The Vacation Kingdom of the World: A Fresh Look at Future Worldby Tom Richards, contributing writer
Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center opened, for me, at exactly the right time. I was a high school student immersed in history, science, art, and English classes gearing up for college. As a result, the timeless themes of communication, our common humanity, and the premise of a future filled with promise for "tomorrow's child" influenced me in a profound way. As part of the "Epcot generation," I have always had a very special place in my heart for the EPCOT Center of my youth.
It makes sense, then, that I have resisted many of the "updates and improvements" made to the many classic Future World pavilions, specifically Spaceship Earth, The Universe of Energy, The World of Motion, The Living Seas, The Land, and Journey into Imagination. The original versions of these Imagineering classics far outshine anything that has come afterword; therefore, with a few exceptions, I tend to bypass the new versions of these attractions when I visit present-day Epcot.
During a recent visit to Epcot this March, however, I had the opportunity to experience many of these updated attractions for the first time in many years—mainly because by sons really wanted to visit them. I was glad I did. Even though I pine for the original versions, present day Future World has much more to offer than I thought.
My favorite Future World attraction, and one that sets the tone, the theme, and the meaning of Epcot, remains a meaningful experience, despite the alterations completed in 2007. The first version I experienced was the one with Walter Cronkite's iconic voice guiding riders through the marvelous historical tableaus created by the Imagineers who were at the top of their game. It also featured an original song, "Tomorrow's Child", which—accompanied by Walter Cronkite's memorable narration: "Ours is a time of unprecedented choice and opportunity, so let us explore and questions and understand. Let us learn from our past and meet the challenges of the future, let us go forth and fulfill our destiny on Spaceship Earth." These words created a meaningful and moving conclusion to EPCOT Center's signature attraction. Through the years, of course, the script, the scenes, the narrators, and even the sponsor of Spaceship Earth has changed.
Thankfully, the current experience is still a good one.
Most of the original historical scenes remain, some with improved movement, special effects, and artwork. The Egyptian scene and the scenes representing the Renaissance are particularly beautiful. Sadly, some of the narration is silly in its attempt at "technological humor" such as crediting the libraries of the Far East as "the first back-up system." At first, I really disliked the "choose your own adventure" approach to the ending of this iconic attraction. I missed the colorful lights and lasers, the model of Spaceship Earth apparently floating in space, and the time to reflect on the meaningful narration of the attraction's literate script. Experiencing the attraction with my children, however, changed my mind somewhat. They genuinely loved the historical tableaus—so much so that we had to "time travel" five times on our most recent visit. But they also giggled at the computer-generated images of themselves cavorting in a cartoon future.
On reflection, the "update" of Spaceship Earth seems to strike a fine balance between the original incarnation of the attraction and the changing attention spans of modern-day visitors.
The Universe of Energy
I refuse to call this attraction by its most recent name—Ellen's Energy Adventure—even though I didn't hate it as much this visit as I have in the past. We choose this attraction mainly due to my sons' interest in dinosaurs (and the fact that they saw footage of this attraction in its original form in our old "A Day at EPCOT Center" video cassette).
For readers who never experienced the original Universe of Energy, a little background might be in order. The original attraction began with a truly revolutionary film, a "kinetic mosaic" by Czech filmmaker Emil Radok, that examined the different types of energy. This was concluded with an original song, "Energy, You Make the World Go Round." This was followed by the first film in the theater seats, an amazing animated film using Disney's multi-plane camera that practically surrounded viewers with images of the prehistoric world of the dinosaurs. After the iconic visit to the audio-animatronic world of dinosaurs, guests viewed another film that concluded with a computer animated light show and another memorable original song, "The Universe of Energy."
In 1996, the attraction was transformed into its current incarnation: Ellen's Energy Adventure. In an attempt to make Epcot more entertainment-oriented, there was a movement to make attractions more "relevant" by adding celebrities and a more light-hearted approach to the weighty subject matter of some of the pavilions. Thus, Ellen Degeneres, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Alex Trebek, and Jamie Lee Curtis were added to the original Universe of Energy show. Gone was the kinetic preshow film with its innovative screen and presentation; gone were the original songs; gone was the jaw-dropping multi-plane animation of the primeval world. In their place, an often clever—but somewhat repetitive—comedy-adventure featuring Ellen's nightmare involving issues relate to energy, a college roommate, and the television game show Jeopardy.
After experiencing the attraction this summer, I still prefer the original for many, many reasons. Nonetheless, the current version is much more entertaining than I remembered. Ellen is likable and the humor is, for the most part, good. Still, the grandeur and drama of the moving theater and the journey through the time of the dinosaurs is diminished by the flippant, comedic tone of the proceeding film. The original ending, with its music, lasers, films, and information, was much more impressive. The excitement—at least for very young children—of entering the impressive, immersive, vast dinosaur world, was not diminished by the preceding films. The addition of a very poorly designed Ellen audio-animatronic, however, did take away from the dignity and authenticity of the primeval world. The "bones" of this classic attraction are so strong that it wouldn't take much for the Imagineers to restore the Universe of Energy to greatness.
The World of Motion/Test Track
I feel great conflict about this attraction. Why? I love Test Track, but I do so miss The World of Motion. I have always thought that both attractions could exist side by side: one offering thrills for a very focused demographic, one offering the simple pleasures of a classic "ride-through" attraction to guests of all ages. That, of course, didn't happen and probably never will.
The original World of Motion featured the largest "cast" of Disney audio-animatronic figures to date. Guests were transported through a whimsical history of transportation through a series of wonderfully realized vignettes depicting man's attempts at developing an efficient, reliable mode of transportation. The set pieces were charming and detailed; standouts included a countryside picnic (complete with huge share trees and picnicking squirrels) to full-scale locomotives and buffalo in the wild, wild west. Much of the charm was in the juxtaposition of "serious" narration and comical tableaus. Similar in style of the classic Goofy "how-to" cartoon shorts, The World of Motion's humor was based on the incongruity of the "factual" tone of the narration and the humorous visual images. This is one attraction that everyone in my family enjoyed, from my then five-year-old brother to my 65 year-old grandmother. I miss this classic and its adherence to Walt Disney's own dictum that Disneyland should be enjoyed by guests of all ages, and enjoyed together.
Test Track, of course, does not quite live up to this long-held Disney standard. That is not to say that it isn't an amazing attraction. It is wonderful, an attraction that I have enjoyed for years. Nonetheless, it was conceived for the thrill seekers, not necessarily for the entire family. It is a heck of a lot of fun. There's a sense of participation, a sense of watching "real" technological innovation that is infectious. Much like The Land and The Living Seas, Test Track invites guests behind-the-scenes to participate in the excitement of creation and experimentation. Visiting the newest incarnation of this Epcot classic, I was reminded of the spirit of EPCOT Center's early Future World—the celebration of American ingenuity and the exhilaration of experiencing the very best, the very latest offerings from some of America's most respected and most accomplished corporations. Spinning through, over, and around the original World of Motion building, I was reminded of the continuity of the EPCOT experience and of the plain old-fashioned fun of a thrilling ride combined with new surprises.
Overall, my time spent at several of Future World's reimagined attractions was time well spent. My children were captivated and interested, and I was able to relive—albeit in radically different form—some of those experiences that helped shape my own worldview.
Please join us in two weeks when we conclude our visit to Epcot's Future World, 2014.