre only 1/2 full (if that) when I go to see it, but there is always applause at the end by those who saw it. :-)

Anonymous said...

GIVE US #1 ALREADY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Spokker said...

Horizons hasn't been mentioned yet. I'm on the edge of my seat, here!

Dan said...

Interesting post as always. I have more to say, but I wanted to clarify (as a former dolphin keeper) that there are not now, nor in my recollection have there ever been, porpoises at the Living Seas. There are two dolphins there that are very entertaining and are the subject of several presentations through out the day. Like dolphins and whales, porpoises are cetaceans, however, porpoises and dolphins are two separate families in that order. The primary difference between the two is that dolphins have pointy cone shaped teeth while porpoises have flat spade shaped teeth. Porpoises generally have a shorter rostrum (nose).

Thank you for letting me take a moment to try to pass on some knowledge in the spirit of the original Living Seas.

Gil said...

I don't know if I agree 100% about M:S, but I do know this: when riding it, towards the end when I found out that I wasn't actually "going" to Mars, but was instead just "on a simulator", it ruined it for me. And it was just a small line of dialogue, and a matter of figuring out a way for people to then "get back to earth".

But that one of dialogue destroyed that illusion for me. Imagine being on Pirates of the Carribean, and after it's all done, an audio-animatronic popped out and said, "ARRGH, I hope you enjoyed this re-creation of what Pirate Life was like. Look at how realistic I look! Shiver me timbers!"

BigBob said...

"And there's the crux of the matter: EPCOT, or any theme park, shouldn't be designed to please six year olds."

Excellent point!

Andy JS said...

I haven't been on Mission: Space since I haven't been to Florida since 2002. I'm surprised that so many people have negative thoughts about it. I remember going on Body Wars for the first time and it was amazing - I thought that Mission: Space would have been a bit like that.

BigBob said...

As far as I'm concerned, Mission: Space is a waste of space.

It's a one-trick-pony.

I rode it once on "orange," and once on "green." My first time, on orange, I'm sure I would have hurled if it went on for another 15-seconds. Then, when you exit, the after show area honkey-tonk made me feel even worse. What I wanted was a place to sit (maybe there were 3 or 4 seats -- all occupied).

The green experience was more to my liking. But, the attraction itself is just not that interesting no matter which team you choose to experience.

That's it. Two times since it opened :(
On the other hand, I rode Horizons every time I visited EPCOT Center.

Anonymous said...

Is the #1 worst thing in Epcot Beverly?

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bluesky said...

Epcot82, I agree with every part of this #2 post. You hit the nail right on the head.

Anonymous said...

I think the UK, Canada, Germany, Morrocco, and Japan pavillions all ought to be included here with Italy as well. There is a huge disapointment that there are no rides or movies for all these pavillions. They could think of great attractions however half of world showcase is left practically baren.

Rare said...

While it's true that not all members of the family will want to ride Mission:SPACE, I disagree that that is necessarily a problem. Perhaps I am a bit biased because M:S is one of my favorite rides at WDW. My 9-year old nephew and I rode it together, on the Orange Team. He couldn't wait to ride it again! We were the only two in the family that rode it.

But we were also the only two that rode the Mad Tea Party, for the same reason: the rest of the family could not tolerate the spinning. And that's a ride that "Uncle Walt" himself approved; at least I assume so, since it was a part of Disneyland on opening day.

Anonymous said...

Along with the authentic food in Alfredo's, there was also a quartet of strolling musicians. Sadly, they were given the ax while Alfredo's was still open; now, it's ALL gone.