Sunday, August 13, 2017

Feel The Flow . . . There It Goes

Speaking as one of the people who fell in love with EPCOT Center in its 1980s glory days, Universe of Energy was . . . well, it had dinosaurs, I'll give it that. And one thing that hasn't changed since Mr. T was President is that 6-year-olds of all ages love dinosaurs.

Mr. T was the President, right? Or was that a dream I had when I took too much NyQuil that one time?
But I'm not going to sit here and pretend that Universe of Energy was my favorite. Heck, I can't remember the pre-Ellen version of the ride even though I went on it several times. Even watching the ride-through portion of Martin Smith's excellent video tribute didn't jog my memory, but it did leave me with some thoughts.

The original Universe of Energy was maybe the quintessential EPCOT Center attraction in that it used peak WED imagineering to convey the corporate sponsor's message that the challenges of the future were being met and overcome thanks to the selfless efforts of the corporate sponsor. It was designed to lure the audience in with the promise of seeing awesome dinosaurs (which was an enormously big deal in a pre-Jurassic Park world) and then pump them full of knowledge about energy production before sending them off with a rousing musical light show. The audience would stroll back out into the Florida sunshine flush with an optimistic awareness about the energy challenges of the future and a desire to learn more at CommuniCore's Energy Exchange exhibit.

Unfortunately, Universe of Energy was also the Tim Duncan of theme park attractions: it was technically brilliant but not all that entertaining to watch. And so, in 1996 it was given the Michael Eisner treatment: an infusion of humor and celebrities. The new show had the same basic message as the original, but now it was delivered in a fun, breezy manner by Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Jeopardy!

I'm not going to make the joke you're thinking. This is a G-rated blog and I'm going to keep it that way.
The new show was 90% more fun than the original, but it was also 90% less grand. The filmed portions of the original show were especially tailored to the pavilion's enormous screens, whereas the filmed portions of Ellen's Energy Adventure work almost as well on a regular TV. And the 1996 refurb stripped out the one-of-a-kind Radok block screen in the preshow area and replaced it with a more standard movie screen. Less moving parts, cheaper to maintain. It's funny how the Walt Disney Company under Michael Eisner grew more miserly even as it became increasingly wealthier.

Ellen's Energy Adventure lasted long enough for its two celebrity hosts to fade out of relevance, then back into it. But the information it contained didn't age as well. Alternative energy sources are replacing fossil fuels, even as the global warming caused by all those decades of burning hydrocarbons starts to wreak serious havoc on the planet. We can knock the decisions Michael Eisner made when he ran Disney, but at least his iteration of the company attempted to retain EPCOT's basic themes. Under Bob Iger, the company is all franchises, all the time. It's safe to say that from now until the rising oceans erase Florida from the map, we'll never see another EPCOT attraction that isn't tied to Marvel, Lucasfilm, or Pixar.

The guys who ran the E. Cardon Walker/Ron Miller version of the Walt Disney Company may have been so square and buttoned-down they made Mitt Romney look like Flavor Flav, but they felt a responsibility to use the power of the Disney brand for more than just entertainment. They had the courage to bet the company on a huge expensive theme park full of stuff that wasn't what people wanted, but what they ought to have. It's a shame that spirit is in short supply at Disney today, but it was always an anomaly in corporate America. It was probably never going to last forever. So, although I found the parts of Universe of Energy that did not contain Animatronic dinosaurs rather unmemorable, I'm glad the place existed and that I got to see it.

And I'm sorry it's gone. The clean energy revolution, at least, continues.