Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Carousel of Progress: Should It Move Forward or Stand Still?

One of the main criticisms leveled at Walt Disney World management by people like me is that they’re too quick to discard much-loved older attractions in favor of things that are more “thrilling”, cheaper to operate, or that tie in better to whatever licensed characters the Company is currently trying to market. In light of this climate, it’s truly amazing that the Carousel of Progress is still operating.

The Carousel premiered at the 1964 World’s Fair, and by all accounts it was one of Walt Disney’s favorite shows. Its four scenes showed the impact of electricity and electrical devices on the American family in twenty-year increments, starting in the 1900s and ending in an idealized version of the 1960s, with the family enjoying technologies that were supposed to be right around the corner. In 1975, the show made its home on the southeast corner of Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland in Florida, featuring a new theme song “Now is the Time” and a slightly updated closing scene depicting an idealized home of the 1970s. The Carousel was updated a few more times over the years (most notably in 1985 to remove all references to GE after that company ended its sponsorship) but it received its biggest overhaul in 1993, as part of the “New Tomorrowland” rehab. The original theme song, “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” was restored, the show was renamed “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress”, and an introductory video was added to the queue area to emphasize the show’s connection to Walt and the 1964 World’s Fair. Also, the final scene was tweaked yet again to show the family enjoying virtual reality video games and accidentally burning their Christmas turkey in a voice-controlled oven. None of the featured technology looked to hit the mainstream for another decade at least. The scene could easily remain in place for six to eight years without looking dated. Or so it seemed.

CoPfinalExperience 1999 in 2010 the way we imagined it in 1993 

Unfortunately, as early as 1995 the “present-day” Carousel family was beginning their slide toward obsolescence. Why? Because the creators of the ‘93 show failed to account for the Internet revolution. To be fair, in 1993 the Internet was not much of a blip on anyone’s radar. According to technology pundits at the time, virtual reality and CD-ROM were the Next Big Things. And since the show had received at least one update during each decade of its operation, it was reasonable to assume that by 2003 or so, the Carousel would be tweaked again to keep up with the times.

Seventeen years later, we’re still waiting. And each time the “modern-day” daughter character remarks to the grandfather that people of his day “didn’t even have car phones”, you can be sure that at least one kid will tug on his mom’s sleeve and whisper “Mommy, what’s a car phone?”

Also, how crazy is it that the son and the grandmother are playing their video game with Power Gloves?

Sorry, but I just had to work the Power Glove joke in there.

Seriously, though, something needs to happen with the Carousel. And I don’t mean simply updating the final scene again to reflect the world of 2010. Consider: the original show showed us the innovations of the 20th century in twenty-year intervals, starting at the turn of the century and ending in the ‘60s. If you reset the final scene to the modern day, then you’ll have a show that takes three twenty-year jumps forward followed by one huge fifty-year jump. And that’s just silly.

The original Carousel was a look back at a period of time that was still fairly fresh in everyone’s memory. In order for the show to resonate with modern audiences in the same way, you’d have to overhaul the entire thing. The first scene would be set in 1950s, the second in the 1970s, the third in the 1990s before we arrived at the 2010s. However, keeping it fresh and relevant would necessitate a big upgrade every ten years in which the “oldest” scene would be discarded and a new final scene set in the current decade would have to be designed and built. Given that Team Disney Orlando is extremely reluctant to spend any kind of money at all on the Florida theme parks unless it comes from a corporate sponsor (TDO did not want to embark upon the costly Fantasyland expansion project; they had to be ordered to do it by Corporate headquarters in Burbank) I can’t imagine they’d actually do this. Which leaves us with only one other option:

Since it’s already called “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress”, why not just restore the final scene of the show to what it was in 1964? I mean, the first three scenes are almost exactly as they were in ‘64 (minus the General Electric references) so you might as well be consistent. Sure, it means turning the show into a museum piece, but really that’s all it is anyway. Currently, it’s caught in the awkward position of trying to pretend it’s still up-to-date even though everyone knows it’s not. If they restore it to its 1964 incarnation, it’ll become the kind of attraction Team Disney Orlando likes best: the kind that requires only periodic maintenance. Disney could promote it with some kind of a “you won’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been” theme.

Sure, it might seem incongruous to have an attraction devoted to the past in a place called “Tomorrowland”, but since the rest of the land is devoted to cartoon characters, gasoline-powered go-carts, and a roller coaster that hasn’t changed much since the ‘70s, the 1964 Carousel really wouldn’t be so out-of-place.

What do you think?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Project Gemini: The Bullet We Dodged (or did we?)

Every WED-Head worth his or her salt knows that the Disney archives are full of amazingly cool projects that, for one reason or another, never saw the light of day: WestCOT, Port Disney, Beastly Kingdom, Equatorial Africa, the Rhine River Cruise, the 1994 Horizons rehab proposal, and others too numerous to mention. Every few years, someone will write an article on one of these projects and how it almost happened, and we’ll all sigh and reflect upon the cruel twists of fate that robbed us of an experience that would have been cooler than an Optimus Prime-Mr. T-Batman team-up movie.

This is not one of those articles.

In February 2003, everyone’s favorite professional Conveyor of Rumors That Are Best Taken With A Grain of Salt, Jim Hill, reported on an ambitious project to totally remake EPCOT’s Future World into a tree-filled “Discoveryland” by 2006. And when I say “ambitious”, I mean “completely insane”. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself:

Click the picture for a larger version

You can read the article (link is here) but I’ll hit the high points. For starters, Future World would have been renamed “Discoveryland”, thus relieving Disney of any pressure to keep this part of EPCOT futuristic. Spaceship Earth (dismissed in the article as a “herky-jerky . . . ride past sleeping monks and smoking ruins”) was to have been gutted and replaced by a Microsoft-sponsored Thrill-ride called Time Racers. For some reason, though, the post-show would supposedly have retained its Global Neighborhood theme from the AT&T days, despite the fact that AT&T would no longer sponsor the pavilion. Maybe this is because Project Gemini never progressed past the early planning stages, and WDI never gave any thought to what kind of post-show Time Racers would actually have, or maybe it’s proof that the whole “Project Gemini” concept was a fabrication. I honestly don’t know.

Wonders of Life was pegged for some kind of replacement, and a “Junior Autopia” would have been constructed in front of Test Track to cater to kids too young for that attraction. The area in front of The Land would become home to a “Rainforest Rollercoaster” which would take you on a “fast, fun, and informative trip through the canopy of a simulated rainforest”. How one would go about designing an educational roller-coaster, I don’t know. Maybe it would’ve had an onboard audio track where the Micro Machine Man rattled off facts about the rainforest while you tried not to lose your lunch.

The only thing the article got right was the addition of Soarin’. The Project Gemini concept placed its show building on the north side of the Land pavilion, between it and The Seas. However, Soarin’ was to have gotten a new film for its Florida debut. We all know what happened to that. And, as I’ve discussed in the past, The Living Seas would still have gotten a cartoon makeover, but it would have been themed around The Little Mermaid instead of Finding Nemo.

The CommuniCore/Innoventions area would also have been dramatically changed. The twin CommuniCore buildings would have been split up into six smaller structures. The east side would have housed “Leading Edge”, where you could see the “latest and greatest scientific breakthroughs” (a scale model of the Large Hadron Collider, maybe?), “Robot Restaurant” (a re-theme of the Electric Umbrella) and the “Future Mart” (because they must have thought Mouse Gear needed a stupider name.) The buildings on the west side would have included “Cool Stuff” a kind of mini-Consumer Electronics Show (which, interestingly, is how Innoventions was initially marketed), and-hold onto your hat-an Internet cafe. Given the fact that even McDonalds has free wi-fi these days, that seems like a pretty stupid idea. But I’ve saved the best part for last, because the alleged proposal for the sixth building in the former Innoventions complex manages to combine an EPCOT rumor that turned out not to be true (Project Gemini) with a Magic Kingdom rumor that also turned out not to be true. It’s the Home Of The Future, which would have utilized some of the Animatronics from Tomorrowland’s Carousel of Progress (which was rumored to be closing). Finally, the look of Future World (or Discoveryland) was to have been totally altered by the dozens and dozens of trees that would have been planted everywhere. That’s not a bad idea in itself, as EPCOT can be a pretty brutal place during those unfathomably hot Florida summers, but it would have totally ruined the clean, open aesthetic that Future World has always had.

So, after detailing the changes that Project Gemini was sure to bring to EPCOT and encouraging his readers to stock up on Future World merchandise because the whole “Discoveryland” thing was totally, for sure, going to happen, at the end of the article Mr. Hill does some pretty serious backtracking. He says that, as of early 2003 the U.S. economy is “in the toilet” (today’s economy must be in the septic tank, I guess) and that any major plans would likely be postponed until after the Iraq War was over (ha!) and things got back to “normal” (ha ha!). Finally, he allowed that the whole project would probably cost over $500 million, and most likely only a scaled-down version of it would actually happen. At least he was right about that part.

The only part of the whole “Project Gemini” hooey that actually came to fruition was the addition of Soarin’. And, rather than getting a new film, Disney elected to save money by using the existing one from California. Sure, Future World has seen some changes since 2003: Spaceship Earth and The Seas were overhauled, and the Wonders of Life closed down without ever becoming the site of any “future expansion”. None of those changes were made according to any overriding plan, however, they all seem to have happened independently of each other.

Project Gemini had two main goals: make EPCOT more exciting to the under-18 crowd, and free the park’s northern sector of the expectation that it should be futuristic. On both those counts, Disney seems to have succeeded. Soarin’ and Test Track are considered must-visit attractions, and people (especially the under-18 crowd) will literally stand in line for as long as it takes to ride them. 100-minute wait times are not uncommon. The Seas With Nemo appeals to the little kids, even if it makes my head hurt. Finally, although Future World still technically retains the name it’s had since 1982, Disney’s promotional materials usually describe EPCOT as a “discovery park”. The futuristic aspect, which used to be extremely prominent, is now barely mentioned.

The way things are today, I really don’t think that a sweeping re-do of Future World is still needed. Honestly, if they’d just take down the tarps in Communicore plaza and fix the Imagination pavilion, I’d be happy.

Friday, April 9, 2010

EPCOT Center, 1993

A couple weeks ago, Progress City USA posted Disney’s 1993 vacation planning video. This is significant because 1993 was the last “normal” year before the parks (especially the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT) began their mid-90s metamorphosis into what they are today. I highly encourage you to head over there and check out the whole thing (click here) but I wanted to comment on the section of the video devoted to EPCOT Center:

First of all, it’s interesting that the World Showcase has barely changed at all. Other than El Rio De Tiempo becoming the Gran Fiesta Tour, EPCOT’s southern half is pretty much exactly as the video describes it.

The Future World portion of the video, though, is what really makes you realize how much has changed. What blows me away is how much more there was to do at Future World in 1994 compared to today. Part of it, of course, is that Wonders of Life is now closed, and it housed two large attractions (Body Wars and Cranium Command) and several smaller shows and exhibits. But what about the existing pavilions? Horizons, World of Motion, and Journey Into Imagination were all replaced with rides that are significantly shorter. Soarin’ is also less than half the length of the Kitchen Kaberet/Food Rocks show that it replaced. So, even if you remove Wonders of Life from the equation, the fact remains that today’s EPCOT visitor spends less time actually experiencing attractions than they would have in 1993 simply because the rides are shorter.

In an article about Horizons that I read recently, one of the factors in the decision to close and demolish it was said to be that the current generation of theme park visitors gets bored during fifteen-minute dark rides. Is that true, I wonder? Have our attention spans shrunk over the past fifteen years or so, so that anything other than a five-minute thrill ride is incapable of holding our attention?

I encourage you to tell me what you think in the comments.

By the way, if you look at the right side of the page, you may notice that I’ve added lots more tags. Hopefully, they’ll make it easier to find the posts that interest you.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

How Surreal!

Recently I was reading a thread on the WDWMagic boards about the possibility of Captain EO returning to EPCOT in light of its success at Disneyland. Predictably, someone said “why not just bring Magic Journeys back?” and the folks who replied all expressed the belief that Magic Journeys was too surreal and unorthodox a show for today’s Disney. And they were probably right.

It was not always that way, though. And I’m not just referring to the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Disney theme parks were at their creative peak. Much earlier, during Walt’s lifetime, Disney was not afraid to do things that were surrealistic and downright weird. Fantasia is by far the most prominent example, but my favorite instance of surrealistic strangeness by the Walt Disney Company occurs during 1968’s Winnie The Pooh and the Blustery Day (Walt was involved with “Blustery Day’s” production, even though it wasn’t released until after his death). It starts out as a perfectly normal A.A. Milne-flavored little story, with Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore and long winded speeches from Owl, and then without warning it drops some acid:

The “Heffalumps and Woozles” number is so completely unlike the rest of the Pooh shorts, and such a huge departure from the source material, that it must have been a pretty big risk to take. One certainly can’t imagine today’s Disney, the international multimedia conglomerate, putting a psychedelic acid trip into a kid’s movie about English stuffed animals. And that’s kind of a shame, because
“Heffalumps and Woozles” is awesome.

And that brings us back to the Magic Eye theater. According to Martin Smith (who is never wrong) one of the proposals to revitalize Journey Into Imagination involves extending the ride-thru attraction into the space the theater now occupies. If that does not happen, however, and Disney decides instead to restore the original ride track (half of it is still there, after all, as part of the current ride) then the theater would still be there, and still stuck in the 20th century.

  Seriously, fix this

So, if there’s a future for Disney World’s first 3D theater, what kind of production should it house once Honey, I Shrunk The Audience is put out of its misery? Well, let me say that I’m not in favor of simply resurrecting an old show. And I really don’t want to see a rehash of the “A routine performance/scientific demonstration goes comically awry” plot that every single 3D film at Disney World currently employs. What I would like to see is a film that uses the power of 3D coupled with modern filmmaking techniques to take us on an exhilarating, dreamlike trip into our imaginations. If the presence of licensed characters is deemed to be absolutely necessary (and these days it seems that Disney doesn’t go to the john without the presence of licensed characters) then why not use the pavilion’s mascots, Dreamfinder and Figment? And if it’s a little strange, a little psychedelic, a little surreal, then that much the better.

Finally, speaking of things that are surreal, I can’t believe that futureprobe has 20-count ‘em-20 followers! According to my spinning globey-thing on the right side of the page, I’ve had visitors from five continents, including Sao Paulo, Brazil; Oslo, Norway; Dharan, Saudi Arabia; Hornsby, Australia, and many places in the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe and Asia. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! And if you surfed here accidentally looking for pornography, then I’m truly sorry. How you could fail at finding porn on the Internet is beyond me.

The weather is warming up here in Florida after our record-breaking Antarctic winter, and I’ll try to get down to EPCOT one more time before it gets too hot for outdoor activity. Hopefully, I can bring you a report on my experience on The Sum of All Thrills at Innoventions, and I will try to put aside my thrill-ride chickenhood long enough to finally ride Test Track.

Mrs. Future Guy and I will be celebrating our wedding anniversary during this year’s Food and Wine Festival at EPCOT, and hopefully I’ll be able to get down there around that time to experience the World Showcase’s new Mexican and Italian restaurants, assuming they open on time, and get some pictures and reviews for you.

Until next time!