Robert's Tour, Part Eight -- Epcot
Disney shows that it still knows how to tell a great interactive story in the world's leading non-fiction theme park.
Written by Robert Niles
Lake Buena Vista, Florida -- Walt Disney World's Epcot provides a unique experience as the world's most popular non-fiction theme park. This park finds its inspiration not from animated musicals, but from human exploration -- of science, of history, of the world around us.Tweet
That doesn't mean Epcot lacks for drama and narrative. Indeed, nonfiction tales provide some mankind's most enduring tales. As a journalist, I'm personally well aware of the drama that springs from human beings' actions, as well as their imaginations.
The park's newest attraction, Mission: Space illustrates how powerfully a non-fiction story can be told in a theme park environment. Ostensibly set in the future, Mission: Space provides a realistic simulation of contemporary spaceflight training. Visitors board centrifuges made up to look like spaceship flight decks. Watching a computer animated screen inches from their noses, riders experience the powerful G forces of a rocket launch, followed by the zero gravity of outer space, as they make their way on a simulated mission to Mars.
Of course, such an awesome endeavor cannot happen without conflict. Asteroids and a rough landing bar a smooth arrival. And riders must overcome conflict with their own fears, as Disney provides some of the most intimidating pre-show warning spiels in the industry before this, literally, stomach-churning adventure.
Riders who stay, and closely follow the ride's instructions, are rewarded with one of the more exhilarating experiences in any theme park. Some coasters might provide faster thrills and stronger Gs, but spaceflight is the ultimate human adventure. By working to create such a realistic environment, Disney taps into the powerful human emotions of wonder and pride that people feel toward the space program. Those emotions, coupled with intense physical sensations of launch and space flight, deliver a compelling and unforgettable thrill.
Yet not every attempt at telling a non-fiction story works so well. Epcot's Test Track provides an interesting and somewhat credible glimpse inside an automobile testing facility. Visitors board ride vehicles made up to look like convertible sports cars for a trip through several obstacles designed to test their car's handling, braking and stability. It's all mildly interesting, but never delivers the thrills promised by the ironically hilarious videos of crash tests shown throughout the ride's queues. When riders finally arrive at the crash test, when they face the dummies' fate themselves, there's no music, no narration, not even a pause, to build the drama of the moment.
Even when riders burst through the wall of the crash test, and find themselves flying around banked curves of a high-speed track, they ride silently, with only the sound of wind to fill their ears. There's a reason GM (Test Track's sponsor) blasts Led Zeppelin in its Caddy commercials. While space flight might be the ultimate human thrill, flooring the accelerator on a wide-open highway is the ultimate *attainable* thrill for most people. And who wouldn't want to crank up the stereo while doing it?
The lack of a soundtrack on Test Track's final drive is only the ride's most obvious shortcoming. Throughout the ride, the attraction simply feels too... corporate. Sure, it's supposed to be an automobile testing facility. But you can't tell me that GM's designers don't constantly struggle with the inherent conflict between providing safety and thrills. Why not make that the drama powering this attraction? Give us a couple characters, an ego putting us through the various tests and an id wanting to crank the stereo and floor it. Have them go back and forth through the ride, and when we break through the crash test wall, the id can tell us we've passed all these tests, so it's time for a ride. Blast the Zeppelin and go!
Author Jon Franklin proposes that great non-fiction stories can be reduced to conflict and resolution. Test Track needs some of that to drive a narrative while Disney's "GM engineers" drive our cars around the track. Perhaps some fuddy-duddy GM lawyer didn't want to depict any conflict behind GM's design process. Whatever. Take a ride in a 'Slade with the stereo cranked and lighten up, dude.
Some potential visitors might balk at the non-fiction theme behind Epcot and think the park too boring to justify a visit. They'd be wrong. Unfortunately, some soul-deficient Disney executives seem to have also bought into the idea that science, history and technology can't entertain. That's why they've tramped up the park with ill-conceived attempts to enliven it.
Witness Mickey's hand. The initial design of Epcot provided the most compelling architectural statement ever made in a theme park. (Okay, the competition there's lighter than Paris Hilton, but still...) Spaceship Earth, a geospheric representation of mankind's celestial home, dominated the entry plaza. Pass beneath it, and we witness a symbolic depiction of human thought, with pavilions devoted to science and mechanics to the left, with those paying tribute to imagination and the spirits of land and sea to the right. Beyond them lies the world as manifested by those human endeavors, with pavilions devoted to nations of the world.
But in 1999, Disney corrupted this vision by installing a giant sorcerer's wand, held by Mickey Mouse's hand, to stand over Spaceship Earth. The monument diminishes the geosphere, reducing its visual impact and scuttling the metaphorical procession of Earth, mankind and the culture mankind created. Worse, if one holds on to that metaphor, one is left with an image of Mickey as the creator of this Earth and, therefore, all Mankind. Mickey is God.
I'm sorry, I like Mickey Mouse and all, but I am not willing to accept him as my Lord and Creator. Perhaps few Epcot visitors take the time to think through the implications of having that giant hand waving over Spaceship Earth. But many people do understand the symbolism on a subconscious level. And perhaps that's why so many people have reacted with such visceral hatred toward the wand.
Disney demonstrated its employees' great artistic talent, and ambition, in developing a non-fiction theme park. And attractions like Mission: Space show that some within the company remain capable of telling non-fiction stories in powerfully dramatic fashion. If only the company would trust them to do that, and stop undercutting their efforts with foolish appeals to visitors who would rather visit the Magic Kingdom anyway.
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