Thursday, July 30, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvements- #6

Do Something to Make Test Track Relevant

Last I heard, Test Track was still a fairly popular ride. I don't have any data to back this up, but judging by the wait times when I was in EPCOT last, I'll bet it's the second most popular attraction in Future World behind Soarin'. This is unfortunate, because Disney will usually rehab an EPCOT pavilion only after several years of sustained unpopularity, and sometimes not even then. And boy, does Test Track need a rehab. Truth be told, the Transportation pavilion has needed a rethink since the day it opened, we just needed a couple decades to figure it out.

I've written before about why it was a bad idea for EPCOT's transportation pavilion to be sponsored by an automobile company, especially one as clueless and out-of-it as GM. And I've speculated on what the future might hold for the pavilion once Test Track lapses into unpopularity (or Disney decides that it costs too much to maintain). For now, however, Test Track is a popular ride that's not going anywhere. If GM ends their almost thirty-year sponsorship of the pavilion, though, it'll need a new post-show. And that would be an excellent place to plug the future of transportation beyond automobiles. What about a row of simple simulators that allow visitors to experience future modes of transportation: take a ride on a pod car network in a big city, a mag-lev bullet train across the countryside, maybe even a space elevator? A future where everyone drives automobiles to get everywhere is neither practical nor desirable, and this would be a good way to educate people on some of the alternatives.

Of course, Test Track isn't the only attraction in Future World that's missing its chance at relevance. Next I'll talk a little about one of EPCOT's more recent additions.

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #7

Give Mission:Space a Rehab

When EPCOT Center opened in 1982, the park was not finished; the things that were completed in time for opening day were only "Phase I". A whole range of new Future World pavilions and World Showcase countries were supposed to be added over the next several years as part of "Phase II", but as many Disney aficionados are aware, not many of those projects ever saw the light of day, since the company went through a major regime change in 1984. To put it diplomatically, the new bosses didn't like what they didn't understand-in fact, it scared them-and EPCOT Center was mysterious, at least. World Showcase suffered the worst from this, but fortunately most of what what was promised for Future World's Phase II actually got built. Horizons was completed in 1983, the Seas pavilion opened in 1986, and in 1989 the opening of Wonders of Life gave us the promised Life and Health pavilion (don't worry, I've got much more to say about Wonders of Life.) Only one pavilion was never realized: Space.

The book Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating The New World of Tomorrow mentioned plans for a Space pavilion developed in association with NASA that would take visitors on a trip to a simulated space station of the near future. According to Jim Hill Media, a thumbnail description of that early concept went something like this:

A huge, interstellar "Space Vehicle" will transport passengers to the outer frontiers of the universe, highlighting man's efforts to reach out to the stars around him ... from the early pioneers who looked and wondered ... to modern-day space travelers and their triumphs ... to the challenges and possibilities of future space technology and exploration.

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Sure, with the technology available in the early '80s, the "huge, interstellar Space Vehicle" might have ended up looking a lot like Universe of Energy's moving theater, but it's obvious that the Space pavilion was supposed to impart a positive message about the risks and rewards of continued human space exploration. So, when we finally got a Space pavilion in 2003, the marriage of forward-thinking idealism with 21st century technology must have resulted in a tour de force that really got people excited about space exploration again, right? If you've ever been on Mission:Space you're shaking you head right now. To be sure, it offers the most realistic rocket-launch simulation that you and I are likely to experience in our lifetimes, but whereas the previous occupant of that piece of real estate told us that "if we can dream it, then we can do it", Mission:Space's central message, if it has one, is "a trip to Mars would be cool".

Now, if you're wondering what I would do to Mission:Space if I were appointed Grand Poobah of the Walt Disney Company, here's a hint:

Unfortunately, I am not the Grand Poobah of anything, except for the various Transformers and Star Wars action figures that decorate my cubicle. And since Mission:Space cost Disney zillions of dollars to build, it's unlikely to go anywhere unless another sinkhole opens up. Anyway, it's entirely possible to salvage Mission:Space to be something of the original Space pavilion that Disney was developing back in the late '70s. Here's how:

First, give it a message. This is the easiest part, since it already has one, kind of. Check out the attraction's official logo and see if you can spot it:
Yes, it's right there in the upper-left quadrant, taken from JFK's famous speech at Rice University in September 1962.

I know that the sole purpose of the lunar program was to beat the USSR, and I've read that Kennedy privately complained about its huge drain on the national budget, but that doesn't change the fact that the speech contains some of the most inspirational words ever uttered about space exploration. They're the key to turning Mission:Space into an experience that truly inspires people and gives them something to think about. There are a number of places where the message could be placed.

Let's start with the preshow. Tomorrowland's old "Mission to Mars" attraction was billed as a "real" trip to Mars, even though all you did was sit in a vibrating chair and watch a round screen on the floor. Why not alter the story of Mission:SPACE so that visitors are astronauts who board a spaceship instead of just a simulator? Use the pre-show to review the history of manned spaceflight and emphasize what a huge undertaking a flight to Mars would be; emphasizing that, despite the challenges and the hardship, we can make it to Mars if "we choose to go".

Secondly, make this the first-ever Mars mission. If riders are "really" going to the Red Planet, why not make them the first people to do so? It makes the ride more exciting, and gives you another opportunity to inject the "we choose to go" message.

Finally, the post-show area needs some serious help. Part of the ride's story could be that an unmanned ship landed earlier with a prefab habitat for the astronauts to live in. At the conclusion of the simulator ride, your ship could "dock" with the habitat, and the post-show area could be remodeled slightly to reflect this. Inside the post-show "Marsbase" you could have a couple educational exhibits about what Mars is really like, including, perhaps, a virtual-reality experience that allows you to play the part of an astronaut walking around on the Martian surface. Yes, I know there's a video game there now that does that, but I'm talking about actual virtual reality, with the helmet and everything. Perhaps there could also be a console where visitors could take turns operating the Mars Rover by remote control. Of course, this approach presents a story problem: if post-show area is also for people who are unable or unwilling to experience the ride, how do they "get to Mars"? I really don't know, but I'm sure the Imagineers could figure something out.

Not only would these changes make Mission:Space more interesting, they would also make it worth visiting more than once. No, it wouldn't quite turn the place into a worthy replacement for Horizons, or give us the original Space pavilion concept developed in association with NASA and Ray Bradbury, but it's a feasible improvement. And with any real-life mission to Mars still many years away, the ride's basic concept is not one that's going to become outdated any time soon.

Other pavilions at EPCOT, though, were designed to tackle issues a little closer to home. Next post, I'll discuss one of them.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #8

Return Future World Attractions to A Unified Logo/Font Scheme

Until the mid-1990s, the signs outside each Future World pavilion were rendered in a single font (available commercially as World Bold and in a freeware version called Prototype) and each pavilion had its own unique circular logo, which imbued the park with a sense of visual unity.

Although many of the informational signs in Future World still use the classic font, each attraction now has its own distinctive signage:

Although the distinctive signage for each pavilion does make EPCOT more like the rest of Disney World, it represents one more way that EPCOT has been robbed of its uniqueness over the years. However, I'm not advocating a total return to the font/logo scheme that existed in the 1980s, merely an updated version of it. The recently-rehabbed Spaceship Earth provides a good example of what I'm talking about:

Why not redo all Future World pavilion signage in Spaceship Earth's new font and give each attraction a logo that conforms to the parameters of the one seen at the top of the sign in the above photo? Informational signage could still be rendered in the classic font, which would prevent the expense of replacing every sign in Future World while retaining one of the very small number of things that haven't changed since 1982.

Now, if your first response upon reading the preceding paragraph is to worry that people will be confused if the sign for "The Seas With Nemo and Friends" doesn't look like the logo for the movie "Finding Nemo", then congratulations, you could be the next Michael Eisner! If you can't convince anyone to let you run their entertainment franchise into the ground, maybe you could make a movie about gum wrappers.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the comments! In future installments, I'll tackle some attractions in dire need of a relevance infusion.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #9

Make Innoventions/CommuniCore More Interesting

I have a pretty good memory, especially where Disney World is concerned. I have vivid memories of extinct attractions like Horizons, World of Motion, and Mission to Mars, but when I sat down to write this, I realized that I can't remember much about what Innoventions contains. The only thing I know for sure is that the south side of Innoventions West completely empty except for a character greeting area and some bathrooms. So, I did some online research and found this page detailing the twin pavilions' current offerings, and I didn't see one thing that made me think "Wow, I can't wait to see and/or do that!" Well, except for the "Test Drive a Segway" thing, maybe. But if the line is too long, I could skip it without feeling too bad. In fact, that's the problem with Innoventions. You can completely skip it without feeling like you missed anything. Judging by how un-crowded the place usually is, most EPCOT visitors agree with me.

How might Disney turn things around? I really don't know.
Before Innoventions, CommuniCore had the same problems. To its credit, Innoventions tries really hard to be educational. There are all kind of neat little activities that kids should enjoy, but they're the kinds of things you see at any childrens' museum. There's simply no attraction or experience there that only Disney could have pulled off.

While I'm talking about the Innoventions pavilions, I've got to take a paragraph and talk about Mouse Gear, the large gift shop that takes up a substantial chunk of the eastern building. The previous occupant of that space was a neat two-level store called Centorium. Centorium carried a selection of general Disney merchandise, of course, but it also had lots of interesting things that could only be found in Future World. Mouse Gear, on the other hand, is a thoroughly generic store that sells the same stuff you can get at any gift shop in Disney World. It carries only the tiniest selection of EPCOT-themed merchandise, and most of that is T-shirts. There is nothing unique about the store AT ALL, and because of that it really sticks out like a sore thumb in EPCOT. After all, the stores in the World Showcase are full of unique and authentic merchandise from the various countries. Check out the large store in Japan; you'll think you've actually crossed the Pacific. It would be nice if Mouse Gear became Centorium again and regained some of that uniqueness.

That's all for this week. Next up: logos and fonts.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #10

Turn the Coral Reef Into a Good Seafood Restaurant

Imagine this: a seafood restaurant in Disney World with huge floor-to-ceiling windows that look into the second-largest man-made underwater environment in the world. Sounds like a great place to eat, right? I mean, all they have to do is serve Red Lobster-quality food with some of that trademarked friendly Disney service and most people will think it's one of the best meals they've ever had.

So what's it like to eat at the Coral Reef? Here's what some commenters at Dis Unplugged and had to say:

"The food here is very average and nothing is noteworthy except for the chocolate wave dessert which is fantastic. Service is nothing spectacular either."

"I was not at all impressed with this restaurant. It has tons of potential, but the service was atrocious and the food was truck stop quality."

"I really wanted to love this restaurant, but its just okay. The aquarium is gorgeous and a real draw for me, but the food is just okay."

"The service was fantastic as was the view of the tanks. It is a very relaxing place to go and have a nice meal. The food wasn't the best in the world, but we enjoyed everything we ordered."

"Once again, Disney thinks serving food is a bonus...hey, how about good food?"

"The wait staff were very nice, but the food was terrible . . . this restaurant should be a destination, but instead is a complete ripoff."

Dis Unplugged writer Kevin Klose has reviewed the Coral Reef twice. His first visit, in August 2006, resulted in a resoundingly negative review that's still semi-famous amongst a small gaggle of Disney geeks like myself who write blogs like this. He went back in April 2009, hoping that his first visit had simply been an aberration. His conclusion? That the Coral Reef "remains a mediocre, over-priced Disney disappointment."

More than any other park, EPCOT is known for its restaurants. Le Cellier, Biergarten, and Chefs de France are almost universally loved. I've always enjoyed the meals I've had in the Garden Grill (I could do without Chip and Dale coming around and acting whimsical while I'm eating, but kids love them). Disney is clearly not incapable of running a good restaurant, but judging by the experiences of folks that have eaten at the Coral Reef and the Mexico pavilion's San Angel, food quality becomes in afterthought in places with great atmosphere.

Fixing the Coral Reef isn't impossible. It isn't even hard. Just serve better food. Transplant the menu and kitchen from a Red Lobster if you have to, but serve better food.

That's all for today's rant. Next up: Innoventions.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvements: A Wish List

As my wife and I were doing some planning for our January 2010 trip to Walt Disney World, my thoughts turned to EPCOT, and how it could feasibly be improved. Obviously, I'd like nothing better than to walk into the park in six months to find Mission: Space gone without a trace, with Horizons sitting in its place like it never left. Unfortunately, that will never happen. Instead, I've come up with a list of twelve improvements that Disney management could make to EPCOT if they really wanted to. (Whether or not they're inclined to do so, and what it says about the competence of Disney management and the health of the company as a whole is a different topic altogether). Let's get started:

#12: Get rid of the graveyard at the entrance to Future World
In saner times, the space between the entrance turnstiles and Spaceship Earth was a wide open area that contained only a few planters of flowers and a fountain. Now we have this:

Is it a graveyard, or perhaps a war memorial? No, it's just a transparent attempt to get you to pull out your wallet just minutes after you put it back into your pocket after paying for your tickets. At least it was. From 1999 until 2007, guests could shell out $35-$38 for the dubious privilege of having their picture etched onto a tiny steel plate that was then affixed to the surface of one of the gray stone monoliths that litter EPCOT's entrance plaza. Now that the Leave A Legacy program has been discontinued, I really wish they'd just remove the monoliths altogether.

#11: Clean up Innoventions/CommuniCore Plaza
In the late 1990s, EPCOT was obviously invaded by a pointy-haired boss type who had a phobia of open spaces. It's the only way to explain what happened to the area around the CommuniCore buildings. What used to be a clean, open area with clear sight lines to the pavilions that ring the periphery of Future World was defaced into this:
Image borrowed from EPCOT Central 
It might've looked cool in the '90s, now it's just loud, and unnecessarily busy. I might be able to forgive it if those triangular tarp things served a useful function like providing shade against the Florida sun (which can be unbearable in the summer months) but they don't. If the clean, open lines of CommuniCore plaza seemed dated by the mid-90s, they're suddenly in vogue again. Look at Apple's industrial design: the cleaner and simpler their design aesthetic, the more units they sell. It's time to remove the tacky, useless tarps and the pointless whirlygigs that litter the area.

Check back later this week for Number Ten on the list. Thanks for reading!

New links now, and new posts soon

I noticed recently, that I had failed to include two excellent sites in my list of links on the right side of the page.

The first is Progress City, U.S.A. This blog contains some of the best WDW information and analysis I've seen anywhere. It's unforgivable that I hadn't linked to it before now. The second is Walt Disney's Original EPCOT Project. It's an excellent repository for information on Walt Disney's original concept for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Fascinating reading.

Finally, I'll shortly begin posting my EPCOT wishlist, a list of twelve improvements I'd like to see at the park. Why twelve? Because I sat down and typed up a list of feasible improvements that could be made to EPCOT, and there were twelve of them. Most of the things I'll touch upon have probably been commented on already by more capable writers than I, but I'd like to put my two cents in.