Friday, August 27, 2010

A New Feature

2010 has been a busy year for EPCOT. The World Showcase received a rare new addition with the opening of the Via Napoli restaurant this month, and the expanded Hacienda de San Angel is scheduled to open in September. In Future World, the return of Captain EO managed to shamelessly capitalize on the death of someone Disney would undoubtedly ignore were he still alive, and remind us of why some things from the ‘80s are best left there.

I’m not privy to any inside information, but I predict that 2011 will be a much quieter year for our favorite park, primarily because most of the company’s attention (and money) will be focused on the massive Fantasyland expansion project now underway in the Magic Kingdom. I seriously doubt that EPCOT will get any new additions until after Fantasyland is completed. Don’t be surprised if there’s a subtraction, though. On my last visit to EPCOT on a hot and crowded Sunday, every Future World attraction had a longer-than-average wait time. Except one, that is: Journey Into Imagination With Dr. Nigel Channing. Throughout the day, the tip boards in Future World consistently showed no wait time at Imagination, even as the temperature climbed close to 100 degrees. No lie: I saw more people drink Beverly at Club Cool than I saw enter the Imagination pavilion. When people won’t even enter your attraction to escape the Florida heat in August, you’ve got a popularity problem. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Disney’s bean-counters notice this and turn Imagination into a “seasonal” attraction a la Sounds Dangerous, reopening it only if Test Track, Mission:Space, and Soarin’ all break down at the same time. Maybe after the Fantasyland project is completed, Journey into Imagination will get the upgrade it so richly deserves. We can only hope.

In the meantime, I’m rolling out a new continuing feature here at the blog, a Star Trek: The Next Generation retrospective. It won’t be an episode-by-episode review; there are enough people on the Internet who do that sort of thing, and the vast majority of them are better writers than I am. Rather, it’s going to be a recounting of what it was like to experience TNG’s seven-season run as it happened. Too many reviewers make the mistake of evaluating the show by modern standards, and that’s not really fair. Simply saying that TNG’s first couple seasons were badly written and full of 1980s cheesiness is like making fun of Vanilla Ice; it’s too easy and anyone can do it. Clearly, the show was able to garner enough of an audience to allow it to survive to its third season when it really got good.

Just as it can be hard to remember when EPCOT Center was brand new and untouched by the ravages of Eisnerian cost-cutting and 1990s attempts to be “hip”, it can also be difficult to imagine a time when Star Trek only consisted of a cancelled television series from the ‘60s and four movies. A new series with unfamiliar characters seemed like a very risky proposition. Over the next few months, I’ll be looking back on some key moments in TNG’s evolution from an uneven not-quite-sequel to the original series to the launching point for the rest of the Star Trek franchise.

I hope you’ll stick around.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Most Amazing EPCOT Redesign Plan You Will Ever See

There have been lots of ideas, over the last few years, on how to improve EPCOT. Some, like WDI’s Project Gemini, were meant to erase the park’s stodgy, academic reputation and make it more popular with teenage thrill-seekers. Others, like those put forward by Disney aficionados outside the company, aim to make the park into an updated version of the EPCOT Center they remember from the 1980s. All the ideas, though, boil down to a list of attraction refurbishments and additions.

Well, a guy named Peter Schaab has come up with a comprehensive redesign of the park that goes much, much further. It is, quite simply, the most far-reaching, visionary plan to re-focus and re-imagine EPCOT that I have ever seen. If Walt Disney were to try to remake the existing park to conform more closely to the spirit of his original EPCOT idea, I don’t see how he could do better than this. Sure, there are a few aspects with which I don’t personally agree, but that shouldn’t detract from the project’s breathtaking awesomeness.

I’m not going to go into the details of Mr. Schaab’s work, because it really demands to be seen for itself. Go to this site: Read everything, watch the videos, look at the pictures, then download the PDFs and read them all. You’ll be glad you did.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Coral Reef Reviewed


The Coral Reef Restaurant at EPCOT’s Seas pavilion has always held a certain appeal for me. The whole idea of dining under the sea, like the underwater restaurant patrons in Horizons’ floating city scene, is just so darned cool. From the time I first heard of its existence when the Seas pavilion opened in 1986 I’d always wanted to eat there. However, a few things held me back.

For one thing, the tiny selection of menu choices didn’t really excite me. I’m from the coastal town of St. Augustine. When a seafood restaurant there serves you its “catch of the day”, you’re actually eating fish that was caught that day. There are lots of restaurants there whose menus overflow with shrimp, crab, lobster, whatever you want. You know how many seafood entrees the Coral Reef offers? Four. And one of them, the Lobster Ravioli, probably has way more pasta, tomatoes, and sauce than lobster.

Also, the negative reviews the place had received tended to put me off the Coral Reef. Words like “disappointment”, “mediocre” and “overpriced” kept popping up (although complaining about things being overpriced at Disney World is a little silly. It’s like going to a Michael Bay movie and complaining about the explosions). After repeating some of those negative comments here, I felt that I at least ought to try the place and see if the criticism was warranted. So, I had lunch there last weekend, and this is my report:

It should be noted that I’m not a food snob. Menus with strange, unidentifiable items like “Compote of whipped Marscapone in a Spaetzle reduction” don’t make me feel like I’m in a nice restaurant, they make me feel like I’m in a Klingon restaurant. As Forrest Gump might say “Never eat anything you do not know what it is”. So, don’t expect me to talk about food like it’s a job applicant: “This escargot is certainly efficacious, but it has an almost ideological conflict with the arugula.” Not gonna happen.

Our lunch reservation was at 1:45. We checked in about five minutes early and were given a beeper that would go off when our table was ready. (Okay, it’s technically not a beeper since it doesn’t beep, only flashes little red lights, but calling it a “flasher” makes it sound like a creepy dude in a trench coat.) Unlike some of the reviews I’ve read, the staff at the front desk was quite friendly and attentive. Within five minutes our “beeper” went off, and we were escorted to our table by a nice guy named Antonio or something. As we walked, he rattled off a memorized spiel about how we were now going “under the sea”, pausing to remind us to watch our step each time we stepped down one of the restaurant’s three tiers. I don’t blame him for the tacky memorized spiel, I blame Disney for making their employees say crap like that. I mean, it’s obvious that we’re supposed to be under the sea, there’s a giant aquarium right in front of us! We were pleasantly surprised to be seated at a table right next to the aquarium. Just on the other side of the window from where were were sitting, a large sea turtle was resting. He stayed there throughout our meal, occasionally swimming up to the surface for a lungful of air. The tank was teeming with ocean life; we saw sharks, rays, and several varieties of fish. Best of all, the old Living Seas area music was playing over the restaurant’s PA system! Unfortunately, the noisy conversation from the restaurants other patrons worked against the quiet peacefulness that the aquarium, the restaurant’s subdued lighting, and the area music were trying to create, but it’s not like Disney can put a Cone of Silence over every table.

I was already familiar with the menu and knew what I wanted to order. Before we left home, my wife had printed out the menu and highlighted a couple of items that she might like to order as well. This was a good thing, because whenever we eat at an unfamiliar restaurant she tends to be paralyzed with indecision. Unfortunately, she left the printout at home. So it took quite a while for her to figure out what she wanted. Our server came back to check on us at regular intervals, but I never got the feeling that he was getting impatient. He was very helpful when my wife had questions about the menu, and finally she decided on a Caesar salad with chicken, with Ranch dressing instead of Caesar. I ordered the New York Strip, cooked medium-rare.

One of the knocks on the Coral Reef is that the portions are too small. I’d have to disagree with that; I found them to be quite sufficient. I didn’t have any food left over (except for the watercress, which I chose not to eat) but I wasn’t hungry after I finished eating, either. My wife’s Caesar Salad came not with just cut-up pieces of chicken, but with an entire chicken breast. We both enjoyed our entrees very much. My steak was grilled to perfection, and the potatoes were very tasty as well. My wife enjoyed her salad very much, and she absolutely loved the Chocolate Wave she ordered for dessert. She said it was even better than Le Cellier’s Chocolate-on-Chocolate Whiskey cake. High praise, indeed! Our only quibble was that the Bloody Mary my wife ordered had too much vodka in it for her tastes.

So, would I recommend the Coral Reef? I can honestly say it’s the best table-service restaurant in Future World. And if you really want a steak and can’t get a reservation at Le Cellier, then the Coral Reef isn’t a bad second option. The atmosphere is wonderful, even if it does get a little noisy in there. I really wish they’d transplant the menu from Fulton’s Crab House (or even Red Lobster), but as long as they serve a good steak I’ll probably be eating there again at some point.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Return of Captain EO

Although I visited EPCOT Center a couple times during Captain EO’s original run, I never got to see it. Its return, therefore, gave me a unique opportunity to experience a classic EPCOT attraction as an adult, unencumbered by any childhood memories. On Sunday, August 1, I experienced Captain EO, and here’s what I thought of it:


There are some things from the 1980s that will always be awesome, like The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, and The Goonies. There are things from the '80s that are cheesy but still fun, like Knight Rider, the first season of the original Transformers cartoon, and Mr. T. And then there are things that should never, ever, for the love of all that is holy, ever see the light of day again. Things like the Garbage Pail Kids, films by Golan-Globus, parachute pants and Captain EO.

Sweet mother of Optimus Prime, where do I even begin? How about the preshow? They're using the old 1986 preshow here, which is sort of a making-of montage. It's got shots of sets being built, Francis Ford Coppola directing, and dancers in leotards and leg warmers. Also George Lucas. Lots of George Lucas. You can tell that they were very proud, back there in 1986, to have George Lucas associated with the project, because he shows up in the preshow video more than anyone else. He's always pointing at things, making descriptive hand gestures, and telling people what to do while they listen with rapt attention, basking in his genius. This is meant to make the viewers feel that they are about to witness a spectacle of pure visionary awesomeness, but after the Star Wars prequel trilogy and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we know that the only reason any self-respecting filmmaker would have George Lucas on their project is so they could listen to his advice and then do the opposite of whatever he said.

Well, the preshow is over soon enough and it's time for the main event. It begins with a dated special-effects shot of a starfield and a glowing, 3D galaxy-looking thing. The narrator tells us about a brave band of rebels who fight the forces of darkness (hey George Lucas, I wonder where that story point came from?) and as he talks a whitish rock appears on the screen. It's a 3D rock, and as the narrator talks about the rebels and their brave leader, it just keeps spinning towards us. It was on the screen for so long that I started to wonder if maybe the rock was the rebel leader the narrator was talking about. I got the impression that the filmmakers really wanted us to be impressed with this 3D rock of theirs. Anyway, just when it seems that the rock is floating just beyond the tip of our nose, it's destroyed by a laser blast from Michael Jackson's spaceship.

Despite what the narrator says, Michael Jackson, uh-I mean Captain EO, doesn't appear to be a brave rebel leader. He's the commander of a ship full of cheesy comic relief Muppet creatures, proto-Jar-Jars basically, who seem to be low-level space delivery boys. They're less like the Rebel Alliance and more like UPS. Only instead of brown shorts, Michael wears something much more embarrassing. Also, he delivers every one of his lines with a high-pitched, quivering tone that makes it sould like he's about to break down and cry.

After a space battle that plays like something from Star Wars if it was made with less money, they crash on a forbidding alien planet and are taken captive by guys who look kind of like the Borg. The Borg take them to the Supreme Ruler, who looks like a cross between the Borg Queen and the Wicked Witch of the West. After she threatens them, Michael breaks into a song-and-dance number where he reveals his superpower: with an energy blast from his hand, he can turn the Borg creatures into dancers with fabulous outfits and 80's hair! He's like a superhero: 80's Hairstylist Man! Zap! You've got a mullet! Zap! You've got a jheri curl! It's hilarious, but not on purpose.

Finally, Michael turns the Borg Queen into Angelica Houston, and everyone goes home happy, except for the audience who realizes that they've just found the answer to the question, "what could be worse than Honey, I Shrunk the Audience?" Look, I understand that Captain EO is popular at Disneyland. But southern California spends most of its time on a very different plane of existence than the rest of planet Earth. Once the "newness" of Captain EO wears off, it'll seem just as dated and out-of-place as it did in 1993.

In fact, it already does.