Tuesday, October 7, 2008

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:

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