Friday, February 6, 2009

How educational was EPCOT?

It's widely believed that the EPCOT Center of the 1980s and early 90s was a more educational place than the Epcot of today. But was it really? Let's compare the pavilions of EPCOT Center with today's lowercase Epcot and see. Of course, it should be noted that what follows is purely my own opinion.

Spaceship Earth: To be fair, I haven't had the chance to ride Spaceship Earth since the Siemens rehab. However, I've watched a little ride video, and I've listened to the entire audio track on Subsonic Radio a few times. In my opinion, the new ride has a lighter tone and is less scholarly than the communications-themed experience that preceded it. Is it actually less educational? It's a tough call. It seems to me, though, that the old ride contained more historical facts than the new one.

Universe of Energy: Among those of us who remember the first version of this pavilion, there's the widespread perception that Disney dumped the respectable, serious original show in favor of a lighthearted and airheaded Ellen Degeneres vehicle that's too busy dropping 1990s pop culture references to convey any information. So I went back and watched some videos of the original show so I could compare them. And honestly, they both convey pretty much the same information, although the original show goes into a lot more detail about oil exploration. Whether you prefer the scholarly and serious presentation of the original show, or the 1990s flavor of the current incarnation is a matter of personal preference.

Wonders of Life: This pavilion used to be an interesting EPCOT destination featuring shows and exhibits about health and the human body. Now it's an empty shell.

Horizons/Mission:Space: Anyone who reads this blog knows how I feel about Horizons. It was absolutely my favorite theme park attraction of all time. If I had the power of Q, I would rebuild Horizons, convert the second-floor VIP lounge into an apartment, and live there. Nevertheless, Mission:Space is more educational. Why? Well, even though it's nowhere near the triumph of Disney Imagineering that Horizons was, and in fact it makes people sick, it realistically demonstrates why not everyone is cut out to be an astronaut. Horizons was more fun. Mission:Space is more educational. I don't like it, but it's the truth.

World of Motion/Test Track: Although it is fondly remembered, no one would accuse World of Motion of historical accuracy. How many kids got off that ride believing that the wheel was introduced to mankind after an Egyptian Pharaoh picked the round model over square and triangular versions? To be fair, though, the post-show area had some educational value. Test Track has a narrower focus, simulating an automobile testing ground instead of telling the story of human transportation, but it does try to educate riders about the testing process that new car models are put through before they go to market. I wish it explained why GM's cars are so unreliable compared to Honda and Toyota if they really go through all these tests, but I guess that story doesn't have as much entertainment value as the testing process itself. Comparing the old and new rides is a bit of an apples-and-oranges proposition, but I'd have to give the nod to Test Track here.

Journey Into Imagination/Journey Into YOUR Imagination with Figment and Eric Idle: The Imagination pavilion was never meant to be educational in the slightest. It was simply supposed to be a fun, whimisical trip that reminded visitors of the potential of their own imaginations. I've written at length on this before, of course, but in brief the old ride was charming, the newest one is a sad joke, but neither had any educational value (unless you count the present-day post-show area that "educates" you about some of Kodak's more banal services.) The Captain EO movie might have been educational had it been retitled "People You Should Never Allow Near Your Children".

The Land: Although the boat ride portion of the pavilion has changed very little since the pavilion opened, the change from a live guide to a recorded narration track during the greenhouse sequence was an improvement, as everyone now gets the same information. The biggest change at The Land, of course, was the replacement of the Kitchen Kabaret/Food Rocks show with Soarin'. Although Soarin' is definitely the superior experience, it's one of the biggest examples of the "generic Disney-Park-ification" of EPCOT. Soarin' makes The Land one of EPCOT's most popular destinations, but the place was more educational without it.

The Living Seas/The Seas With Nemo and Friends: I've written about the Seas pavilion before. As I said then, my favorite version of the pavilion is WED's amazing original concept that United Technologies was too stingy to fund. The attraction that opened in 1986 was perfectly serviceable, however, and it did a good job educating us on the amazing variety of living things in our oceans. Unfortunately, people today aren't wowed as easily as they were in 1986, when the line to get into The Living Seas stretched almost to the monorail track. For better or for worse, Disney decided it was the ocean's fault. Since actual sea life wasn't sufficiently entertaining, the whole place got a Pixar makeover, complete with digital characters from Finding Nemo that seem to float inside the aquarium (which is still the world's second-largest man-made underwater environment.) I haven't had the chance to examine all the exhibits inside the refurbished Seabase, but from what I can tell the Seas pavilion isn't as much about turning guests' on to the wonders to be found beneath the ocean as it is about entertaining preschoolers.

CommuniCore/Innoventions: The old CommuniCore had more exhibits that tied into Future World pavilions, but it also had lots of cheesy gimmicks (anyone remember the Astuter Computer Revue?) Innoventions plays more like a sales pitch for different corporate sponsors, but such things have a long history at Disney. Still, Innoventions does convey actual information, even if it's not very entertaining. Overall, CommuniCore wins out. It had a teachers' resource center, and there was just more of it. CommuniCore took up two buildings; Innoventions only takes up one.

So, was the old EPCOT Center really more educational than today's Epcot? Yes, but not as much as you might think. The main difference was that it cared about educating visitors in a way that today's Epcot really doesn't.


  1. You might be missing the point; EPCOT Center educated more through inspiration then the more normal "This is a piece of coal; Coal comes from the ground" type of education.

    During the golden age of EPCOT Center, people walked into the future. They walked into a future where futuristic buildings were the norm & not the exception. Bleeding edge technology, such as touch screens (Don't laugh; EPCOT Center was probably the place where a lot of kids got their first exposure to such technologies like touch screens & video-conferencing) were used for fun.

    I don't think you can have a dark ride that is intensely educational without some amount of the "bore" factor. Therefore, Disney wisely decided upon the more palatable inspirational tactic. Showing people where we had come from, where we are & where we'd be in the possible future if we allocated our resources wisely is it's own education.

    If you're not inspired, you'll never learn. Inspiration puts learning at the top of the heap over all other priorities, which is why the inspired people are always the most likely to be the most proficient in what they are inspired about. Sure, you can force someone to learn ballet but someone who is inspired by ballet will more then likely learn ballet faster & more proficiently then someone who isn't.

    I was fortunate enough to have gone to EPCOT Center several times during it's golden era before it became dismantled into it's current "condition." I have absolutely no desire on going back to it for there would be nothing of value in that trip.

    If I want to see "Finding Nemo," I have the DVD; I don't need to see it plastered all over what was once a great pavilion called "The Living Seas."

    If I want to see more of Ellen Degeneres, I can watch her on television with her talk show; I don't need to see her plastered all over what was once a great pavilion called "The Universe of Energy."

    If I want a roller-coaster ride, there are several local options that are far more accessible then going all the way to Florida for a GM-themed equivalent that stands where a once great pavilion called "The World of Motion" stood.

    If I want a centrifuge ride, the local fairs always seem to have one next to the carnival contests so there's no reason going to a NASA-themed one called "Mission: Space" where the most inspirational pavilion once stood, "Horizons."

    EPCOT Center used to be inspirational. Now, it's just another theme park. My area is getting it's own big-time science center soon & if it's even half of what it claims to be, I may never have another reason to go to what is presently called "Epcot" ever again.

    John Lassiter has his work cut out for him if he ever wants my money & his theme parks to meet. Odds are, given his track record since he's started, such a meeting will never happen.

  2. I totally agree with you Anonymous; the original EPCOT Center was infinitely more inspiring than today's version, and it really was more educational, too. The whole point of my post was that if you distill each pavilion down to the facts it presents, the gap between EPCOT Center and today's park isn't as huge as most of us (myself included) have assumed.

    That being said, I always say that the best time to visit EPCOT, if you want the best possible experience, is 1989. I wish the place had been upgraded properly to keep it interesting to 21st century audiences, and yet retain the inspirational and educational quality that made me into an EPCOT geek way back in 1985. That didn't happen, but in my opinion there are still some positive aspects to be found there, and it's only fair to point those out, too. If you don't feel that there are any positive things left at EPCOT, you certainly have a right to your opinion. I'm not one of these Internet fanboys who thinks his own set of opinions represent Absolute Truth. :)

  3. I thought I had commented before, but my comment didn't make it through cyberspace, I guess.

    There's a difference between quantity of information given and how much someone takes away from the ride. I know, regarding SSE, my kids take plenty away; they still are talking about the pharoahs, the books burning, and the Jewish and Arab scholars who preserved the books. They really did learn something, I think. Is it enough? I don't know...

  4. ^ So I guess kids can learn from a golf ball.

    *runs away from angry EPCOT Center fans with pitchforks*

  5. Nothing made me WANT to learn more than the old Epcot. Horizons made me excited and curious about the concepts it presented. That's far more important that trying to drill facts into your head. As anonymous said, the value was from inspiration. One given that inspiration, a child will seek out knowledge on his own. It's a long term investment.

    I'm sorry, but to call Mission Space's spinning in circles educational is delusional.


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