If you’re at all familiar with my work–either here on the blog or on my various social media outlets–you may have noticed that I bring up Journey Into Imagination a lot. It’s been a favorite attraction of mine since I was a wide-eyed wee lad, after all, so it makes sense that I’d talk about it a bunch. However, according to this informative statistic (that I just totally made up), 93.6% of the time when I do mention “Journey Into Imagination” I tend to also add the descriptor “a shadow of its former self”.
Why, if I love the ride, do I also badmouth it so much? Why do so many other fans do the same? Why does a classic attraction that seems to garner so much affection on social media also seem to have an equal amount of negativity aimed at it, and often from the same people? The answer is pretty complicated.
Wait, no. Sorry. It’s not. The answer is actually pretty simple: the original version of the ride was incredible, and the later iterations have just kind of… sucked.
OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I do think that it’s fair to say that the current attraction is not good. The sad part is that it very much used to be.
For those of you who never got to see the original attraction, you missed out on a very special ride full of whimsy and magic. It’s not hard to find ride-through videos online if you want to see it, and I suppose that’s better than nothing, but those don’t really hold a candle to the actual experience. Aside from the fact that home video from that era isn’t very high quality, it’s just hard to get a feel for it all by watching it on a screen. To really understand it you’d have to have been immersed in its unique weirdness, surrounded by the cacophony of color and sound that was Journey Into Imagination. If time travel is an option for you, I’d highly recommend hopping back to check it out (and while you’re there, of course, ride Horizons).
The original ride centered around Dreamfinder and Figment, two wonderful characters created for the EPCOT Center park back when classic Disney characters like Mickey and Donald weren’t yet invited to the party. Dreamfinder was a big, cheerful fellow with a bushy beard and a top hat. Figment was his companion, a purple-and-orange dragon full of childlike wonder. Above and beyond the attraction, too, they were both a major part of the park for a while–there were walkaround characters for meeting and greeting, and they also had big roles in the advertising and merchandise. (Side note: If you want to read a great memoir from one of the original Dreamfinders, check out Ron Schneider’s book From Dreamer to Dreamfinder).
On the ride, Dreamfinder–aboard his fantastic blimp–welcomed guests and introduced them to his companion, Figment. They started out by catching imaginative ideas via the blimp’s weird vacuum hose thing, then we all headed to the Dream Port to drop them off. From there riders were taken on a journey through scenes of music and writing, theatre and science, cinema and nature, and so much more. There were animatronic characters, there was singing, there were lights and lasers. As Dreamfinder gleefully took us all on this trip, Figment played parts ranging from a painter to an astronaut. The attraction was a love letter to creativity, a colorful and bizarre experience that was very (very) odd, but that showcased one simple concept: use your imagination and who knows where it could lead you. Throughout it all played One Little Spark, a song written by the Sherman Brothers, which was a catchy tune on par with some of the finest Disney attraction songs out there. The ride was at times nonsensical, but a message about the power of imagination was woven through it all.
After the ride was done, the experience wasn’t quite over yet. Next up was the ImageWorks, a playground of fun interactive activities. Giant kaleidoscopes, a floor that played music as you stepped on colored tiles, a neon rainbow tunnel that changed color as you walked through it… it was total sensory overload, but it was a lot of fun and a great way to burn off some energy. They do have a newer version of this at the end of the current attraction, but like the ride itself it’s just not nearly as neat as the original. Plus, the maintenance of late seems to leave a lot to be desired–at least when I’ve been in there it always appears that several of the stations are broken.
For a child like me, who was bursting with imagination and creativity but often without a suitable outlet for it (I was a weird kid, which I’m sure you’re shocked to hear), the ride’s message was important and much needed. Not that I didn’t love the other EPCOT attractions, but they were inspiring and entertaining in a very different way. While others more or less showcased reality–the history of a topic or possibilities of the future–Journey Into Imagination’s crazy romp let you take a break from it.
So what happened? How did we go from “ZOMG this ride is amazing” to “this ride kind of sucks”?
The original version of the ride ran from 1983 to 1998, then closed for a major renovation and reopened in 1999 as Journey Into YOUR Imagination (the all caps thing was a part of the title). Dreamfinder was gone, Figment was reduced to a couple of quick cameos, and the entire theme was now very different. Rather than a whimsical trip through the imagination, guests now went on a tour of the “Imagination Institute”. Dr. Nigel Channing (played by Eric Idle) was the new host of the ride, and he brought riders through different “imagination labs” to try and encourage them to imagine. The whole experience was pretty bad; instead of being an adventure of imagination like the first ride, the new version just tries to turn it into a pseudo-scientific explanation about being imaginative. It didn’t work, and its lack of popularity amongst guests forced another renovation just two years later in 2001. The latest iteration (which is the one currently running) opened in 2002, still featuring Nigel Channing and his Imagination Institute but it also put Figment back into a major role.
The problem is, though, the ride still isn’t very good. The Imagination Institute segments are lame (one could say that they… lack imagination). Nigel Channing, Dreamfinder’s replacement, is just a bumbling foil for Figment’s antics and is quite frankly missing the intelligence and heart (and beard) of his predecessor. Figment himself has gone from an excited child-like creature to a troublemaker whose attempts to “teach” Nigel Channing about imagination just come off as somewhat obnoxious. The whole thing doesn’t have the whimsical voice of the original. In turning what was once a joyful and weird journey through imagination into an attempt at giving it all a “scientific” slant, it manages to remove the soul of the attraction in the process.
To further hammer the point home, let’s think of it this way: imagine seeing Star Wars and just falling in love with the characters and the story and everything, and having it capture your imagination in a way that leaves a lasting impression on you. Then, years later, you go to a theater to excitedly see what you think is a new Star Wars movie and… it ends up being the Holiday Special. Sure, it has Luke Skywalker and Wookiees and all that, so I guess it’s still technically Star Wars, but it’s also several different shades of terrible. That’s kind of like seeing the original Journey Into Imagination and then going back to the park and seeing the latest version. Plus, if your first entry into Star Wars was seeing the Holiday Special, you’d likely wonder what all of those fans of the larger franchise keep going on about. Like people such as my wife, who only knows the current Journey Into Imagination and therefore doesn’t have the nostalgia factor that I do. To make matters worse, imagine if the Holiday Special was now the only version of Star Wars you can watch from now on. Ugh. Just thinking of that makes me shudder. I think I’m done with this analogy now.
I still ride Journey Into Imagination whenever I’m at the park, much to my wife’s dismay. I still love Figment, and I’m very happy to see that he’s gotten a new role as a spokesdragon for the various EPCOT festivals, but even I have to admit that at this point I’m just trying to hold onto the memory of something that doesn’t exist anymore.
So what could be done to make Journey Into Imagination an attraction worth seeing again? Well, tapping into the magic that made the first one so special would be a good start. There was a wonder about that experience, though maybe it was lightning in a bottle that just can’t be caught again. Getting away from the laboratory thing would help, as it turns imagination into a science experiment rather than pure creativity and it fundamentally changes the theme. Obviously, too, I think that bringing back Dreamfinder and the better version of Figment would be a big step in the right direction. However, I also (sadly) get that this is probably never going to happen. There were whispers a while back about making Dreamfinder a meet & greet character again, though there’s been no indication that it was anything more than rumors. Plus, while it would be super cool for us old fans, without any sort of other context I wonder if anybody else would actually care. It is great to see Figment being used more these days as a part of the various festivals that are happening at the park, though, and I’d love to see them develop that further and bring him back into a starring role.
Realistically, however, here’s a more likely scenario: Disney keeps letting this area fall apart for a while longer, ensuring that guests continue to abandon it, then they announce a big renovation project. It removes all of these cool classic bits (and likely adds in a popular IP) as a part of their big EPCOT overhaul, then they pat themselves on the back for making something shiny and new rather than polishing up the beloved thing that was already there. Or maybe that’s just me being cynical?
Maybe it’s a bit silly to get this worked up over changes to a theme park ride, but that only speaks to the lasting impression that Journey Into Imagination had on people like me. It was a special experience that, whether intentional or not, Disney simply hasn’t been able to replicate in its subsequent iterations. At this point I’d almost rather it be completely replaced with something new rather than continue on in its current form, which is a hard truth for me to accept. There have been rumors for years about it being replaced with an Inside Out attraction, though that has never materialized into reality. Personally, though, if they were going to change it into an IP-driven experience, I’d much rather that they go with Meet the Robinsons, as that (excellent) film is much closer to sharing the heart and vibe of the original attraction.
Whether Disney tries again with another iteration of Journey Into Imagination, or completely scraps it all for something new, remains to be seen. However, there are those of us who will keep holding onto the special memories of what came before. Some, like myself, continue to ride the new version in the hopes of recapturing just a bit of that whimsical magic. Even though it’s just a shadow of its former self.