Thursday, October 7, 2010

Disney Parks - EPCOT: Failed Promise or Unique Theme Park?

As you peruse the Disney blogs, one of the topics that elicits the most passion, in both blog entries and in the reply sections to those blogs, is the theme park known as Epcot. Or you can call it EPCOT Center, if you're so inclined.

As we all know, the letters E*P*C*O*T actually stand for something: They are an acronym for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow". And as we Disney fanatics also know, the original intent of the "Florida Project", at least in Walt Disney's mind, was to create the city of tomorrow, where corporations would save the day along with astute city planning and concepts of development. It didn't happen that way, and without Walt, there was probably never a chance of it happening. Walt was the one who could "sell" the various corporations on his ideas. Whether Roy and the others who succeeded Walt ever fully believed in the concept is open for debate, I suppose. I know that Roy paid lip service to the goal of building such a city, but I wonder if, had he lived longer, he would have continued to push for it as a goal.

So EPCOT became a thing of legend, and in its place came EPCOT Center, a park dedicated to ... to what? The front half, Future World, was obviously themed around the near future, while the back half was themed around presentations of different cultures in the World Showcase. I was never there, but I know from my reading that the pavilions that are there today were mostly there back then, with two notable exceptions: the Horizons pavilion and the Wonders of Life pavilion.

Nothing seems to elicit more passion than the Horizons ride-through attractions, heavy on animatronics and futuristic imagery. It was closed eventually, for whatever reason (a sinkhole?), and later, in its place, the Mission: Space pavilion opened. The World of Motion pavilion gave way to Test Track, but at least it is still more or less dedicated to the topic of transportation. Wonders Of Life simply closed and has not reopened.

Let me state right here that the current theme park known as Epcot is my favorite park at the WDW resort. There are some really fun attractions, there are many, many good dining choices, and the architecture is still incredible. And I never had the chance to visit the old EPCOT Center, so I can't really speak to its brilliance or supremacy. I have to take various bloggers' words for it.

Still, I see what they are saying. This park was supposed to be about an optimistic future, but it's just become about the present. And the present is as non-controversially presented as it possibly can be. What is futuristic about it now? Ellen and the Universe of Energy? Fossil fuels? How retro is that? The Seas With Nemo? Cartoon fish swimming in the ocean? Testing autos for GM? Hang gliding over California? And Journey Into Imagination? The one Epcot attraction that almost never has a wait?

At least Mission: Space takes us somewhere that no one has ever gone - except that we're told as we enter that it is a training exercise - presumably for something that hasn't happened yet. And Spaceship Earth's voyage through our (animatronically portrayed) past in order to presumably learn something about our future ends up forward looking and interesting.

So I think it is a park full of failed promise, at least in Future World. I think World Showcase succeeds beautifully at what it presents. But Future World is not about the Future anymore. I am led to believe by everything I've read that the goal of this park was to showcase the cutting edge of technology.

Maybe this is impossible to do in today's world. After all, we aren't amazed anymore by things like videophones or robots. We've been living with them for a really long time. We also aren't all that amazed by the new technology of energy production, at least not wind farms and nuclear power plants. We aren't amazed when NASA sends a rover to Mars or anywhere else to collect data. Advances in technology and science seem to be smaller and less accessible today. And the ones we are aware of seem to be mostly in the entertainment industry - iPads and iPods, Kindle readers and Droid X phones. Not to mention video gaming.

I'm sure there are things out there to amaze us but Epcot doesn't really show us much about it. I am amazed by my mother's cochlear implant. Imagine that a device can take sound, convert it to electrical impulses and transmit it along 22 or so tiny wires to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, and the brain can make sense out of this and turn it into what we all take for granted: hearing sounds.

Epcot does have a display on cochlear implants, but there's no depth. It's just an advanced hearing aid to most, I think. There are nods to other technologies there, too, but they seem to me to be of the same depth, which is to say, not much. And they don't generate excitement, they are just displays. High school science projects might be more exciting.

Instead of trying to showcase the future and inspire us today, the management has chosen to simply entertain us. And they do an okay job of that with rides like Soarin', Mission: Space, Test Track and even the Living with the Land and The Seas With Nemo rides. They're fun, exciting, and repeatable. They just don't teach or inspire. Edutainment? Not so much.

That said, Epcot is still an incredibly unique park, and it is still "working" for millions of visitors. What other theme park tries to do what Epcot does? I can't think of one.

Were I going to spend more than 4 days at Disney World (as I am in November, though two days will be spent at the competition, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure), Epcot would be the park I'd spend more time at than any other. Just walking around there is a worthy experience. The dining choices make it THE place to go for food in WDW, and the attractions are just icing on the cake.

But they could be more. They could BE the cake.


1 comment:

Future Guy said...

Great post! Since my view of EPCOT is hopelessly informed by my childhood visits in the '80s, it's always interesting to get the perspective of someone who's only ever experienced the park in its current incarnation.