The Epcot Conundrum

I wrote this post on my old blog long before Epcot announced the major changes to Future World that were coming. Part reminiscence, part rant, it seems someone was listening. Well, actually it was just that the areas I pointed out as needing work were obvious targets for change

There have been a lot of rumors buzzing about the future of Epcot.  It has finally been confirmed that a Ratatouille ride is coming to the France pavilion, and Ellen’s Energy Adventure will be replaced by a Guardians of the Galaxy-themed ride.  A space-themed restaurant is also coming to Future World.

In reading fan theories and opinions, I’ve seen what seem to be two extremes.  At one end, you have the crowd that wants to turn Epcot into a Six Flags park.  The first words out of their mouths are always either ‘roller coaster’ or ‘thrill ride’.  Their answer to everything is that Disney parks need more to appeal to teenagers and young adults.  Families with kids and old folks?  Well, they’ve got the Magic Kingdom.

Their opposite number are the people I call the Epcot originalists.  When Epcot first opened, it was EPCOT Center, for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.  Walt Disney died before he could make his vision of a new sort of city come true, but the company decided to honor his dream by creating a park that provided both entertainment and education.  All of the Future World half of Epcot was focused on concepts like transportation, agriculture, oceanography, and so on.  For this group, every suggestion of a ride that is purely entertainment is met with howls of, “But what about education?  We are losing Walt’s Dream!”

Nobody asked me, but I have a number of thoughts on how I’d like to see the future of Epcot go.

Future World suffers from the same problem that Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom has – the future has a funny way of becoming the present.  Keeping up with that is impossible.  And who the devil decided that the future was going to be monochrome concrete?  With rare exception, Future World is a wash of grey and white.  Perhaps it was done to provide a contrast to the World Showcase, but it drains the area of visual energy, and makes it scorching hot in the middle of summer.  The buildings need more color, especially the Innoventions buildings.  Consider this – you enter Epcot to a huge silvery-grey ball, with pale bland supports.  You then come to more bland buildings with a silvery-white fountain in the center.  The fountain is gorgeous and engaging, but the sparkles from reflected light are the only real color to be seen.  The four Innovention quadrants need to be recolored with vibrant tones.  The biggest thing that Future World needs, though, is a name change.  Forget ‘the future’ and use something that points out its true theme, innovation and discovery.

And what of the insides of the Innoventions buildings?  They need work, too.  Sections of them are in use for things like shops and character greetings, but huge portions are echoingly empty.  Where computer games and educational experiences once reigned, there are temporary walls placed to hopefully make you forget that there is space behind them.  After the computers decamped, one section was stuffed with the sort of thing you’d see at a state fair.  Walk through mock rooms with fire safety lessons and all that.  But there isn’t even that now. And this is the first thing newcomers see when they pass Spaceship Earth!  This area needs something permanent, not the ‘corporate sponsor of the month club’ system it has had.

On to the outer pavilions.  The Seas with Nemo & Friends, once The Living Seas, has earned howls from the originalists.  While Test Track and Mission: Space replaced original rides, at least they did not contain *shudder* Disney cartoons!  Really, the way some people rant, you would think they replaced all the real fish in the tanks with candy colored animatrons.  The ride used to involve watching a thunderingly pretentious and dull movie about the birth of life in the oceans.  It was fairly interesting the first time, but after that the more rules-flexible of us would try to zip through the theater and out the exit doors before cast members could stop us.  After the movie you were loaded on cars that took you through a clear tunnel so that you could see the fish in the massive aquarium all around you.  You were then deposited in the SeaBase portion, where you could watch fish, sharks, dolphins and sea turtles to your heart’s content, plus engage in a number of educational activities.  Outside of the ride, there was (and still is) a restaurant that looks into the aquarium, so you can crack jokes about which fish they’ll catch for your meal.

Here is what changed.  The movie, thank Walt, is gone, along with the original cars.  You are now taken by clam shell cars though both portions of the tunnel and scenes from the Nemo movie.  It is cute and entertaining, and you still get to see fish.  It ends at SeaBase, as before, and nearly all of the educational portions are still there.  There are a few Nemo touches, such as a mock up of Bruce the Shark’s mouth for funny pictures, and Turtle Time with Crush, where our favorite surfer dude turtle talks to little kids.  Best of all, there is now an entrance through the gift shop, so if you are  an ocean life lover and just want to fish watch, you don’t have to go on the ride at all.  So although it was criticized as “the (bad) shape of things to come”, I think the changes were one of the best things Disney has done in Future World.

Now for The Land pavilion.  I have mixed feelings about it.  It houses a gentle boat ride called Living With the Land, which is educational and fairly entertaining.  I do think it could use a scene replacement here and there to liven things up, because you would think from the current ones that farming involves nothing but wide empty spaces. Other than that it is still serviceable.  The preachy Circle of Life movie was closed recently, and I can’t say I’ll miss it.  What I am unhappy about is that it will not be replaced with a better attraction.  It will be used for workshops and student performances.  The pavilion also houses Soarin, one of the big three rides in Epcot at the moment.  It is a thrill ride, but in the gentlest sense.  It seems to be one of the few things that the originalists and the roller coaster crowd agree on.  Before Soarin, the space was occupied first by Kitchen Kabaret, then Food Rocks, both of which involved animatronic food singing about nutrition.  I liked them, and so did many people, but Soarin is a huge crowd pleaser.  In addition to the three attractions, the pavilion includes a revolving restaurant that looks out over scenes from the boat ride, and a large food court.  The food court is sometimes overlooked as people rush to get in line for Soarin’, but it is easily the best quick service eatery in Epcot, especially if you are trying to eat healthy.

Next, the Imagination pavilion.  What can I say that hasn’t been said by thousands, if not millions, of other Disney fans?  The original ride was fun and original, and yes, imaginative.  It was replaced by a horrible new version, then replaced again by a slightly less horrible one.  Besides the ride, there is also a theater that has run a changing selection of 3D movies, including the famous (infamous?) Captain Eo.

Disney will never go back and rebuild the first version of the Journey into Imagination ride, so the pavilion needs to change to something completely different.  But there is another wrinkle – there are whispers that Disney is considering making Figment, the most popular aspect of the ride, a sort of mascot character for Epcot.  They already do to a certain degree, putting him on the logos for the various food festivals at Epcot.  The current gossip is that a ride will be built based on the Inside Out characters.  This would work well for the pavilion’s theme, since emotion and imagination are easily linked.  Figment will then appear in a new movie in the theater.  All in all, I think this would be a good idea, although to be honest, I’m not all that fond of Figment.  Heresy, I know, but I’ve never been able to warm up to him, and I don’t know why.  Still, loads of people love him, so I don’t begrudge his mascot status.

Now to the other side of Future World.  The building holding Test Track used to be the home of a classic Disney dark ride called World of Motion.  I loved it because it was very funny.  It presented the history of transportation, but never took any of it too seriously.  By contrast, Test Track is pretty much just a soulless thrill ride.  The first version of it wasn’t too bad, because the ‘you are a test dummy’ theme lent it a bit of charm, but the current neon and high tech version just doesn’t have any emotional oomph.  The thrill crowd loves it – it’s in the big three – and the originalists sniff and begrudgingly approve since it holds with the pavilion theme.  I doubt anything about it will change anytime soon.

The Mission: Space ride gets mixed feelings from many people.  It sits in the home of the once beloved Horizons, a continuation of the Magic Kingdom’s Carousel of Progress family.  The first Mission: Space version quickly earned a reputation as WDW’s ‘vomit comet’.  The original theme of the ride was to give you an experience similar to what real astronauts feel, including G-forces.  What Disney quickly learned is that there is a reason not everyone can be an astronaut.  It was toned down, then divided into two options, Green and Orange.  Orange is the toned down version, and Green is an even more toned down version.  Even so, it is the only ride at Epcot that has a recovery room for riders left nauseous and dizzy.  It is not overly popular, and despite the obvious intent for it to be a thrill ride, it just hasn’t accumulated many fans.  It is hard to know if Disney intends to change this pavilion.  On the one hand, it does not get a lot of traffic. On the other, they are going to be building a space-themed restaurant nearby.

And what of that restaurant, hmmm?  Concept pictures show it having a round interior.  Well, there are two round buildings sitting empty in Future World, the Wonders of Life pavilion (conveniently sitting right next to Mission: Space) and the former Odyssey restaurant.  Yet Disney’s announcement said it will be in a ‘newly developed area’ between Mission: Space and Test Track.  Why on earth would they need a new building?  One hopes that means they have plans for the other two buildings, but… we’ll see.

If not a restaurant, something needs to be done with the Wonders of Life.  It has been disturbingly empty for many years, only coming out of mothballs for the food festivals.  Walking around under its dome to stare at festival merchandise that you can buy in lots of places without hiking up the pavilion’s steep ramp is a bit sad.  It is especially heartbreaking when you know that the remnants of rides lurk behind flimsy walls.  There were so many fun things to do there – Body Wars, Cranium Command, all the little activities like Goofy About Health and the Wonder Cycles – the poor dear needs to come to life again.  If Disney doesn’t have the budget for a new ride there, then a restaurant or group of permanent shops would be much better than the half life it has now.

Last but not least for the pavilions is the Universe of Energy pavilion.  Oh, the howling.  The moaning.  The rending of garments… okay, maybe not that far.  The announcement of a Guardians of the Galaxy ride has sent the originalists into mourning.  If it doesn’t dully explain science, it just isn’t Real Epcot!  Okay, maybe I’m poking them a bit hard.  I admit, it will be a departure from the Epcot theme.  But I am intrigued by the idea that Peter Quill (Star-Lord) visited Epcot as a boy, and that this will be woven into the ride story.  Everyone has been assuming it will be a thrill ride, but wouldn’t it be great if the ride shows us snippets of the original Epcot?  Many oldtimers like me miss Horizons, World of Motion and the Wonders of Life rides.  There would be a lot of scope for revisiting the beloved past.

Now, for World Showcase… more!  More pavilions, more rides, more of everything.  As much complaining as the new Frozen ride has caused, I think it has shaken things up a bit and I mean that in a good way.  I have described Epcot to friends as less a theme park and more a really big mall.  Lots of shopping and restaurants, but not much else.  Someone must have heard me, because there is considerable buzz about changes.  I eagerly await more news.

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