Now that the D23 Expo is over, we’ve all got some more info about how Disney plans to restructure Epcot, and out of all the news, the single thing that surprises me the most is how angry I’m not.
I’ll be the first person to concede that I tend to be a Disney apologist, but I’m also super-possessive of everything about the parks, and I’ll complain loudly to anyone who’ll listen when I don’t like a change. But yesterday I found out that one of my favorite places on Earth since I was a teenager is going to be effectively destroyed, and my reaction was, “Cool. Let’s see what they come up with to replace it.”
I got the D23 news not from the Disney blogs or YouTube channels like usual, but from watching the Instagram feed of theme park reporter Carlye Wisel. I think she’s great — funny, honest, opinionated, and clearly passionate about theme parks, while still able to acknowledge it’s kind of a weird, niche specialty, but insisting that that doesn’t make it any less valid — and anyone interested in theme parks should be following her and reading her articles. While I found myself disagreeing with her take on the changes, specifically the changes coming to Spaceship Earth, I had the unsettling realization that a generational shift had happened.
Wisel talks about the current version of Spaceship Earth — narrated by Judi Dench and ending with cutout versions of your future and thanking the Phoenicians for the alphabet — as if it’s the definitive one. Whereas I, a sophisticate, recognize that the One True Version of the ride is the one hosted by Jeremy Irons.
Or really, the One True Version is the version of the ride that’s in my head. Which is, like the model of Disneyland at the end of the Walt Disney Family Museum, a fantastic version that never actually existed, but is an amalgamation of decades’ worth of changes and embellishments. It’s mostly narrated by Judi Dench; has a brightly-lit version of the scene where cavemen hunted the mammoth; the classic animation of the chariot on an infinite loop leaving Rome; the black woman computer programmer from the current version; the kids speaking to each other from opposite sides of the world in realtime-translated English and Japanese on the descent; and most of all, the space shuttle and astronaut floating over the projection of Earth at the top, this time narrated by Walter Cronkite and set to a majestic soundtrack that makes me tear up every time I see it.
I absolutely sympathize with anyone who’s upset that something they love from Epcot is going to be changed or destroyed. At several times over the past 30 years, I’ve been that person. In fact, whenever I’ve visited the park over the past several years, I’ve realized that almost everything I love about Epcot is wrapped up in nostalgia. For the World of Motion, and the Dreamfinder and Figment, and the rainbow tunnel, and the Communicore, and the roller-coaster-building touchscreens, and the hydrolators, and the Tapestry of Nations parade, and visiting with my family, and my early teen years. It’s mostly about stuff that doesn’t exist anymore.
So the current incarnation of Spaceship Earth has long felt like a stopgap to me, a retrofit of a retrofit. A ride that was initially sponsored by a communications company to have a specific message, but has been retooled and repurposed so often that it now has to act as a stand-in for everything that Future World used to be.
But everything in Future World now feels like a stand-in for what it used to be. As much as I love it, the park has been long overdue for an overhaul. When we visited in February, I watched the Reflections of Earth show twice, and I cried like I was at a funeral, mourning the death not just of a fireworks show, but of the feeling of optimism and globalism that the show — and the entire park at the turn of the millennium — celebrated. If Epcot in 1982 was the manifestation of an idea, then Spaceship Earth on one end and Illuminations on the other were the last surviving vestiges of that idea.
And that is part of why the plans for the new version of Epcot are encouraging to me. Disney is finally letting the other shoe drop, after letting it hang over everyone’s head for over a decade. They’re finally acknowledging that the version of the park that existed in the early 1980s, and even the version that existed in 2000, is gone. And I like that, not just because it feels like ripping off the Band-Aid once and for all, but because if it’s successful, Epcot will be able to “mean something” once again.
Early Epcot undeniably had a voice and a message, but it’d be revisionist history to claim that the voice and the message always worked. And Disney fans are experts at revisionist history. How else do you explain how Maelstrom instantly went from being one of the parks’ most ignored if not outright reviled rides, to being one of the most beloved, the moment it was announced that it was going to be replaced by a Frozen ride?
Within five years after Epcot opened, Disney had already found itself having to chip away at the “pure” Epcot experience. It had gotten a reputation for being boring, because some people thought it went too hard on the “edutainment” angle. Some guests didn’t want to go on 30-minute-long rides when on vacation, especially not ones that had didactic messages about technology or corporate sponsorships. All of the attractions hit the same one note of a middle-of-the-road Carousel of Progress-type experience; there was little for small children to do, and there were no thrill rides. And almost everyone, not just Michael Eisner, wanted to see more of the characters.
The new proposed changes are obviously and undeniably an attempt to retrofit the entire theme park to drag a concept from 1982 into 2020, while trying to make it seem it’s been that way the whole time. But Disney’s been updating the park practically since it opened, and sometimes it’s worked. Sometimes WDI has had a very practical goal to fulfill — like maintaining a General Motors sponsorship and making a family-friendly thrill ride that’s still educational — and they pull it off so brilliantly that I can’t even be mad that it replaced my previous favorite attraction at Epcot.
But then other times, they make “Journey Into YOUR Imagination.” If Spaceship Earth is the icon of Epcot, then the Imagination pavilion is its heart. Or more accurately, the haunted painting it keeps in the attic. I purposely avoid finding out too much about the internal goings-on of Disney or the rumors around project development, preferring to let the parks just speak for themselves. But at least from my perspective as an outsider and frequent guest, it seems that throughout the history of the park, if you wanted to see the overall state of Epcot, you could just look at the state of the Imagination pavilion.
When it opened, it was a bridge between the Magic Kingdom/Disneyland and Epcot. One one side, it was the attraction most like a traditional dark ride, with a cute cartoon character, a song from the Sherman Brothers, and a queue reminiscent of “it’s a small world.” On the other side, it was part of the “voice” of Epcot, based on an abstract concept, intended to be as informative as it was entertaining, using original characters with no ties to an existing property, encompassed by a corporate sponsorship that defined the pavilion’s overall “message,” and being part of an hour-long experience instead of just the 12-minute-long ride.
And over the next decade or so, it aged like the rest of the park: eventually becoming a dark ride representation of 1982 Epcot whose original “message” had gotten diluted. Either from the loss or change of a sponsor, or updating part of the pavilion without touching the ride, or bringing in elements that were no longer unique to Epcot.
Finally, Disney essentially sacrificed Figment to the spirit of the 1990s. The company was trying to counter the popular conception that Disney was childish and dated, and they hadn’t yet learned how to spin that into a positive by calling it “classic” and “timeless.” They chose to get rid of everything that made the pavilion unique to Epcot, instead going for a cartoonishly simple-minded attempt at “corporate synergy” by tying it into the Honey I Shrunk the Kids franchise. And they did it all under a ridiculously constrained budget.
(Which is the one aspect of Disney I still just don’t understand at all. Every parks project in the US is hit by budget constraints that bafflingly persist no matter whether the company is doing gangbusters or is in a financial downturn. Even though they’ve seen in the Tokyo parks that putting money into the parks pays off with massive attendance. I don’t get it).
That was received so poorly that they tried to course-correct to the current version, which is a representation of the state of how Epcot’s been more or less limping along in the new millennium. It’s pretty much summed up in the new name “Journey Into Imagination With Figment.” They’re eager to try and appease fans by adding back the stuff they think fans love: the dragon mascot and a catchy song. It’s more or less well-intentioned, but it’s soulless. It’s a patch fix that tries to fix the surface problems, but ignores the core problem, which is that the pavilion no longer has a message or a voice. It’s now just a dated ride and a children’s play area.
The changes to Epcot as presented at D23 — even though they don’t mention Imagination at all, which is a little troubling — make me optimistic that they’ve finally recognized the problems from the last two refurbs. They’re not just acknowledging but embracing the history of the park (because they can sell merchandise to nostalgic fans like me, for a win-win!), so they’re unlikely to just throw everything out for the sake of a movie tie-in. But they’re not hamstrung by the history of the park or beholden to preserving it exactly, since the legacy of the park isn’t just its characters or songs, but its ideas.
So the names they’ve proposed — World Nature, World Discovery, and World Celebration to retroactively fit in with the existing World Showcase — are clunky, but people don’t use the Disney-branded themed names for things in practice, anyway. The role they serve is to pitch an idea: it’s no longer a somewhat-awkward mashup of an 80s Tomorrowland plus a permanent World’s Fair, but it’s a single cohesive whole. And what I think is the most ingenious part: they took what could’ve been a crass and soulless attempt to “Disney-fy” an obstinately high-minded theme park, and instead made it work by going back to the original acronym and presenting it as a true “Community of Tomorrow.” The sections aren’t called “lands” but “neighborhoods.” The attractions aren’t trying to educate (which people on vacation tend to resist) or to accurately predict the future (which has been proven multiple times to be futile in a theme park setting), but are meant to celebrate human achievement and shared experiences, which is traditionally one of Disney’s core strengths.
I’m also optimistic because I’ve seen this approach work before. I already mentioned Test Track — they kept almost none of the surface details of the original World of Motion, but they kept the overall theme, and significantly, its tone. The refurb had an updated sense of humor that worked perfectly (and which, unfortunately, was entirely drained out of the current version).
Disney has also gotten better at putting IP into the parks while keeping it feeling intentional and natural, instead of awkwardly shoved into otherwise original experiences. The Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout ride is absurdly fun and an improvement on the DCA version of Tower of Terror (which was itself an attempt to copy an “original” idea but do it on the cheap) in every conceivable way. And Cars land and Pandora take two licenses that I really don’t care about at all, and manage to make fun and interesting experiences out of them even for non-fans.
This article about the changes to Epcot and the other parks, written by Todd Martens in the LA Times, talks about fans’ concerns that stuff original and unique to the parks is being shoved out in favor of experiences based on other properties and copied in multiple parks throughout the world. It’s a tension that’s been going on for a while — even (especially?) I have been guilty of lamenting that original stuff like The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain, is falling out of favor. But I think the most telling quote in that article is from a guest who’s worried about Figment and “The Three Caballeros,” which the article acknowledges was already a case of Disney adding an existing property to an original ride concept. I love the Grand Fiesta Tour (the name of the new version of the ride), I think it’s another improvement over the original in every way, and it’s a perfect example of how they’re able to add existing properties to the parks and make it feel seamless and natural. I’d hate to see the company abandon original concepts completely, but I also think it’s a mistake for us to be too precious about the evils of IP. It’s been part of the parks since Walt called it Sleeping Beauty Castle, Imagineering is doing a better and better job of incorporating it and making it feel natural, and it’s been a tension for so long that there are likely dozens of people working in the company now who grew up wanting to see it done right.
And finally, I’ve already seen a similar transition take place not just within a single ride, but across an entire park. Animal Kingdom started out as a too-hot half-day park, where there was little to do apart from a 30-minute long traumatic Safari ride and be endlessly harangued about the evils of poaching while you were just trying to enjoy your vacation. Now, it’s one of my favorite parks in the world. It started out with a voice, a commitment to original and unique experiences, a rejection of IP as much as possible, and an insistence on “purity” of the experience, for lack of a better word. And I don’t feel that any of its integrity was sacrificed as over the years, its voice was softened and made less strident, and it was allowed to relax.
So yeah, I think I’m cautiously optimistic about the new Epcot. I appreciate that they’re spending a year pandering to — I mean pleasing the fans who grew up with the park, re-releasing attraction posters and park icons and a “limited time” fireworks show that promises to use all the old songs. (And which means I have to book another trip to Florida within the next year). But even more than that, I appreciate that they seem to be committing to a genuine “re-imagining” of the park, forgoing quick fixes in favor of making everything fit into a cohesive theme. And I have to say it’s a relief to be once again optimistic about a place that was always supposed to be about optimism.
Just don’t mess with the mural outside Spaceship Earth, please.