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.

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Published: July 24, 2004 at 8:24 AM

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.

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.

  • Read the rest of the articles from Robert Niles' Summer 2004 Theme Park Tour

  • Readers' Opinions

    From Robert Niles on July 24, 2004 at 6:59 PM
    To throw in a few "trip report"-like comments, Laurie and I were joined by none other than TPI's own Joe Lane for part of our visit to Epcot, marking the first time I've actually met someone from the board in a park.

    Joe joined us after Laurie and I had ridden Mission: Space and Test Track. (FWIW, we used the single rider lines on both, waiting 10 minutes each, when the stand-by lines ran over 45 minutes. Unless you have a kid who needs the comfort of sitting next to you, there's no good reason *not* to use the single rider line for Mission: Space. The ride's layout makes it a very individual experience, one in which you physically can't look over at the folks next to you.)

    The three of us watched Impressions de France before having dinner at the Restaurant Marrakesh. I'd written about Impressions last week, comparing it favorably to the film for Soarin' Over California. But my memory did not do Impressions justice. This is a beautiful film, visually and musically, shot with a keen eye for scene composition. Just delightful. Be sure to stop by the register to your left in the souvenir shop when you exit to get a sheet listing all the music played during the show.

    Joe and Laurie balked at the idea of eating in Morocco, but I insisted we try something new. The food was as good as I remembered it from many years ago, and well worth your trying next time you visit Epcot. Of course, Disney could do better to fill this often-empty restaurant if it would simply change its listing on the guidemap to include the words "Live belly dancers."

    (That said, the gentleman sitting by himself, across the way, intently videotaping the dancer throughout the show provided the very definition of "creepy prev.")

    I had the Night in Casablanca plate, with a chicken kabob, marinated lamb and what was essentially a seafood pastry (or an African egg roll, if that's a better analogy). Laurie had the lemon chicken, and Joe the chicken skewers. We skipped dessert, already stuffed.

    Finally, we watched the American Vybe show in the American Gardens Theater, Laurie's former home as a member of the Disney All-American College Orchestra. Laurie was saddened by the demise of that group, and awed by the changes in the theater since her day -- when it was open to the sky and Spaceship Earth provided the backdrop (and, to be fair, rain washed out the show several times a week).

    The new show? Well, as Laurie and I cracked, it's supposed to be a celebration of America's musical diversity, but they managed to make everything sound like Manhattan Transfer. Not bad, heck, these guys are great singers. But, darn it, that orchestra sure drew in much, much larger crowds!

    From Jeff Arons on July 24, 2004 at 8:07 PM
    Mission: SPACE is definitely the best flat ride out there. The sheer forces of it are enough, but it goes that extra mile by theming it to a topic that has never been experienced before.
    From Chuck Campbell on July 24, 2004 at 8:12 PM
    I think the American Adventure is the best of Disney's audioanimatronic extravanganzas.

    I've always liked the "1970s-Tomorrowland-on-Steroids" look of Future World, too. But it sure wouldn't hurt to see a few more attractions in World Showcase, instead of movies. That being said, Epcot's approach is unique; here's to hoping it stays that way.

    From Kevin Baxter on July 24, 2004 at 9:47 PM
    Wow, I am seriously shocked at the extremely favorable comments for M:S. You complain about TT missing stuff, well what about M:S missing true interactivity? Pushing the buttons and fiddling with the joystick are meaningless activities.

    I freely admit the "launch" is spectacular, but this ride has no more tricks after that. At least TT and Tower of Terror save the best for last.

    From Josh Counsil on July 24, 2004 at 9:58 PM
    I've gotta say, Epcot is probably my fave Disney park, and quite possibly my fave theme park ever (struggling for first place with Islands of Adventure and Disney MGM).

    See, I like Epcot because it's not like the other parks. It's somewhat more "down-to-earth", if you ignore Mission: Space. Also, when I'm walking around the park I just get this great feeling.

    There's magic in the air in Disney's least magical park.

    From Mathias D. on July 25, 2004 at 7:30 AM
    I totally agree with Robert's thoughts of Mission:Space.
    From Robert Niles on July 25, 2004 at 2:15 PM
    My opinion on M:S ultimately boiled down to: it's a fun ride. I left with a big grin on my face, and I would have loved to ride again right away.

    Dock a point because I physically wasn't *able* to ride again right away. And, okay, I'll dock another half-point 'cause you say there weren't any consequences to not hitting the buttons. (The mission doesn't have to fail, but a light and a audio warning about having to go to auto-pilot or something would be sufficient.)

    TT put a grin on my face when we were doing 65 on the banking, but I shrugged my way through the ride up until then, so I thought I'd focus more on how it could be improved.

    From Joe Lane on July 25, 2004 at 4:03 PM
    Maybe you should mention something about certain attractions and resorts being seen from World Showcase, Robert?
    From Alfonso giordano on July 26, 2004 at 1:07 AM
    I enjoyed Mission Space, rode it 3 times in a row! If you don't push the buttons it does say something like "override," but I'd rather still have Horizons. They should have put Space in Universe of Energy, which is OK maybe one time but still a waste.

    I never got TT because I can drive down the highway going 100 with the windows down and get more "action."
    I liked WOM much better. I'm glad they are most likely keeping Spaceship Earth as is although it needs updating.

    I could do without Wonders of Life though, needs a gutting to a new theme or something. Imagination needs a new movie, I don't think the HISTK franchise was ever worth creating a 4d movie with other much better choices. And imagination ride now is a mixup, and I preferred both other versions...In fact that whole pavilion could be knocked down and re-imagineered from scratch.

    The Land finally will have a nice ride soon if Soarin' is as good as reviewed. I remember visiting Epcot before the Living Seas opened and does anyone know it's still there anymore? Its now in a dead end since you can't cut through "communicore east." I love aquariums and there's so much potential here for improvement. Last time I was there overheard parent's telling their kids that the fish were animatronic...heard that before at KS at AK!!!! The parents really believed they were not real!!!!

    Innoventions/exit to Spaceship Earth...can't figure out what needs to be done there but its mostly all a waste. Perhaps more pure sciences or music educational stuff like it used to be. Better food needed too.

    World Showcase...needs more rides, updated films. Perhaps another country, hopefully Russia. I consider Africa and Asia in AK an extension of World Showcase, although my epcot book has pictures of Africa coming soon! Also the Italian restaurant SUCKS, Japan, Canada, and Morocco have the best food, everything else is average. Mexico ride needs updating bad. I love Illuminations, but it needs that slow part taken out.
    I think its a bad idea to split Epcot into 2 parks too.

    From Joe Lane on July 26, 2004 at 6:59 AM
    Out of curiousity, where is it that you can drive 100 mph in the US legally?

    ... cause I wanna go! ^_^

    From Robert Niles on July 26, 2004 at 10:38 AM
    A few years back, Montana had no speed limit on its highways, but you could get busted for reckless driving if you went too much faster than surrounding traffic.

    And in response to Joe's previous response... I'm pacing myself. I'll start ripping the Soarin' building and Leave a Legacy here soon.

    From kathy sussman on July 26, 2004 at 4:16 PM
    Robert, my family is going to epcot and i'm wondering should I take my 5 year old daughter on ms? (she loves spash mountain and atlantis)
    From Robert Niles on July 26, 2004 at 4:55 PM
    There's a 44-inch height requirement, so she might not be tall enough to go. Mission: Space is far more physically intense than those rides, so I'd recommend it for kids eight and up. (Seven if they are space geeks.)
    From Kevin Baxter on July 27, 2004 at 1:56 AM
    Think of M:S as a spinny ride like the Teacups spinning as fast as it can go. If you can get them going so fast that heads are stuck to the back of the teacup, then that is basically M:S with a video attached.
    From Chuck Campbell on July 27, 2004 at 5:01 AM
    Kevin, perhaps we need a classification system for "spinny rides." M:S could be termed a "radial arm twirl-and-hurl" from what I've heard (haven't had a chance to ride it--want to check it out), whereas the Teacups might best be called an "interlocking concentric spin-and-puke."
    From Pete Brecht on July 27, 2004 at 9:07 AM
    I have to disagree with Robert's comment that TT needs a musical soundtrack during the finale. When I rode on it a couple of months ago, they played a loud race-engine revving sound during the final lap, so I'm curious as to why you only heard the wind in your ears. The race engine sound is perfect, and a musical soundtrack would ruin the moment. You're supposed to be racing around a track, not going for a country drive.
    From Robert Niles on July 27, 2004 at 9:36 AM
    At 65 mph, you ain't racin' on *any* track in this country. (Unless you're in a kart, maybe.) That speed means "Sunday drive."

    Get me up to 150 mph, and we'll talk about racing. ;-)

    From Jay Posteraro on July 27, 2004 at 2:34 PM
    Is the All-American College Orchestra no longer? I was a trumpet player in it in 1988...what a great summer that was.
    From Christian Nicely on August 3, 2004 at 7:12 AM
    I love Epcot? IT's bigget than the rest of the disney parks and more room. Epcot stands for Enviormental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Test Track is my favorite atrraction.
    From Joe Lane on August 5, 2004 at 8:25 AM
    Actually, it's EXPERIMENTAL Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, but that was back when the place was called EPCOT Center. Now it's just plain ol' Epcot.

    Then there's 'Every Paycheck Comes On Thursday' or 'Every Person Comes Out Tired' or 'Excruciating Polyester Costumes Of Torture'... take your pick.

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