Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Transportation, Transformed: How and Why Test Track II is EPCOT Center, Revitalized.

For over a decade, now, EPCOT Center has been gone from Walt Disney World. “Epcot” has taken its place, as EPCOT Center, and the original concepts and ideas for the park have been watered down, nullified, and altered, foolishly, in my opinion, to fit the supposed needs of Disney’s guests. These “needs” that Disney conformed Epcot to are not fundamentally ones that are in line with the park’s original aims. Those aims were centered around exhibiting optimism, futurism, and culture in a World’s Fair setting. Transforming EPCOT into Epcot took these constructs away from exhibition and squarely changed them into experiences. While that’s not a bad idea, the thematic trappings that accompanied them were. World of Motion, EPCOT’s transportation pavilion showcased the history of man’s achievements on the move. The first version of Test Track ignored that progression and centered on the experience of testing a modern day car, something decidedly not optimistic or futuristic. And thus, the unified and driving force behind EPCOT Center was fragmented. Epcot would go on to do this across the board, to many of their pavilions. While still being primarily about “discovery” and science, Epcot’s changed theme wasn’t always futuristic or conducive to the park’s original aims or theme of exposition.

And now, in recent years, Epcot seems to be realigning herself to those old thematic constructs in subtle ways. Test Track 2 has recently debuted in Future World, replacing the old ride’s aesthetic and intent of simple crash testing in an automotive proving ground with the sleek and other worldly experience of being in a computer simulation. The experience is heightened by the preshow and the further involvement of actually designing a prototype vehicle. And, here’s the rub: With personalized involvement, and the ability to see why and how design choices are vital to the construction and creation of a form of transportation, a little bit of EPCOT Center has come back to Epcot. Test Track 2 thrives on interaction, and interaction that showcases a vision of the future spurned on by choices and creativity. While not fully aligned with EPCOT Center’s strides to be optimistic and grand, the same personal spirit can be found in how Test Track 2 now approaches futurism and the guest’s (and by extension, humanity’s) role in it. The rest of the gap between Test Track 2 and EPCOT Center is bridged in the aesthetics and feel of the entire pavilion.

Where the old preshow was a cavernous jumble of automotive clutter and ugly equipment, the new queue and preshow takes place in a subdued showroom, with soft lighting, brilliant screens, and models of futuristic cars and vehicles. Here, is where EPCOT Center’s influence is felt the most. Open and spacious, sleek and bright, the preshow lends itself to being functional but clean and with a purpose. It also brings back some exhibition to Future World as various concept cars are displayed along with informative videos highlighting the importance of design choices and different factors that effect a design’s responsiveness and capability. The final execution of the queue’s aesthetic is oddly familiar to the 1979 plans for World of Motion’s queue. Designed by Tim Delany, the original concept for the queue would have housed models of various forms of transportation, supporting the pavilion’s theme. Now, Test Track emulates this concept with it’s own “exhibition queue”, a improvement over the “walking through a warehouse” aesthetic that Test Track 1 attempted to thrive on.   The only remnant’s of Test Track 1’s old feeling is left outside, and above the entrance: the overhang and tarps over the entrance. In all honestly, this is the only blight on the refurbishment’s aesthetics, as the hodgepodge of trusses and tarps are the exact opposite of the pavilion’s sweeping lines and monolithic shape. Those motifs are carried out through the preshow and queue, as is a subdued color pallet of silvers and blues.

The ride’s aesthetics follow the same pattern of color and texture, but are much more augmented to place riders into the world of a computer simulation. Unlike other “modern” Epcot attractions, there is no disclaimer warning guests that this is all an illusion, that you don’t leave the building, and that your imagination should do the rest of the work that lazy thematics should.  (Yes, I’m talking about Mission: SPACE…) Instead, the computer dynamics and aesthetics of the ride are made to look as fantastic and otherworldly as possible, allowing a rider to think for themselves as to what they are experiencing. For me, this subtle lack of “narrative” on the design choice is a wonderful continuation of how WED designed rides to be about experience and personal interpretation. In the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, there is no real right answer to the “story” of what you experience. To me, they’ve always been “trip into a haunted house” or “Pirates doing pirate things”. Test Track 2 now offers the same way forward in its thematic execution. After you choose your design choices, the actual experience of the ride is one that is of your own imagination. The experience isn’t something concrete and forces you to overlay your own thoughts onto what you see and feel during the course of the ride.* Personally, I took the experience to be one of fantasy, as you board your car in the design studio, and are subjected to tests. Meaning, Test Track doesn’t physically take you through a computer or a program, but rather subjects your conscious design choices to a simulation. Given the fact that the narration welcomes you to the “SimTrack”, this isn’t a stretch. Meanwhile, fantastic science fiction aesthetics are nothing new to EPCOT. World of Motion’s finale, the CenterCore (a massive representation of a city on the move)  was evocative, other worldly, and almost alien. Test Track 2 feels the same way… and pays a wonderful homage to CenterCore with it’s own futuristic urban setting. EPCOT Center was grounded in a realistic sort of fantasy, as Horizons took you to the dawn of a relatable future, and The Living Seas offered a comfortable, but futuristic environment. Test Track 2 builds on the same premise during the ride experience, that this vision of a computer test is believable, based on the aesthetics and mechanics of the technology we interact with on a daily basis.

The visceral ride experience is still fast paced, and still loud, and still frenetic. To expect anything else from this refurb would have been folly. While these attributes of the ride aren’t exactly the quiet and thoughtful atmosphere for the realizations and opinions I’ve proffered here, (this post took several ride through to let everything sink in, though, I did enjoy TT2 from my first encounter with it!) the meaning of the ride is apparent to those that get to design and build their own vision of a vehicle. Thus, meaning is what makes Test Track 2 the intellectual successor to the World of Motion, and the closest the park has gotten to an EPCOT Center level of attraction in quite some time.

From the optimistic and pressing score that accompanies guests in the queue, to encouraging creativity in the design process, to the sheer delight of being immersed in a ethereal landscape, Test Track 2 feels like it has a defined purpose. Where the original iteration of this ride was just about the cheap thrill and experience of testing a modern day car, this version has nuance. Your decisions matter, your car gets tested, your ideas can help shape tomorrow’s mobility. When placing that set of ideas next to the warm and optimistic experience of EPCOT Center, Test Track 2 fits snugly next to the humanistic experience that got lost along the way. Now, fortunately, a part of it, has been rekindled, in this new version of the attraction.

All of this said, Epcot has a long way to go in becoming close to what EPCOT Center was. That will take changes like these applied on a grand scale, that unify Future World with similar aesthetics, meanings, and messages.  Test Track 2 is certainly a stride forward, in matters of meaningful entertainment, and the proper feel for what makes Epcot continuously captivating and enlightening. Test Track 2 is an excellent start in pivoting Future World and Epcot back towards living up to the grand standard set in 1982, 30 years ago, and just at Disney’s dawn of the 21st century.


*@Jonathan_Prime (twitter) helped work out this line of thought in a much more cogent manner than I was originally describing. Cheers!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

December 2012 Trip Report: Part Two

Day 2
December 9

Welcome back to my trip report! For those of you just joining us, please hold on to the handrails throughout our journey. You can read Part One here

Hooray for Hollywood would be a suitable subtitle for this part of the report. Disney's Hollywood Studios was my least liked WDW park prior to the trip. When pondering things after the trip, I think it may be my favorite. Why? Let's find out. 

We arrived at the park just before opening and went straight to Toy Story Midway Mania. This ride catches quite a bit of grief for some reason. But Toy Story is a favorite in my house and I have nothing but pure fun on this attraction. Mr. Potato Head was fully operational this morning and even managed to do his ear trick. Looks like he has done it a few too many times, however, as he's having a paint issue on the part that actually goes in to his head. After some midway games, it was time to hit up Sunset Boulevard. 

I've had a fear of thrill rides- even mild ones- for years. So I had never experienced many attractions in Walt Disney World, including Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. I finally worked up the nerve to experience both. I started with RNR. I love Aerosmith, but my love for Aerosmith has conflicted with my hatred for ever being upside down. I walked on to the attraction twice, and really loved the attraction. The preshow is cool and the ride is much more fun than I ever would have expected. The picture from the launch on my first ride is priceless. I needed a deep breath after the launch. By now most of you think I'm a wimp, so I guess I'll talk about Tower now. Yep. I'd never ridden what many claim to be one of the best attractions anywhere. Like RNR, I was thoroughly impressed. The ride experience is truly a masterpiece. (#Buzzword) The level of detail in the queue, how the story is set up and the effects on the ride are truly remarkable. The drop isn't nearly as bad as I thought. We then moved to the Great Movie Ride. As cheesy as some parts are, I'm glad the attraction is still around. To me, its an important part of the park. 

Grabbed some FastPasses for Midway Mania and then moved on. Next up was The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow. 
I'll spare you and keep my comments short. 
Projections: Well done and impressive.
Actual show part: Pretty lame. Stomping on concrete doesn't produce much of a sound. 
Also, Swiper, no swiping! 
After another round of midway games it was lunch time!

My family goes by the following motto at all times while in WDW. "Any excuse to go the Boardwalk is a good one." So, Big River Grill and Brewing Works it was. The burgers here a quite delicious. I had one with mushrooms, onions and bacon! Mostly for the bacon. They have tasty fresh chips and I'd also recommend the jalapeno cheese dip. Of course the star of the show was the BEER. Which I'm pretty sure they make. Flavorful and great if you happen to be travelling with in-laws. We spent about 2 hours at the Boardwalk. I love it there.

Upon our return to DHS, our first stop was Star Tours. I hadn't ridden Star Tours since 1991, so I can't really comment in terms of comparing the two versions. It's a pretty damn fun attraction, that's for sure. I actually wish I had more time in the queue, as the only part I waited in was the boarding area. We also headed to Muppet Vision 3D. I'd love to see the Muppets get more at DHS, due to both the success of the film and the reception the 3D show gets. Both attractions seemed to be in good shape. Up next was Fantasmic! I've always enjoyed Fantasmic! and this night was no different. It certainly lacks when compared to its Anaheim or Tokyo counterparts, but all it needs is a little love. I didn't notice anything in the way of character or pyro cuts. But there is a definite need for updates. Unfortunately, it sounds like Fantasmic! will be out of DHS, and not getting any work. That's the latest rumor. We then found short waits for bot RnR and ToT, so one more ride on each was in order.

To cap off the day at DHS, next was the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights! (Presented by Sylvania-A Siemens Company) This has always been a great offering, and I was pleased to see the updates since 2009, which include more complex sequences on the canopy. Kudos to the people heading that up! The crowd control is a bit obnoxious. They have an odd one way system that takes you in near Star Tours and brings you way down to Hunchback Theater. Not only is it a pain when you can enter at the New York end instead, but it makes you feel rushed inside the Streets of America.

Overall, I found that my complaints with DHS about unthemed boxes and lazy studio theming were much less noticeable in person than I remembered. It also helps that Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard are so wonderfully done and feel so alive with streetmosphere. I spent about a half hour at the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood and its wonderful. The park could still benefit from some work, but I gained more appreciation for the park. Though as both Michael and Sean of Parkscope pointed out on Twitter, its hard to appreciate a park when you haven't ridden half the attractions, like I had previously. In addition, aside from the gangster car in the Great Movie Ride, everything was in near perfect shape, even Mr. Spell!

Day 3
December 10
I want to talk about room maintenance quickly. On Saturday, we discovered that the drain in our shower was VERY slow to drain to the point that after a day in the parks, it had just finished draining. In addition, our TV was missing 5 channels including ESPN. This was a problem. The Patriots were playing that night. After a quick call, both were fixed by the time we got back from WWoS. The cable guy was there before we even left. The man who fixed our TV said that they are encountering many problems with DirecTV. Notably, many campers have analog hookups on their trailers and not digital.

Monday was one of two days we had set aside as non-park days. I got up quite early for a morning run around Fort Wilderness. I ran up to the beach and It was a beautiful morning, despite the fog. We started the day with breakfast at Trail's End, which offers take out and buffet next to Pioneer Hall. It was there where we met Josephine, who I'd heard about online. She is the greeter and is one of the best Cast Members. She is so friendly and knows many of the Fort's long term guests by name. If you are there in the morning  you may be able to feed her pet squirrel Bart. He likes nuts. Especially cashews. Once we ate, we went to visit ESPN Wide World of Sports. I've always wanted to see an event there, though I've never had the chance. However, we wanted to at least see the facilities. The place is gorgeous. Any kid or professional athlete who can play here is very lucky. The fields are perfectly kept and Champion Stadium is the most beautiful sports facility I've ever seen. There is a very high-tech interior ESPN channel that covers activities at the complex. This also coincides with a special channel in Disney Resort hotel rooms.  It was pretty neat to watch the grounds crew in action as they fixed grass that was torn by Pop Warner. They were also preparing for a baseball and softball event. Being a family of sports fans, we were happy to go there. 

Upon our return to the Fort, we picked up our golf cart, which we had rented through Wednesday. We spent the day just enjoying the place. Swimming, relaxing at the beach, looking at decorations and enjoying one of the best remaining parts of the original Vacation Kingdom. Then came dinner. At Ohana.
I couldn't wait. We arrived early because...well because it's the Polynesian. The meal was phenomenal. The bread....the salad....the noodles and of course, the MEAT. It was all delicious and tender. We also had bread pudding, which I technically couldn't fit inside of me. It was just a really great experience. They even had a a guy roaming around and chatting up the tables while singing and playing the ukulele  That was an appreciated touch. Next was some monorail time. We stopped first at the Grand Floridian. We played fancy for a while and poked around. Gingerbread was a must. Next stop was the Contemporary. The family we were traveling with are DVC members and we had planned to watch the game from the Top of the World Lounge. They were told no guests were allowed. But we tried it anyway. Through a little trickery, we made it to the Top of the World. The view was nothing short of amazing and I was thrilled. It was a clear night and DHS, Epcot and Downtown Disney were in view. I was in my glory. We didn't watch the game up there, but headed back to the cabin. Naturally, there was an issue with the monorail and we were held in the Contemporary for 15 minutes, witnessing firsthand the magic of TDO. 

The Patriots beat Houston 42-14 and it was glorious. (Rematch next Sunday!) We also learned that wearing your team's jersey on game day is quite the conversation starter. Guy in Texans jersey the Grand Floridian-If you are reading this- HA!

That does it for Part Two! Next up is Animal Kingdom (Naht-a-zu), Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and another day at Fort Wilderness. Once again, part one is here! I'm also on Twitter! You can also leave a comment right here on the blog if you have any concerns, questions, comments or fiery balls of hatred. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

December 2012 Trip Report: Part One

Greetings Parkscope readers! My name is Tyler and I'm the newest member of the team here at Parkscope. Some of you may know me as WDW Vacationer on Twitter. I'm thrilled to be here and share my trip report with you. Before we begin, some ground rules:
- There will be no DH, DW, DS, DD, BFF Jill or any such mommy blogger terms.
-There will be no meet and greets, no Pirates League, no Bibbidy-Bobbity Boutique.
-No magic, no pixie dust, no celebrating magical dreams.
-Only real observations from a real visitor who generally knows what the hell he's talking about.
I've been visiting Walt Disney World since the late 70s. All of those trips were with my parents and grandparents and we always stayed at Fort Wilderness. Back when the Wilderness Homes looked like mobile home trailer park residences. I didn't visit from 1991-2002. In 2003 I took my wife and kids. We stayed off property, followed by two trips in 2006 and 2009 at Old Key West and Saratoga Springs, respectively. When planning this trip, I wanted to return to Fort Wilderness with my wife and kids, because even when I was a young kid, the place left an impression on me. I plan to do a post entirely devoted to the Fort and what makes it so special. Our trip was December 8-15. Along for the ride was my wife and two sons, and our family friends and their two kids. With all that out of the way, let's begin.

Day 1
December 8
I'll do you all a favor and spare you the travel details and jump right to the part you all read this blog for. We arrived in Orlando around 1 in the afternoon and then had to catch Magical Express to the Fort. This is where it goes down hill. I was pretty hungry. The bus ride was long. I wanted to check in and eat. Saturdays are traditionally a big check in/check out day, so you'd think it would be all hands on deck.
You'd be wrong.
They had one check in lane open. The rest were Concierge dealing with tickets, golf carts and reservations  It took 45 minutes to get checked in. I was then sent to concierge to get the passes on our 2009 room keys transferred to the new ones. Simple, right?
An hour and a half later, I was ready to leave Reception Outpost. They offered a van to take us to our cabin. Great! 10 minutes they said.
Enter Super Cast Member #1- James. He was in the middle of loading luggage on to his van from Magical Express, but dropped everything to take care of us. He even got us our luggage right away. Kudos to James. The Wilderness Cabins are probably a little smaller than a standard hotel room. But they pack a murphy bed for 2, double bed and bunk bed along with a full kitchen and ample space. The theme is really nice as well-think Wilderness Lodge.
My wife offered to get the rental car from Alamo right next to the TTC and then run to the supermarket. I'm a lucky man. 
This gave me time to explore Fort Wilderness and  I could hardly wait. I got to the Meadow Pool as fast as I could to grab a bite to eat. Once my blood sugar was at a survivable place, I was able to explore Fort Wilderness  And it was glorious. I spent 3 hours just walking around and playing basketball with my kids. 

Later that night, we had plans to head to Tumbleweed Crossing- Downtown Disney. Oh, Downtown Disney. We made a bee line for Wolfgang Puck Express at marketplace. I'd recommend that to anyone. The food there was superb and the service was quick. We then met up with our friends and spent the rest of the night walking around. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know I talk about Downtown Disney quite a bit. Pleasure Island is still a sad place. It's not bad at all once you get down near Paradiso 37 and Raglan Road and the atmosphere is actually really fun down there. The Celtic music from Raglan Road could be heard throughout the area and it livened things up. But the West End is quite sad, with empty clubs on all sides. It's quite ironic, since that side once held the West End stage, the most lively area of Pleasure Island back in the day. The rest of Downtown Disney I find to be well done.  The place was packed and some of the stores  particularly in the Marketplace have some quality things for sale. One thing I did notice that disappointed me was at Team Mickey  Some decorative display items and even some merchandise was dusty. Unfortunately, this would be a regular observation throughout the trip. Splitsville wasn't open yet, but the place looked really fun. The outdoor bar facing PI seemed especially nice. When I ever return to WDW, Splitsville will be on my to-do list. (Hopefully along with quite a few new attractions....) We were there until about 10, before returning to the Fort.

Okay. That does it for Part One. Once again, I'm very excited to be here. Next up is Disney's Hollywood Studios, where I found out I don't hate that park as much as I thought. So stay tuned.

Questions, comments, criticisms, pixie-dusting? I'm on Twitter! You can also leave a comment right here on the blog, and I might respond as soon as I can if you play nice. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

UOR Permit Update 1/3/2013: Hard Rock Renovation

Happy New Year Parkscope readers! It's been a while since we've checked in, but with the busy holiday season now over we can get back to bringing you the rumors and news you count on us for!

Today, we have a new notice of commencement for a renovation of CityWalk's Hard Rock Cafe and retail area.
It's nice to see the restaurant continue to get some TLC inside to match the outside finish it got last year!