Friday, December 18, 2009

FastPass Insanity

Way back on March 18th I promised a post on the plusses and minuses of FastPass. However, I didn’t feel like writing about that, so I wrote about a bunch of other stuff instead, prompting an anonymous commenter to say “hey, whatever happened to that FastPass post you promised?” Well, now that I’ve taken two trips to WDW since Labor Day, and am looking forward to a multi-day trip in about two weeks, I’ve got FastPass on the brain again. By the way, if you don’t know what FastPass is or how it works, here’s the Wikipedia article.

Although the system was introduced in 1999, the first time I ever saw it was on our October 2001 honeymoon. Disney didn’t do a great job explaining it to casual parkgoers, and since we were less than two months out from 9/11, the parks weren’t that crowded and there wasn’t much of an impetus to use it. We made another trip in 2004, and since crowd levels had rebounded, the lines were long enough that we took the time to read the inserts in our park maps that explained how this FastPass thing worked. Judging by the huge amount of people we saw waiting in Standby (a.k.a. non-FastPass) lines, most folks did not do the same, which leads nicely into the first section of this post:

The Plusses of FastPass

The biggest advantage of FastPass, indeed its raison d’etre, is to allow you to bypass long attraction lines. One of the reasons it works so well is that 95% of the people in the parks at any given time aren’t using it. As usual, that figure isn’t based on anything other than my own personal observations, but I’m confident that it’s pretty close to the truth. Otherwise, why would the standby line for Peter Pan’s Flight (which, if it extended straight out from the attraction entrance, would probably stretch to the Canary Islands) be full of families with cranky children who want to get on the ride right now, or else they will scream?

So, FastPass is a system that allows you to bypass long lines, and it works so well because most people don’t use it. Therefore, those of us who do are essentially profiting from the ignorance of those who don’t.  That’s a big plus in my book. Now, time for . . .

The Minuses of FastPass

Why don’t more people use FastPass? Basically, it’s because the majority of them are on their first and only trip to Disney World, and they’re keeping one eye on their hyper-excited kids while using the other eye to squint at their park map to figure out the best way to get to Splash Mountain and where the bathrooms are and how to fit in all these rides that the kids want to go on right now before their 12:30 reservation at the Liberty Tree Tavern (and just where on the map is that, anyway?) They just don’t have the time or energy to read and digest that paragraph on the back of the map that explains what FastPass is all about.

Now, a trip to Disney World has always involved some complexity. But back in the days before FastPass, pretty much the only bit of “strategy” a savvy parkgoer needed to employ was to avoid the lunchtime rush by hitting Pecos Bill’s during the 3:00 parade. Regardless of who you were, your route through the Magic Kingdom would look something like this:

mkprefastpass

The only decision to make was whether you headed left into Adventureland or right into Tomorrowland after you walked up Main Street.

FastPass, however, has added another wrinkle. A savvy parkgoer will make a beeline for a couple of the park’s most popular attractions, obtain FastPasses, then go find other things to do until the FastPass return time. As the return time approaches, they’re obliged to hightail it to the attraction from wherever else they happen to be, even if it’s on the other side of the park.  The added complexity of dining reservations may cause even more backtracking and mad rushing. A savvy Disney parkgoer’s path through the Magic Kingdom now looks like something from the Family Circus:

mkfasptass

The problem gets even worse at EPCOT, because EPCOT is so huge. Whereas EPCOT’s generally ovoid shape meant that your path through the park would invariably go something like this:

epcotprefastpass

. . .a savvy use of FastPass leads to lots of darting back and forth across Future World, like this:

epcotfastpass 

“What’s the problem with that?” you might ask. Nothing, if you’re an fatigue-proof 19-year-old with no kids. But EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom are not small places. Zipping back and forth across them, juggling FastPass return times and dining reservation times is as hard as the work most of us do at our jobs. I don’t know about anyone else, but I go on vacation to relax.

However, Disney World is the American consumer mecca. And a key tenet of the American consumer lifestyle is instant gratification, so a system to make the gratification of experiencing a Disney attraction a little more instant was bound to be a hit. However, I’ve hurried back and forth across crowded theme parks, clutching my FastPass trying to resist the temptation to break into an all-out run, only to collapse exhausted at the end of the day. In two weeks, we’re going to take it a little slower.

Sure, I may grab a FastPass or two, but only to give to my wife for her Disney trip scrapbook. Let everyone else hurry like they’ve got a time clock to punch. We’ll be taking it easy.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Apocalypse EPCOT: The Dark Future I Just Thought Up

I’m sure Team Disney Orlando has seen undeniable economic benefits from their practice of simply closing up huge chunks of EPCOT real estate: the Wonders of Life pavilion, the upstairs ImageWorks, and the Millennium pavilion, to say nothing of large chunks of vacant Innoventions exhibition space. These actions, though, were all taken when the economy was in better shape than it is now. What might the suits do in the future to preserve their profit margins (and their executive bonuses)? Come with me now to an apocalyptic future, and I’ll make up the answer to that question before your very eyes . . .

This is Future Guy’s Doom Bunker!

The year is 2015. Unemployment still hovers around 10%. The President of the United States is Mr. T. Shrek 5 has just won the Oscar for Best Picture. At Walt Disney World, the “free admission on your birthday” and “give a day, get a Disney Day” promos are distant memories. The current promo “Buy a $200 One-Day Admission Ticket, Get A Fastpass to Mickey’s PhilharMagic” is not the big success that management had hoped. Executive bonuses are shrinking. Something must be done!

Deep in the executive restroom, while perched on a diamond-encrusted toilet in a solid gold stall, an executive comes up with a series of cost cutting measures for EPCOT! Before he can forget what they are, he grabs a piece of gold-foil Charmin from the toilet paper dispenser and scribbles out his ideas. Let’s take a trip now, through the Future World of 2015:

Spaceship Earth: The touchscreens in the ride vehicles are replaced by Etch-A-Sketches. During the descent, visitors are invited to use them to “create their own vision of the future”.

Universe of Energy: Ellen’s Energy Adventure becomes a “human-powered” attraction as the large “moving theater” ride vehicles are removed and visitors are now required to walk through the show.

Mission Space: The simulators no longer spin, or even move. Riders are told to sit in them and make spaceship noises with their mouths for five minutes.

Test Track: The complex ride vehicles are replaced with Power Wheels. The resulting ride-in which guests putt-putt through the faux-automobile testing facility at a coma-inducing three miles per hour-is billed as a more family friendly experience.

Imagination: The entire pavilion, ride and all, is shut down. Disney bills this as an opportunity for guests to “create their own experience”, since they can walk around the dark, nonfunctioning pavilion and imagine whatever they want.

The Land: Soarin’s machinery is removed, and guests are encouraged to run around in the empty warehouse-like space with their arms sticking straight out, pretending to be airplanes. The Living With The Land boat ride is also modified to become a “guest-powered experience”. Oars are installed on the boats, and riders are required to row. The plants are removed from the greenhouses, and mounds of dirt are put in their place. Disney justifies this by pointing out that the ride is called “Living With the Land” not “Living With The Stuff Growing In The Land”.

The Seas: The tanks are emptied. The windows looking into the tanks are tinted blue and decorated with painted-on fish and coral.

Innoventions: The old exhibits that are currently collecting dust in the Imagination pavilion’s old upstairs ImageWorks are hauled out of storage and installed here. Except for the rainbow corridor and the pin screens, because people might actually enjoy those. When guests tire of playing with the vintage 1982 technology (none of which will be plugged in or even dusted off), they can visit the rest of Innoventions’ exhibits, which consist of a couple of repurposed McDonald’s play areas, two bouncy castles, and a row of Nintendo 64s that only have the game Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.

The Fountain of Nations: Now just a guy with some Mentos and Diet Coke.

Are these just the insane ramblings of a guy who’s a half hour late for his lunch break? You bet they are. But if you subscribe to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics, then you know that somewhere in the multiverse, they’ve already come true.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Seas With . . .Ariel?

I’m not too secretive about the fact that the ride-thru portion of The Seas with Nemo makes me want to bang my head against the wall of my “clam-mobile”. However, if Project Gemini had gone forward, The Seas pavilion might be home to another animated Disney character: Ariel.

What was Project Gemini, you ask? For a full overview, I encourage you to read Jim Hill’s 2003 article on the subject. Briefly, though, it was a plan to totally remake Future World to appeal to young people. There would be more thrill rides (at least two, including one called Time Racers that would be installed inside a gutted Spaceship Earth) a “Junior Autopia” for the little kids in front of Test Track, and a hedge maze between The Land and the Imagination pavilion. And trees. Lots and lots of trees. Also, The Living Seas, which at this point was being actively neglected by Disney management, would be rethemed around Ariel and the cast of The Little Mermaid.

How would this have been handled? According to the article I linked to above:

“Ariel, King Triton and Sebastian are slated to serve as the new hosts of the aptly named "Under the Sea" pavilion. The new pre-show (as well as the bulk of The Living Seas revamped exhibits) will now stress how we must all learn to live in harmony with the world's oceans. Not over-fish or pollute ... or we risk destroying this precious resource forever.

I'm told that Seabase Alpha will now be repositioned as the finale of the "Under the Sea" show. To show us all how idyllic the future could be if we really do learn to live in harmony with the ocean.”

Look, I’m no fan of The Little Mermaid, but I still have to admit that sounds a heck of a lot better than the Nemo pavilion we ended up getting. It would used popular animated characters to teach kids about the impact of human behavior on the oceans.

Come to think of it, why couldn’t they have done this with Nemo? As bad as some of the Project Gemini ideas were (turning Spaceship Earth into a Space Mountain-like ride, for example) the Seas idea was really on the right track. Of course, the pavilion might have ended up being painted pink, but that would have been a small price to pay.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Superman: Skinny and Pissed

It amazes me how often well-established companies utterly fail at the one thing they’re supposed to do well.

Comic books are a visual medium. It’s not enough to tell a good story, you have to provide good pictures to go along with it. In fact, generally speaking a comic with good art and a bad story will sell better than one with a good story and bad art.

One of the ways that comic book companies like DC and Marvel attempt to maintain reader interest and drive sales is by having Big Events, which are kind of like the comic-book versions of summer blockbusters. These events usually have overblown names like Our Worlds at War, Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, and so forth. Along with the announcement of such an event, it’s customary for the comic companies to release a piece of art from the event as well, to set the comic book fans a-salivating.

Yesterday, DC announced their big “event” for 2010, a Superman-themed storyline entitled “War of the Supermen”. Although I’m not a regular reader of comic books, I am a big Superman fan, so this naturally piqued my interest. Then I saw the accompanying piece of art:

warofthesupermen“Mommy, why does Superman look like he has the runs?”

Rather than getting me excited about the upcoming event and causing me to want to know more, the only question I have after seeing this picture is “Why does Superman look like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory?”

It would be like if a new Transformers movie were announced, and the teaser poster looked like this:

gobots 

It amazes me that a company like DC that’s been a leader in its field for the better part of a century still has trouble grasping basic truths such as “people don’t like ugly pictures” and “Superman is not skinny”. Fortunately, the above picture is the cover on a book that DC will be giving away for free as part of something called “Free Comic Book Day.” Which was a good move, because I can’t imagine anyone would want to pay for it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Captain EO, please don’t kill Dreamfinder

History lesson:

1982: EPCOT Center opens to the public. The ride-thru attraction at the Imagination pavilion is not yet complete, but the Magic Eye Theater is showing the 3-D film Magic Journeys.

1986: Magic Journeys is replaced by the Michael Jackson vehicle Captain EO. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, with music by James Horner, the 17-minute film cost an estimated $30 million to produce. By way of contrast, one of the biggest films of 1986, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, cost only $25 million.

1994: Captain EO looks more and more like a relic of the 1980s. Michael Jackson is not as popular as he was eight years before, and the film’s special effects look crude when compared with new movies like Jurassic Park. Therefore, Captain EO is replaced by Honey, I Shrunk The Audience, a more lighthearted presentation that makes the audience feel like they are part of the show.

2009: Fifteen years later, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience is a creaky relic of the 1990s, and its 3-D effects pale in comparison to those found in the newest films from Pixar and DreamWorks. To make matters worse, park visitors are staying away from the ride-thru attraction as well. Clearly, something needs to be done. Fortunately, Disney has a foolproof plan. Amid rumors of a return of Dreamfinder to the Imagination pavilion, Disney execs decide to . . .bring back Captain EO?

I’m not kidding about this. You can read it for yourself right here. Disney really has its finger on the pulse of America. Why, when the popularity of American Idol peaked and was on its way down, Disney decided to spend millions of dollars on an American Idol attraction for its Hollywood Studios park. And now that the surge of interest in Michael Jackson that accompanied his death is subsiding, Disney evidently feels it’s the perfect time to bring back Captain EO. You know, because Honey, I Shrunk the Audience was so old and dated!

There’s an excellent post up at EPCOT Central about why Captain EO’s return is not a good idea, and I have no intention of rehashing the excellent points it makes. What bothers me, though, is EO’s return might scuttle a much-needed refurbishment of the Imagination pavilion. Although it might be initially popular, within a year (or perhaps sooner) after its re-release EPCOT visitors will be as disinterested in watching Michael Jackson defeat an alien despot through the power of dance as they currently are in being shrunk by Rick Moranis. However, I’ve spent enough time in corporate America to know how executives think. And if someone proposes an Imagination rehab after the re-installation of Captain EO, they’re liable to ignore all the evidence that said rehab is a good idea, and veto it because “Imagination just got a new show”.

You  might protest, “Surely the Disney executives would never be that short-sighted!” Are you sure about that?

idle

Neither am I. I really hope that Captain EO doesn’t kill Dreamfinder. If he does, though, I’m sure we could just get Jonathan Lee Riches to sue him.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Artificial oranges vs. the real thing

I have a terrible confession to make: you know the orangey scent from the desert farm scene in Horizons, the one that people talk about as though it were some kind of olfactory orgasm? I don’t remember it. I made four trips to EPCOT during Horizons’ lifetime, and it was my favorite Disney attraction of all time, but the orange scent just never made that much of an impression on me. And anyway, the Horizons orange grove wasn’t the best-smelling place in EPCOT. That distinction belongs to The Land.

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I’m completely serious here. When I walked through the doors of The Land a month ago, the first thing I noticed was how good it smelled in there, thanks to the two excellent eateries (the Seasons Food Court and the Garden Grill) at the east and west ends of the pavilion. Of course, the Garden Grill is one of EPCOT’s two character dining locations, so it’d be popular even if it didn’t serve excellent food. But the Seasons has become so popular that the beautiful fountain on the pavilion’s bottom level was removed to make way for more seating. Sure, some of that popularity can be attributed to the fact that it’s right next to Future World’s busiest attraction, Soarin’. But it also provides a nice alternative to the greasy fast-food fare that most counter service places at Disney World offer, and I have to believe that’s a factor, as well.

However, if you’re not hungry by the time you board your boat for the Living With The Land ride, then you definitely will be once you hit the greenhouses. Forget artificial scents, the downright tasty smell of the very real edibles in The Land’s greenhouses fills you with an almost irresistible urge to hit the Seasons or the Garden Grill once the ride is over. (Good luck getting into the Garden Grill without reservations, though) Sure, Living With The Land is educational, fascinating, and increasingly relevant, but it also deserves credit for its ability to make even the most devoted carnivores (like me) want to eat their vegetables.

And that’s no small accomplishment.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Injun Jim Kirk

Quick, what was yesterday? If you said “Tuesday, November 17”, then you’re only half right. It was also the day that J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. And you know what that means: time for another Star Trek post!

As popular as the Star Trek movie was with the general public, a small contingent of die-hard fans really hated it because it wasn’t just like the Original Series. They wouldn’t come right out and admit that, of course, so they usually said that they didn’t like it because the plot didn’t always make sense, or that Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk was an egotistical jerk; nothing like William Shatner’s Kirk. Surely, no episodes of the Original Series made those mistakes! Ladies, Gentlemen, and others, I give you episode no. 58: The Paradise Syndrome.

It begins with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down to an idyllic Earthlike planet that’s threatened by an approaching asteroid. The planet has two items of interest, a Native American village . . .

The_Paradise_Syndrome_016 

How do these Indians not notice three brightly-shirted white guys standing in plain sight?

. . . And a strange obelisk covered with alien symbols:

The_Paradise_Syndrome_009

After observing the village from afar and wistfully yearning for the Indians’ simple lifestyle, Kirk announces that it’s time to go. But first, he wants another look at the obelisk. Spock and McCoy stay behind as he struts up there alone. He walks up the obelisk’s steps, takes out his communicator to call the ship, and is taken by surprise as a trapdoor opens beneath his feet. Kirk falls into the obelisk down a flight of stairs and comes to rest in front of a control panel. He grabs hold of it to pull himself up, accidentally activating some kind of alien Brain Zapper, and we’re treated to a classic William Shatner Acting Moment:

The_Paradise_Syndrome_034Denny Crane! 

Fast forward an unspecified amount of time as Spock, now at the obelisk, standing on the very trap door that Kirk fell into, voiceovers that numerous search parties and sensor scans have failed to locate the Captain. Well, since he said that he was going to check out the obelisk, and the obelisk clearly has some kind of trap door built into it, and you said earlier that you can’t scan inside the obelisk, and you couldn’t find him anywhere else, maybe, I don’t know, he’s inside the obelisk. However, since the story needs Kirk to get stranded on the planet, our hyper-intelligent Vulcan Science Officer is prevented from making that particular connection. Spock tells McCoy they’re going back to the ship, and when the doctor protests, Spock reminds him of the urgency of getting to the asteroid in time to deflect it away from the planet. Otherwise, he warns “everyone on this planet will die, including the Captain.” Hmm, maybe they should have come to spy on the Indians after they took care of the asteroid. And people say that J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek has plot holes.

Anyway, the Brain Zapper has left Kirk with no memory of who he is or where he came from, but the tribespeople see him coming out of the obelisk and decide he’s a god. The Tribal Elders sit him down to interview for the job, and except for one argumentative guy named Salish, they’re all sold on him. They’re sold on him even though a god’s only job duty is to go inside the obelisk and “rouse the temple spirit” when “the sky darkens”, but when they ask him point-blank if he knows how to do that, Kirk gives a rambling non-answer that makes it clear that he doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

The_Paradise_Syndrome_070  “If you’re really a god, then how do you explain Kingdom of the Spiders?”

Everyone forgets about Kirk’s unsuitability for the position of God, though, when he uses artificial respiration to revive a kid who “drowned” in the lake. They’re so impressed that they declare him God right then and there and give him Salish’s Medicine Chief gig. One of the perks of being Medicine Chief, it turns out, is that you get to marry tribal priestess Miramanee, who’s played by former Playboy Bunny Sabrina Scharf.

Naturally, Salish is kind of bummed about losing his job and his fiancee to a bushy-sideburned Shatner, yet the episode clearly depicts Salish as the villain, which makes no sense. I mean, amnesia or no, Kirk has to know that he’s not a god. And yet he pointedly allows everyone to think he is, and even goes so far as to let them give him someone else’s job and fiancĂ©e. Who said only Chris Pine’s Kirk was a jerk?

Well, the Indians name our hero Kirok, and before you know it, the wedding day arrives. At the obelisk, the tribe’s chief applies some paint to Kirk Kirok’s face, then tells him to wait while he walks the “holy path to the earth lodge” where the wedding will take place. This gives Kirk time to hug himself while he voiceovers about how happy he is. There are some iconic images that just cry out to be made into demotivational posters, and this is one of them:

shatnerdemotivator

After his little self-love session, Kirok heads off to the “earth lodge”, only to be accosted by Salish, leading to a ho-hum fight scene between two stunt doubles.

The_Paradise_Syndrome_180 

Really, guys? I’ve seen better stunt doubles on The Dukes of Hazzard. And what’s that in Salish’s hand, a butter knife? Is he there to stab Kirk or make him a peanut butter sandwich?

Of course, Kirk defeats Salish with his patented William Shatner Flying Kick which, if it were ever combined with the Chuck Norris Roundhouse Kick, would probably destroy the universe. And then we have a wedding. I’m no expert on Native American customs, but I’m pretty sure that none of their marriage rituals involved the groom wearing a robe made from Muppet pelts.

The_Paradise_Syndrome_210 Rest in peace Elmo, Kermit, Gonzo, Big Bird, and The Count. Rest in peace.

Two months later, a shirtless Kirok and Playboy Bunny are playfully chasing each other through the woods when Bunny drops the bomb that she’s pregnant with a little Captain Kirk, and with that her fate is sealed. No reason to get attached to Mrs. Kirok, dear viewers, because if the Rules of Old TV Shows are harsh on the love interests of main characters, they’re even harsher on the unborn children of such unions. Playboy Bunny and Kirok Jr. are as good as dead.

The seeds of their destruction come from Medicine Chief Kirok’s inability to do the one thing that a Medicine Chief/God is supposed to be able to do. It seems that, while the alien race called the Preservers did a noble thing by rescuing this Indian tribe from genocide at the hands of white settlers, the planet they’ve plunked them down on is especially prone to asteroid impacts. So, the Preservers “solved” this problem by building the obelisk, whose function is to fire a sort of anti-asteroid phaser beam. However, the thing has a combination lock, and in their wisdom the Preservers only told one member of the tribe (the original Medicine Chief) how to get in and operate it, and the “secret” has been passed down from father to son ever since. Currently, the tribe is in a pickle because Salish’s daddy died before he could pass the secret on to his son, and now nobody knows it.

What’s the logic in putting these people on a planet where their survival depends solely on the obelisk thingy, and then telling only one guy how to work it? Did the Preservers want them to die? Come to think of it, why does this asteroid deflector even need to have a human operator? If the Preservers were super-advanced enough to build the thing, couldn’t they give it an autopilot?

However, this whole Indian-operated asteroid deflector thing doesn’t just fly in the face of plain old logic, it also makes a mess of the laws of physics. Y’see since they never got around to inventing the telescope, and since the Preservers never bothered to explain to them about asteroids and space and stuff, the only way the tribe knows that an asteroid impact is imminent is when the sky gets dark, the ground quakes, and they start having weather problems. I’m no astrophysicist, but I’m pretty sure that if a giant asteroid is so close to your planet that it’s blocked out the sun and you’re having seismic and weather disturbances, then it’s probably already in the atmosphere, and powerful asteroid deflector or no, you don’t have time to do anything but bend over and kiss your butt goodbye. I’m sorry, there’s no way you can self-righteously point out the fallacies of Red Matter but give this Indians-and-Asteroids hogwash a free pass.

Well, sure enough the approaching asteroid causes the weather to get windy, and Salish and the tribal chief insist that Kirk go the obelisk and carry out his one and only job duty. Naturally, Kirk doesn’t know how to get inside the obelisk, and Salish, seeing the chance to get rid of his rival once and for all, incites the tribe to stone Kirk and Miramanee with pieces of gray styrofoam.

The tribe is scared off when Spock and McCoy beam down, and after Spock restores Kirk’s memory with some kind of Vulcan mind thing, they go into the obelisk and save the planet by activating the Asteroid Repeller.

How do they get into the obelisk, you ask? Well, it turns out that the trap door will open if you say the secret password, and the secret password is (you’re not going to believe it) “Kirk to Enterprise”. That is how awesome Captain Kirk is.

So, just to recap, according to The Paradise Syndrome, Captain Kirk is so awesome that:

  1. Indians take one look at him and automatically assume that he’s a god.
  2. Former Playboy Bunnies want nothing more than to spend their life doing whatever he wants.
  3. The very sound of his name can unlock the secrets of alien technology.

Did Shatner write this episode?

Oh, one other thing: exactly why does the Asteroid Deflector even have a brain-zapping ray? It’s like building a toaster oven that also shoots poison darts, it doesn’t make any sense!

Of course, Mrs. Kirok’s styrofoam-inflicted injuries are too severe for McCoy to heal, and she’s going to die. However, she still manages to lay there and look hot while she dies in Kirk’s arms, sincerely believing that he was a god after all.

The_Paradise_Syndrome_324 “Don’t worry dear. No one will ever remember you existed except for fanfic authors and sarcastic bloggers.”

So that’s “The Paradise Syndrome”. Believe it or not, it was actually one of the better episodes of Star Trek’s third and final season. However, it’s got plot holes big enough to drive a Hummer through, and our illustrious Captain Kirk doesn’t exactly behave like a role model.

Still, I have no doubt that some people would rather watch “The Paradise Syndrome” ten times than watch J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek even once. And that’s okay, as long as they realize that both incarnations of our beloved franchise have their share of problems.

If you made it all the way through this, congratulations. Next week (real life permitting) I’ll be back with a post about EPCOT’s The Land pavilion.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Flood of Electronic Babble

Nearly a decade into the 21st century, we’re in a great position to answer some of the rhetorical questions posed near the end of Spaceship Earth’s 1994 Jeremy Irons narration:

Question: “Spaceship Earth glows with billions of interactions carrying news and information at the very speed of light . . . But will these seemingly infinite communications become a flood of electronic babble?”

Answer:

twitter-logo

Question: “. . .or will we use this power to usher in a new age of understanding and cooperation on this, our Spaceship Earth?”

Answer:

waaah

We’re doomed, aren’t we?

Monday, November 2, 2009

On the Evils of Blue Window Tint

I realize that EPCOT Central just published a very thoughtful and well-written post on what’s wrong with the current iteration of EPCOT’s Seas pavilion, and this isn’t intended to be a rip-off of that, or even a response to it, really. I’ve been planning to write this for at least a month, and in fact my trip to EPCOT a week ago today was primarily a fact-gathering mission for this post.

I don’t trust first impressions. Lots of movies, books, and, yes, Disney attractions are multilayered experiences that it’s impossible to fully appreciate on the first run-through. So, although I’ve been fairly critical of The Seas With Nemo and His Animated Friends, the truth is that until a week ago I’d only been through there once. So, on my most recent trip to EPCOT I resolved to spend some time there to see if it had any redeeming qualities I hadn’t noticed before.

There are a few things to like about it (I’ll get into those in a minute) but there is one absolutely glaring piece of Bad Show that I’ve just got to talk about. No, it’s not the brain-dead ride-thru that squanders a perfect opportunity to impart some facts about marine life in favor of having Albert Brooks as fish dad Marlon bleat “Nemo! Nemo! Where are you?” over and over and over. And it’s not the stupid animated fish that are projected, via the Pepper’s Ghost effect, into the tank to distract people from the actual marine life that’s swimming around in plain view. No, this is much worse.

One similarity that The Seas With Nemo has to its predecessor is that it purports to take visitors on an imaginary trip under the ocean. The Living Seas used the hydrolators to create the illusion. You took a hydrolator “down” to the Seabase (before 2001, the hydrolators exited into the load area for the brief Seacab ride) and when you were ready to leave the pavilion you had to take another hydrolator back “up” to ground level. It would have undoubtedly been more practical to just have a row of glass doors leading outside instead of a row of hydrolators, but in those days Disney spared very little expense to maintain whatever illusion a particular ride was supposed to create. Not anymore.

The old preshow theater and hydrolators were replaced by an elaborately themed queue are designed to create the illusion that you’re starting on the beach and walking beneath the ocean, and the ride is designed to further enforce the notion that you are beneath the ocean, and when you’re deposited into the Seabase you’re still supposed to be under the ocean (anyone sense a pattern here?) but when it’s time to leave you . . .

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. . . just walk out the door. Oh, but the doors are tinted blue, like the ocean! Yeah, that’s a great effect, if this was a city aquarium somewhere. But this is DISNEY WORLD, for crying out loud! It costs eighty bucks to get in; they’re supposed to be better than this! What the frak happened? Would it really have been that expensive to leave the hydrolators there and just re-theme them a little? Oh, but that might have cut into the real estate allotted for the all-important gift shop, which sells valuable t-shirts and other merchandise that you can’t buy anywhere else except at every other gift shop in Disney World.

I’m certain that the Imagineers who worked on this project hated this solution for the exit area. Yes, I’m positive that it was forced upon them by whatever pointy-haired empty suit that management put in charge to ensure that everything was done as cheaply as humanly possible according to Disney’s high standards of quality. Since I’m not an insider, I have no idea who this person is, but I’ve added them to my On Notice board. (If you don’t know what an On Notice board is, then you really need to watch The Colbert Report)

Of course, I can’t lay all the blame on empty-headed executives. Not empty-headed Disney executives, anyway. No, this whole thing is really the fault of empty-headed United Technologies executives. As I’ve mentioned in the past, they vetoed WED’s bold original Seas pavilion concept in favor of the cheaper-to-build-but-somewhat-lacking-in-zazz Living Seas that opened in 1986. If the original concept had been built, a Nemo-themed overhaul would have been a far more expensive proposition and probably would never have happened.

You might notice that I’ve reserved my negativity for the ride-thru and exit areas of the pavilion only. That’s because the Seabase still has a lot of educational material in it. Most of this material is geared specifically towards children, but it contains lots of facts that most adults don’t know. Sure, many parents will hurry their kids directly from the clammobiles to Turtle Talk, and then off to their next destination, but you can hardly blame Disney for that. And on my recent visit, I saw many families lingering in the seabase, and lots of kids excitedly oohing and aahing over all the marine life in the tank. And although there was no line at all for the ride, the Seabase was fairly crowded, meaning that those families had been there a while. It was nice to see.

So, the next time you’re in EPCOT, visit The Seas. Scowl through the ride, enjoy the seabase, and as you exit the undersea environment by (sigh) walking through some blue-tinted doors, don’t just curse Disney executives, curse United Technologies executives. They’re on notice, too.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Spaceship Earth: Why All the Hate?

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Yesterday I made my first trip to EPCOT since I started this blog. The last time I was there, on Labor Day Weekend 2007, Spaceship Earth was still closed for its Siemens-funded overhaul. The Project Tomorrow post-show area was open, but very few of the exhibits were actually functioning. Nevertheless, what I saw there left me with a sense of optimism, and I was sure that the new Spaceship Earth would not be a Journey Into Imagination With Eric Idle-style fiasco. Then the ride reopened and the reviews came pouring in. With the exception of EPCOT Central’s author Epcot82, most folks on the message boards and blogs were down on the new ride. Although the first three quarters of the ride looked very good, they claimed that the descent at the end was so obviously unfinished that it ruined the whole experience for them. The Judi Dench narration talks to us like we’re six-year-olds, they said. And as I listened to the new narration on Subsonic Radio, I found myself agreeing with them. Roman roads as the first “world wide web”? Jewish and Arab scholars as the “first backup system”? What happened to the scholarly, majestic tone of the Jeremy Irons or Walter Cronkite narrative tracks? Still, I tried to keep an open mind yesterday as I boarded my touchscreen-equipped Time Machine vehicle.

And it wasn’t half bad. Unlike the three previous iterations of Spaceship Earth’s show, this new one is aimed at the younger generation that doesn’t remember the world before cell phones and Internet-connected computers were everywhere. Sure the new narration is simpler, not as lofty and poetic as it was before, but remember that it has to reach those kids whose parents brought them to the park to ride Nemo.

Something else I like about the new ride: Spaceship Earth’s main weakness always was that its final scenes depicting the present and near-future always became outdated eventually, necessitating a pavilion closure and costly upgrade. But since the ride’s finale now takes place on a computer screen, it’s much easier and cost-effective to update once it starts to become stale. This should allow the ride to remain fresh and relevant for years to come and will hopefully allow us to avoid those awkward intervals when the present would surpass or move in a different direction from the “future” Spaceship Earth showed us.

Which brings me to the descent. It is really noticeably, embarrassingly unfinished? Well, during the time when you’re focused on the computer screen everything around you is just unadorned and black, but most folks are going to be too focused on their screen to be bored by the lack of entertaining stuff on the walls. And right around the time you finish with your screen, just before you get to the exit area, the walls acquire some sparkly lights meant to simulate a starfield. It’s not an expensive effect, but it’s nice enough.

Even the pickiest EPCOT connoisseur would be hard-pressed to find something wrong with Project Tomorrow, though. For the first time in recent memory, Spaceship Earth has a worthy post-show area. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to explore it much; I was on a tight schedule and the place was so darned crowded with people enjoying themselves that I just didn’t have the time to check everything out. Still, if an attraction’s crowd level is a barometer of its quality, then Project Tomorrow is one of the best things in EPCOT. When I go back in January, I hope to have time to explore the place properly.

In summation, I’ve got to say that this new iteration of Spaceship Earth is a solid EPCOT Center attraction that’s worthy of that beautiful Bob McCall mural that still adorns the entrance. I hope it’s indicative of the kinds of things we’ll see at EPCOT in the next decade.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

On the role of corporate sponsors at EPCOT

This recent post at EPCOT Central got me thinking about the role corporate sponsors should play there. Of course, during EPCOT’s “golden age” in the 1980s and early 90s, each Future World pavilion had its own corporate sponsor, and the countries in the World Showcase (most of them, anyway) were “sponsored” by their respective nations. The American Adventure had even had two corporate sponsors: American Express and Coca-Cola. The steady loss of corporate sponsors in the 1990s coincided with the decline of the park during that period, and both official and unofficial statements coming out of Disney during that time blamed the pavilion closures and lack of overall maintenance on the absence of those all-important sponsorship dollars. Curiously, during the late ‘90s a fourth gate, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, was added without any major corporate alliances being announced to help share the costs. Also, Magic Kingdom attractions like the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Splash Mountain continued to operate without corporate sponsors. In 1994 Tomorrowland even received a huge facelift, complete with new attractions, without any new corporate sponsorship being announced to help pay for it. I think you see where I’m going here.

Disney does not need corporate sponsors to help them operate EPCOT. They might have needed them in the early 80s, when the company had just dropped a massive amount of money to build the park and the Disney brand was not as strong as it is now, but a lot of things have changed. The company is a global multimedia powerhouse, and it has maybe the strongest brand in the world next to Coca-Cola. The issue throughout the 1990s to mid 2000s was not that Disney could not afford to operate the park without sponsors, they just chose to spend the money on other things. Happily, things seem to be changing in that regard. We’ll have to wait and see.

A second reason why corporate sponsorships might seem vital to EPCOT is that without them, thoughtful-yet-entertaining presentations on some aspect of the future are given the short shrift in favor of stuff like this:

Whereas corporate sponsors can showcase their future-shaping innovations in an EPCOT pavilion, Disney’s main export is Licensed Characters. United Technologies provided a deep-sea diving suit for people to try; all Disney has is Bruce the Shark. However, remember that perhaps the most beloved EPCOT Center attraction, Horizons, was developed by WED with little to no input from GE, the pavilion’s sponsor. The design of that attraction’s immersive future sequences wasn’t outsourced to the sponsor. Clearly, Disney is more than capable of coming up with innovative and amazing Future World attractions, but the philosophy of the company since the Eisner years has been to tie everything into some licensed Disney property or other to create “synergy”. (That word should be taken out and shot) Again, there’s a possibility that things are changing on that front. The damage of the last decade won’t be undone in a year or two, though. I’m inclined to wait and see what kind of park we have in another ten years or so before passing any judgment.

So, what kind of role might corporate sponsors play at EPCOT in the coming decade? I’m no insider, just a guy with opinions, but I’d be shocked if we ever see another whole-pavilion sponsorship by a large company. Things like the Siemens sponsorship of Spaceship Earth will be the exception, not the rule. Innoventions will continue to be the main showplace for corporate wares, but most if not all of the real estate will be used by smaller, cutting-edge companies with which the general public is not extremely familiar. Large, familiar companies like Honda and Microsoft will likely choose to spend their marketing dollars elsewhere.

This will nicely eliminate one of the problems with the old EPCOT Center: large companies sponsoring a pavilion in which they have a vested interest in a certain point of view, like Exxon with the Energy pavilion or GM with the Transportation pavilion.

Still, I’d hoping for one more big corporate sponsorship: Apple in the Imagination pavilion. I can’t imagine Steve Jobs actually doing it, but I wish he would.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Amazing new Martin Smith video

When myself and others talk about the need to restore the Imagination pavilion to its former glory, we often focus on the ride-thru attraction. The upstairs ImageWorks and the Magic Eye Theater were important parts of the pavilion, as well, and this new video tribute from the great Martin Smith gives them the love they deserve. Much of the technology in the old ImageWorks is painfully out-of-date by 21st century standards, but some of it still holds up.  And just imagine what kinds of things are possible with today’s technology.

Anyway, here’s the video. Enjoy.

For lots more videos like this, be sure to head over to MartinsVids.net and Mousebits.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Apparently, Hypno-Hustler > World Showcase

I haven’t talked much about the Disney/Marvel deal because lots of other people already have. However, I’d like to focus on two aspects of the deal:

1. Disney paid $4 billion for Marvel . . .

2. . . .which gives them access to all 5,000 Marvel characters; not just Spider-Man and Wolverine, but also virtually unknown ones like Dazzler, Typeface, and Hypno-Hustler. This is important, because Disney obviously had no marketable characters of their own.

Now, consider this fact: EPCOT’s World Showcase has the lowest attractions-to-acreage ratio of ANY theme park ANYWHERE. Why? Because putting more attractions in there would just cost too darned much money. Not only that, but the space that was originally set aside for new pavilions or additions to existing ones  has probably been gobbled up by backstage areas, right?

Take a look at this:

japanshowbuilding

It’s an aerial view of the Japan pavilion.  Guess what that highlighted yellow area is? It’s a show building! You see, back when the Japan pavilion was originally conceived by WED, it was supposed to be more than just a restaurant and some shops; it was going to have an attraction. They even built a building for it. However, EPCOT was seriously behind schedule, and in order to make the October 1, 1982 opening date some projects had to be shelved and saved for later. Then Michael Eisner took over in 1984, and “later” got changed to “never”. Hence the unused show building. Japan isn’t the only World Showcase country with a story like this, though. There’s also the country on the left side of this next photo:

germanyafrica2

I know it’s hard to tell, but the backwards-F-shaped structure on the left side of this picture is the German pavilion’s show building. As you can see, it’s easily larger than the entire guest-accessible German area. The big empty area on the right side of the picture is World Showcase’s most famous might-have-been. If you’d walked by that plot of land in the early ‘80s, you would have seen a Coming Soon sign for the Africa pavilion. Plans for the African pavilion may have been scrapped long ago, but the land set aside for it was obviously never used. To this day, it’s just sitting empty.

So, what does this little photographic tour of the hidden World Showcase tell us? That Disney can afford to pay $4 billion for the rights to Stryfe, U-Go-Girl, Spider-Man’s Aunt May, and a character named Doop, but installing attractions into empty buildings that were constructed for that very purpose? Impossibly expensive. For today’s Walt Disney Company this:

hypno-hustler

Is more important than this:

worldshowcase

And that’s just sad.

DISCLAIMER: Yes, I realize that Disney management is pumping money into the parks in a way that we haven’t seen in years. And that John Lasseter is supposed to be the king of awesome, a kind of Walt Disney/Chuck Norris hybrid. Overall, I’m honestly optimistic about where things are headed. I just like to make fun of lame, disco-inspired comic book characters. Plus, there’s no excuse for leaving those show buildings empty for twenty years, especially if you turn around and drop $4 billion for a comic book company. (Note: I love comic books)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A New Tomorrowland?

 

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The ongoing Space Mountain renovation, along with the change in the TTA’s audio track to one that more closely resembles the old pre-1994 PeopleMover narration has some people speculating that a change in Tomorrowland’s “theme” is imminent. As I’ve discussed before, prior to its 1994 overhaul, Tomorrowland’s “theme” could best be described as “space, the future, and other stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else”. For a short time after the ‘94 refurb, however, the area actually had a fairly cohesive theme. New attractions like Alien Encounter and Timekeeper, along with the conversion of the PeopleMover to the TTA and StarJets into the Astro Orbiter, all contributed to the the idea that the new Tomorrowland was a retro-futuristic metropolis. Of course, when Alien Encounter and the Timekeeper were replaced by Stitch and Monsters Inc. attractions, respectively, Tomorrowland once again reverted to a crazy quilt of mismatched elements. It’s hard to see how it could return to thematic unity without an expensive and near-total overhaul, which, given the huge Fantasyland/Toontown Fair overhaul that won’t be completed until 2013, doesn’t seem very likely.

So, how can Tomorrowland return to some semblance of the thematic unity it had in 1994? I don’t think it can, not completely. As much as they irritate the purists, Stitch’s Great Escape and the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor are probably here to stay for better part of the next decade. After all, converting the Timekeeper’s theater into the Laugh Floor wasn’t cheap, and unless a sinkhole opens up under the building, I don’t see Disney closing it anytime soon. And there’s only so much that can be done with building that houses Stitch’s Great Escape; restoring the old Flight to the Moon/Mission to Mars rocketship ride wouldn’t exactly wow modern audiences, and a more “extreme” version of the “escaped creature” show has already been tried and deemed incongruous with Disney World’s family friendly atmosphere. Since Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin is probably Tomorrowland’s second-biggest draw behind Space Mountain, it’s safe to bet that it’s not going anywhere, either.

The most likely scenario, I think, is the informal division of Tomorrowland into two areas; the western “Toon” area where the Buzz Lightyear, Stitch, and Monsters Inc. attractions live, and an eastern “Classic” area encompassing Space Mountain, the PeopleMover, Carousel of Progress, and the Speedway. Hopefully, after the Space Mountain rehab is complete the Carousel of Progress will get the refurbishment it’s needed for most of this decade. If that happens, Tomorrowland will have struck a balance between the kind of character-based attractions that are popular with the general public, and the old classics toward which longtime Disney fans feel so protective.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beware Hawaiian-Shirted Saviors

There are a lot of folks who feel that the Walt Disney Company has lost its way over the last couple of decades; that it has reached a point of creative stagnation. The Pixar merger was seen as a positive development, therefore, especially because it resulted in John Lasseter's installation as head of Walt Disney Imagineering. Lasseter is seen by many as a Hawaiian-shirted Great White Hope, the very person to spark a new creative renaissance, especially at parks like EPCOT, and I sure hope he is. I have my reservations, though, and not just because he's the guy responsible for this:



It's because I've been burned before. I've seen men who were supposed to be transformative creative forces turn out to be pantsless emperors. Exhibit A, of course is this guy:

No, not John Salley, the other one. Yes, the Great Flanneled One himself, George Lucas. Remember the months leading up to the release of Star Wars Episode I, when Lucas was being hailed as the greatest storyteller of our time and people were openly speculating that The Phantom Menace might end up as the greatest film of all time? How'd that work out? Allow me to refresh your memory:

Yes, by the time the Star Wars prequel trilogy was over, the guy who everyone once thought was a modern-day Shakespeare was widely believed to be clinically insane. It was like someone gave millions of dollars to one of those crazy street people who’s always having angry conversations with invisible beings and told them to make three movies about whatever they wanted. Scarier still, as we examined Lucas’ earlier work it dawned on us that he had always been this way, and we just never realized it before.

George Lucas, though, isn’t the only creator of a modern mythology who turned out to be missing several key brain lobes. There’s also this guy:

Yes, good ol’ Gene Roddenberry, creator of one of my favorite things in the whole world, Star Trek. Now to be fair, Star Trek was a great idea and Roddenberry was a very smart man, if not entirely scrupulous. He angered composer Alexander Courage by going behind his back and writing a set of truly awful lyrics to the Star Trek theme music, thereby entitling himself to one-half of Courage’s royalties. And he never bothered to mention the sizable creative contributions to Star Trek by folks like Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana. These things didn’t mean he was crazy, however, just that he could be a jerk sometimes.

The craziness started creeping in by the mid-1970s, when Star Trek found a larger audience in syndication and conventions were drawing thousands of excited fans to whom Roddenberry was a hero, a prophet, a visionary. They didn't just want to hear him talk about the making of Star Trek, they wanted to hear him expound on his philosophies about life, the future, and the human condition. That kind of adoration tends to swell a person's head, and by 1975 it was clear that Gene had completely lost his marbles. Paramount Pictures was interested in making a Star Trek movie, and Roddenberry submitted a script called "The God Thing." In it, the Enterprise meets God, who turns out to be a malfunctioning spaceship, and Captain Kirk has a fistfight with Jesus. Paramount rejected it, and Roddenberry accused them of being afraid to tell a story that tackled such “big” ideas.

Of course, Paramount finally did release a Star Trek film in 1979, a film that utilized another one of Roddenberry’s pet story concepts: the modified NASA probe returning to Earth in search of its “god”. Many fans thought of it as a direct rip-off of the second-season episode “The Changeling” in which a flying Folgers coffee can threatens to destroy Earth until Kirk talks it into committing suicide, but those fans were not well-informed. Star Trek:The Motion Picture was actually based on a story treatment by Alan Dean Foster entitled “In Thy Image” which bore more than a passing resemblance to a story called “Robot’s Return” that Gene Roddenberry had written for his never-produced TV series Genesis II, and it was “Robot’s Return” that was a rip-off of “The Changeling”. Star Trek:The Motion Picture, therefore, was a copy of a copy of a copy (bonus fact: the Paramount executive who greenlighted Roddenberry and Foster’s story as the basis for a Star Trek movie was none other than Michael Eisner)

Although the movie didn’t do as well at the box office as everyone hoped, Paramount decided to move ahead with a second film. Gene Roddenberry was ready, and submitted a story wherein the Enterprise travels back in time to 1963 and Spock shoots JFK to preserve the timeline. In case you’re keeping track, by this point alleged visionary Gene Roddenberry had been given three chances to pitch a Star Trek movie to the studio, and two of them involved members of the Enterprise crew injuring or killing beloved historical figures. Fearful that if they let him keep trying Roddenberry would eventually turn in a script where Scotty beats Abraham Lincoln to death with a baseball bat, Paramount decided to take a chance on a new creative team.

Roddenberry was not done with Star Trek, however. In 1986 he was tapped to develop a new television series. The result was Star Trek: The Next Generation, and although Gene once again secured the “Created By” credit, in truth he enlisted the help of David Gerrold and D.C. Fontana, used many of their ideas, and then had his lawyer screw them out of the Co-Creator credits they deserved. By the time TNG hit its stride with audiences Roddenberry was very ill, and other people had taken over the day-to-day running of the show. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to the Rick Berman-produced shows that continued on after his death was the idea that Star Trek’s humans were so “advanced” that they would have no interpersonal conflict. In the words of Ronald D. Moore, a writer on TNG and DS9 who would go on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, “This began to hamstring the series and led to many, many problems. To put it bluntly, this wasn't a very good idea.

Someone who was primarily interested in telling good stories would never hamstring his characters that way, but by this time Roddenberry’s main priority was in communicating his vision of the future, a vision that twenty years worth of cheering convention crowds had convinced him was genuinely important, instead of what it was, which was just some guy’s opinion. Some people think Gene saved Star Trek from obsolescence when he reimagined it for a new generation in 1986, but I think that Michael Piller and his talented team of writers saved Star Trek from Gene Roddenberry in 1989.

So, what was the point of that long, unfocused ramble? This: I hope that John Lasseter is what some people think he is, a creative it-getter with a clue who can get things done. But sometimes people who look like visionary creative it-getters turn out to be completely insane.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Return of the PeopleMover

Well, folks who miss the pre-1994 Tomorrowland got a small piece of the old place back this week. It seems the Tomorrowland Transit Authority has a new audio track that closely resembles the one it had back when the attraction was known as the WEDWay PeopleMover.  Some folks are speculating that this is the first step in a “soft reboot” of Tomorrowland that will dispense of all references to the area as a futuristic spaceport.

Here’s a video of the ride with the new narration:

 

And for comparison’s sake, here’s a video of the WEDWay PeopleMover from 1991:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Two Birds With One Stone (or how to get Horizons back, sort of)

There's a lot of love for Horizons out there, and no shortage of ideas on how to bring it back. Some folks advocate a new Horizons pavilion between The Land and The Seas With Nemo and His Computer-Generated Friends. Others point out that the former Wonders of Life pavilion is sufficiently large, and since it's sitting vacant a new Horizons ride would be a good fit there. A couple weeks ago, a person on one of the message boards I frequent suggested a Horizons-themed eatery be installed in the Odyssey building, with different rooms themed to the various futures presented during the course of the ride (Jules Verne's future, the Neon City future from the '50s, etc.) and I got to thinking: what about converting the Wonders of Life into a huge, immersive Horizons restaurant?


It could be divided into exquisitely-themed areas representing the different "future" environments seen on the ride. You'd check in at the with the maitre'd in the FuturePort, and from there you'd be escorted to your table in one of the restaurant's three main areas: the Nova Cite Concourse, the Mesa Verde Terrace, or the Brava Centuari RefreshmentPort. Utilizing either high-definition or (ideally) glasses-free stereoscopic 3D screens, each area would offer an expansive view of the environment "outside", be it Nova Cite's bustling futuristic metropolis, Mesa Verde's desert oasis (with just the subtlest hint of orangey scent) or the magnificent vista outside the viewport of the Earth-orbiting Brava Centuari station. No, I'm not forgetting the floating city of Sea Castle, but the fact is that Future World already has an underwater restaurant of sorts. However, in my post about the shortcomings of the Coral Reef restaurant, a commenter named Omnispace put forth the intriguing idea of doing away with the Coral Reef altogether and extending the Seas ride-through attraction through there, and if that were to happen (or if the Coral Reef were to close for some other reason, such as declining patronage due to poor-quality food and iffy service) then of course the Horizons Restaurant would not be complete without a Sea Castle section. The "view" through the "windows" could automatically change according to the time of day, so breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the restaurant would each be a unique experience.

None of this is impossible from a technological standpoint. Using technology available in 1998, Industrial Light and Magic created hyper-realistic 3D-modeled environments for Star Wars Episode I. Eleven-and-a-half years later, the technology is much more affordable. Glasses-free stereoscopic 3D screens exist too. Sure, as yet they're not very large, but as technology advances they'll quickly get bigger and less expensive. For the menus, what about building a multitouch system like Microsoft Surface into the tables?

Of course, someone will wonder why in the world EPCOT would need another restaurant. After all, the World Showcase is full of them, and Future World already has two table service and two counter service venues. The last time I was in Future World on Labor Day in 2007, though, they were all packed to capacity at lunchtime (okay, I'm not sure about the Coral Reef, since it's so out-of-the way, but the rest of them definitely were). Even though my wife and I had an ADR at the Garden Grille, we still waited almost twenty minutes for our table. I think another table service eatery in Future World would do pretty well. But, if I'm wrong and attendance figures just wouldn't support a large new restaurant, then I say they should close the Coral Reef. It was a great place to eat once, but now positive reviews of the place are few and far between. It really isn't worth it to eat there unless you get a table right next to the tank, and even that can be a mixed blessing if nearby diners allow their children to come press their noses against the glass right next to you and crowd you while you're trying to enjoy your meal. I figure if you're going to have some vacant real estate in Future World anyway, the hind end of the Seas pavilion is a better place for it than a huge, hard-to-ignore golden-domed building.

Sure, it's not a perfect idea, but it does address some of Future World's problems: it gives that monstrous building between Universe of Energy and Mission:Space a reason to exist, it adds a needed restaurant to Future World, and it allows us to spend a little time immersed in Horizons' futuristic utopia.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Some EPCOT Pictures from Disney's Hollywood Studios

My wife really wanted to get out of town on Labor Day, so we headed south to Disney's Hollywood Studios, and I snapped some pictures of some EPCOT-related things I found there.

Inside One Man's Dream, you'll find a diorama of Walt presenting his original plans for EPCOT to a television audience.


The TV cameras even sport the old-school WED logo!



Finally, if you climb to the very top of the bleachers at the Lights, Motors, Action! stunt show, you can see Spaceship Earth in the distance.





It's amazing how close together the two parks actually are. I've recently become an annual passholder, so over the next fifteen months I hope to be making several more little day trips to EPCOT to take pictures and report on what's going on there.

Thanks for reading!


Monday, August 17, 2009

The Lean Machine: A TransCenter Artifact


If you ever got to spend a few minutes in the TransCenter, World of Motion's post-show area, chances are you at least caught a glimpse of the Lean Machine, a concept car developed by Frank Winchell of GM. I saw it when I visited EPCOT Center with my grandfather in 1989. He was general manager of a GM dealership at the time, so naturally we spent a while in the TransCenter looking at the displays. Near the Lean Machine prototypes, a video was playing of the vehicle in action, leaning into turns on a winding mountain road just like a motorcycle. At the time, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that, when it was time for me to go car shopping in just six short years, I'd be able to walk into my grandfather's dealership and make a deal for my very own Lean Machine.

Of course, things didn't exactly work out that way. Until gas prices spiked at over $4 a gallon last summer, there didn't seem to be a market for such a tiny vehicle, even if it did give you 200 mpg. Although fuel prices have been under $3 for the better part of a year, fuel economy remains a concern for new car buyers. So why is the Lean Machine still in mothballs? Primarily because it really isn't a car. If anything, it's an enclosed recumbent three-wheeled motorcycle. Visit any automobile dealership, and you'll see five basic type of vehicles: sedans, sports cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans. A tiny, one-person transportation pod does not fit neatly into any of those categories.

It would be a great idea for GM to sell or license the Lean Machine to a company like Honda or Mitsubishi that also makes motorcycles. That way, at least they'd make some money off the thing. And while car shoppers are not likely to opt for a small, one-person vehicle with little to no cargo space, the Lean Machine would be a great option for someone who really wants the low cost and fuel efficiency of a motorcycle or scooter, but would like the protection from the elements that an enclosed design provides. I live in a college town, and lots of students already use scooters to get around campus and around town. How many more would go for something like a Lean Machine with air conditioning? And how well would the Lean Machine do in emerging Asian markets like China and India, where consumers need something small and inexpensive to drive? Finally, electric car technology has come a long way since the Lean Machine was first conceived. Would it be feasible to make a fully electric Lean Machine?

Clearly, selling or licensing the Lean Machine to a company who can market it to motorcycle/scooter buyers is an intelligent thing to do, which is why I'm certain that the company that gave us the Pontiac Aztek will never do it. But maybe, when gas prices go up to five or six dollars a gallon, as they inevitably will sometime in the next decade, the ensuing tidal wave of demand for fuel efficient vehicles will force GM's hand, and we'll see the Lean Machine in some form.

For more information on the Lean Machine, including pictures of its display area in the World of Motion and scans of the informational brochure that was distributed there, check out these websites:

Tilting Three-Wheelers: GM Lean Machine

The New Cafe (Racer) Society: Vintage 1980: the GM Lean Machine
Lean Machines: Preliminary Investigations- A UC-Berkley study on the feasiblity of the Lean Machine in California.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #1

Rehab the Imagination Pavilion, and Do It RIGHT This Time




You were expecting Horizons, weren't you? As much as I loved Horizons, the construction of a new 5-story pavilion in Future World is not within the realm of possibility unless a new corporate sponsor sweeps in and absolutely insists on dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on the project. The Imagination pavilion, though, is still intact. But why make an Imagination rehab the most-needed improvement to EPCOT? Because I believe Future World could not exist without it. While the rest of Future World (most of it, anyway) toots humanity's horn for all the cool stuff we've been able to do, the Imagination pavilion reminds us that it would all be impossible without something we didn't invent: our capacity for imagination.

Once upon a time, the Imagination pavilion was a prime Future World destination. A whimsical, expansive ride took up the ground floor of the pavilion, and afterward visitors could go up to the second floor to play in the ImageWorks, which boasted cutting-edge technology for the time. In the Magic Eye theater, there were 3D films like Magic Journeys and Captain EO (which seems ridiculous now, but was a pretty big deal in the '80s). Honey, I Shrunk The Audience debuted there in 1994, and by mid-90s standards it was pretty impressive.

Unfortunately, the last decade has not been kind to the Imagination pavilion. I've written about the whole sad story before, and this Wikipedia article provides a good overview, as well. So, how to fix it? Well, according to this thread in the WDWMagic forums, there are plans for a fourth refurbishment that would reunite Dreamfinder and Figment. The ride-through attraction would allegedly be extended into the space now occupied by the Magic Eye theater, thus lengthening the ride into something closer to its original 11-minute run time. Unfortunately, plans for this much needed rehab of the Imagination pavilion seem to have been put on hold so the money can be put toward the rumored massive Fantasyland refresh at the Magic Kingdom.

I know money is tight these days, but now would be an excellent time for the Imagination pavilion's corporate sponsor to come to the rescue. Yes, I'm talking about Kodak. They're still around, you know! As much I've complained about companies like Exxon and GM corrupting the message of the attractions they've sponsored, there is a positive side to the whole deal: the sponsor provides money for improvements to the pavilion that might not otherwise be made. Look at what Siemens has done for Spaceship Earth: sure, the descent still needs some work, but thanks to Siemens the post-show area is the best it's been since the Earth Station days. The money for the refurb didn't come from Disney, it came from the corporate sponsor. Word is that Siemens is even responsible for getting that horrible wand taken down. (Man, I hated that thing. It looked like a cartoon had vomited all over one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world) I'm not sure how healthy Kodak's finances are, though. After all, their primary product is camera film, which has mostly gone the way of the videotape and the floppy disk. According to their Wikipedia page, Kodak is in the midst of "refocusing" on digital photography products. Sounds to me like corporate doublespeak for "desperately trying to stave off obsolescence".

What I'm saying is that the Imagination pavilion looks so dreary and neglected that one could be forgiven for believing that it has no sponsor, and if Kodak can't step up and supply the needed capital to breathe some life back into the place, then maybe a new sponsor could. Someone like Apple, perhaps. Steve Jobs is on Disney's board, after all. And Apple has always marketed their products as tools that allow people to express their creativity. Can you imagine an ImageWorks full of Apple technology? Of course, that's probably a pipe dream. I really can't imagine Steve Jobs investing in something like that, and I can't imagine what benefit Apple would see from it.

Setting the sponsorship issue to one side, though, what might a refurbished Imagination pavilion look like? Well, if the plans already drawn up by the Imagineers are eventually implemented, it'll mean the end of the Magic Eye theater. But if it means the return of Dreamfinder in a ride that's closer to the spirit of the original, then I'm all for it. Hopefully, the queue area would be redone to dispense with the stodgy, unimaginative Imagination Institute theme. What would take its place? How about a queue area inspired by the whimsical murals that used to adorn the walls of the original queue area? Instead of a simple painting, though, perhaps it could give you the feeling of actually being inside the mural, the way that the Seas new queue area gives visitors the sense of being shrunk down to the size of a clownfish and entering Nemo's underwater world. As far as the ride itself, I know the Imagineers already have concepts prepared; I'm just hoping they actually see the light of day. The real tragedy of all this is that the original ride never needed to fundamentally change. It was a timeless Disney classic, like Peter Pan's Flight or Pirates of the Caribbean. If Disney had simply left it alone except for necessary maintenance and periodic cosmetic upgrades, the ride would be more popular and they wouldn't have wasted all that money on unsuccessful rehabs. No doubt the ideas the Imagineers have will, if they are ever implemented, return the ride to its status as a classic and allow Disney to leave it alone for a while.

That just leaves the ImageWorks. In the old days, the ImageWorks boasted the best technology the early 1980s had to offer. Subsequent rehabs brought it into the 1990s, and that's where it's been ever since. Two things need to happen here. First of all, the ImageWorks needs to be moved back upstairs where it belongs. Second, it needs to move into the 21st century. It needs to be a place where visitors play with creative tools they don't have at home. What about large multitouch screens that allow you to manipulate and distort images using only your hands? Okay, that's my only idea, other than the return of the neon rainbow tunnel that made you feel like you were inside a giant multicolored Slinky. But I think it's clear that with a little TLC the ImageWorks could be the best post-show area in Disney World again.

I fervently hope that the next time I visit EPCOT, the Imagination pavilion will be closed for refurbishment. In the meantime, I think I'll head over to Zazzle and pick up this T-shirt. Or maybe this one. Just to let folks know where I stand.

I hope you enjoyed my Feasible EPCOT Improvements series. Thank you very much for reading. There are still more interesting things to come: I'm working on a post about a revolutionary vehicle that only visitors to World of Motion ever saw, and best of all, I recently acquired a mint-condition copy of the definitive EPCOT text Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating The New World of Tomorrow for just 13 bucks on eBay! My grandfather originally bought the book for me in 1984, but one move and many years later it ended up in my parents garage with some pretty bad water damage. Interestingly, the copy I have now is actually an earlier printing than my first one, so it has more early concept art in it, rather than photographs of completed attractions. Just thumbing through it, it appears to have all kinds of tidbits about things that were planned for EPCOT but never realized, and as I come across those things I'll try to share them here.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #2

Finish World Showcase

Since nothing has been added to the World Showcase since 1988, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is finished, that everything planned for that area of the park was realized in some fashion. If that's what you think, click here. And here. As you can see, there were a whole boatload of World Showcase attractions that never saw the light of day. Now, I know that we'll never see a Venezuela pavilion with its aerial tram ride through the Amazon rainforest (although that would be a nice addition to Animal Kingdom, perhaps as part of an South American Rainforest-themed area that could replace Camp Minnie-Mickey), an Israel pavilion would be a huge security risk, and a lot of the stuff planned for Africa was incorporated into Animal Kingdom in some way, shape, or form. However, it would be nice if the attractions originally planned for the countries that already there were actually built.

Now, you're probably thinking that the addition of several E-ticket attractions at once is not a feasible improvement. Maybe you're right, but consider this: in the years since Michael Eisner scrapped most of EPCOT's Phase 2 projects in 1984, Disney has opened two new parks in on the Florida property, and built scores of new resorts there, too. Did they really lack the money to give Japan its bullet train, Germany its Rhine River cruise, and Italy its gondola ride/Roman ruin walk-thru? Is there any theme park anywhere, Disney or otherwise, with fewer attractions per acre than World Showcase? The Disney rumor mill is currently swirling with talk of a massive refresh of the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland. To be sure, it's much-needed and long-overdue, but even though Florida's Fantasyland is small and anemic compared to its Anaheim counterpart, that small slice of the Magic Kingdom still has more attractions than the entire World Showcase!

Most adults don't seem to mind this very much, since the World Showcase provides dining (and drinking!) options that you just can't find in the other parks, but how do children, a key Disney demographic, fare there? Let's travel back to 1984 and see what kind of fun my sister and I had in Morocco:


There's NO place like World SHOW-case!

No wonder a whole generation of park visitors grew up believing EPCOT to be boring! I'm not suggesting that World Showcase be given the Licensed Disney Character treatment, but adding the rides that Germany, Japan, and Italy were always supposed to have would go a long way toward making the place more kid-friendly. After all,
in a place like Florida where summer lasts half the year, it's important to have regularly-spaced opportunities to get off your feet and out of the heat, especially when there are kids in your party.

Sure, World Showcase has the best live entertainment of any Disney park, but it could use some rides, too. Lots of Disney fans want to see new countries added, but I'd settle for some good attractions for the countries that are already there. They were on the drawing board, once. Isn't it time they became reality?