A Letter About EPCOT

Dear Powers-That-Be at Disney,

Nowadays it seems that “Epcot” is just a name for a theme park, a word with no real meaning. EPCOT, though, used to stand for something: Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. It was a term coined by Walt himself for his vision of a futuristic city.

The creative vision of the future that led Walt to create EPCOT is as important now as it was then, and perhaps even more so. In the 50’s and 60’s, people dreamed of an exciting future full of robots and rockets. In the 70’s and 80’s, when computers were really becoming mainstream, they offered an incredible digital frontier that captured imaginations. Now, though, what do people dream about when they look ahead? As the concept of a bright and shining future gets further away from our collective consciousness, the need for a place like EPCOT is even more critical.

EPCOT used to represent inspiration. It showcased examples of humanity’s potential. It was a place where we could see amazing possibilities like underwater cities and space colonies, where we could learn about the history of transportation, and where we could discover how advances in communication helped shape our past and future. It was a place where a man and his purple dragon showed the wonders of imagination, where guests could explore other countries, and where innovation met invention.

I use the past tense, because the park seems to be none of those things anymore.

At Destination D in November 2016, Bob Chapek told the audience that EPCOT would soon be undergoing a “major transformation”. He said that it was going to be “more Disney, more relevant, timeless, family oriented, and true to the original vision”. This sounds great to say in front of hundreds of Disney fans (the announcement was met with thunderous applause, particularly the “true to the original vision” part) and the idea of a big EPCOT overhaul is pretty exciting. However, as of yet we’ve seen nor heard anything more about this plan so we’re still left with nothing other than hope that EPCOT will return to its inspirational themes.

The reality is that, for the past several years, many see the park becoming a shadow of its former self. Fans of EPCOT, people who grew up going there and who loved its inspirational and forward-thinking vibe, are disappointed in the direction that it has been taken by Disney executives. Hashtags like #ReturntoCenter and #BringBackTheFuture (and, as a result of recent surveys, #SaveFigment) have gained a fair amount of support on social media as loyal fans try to get the message across: they miss what EPCOT used to be, and they wish it could become that again.

It’s true that many of us really do miss the atmosphere and the attractions of the EPCOT Center of the past. Horizons in particular became a sort of rallying cry, a long-defunct favorite now seen as a symbol of what the park represented and what many feel it no longer does. The ride’s vision of possibilities, shown with the sort of storytelling that we expect from a Disney attraction, and even its tagline of “if we can dream it, we can do it” has become emblematic of the inspirational feeling that people really miss about EPCOT. We miss the fun look at history in World of Motion, and the unbridled whimsy of the original Journey Into Imagination. The park was a place of education as well as entertainment, a place that addressed real topics like science, energy, and nature yet still retained Disney magic–and did so with catchy theme songs like “It’s Fun to be Free” and “One Little Spark”.

These days there are still a few cool things happening in the park, things that inspire and educate. Classic attractions like Living with the Land and Spaceship Earth remain, both of them throwbacks to the park’s beginnings. Newer experiences like Test Track and Mission: SPACE fit well within the Future World mission to entertain, inform, and inspire (loosely, perhaps, but they do in their own ways). Events like Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, and the new International Arts Festival invite guests to discover new experiences from around the world. On the surface it appears–on paper, anyway–that EPCOT is continuing to fulfill its promise.

What the guests and long-standing fans of the park are seeing, despite all that, is different. We’re seeing possibilities get pushed aside for thrills, culture get replaced with characters, and real inspiration fall by the wayside.

We understand that things need to change. Disney parks are constantly evolving, and that’s one of the exciting things about them. We accept, perhaps grudgingly, that the days of Horizons and World of Motion are gone (though I’ll not sure we fully accept the retirement of Dreamfinder).  We understand, when we’re talking about a community of tomorrow, that it needs to keep evolving as tomorrow continues to become yesterday. What we’re asking for isn’t some unrealistic rebuilding of dead attractions. We simply want a return to the themes and goals that EPCOT was based upon. We want inspiration and possibilities, visions of the future, insights into other cultures, and we want to see how imagination can lead to wondrous ideas.

While we keep hoping for a return to form for the inspiring EPCOT that we loved, though, rumors suggest plans that go in the opposite direction. There have been frequent mentions of popular characters–like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Cars–getting shoehorned in with (seemingly) no regard for theming. We have Magic Kingdom for beloved characters, and we have Hollywood Studios for attractions based upon popular movies. We don’t need more of that in EPCOT. We need a focus on the possibilities of the future and inspiration to face the challenges it will take to get there. Obviously I understand that these are rumors, so they should be taken with a big grain of salt. If these rumors are to be believed, though, it seems that the intent is to push the park further away from the science and education focus that was originally envisioned for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. They point to an upsetting possibility–that Disney executives want to take EPCOT in a direction that fans definitely don’t want it to go. 

Is there a middle ground between the science-and-education park that fans want, and character-driven attractions that will entice guests? Probably. If a new ride based on Inside Out is really being considered, which would definitely draw in fans of the film, have it focus on the science behind emotions and use those characters to educate as well as entertain. The futuristic setting of Big Hero 6 would be a great way to introduce robotics to kids and adults as they visit the park. There’s an opportunity to use Marvel properties (once contract issues are sorted out, of course) in a way that can showcase science and technology. Even using characters in World Showcase, to show how real cultures influenced animated features, could be great if done right. While I personally don’t think that EPCOT needs characters to drive its message (other than Figment and Dreamfinder, and maybe Dr. Bunsen Honeydew with Beaker), I understand the desire to use popular franchises to draw people in. As long as it’s done well, with respect to the theme of EPCOT, and not just “hey, these characters have a spaceship and lasers so they’re futuristic”. It’s not about rides full of characters, it’s about attractions that showcase humanity’s history and potential.

Entertainment showing post-apocalyptic wastelands and xenophobia, rather than exciting lands of tomorrow and acceptance, seems to be more popular these days than ever. Inspiration has been lost somewhere over the years, and we need a place where families around the world can go to get it back. We need a place where we can learn about energy and embrace other cultures, where laughing purple dragons can take us on journeys into imagination, and where we can look ahead to new horizons. We need a park that showcases science and real possibilities for our future. Something like this is perhaps more important now than it’s ever been.

We need, now more than ever, an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.

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It seems to many fans that the Disney company has forgotten these words, and that the park no longer fulfills these ideals. Some of us, though, still hold out hope that one day EPCOT will once again entertain, inform, and inspire.

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Caring For Giants: A Giant Review

Prior to arriving at Animal Kingdom, I really had no idea what to expect with Caring for Giants. On Disney’s website they call it a tour, a term I echoed on my Facebook page and on Twitter, but that’s not entirely an accurate description. The reality is that it’s more of an experience than anything else. Caring for Giants takes guests behind the scenes for a closer look at the elephants who live in Animal Kingdom, as well as offering the opportunity to talk with animal specialists about how they’re cared for and some of the challenges they face in the wild.

Caring for Giants cost us $30 per person (bear in mind that prices are very subject to change). It’s worth noting that the proceeds from that price go towards conservation efforts. They only take up to fourteen people per group, so reservations are highly recommended. It’s still worth checking, though, if you’re at Animal Kingdom and you want to try to do it without booking in advance. While we were waiting for our reserved time, we saw a couple people come up and manage to get into a group for the same day (though the park wasn’t really that busy).

We arrived at the tour and events check-in desk, right outside of the Kilimanjaro Safari entrance, about fifteen minutes before our 11:00am slot. We rode the safari just before checking in, and it was pouring pretty hard at times during that trip, but Caring for Giants does happen rain or shine. So we were prepared to still see elephants, and just get wet in the process. However, right after we checked in the rain turned into a thunderstorm, and it turns out that the experience will get canceled if there’s lightning. We huddled under the small booth’s roof with a couple other parties (and the cast members) as we waited to see if the weather would clear up, but after close to a half hour of thunder and lightning they finally called it. We were able to move our reservation to the 1:00pm slot, then we left for a bit and hoped that things would get better. As compensation, they offered us a Fastpass for just about any attraction (they did ask specifically which attraction we wanted, and wrote that onto the Fastpass), and we were able to use that to get onto Test Track at EPCOT later in the afternoon.

Fortunately, by the time we got back to the booth at about 12:30pm the worst of the weather had passed. The rain had even started to let up by the time we checked in again, and it stopped completely shortly before we set out to see elephants.

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The name tags they give you are made with 85% elephant poop! I’m not sure what the other 15% is.

Once things got underway we were escorted by a cast member through a backstage area to a small bus, and another drove us out to see the elephants. As we rode around behind the scenes, the driver talked about where we were and what we were looking at. We learned a little bit about the night housing for the animals, and why we could see one young elephant hanging out by himself there (male elephants tend to be very solitary, as it’s a matriarchal society).

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The elephant house, where the pachyderms go at night (so cast members can clean the outdoor habitat) and where their care happens. I took this pic as we took the Wildlife Express Train from Harambe to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, as there were no photos allowed on the backstage portion of Caring for Giants.

Once we got to our destination and got off the bus, we were greeted by an animal specialist who escorted us up a few stairs to the elephant viewing area. While not extremely up close and personal, it is much closer than you can get while on the Kilimanjaro Safari vehicles. The specialist spoke about the elephants, and answered any questions that the group had. We learned a lot about their society, the training and enrichment programs at Animal Kingdom, and the personalities of the elephants that live there. She explained how they cared for the animals at the park, and discussed their work with conservation efforts around the world and with other zoos and habitats. While we spoke, we also had the opportunity to take a lot of pictures.

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One of the cool things about Caring for Giants is the fact that you’re able to stand and observe the elephants for a while, rather than just going by their habitat in a safari vehicle.

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Elephants live in a matriarchal society, and this single-tusked female is the boss at Animal Kingdom. She also has an apprentice, a younger female who is learning how to lead the herd.

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We got to see baby Stella, Animal Kingdom’s newest elephant, and she’s adorable.

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It had been raining heavily earlier in the day, but that had cleared up by the time we did Caring for Giants. It was still a bit overcast, and not oppressively hot, which made for a very pleasant experience. The tour will go out rain or shine, though, and the observation area itself is shaded by trees.

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Even getting to watch these beautiful animals do basic things–eat, walk around, scratch against a tree, etc–was really cool.

We stood there for a while, watching the elephants and asking questions. Then Snowie, a woman from South Africa, spoke about some of the peril that wild elephants face there and what’s being done to help save them. It was pretty sobering to spend time watching these majestic creatures and having a fun conversation with the animal specialist about them, only to then learn about the serious danger that they’re in. It really hammered the message home in a powerful way.

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Elephants, as it turns out, are afraid of bees. So in South Africa farmers have devised these “bee fences” to keep elephants off their land. Thin wire stretches between the hives, and if an elephant disturbs that line then bees come out and scare the pachyderm away. Not only does this save farmland (and prevent farmers from killing elephants to protect the land) but there’s the added bonus of a new honey industry!

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This sculpture was created from a wire snares found in the African bush. Not only does removing the snare help protect animals, but using the wire in such a way allows local artists to develop something unique.

After this discussion, Snowie handed out buttons to each of us.

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I said this earlier, but it bears mentioning again: the proceeds from the tour’s price go toward conservation. So you get a great experience, a cool button, and you’re helping save elephants. Not bad for thirty bucks!

After about a half hour at the elephant observation area, we returned to the van, which then took us back to the parking area backstage. From there we were escorted to where we started–the tour desk near Kilimanjaro Safari. We returned our lanyards (we could keep the paper nametags themselves, but they ask for the lanyard back to reuse them), and that was the end of the experience.

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I need to give a big shout-out to the amazing cast members who helped to make our Caring for Giants experience even more awesome. At the front desk there was Ashley, Hollis, and Kelsey. Yuri drove us out to the elephants and back, Ashley (a different one) answered our questions, and Snowie discussed conservation. They were all just great and made the whole thing, even the weather-related drama early on, just that much better.

With Caring for Giants, you’re not really on a guided tour (like, for example, Behind the Seeds at EPCOT) being directed by someone who is feeding you specific information. Instead, you’re brought to a location and from there it’s really up to you to get what you want out of it. Some people were asking lots of questions, others found a good spot and just watched the elephants, and there were those who were focused on getting really good photos. The structure is such that you really get out of the experience what you choose to put into it.

Ultimately, was Caring for Giants worth it? I think so. It was really cool to see the elephants, and while you’re not super close (closer than the safari vehicle gets, but not right up in their trunks) you still get a great view and you have the opportunity to stand there for a while and watch them rather than just roll on by. The cast members were very knowledgeable and answered lots of questions, and I can say that we definitely learned things that we didn’t know before about elephants as well as the dangers they face and the conservation efforts people are using to try and save them. Plus, it was neat to get a “behind the scenes” look at how the park cares for some of its animals and get a look at some areas that guests wouldn’t see otherwise. Overall it was a really neat experience that offered a lot for anybody who loves animals in general and elephants in particular, and it was something a bit different to do while at Animal Kingdom.

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I’m wrapping this up with another pic of baby Stella. Just because she’s the cutest thing ever, and what better way to end a post?

 

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My Disney Bucket List

Many people have a “bucket list” made up of things they want to do before they shuffle off the mortal coil. Things that will lead to exciting stories that you can then tell your grandkids (or random strangers on the bus). Things that, when you sit back and reflect upon your life, you can say “oh yeah, I totally did that”.

The other day, my wife asked me what would be on my Disney bucket list. Like, what specific Disney experiences do I want to see when my life someday flashes before my eyes? I mean, I’ve done a lot at Walt Disney World over the years, and with every trip I do more, but what else would I want to do before I become a grim grinning ghost?

I gave that some serious thought (way more than I ever had for a non-Disney list). Some of the things are very possible, and it’s even somewhat likely that I’ll get the opportunity to do them someday. Others are improbable but feasible, and then there are those which are just really not going to happen. So, without further ado, here’s my Disney bucket list:


Visit every Disney park in the world

So far I’ve seen both domestic parks–Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California–but I have yet to travel beyond the borders of this country for any sort of international pixie dust experience.

I’d love to check out the unique attractions to each park, like the Tron roller coaster in Shanghai and Mystic Manor in Hong Kong, as well as their unique takes on the classics–like Phantom Manor in Paris, for example, which is a much spookier version of the Haunted Mansion. Plus, there’s DisneySea in Tokyo, which I’ve heard is amazing and I would love to experience it firsthand rather than just in photos and videos online. It’d be cool to see a bit of the other countries themselves too, of course — I’ve been to France, but it was over twenty years ago — but mostly I want to spend time in the different parks.

I think, out of everything on my list, this is the top. It’ll take considerable amounts of money and time, but it’s not impossible, and someday it’ll be great to look back on my life and relive memories of traveling to the different Disney parks around the world. It would also be cool to check out other Disney experiences, too, like Aulani in Hawaii.

Stay In Cinderella Castle and/or The Dream Suite

I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend the night in Cinderella Castle? This hard-to-achieve experience usually involves winning a contest, but it would definitely be something to remember if I were ever able to make it happen. It’s the same with the Dream Suite at Disneyland (which I had the chance to see on the Walk In Walt’s Footsteps tour), in that it’s only really available to guests that win it and even those opportunities are very rare.

This one is highly unlikely (even less so than seeing every Disney park in the world), but it’s a fun one to think about. Getting to see the Dream Suite on the tour was really cool, and getting the opportunity to sleep there would be incredible. Really, it would just so I could say that I did. Maybe snap a few photos of the park from the window of the Cinderella Castle suite, forever be upset that my bathtub doesn’t have fiber optic lights twinkling over it like the one in the Dream Suite, things like that.

Of course, since there’s a lot of switches and buttons in the Dream suite that cause lights or sound or movements to happen, I’d spend the entire night just poking at things to see what they do.

Take More Tours

Reasonably recently, I’ve discovered the joy that is taking tours at the Disney parks. We’ve done a few over the last few years, including the Walk in Walt’s Footsteps tour at Disneyland (you can read about that one here) and Behind the Seeds at EPCOT (here is my write-up of that one). We’ve also got reservations for our next trip to go on the Caring for Giants tour at Animal Kingdom.

There are so many cool tours offered. In particular, I’d like to do the UnDISCOVERed Future World at EPCOT, the Wild Africa Trek at Animal Kingdom, and the Keys to the Kingdom at Magic Kingdom. Plus, of course, the seven-hour-long Backstage Magic tour that takes you to multiple locations within the Walt Disney World resort property. Each one offers something different, and each one would be an awesome experience and offer unique opportunities to learn more about the parks.

Honestly, this one is pretty doable, much more so than staying in the Dream Suite or traveling all over the globe. We tend to look to see if there’s any tours we can do pretty much every time we plan a trip now. Some are definitely more expensive than others (both the Wild Africa Trek and Backstage Magic are over $200 each, per person), and there are time constraints to take into account as the tours can be hours long, but really it’s quite feasible to do them with advanced planning and saving. I fully expect that someday, while laying on my deathbed (which will hopefully be a pirate ship one like at the themed Caribbean Beach Resort rooms), I will be able to say that I did all of the tours I wanted to.

I’m also putting the Lunch with an Imagineer experience into this category as well, which just sounds like it could be a really cool thing to do.

Travel Back In Time to Visit EPCOT Center Again

OK, less feasible. But c’mon, spending one more day at EPCOT Center (circa late 80s/early 90s) would be an incredible experience. Getting to ride Horizons, World of Motion, the original Journey Into Imagination one more time. Soaking up that sense of enthusiasm and inspiration that the park once embodied. That would be something to do.

I just think that someone should invent time travel while I’m still alive so I can check this one off the ol’ bucket list. Not too much to ask, right?

As a variation on this, I’d love to live long enough to see Disney get EPCOT back to its original theming. Even if it’s all new attractions and I never get to see those old ones ever again, seeing a newly revitalized EPCOT with its focus back on inspiring the future… well, I could die happy knowing that I had seen that happen.

Be the Grand Marshal of the Magic Kingdom Parade

Every morning, cast members pick a family (or two) to act as the Grand Marshal of the day’s parade. These guests of honor wear special Mickey ears, wave to the crowd from the lead parade vehicle, and then watch the rest of the parade from a VIP viewing spot.

It’s kind of silly thing to want to do, but at the same time it would be a really cool thing to say that I’ve done. Sitting up at the front of the parade, being a part of the parade, would be a memory worth sharing looking back on and sharing with unsuspecting people in the line at grocery stores.

Is this one possible? Well, the guests are chosen at random, so it’s really up to some cast member. Generally, what I’ve gathered is that they pick someone early in the day (from that first burst of people through the gate, as I understand it), and since we’re usually there right at rope drop that part isn’t an issue. So it would really come down to standing in the right place at the right time and catching the eye of the right cast member. Long odds, but hardly impossible. Slightly less improbable than time travel, even!

Become a Cast Member Again

I’ve brought it up a lot, so it’s not really news that I was once a cast member at Walt Disney World (that saga can be read here). It was brief, it was a long time ago, and it’s an experience that I’ve obsessed over ever since.

Lots of cast members, former and current, will probably tell you that it’s a tough place to work and it’s not nearly as magical being an employee and that you’re better off never getting a job there. That may be true for a lot of people, and I know that I’m seeing the past through pixie dust coated glasses here and that it’s probably not nearly as amazing as I think I remember it being, but the fact is I would love to do it again. Whether it be to retire there and be a happy old man working attractions at EPCOT (if you ever meet me in person, ask me about that story), or working there as a theatrical stagehand like I do for my career when I’m not writing about Disney, there’s a part of me that wants nothing more than to don a nametag again and go back to helping make magic for people.

Will it ever happen? Who knows. There are a lot of logistical reasons to say no, and the fact is that we’re happy where we are and uprooting everything to chase a dream is kind of insane. But, we’re talking about things I’d love to do before ending up as a happy haunt, so it’s only fair to include this one.


Is this a complete list? Probably not. I’m sure there’s more that I’d love to do, and as Disney keeps creating new experiences the list is only going to get longer. As it is I can think of a lot more I probably should have added to this: like being the rebel spy on Star Tours (I’ve already been “that guy” on the Monsters Inc Laugh Floor), finally doing a Dapper Day, and attending Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. So even if/when I do get the chance to check something off, there’s definitely another thing waiting to take its place.

The fact is, too, that even getting to go to the parks and go on attractions and eat Dole Whip floats is exciting and I hope to do it a lot more in my life. Even if I never get to do any of the things on my “bucket list” I’ll still have a life full of magical pixie dust. It’s fun to think about doing these other things, though, and imagine what it would be like to look back someday and have those memories. It’s cool to have these goals, improbable as they may be (or impossible, in that one case), partly to have something to work towards and partly to realize that as much as I’ve done at the parks there’s so much more to do.

So what about you? What’s on your Disney bucket list?

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