Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reaping the fruits of the 21st century

When I rode Horizons during my childhood visits to EPCOT in the '80s, I remember being entranced by the idea of space colonies, undersea cities, and flying cars becoming ubiquitous by the time I was 30. Of course, we didn't get any of that stuff, but we did get something else that no one at the time could have imagined: a worldwide computer network through which once can actually buy their own piece of that imagined 21st century, by which I mean one of the ride vehicles from the Horizons pavilion:

I'm not making this up. This very ride vehicle is available for sale at the Mouse Surplus store on eBay. The speakers inside the vehicle are rigged to play the Horizons soundtrack while you sit inside. Oh, and it'll run you a little over $10,000 when all's said and done. But if you throw in the Authentic Red Monorail Door for $2,750 and the Universe of Energy Light-Up Sign for $1,500, it means that for under $15,000, you can give your home decor that Defunct Disney Attraction look it's been missing.

Of course, if your place is small like mine, then you may have to make some sacrifices. For example, you might not have room in your living area for both a sofa and a Horizons ride vehicle, so the sofa will have to go. And your bedroom will probably be unworkably crowded with both your bed and the Universe of Energy sign shoved in there, so you'll have to get rid of your bed and sleep on the floor. And if you can't hang the Monorail door on one of your walls because your spouse stubbornly insists upon using that space for stuff like family pictures, then you'll probably have to just install the Monorail door in place of your current front door. Of course, since your front door is rectangular, and the Monorail door is shaped more like a hexagon, it may do a somewhat less than ideal job of sealing out the outdoor environment. But when you think about it, those are small sacrifices to make in order to own pieces of the 21st century we dreamed of but never got.

I'm not sure I'm kidding about that.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Why I prefer Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica

Notice that the title of this post is not "Why Star Trek is better than Battlestar Galactica". I'm not an ill-tempered Internet fanboy who believes his opinions are the only correct ones. I'm just going to tell you what my personal preference is; your mileage may vary.

Despite the space travel element, the two franchises could not be more different. Star Trek has survived for over forty years, through good times and bad. It's told some truly great stories, lots of mediocre ones (see Voyager, entire run of), and even a few that are just plain awful, but almost all of its episodes and movies are united by Gene Roddenberry's idea of a future in which mankind has moved beyond its baser instincts. You could never imagine Captain Kirk or Captain Picard torturing an enemy for information, even in a "ticking time bomb" scenario, or executing an hostile alien, like a Klingon or Romulan, without a trial simply because they were a Klingon or Romulan. In one of Star Trek's more critically acclaimed episodes, Deep Space Nine's "In The Pale Moonlight", Captain Sisko's decision to resort to unethical, even illegal, means to turn the Dominion War in the Federation's favor clearly plagues his conscience. Even as he looks back on what he's done, and insists "I can live with it", the clear subtext is that he can't.

On the other hand, Battlestar Galactica's heroes don't behave like idealized 24th century humans, they behave like regular 21st century humans who haven't yet figured out how to get out of tight spots without selling out their most cherished beliefs. They claim to have morals, and yet they don't hesitate to engage in torture if the situation seems to call for it. President Roslin routinely airlocks Cylons without one shred of hesitation or remorse. And in the third season episode "Dirty Hands", Admiral Adama is prepared to execute Chief Tyrol's wife and baby son to end a strike of overworked menial laborers. Can you imagine any Star Trek Captain threatening the innocent family of an officer who disobeyed orders? For that matter, can you imagine that kind of behavior from a military commander in today's world, outside of places like North Korea or Zimbabwe? The human-Cylon conflict in Battlestar Galactica isn't good guys vs. bad guys; it's two equally amoral factions slugging it out in a mud pit. If Star Trek depicts humans as we ought to be, Battlestar Galactica depicts us as we truly are, and it's not pretty.

To be sure, there are things I like about BSG. I like the un-choreographed, documentary look of the special effects shots. I appreciate how the effects of 50,000 people being crammed onto a few spaceships for an extended period of time are realistically explored. BSG is well-shot, well-directed, and superbly acted, and I really wish I could enjoy it. In the end, though, it just doesn't give you any heroes to root for.

Star Trek has endured for forty years largely because its optimistic vision of the future inspired people. Kids have grown up to become doctors, engineers, scientists, and even astronauts because they grew up watching characters like Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty. Decades from now, will we be saying the same of BSG? Sure, someone may say Colonel Tigh inspired them to be an alcoholic, but that's not really the same thing.

Normally when I hear people comparing Star Trek and BSG, they're snidely asserting that BSG's grim-n'-gritty approach makes it automatically superior to the more optimistic Star Trek. It reminds me of the way high school jocks make fun of the "nerdy" kids who concentrate on their studies, not realizing that in a few years those same "nerds" will likely be their bosses. I guess I'm one of the nerds. If I want to watch something grim and depressing, there are four 24-hour news channels to choose from. Otherwise, I'll be watching Star Trek.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Of towers and fake rocks

When Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom was constructed in Florida, it boasted one improvement over its California predecessor: a complex of tunnels that ran beneath the park, enabling the moving of people and equipment, garbage collection, and other essential park business to be carried on out of the guests' view, lest anything spoil their illusion. There's an old story that says Walt got the idea one day at Disneyland when he saw a Frontierland cowboy walking through Tomorrowland, thus piercing its futuristic "bubble". Theming is something at which Disney has historically been very good.

Which brings me to Tomorrowland. There have been many Internet postings complaining that the 1994 refurbishment of Tomorrowland into some sort of Flash Gordon spaceport amounts to an abandonment of the future. This isn't one of them. Ultimately, whether a person prefers the pre-1994 Tomorrowland with its sleek, minimalist design sensibility rooted in the 1960s, or the new version with it's deliberately retro-1930s/1940s/1950s stylings really depends on their own individual taste. However, I encourage you to take a look at the picture below and tell me which element(s) don't quite belong:

Could it be the GIANT FAKE ROCKS? What exactly was Disney thinking here? How do the rocks fit in with the whirlygigs and the radiator fins and the neon lights? They're as out-of-place in Tomorrowland as, well, a Frontierland cowboy. Compare the rocks with what used to be there before the 1994 rehab:

Now, I understand why the towers were taken down. They clashed with the retro-50s design aesthetic the Imagineers were going for, and they would have competed with the fancy-schmancy Tomorrowland sign that arcs over the entrance. But were the ridiculously fake rocks the best replacements Disney could conjure up? They have a distinctly Warner Brothers cartoon look, as if they're the divider between Duck Dodgers In The 25 1/2 Century Land and Road Runner and Coyote Land. And the thing is, they aren't a Magic Kingdom-only abberation. California's Disneyland has them, too:

Clearly the fake rocks are an intended part of the design. What's the story behind this? Did Eisner have some kind of faux boulder fetish? Were a bunch of fake rocks fabricated for a planned Thunder Mountain expansion, then dumped in front of Tomorrowland when the project was canceled? What's really ridiculous is that Disney Imagineers are masters of making things look real. If Eisner wanted rocks, it wouldn't have been that hard for them to whip up something that looked like rocks instead of Looney Tunes come to life.

Or, if they really wanted to save money, they could have taken a cue from Tokyo Disneyland . . .

. . .and simply given the towers a new paint job. Would they still have clashed with the Flash Gordon radiator fins and neon lights? Sure, but not as much as the rocks.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A ray of hope?

"Hey, you know a lot about EPCOT," one of my workmates said to me recently. "When's the best time to visit?"

"1989," I replied.

There are lots of people who feel the way I do. They operate websites dedicated to the old-school EPCOT. They blog (much better than I do, I might add). And although things like the removal of the hated wand over Spaceship Earth and last year's installation of a 25th anniversary exhibit in the former CommuniCore makes it seem as though Disney has some sympathy for our feelings, folks in the know insist that Disney executives hate us. We're seen as the online equivalent of crazy street people, as grumpy, progress-hating angry malcontents. Reportedly, these execs even have a derisive nickname for us: foamers. So, the author of EPCOT Central can write a thoughtful, incisive treatise on how some aspect of the park could be improved, and the executives can simply dismiss it as the work of a "foamer".

Every once in a while, though, we get a glimmer of hope. When John Lasseter became Principal Creative Advisor for Disney Imagineering, a rumor began to circulate that he wanted to restore the Imagination pavilion to its former glory. However, he was reportedly blocked by the decades-old culture of internal politics at WDI, and the dreamed-of Imagination rehab never got off the ground. Still, rumors of a fourth rehab of the House That Figment Built have been surprisingly persistent. And on October 30, Disney began selling a limited-edition pin depicting Figment dreaming of his old friend Dreamfinder. (Click here for a picture) The pin, called When Dreams Come True-Figment, is on sale only at the Walt Disney World properties in Florida. Now, I understand that commemorative pins have become a big business for Disney, and that the process of continually coming up with new pin designs would involve dredging up old characters. But isn't it interesting how Dreamfinder is presented here, not just as part of Disney's past, but as a hoped-for part of the future?

Maybe there are people at Disney who feel the way we do. And maybe one day, we'll see Dreamfinder again, not on a pin, but in a revitalized Journey Into Imagination, at the controls of his Dream-Mobile, reminding us of all we can accomplish with one little spark of inspiration.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Africa: The Lost World Showcase Pavilion

The history of EPCOT's World Showcase is littered with planned-but-never built pavilions for countries like Spain, Israel, and the former USSR. The one that was farthest along in the planning stage, though, was the Equatorial Africa pavilion. It was even included in some concept paintings and early maps of the park, nestled between China and Germany. Of course, the only thing between China and Germany now is the Africa Trading Post, an open-air gift shop that sells the same stuff you can get in Animal Kingdom, the Magic Kingdom's Adventureland, or the Indiana Jones area of the Hollywood Studios park.

The Imagineers once had grand plans for Equatorial Africa, however. Its centerpiece was to have been a tree house, in which visitors would overlook a jungle water hole in a simulated nighttime environment. Realistic plants, boulders, and the piped-in sounds and smells of the jungle would have been combined with a rear-projected film of animals visiting the water hole to convince visitors that they were actually in the African rainforest. One of the pavilion's shows, "The Heartbeat of Africa", would have begun with a pre-show conducted by an actual African narrator who would give a presentation on the history of the drum and its significance to African culture. The show itself would have been a film on the history of Equatorial Africa that culminated with an outdoor jazz concert filmed in a present-day African city, augmented with superimposed laser images that appear to emanate from the instruments.

Also planned was a museum featuring exhibits of art loaned by various African countries. Perhaps the centerpiece of the Africa pavilion, though, would have been the show "Africa Rediscovered", hosted by Alex Haley. This fifteen-minute film was designed to teach EPCOT guests that Africa was more than a primitive continent, that it is a country with a rich history. The show would have highlighted Carthagian general Hannibal as well as the accomplishments of the ancient African kingdom of Kush.

So what happened? Why is there only a "trading post" full of overpriced merchandise in the World Showcase where the Africa pavilion should have been? Well, all of the countries included in the World Showcase put up money to finance the construction of their pavilions, and Africa is easily the most impoverished of Earth's continents. The story goes that the only African corporations willing to put money towards the project were based in South Africa, and in the early 1980s the white-dominated government of South Africa was under fire for its practice of apartheid so there was no way Disney was going to accept money from them. And given the constant political upheaval in that part of the world, it was impossible for Disney to line up a country to serve as host nation for the pavilion. So, Equatorial Africa was shelved. Of course, today there's a superbly themed African area at Animal Kingdom, and it has live entertainment by genuine African performers.

Still, I would have liked to have seen the tree house.

(Note: The information in this post came from the book Walt Disney's EPCOT Center, Creating the New World of Tomorrow, and this article by Jeff Lange.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Future of Test Track

The recent drop in GM's fortunes has caused many folks to speculate about the future of the EPCOT pavilion that it's sponsored since opening day in 1982. One thing's for certain, GM's sponsorship will almost certainly end soon. What effect will that have on the World of Motion pavilion? In the short term, probably none. Test Track is a popular ride. I imagine Disney will have to pull the GM-specific stuff out of the building, with the worst-case scenario seeing a complete emptying of the post-show area, like Spaceship Earth during its sponsor-less period.

Eventually, though, guests will tire of Test Track just as they tired of World of Motion, and Disney will need to rehab the pavilion again. What might this pavilion's next incarnation look like? I'm not a Disney insider, so if the Imagineers have any ideas about this I certainly wouldn't know. Personally, though, I'd like to see the pavilion's next attraction focus on the future of transportation. What about an attraction that allows guests to experience some futuristic transportation concepts like a pod-car system in an urban environment, a mag-lev bullet train, and a space elevator? Several types of simulators would need to be utilized to realistically simulate these different transportation experiences, of course. Maybe the whole thing could be connected by a ride system that moves guests between different simulators, so they wouldn't have to actually get up and walk several times during the same "ride"? I'm just throwing out ideas here, I'm really don't know how feasable they'd be from an engineering standpoint. Disney Imagineers, however, have a history of accomplishing the improbable.

I can think of several benefits of a pavilion featuring the whole range of future transportation. For one thing, no one will be able to accuse it of being a "one trick pony". The variety of experiences offered will encourage many repeat visits. It could also educate guests about transportation alternatives that are greener and more sustainable than what we have now, and thus create consumer demand for them. And there's no danger of such an attraction becoming dated too quickly, if it's done right. After all, the technology to build a space elevator doesn't even exist yet. Even when it does, space elevators won't exactly be a ubiquitous as cars or airliners; they'll seem "futuristic" for many years to come. And it'll be a long time, if ever, before a mag-lev train system exists on a large scale in the United States, to say nothing of pod-car networks in the big cities.

Of course, I'm not in the theme park business. I'm just a guy with an opinion. I'd love to hear yours.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Burning Issue

Well, the new Star Trek trailer was released to the web yesterday and like everyone else, I've been examining it frame-by-frame. The trailer raises some very important questions, to be sure, but none more important than this: Is there a urinal on the bridge of the Enterprise? And if not, just what the heck is this guy doing?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Abrams-prise Unveiled

After months of waiting, fans got the first good look at the new Enterprise yesterday:

My first reaction was disappointment. It was a lot like the feeling I had when the first picture of Brandon Routh in the Superman Returns suit was released. The more I saw of the Superman Returns costume, though, the more I liked it. Hopefully, the same will be true of the new Enterprise. And anyway, pretty starships do not a good movie make. The Star Wars prequels were visually stunning but almost totally devoid of characters that spoke and acted like believable human beings.

At the end of the day, if the old gal's heart is in the right place, then her facelift won't matter so much.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What is Orion Press?

When Star Trek was cancelled in 1969, there were no personal computers. The Internet as we know it did not exist. And yet, fans were able to meet, to organize, and ultimately keep interest in the show alive long enough for Paramount Pictures to take notice and investigate ways to resurrect it, an endeavor which resulted in a big budget Star Trek film being released to theaters in 1979, ten years after Star Trek the television series had been left for dead.

To be sure, a big reason for Star Trek's success in the 1970s was its airing in syndication on weeknights at 6pm, thus reaching the young audience that could most appreciate it. However, the role of the fan community shouldn't be underestimated. One of the many outlets into which fans directed their love of all things Star Trek was the production of fanzines-fan-produced magazines that contained original Star Trek fiction and non-fiction articles. (Click here for a gallery of fanzine covers through the years) Fanzines went into decline when use of the Internet became commonplace, but there are still a few old-school zines kicking around out there, keeping the spirit alive. The best of these, in my opinion, are the ones produced by Orion Press. They've been around since 1979, and are home to some truly gifted and prolific authors, including Jim Ausfahl, Rick Endres, D.G. Littleford, and Randy Landers. (Randy is also the publisher)

The Orion Press website is contains the largest archive of Original Series Star Trek fiction that I've ever seen, neatly separated by timeframe. Additionally, there's a rich trove of nonfiction material, most notably the Unseen Elements page, which examines early drafts of original epsiode scripts, as well as episodes that never made it past the concept page.

The site contains a wide variety of stories. You'll find everything except slash here, including stuff that's meant for more "mature" audiences, but don't worry, the "mature audiences" stuff is clearly labeled.

Of course, Orion Press still prints old-school honest-to-goodness paper fanzines, and you can order them if you so desire. (I highly recommend it).

So, in case you were looking at the link menu on the right side of the page and wondering what the heck an "Orion Press" was, now you know.

Friday, November 7, 2008

New Star Trek Details Emerge (or, How Trekkers Are Like Nancy Grace)

A month ago, all we knew about the new Star Trek film was the barest thumbnail sketch of a plot, some monocolored publicity photos, and a very brief teaser trailer. Oh, there were lots of interviews (most of them with Simon Pegg), but they revealed nothing other than that the interviewee believed that the film would be very good. Now we have a small handful of production stills that give us a sense of the film's design sensibility, but reveal very little of the plot. Nevertheless, the reaction of the more dangerously rabid portion of the Star Trek fanbase was firmly planted in the Nancy Grace School of Outrage For Its Own Sake.

These folks are positively frothing at the mouth at the notion that the film will "violate" their sacred Star Trek "canon" by contradicting things established about the Star Trek universe forty years ago. An example: (spoilers follow) the majority of this new movie takes place during the period before a young James T. Kirk first takes command of the Enterprise, and the villains of the piece are a band of evil Romulans. As any Trekker worth his salt knows, the Romulans were first seen in the Original Series episode "Balance of Terror", and a great portion of that episode's drama hinged on the idea that no one had ever met a Romulan face-to-face or knew what they looked like. Now, I would argue that this piece of Star Trek lore is best left alone. After all, it's entirely possible to tell a good Star Trek story without having younger versions of Kirk and the crew tangle with Romulans. But if J.J. Abrams and his team think differently, it's not worth getting worked up into a Nancy Grace-style storm of furious outrage.

Consider another genre property that's enjoyed some cinematic success over the last decade: Spider-Man. When the first Spider-Man film was released, the character was also active in not only the main Marvel Comics universe but also in the seperate Marvel Ultimate universe. The movies contradicted story points from the main Marvel comics universe. The Ultimate universe comics contradicted story points from the main Marvel U comics. And yet, the heads of Spider-Man fans failed to explode. They were capable of holding all three continuities in their mind simultaneously and enjoying each on its own merits.

Star Trek fans should take the same approach with the new movie. It's a reboot. A seperate continuity. No matter how it may contradict plot points from old episodes, when you pull out your Star Trek: The Original Series DVDs, the episodes will be unchanged. Really. So enjoy the stuff you like, ignore the stuff you don't, and leave the outrage to Nancy Grace.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Template flip-flopping

As you can see, the look of the blog is still in a state of flux. However, I'm pretty sure I'm going to stick with this template for now. I'd really prefer something with more of a 1980s retro-futuristic feel, but I'm neither a designer nor an XML coder, and the only software that would provide the kind of WYSIWYG XML editing that I need is not cheap. Plus, fiddling with the look of the blog has been very time-consuming, and I honestly have better things to do (work, for example).

So, unless a perfect template drops out of the sky complete with hexagons and old EPCOT pavilion logos, this is the way things will look around here.

Thanks for hanging in there.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What belongs in Tomorrowland?

"That show doesn't belong in Tomorrowland!" That's what many longtime Disney fans said when Stitch's Great Escape premiered in the Magic Kingdom back in 2004. We heard it again in 2007, when the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor moved into the space formerly occupied by the Timekeeper. Presumably, folks felt this way because Stitch's Great Escape and the Laugh Floor aren't really "futuristic". But if one examines the history of Disney World's Tomorrowland, it's surprising just how many of the attractions it's housed over the years have had nothing at all to do with futurism.

Let's start with the original Tomorrowland attractions, the ones that opened during the Magic Kingdom's first five years of operation. Obviously, Flight to the Moon (later Mission to Mars), Carousel of Progress, Star Jets, Space Mountain, and the WEDWay PeopleMover were future or space-oriented. But what about the Grand Prix Raceway, If You Had Wings, or the films in the CircleVision theater? What do driving a car, flying in an airliner, or a CircleVision film about America have to do with the future? It's as if these three attractions were just shoved into Tomorrowland because they didn't quite fit anywhere else.

None of this really changed during the park's first two decades of operation. If You Had Wings went through a few name and sponsor changes, but remained devoted to contemporary 20th century air travel until its replacement by Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. The CircleVision theater hosted America the Beautiful, Magic Carpet 'Round the World, and American Journeys, all of which were about showing viewers scenic panoramas and had nothing to do with the traditional Tomorrowland themes of science, technology, space travel, and futurism.

Therefore, it could be said that Stitch's Great Escape and the Monsters' Inc. Laugh Floor do belong in Tomorrowland, inasmuch as they continue that area's tradition of housing attractions that don't really belong anywhere else. And although If You Had Wings/Dreamflight and the Circlevision films are long gone, the Grand Prix Raceway still operates as the Tomorrowland Indy Speedway, and guests still putt-putt around the track in little racecars much as they did when the attraction first opened in 1971. Yet, I don't recall any online cries of outrage that the Speedway doesn't belong in Tomorrowland because it has nothing to do with the future.

Indeed, most of the complaints about Tomorrowland's newest attractions seem to revolve around the fact that kid-oriented Disney character-based shows, once restricted to Fantasyland, have slowly spread throughout the entire Magic Kingdom. Whether or not one appreciates that is, of course, a matter of personal taste. But a look at Tomorrowland's history shows us that what "belongs" there is a rather fluid concept.

Futureprobe proudly endorses . . .

By way of recognizing the United States Presidential election (which the pundits tell us is The Most Important Election Ever, exactly like the previous 52 Presidential elections), futureprobe hereby endorses Rufus T. Firefly for Grand Poobah of Everything. Unlike his opponents Gilligan, ALF, He-Man, Denver The Last Dinosaur, and Dennis Rodman, Mr. Firefly has the single most important qualification for Poobah-hood: a spectacularly fake moustache.

That is all. Thank you.

Monday, November 3, 2008

On the World of Motion

I'm going to admit something that an old-school EPCOT fanatic never should: World of Motion wasn't perfect. Sure, with a cast of 188 Audio-Animatronics it was quite a technical achievement. And the song "It's Fun To Be Free", written by legendary Disney music men X Atencio and Buddy Baker, was one of those pleasantly catchy melodies that stayed stuck in your head long after the ride was over. The fact of GM's sponsorship, however, doomed the ride to irrelevance.

Consider an example: for the majority of its existence, Spaceship Earth was sponsored by a telephone company. What if its sponsor had insisted that the wired telephone be presented as the absolute pinnacle of communications technology? The 1994 rehab never would have happened, and the pavilion would have lapsed into irrelevancy. Why? Mostly because the Internet and mobile phone technology transformed the way we communicate. Of course, since Spaceship Earth's sponsor in the 1990s, AT&T, was also a purveyor of those technologies, it had a business interest in seeing them spotlighted within Spaceship Earth and so all was well.

Regarding World of Motion, the same cannot be said. Transportation dinosaur GM makes automobiles with internal combustion engines, and that's it. Sure, they made an early foray into the electric car market with the EV-1, but I challenge you to name one other automotive innovation by GM in the last twenty years. The truth is, Japanese manufacturers Toyota and Honda are at the forefront of innovation these days, while GM and the other American auto makers are flirting with bankruptcy. And of course, the most forward-looking futuristic transportation concepts don't include cars at all, which is why World of Motion ignored them. In order to please its sponsor, World of Motion had to present automobiles as the be-all, end-all of transportation. As pleasantly nostalgic a ride as it was, imagine the cynicism World of Motion would engender were it still in operation when gas costs $4 a gallon. After all, how "free" are we when it costs an arm and a leg to fill your gas tank?

Of course, World of Motion was replaced by a firmly automobile-centric attraction that reflects the shift in guests' tastes from Audio-Animatronic dark rides to thrill rides. Judging from the FastPass wait times, Test Track seems to be more popular than its predecessor ever was. I can't really make a thoughtful comparison between World of Motion and Test Track, however, because the fact that I'm a huge wimp where thrill rides are concerned has prevented me from experiencing Test Track thus far. When I visit EPCOT again next year, I plan on overcoming this silly phobia so I can write an informed review of Test Track. I'll let you know how it goes.

Given GM's worsening financial problems, however, I wonder if they'll discontinue their Test Track sponsorship. If that happens, what would the future hold for one of EPCOT's most popular attractions? Whatever happens, I hope that it won't suffer the fate of the Wonders of Life pavilion. It would be a shame to see Future World East turned into the Graveyard of Extinct Attractions.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A new look

As you've probably noticed, I'm experimenting with a new skin. The default selection of Blogger templates is rather limited, and I'm a guy who likes to be unique. A Google search for "blogger templates" yielded a much wider selection, and I eventually settled on this one.

It's not perfect; I don't like the huge blue block at the bottom of the screen, but since I don't have a WYSIWYG XML editor on my home computer and my coding skills are extremely limited, I didn't know how to get rid of it. So unless I have FrontPage or a comparable program on my work computer, this look is probably temporary.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Definitive Horizons Ride-Through Video

Lots of other folks have linked to this, but there's just no way a self-respecting blog about EPCOT could not include perhaps the best Horizons video ever, posted on YouTube by a user named century3horizons. It's seperated into three parts, but for convenience I've combined them into one playlist. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Horizons 2012: Try to Imagine. . .

Imagine, if you will, that Disney decided to celebrate Epcot's 30th anniversary in a big way by rechristening it EPCOT Center and, on October 1, 2012 unveiling a brand-new Horizons pavilion in Future World. "Sure," you say sarcastically, "and imagine that I could fly there for free on a giant winged pig!" I hear you, but since Disney is all about wishing on stars to make dreams come true and crap like that let's just close our eyes and pretend, okay? (I meant that figuratively. You can't keep reading if your eyes are closed) Anyway, if Horizons were to live again, where in Future World would it go? How would a new incarnation of the pavilion differ from the original? Those are the questions I'm going to try to address here.

First of all, just where would it go? The Horizons pavilion was massive, and looking at an aerial photo of Future World it's hard to see where a new building would fit. More than one person on the subsonicradio.com forums has pointed out that the old Wonders of Life pavilion would be perfect for a new Horizons, and I agree that's probably the best fit. But would you put Horizons into the existing building, or demolish it and start anew? I'm not sure what the best answer is, but since the design of the old Horizons pavilion was so much a part o
f its identity, I'd prefer to see the existing structure demolished in favor of a re-constructed pavilion that's outwardly identical to the original Horizons.

Now that we know where a new Horizons would go, what would it be like? Well, the first two scenes ("Looking Back at Tomorrow") could be virtually unchanged, although it might be good to add some more recent mistaken views of the future. The Omnimax sequence would need to highlight current advances in things like nanotechnology and green energy. Of course, the "future" sequence would need the biggest overhaul. Here are some bullet points I thought of to serve as a guide:
  • No flying cars: Although they've been included any almost every vision of the future for the last hundred years, they're obviously not practical. All they'd do is make auto accidents more deadly.
  • No videophones: The videophone is another staple of the generic "world of the future". Although we've had the technology for quite a while, there just isn't any widespread consumer demand for it. To be sure, the future Horizons shows us should have some kind of innovation in communication. But in today's world where we carry around personal communication devices that double as handheld computer/camera/music player/GPS devices, I personally can't imagine what that innovation would be. Still, something's bound to come up. After all, who in 1983 could have imagined texting on a cell phone?
  • No ridiculous clothing: Trying to predict future fashions is a huge mistake that will just date the show. Put everybody in regular clothes; nothing overly faddish, no visible brand names, just simple, middle-of-the-road outfits. Spacesuits and undersea gear should look advanced, but without flourishes that seem futuristic now but may look dated in a few years.
Those points take care of things that the future should not contain, but just what would we see? Well, the city of Nova Cite could look a lot the "green megacity" envisioned in a recent issue of Popular Science. The idea of desert farms seems like an even better idea now than it was in the early eighties, but the utility of space habitats or ocean cities isn't as immediately apparent. The original Horizons did mention aquaculture (primarily kelp farming) as one benefit of ocean colonies, and a new ride should probably show that there's a point to ocean colonization beyond scuba diving and undersea restaurants.

It's ironic that we think less about space colonization in 2008 than we did in 1983. Most folks wonder exactly what benefit there would be to space habitats, other than the fact that living in space would be cool.
Physicist Gerard O'Neill had the answer when he floated the idea that space colonies could double as solar power stations that collect energy from the sun and beam it back to Earth, and that idea could definitely be touched on. One idea from the original "space" scene that should be dispensed with is the asteroid mining. It's just too science-fictiony. Unless the asteriod belt between Mars and Jupiter is full of some magical space mineral that cures baldness, flatulence, and cancer, I don't see how it could possibly be cost-effective to go all the way out there to grab asteriods, then tow them all the way back to someplace between the Earth and the Moon. Also, the space shuttle should be seen nowhere. Any space vehicles should look appropriately futuristic.

The original Horizons had no room for a post-show area, but if you've visited any Disney park in the last decade you know that many of the rides exit into a gift shop. I'm not totally averse to this idea, as long as the gift shop is full of can't-get-it-anywhere-else Horizons gear and not just the same stuff that MouseGear sells. It would be nice if there were a section of
CommuniCore (I refuse to call it Innoventions) set aside for exhibits where you could learn more about the technologies that make up the Horizons future.

So,those are my ideas for Horizons 2012. As always, I claim no ownership of them, and I certainly don't claim that they're any good. If anyone reading this has additional or better ideas, leave a comment!

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Lost Message of Mission:SPACE

One of the many criticisms leveled against the destruction of the much-loved Horizons in favor of Mission:SPACE was that the new attraction had replaced the optimistic message "if we can dream it, then we can do it" with no message at all. (Except, perhaps "a trip to Mars would be cool." ) But if you examine the attraction's logo, you'll notice a very inspirational message: "We Choose To Go!" This is, of course, taken from JFK's famous speech of September 12, 1962, specifically, this moment:

Now, I know that the sole reason for the Apollo program was to beat the Soviet Union, I know that Kennedy privately complained that the space program messed up his budget, but that speech contains some of the most inspirational words spoken in the last hundred years. That is what Mission:SPACE needs. That message is the key to transforming Mission:SPACE from just another 5-minute thrill ride to something that genuinely inspires guests and gives them something to think about. Let's face it, as much as some folks would love to see Disney scrap Mission:SPACE altogether and rebuild Horizons, it's not going to happen. Mission:SPACE cost a lot to build, and it's not going anywhere for a very long time. And anyway, the premise of Mission:SPACE is a fundamentally good one, it just needs some tweaks to make it more than just another fun ride.

1. Change the pre-show to dispense with the whole "training" premise: 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 guests 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".

2. Make this the first-ever Mars mission: Since guests will "really" go to Mars, why not make them the first humans to land on the Red Planet instead of simply following in the footsteps of others? Plenty of opportunity there to inject the "we choose to go" message.

3. Alter the post-show area to reflect the idea that we've "landed" on Mars: 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. 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.

Now, in the EXTREMELY unlikely event that someone is reading this, I just want to say that I claim no ownership of these ideas. If someone who actually has the ear of Disney Imagineering wanted to claim them as their own, that's fine with me. Heck, I can't imagine that I'm the first person to have thought of any of this stuff. So come on, Disney. Let Mission:SPACE have its message. It's right there in the logo, some of the most inspirational words of the last century. Use 'em.

Monday, October 13, 2008

On Disney Dining

Get off the Interstate at any large exit, and you'll see three kinds of restaurants:
  1. Fast food (McDonalds, Burger King, etc.)
  2. Medium-priced family restaurant chains (Applebees, Chilis, Red Lobster, etc.)
  3. Ethnic cuisine (Chinese restaurants, Italian restaurants, etc.)
This is what the American consumer is used to. In our hometowns, we may frequent a Mom 'n Pop restaurant we know to be good, but when we're on the road our tastes generally fall into one of the above categories. Visit American consumer Mecca Disney World, however, and you get something very different. Disney restaurants usually offer either fast food or haute cuisine. Burgers or escargot. Sure, there are exceptions, like Animal Kingdom's Flame Tree Barbecue or the Frontierland Turkey Leg stand. Broadly speaking, however, the table service restaurants offer little of the comforting familiarity of the steaks, chicken, and seafood dishes that appear on the menus at Chili's, Applebee's, or Texas Roadhouse. Ordering spaghetti at EPCOT's Italian restaurant? It's got clams in it. Clams. Shouldn't clams in your spaghetti be something you have to specially request, like anchovies on your pizza? It shouldn't just come that way. And this being Disney, the prices are horribly inflated. A tiny plate of baby back ribs at Animal Kingdom's Yak and Yeti restaurant will run you $22.99. Basically, you pay Chili's prices for Burger King-quality food, and if you want Chili's quality food, then you pay whatever you would pay at Chili's if you wanted them to coat everything in gold.

And don't get me started on EPCOT's Coral Reef restaurant. One might expect an expensive seafood restaurant in the same building as the world's second-largest saltwater aquarium to offer at least the same variety of seafood as Red Lobster, right? Wrong. The Coral Reef's menu has only ten entrees on it, five of which are s
eafood dishes. Sad, sad, sad. But don't take my word for it. You can check out the menu right here. You can also read a review of the restaurant (apparently, the reviewer chose to go on a day when every employee in the place was having a bad day. Including the chef). Maybe things will change there now that the Seas pavilion is more kid-centric, but it woudn't surprise me if the only additions made to the menu were fish sticks and mac-'n-cheese.

You might protest that I'm being an unsophisticated yokel for complaining about this, and you're probably right. But, judging from the menus at America's most popular restaurants, most people are like me. Sure, we know that Disney kind of has us over a barrel, since we can't exactly leave the property at lunchtime. I just wish they weren't so obvious about taking advantage of it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

An Honest Look: Universe of Energy

Since Future World was initially devoted to the limitless potential of mankind's future, and since the early '80s saw us coming out of an energy crisis where we were forced to seriously consider the fact that fossil fuels would run out one day, one might have expected the Universe of Energy to focus on the future of energy beyond fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the sponsor Disney secured for this pavilion was none other than Exxon. Big oil! I don't know about you, but to me that's kind of like getting Sean Hannity to sponsor the French pavillion in World Showcase. Predictably, the show talked a lot about fossil fuels.

First, there was a film about the formation of fossil fuels, followed by a ride through a primeval landscape with Animatronic dinosaurs that were really the pavilion's main attraction. The ride ended with another film whose message was that, sure there were alternative energy sources like solar and wind, but they weren't economically viable yet, and until the Big Breakthrough to a cheap, inexhaustible energy source happens, we still haven't run out of fossil fuels provided by the Exxon corporation (there was no overt advertisement for Exxon, but the inference was definitely there). The main problem with the original show was that it was two PBS specials about energy with some Animatronic dinosaurs in the middle. Sure, the dinosaurs were pretty cool, but the fact that the films were projected onto giant screens wasn't enough to make up for their extreme boringness. The pre-show was interesting as a technical achievement (it was shown on a screen made up of 100 independently-rotating prism-shaped elements called a Kinetic Mosaic, invented by Czech director Emil Radok) but like the attraction's other films, it just wasn't that outstanding. Even worse, Universe of Energy's original incarnation featured not one, but two earnestly cheesy songs 1980s soft pop songs about energy. Tell me if these lyrics don't make you cringe:

En-er-GEEE, there is no living with-OUT youu
We must keep learning a-BOUT youu
Now is the time to find HOW tooo

Or, if you're in the mood for something unintentionally hilarious, try these:

Feel it grow, see it glow!
It's the Universe of Energy!

Trust me, the only thing worse than reading those lyrics is actually hearing them sung. Actually, don't trust me. Head over to the Media page at horizons1.com and download the original Universe of Energy ride-thru video so you can experience it yourself. If you have time, I recommend the Ultimate Tribute vi
deo, it's packed with lots of interesting information about the technical aspects of the pavilion.

In 1996, the show was upgraded to its current incarnation, Ellen's Energy Adventure. The story revolves around Ellen Degeneres having a dream in which she's playing a game of Jeopardy! with Jamie Lee Curtis and Alex Trebek. All
the questions are about energy, so she "pauses" the dream and enlists the help of Bill Nye the Science Guy to teach her all about energy so she can win the game. Goofy? Sure. But it presents pretty much the same information as the original version of the show in a more entertaining package. Unfortunately, all the 1990s pop culture in the show ensured that it would not age well. And of course, any show about energy that fails to address today's skyrocketing oil prices and the push toward alternative fuel sources is hardly worth your time.

Without a doubt, the original show contained some worthy elements. The same can be said of the current incarnation. Ultimately, which version o
f the show is "better" depends on your own personal taste. Personally, I like to compare the pavilion's two incarnations to the first two Star Trek movies. Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a bigger budget and was more intellectually stimulating, but it was boring and slow-moving. The Wrath of Khan had more entertainment value, but it definitely didn't take same the "highbrow" approach as its predecessor. Now that ExxonMobil no longer sponsors the pavilion, I hope that any future version of the Universe of Energy can be more honest about the energy challenges of the 21st century, and highlight the sources of energy we'll turn to once the fossil fuels run out.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

An Honest Look: The Living Seas

Many people are quite critical of the direction that EPCOT has taken since the lower-casing of the place in 1994. I generally agree, but not all of the changes made since EPCOT Center became Just Epcot have been negative. In this new Honest Look series, I'll be taking a look at the Future World attractions whose latest incarnations are either markedly better or at least no worse than the originals. First up is The Living Seas. Although EPCOT Center was nearly three-and-a-half years old by the time The Living Seas opened in January 1986, the pavilion was always part of the park's original plan. The 1982 book Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow painted a picture of the as-yet-unbuilt pavilion that was based on WED's bold, exciting initial concept for the attraction. Anyone who pored over that book, as I did at age 7, then experienced the version of the attraction that opened in 1986 must have been disappointed.

The WED Imagineers' original concept had guests being greeted by a giant Audio-Animatronic
Posiedon, God of the Sea, who would pull back a curtain of water to reveal the loading area for the ride portion of the attraction. The guests would then board clear plastic bubbles and be taken on a 10-minute ride through re-creations of some of the ocean's wonders, exiting at SeaBase Alpha. In the original concept, however, SeaBase Alpha would actually be located inside the aquarium, giving guests the feeling of really being deep beneath the ocean.

Sadly, the pavilion's sponsor United Technologies was run by the same breed of visionless, pointy-haired MBAs who voted to give Journey Into Imagination the New Coke treatment just to save money. And there was no way they were footing the bill for such an ambitious and expensive project. The attraction that got built, of course, boasted the largest man-made underwater environment in the world at the time, and it initially attracted huge crowds. I remember the first time I visited The Living Seas in late 1986; the line stretched out the front of the pavilion to the monorail track and this was late in the evening after the sun had set. When I next visited in the summer of 1989, the large crowds had disappeared. The line was short and moved quickly. The old Living Seas was perfectly servicable, it just had none of the "zazz" of WED's original concept. More than anything else, it was like a public aquarium you might visit in some place like Chicago. It lacked the old-school Disney charm of Horizons or Journey Into Imagination.
In the original version of The Living Seas, guests watched a short film on the formation of Earth's oceans, then boarded "Hydrolators" that supposedly took them down under the sea to a boarding area where they took a short ride to SeaBase Alpha via Omnimover vehicles called Seacabs. During the ride, you were treated to various views of the coral reef in the aquarium, and upon arrival at SeaBase Alpha you could view all kinds of educational exhibits. In 1998, United Technologies ended their sponsorship of the pavilion, and sometime in 2001 the Seacabs portion of the attraction was closed and the Hydrolators exited directly into SeaBase Alpha, which basically turned the Hydrolators into a purposeless bottleneck. Whatever Disney "specialness" The Living Seas once had was gone. Guests were staying away from the pavilion, and anyone could see that it needed some kind of "fun injection".

Disney's answer was to give the whole place a Pixar makeover. In 2006 The Seas With Nemo and Friends debuted. Gone were the Hydrolators and the introductory film. The drastically enlarged queue area creates the whimsical illusion of gradual entry into Nemo's undersea world from the beach. The Seacabs have been replaced by "ClamMobiles" that move horizontally along the same track the old ride used. Along the way, Nemo and other characters from the Pixar film appear to be swimming inside the aquarium, thanks to some cutting-edge technology. The ride exits into the Seabase (or whatever it's called, now) and there's an assortment of exhibits to browse. (I can't vouch for their educational content; my wife was really cranky the day we visited and had no tolerance for me scrutinizing the exhibits) Of course, the main draw in this area is the "Turtle Talk with Crush" show that utilizes the same technology seen in Tomorrowland's Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor to enable kids to actually "interact" with Crush, who kind of reminds me of Keanu Reeves in sea turtle form. It's not one bit educational, but the kids seem to love it. I visited this new incarnation of the Seas pavilion on Labor Day weekend 2007, and I haven't seen the place as crowded since 1986. The line stretched out the door, even though the indoor queue area is so large that a first-time visitor starts to wonder if there's any room in the building for the giant aquarium they've heard about.

So, was the Nemo refurb a good thing, or did Disney give the Living Seas the Journey-Into-Imagination-New-Coke treatment? Well, unlike the hated Imagination refurb, Disney actually spent a lot of their own money on this one (the pavilion still doesn't have a sponsor), and the new version of the attraction certainly costs more to operat
e than before. It would have been nice to see Disney make a real effort to get kids thinking about the effects of human behavior on the oceans, maybe working in something about how Nemo and his friends are being affected by global warming (which harms coral reefs) and overfishing. Maybe there's an exhibit somewhere in the Seabase that mentions those topics, but it would have been nice to see them get more attention.

In the final analysis, The Seas with Nemo and Friends isn't worse than The Living Seas, it's just different.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Another post from the old blog: On the new Star Trek film

Star Trek used to have the most devoted fans anywhere. Naturally we loved really spectacular outings like "The City on the Edge of Forever" or The Wrath of Khan, but we were also the only people on Earth who were able to derive enjoyment from turkeys like "Spock's Brain" or Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Back in the pre-Internet era, there was really no such thing as bad Star Trek. Some episodes and movies were simply less good than others. Maybe it was because Star Trek's heart was always in the right place in those days. Even klunky Treks like "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" or The Search for Spock were trying to say something positive about the human condition. Gene Roddenberry, the cast, and the many behind-the-scenes personnel were trying to give us something substantive, a show that was about something.

After the death of Gene Roddenberry, the franchise was mostly run by people cared little for the quality of the product, as long as the Star Trek cash cow continued to generate revenue. The good Trek that was being made (DS9) was roundly ignored and underpromoted in favor of the hackneyed, formulaic branches of the franchise (Voyager, Enterprise, and most of the TNG movies). This created an air of cynicism in the fanbase. The attitude began to emerge that to be a really-and-truly dyed-in-the-wool Trekker you had to refuse to eagerly lap up the watered-down, inferior Star Trek that Paramount was pushing. New stuff like the TNG movies, Voyager, and later Enterprise had to be beneath you. It wasn't good enough to be a Star Trek fan, you had to be a Star Trek connoisseur. In fact, the depth of your devotion to Star Trek could be measured by how much of the franchise you disliked. My favorite example of this kind of dysfunctional fan is a fellow at TrekBBS who, over the years, has gone by the names Great Mambo Chicken, Mister Stinky Pants, and most recently The God Thing. The only Star Trek this guy will tolerate (I swear I'm not making this up) is the first two seasons of the Original Series and The Motion Picture. If anyone dares to suggest that any other part of the Star Trek franchise is any good, The God Thing will flame that person to a crisp with the fires of His wrath.

I realize I'm rambling here, but basically my point is that Trekkies used to like whatever Star Trek The Powers That Be saw fit to give us, but due to ten-plus years of disappointment and stupidity on the part of the caretakers of the franchise, we've become a cynical lot who are skeptical of any new Star Trek project that comes down the pike and pretty much instantly look for any reason at all to dislike it. Nowhere has this been more evident that with the new J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek film that's set to be released on Christmas of this year. Upon learning that it focuses on the Original Series timeframe, a contingent of hardcore Trek connoisseurs decided that the set, costume, and prop design had to exactly mirror what we saw on the Original Series. Only a mentally ill person would expect a big-budget movie made in 2008 to strive to exactly duplicate the look of a 1960s television show that was shot on plywood sets, but these people are serious. Even after noted purist James Cawley visited the set and without spilling the beans assured us that, yes, things are different but they're different in a good way, you still get the feeling that some folks aren't convinced.

In the midst of all this negativity, you certainly couldn't blame the folks at the helm of the new film to distance themselves from the fanbase. To the contrary, though, J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, Damon Lindeloff, and others associated with the production have gone out of their way to reach out to the fans and assure them that they take Star Trek very seriously and are determined to make a good movie. Their comments, coupled with the recent teaser trailer, really prove to me that they get what Star Trek is supposed to be about. So get real, people. Star Trek is over forty years old; the sets, props, costumes, and ships are going to look different from their 1960s counterparts. For the first time ever (outside the world of fanfilms, that is) different actors will be playing Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. But I'm convinced that this movie's heart will be in the right place, and I'm willing to overlook any little imperfections the finished film might have, just like I used to do with "Spock's Brain" and "The Alternative Factor", back before the Internet when gas was cheap and the world was young.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Fixing Future World: The Little Things

There are many critical voices that say Future World is broken and needs fixing. They offer thoughtful, well-written opinions on why it was a mistake to close Horizons, how Finding Nemo has nothing to do with the theme of Future World, or how Future World doesn't really have a theme anymore.

In a perfect world, Disney would realize their mistake and spare no expense to undo all the damage that's been done since 1994 when EPCOT Center first became simply "Epcot". Even if the economy wasn't circling the drain, though, it's just not realistic to expect the pointy-haired MBAs who run the company to suddenly "get it" and do something so drastic.

So, as a low-cost alternative, how about this? Instead of each attraction having its own distinctive signage, how about bringing back the unique circular logos for each pavilion, and rendering all the signage in the classic "EPCOT" font (which looks like something in the Handel Gothic family, if you ask me). Future World may no longer have thematic unity, but at least there can be visual unity, some sense that all these attractions are part of the same "land". I'm not sure what the cost of this would be, but I imagine it'd be well under a million dollars. To a company that rakes in money the way a fishing trawler vacuums up fish, that's chump change.

Don't get me wrong; I want Horizons back, and I want Dreamfinder back in an Imagination pavilion with an enjoyable ride that takes up the whole first floor, with the second floor devoted to an updated and revitalized ImageWorks. I want a Seas pavilion that meaningfully addresses the damage that humans are doing to the marine environment. I want a Life and Health pavilion, too. But since we're never going to get any of that stuff, how about just the cool circular logos and everything in the same font? Is that too much to ask?

Journey Into Imagination Remembered

This post originally appeared in my old blog, but it fits in so well with the theme of this one that I edited it a little and moved it over here.

One of the vanished EPCOT Center attractions I remember fondly is the original Journey Into Imagination. While this beautiful building hasn't been defaced to look more hip (like World of Motion) or torn down and replaced with something inferior (like Horizons), its insides have been ripped out and a slipshod, obviously cheap attraction has been stuffed into its place.

Now, I understand that EPCOT was never meant to always stay the same. As technology advanced and visitors' tastes changed, the park was supposed to change with them. So if guests began to tire of a certain attraction because they felt it was boring or dated or whatever, then of course it should be changed to something they would like better. And, to their credit, Disney has done just that with a couple attractions. Back in the mid-90s they replaced the stodgy, boring show at Universe of Energy into the more entertaining Ellen's Energy Adventure. Around the same time, they converted the slow-moving World of Motion into the thrill-oriented Test Track, which, while hardly visionary, seems to be a pretty big hit.

So, one might expect that the decision to close Journey Into Imagination in 1998 for a yearlong refurbishment was made because park visitors had tired of the old ride and were staying away from it. According to Wikipedia, though, that simply isn't true. Imagination was, in fact, a very popular EPCOT destination. It saw more visitors each day than the park's flagship attraction, Spaceship Earth. This is pretty impressive when you consider that Spaceship Earth is the first thing you see as you enter the park, and you have to walk right under its enormous globe to get to the rest of EPCOT, whereas the Imagination pavilion is fairly easy to bypass without even trying. Imagination saw so many visitors, not because they were herded there by the park's natural traffic pattern, but because genuinely liked and enjoyed it.

There was, however, a problem. Kodak's contract to sponsor Journey into Imagination was set to expire, and rival corporation Fujifilm had submitted a proposal to take over sponsorship and turn the attraction into a thrill ride. Kodak wanted to stay, so they made a counterproposal that involved refurbishing the ride into a less-expensive one. Disney bean-counters had never liked Journey into Imagination because it was the most expensive EPCOT ride to operate (owing to its length and sophistication), so they accepted Kodak's idea. Journey Into Imagination closed in October 1998 to implement the Kodak proposal.

Remember 1985? When Coca-Cola, makers of the most popular soft drink in the history of the industry, decided that the best thing they could possibly do with their flagship beverage (which had a fiercely loyal multigenerational customer base, by the way) was screw up the formula and make it worse? Yes, the refurbished ride went over like a lead balloon filled with New Coke. Gone was the lighthearted 11-minute ride featuring the whimsical Dreamfinder and his equally whimsical companion (and unofficial EPCOT mascot) Figment. In its place was a 5-minute joyless tie-in to the Honey I Shrunk the Audience 3-D movie next door. In the new Journey Into Your Imagination, you were led by the Imagination Institute's Dr. Nigel Channing through various "labs" at the Institute then deposited into a seriously anemic post-show area which was (and still is) basically just one big commercial for Kodak. People disliked the ride so much that Disney closed it in early October 2001. Folks had high hopes that Disney would fix the attraction they had once loved, and when its doors opened again they'd be greeted by the Dreamfinder and Figment once again.

Back to the New Coke analogy for a moment. Imagine that, faced with customer outrage over the replacement of classic Coca-Cola with New Coke, the company had "responded" by pulling New Coke off the market and replacing it with Crystal Pepsi.

Well, that's exactly what Disney did with Imagination. When the ride reopened about 9 months later it was called Journey Into Your Imagination With Figment. Eric Idle's annoying Dr. Channing was still there to lead you through the Imagination Institutes' boring labs, only now Figment showed up and caused the ride to detour into his imagination, which consists of words painted on the walls and cobbled-together bits of defunct attractions littered about. The only positive thing about it is that Disney had the good sense to retain the Sherman Brothers' classic song "One Little Spark", and it's hard not to leave the ride singing it. Other than that one thing, the ride is a sparse, empty, joyless waste of five minutes. And the post-show ImageWorks area is even worse.

Back before the first refurb, the ride took up almost the entire first floor of the building. After it was over, guests were encouraged to climb up to the ImageWorks on the second floor, which you accessed by ascending a winding staircase that took you up into the glass pyramids that are the pavilion's most distinctive feature. The second floor landing was a light and airy place that afforded a magnificent view of the rest of the park. It had a bench or two and was a good place for parents to wait if they got tired of chasing the kids through the ImageWorks' many interesting activities. It was easily the best post-show area at EPCOT. After the refurb the ImageWorks was moved downstairs. It's a sparse, empty area now, a lot like the new ride that precedes it. Mainly, it's just a showcase for some of Kodak's more banal services.

I don't have visitation statistics for this newest incarnation of the Imagination pavilion, but the two times I've been there the place seemed almost deserted. Very few guests seemed to bother with it at all. I was able to get onto the ride with no wait, and as I looked around the ImageWorks I didn't once have to worry about tripping over a kid, because there weren't very many there. I felt like I had the place to myself. So, is it worth it to have an attraction that's inexpensive to operate if no one is, you know, attracted to it? Disney used to care about such things, but these days they're too busy jacking up their prices and adding an "Up With America" room to Disneyland's It's a Small World (complete, in a rumor I just made up, with Animatronic Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly dolls) to care about doing things that make sense. I guess it's not surprising that Disney is acting like all the other brain-dead visionless megacorporations out there, it's just disappointing.

At least we have the Internet. For a bit of nostalgia, check out Martin Smith's excellent tribute to Journey into Imagination, the way it was:


Welcome to what I like to think of as My Blog 2.0. The old one, GeorgeKirk's Minutiae, will stay up for a while, but I may be moving a post or two from there to here.

So, why "Futureprobe"? Well, Futureprobe was one of the names floated for EPCOT Center's Horizons attraction when it was in its conceptual phase. Since I'm a big Horizions-phile, and since 1970s and 80s retro-futurism is something near and dear to my heart, the title was a natural fit. Also, I wanted my blog to have an actual theme and an easy-to-remember title. Let's face it, "GeorgeKirk's Minutiae" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

Still, like the old blog, this new one is just a padded cell in which I mutter to myself. This one just has more hexagons.