Give Mission:Space a Rehab
When EPCOT Center opened in 1982, the park was not finished; the things that were completed in time for opening day were only "Phase I". A whole range of new Future World pavilions and World Showcase countries were supposed to be added over the next several years as part of "Phase II", but as many Disney aficionados are aware, not many of those projects ever saw the light of day, since the company went through a major regime change in 1984. To put it diplomatically, the new bosses didn't like what they didn't understand-in fact, it scared them-and EPCOT Center was mysterious, at least. World Showcase suffered the worst from this, but fortunately most of what what was promised for Future World's Phase II actually got built. Horizons was completed in 1983, the Seas pavilion opened in 1986, and in 1989 the opening of Wonders of Life gave us the promised Life and Health pavilion (don't worry, I've got much more to say about Wonders of Life.) Only one pavilion was never realized: Space.
The book Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating The New World of Tomorrow mentioned plans for a Space pavilion developed in association with NASA that would take visitors on a trip to a simulated space station of the near future. According to Jim Hill Media, a thumbnail description of that early concept went something like this:
A huge, interstellar "Space Vehicle" will transport passengers to the outer frontiers of the universe, highlighting man's efforts to reach out to the stars around him ... from the early pioneers who looked and wondered ... to modern-day space travelers and their triumphs ... to the challenges and possibilities of future space technology and exploration.
Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Sure, with the technology available in the early '80s, the "huge, interstellar Space Vehicle" might have ended up looking a lot like Universe of Energy's moving theater, but it's obvious that the Space pavilion was supposed to impart a positive message about the risks and rewards of continued human space exploration. So, when we finally got a Space pavilion in 2003, the marriage of forward-thinking idealism with 21st century technology must have resulted in a tour de force that really got people excited about space exploration again, right? If you've ever been on Mission:Space you're shaking you head right now. To be sure, it offers the most realistic rocket-launch simulation that you and I are likely to experience in our lifetimes, but whereas the previous occupant of that piece of real estate told us that "if we can dream it, then we can do it", Mission:Space's central message, if it has one, is "a trip to Mars would be cool".
Now, if you're wondering what I would do to Mission:Space if I were appointed Grand Poobah of the Walt Disney Company, here's a hint:
Unfortunately, I am not the Grand Poobah of anything, except for the various Transformers and Star Wars action figures that decorate my cubicle. And since Mission:Space cost Disney zillions of dollars to build, it's unlikely to go anywhere unless another sinkhole opens up. Anyway, it's entirely possible to salvage Mission:Space to be something of the original Space pavilion that Disney was developing back in the late '70s. Here's how:
First, give it a message. This is the easiest part, since it already has one, kind of. Check out the attraction's official logo and see if you can spot it:
Yes, it's right there in the upper-left quadrant, taken from JFK's famous speech at Rice University in September 1962.
I know that the sole purpose of the lunar program was to beat the USSR, and I've read that Kennedy privately complained about its huge drain on the national budget, but that doesn't change the fact that the speech contains some of the most inspirational words ever uttered about space exploration. They're the key to turning Mission:Space into an experience that truly inspires people and gives them something to think about. There are a number of places where the message could be placed.
Let's start with the preshow. Tomorrowland's old "Mission to Mars" attraction was billed as a "real" trip to Mars, even though all you did was sit in a vibrating chair and watch a round screen on the floor. Why not alter the story of Mission:SPACE so that visitors are astronauts who board a spaceship instead of just a simulator? Use the pre-show to review the history of manned spaceflight and emphasize what a huge undertaking a flight to Mars would be; emphasizing that, despite the challenges and the hardship, we can make it to Mars if "we choose to go".
Secondly, make this the first-ever Mars mission. If riders are "really" going to the Red Planet, why not make them the first people to do so? It makes the ride more exciting, and gives you another opportunity to inject the "we choose to go" message.
Finally, the post-show area needs some serious help. Part of the ride's story could be that an unmanned ship landed earlier with a prefab habitat for the astronauts to live in. At the conclusion of the simulator ride, your ship could "dock" with the habitat, and the post-show area could be remodeled slightly to reflect this. Inside the post-show "Marsbase" you could have a couple educational exhibits about what Mars is really like, including, perhaps, a virtual-reality experience that allows you to play the part of an astronaut walking around on the Martian surface. Yes, I know there's a video game there now that does that, but I'm talking about actual virtual reality, with the helmet and everything. Perhaps there could also be a console where visitors could take turns operating the Mars Rover by remote control. Of course, this approach presents a story problem: if post-show area is also for people who are unable or unwilling to experience the ride, how do they "get to Mars"? I really don't know, but I'm sure the Imagineers could figure something out.
Not only would these changes make Mission:Space more interesting, they would also make it worth visiting more than once. No, it wouldn't quite turn the place into a worthy replacement for Horizons, or give us the original Space pavilion concept developed in association with NASA and Ray Bradbury, but it's a feasible improvement. And with any real-life mission to Mars still many years away, the ride's basic concept is not one that's going to become outdated any time soon.
Other pavilions at EPCOT, though, were designed to tackle issues a little closer to home. Next post, I'll discuss one of them.