Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Spaceship Earth: Why All the Hate?


Yesterday I made my first trip to EPCOT since I started this blog. The last time I was there, on Labor Day Weekend 2007, Spaceship Earth was still closed for its Siemens-funded overhaul. The Project Tomorrow post-show area was open, but very few of the exhibits were actually functioning. Nevertheless, what I saw there left me with a sense of optimism, and I was sure that the new Spaceship Earth would not be a Journey Into Imagination With Eric Idle-style fiasco. Then the ride reopened and the reviews came pouring in. With the exception of EPCOT Central’s author Epcot82, most folks on the message boards and blogs were down on the new ride. Although the first three quarters of the ride looked very good, they claimed that the descent at the end was so obviously unfinished that it ruined the whole experience for them. The Judi Dench narration talks to us like we’re six-year-olds, they said. And as I listened to the new narration on Subsonic Radio, I found myself agreeing with them. Roman roads as the first “world wide web”? Jewish and Arab scholars as the “first backup system”? What happened to the scholarly, majestic tone of the Jeremy Irons or Walter Cronkite narrative tracks? Still, I tried to keep an open mind yesterday as I boarded my touchscreen-equipped Time Machine vehicle.

And it wasn’t half bad. Unlike the three previous iterations of Spaceship Earth’s show, this new one is aimed at the younger generation that doesn’t remember the world before cell phones and Internet-connected computers were everywhere. Sure the new narration is simpler, not as lofty and poetic as it was before, but remember that it has to reach those kids whose parents brought them to the park to ride Nemo.

Something else I like about the new ride: Spaceship Earth’s main weakness always was that its final scenes depicting the present and near-future always became outdated eventually, necessitating a pavilion closure and costly upgrade. But since the ride’s finale now takes place on a computer screen, it’s much easier and cost-effective to update once it starts to become stale. This should allow the ride to remain fresh and relevant for years to come and will hopefully allow us to avoid those awkward intervals when the present would surpass or move in a different direction from the “future” Spaceship Earth showed us.

Which brings me to the descent. It is really noticeably, embarrassingly unfinished? Well, during the time when you’re focused on the computer screen everything around you is just unadorned and black, but most folks are going to be too focused on their screen to be bored by the lack of entertaining stuff on the walls. And right around the time you finish with your screen, just before you get to the exit area, the walls acquire some sparkly lights meant to simulate a starfield. It’s not an expensive effect, but it’s nice enough.

Even the pickiest EPCOT connoisseur would be hard-pressed to find something wrong with Project Tomorrow, though. For the first time in recent memory, Spaceship Earth has a worthy post-show area. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to explore it much; I was on a tight schedule and the place was so darned crowded with people enjoying themselves that I just didn’t have the time to check everything out. Still, if an attraction’s crowd level is a barometer of its quality, then Project Tomorrow is one of the best things in EPCOT. When I go back in January, I hope to have time to explore the place properly.

In summation, I’ve got to say that this new iteration of Spaceship Earth is a solid EPCOT Center attraction that’s worthy of that beautiful Bob McCall mural that still adorns the entrance. I hope it’s indicative of the kinds of things we’ll see at EPCOT in the next decade.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

On the role of corporate sponsors at EPCOT

This recent post at EPCOT Central got me thinking about the role corporate sponsors should play there. Of course, during EPCOT’s “golden age” in the 1980s and early 90s, each Future World pavilion had its own corporate sponsor, and the countries in the World Showcase (most of them, anyway) were “sponsored” by their respective nations. The American Adventure had even had two corporate sponsors: American Express and Coca-Cola. The steady loss of corporate sponsors in the 1990s coincided with the decline of the park during that period, and both official and unofficial statements coming out of Disney during that time blamed the pavilion closures and lack of overall maintenance on the absence of those all-important sponsorship dollars. Curiously, during the late ‘90s a fourth gate, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, was added without any major corporate alliances being announced to help share the costs. Also, Magic Kingdom attractions like the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Splash Mountain continued to operate without corporate sponsors. In 1994 Tomorrowland even received a huge facelift, complete with new attractions, without any new corporate sponsorship being announced to help pay for it. I think you see where I’m going here.

Disney does not need corporate sponsors to help them operate EPCOT. They might have needed them in the early 80s, when the company had just dropped a massive amount of money to build the park and the Disney brand was not as strong as it is now, but a lot of things have changed. The company is a global multimedia powerhouse, and it has maybe the strongest brand in the world next to Coca-Cola. The issue throughout the 1990s to mid 2000s was not that Disney could not afford to operate the park without sponsors, they just chose to spend the money on other things. Happily, things seem to be changing in that regard. We’ll have to wait and see.

A second reason why corporate sponsorships might seem vital to EPCOT is that without them, thoughtful-yet-entertaining presentations on some aspect of the future are given the short shrift in favor of stuff like this:

Whereas corporate sponsors can showcase their future-shaping innovations in an EPCOT pavilion, Disney’s main export is Licensed Characters. United Technologies provided a deep-sea diving suit for people to try; all Disney has is Bruce the Shark. However, remember that perhaps the most beloved EPCOT Center attraction, Horizons, was developed by WED with little to no input from GE, the pavilion’s sponsor. The design of that attraction’s immersive future sequences wasn’t outsourced to the sponsor. Clearly, Disney is more than capable of coming up with innovative and amazing Future World attractions, but the philosophy of the company since the Eisner years has been to tie everything into some licensed Disney property or other to create “synergy”. (That word should be taken out and shot) Again, there’s a possibility that things are changing on that front. The damage of the last decade won’t be undone in a year or two, though. I’m inclined to wait and see what kind of park we have in another ten years or so before passing any judgment.

So, what kind of role might corporate sponsors play at EPCOT in the coming decade? I’m no insider, just a guy with opinions, but I’d be shocked if we ever see another whole-pavilion sponsorship by a large company. Things like the Siemens sponsorship of Spaceship Earth will be the exception, not the rule. Innoventions will continue to be the main showplace for corporate wares, but most if not all of the real estate will be used by smaller, cutting-edge companies with which the general public is not extremely familiar. Large, familiar companies like Honda and Microsoft will likely choose to spend their marketing dollars elsewhere.

This will nicely eliminate one of the problems with the old EPCOT Center: large companies sponsoring a pavilion in which they have a vested interest in a certain point of view, like Exxon with the Energy pavilion or GM with the Transportation pavilion.

Still, I’d hoping for one more big corporate sponsorship: Apple in the Imagination pavilion. I can’t imagine Steve Jobs actually doing it, but I wish he would.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Amazing new Martin Smith video

When myself and others talk about the need to restore the Imagination pavilion to its former glory, we often focus on the ride-thru attraction. The upstairs ImageWorks and the Magic Eye Theater were important parts of the pavilion, as well, and this new video tribute from the great Martin Smith gives them the love they deserve. Much of the technology in the old ImageWorks is painfully out-of-date by 21st century standards, but some of it still holds up.  And just imagine what kinds of things are possible with today’s technology.

Anyway, here’s the video. Enjoy.

For lots more videos like this, be sure to head over to MartinsVids.net and Mousebits.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Apparently, Hypno-Hustler > World Showcase

I haven’t talked much about the Disney/Marvel deal because lots of other people already have. However, I’d like to focus on two aspects of the deal:

1. Disney paid $4 billion for Marvel . . .

2. . . .which gives them access to all 5,000 Marvel characters; not just Spider-Man and Wolverine, but also virtually unknown ones like Dazzler, Typeface, and Hypno-Hustler. This is important, because Disney obviously had no marketable characters of their own.

Now, consider this fact: EPCOT’s World Showcase has the lowest attractions-to-acreage ratio of ANY theme park ANYWHERE. Why? Because putting more attractions in there would just cost too darned much money. Not only that, but the space that was originally set aside for new pavilions or additions to existing ones  has probably been gobbled up by backstage areas, right?

Take a look at this:


It’s an aerial view of the Japan pavilion.  Guess what that highlighted yellow area is? It’s a show building! You see, back when the Japan pavilion was originally conceived by WED, it was supposed to be more than just a restaurant and some shops; it was going to have an attraction. They even built a building for it. However, EPCOT was seriously behind schedule, and in order to make the October 1, 1982 opening date some projects had to be shelved and saved for later. Then Michael Eisner took over in 1984, and “later” got changed to “never”. Hence the unused show building. Japan isn’t the only World Showcase country with a story like this, though. There’s also the country on the left side of this next photo:


I know it’s hard to tell, but the backwards-F-shaped structure on the left side of this picture is the German pavilion’s show building. As you can see, it’s easily larger than the entire guest-accessible German area. The big empty area on the right side of the picture is World Showcase’s most famous might-have-been. If you’d walked by that plot of land in the early ‘80s, you would have seen a Coming Soon sign for the Africa pavilion. Plans for the African pavilion may have been scrapped long ago, but the land set aside for it was obviously never used. To this day, it’s just sitting empty.

So, what does this little photographic tour of the hidden World Showcase tell us? That Disney can afford to pay $4 billion for the rights to Stryfe, U-Go-Girl, Spider-Man’s Aunt May, and a character named Doop, but installing attractions into empty buildings that were constructed for that very purpose? Impossibly expensive. For today’s Walt Disney Company this:


Is more important than this:


And that’s just sad.

DISCLAIMER: Yes, I realize that Disney management is pumping money into the parks in a way that we haven’t seen in years. And that John Lasseter is supposed to be the king of awesome, a kind of Walt Disney/Chuck Norris hybrid. Overall, I’m honestly optimistic about where things are headed. I just like to make fun of lame, disco-inspired comic book characters. Plus, there’s no excuse for leaving those show buildings empty for twenty years, especially if you turn around and drop $4 billion for a comic book company. (Note: I love comic books)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A New Tomorrowland?



The ongoing Space Mountain renovation, along with the change in the TTA’s audio track to one that more closely resembles the old pre-1994 PeopleMover narration has some people speculating that a change in Tomorrowland’s “theme” is imminent. As I’ve discussed before, prior to its 1994 overhaul, Tomorrowland’s “theme” could best be described as “space, the future, and other stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else”. For a short time after the ‘94 refurb, however, the area actually had a fairly cohesive theme. New attractions like Alien Encounter and Timekeeper, along with the conversion of the PeopleMover to the TTA and StarJets into the Astro Orbiter, all contributed to the the idea that the new Tomorrowland was a retro-futuristic metropolis. Of course, when Alien Encounter and the Timekeeper were replaced by Stitch and Monsters Inc. attractions, respectively, Tomorrowland once again reverted to a crazy quilt of mismatched elements. It’s hard to see how it could return to thematic unity without an expensive and near-total overhaul, which, given the huge Fantasyland/Toontown Fair overhaul that won’t be completed until 2013, doesn’t seem very likely.

So, how can Tomorrowland return to some semblance of the thematic unity it had in 1994? I don’t think it can, not completely. As much as they irritate the purists, Stitch’s Great Escape and the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor are probably here to stay for better part of the next decade. After all, converting the Timekeeper’s theater into the Laugh Floor wasn’t cheap, and unless a sinkhole opens up under the building, I don’t see Disney closing it anytime soon. And there’s only so much that can be done with building that houses Stitch’s Great Escape; restoring the old Flight to the Moon/Mission to Mars rocketship ride wouldn’t exactly wow modern audiences, and a more “extreme” version of the “escaped creature” show has already been tried and deemed incongruous with Disney World’s family friendly atmosphere. Since Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin is probably Tomorrowland’s second-biggest draw behind Space Mountain, it’s safe to bet that it’s not going anywhere, either.

The most likely scenario, I think, is the informal division of Tomorrowland into two areas; the western “Toon” area where the Buzz Lightyear, Stitch, and Monsters Inc. attractions live, and an eastern “Classic” area encompassing Space Mountain, the PeopleMover, Carousel of Progress, and the Speedway. Hopefully, after the Space Mountain rehab is complete the Carousel of Progress will get the refurbishment it’s needed for most of this decade. If that happens, Tomorrowland will have struck a balance between the kind of character-based attractions that are popular with the general public, and the old classics toward which longtime Disney fans feel so protective.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beware Hawaiian-Shirted Saviors

There are a lot of folks who feel that the Walt Disney Company has lost its way over the last couple of decades; that it has reached a point of creative stagnation. The Pixar merger was seen as a positive development, therefore, especially because it resulted in John Lasseter's installation as head of Walt Disney Imagineering. Lasseter is seen by many as a Hawaiian-shirted Great White Hope, the very person to spark a new creative renaissance, especially at parks like EPCOT, and I sure hope he is. I have my reservations, though, and not just because he's the guy responsible for this:

It's because I've been burned before. I've seen men who were supposed to be transformative creative forces turn out to be pantsless emperors. Exhibit A, of course is this guy:

No, not John Salley, the other one. Yes, the Great Flanneled One himself, George Lucas. Remember the months leading up to the release of Star Wars Episode I, when Lucas was being hailed as the greatest storyteller of our time and people were openly speculating that The Phantom Menace might end up as the greatest film of all time? How'd that work out? Allow me to refresh your memory:

Yes, by the time the Star Wars prequel trilogy was over, the guy who everyone once thought was a modern-day Shakespeare was widely believed to be clinically insane. It was like someone gave millions of dollars to one of those crazy street people who’s always having angry conversations with invisible beings and told them to make three movies about whatever they wanted. Scarier still, as we examined Lucas’ earlier work it dawned on us that he had always been this way, and we just never realized it before.

George Lucas, though, isn’t the only creator of a modern mythology who turned out to be missing several key brain lobes. There’s also this guy:

Yes, good ol’ Gene Roddenberry, creator of one of my favorite things in the whole world, Star Trek. Now to be fair, Star Trek was a great idea and Roddenberry was a very smart man, if not entirely scrupulous. He angered composer Alexander Courage by going behind his back and writing a set of truly awful lyrics to the Star Trek theme music, thereby entitling himself to one-half of Courage’s royalties. And he never bothered to mention the sizable creative contributions to Star Trek by folks like Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana. These things didn’t mean he was crazy, however, just that he could be a jerk sometimes.

The craziness started creeping in by the mid-1970s, when Star Trek found a larger audience in syndication and conventions were drawing thousands of excited fans to whom Roddenberry was a hero, a prophet, a visionary. They didn't just want to hear him talk about the making of Star Trek, they wanted to hear him expound on his philosophies about life, the future, and the human condition. That kind of adoration tends to swell a person's head, and by 1975 it was clear that Gene had completely lost his marbles. Paramount Pictures was interested in making a Star Trek movie, and Roddenberry submitted a script called "The God Thing." In it, the Enterprise meets God, who turns out to be a malfunctioning spaceship, and Captain Kirk has a fistfight with Jesus. Paramount rejected it, and Roddenberry accused them of being afraid to tell a story that tackled such “big” ideas.

Of course, Paramount finally did release a Star Trek film in 1979, a film that utilized another one of Roddenberry’s pet story concepts: the modified NASA probe returning to Earth in search of its “god”. Many fans thought of it as a direct rip-off of the second-season episode “The Changeling” in which a flying Folgers coffee can threatens to destroy Earth until Kirk talks it into committing suicide, but those fans were not well-informed. Star Trek:The Motion Picture was actually based on a story treatment by Alan Dean Foster entitled “In Thy Image” which bore more than a passing resemblance to a story called “Robot’s Return” that Gene Roddenberry had written for his never-produced TV series Genesis II, and it was “Robot’s Return” that was a rip-off of “The Changeling”. Star Trek:The Motion Picture, therefore, was a copy of a copy of a copy (bonus fact: the Paramount executive who greenlighted Roddenberry and Foster’s story as the basis for a Star Trek movie was none other than Michael Eisner)

Although the movie didn’t do as well at the box office as everyone hoped, Paramount decided to move ahead with a second film. Gene Roddenberry was ready, and submitted a story wherein the Enterprise travels back in time to 1963 and Spock shoots JFK to preserve the timeline. In case you’re keeping track, by this point alleged visionary Gene Roddenberry had been given three chances to pitch a Star Trek movie to the studio, and two of them involved members of the Enterprise crew injuring or killing beloved historical figures. Fearful that if they let him keep trying Roddenberry would eventually turn in a script where Scotty beats Abraham Lincoln to death with a baseball bat, Paramount decided to take a chance on a new creative team.

Roddenberry was not done with Star Trek, however. In 1986 he was tapped to develop a new television series. The result was Star Trek: The Next Generation, and although Gene once again secured the “Created By” credit, in truth he enlisted the help of David Gerrold and D.C. Fontana, used many of their ideas, and then had his lawyer screw them out of the Co-Creator credits they deserved. By the time TNG hit its stride with audiences Roddenberry was very ill, and other people had taken over the day-to-day running of the show. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to the Rick Berman-produced shows that continued on after his death was the idea that Star Trek’s humans were so “advanced” that they would have no interpersonal conflict. In the words of Ronald D. Moore, a writer on TNG and DS9 who would go on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, “This began to hamstring the series and led to many, many problems. To put it bluntly, this wasn't a very good idea.

Someone who was primarily interested in telling good stories would never hamstring his characters that way, but by this time Roddenberry’s main priority was in communicating his vision of the future, a vision that twenty years worth of cheering convention crowds had convinced him was genuinely important, instead of what it was, which was just some guy’s opinion. Some people think Gene saved Star Trek from obsolescence when he reimagined it for a new generation in 1986, but I think that Michael Piller and his talented team of writers saved Star Trek from Gene Roddenberry in 1989.

So, what was the point of that long, unfocused ramble? This: I hope that John Lasseter is what some people think he is, a creative it-getter with a clue who can get things done. But sometimes people who look like visionary creative it-getters turn out to be completely insane.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Return of the PeopleMover

Well, folks who miss the pre-1994 Tomorrowland got a small piece of the old place back this week. It seems the Tomorrowland Transit Authority has a new audio track that closely resembles the one it had back when the attraction was known as the WEDWay PeopleMover.  Some folks are speculating that this is the first step in a “soft reboot” of Tomorrowland that will dispense of all references to the area as a futuristic spaceport.

Here’s a video of the ride with the new narration:


And for comparison’s sake, here’s a video of the WEDWay PeopleMover from 1991: