Remembering the Universe of Energy

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

During its existence at Epcot, the Universe of Energy showcased two distinctly different experiences using the same theater and technology.

From its opening in October 1982 until its renovation in September 1996, the pavilion told a fairly serious and educational story about energy and the energy needs of the future. From its re-design in 1996 until its closing in 2017, the pavilion shared a more light-hearted story about energy centered on comedian Ellen DeGeneres' learning about the topic in a nightmare.

Disney hoped to capitalize on the popularity of DeGeneres, who was starring in the ABC sitcom Ellen (1994-1998), and even had a bookstore at Disney MGM Studios named Buy the Book, referencing the bookstore she operated on the show.

The new show for the attraction debuted September 15, 1996, as Ellen's Energy Crisis, but, within two weeks, tweaks were done to the show—including changing the name to Ellen's Energy Adventure—for the official grand opening on October 1, 1996.

When DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in 1997, both in real life and on her television show, it put Disney in an awkward position for a while because there was backlash against the performer and her appearance in the attraction.

"I think this show is by far the most complicated presentation we've ever done," said Tom Fitzgerald, executive vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering and executive producer of the show in 1996. "We have live action combined with computer-generated imagery. We have Audio-Animatronics dinosaurs. It's astonishing how many things we've put together into just this one show.

"A lot of what we did was based on thinking about what would be fun for the audience to see, he said. "For instance, we thought, 'How about if we're underwater and we have the Empire State Building under water with us to show how big an oil rig is?' Each scene has to have a little twist, a little surprise, a little magic or a little special effect that will make this subject fun and exciting for our guests."

Rather than a straight and somewhat wordy lecture about the topic of energy, like the original attraction, the new version was more humorous while still being factual. (Although those facts often became out-of-date as the years progressed and no new changes were made.)

Ellen falls asleep on her couch while watching the popular television game show Jeopardy. She dreams she is a contestant on the show and is pitted against her nemesis from college, Dr. Judy Peterson (actress Jamie Lee Curtis) and Dr. Albert Einstein. Despite internet rumors, the actor who played Albert Einstein in the film was not comedian Tim Conway, but actor Benny Wasserman who made his living as an Einstein impersonator.

All the categories in Ellen's nightmare game show deal with energy so, by the halfway point in the game, she is losing terribly. She calls upon her next door neighbor Bill Nye the Science Guy to give her (and the guests in the vehicle) a crash course about energy. Bill Nye the Science Guy was an award-winning educational television program (1993-1998) produced by Buena Vista Television and later released on DVDs by Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

Exxon ended its sponsorship of the Universe of Energy pavilion in 2004, but before that, Mickey and Goofy explored the attraction in this Disney-produced comic book.

The birth of the universe — in one minute — across three, 70mm screens, 157-feet wide by 32-feet tall was shown. Next, the theater separated into six, 97-passenger vehicles that traveled through the primeval dioramas.

After the dioramas, guests entered into another theater, where they viewed a dramatic motion picture on three screens, each 30-feet tall by 74-feet wide that curved to create a 200-degree range of vision. In Nye's Science Helicopter, Ellen learned about the world's present-day energy needs, resources, and concerns. She learns that brain power is the one energy source that will never run out.

"People can go anyplace and just see a movie," said Show Director Robert Ginty. "What we've done here is create what is truly a one-of-a-kind theme park experience that will not only entertain people but give them the feeling they've learned something as well."

"I think the way that most people want to learn is to be entertained," DeGeneres said. "You want to pay attention if it's fun."

"I was attracted to this project because it may help make people aware of how much energy we use in our society," Bill Nye said. "This show is big, it's cool and everything is done right."

At the D23 Expo in July, it was unexpectedly announced that the current show would close August 13, 2017, and the pavilion would be re-done to showcase a new attraction themed to the Marvel movie franchise of Guardians of the Galaxy. Part of the premise for including it in the park besides the fact that it should increase attendance is concept art showing that Peter Quill (aka Star Lord) actually visited Epcot as a kid.

One of the longest attractions in terms of time expenditure (the pre-show in the lobby ran roughly eight minutes followed by 37 minutes trapped in slow-moving vehicles), fewer and fewer guests were willing to invest that amount of their day, even though the air-conditioning provided a welcome break from the Orlando heat and humidity, and waits in lines for other attractions were just as long or longer.

The Exterior

According to a Disney press release from October 1982:

"The Universe of Energy experience begins with our first glimpse of the building's exterior. Its dynamic shape is itself an expression of energy. A wedge-shaped structure with the apex of its enormous triangle tilted toward the ground, it appears to be simultaneously rising out of the earth and driving into it.

"Warm bands of color, symbolic of radiating heat, alternate along its sides. As we approach we notice that this slanting roof glistens with a blanket of solar panels.

"The mammoth array of photovoltaic cells faces the sun, drawing in its energy and converting it into electrical current. This combination of the functional and the aesthetic is a subliminal statement of the pavilion's overall theme; that by exploring and developing alternative energy sources we can build an energy-bridge to a better tomorrow.

"As we near the apex, we notice a separate structure standing in front of the main building. Its mirrored surface reflects the images of rippling water from a pool below – the reflections seem to suggest energy in motion. Beyond the reflecting pool is the main entrance."

One of the original concepts for the pavilion was having nearby a solar dish and a parabolic shaped mirror that would concentrate sunlight into a superheated receptacle and then transfer that energy to the actual building.

Since a major part of the story was that photovoltaic cells on the roof, in the form of 2,156 solar panels, would help power the pavilion, in particular the theater vehicles, careful study was done in terms of the shape of the building, as well as its location in the park to best collect sunlight.

Imagineers tracked the sun as it moved over the property and determined that the 105,000 square foot structure should be anchored facing southward and tilted 30 degrees from the horizon. Starting at roughly 20 feet above the entrance to the pavilion, the roof slopes upward to a height of nearly 60 feet at the rear.

Across its width sat the array of photovoltaic cells and, at the time of its construction, it was the largest privately funded solar power installation in the world.

Each of the four-inch round silicon solar cells captured photon energy from sunlight and converted it to approximately one watt of electrical energy. Thirty-six individual cells were wired in series and housed in an aluminum framed module.

Almost 2,200 modules made up the photovoltaic array and together generated approximately 70,000 watts of direct current power. The power was fed through an inverter that converted it to alternating current, to the utility power grid and supplied enough power nearly equal to that used in the ride system.

The original exterior was painted in transitioning sections of deep red to orange to yellow, suggesting radiating energy. With the changes in 1996, the red to yellow motif was repainted a deep blue with rainbow pastel highlights.

Dinosaur topiaries were shipped to Epcot from New York's Rockefeller Center where they were once part of a Flower & Garden Festival and installed outside the entrance in 1996. The Brontosaurus topiary kept suffering damage from guests hanging from its neck and all the topiaries were removed in 2009.

When Exxon Mobil did not renew their sponsorship in 2004, all references to the company were removed. In 2009, the pavilion's basic original color scheme of yellow was restored.

Getting the Story Right

According to the press release for the original opening of the pavilion:

"The subject of energy is controversial. It is often perceived only as a big, unsolvable problem and, as such, is the source of much confusion, frustration and anger. In developing the show for Universe of Energy, we didn't want to sugar-coat or whitewash the issues, but examine the numerous factors that compose the world's energy picture and also explore viable energy systems for today and tomorrow."

In a 2007 interview, Imagineer Marty Sklar told me that "We had to go through 39 or 40 different scripts to get one that Exxon would approve. We had to get one that both our participant and our independent board of energy advisers, The Epcot Center Energy Advisory Committee, reviewed and approved."

For the record, The Epcot Energy Advisory Committee was composed of Dr. Richard E. Balzhiser (vice president of Research and Development for the Electric Power Research Institute), Joseph G. Gavin Jr. (president of the Grumman Corporation), Dr. Derrek P. Gregory (Building Service Research and Information Association), Wesley A. Khurt (senior vice president of Technology for the United Technologies Corporation), and Dr. Roland W. Schmitt (vice president of Corporate Research and Development for the General Electric Company Inc.)

With Exxon as the sponsor, the company wanted to focus more on fossil fuels with other alternative sources like nuclear, solar and wind power being relegated to still experimental possibilities unable to meet current energy needs.

Traveling Theater Cars

A unique form of ride vehicle was created (and later adapted for Disney MGM Studios' The Great Movie Ride and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror) with what were dubbed at the time "traveling theater cars."

The ride vehicles were 29-feet long by 18-feet wide and fully loaded weighed just a little more than 30,000 pounds. Each vehicle was designed to hold approximately 97 guests (as well as each having the capability of serving two guests in wheelchairs).

There were six individual cars providing the ability to handle up to 600 guest per show, but a total of 13 cars (two six-pack formations and one spare).

Each vehicle was driven by a single six horsepower electric motor powered by eight 12-volt lead-acid automotive batteries. These batteries recharged during the show while the theater cars were in their stationary formation on the huge turntables.

There were no mechanical connections for this recharging. The energy radiated through an airspace between the car and a specially designed inductive power coupling in the turntable floor.

Powerful electromagnets in the charging plates interacted with magnetic coils on the underside of each vehicle. These charging plates were partially powered by the solar cells on the roof. Disney advertised that guests were "riding on sunshine," although at best perhaps 15 percent of the power came from the cells.

The coupling was designed by a sub-contractor of WED and was silent and relatively maintenance free. It was so safe that someone could actually stand on it while it was in operation and not be injured.

The cars were guided by a wire, 1/8-inch thick that was embedded in the concrete floor and emitted a low level radio frequency. The vehicle was in constant communication with a computer that issued the speed, start, stop, and turn commands for the vehicle through the wire.

As a safety measure, there were benchmarks on the floor and as the vehicle passed over the benchmark, a signal was sent to the computer, which was constantly updating and compared the theater car's actual location with where the computer "knew" it should be at that time. This updating happened every 20 milliseconds. If a car failed to cross the proper benchmark at the proper time, the system was designed to automatically shut off.

The Universe of Energy Songs

"It dawned on us that there hadn't been a new song written for the parks since 1969, not since X Atencio wrote 'Grim Grinning Ghosts' for the Haunted Mansion and 'Yo Ho, Yo Ho' for the Pirates of the Caribbean," Imagineer Marty Sklar told me in 2007. "Thirteen years and no new songs and that needed to be rectified. So we immediately called the Shermans [legendary songwriters Dick and Bob Sherman] and told them to start writing songs for Epcot! They wrote some great stuff but with so many pavilions, they couldn't write everything.

"We brought in a young California songwriter named Bob Moline and took a chance," Sklar said. "He had made an impression when he had performed for a group of Disneyland executives during a private function. We had him write a jingle for Disneyland, It Could Only Happen at Disneyland, and the advertisement won a CLIO Award. He was performing at a bar in Newport Beach.

"His contribution to the sound of Epcot is often forgotten," Sklar said. "He wrote or co-wrote songs like Listen to the Land for the Land pavilion, Canada You're a Lifetime Journey for the Canada pavilion, Golden Dream for the American pavilion with Randy Bright and, of course, Energy You Make the World Go 'Round for the Universe of Energy that played during the pre-show and was sung by John Joyce. Academy Award winning songwriters Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn wrote the theme song Universe of Energy that was at the end of the attraction."

Moline died on December 11, 2011. Later in life, he worked primarily in religious music and it was rumored he had written a musical about Walt and his brother Roy that was never produced.

When the attraction was re-done in 1996, at the end, announcer Johnny Gilbert in the pseudo-Jeopardy show tells the audience, "Some contestants on Jeopardy will receive a year's supply of energy. Energy, you make the world go 'round."

Bruce Broughton did the score for Ellen's Energy Adventure.

The Dinosaur Diorama

The Sinclair Oil Corporation started in 1916 and its famous logo was a green dinosaur silhouette that was reminiscent of a brontosaurus, which helped popularize the correlation between the formation of petroleum deposits and dinosaurs, now a largely discredited misconception.

It is now agreed that more than 90 percent of oil came from trees and vegetation, although much of that was from the time period of when dinosaurs walked the earth.

In the Disney animated feature, Fantasia (1940), pterodactyls took flight while a herd of Brontosauruses quietly grazed in a lake. One of the most memorable scenes included a climactic battle between a Stegosaurus and a vicious, red-eyed Tyrannosaurus Rex that could never have happened, since those animals lived in different eras, but it was highly memorable and dramatic.

It was such an iconic scene that it became an integral part of both Disneyland Park and the Walt Disney World Resort.

Forty-six Audio-Animatronics dinosaurs that Disney had created for the Ford Motor Company's 1964-1965 World's Fair Pavilion were relocated to the West Coast and installed as a glimpse into what a Primeval World in the Grand Canyon may have looked like millions of years ago. The new addition debuted July 1966 as the grand finale of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad that circled the park, and can be seen between the Tomorrowland and Main Street train stations.

Once again, the climax was the battle between the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Stegosaurus in a bubbling lava filled environment.

The Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot offered a similar, but more elaborate, experience. The attraction presented a seven-minute journey through a scenic backdrop diorama surrounding a primeval forest. The diorama stretched 32-feet high by 515-feet across and took three artists nearly 6,000 hours to paint.

Of course, no pictures exist of such a location, so the Imagineers consulted well known paleontologists and paleo-botanists to learn as much as they could about the plants and animals of millions of years ago. Hundreds of books, publications, museum plates, exhibits, and fossils were reviewed. Imagineers even used research to try to approximate the actual sounds prehistoric creatures might have made.

However, this was not meant to be a museum, but an entertainment, so certain things were exaggerated and sometimes re-created larger than they probably were for dramatic effect.

The 36 dinosaurs were the largest Audio-Animatronics animals ever to be fabricated by Imagineering. They were so huge that they had to be placed in the pavilion building first and then the roof installed overhead. However, they were not as challenging as making a prehistoric tree. The forest is landscaped with 250 pre-historic trees that rise up to 40 feet overhead.

A lightweight foamed plastic, similar to the cellulose structure of the plants' woody pulp, was used to capture the tensile and compressive characteristics of a real tree that would "sway with the breeze." The plastics used to fabricate the trees were actually made from the fossil fuels created by the real trees of pre-history.

Fog filled the warm room, along with swampy smells made by WED Smellitzers. The first creatures you see include a giant millipede and an edaphosaurus. The biggest dinosaurs in the swamp are a herd of brontosauruses lazily munching water plants.

Duck-billed trachodons are seen bathing in a pool of water. A number of Ornithomimus watch helpless as one of their own sinks into a boiling tar pit. Numerous Pteranodons perch menacingly on cliffs and rocks.

And, of course, on an overhead cliff, a Stegosaurus fights another dinosaur that was reconfigured to be the more historically accurate Allosaurus.

On September 15, 1996, after a rehab, Universe of Energy reopened, but because of the latest research that indicated that dinosaurs were more like birds than lizards, the Audio-Animatronics creatures were given new skins and repainted brighter with more stripes and other markings.

They were no longer simple variations of deep green, brown and grayish, but almost florescent in shades of orange and blue. The dinosaur sound effects were redone as well.

A water misting effect of the overhanging Brontosaurus sneezing was added, since a similar gag with an oversized dog proved so popular in Honey, I Shrunk the Audience that opened in 1994. The Ornithomimus in the pool was also given a water effect to spit at guests in the vehicles.

The flora was rehabbed, as well, with new foliage added throughout the diorama to make it look greener, lusher and less rocky. The smellitizers were deactivated during the renovation.

The Elasmosaurus and the Ellen Audio-Animatronics figure (supposedly a re-used figure from the World of Motion pavilion that had closed January 1996, which is why it did not look much like the performer), along with the accompanying audio track, were removed sometime around 2014 and never replaced.



  1. By Els Withers

    A nice touch was that the Stegosaurus/Allosaurus confrontation is modeled on that from the 1964 Ford Motor Pavilion (which in turn took inspiration perhaps from Fantasia?)

    Epcot needs dinosaurs. This is a serious problem.

  2. By danyoung

    One of my favorite features of the original show was the wall of rotating segments and the movie projected on them. Jim, do you have any info on this?

  3. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    One of my favorite features of the original show was the wall of rotating segments and the movie projected on them. Jim, do you have any info on this?

    Dan, thank you for always commenting. Sometimes I have an answer for your questions. Fortunately, this time I do know a little. All of this was removed in the 1996 rehab.

    The eight minutes of the kinetic multi-image pre-show employed five 35mm projectors that cast rapidly moving images onto a 90 by 14 foot "magical" projection screen. The screen was made up of 100 separate three-sided segments. Each segment could rotate independently or in conjunction with the others, revealing a black side, a reflective side or a projection surface. Their movements were controlled by a micro-processor that runs in sync with the projected film.

    The effect transforms the projected two-dimensional images into a three-dimensional "energized" mosaic. (Yes, that is what Disney called it, an energized mosaic.)

    Emil Radok (a lauded Czechoslovakian filmmaker) designed the long magical screen above the queue area The eight minutes of imagery served as an "Energy Primer" to introduce the story of energy. It bean with designs representing the elemental forms of energy: atoms and crystals whirling around the screen. (Never trust an atom. They make up everything.) Then galaxies form, lightning bolts flash, life begins, humankind appears on the screen. Then from primitive man to modern man the show, techniques were shown that man used to control energy.

    At the end of the presentation, we are reminded that eventually fossil fuels will not satisfy the world's growing energy demands but will still be important. However, it is only by understanding the many "faces" of energy (represented by those 100 little screens that we can build a more secure energy future.

    Whew! I really need to get a girlfriend or a life. Oh, by the way, in reference to your question last week, no that blank gun did not trigger the "shattering" of the light so the vehicle could proceed.

  4. By danyoung

    Thanks for the info - I LOVED that pre-show! And as to the gun in the GMR, if it didn't trigger the shattering light, what did?

  5. By ralfrick

    With all due respect to the late Mary Sklar, wasn't "The Best Time Of Your Life" specifically written for the Carousel of Progress in the MK years before Epcot opened?

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