Past, Present, and Future World

My wife, after I took her to EPCOT for the first time, remarked that she found the park to be a bit boring. She thought that a few of the attractions were cool, and she definitely didn’t hate the park, but for the most part she just wasn’t thrilled by the whole experience. I had built it up to be so much and, to her, the reality just didn’t match the hype.

I was surprised by this, and a bit disappointed. I assumed that she (and everybody) would obviously feel the same way that I do. But when I stepped back and looked at it a bit more objectively, I realized something. The park that I get so excited about… just doesn’t exist anymore.

Spaceship Earth at night 2

Future World, with Spaceship Earth towering over the entrance, looks like something out of a science fiction novel. Which was, and still is, pretty cool for someone fascinated by the future.

If you talk to me about Walt Disney World (or really, about anything) I will eventually mention Horizons, which I rank as one of my all-time favorite attractions. This slow dark ride was a tour of the future, or at least a possible one. A pair of narrators “from the future” were the guides, and after they brought riders through visions of the future as seen from the past–from Jules Verne’s space capsule to a Jetsons-esque view from the fifties–they showed people living in underwater cities, on space stations, in a terraformed desert, and a high-tech metropolis. It was tied together with a loose story, as various members of the narrators’ family lived in these different places (and there were some nods to Magic Kingdom’s classic Carousel of Progress ride) but the real focus was the ideas presented about what things could be like in the not-too-distant future.

At the end, a panel lit up in the ride vehicle with a touch screen (really cool tech in the days before tablets and smartphones) which offered one of three options: desert, space, and underwater. Once the decision was made you saw a short video showcasing your choice, making the ending of the ride somewhat interactive.

To a kid fascinated by the future, seeing things like robot butlers and holographic televisions become (animatronic) reality in Horizons was amazing. It made a big impression on me, one that’s lasted into adulthood. I’ve actually watched ride-through videos of Horizons now and again throughout the last few years, and some of the future technology it showed back then may be seriously dated now, but many of the concepts it presented–like cities under the sea or residential space stations–are still exciting possibilities.

EPCOT Center wasn’t just a world of the future. World of Motion, another dark ride, took guests through the history of transportation. From foot power to chariots, from bicycles to space travel, World of Motion was a look at how people throughout the ages got where they were going. I love learning, and I’ve always enjoyed edutainment, so getting a history lesson with a bit of Disney magic and humor–like an animatronic motorcycle cop watching the ride vehicles as they passed to catch speeders–was (and still is) right up my alley.

World of Motion ended with a message about what possibilities may be yet to come, and after the ride there was an area with cool futuristic looking concept cars. As an adult, I can look back and realize that this was mostly a showcase for General Motors (the ride’s sponsor) but seeing life-sized models of futuristic cars is cool no matter who’s trying to advertise or how old you are.

Then there was the realm of imagination, the bizarre romp known as Journey Into Imagination. Led by the Dreamfinder and his little dragon pal Figment, characters created specifically for EPCOT Center, it was weird and fun and really struck a chord with this particularly (over) imaginative kid. The underlying point, of course, was that imagination is the spark that can lead to amazing ideas.

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I miss Dreamfinder, and I’m sad that he’s no longer a part of the EPCOT experience. He was a cheerful man with a dragon companion, and he was a “grown-up” who encouraged creativity instead of trying to stifle it. That was pretty special to a hyper-imaginative kid like me.

In the Land pavilion, there was real science presented on the Living with the Land boat ride: greenhouses that demonstrated a variety of cutting-edge growing techniques. There was Living Seas with its massive aquarium and learning opportunities about undersea life. Spaceship Earth, a ride inside the giant ball, offers a look at the past, present, and future of communication. And it was inside the giant ball! That’s still cool to a forty-one-year-old man, and it was mind-blowing when I was a child. Then there was the Universe of Energy which… well, to be honest, once the ride got past the dinosaur scene I usually took a nap during the half-hour long renewable energy video in that one.

What you have to understand is that I was a nerdy kid who loved science fiction and dreamed of flying a rocket ship into outer space. I wanted to live in the future with robots and moon colonies (really, not much has changed since then, except for the “kid” part). And in addition to those futuristic visions I’ve always been excited by the concepts that will get us there. So to say that Future World made a big impression on me when I was growing up is a pretty big understatement.

EPCOT Center wasn’t just Future World, of course, but also World Showcase. I have fond memories of walking through World Showcase with my family, shopping and eating and checking out the entertainment. I wanted to travel and see the world, and EPCOT Center offered a way to sort of do that. While that side of the park may not have had robots or flying cars, it was still fun to wander through.

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I’ve always loved the Mexico pavilion in particular. I just think that it’s the most immersive of the World Showcase countries (and the original El Rio del Tiempo boat ride was kind of fun).

EPCOT, in its later iterations, just isn’t the same to me. Gone are the inspiring looks at possible futures or entertaining educational experiences about the past, and with them (as far as I’m concerned) went the point of the entire park. Walking through Future World and the World Showcase still evokes a powerful nostalgia in me, but the reality is that when I step back from those feelings and take a hard look at the park itself I only see a shadow of what it was.

Spaceship Earth still stands at the entrance, and it’s still a sight that’s as special to me as seeing Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom. I’m still in awe of the giant sphere, just as I was when it was even bigger (or, more accurately, I was a lot smaller). The ride is still more or less what I remember, too, with its look at the history of communication and an uplifting message about where the future could lead. Sure, that futuristic ending is generally obsolete soon after they update it, but the experience itself is still the closest thing left to an original EPCOT Center attraction. The Land pavilion is still there, and its boat ride is basically the same as it’s always been (and the food court-like dining area is, admittedly, much improved). The Seas with Nemo and Friends–formerly the Living Seas–is largely unchanged in the sense that it’s still a giant aquarium. The addition of the interactive show Turtle Talk with Crush actually improved the attraction, though I do miss the “elevators” that took guests down to Seabase Alpha. Universe of Energy, now Ellen’s Energy Adventure, is… well, that’s still there too.

With the addition of some more thrilling rides, like Mission: SPACE and Test Track, Disney has hoped to lure guests into the EPCOT park. The truth is, my wife isn’t the only one who found it boring, and in fact the park has struggled to find an audience ever since its opening in 1982. People were turned off by the educational slant, or the perceived lack of whimsy and magic, or meet and greets with robots instead of with Mickey Mouse, or whatever, and that’s one of the driving reasons behind the multiple revisions and renovations the park has seen over the years.

Don’t get me wrong, some of these ‘newer’ attractions are really cool. Test Track is exciting, and the new “build your own car” thing at the beginning and end adds a bit of interactivity to the experience. Mission: SPACE is probably the closest I’ll ever get to piloting a spaceship, and the way they make the whole thing a hands-on simulation of flying to Mars is simply amazing. Honestly, it’s probably my favorite of the “new” EPCOT experiences (though, for the record, I’m talking about the less intense “green” side here. The “orange” option was a bit too much for me). And Soarin’ is simply breathtaking. The way it captures the sense of flying is pure Disney magic.

Mission Space sign

Mission: SPACE offers a surprisingly intense and somewhat realistic space flight experience, which is a far cry from the videos presented in Horizons. It’s not a bad ride by any means, and really its only sin is replacing one of my favorites.

There have been a few missteps, though, in the quest to update EPCOT for a modern audience. The current Journey Into Imagination isn’t nearly as fun as its predecessor–in adding in the “science lab” storyline they actually managed to take out the whimsical soul that made the original so special. Innoventions used to be a bustling showcase of new technology, and now what’s left of it is just quiet and kind of uninteresting. Plus, the removal of Maelstrom (in the Norway pavilion) to make way for a Frozen-themed ride is upsetting and I think sets a dangerous precedent for the future of the World Showcase. You can read my detailed thoughts on that here.

World Showcase hasn’t changed that much overall, but I suppose my view of it has. As a kid who yearned to see the world it was pretty neat, but as an adult it’s surprisingly lackluster (nostalgia and fond memories notwithstanding). Browsing the shops is kind of fun, but we’re not big shoppers so it only holds our attention for so long. There are some great restaurants, but you can only really eat at so many on one trip. So we meander through the countries once, and then we’re done. There are some cool things to see and do, but the fact is that in this day and age if you want to learn about other countries you can just go online and get a wealth of information and media, so the unique aspect of “experiencing” another country isn’t so unique when you can easily do it from anywhere.

Agent P handset

One thing that’s made World Showcase more interesting is the fairly new Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure. The interactive game really encourages exploration around the pavilions.

I’m not saying that the modern-day park is a bad place to spend a day. But when I visit EPCOT, the fact is that I still want it to be EPCOT Center. Mission: SPACE is really cool, but I still think of it as “the ride that replaced Horizons”. Test Track, particularly the new version, is great, but I fondly recall when World of Motion occupied that same spot. EPCOT Center was a park about the future, about science, and about other cultures, and now it’s really just a park with some neat rides. The spirit of EPCOT Center, with its enthusiastic look towards tomorrow, has been dampened as Disney tried to turn the park into something else.

EPCOT Center was inspiring to me as a child, and while many of the new experiences in the modern park may be a lot of fun they just fail to spark that same sense of wonder. They may be thrilling, but they don’t evoke enthusiasm about the future. They don’t show guests a world of possibilities, visions of tomorrow that captured the imagination of a young future blogger.

So I sort of get what my wife means when she calls EPCOT boring. It’s a loose collection of a few neat rides, and nothing more. I still love the park dearly, and will continue to go there at any opportunity. But nowadays I’m not so much looking to the future, but rather living in the past.

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EPCOT, the park, has always been very different from Walt Disney’s original concept for an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. But it still, at least for a time, retained the spirit of his unbridled optimism for the future. I’m not sure that it does anymore.

 

 

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One Response to Past, Present, and Future World

  1. Pingback: Future World | Magic & Misadventures

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