Monday, May 27, 2013

Memories of EPCOT Center

Memorial Day may be past, but it still seems an appropriate time to remember some of the best aspects of a bygone EPCOT Center.  Although many have suggested that the goal is to "turn EPCOT into a museum," nothing could be further from the truth: EPCOT Central would love to see EPCOT take the best of what it was and build on that success, not tear it down.

So, keeping with the spirit of the holiday, here are some random memories of the best of EPCOT Center, all of them Future World-based:

* Communicore Plaza's ponds
Before the purple circus tent, in EPCOT's early years, what's now "Innoventions Plaza" was lined by small ponds, adding some lovely water elements and a sense of simple sophistication to the area; they're now seating areas and planters.  Their destruction was an early sign that Disney's modern management was unhappy with what they inherited with EPCOT, or, at least, didn't understand it.

* The Living Seas opening film
This short pre-show contained more wonder and self-professed astonishment at the 71 percent of the Earth we too-rarely consider.  It showcased the high-tech theme of EPCOT Center, as well, inviting guests to board hydrolators to Seabase Alpha.  One problem with the pre-show: To some minds, it was better than the actual show.  Nary a cartoon fish in sight, it was the embodiment of what EPCOT Center was all about.  It's probably the single thing I miss most about the "old" EPCOT, with the exception of ...

* Horizons
The most optimistic, eye-popping (and nose-popping!) attraction at EPCOT Center, it was the kind of slow dark ride that just doesn't fit in with today's fast-paced sensibilities.  There's a very good reason it remains the one thing EPCOT Center fans would love to see return ... because riding it, flaws and all, just made you feel so damned good afterward.

* The World of Motion's stark, clean lines
The ride itself?  I was always on the fence about it.  Even in the early 1980s, it felt a little too cutesy.  But the show building itself?  Come on -- there's no comparison, really, is there?

* The Lucite fountain and entry plaza
It was the perfect way to convey the message of what Future World was all about; even by the time Lucite was outmoded, it still said: "Here's the future the way we think it could be -- simple, timeless, clean, clear and able to reflect whatever we want to see."  The monument of tombstones that replaced it has just never had the same feel.

* The Imagination pavilion's ImageWorks
The second floor of the Imagination pavilion is basically just a storage area now.  What strikes me as odd about this is that Disney's always-struggling Interactive division could use it as a showcase for what they are doing.  There's so much opportunity to bring back something like ImageWorks, a place that, for many years, kids (and adults) could spend hours and not be bored.  If the ride itself was always a little hokey, ImageWorks really did help unlock your imagination.  It says a lot about the trajectory of Disney as a company, unfortunately, that a place Imagineers designed to stir the imagination and provoke creativity is now dark and empty.

Ah, EPCOT Center.  I remember it well.  I'm glad it can be a place that always changes; I just wish the changes weren't so debilitating.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Beating Disney at Its Own Game ... Again

Here's what a visitor to EPCOT Center would see today:

* A Universe of Energy attraction that hasn't been updated in 18 years, despite the remarkable advances in alternative energy and even fossil-fuel technology since then;

* The Seas With Nemo and Friends, which took the formerly thoughtful and dramatic Living Seas and turned it into a cartoon-fest (which, Disney often says, is what guests want);

* A Journey Into Imagination that looks like a ghost town in the upstairs area, now closed off to guests;

* Boarded up interactive information kiosks (above) that were the precursors to today's smartphones and used to show the visionary reach of EPCOT;

* A bunch of people waiting at the exit to Mission: Space because the ride is too intense for the entire family, and results in many visitors not being able to experience a key EPCOT attraction;

* A Wonders of Life pavilion that is shut down and serves only as a roof over the head of special events, completely shuttering one multi-attraction pavilion in the park;

* A Test Track that got "upgraded" with neon lights and some new show elements;

* Two World Showcase pavilions (Norway and France) that depict the culture of entire countries through 30-year-old film footage.

EPCOT Center, once the crowning achievement and proud showcase of all that Disney was capable of creating, is old and increasingly irrelevant, as Disney's expert "brand management" team defines what the public thinks "Disney" should be all about.

And, then, Universal comes along and opens the high-tech, jaw-dropping Wizarding World of Harry Potter, showcasing ride technology that, ironically, got its first public demonstration at (you guessed it) EPCOT.

To rub salt on Disney's creative wounds, which it licks with the billions of dollars in profits it rakes in, Sea World Orlando -- which for years had been stagnating, this week went directly after EPCOT's guest.

Its new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction is, by the accounts I've read, immersive and captivating, beautiful and imaginative, entertaining and educational.

It even provides two different ride tracks ("mild" and "wild") that allow the entire family to experience the attraction together, even if they're too young for big thrills.  (Take that, Mission: Space!  Disney's competition is learning from the Mouse's own mistakes.)

Perhaps sensing that Disney only cares about its "brand management" focus, and has let EPCOT fall by the wayside, Sea World has created the kind of large-scale, pavilion-style attraction -- combining a store and restaurant in a single location that has a ride as its centerpiece -- previously reserved for the groundbreaking EPCOT.

Disney, once again, is losing the very creative game it originated.  Increasingly, if you want to find EPCOT, you should visit any theme park other than EPCOT Center itself.

And if you want a Disney-style immersive, jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, creative, interesting, fun and unique theme-park experience, it seems Disney is no longer the first place you should look.

Wow.  It's a sad day when that last paragraph can be written ... a day many of us long-time Disney fans never thought could really arrive.  We thought it would be a cold day in some other place when Disney was routinely beaten by its competition; we didn't imagine that cold place would be Antarctica.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

All Manor of Envy

Sorry.  I know this is long overdue.  I started this post three weeks ago and then, well, life happened.

All is well, except for the little matter of being so envious of Hong Kong Disneyland.

The only Disney theme park in the world I haven't visited, and hadn't particularly wanted to visit has become the one I most want to see, thanks to Mystic Manor.

I've seen the ride-through videos, I've read the descriptions, and while I might be slightly less than mesmerized by the story (it seems awfully similar to Tokyo Disneyland's Tower of Terror), the sheer magnitude and creativity of it all leaves EPCOT Center -- once the most magnificent of all Disney theme parks -- looking really lackluster by comparison.

Think about, say, the increasingly awful Ellen's Energy Adventure, which was once a mind-bogglingly sophisticated ride.  Now, the cast members and guests alike stifle yawns.

Or the creaky, leaky Maelstrom, which -- while never the longest or most daring ride -- used to at least feel like it was a ride that tried.

While Disney makes its claims that EPCOT simply can't be run without more sponsorships, and that guests seem satisfied enough (you know, the old "it's good enough" argument), Disney goes and proves that all of its excuses about Stateside theme parks are actually a bunch of hot air by once again creating a dazzling ride for its parks in Asia.

On one level, it's kind of sad that China, which until recently was considered forbidden territory for U.S. businesses, gets all of the attention.  Wooing the Chinese matters more to Disney than impressing its consumers at home.

But that's not really the biggest objection.  China deserves great attractions for its Disney park(s).  The problem I have is: Why does EPCOT continue to feel outdated and outmoded while Disney lavishes time, money and creativity on its other parks?  It feels more and more like no one cares about EPCOT. Mystic Manor is a slap in the face to those who would like to see EPCOT be the shining beacon of all that Disney can achieve.

Mystic Manor has dazzling effects, many of which are projection based but don't feel that way.  It has a non-Disney storyline that introduces new characters who, by their very existence, are Disney ... but are not based on existing properties.  Yes, Disney can create new stories and new characters!

It's sophisticated and technologically marvelous, all the things EPCOT was supposed to be.

So, the next time you feel yourself being jerked around (double-meaning intended) by the clickety-clackety chain that pulls you up and through Spaceship Earth, remember what Hong Kong Disneyland guests are experiencing.

The next time you see Ellen's head just about dangling from her body in the Universe of Energy, remember what Disney has done in Hong Kong.

The next time you see footage shot in 1980 representing France, or wonder why Ben Franklin and Mark Twain don't move like they used to, consider what Disney has done at Mystic Manor.

The next time you walk by an empty (except for lovely trees) tract of land in EPCOT that is just too expensive for Disney to design something new, realize they've done exactly that in Hong Kong.

I don't begrudge the Chinese for getting a glorious new Disney attraction.  I do, however, begrudge Disney for lavishing so much money on such a great attraction, while letting the Soarin' film get scratchy and dusty.   For saying it can't afford something great, that elaborate dark-ride style rides are too expensive, while creating one in Hong Kong.

Disney can do all the things EPCOT needs to regain its former glory.

What's curious, and fills me with envy at Chinese tourists who get to experience something that looks so wonderul, is that Disney just won't do what needs to be done at EPCOT.

(Full disclosure: Since I couldn't afford my own trip to Hong Kong to see this magnificent piece of work myself, I "borrowed" a photo from the always-wonderful DisneyandMore blog to use with this post.)