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The Who, Where, When, What, and Why? An introduction to Utilidork and me Who am I ? My name is Justin. I am a former Walt Disney Wo...

Saturday, August 19, 2017

An EPCOT That Never Was
and Always Will Be — Part III

The World of EPCOT

This is part three of my D23 Epcot reaction. (I haven't decided whether I care enough to write about any other D23 announcements) In my first part, I discussed how sponsorship was a huge part of EPCOT Center's backbone, and shaped what the park became. Without financial assistance from corporations and governments, many of the pavilions we know now and knew then would be drastically different, and likely much smaller and less ambitious, than what we got. In Part II, we discussed the new plans for Future World, and touched on the effects of introducing intellectual properties to the park.  In this final part, we will be dealing specifically with World Showcase announcements, and how all of these ideas could come together.

As I mentioned in my Frozen blog a few years ago, World Showcase has always had trouble in the attraction department, in every sense of the word. One ride at opening, with only one more a few years later, a handful of movies, The American Adventure… and nothing more. From 1988 to now, no new rides or even movies have been added. The two rides there have been refurbished and re-themed, but even their infrastructures have gone essentially unchanged.

This is often a bone of contention with unknowing guests. If you're not interested in international shopping or dining, and thirty-year-old tourism movies do nothing for you, there's not a whole lot to do in World Showcase. The indirect result of this is that Future World is usually packed with people, even late into the day. Rides are what Disney refer to as "people-eaters". On a busy day, something like The Haunted Mansion can hold approximately 500 people at any given time. That's not even counting the people waiting in line who are therefore not cluttering the walkways.

For quite a while it has been rumored that Disney would be bringing the Ratatouille ride from Walt Disney Studios Paris to the France Pavilion at Epcot, a rumor that was confirmed at D23. Like any other proposed change to Epcot that does not directly involve a middle-aged man with a red beard and a purple tuxedo, this announcement has been met with mixed opinions. While I think most people are happy to have a new ride in World Showcase, especially one that actually fits in its native country (the film takes place in Paris), there are still those who believe — somewhat justly — that cartoon characters don't belong in the "realistic" environments of World Showcase. When the park first opened, excluding Disney characters was the rule.

Ratatouille: The Adventure façade and courtyard at Walt Disney Studios Paris park

But that didn't last long, and Disney's animated and fantasy properties have been appearing in World Showcase with increased prominence over the past few decades. Mickey and friends started showing up in various countries dressed in traditional clothes since the mid-to-late '80s. In the '90s, the princesses started showing up in their respective countries of origin. In 2006, El Rio del Tiempo in Mexico closed and reopened a few months later as Gran Fiesta Tour starring The Three Caballeros. Frozen Ever After replaced Maelstrom in 2016. Now we have Ratatouille moving in.

First of all, I don't believe it was the lack of Disney IPs that resulted in Rio's and Maelstrom's reduced attendance. The rides were old, slow, and noticeably cheap compared to the rest of Epcot. It is entirely possible that a major overhaul to both attractions could have drawn larger crowds, but as large as Frozen did? I don't know…

The advantage to using established characters and scenarios is that it makes communicating who and what the attraction is about a lot easier. Your average first-time Disney guest isn't going to know what a Figment, Dreamfinder, or Imagination Institute is, but they will more than likely recognize Nemo, Dory, and Crush. They can't tell you what a Spaceship Earth or a Universe of Energy is, but they can tell you all about the Circle of Life and how it moves us all. Even Mission: Space and its trip to Mars was meant to tie in with a Disney film that unfortunately ended up flopping both critically and commercially, Mission to Mars starring Gary Sinise (itself loosely based on the former Disneyland and Magic Kingdom attraction of the same name).


Frankly, I think it's past time we got over this hang up that EPCOT must be a sterile, strictly educational, magic-free environment. Some of that magic is important in helping people to learn. The same magic that made us believe a singing frog could overcome an existential crisis about what color he is, also made us believe that a movie theater could transport us back to the mesozoic era.

Perhaps it's the expansion of Walt Disney World, and Orlando in general, that has caused this rift. When the resort only had two parks and no competition, it was okay for one of them to be a drastic departure from the norm. Guests who came to Florida for Disney visited EPCOT Center regardless of whether it was "their thing". A week at Disney World left a lot of time and comparatively few options. A day or two at Magic Kingdom, a day at River Country or Treasure/Discovery Island, a day of shopping, resort exploration, water sports, or golf — if you're into any of that stuff — and, of course, a day at EPCOT Center.

Now, not only do guests have the choice between four Disney theme parks, a water park or two,  a score of resorts, a huge shopping district (plus a smaller one at the Boardwalk), golf, mini-golf, a full sports complex, and
seasonal special ticket events; but also (if they feel like venturing off of Disney property) two Universal parks, two newer water parks, Sea World, countless shopping plazas and two major malls, several themed dinner shows, and (as I mentioned in part one) both a WonderWorks and a Ripley's Believe It or Not. That's not even mentioning the various conventions, events, and exhibits in the city of Orlando itself. Having a full-day park that caters primarily to a minority of nostalgic and sentimental guests might sound great to us, but with such a wealth of other things to do, does not look good on the books. A half-full park is a waste of space and a drag on the budget.

Are we losing the spirit of EPCOT? I don't think so, but I also think it's a delicate balance to maintain. Keep too much the same, and you run the risk of alienating new guests, boring non-fanatic repeat guests, or letting the park stagnate thereby losing cultural and technological relevance, something that has already happened at least once in the park's history — arguably twice. Change too much, and EPCOT could lose its unique identity and become yet another homogenized Disney property, its primary purpose to sell toys, T-shirts, whatnots and doohickeys featuring Mickey Mouse, Marvel, or Star Wars characters.

Has Frozen ruined Epcot? Again, I don't think it has, but it opened the door for more IPs entering the park, and that could have either positive or negative results in the long-term. The last thing any longtime EPCOT fan wants to see is a fully overlayed park. Although, to be fair, Frozen Ever After was the biggest opening Epcot has seen in a decade, possibly longer. The Norway pavilion has undeniably seen a boost in visitation thanks to its Frozen ride (more so than Maelstrom had achieved in many years). So again, whatever puts butts in the seats.

What about the rest of World Showcase? What reason would guests have to visit these pavilions that offer little more than shops and a restaurant or two? If a ride based on a film set in Paris draws guests into the France Pavilion, that can only be a good thing, right?

In fact, I say bring on more Disney-themed rides! Blasphamy, you say? Hear me out.

What if at next D23, executives and Imagineers stepped out on stage and told you classic attractions such as Snow White's Scary Adventures and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride were coming back to Walt Disney World with new modern enhancements? That the Florida resort would finally get a version of Pinocchio's Daring Journey and Alice in Wonderland? That Tokyo DisneySea's incredible original attraction, Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, would find a home in the western hemisphere, and the proposed English version of Meet the World would finally have a place as well?

Here's the catch: they would all be built in Epcot.

And since each attraction has a suitable pavilion in World Showcase — Snow White in Germany, Pinocchio in Italy, Alice or Mr. Toad in the United Kingdom, Sindbad in Morocco (a bit of a stretch, but it is an African nation on the Mediterranean, so it still works… kinda… better than Aladdin does, at least) — you're not breaking the atmosphere or even the cultural relevance of the pavilion. There's still Canada to consider, but hey, Brother Bear was a thing, or they can just reshoot O Canada in seamless CircleVision like they're doing with Reflections of China. It's not like Canada has ever been without an attraction.

Not only have you brought several attractions (back) to Walt Disney World for relatively cheap (they've already been designed and built at least once, dramatically decreasing their initial cost), but now almost every World Showcase pavilion would have a people-eater, taking the weight off of Future World's abundance of rides, and shortening wait times across the board.

So do IPs belong in Epcot? Do Disney characters belong in World Showcase? I answer with a resounding "maybe". I don't see any harm in placing characters and IPs in the edutainment park, as long as they fit with their host pavilion. Fairy tales, fables, and legends are a big part of international culture, after all. I'm actually rooting for another refurb of the Mexico ride based on the upcoming Disney•Pixar film, Coco, because it deals directly with Mexican tradition and culture — more so than The Three Caballeros (as much as I'd hate to lose the Audio-Animatronics).

So in light of all of this speculation, will Guardians of the Galaxy or Ratatouille ruin Epcot? Not too likely. Disney and the Imagineers seem to be well aware of the delicate balance required to attract new guests without driving away too many of the old, devoted ones. But we must also be aware that we are a rare and dying breed. The EPCOT Center parents of 1982 are in their sixties and seventies now. Their kids (my generation) grew up in a completely different culture, and saw the emergence and prominence of entirely new forms of entertainment and education, as well as dozens of new theme parks and hands-on experiences. Our children have known nothing but these things. Their Epcot is today's Epcot. In a world of Wikipedia, they don't need a slow-moving non-interactive, multimedia attraction to teach them about new things.

But they might accidentally learn something from Star-Lord…

Monday, August 14, 2017

An EPCOT That Never Was
and Always Will Be — Part II:

The Future of EPCOT

PHOTO BY DisneyTouristBlog

In the first part, we took a look at the history of EPCOT, its attractions, their sponsors, and how it all affects the so-called "Spirit of EPCOT". So now we arrive at D23 2017, and the biggest announcements for Epcot's Future World have been a "blue sky" redesign of the overall layout, pathways, and the current Innoventions area; a refurbishment for the newest Future World attraction, Mission: Space; and a new Guardians of the Galaxy attraction to take the place of Ellen's Energy Adventure in the Universe of Energy pavilion.

But let's start first with the easy part: the "blue sky" proposal for a complete redesign of Future World. For those who don't know, a "blue sky" proposal is a concept of what could be possible without regards to budgetary, time, or labor restraints. It is the best of the best an Imagineer or team of Imagineers could possibly think of, but with the implication that it may be scaled back to fit more realistic parameters. Unfortunately, Disney have not released an official high resolution version of this concept art, so right now we only have a few enhanced photographs of the image projected on a screen onstage, but DisneyTouristBlog got a particularly nice shot with really good color and contrast, so we're going to use that.

The first thing I noticed was the complete absence of Innoventions Plaza. In fact, all of the buildings of Innoventions are gone, replaced by asymmetrical pathways around tree-filled patches of grass. It actually reminded me of an off-center re-creation of the old Magic Kingdom hub — which would be welcome, if you ask me. Of all the parks, Epcot has always suffered the most from having the least amount of shade from the oppressive Florida sun.

While the loss of the Innoventions buildings is a huge difference, I can't say it's a bad one. Innoventions hasn't seen major attendance since shortly after the Millennium Celebration. Much like the rest of Future World, Innoventions — and its predecessor, CommuniCore — has often had trouble maintaining sponsors and up-to-date attractions. And since the fireworks aren't viewable from the plaza, having a lot of trees around won't be a hindrance. In fact, having a more green, earthy setting will help make Epcot feel more like a city park along the lines of, say, Flushing Meadows or Walt's EPCOT.

The downside is the elimination of seemingly all of Future World's hands-on exhibits, a staple of the park since day one. It is difficult to tell what this would mean in the overall scheme of things. It is possible that Disney's plan is to keep just the ones that are relevant to pre-existing pavilions and relocating them there. Or they might do away with them altogether. Again, they never really were a huge draw. Though it would be a shame to lose them altogether. They were a feature that was unique to that park.

Also on this concept art was what appears to be several indoor and outdoor pavilions southeast of Journey into Imagination and north of World Showcase Lagoon. No details were given about these either, but it's speculated that they may be permanent locations for Epcot's growing number of annual festivals such as Food and Wine, Flower and Garden, and the new Festival of the Arts. The largest of these pavilions may also be used for premium viewing of IllumiNations.

Finally, a less discussed feature of this design is what appears to be a hedge maze between the Land and Imagination pavilions. Nothing else can be said about this except… well, look at it. There it is. It's right there. All hedgy and maze-like.

Another plan they announced was the refurbishment of Mission: Space, with new CGI for the Orange Team (spinning) version, and an all new, tamer experience for the Green Team (non-spinning) version. The Orange Team refurb is basic enough. Just improve the visuals with something that looks a little less like a GameCube game, and keep everything else the same.

The Green Team, formerly a "less-intense" version of the Orange Team experience, has been replaced by an in-orbit flight around planet Earth, a much tamer story for an already much tamer experience. Personally, I thought the original Green Team was done quite well, but hey, this gives me a reason to ride both next time.

At the same time, Disney announced a new space-themed table service restaurant for Future World. Although its exact location was not revealed, fans are already speculating the Wonders of Life pavilion as a likely candidate, with its semi-spherical domed shape being perfect for an all-enveloping projection effect, and its position right next door to Mission: Space tying the two pavilions together geographically as well as thematically.

Needless to say, the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction replacing Ellen's Energy Adventure has generated a vast majority of controversy. Having already seen pavilions like Imagination, the Seas, Norway, and arguably Transportation (Test Track 2.0 has a lot of presentational similarities with recent TRON entries) succumb to franchise-related re-themes, the idea of losing another EPCOT Center original to a decidedly non-EPCOT-compatible IP is disappointing, to say the least. Disney tried to soften the blow by revealing a (poorly) photoshopped image of a young Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, standing in front of Spaceship Earth, claiming that he visited EPCOT Center in the '80s, before his abduction.

They continued to talk about their determination to double down on the guiding principles of EPCOT, and create new experiences that will feel at home in the park — this statement was backed up on Twitter by Guardians director, James Gunn — creating a juxtaposition of ideas. On one hand, outside IPs in general tend to feel out of place in Epcot. On the other hand, it sounds to me like reassurance that the Marvel franchise will mostly be a Trojan horse for a new edutainment experience featuring more up-to-date characters, much like Bill Nye, Ellen DeGeneres, and Alex Trebek were in the '90s. Will using fictional characters instead of real-life celebrities help make the attraction more timeless? We shall see.

As of this writing, any of these details about this ride are mere speculation outside of the realm of Imagineers. It is entirely possible the new attraction will have nothing to do with energy or education, and will just be a themed thrill ride. Is that bad? Possibly, but not necessarily. Having a Marvel IP in the park, even if its ride is not educational, would still draw guests into the park; and while they're there, they will most likely still ride Spaceship Earth, Test Track, and (for some reason) Living with the Land. But will they enjoy them, or complain that there aren't more rides like Guardians? And if they don't enjoy the more informative attractions Epcot has to offer, who's to say they wouldn't have complained either way? Unfortunately, as I've mentioned in a previous post, Epcot has always had a hard time appealing to a wide enough audience to support itself and maintain its identity.

My biggest question about this decision is, if Disney are going to re-theme a Future World pavilion with a sci-fi franchise, why Universe of Energy and not… I don't know… Mission: Space?! I suppose attendance had everything to do with this decision. I'm sure I haven't waited in line for Universe of Energy since the mid-'90s. That's usually not a good sign for any attraction.

For now, I'm remaining cautiously optimistic (as always). Most of the changes made in the past decade or so have been positive, including the ones people originally complained about. Let's not forget that the attraction Guardians is replacing was actually a more entertaining and topical version of the very dry and informative ride that opened with the park. Guardians might turn out to be a good addition. At the very least, it should be a popular one. And if it does keep with the original spirit of EPCOT Center, even better. Regardless, Future World needs something new and exciting, and a twenty-plus-year-old, slow-moving, three-quarter-hour-long ride about energy, originally sponsored by a fossil fuel company and starring has-been celebrities from the '90s, does not fit those criteria.

I guess we'll know for sure in a few years.

Next, onward to World Showcase for my third and final part!

All images of concept art provided by Disney on their official website

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

An EPCOT That Never Was
and Always Will Be — Part I:

The Spirit of EPCOT

This will be the first in a three-part blog as a response to the 2017 D23 announcements for the future of Epcot. In this entry, I will be focusing primarily on the conception, application, and "spirit" of EPCOT. Disney Park fans are particularly protective about EPCOT. It was, after all, a passion project of Walt's, and the last thing he ever worked on.

For the purpose of clarity, I use three formats for the term "EPCOT":
  • EPCOT: refers to the proposed city, or the underlying concepts of the park from conception to opening
  • EPCOT Center: refers to the park and its attractions prior to its initial renaming as Epcot '94
  • Epcot: refers to the park and its attractions since the '94-'96 reimagining
Of course, as anyone educated in Disney history knows, Walt's EPCOT was not another theme park. It was a city — an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was a place where people would live, work, and play; where leaders in every major and up-and-coming industry could show off their latest concepts and products. It was the basis for everything the Florida Project was going to be. I will spare you all the details, suffice to say that you can watch a high-definition restoration of Walt's original promotional film on Retro WDW's YouTube channel here.

Needless to say, this version of EPCOT never happened. Walt died mere months after publicly announcing his plans for his futuristic city. When his brother Roy took up the reins of the Disney World Project, one of his first decisions was to postpone the building of EPCOT, and all its auxiliary facilities, until after the Magic Kingdom park was built, opened, and turned a sufficient profit, estimated to be about a decade later. Shortly after Roy opened Phase One of the newly renamed Walt Disney World, he retired. Unfortunately, like his younger brother, he died a few months later.

This left the of future EPCOT in the hands of the new President and later CEO of Walt Disney Productions, E. Cardon Walker, who decided that city planning and administrating was not something the Disney Company was prepared to do; and along with Walt's son-in-law and Walker's soon-to-be successor Ron Miller, altered the concept of EPCOT from a community to a park, the first "second gate" in theme park history. What did carry over, however, was Walt's idea of EPCOT being a showcase of technology and culture. Two separate park concepts, one revolving around the evolution and applications of technology in our lives, and the other around the people, history, culture, and art of foreign nations, were eventually combined into one park, taking inspiration from the Worlds Fairs of the past century.

They decided on an old concept known colloquially as "edutainment", wherein audiences are educated through a media that would usually be considered entertaining. Public television networks of the time were producing successful programs such as Mister Wizard's World, Mister Roger's Neighborhood, and Sesame Street under this premise. More recently, ABC produced a series of animated music videos that taught science, history, grammar, and multiplication to young Saturday morning viewers with Schoolhouse Rock!. Even Walt Disney himself had several successful "edutainment" productions with his True Life Adventure series of nature films, his animated shorts promoting the U.S. space program, and Disneyland attractions such as Rocket to the Moon, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and the "after-Disney", Monsanto-sponsored attraction, Adventures Thru Inner Space.

In fact, to get this park built and fill it with sufficient attractions, the struggling company needed financial help. Even before Inner Space, when Disney was developing some of his most famous attractions for the 1964-5 New York World's Fair, the financial assistance he received helped develop the technology that made attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, the WEDWay PeopleMover, and The Hall of Presidents possible (among countless others). For the new EPCOT park, every Future World attraction and every World Showcase pavilion was paid for, at least in part, by sponsors in its respective field or nation.

The reason sponsorship worked was a symbiotic relationship. Disney attractions are places a lot of people from all over the world want to visit. By sponsoring one (or more) of these pavilions, a company gets their name out to guests who may have otherwise been unaware of them. They also have an opportunity to show off their latest and up-and-coming products within the pavilion. In exchange, the company pays to help Disney design and build the pavilion. And since it is the sponsor's name and reputation on the attraction, and their money invested in it, they are permitted input in what the attraction is, and how the information is presented. Finally, Disney gets a pavilion at a subsidized cost to them, and they get to keep any ideas and characters and new technology that goes into it, even after sponsorship ends.

This is how the park ran for over a decade. Sponsors signed contracts promising they would pay a certain amount of money towards the production, operation, and maintenance of their pavilion for a predetermined amount of time, after which point they had the option to renew their contract if they wanted.

The first pavilion to lose its sponsor was The Land. Originally sponsored by Kraft Foods. Kraft was replaced by Nestlē the following day. Along with this change came major changes to attractions within. Kitchen Kabaret became Food Rocks, Listen to the Land became Living with the Land, and Symbiosis became Circle of Life, a similar film starring Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa from The Lion King.

The next sponsorless pavilion was the classic Omnimover attraction, Horizons. A little more than a year after General Electrics declined to renew their contract, the ride closed semi-permanently while Disney awaited a new sponsor and a new concept. (It temporarily reopened a year later as a placeholder while its neighboring pavilions were closed for lengthy refurbishments.)

Throughout the '90s, every Future World and World Showcase pavilion either changed sponsors, saw major refurbs requested by its sponsor, or lost sponsors entirely and either closed or operated out of Disney's own pocket. A decade later, the process repeated itself. Of the seven Future World pavilions from opening day, none are currently sponsored by their original company (although Test Track is sponsored by Chevrolet, a division of the transportation pavilion's original sponsor, General Motors). Most of the attractions have been completely replaced at the request of their sponsor, and three have closed completely due to lack or change of sponsor. As for World Showcase, most do not have a sponsor at all anymore.

The reason for Epcot's sponsorship woes are a culmination of cultural changes, not the least of which being the Internet. From the '60s to the '90s, Disney could use their worldwide recognition and appeal to attract sponsors looking for new and more diverse customers. When the World Wide Web opened to the public, businesses only needed a dot-com to get their message out to potential customers around the globe. Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars to scrape a little profit off of Disney's success, they can invest a fraction of that money into an Internet-based promotion that benefits them directly.

Modern-day Epcot faces another major hurdle besides sponsorship. As I previously mentioned, EPCOT Center was built on the concept of edutainment. When the park was conceptualized, the most prominent sources of education were schools, libraries, and museums. For education to be entertaining and child-friendly was still a novel concept.

Again, in the early-'80s, there was no Internet. Most households only had access to a handful of locally broadcast television channels: NBC, CBS, ABC, maybe a PBS network, and in rare cases a few public access or UHF stations. At-home options for edutainment were extremely limited. EPCOT Center was something most people had never experienced, and the tangibility of it was entirely new.

We now have literally hundreds of television channels, millions of websites, and almost every major city has a Ripley's Believe It or Not! or WonderWorks, or some other form of interactive museum. Adults seeking educational entertainment now only have to tune into The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, The Travel Channel, The Learning Channel, or any of their various spin-off networks. Sesame Street paved the way for countless children's edutainment programs, like 3-2-1 Contact, Square One TV, Beakman's World, Bill Nye: The Science Guy, Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer, and even Disney's own Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Between PBS, Nickelodeon, Disney, and several others, there are just as many network options for children.

Edutainment is everywhere. We have EPCOT Center, in part, to thank for that. But it is the ubiquity of edutainment in the media that has been slowly driving nails into Epcot's coffin since the mid-'90s. Whereas 30 years ago, EPCOT Center was the best place to learn with your family while still having fun, nowadays there are any number of ways to have the same experience at home. EPCOT as a concept is no longer unique.

To the Imagineers' credit, they have tried, and continue to try, to innovate new ways to engage the guests while remaining informative. There have been hits (Test Track, Ellen's Energy Adventure), and misses (Food Rocks, Journey into YOUR Imagination), and a few that maybe leaned a little more heavily on the "edu-" than the "-tainment" (Spaceship Earth, Living with the Land), and vice versa (Soarin', Mission: Space). But through the many years of refurbishments and replacements, everything has always managed to feel like EPCOT, even if only in part.

So what does all of this mean for the future of Epcot? That is what we will continue looking at in part two.