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.