Monday, August 17, 2009

The Lean Machine: A TransCenter Artifact

If you ever got to spend a few minutes in the TransCenter, World of Motion's post-show area, chances are you at least caught a glimpse of the Lean Machine, a concept car developed by Frank Winchell of GM. I saw it when I visited EPCOT Center with my grandfather in 1989. He was general manager of a GM dealership at the time, so naturally we spent a while in the TransCenter looking at the displays. Near the Lean Machine prototypes, a video was playing of the vehicle in action, leaning into turns on a winding mountain road just like a motorcycle. At the time, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that, when it was time for me to go car shopping in just six short years, I'd be able to walk into my grandfather's dealership and make a deal for my very own Lean Machine.

Of course, things didn't exactly work out that way. Until gas prices spiked at over $4 a gallon last summer, there didn't seem to be a market for such a tiny vehicle, even if it did give you 200 mpg. Although fuel prices have been under $3 for the better part of a year, fuel economy remains a concern for new car buyers. So why is the Lean Machine still in mothballs? Primarily because it really isn't a car. If anything, it's an enclosed recumbent three-wheeled motorcycle. Visit any automobile dealership, and you'll see five basic type of vehicles: sedans, sports cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans. A tiny, one-person transportation pod does not fit neatly into any of those categories.

It would be a great idea for GM to sell or license the Lean Machine to a company like Honda or Mitsubishi that also makes motorcycles. That way, at least they'd make some money off the thing. And while car shoppers are not likely to opt for a small, one-person vehicle with little to no cargo space, the Lean Machine would be a great option for someone who really wants the low cost and fuel efficiency of a motorcycle or scooter, but would like the protection from the elements that an enclosed design provides. I live in a college town, and lots of students already use scooters to get around campus and around town. How many more would go for something like a Lean Machine with air conditioning? And how well would the Lean Machine do in emerging Asian markets like China and India, where consumers need something small and inexpensive to drive? Finally, electric car technology has come a long way since the Lean Machine was first conceived. Would it be feasible to make a fully electric Lean Machine?

Clearly, selling or licensing the Lean Machine to a company who can market it to motorcycle/scooter buyers is an intelligent thing to do, which is why I'm certain that the company that gave us the Pontiac Aztek will never do it. But maybe, when gas prices go up to five or six dollars a gallon, as they inevitably will sometime in the next decade, the ensuing tidal wave of demand for fuel efficient vehicles will force GM's hand, and we'll see the Lean Machine in some form.

For more information on the Lean Machine, including pictures of its display area in the World of Motion and scans of the informational brochure that was distributed there, check out these websites:

Tilting Three-Wheelers: GM Lean Machine

The New Cafe (Racer) Society: Vintage 1980: the GM Lean Machine
Lean Machines: Preliminary Investigations- A UC-Berkley study on the feasiblity of the Lean Machine in California.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #1

Rehab the Imagination Pavilion, and Do It RIGHT This Time

You were expecting Horizons, weren't you? As much as I loved Horizons, the construction of a new 5-story pavilion in Future World is not within the realm of possibility unless a new corporate sponsor sweeps in and absolutely insists on dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on the project. The Imagination pavilion, though, is still intact. But why make an Imagination rehab the most-needed improvement to EPCOT? Because I believe Future World could not exist without it. While the rest of Future World (most of it, anyway) toots humanity's horn for all the cool stuff we've been able to do, the Imagination pavilion reminds us that it would all be impossible without something we didn't invent: our capacity for imagination.

Once upon a time, the Imagination pavilion was a prime Future World destination. A whimsical, expansive ride took up the ground floor of the pavilion, and afterward visitors could go up to the second floor to play in the ImageWorks, which boasted cutting-edge technology for the time. In the Magic Eye theater, there were 3D films like Magic Journeys and Captain EO (which seems ridiculous now, but was a pretty big deal in the '80s). Honey, I Shrunk The Audience debuted there in 1994, and by mid-90s standards it was pretty impressive.

Unfortunately, the last decade has not been kind to the Imagination pavilion. I've written about the whole sad story before, and this Wikipedia article provides a good overview, as well. So, how to fix it? Well, according to this thread in the WDWMagic forums, there are plans for a fourth refurbishment that would reunite Dreamfinder and Figment. The ride-through attraction would allegedly be extended into the space now occupied by the Magic Eye theater, thus lengthening the ride into something closer to its original 11-minute run time. Unfortunately, plans for this much needed rehab of the Imagination pavilion seem to have been put on hold so the money can be put toward the rumored massive Fantasyland refresh at the Magic Kingdom.

I know money is tight these days, but now would be an excellent time for the Imagination pavilion's corporate sponsor to come to the rescue. Yes, I'm talking about Kodak. They're still around, you know! As much I've complained about companies like Exxon and GM corrupting the message of the attractions they've sponsored, there is a positive side to the whole deal: the sponsor provides money for improvements to the pavilion that might not otherwise be made. Look at what Siemens has done for Spaceship Earth: sure, the descent still needs some work, but thanks to Siemens the post-show area is the best it's been since the Earth Station days. The money for the refurb didn't come from Disney, it came from the corporate sponsor. Word is that Siemens is even responsible for getting that horrible wand taken down. (Man, I hated that thing. It looked like a cartoon had vomited all over one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world) I'm not sure how healthy Kodak's finances are, though. After all, their primary product is camera film, which has mostly gone the way of the videotape and the floppy disk. According to their Wikipedia page, Kodak is in the midst of "refocusing" on digital photography products. Sounds to me like corporate doublespeak for "desperately trying to stave off obsolescence".

What I'm saying is that the Imagination pavilion looks so dreary and neglected that one could be forgiven for believing that it has no sponsor, and if Kodak can't step up and supply the needed capital to breathe some life back into the place, then maybe a new sponsor could. Someone like Apple, perhaps. Steve Jobs is on Disney's board, after all. And Apple has always marketed their products as tools that allow people to express their creativity. Can you imagine an ImageWorks full of Apple technology? Of course, that's probably a pipe dream. I really can't imagine Steve Jobs investing in something like that, and I can't imagine what benefit Apple would see from it.

Setting the sponsorship issue to one side, though, what might a refurbished Imagination pavilion look like? Well, if the plans already drawn up by the Imagineers are eventually implemented, it'll mean the end of the Magic Eye theater. But if it means the return of Dreamfinder in a ride that's closer to the spirit of the original, then I'm all for it. Hopefully, the queue area would be redone to dispense with the stodgy, unimaginative Imagination Institute theme. What would take its place? How about a queue area inspired by the whimsical murals that used to adorn the walls of the original queue area? Instead of a simple painting, though, perhaps it could give you the feeling of actually being inside the mural, the way that the Seas new queue area gives visitors the sense of being shrunk down to the size of a clownfish and entering Nemo's underwater world. As far as the ride itself, I know the Imagineers already have concepts prepared; I'm just hoping they actually see the light of day. The real tragedy of all this is that the original ride never needed to fundamentally change. It was a timeless Disney classic, like Peter Pan's Flight or Pirates of the Caribbean. If Disney had simply left it alone except for necessary maintenance and periodic cosmetic upgrades, the ride would be more popular and they wouldn't have wasted all that money on unsuccessful rehabs. No doubt the ideas the Imagineers have will, if they are ever implemented, return the ride to its status as a classic and allow Disney to leave it alone for a while.

That just leaves the ImageWorks. In the old days, the ImageWorks boasted the best technology the early 1980s had to offer. Subsequent rehabs brought it into the 1990s, and that's where it's been ever since. Two things need to happen here. First of all, the ImageWorks needs to be moved back upstairs where it belongs. Second, it needs to move into the 21st century. It needs to be a place where visitors play with creative tools they don't have at home. What about large multitouch screens that allow you to manipulate and distort images using only your hands? Okay, that's my only idea, other than the return of the neon rainbow tunnel that made you feel like you were inside a giant multicolored Slinky. But I think it's clear that with a little TLC the ImageWorks could be the best post-show area in Disney World again.

I fervently hope that the next time I visit EPCOT, the Imagination pavilion will be closed for refurbishment. In the meantime, I think I'll head over to Zazzle and pick up this T-shirt. Or maybe this one. Just to let folks know where I stand.

I hope you enjoyed my Feasible EPCOT Improvements series. Thank you very much for reading. There are still more interesting things to come: I'm working on a post about a revolutionary vehicle that only visitors to World of Motion ever saw, and best of all, I recently acquired a mint-condition copy of the definitive EPCOT text Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating The New World of Tomorrow for just 13 bucks on eBay! My grandfather originally bought the book for me in 1984, but one move and many years later it ended up in my parents garage with some pretty bad water damage. Interestingly, the copy I have now is actually an earlier printing than my first one, so it has more early concept art in it, rather than photographs of completed attractions. Just thumbing through it, it appears to have all kinds of tidbits about things that were planned for EPCOT but never realized, and as I come across those things I'll try to share them here.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #2

Finish World Showcase

Since nothing has been added to the World Showcase since 1988, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is finished, that everything planned for that area of the park was realized in some fashion. If that's what you think, click here. And here. As you can see, there were a whole boatload of World Showcase attractions that never saw the light of day. Now, I know that we'll never see a Venezuela pavilion with its aerial tram ride through the Amazon rainforest (although that would be a nice addition to Animal Kingdom, perhaps as part of an South American Rainforest-themed area that could replace Camp Minnie-Mickey), an Israel pavilion would be a huge security risk, and a lot of the stuff planned for Africa was incorporated into Animal Kingdom in some way, shape, or form. However, it would be nice if the attractions originally planned for the countries that already there were actually built.

Now, you're probably thinking that the addition of several E-ticket attractions at once is not a feasible improvement. Maybe you're right, but consider this: in the years since Michael Eisner scrapped most of EPCOT's Phase 2 projects in 1984, Disney has opened two new parks in on the Florida property, and built scores of new resorts there, too. Did they really lack the money to give Japan its bullet train, Germany its Rhine River cruise, and Italy its gondola ride/Roman ruin walk-thru? Is there any theme park anywhere, Disney or otherwise, with fewer attractions per acre than World Showcase? The Disney rumor mill is currently swirling with talk of a massive refresh of the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland. To be sure, it's much-needed and long-overdue, but even though Florida's Fantasyland is small and anemic compared to its Anaheim counterpart, that small slice of the Magic Kingdom still has more attractions than the entire World Showcase!

Most adults don't seem to mind this very much, since the World Showcase provides dining (and drinking!) options that you just can't find in the other parks, but how do children, a key Disney demographic, fare there? Let's travel back to 1984 and see what kind of fun my sister and I had in Morocco:

There's NO place like World SHOW-case!

No wonder a whole generation of park visitors grew up believing EPCOT to be boring! I'm not suggesting that World Showcase be given the Licensed Disney Character treatment, but adding the rides that Germany, Japan, and Italy were always supposed to have would go a long way toward making the place more kid-friendly. After all,
in a place like Florida where summer lasts half the year, it's important to have regularly-spaced opportunities to get off your feet and out of the heat, especially when there are kids in your party.

Sure, World Showcase has the best live entertainment of any Disney park, but it could use some rides, too. Lots of Disney fans want to see new countries added, but I'd settle for some good attractions for the countries that are already there. They were on the drawing board, once. Isn't it time they became reality?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #3

Do SOMETHING With the Wonders of Life Pavilion

There was a time when attractions that management believed to be past their prime were simply rehabbed into something different. When MetLife pulled their sponsorship from Wonders of Life, though, Disney pioneered an exciting new concept called Closing The Pavilion And Hoping Everyone Just Forgets It Was Ever There, Despite The Fact That A Giant Yellow Dome Doesn't Exactly Blend Into The Scenery.

Okay, that's not entirely true. The pavilion does get used for the annual Food and Wine festival, but to anyone who remembers what used to be there it's a little depressing to see all the attractions inside closed off. A Life and Health pavilion was always part of the plan for Future World, and people are more concerned about this topic now than ever before. When Wonders of Life opened in 1988, I never thought I'd see the day when obesity would be considered an epidemic. Of course, there were some very legitimate problems with the pavilion, but it did host two classic attractions in Body Wars and Cranium Command. With a few updates to their live-action filmed segments, both could still be relevant and functioning today.

Of course, if no one could come up with any compelling ideas to reboot the Life and Health pavilion, then I know exactly what they could do with the building. I'll give you a hint:

And that's it for #3. Only two posts left, and you probably know exactly what they'll be. The only question is, which is #1 and which is #2?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #4

Bring Universe of Energy into the 21st Century

Since it opened in 1982, Universe of Energy has assured us that our future energy needs would be met by a variety of sources, but mostly fossil fuels provided by the Exxon corporation. And yeah, fossil fuels were technically a nonrenewable resource, but we didn't need to worry about that because more deposits of them were constantly being discovered thanks to the selfless efforts of (you guessed it!) the Exxon corporation. Of course, people not in the employ of Big Oil were warning us all the time that fossil fuels were going to run out one of these days, and we had better start exploring other options, but we mostly ignored them. After all, there was always fuel at the gas station, and it cost less per gallon than renewable liquids such as milk or beer. And then gas hit $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, and we soiled our collective underpants as we realized that the transition away from fossil fuels was not likely to be a smooth and affordable one.

Before then, the show playing inside the Universe of Energy pavilion was decried by EPCOT purists for its dated 1990s pop culture and its attempts at hip, ironic humor. After gas spiked at over $4 a gallon, though, we realized that Bill Nye and Alex Trebek's mustache were the least of the Energy pavilion's problems. The show was hopelessly outdated because it only paid lip service to the fact that the oil would run out one day, and we were in big trouble if we didn't start changing our habits and looking for new energy sources. Then, in late 2008, Disney responded. They took bold action! They closed Universe of Energy! They gave it a new . . . paint job? To be fair, the return to the original exterior color scheme really looks good. And the minor rehab was probably scheduled well before the spike in oil prices. Still, the Energy pavilion is badly in need of a relevance infusion, and here's how they can do it while keeping costs at a minimum:

First, try to avoid a redo of the dinosaur diorama by keeping Ellen. She's personable and funny, and unlike Bill Nye modern audiences still know who she is. Of course, since her show is carried by NBC, not the Disney-owned ABC, it's possible that bringing her back to shoot new scenes for the filmed portion of the ride would cost more than just removing the Ellen animatronic. But if bringing Ellen back isn't too expensive, then they can produce a new film that generally follows the lines of the current one, but talks more realistically about our energy problems. Making movies isn't cheap, sure, but a thirty-minute film about energy has got to be a lot less expensive to film than a two-hour movie about secret-agent gerbils, you know? Best of all, since Exxon no longer sponsors the Energy pavilion, Disney won't be obligated to tailor the show to their interests.

So come on, Disney. Give us a new film at the Universe of Energy. Because the old one's not just out of date, it's getting moldy and starting to smell.

And that's #4. Only three posts left in this series, and you can probably guess what they are. Thanks for reading!

Feasible EPCOT Improvement #5

Put Something In The Seas Pavilion About How Human Behavior Threatens The Oceans

Before the Seas got its big Nemo makeover, more than one classic Future World attraction had been torn down or ripped out in favor of a less-imaginative, dumbed-down replacement. So when the pavilion reopened in 2007 as The Seas With Nemo and Friends, those of us who miss Horizons and Journey Into Imagination were quick to jump on the anti-Nemo bandwagon. Most of the criticism that's been leveled at the new attraction is probably deserved, but you have to admit that the present incarnation of the place is more appealing to children than the previous one. This gives Disney a great opportunity to let kids know, via a popular animated character, about the damage that human behavior is doing to the oceans.

I'm not saying they should dramatically re-theme the place, or even alter the ride-thru portion. It would be nice, however, to have some exhibits in the seabase about what global warming, overfishing, and poor garbage-disposal habits are doing to the oceans. Kids need to know that Nemo's coral reef habitat will cease to exist if the human race continues its current pattern of behavior. Other exhibits could touch upon the Pacific Garbage Patch, and current efforts to clean it up. Practical ways that individuals and families can change their behavior to be more friendly to the oceans could also be highlighted.

I've only been to the Nemo-ized Seas once, and unfortunately I didn't get a chance for a detailed exploration of the seabase area. Maybe some of this stuff is already there. If it isn't, though, Disney is missing a golden opportunity to educate America's youngest consumers on the impact their actions have on Nemo's "big blue world".

That's all for today. Next, I'll discuss how Bill Nye the Science Guy is doing nothing to help with our energy problems.