Sunday, July 3, 2022

Epcot Updated: Musings and Thoughts

Epcot has never been EPCOT. Walt's 1960s vision of a techno-utopia in the middle of central Florida's swamps died with him. Throughout the 70s Epcot then became all of Walt Disney World - see you don't need a separate city when all the infrastructure we built is Epcot! After the semi-successful Lake Buena Vista Village, Disney then combined the proposed World Showcase located next to the TTC with a proposed technology-focused Worlds Fair park to form EPCOT Center.

The EPCOT of 1982, of course, was nowhere near what EPCOT the city would be proposed as. Instead, it was a park based on sponsorships, corporate and governmental, and all the baggage that comes with that. Think Exxon telling people about global warming was bad? Just imagine what would have happened if the prominent supporters of apartheid sponsored the South Africa pavilion. Yeesh. The park was well-liked by the general public despite its obvious flaws. Slow-moving dark rides, walk-through attractions, and theatrical presentations are the bread and butter of a Worlds Fair but generally disappoint people who just rode the new Big Thunder Mountain Railway at the Magic Kingdom.

In 1984 Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took over The Walt Disney Company during the stock market takeover days of Gordon Gekko. Eisner did not like EPCOT Center, he immediately canceled several major projects for the park and realigned the park. No longer a simple Worlds Fair, Epcot (lowercase) would refocus on the hottest new exhibition of technology: the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES. 

CES had several important factors that the Worlds Fairs did not have: relevant celebrities, modern design trends, modern music, and action. CommuniCore's expanded pavilion exhibits became Innovention's permanent CES. Major pavilions saw celebrity-hosted, or thrill ride-focused, changes. The peak of this time was Epcot's Millennium Celebration where many classic parts of Epcot saw their last updates and many classics were introduced. 

Epcot's changes bottomed out from 2008 through 2016 when temporary festivals such as Food & Wine took over the focus for their affordability. Disney fans were understandably frustrated as pavilions became stale, outdated, and just plain old broken. Demands were made for a new focus and updates to Epcot. These dreams were fulfilled in 2017 as Disney announced a major redevelopment of Epcot- new attractions, new nighttime shows, and more.

Throughout all versions of Epcot, the goal was to represent the best of humanity through technology and culture. The park had something to say, no matter how biased or tainted by Reagan-era America it was. Do the new attractions live up to the Epcot goals and dedication? Do they triumph where prior attractions failed? Or, more basically, are they just good and fun?

Guardians of the Galaxy - Cosmic Rewind


Replacing the Universe of Energy, Cosmic Rewind is an indoor rollercoaster based on going back to the big bang with Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy characters. The old oil company pavilion's design has remained the same, a diamond-shaped wedge, but now has a massive coaster building attached to its back. The old building that would hold a 42-minute energy presentation now holds roughly an hour's worth of waiting for space (between its queues and various preshows), dual load and unload stations, and four show scenes for the coaster. Not bad.

While many see the two show buildings as a waste of space it is actually quite a brilliant feat of engineering. Several tweets went viral when POVs dropped about the excess space in the show building. Do you think if Disney had the option they would rather build a smaller building and not one that's needlessly large? All this space is needed for the projections and lighting systems, it's just the right size.

The rollercoaster experience itself is very similar to other "coasters in a box" - a twisty, helix-driven experience from the top to the bottom of the ride. Think Rock'n'Rollercoaster, not Hulk. The new feature brought to the table is a powered rotation system similar to a Disney "omnimover" ride vehicle. This similarity gave the system its name, the omnicoaster. This ride system allows for ride vehicles to rotate 360* as the coaster moves. 


As anyone who's gone through high school physics knows that the velocity of an object is impacted by the center of mass, so as the ride vehicle's center changes as the vehicles rotate the vehicle can gain and lose speed. This causes speed issues throughout the ride, so to make sure the vehicle gets through the complete circuit there is a second lift hill (launch hill?) halfway through the ride. In fact, if you count the opening small lift hill, this attraction has three lift hills, which is as many as Big Thunder.

The ride experience is somewhere around the backward section of Expedition Everest, slightly more intense than Space Mountain at Disneyland. The rotation of vehicles adds, as well as subtracts, from experience. The much-touted omicoaster's ability to focus riders doesn't actually work. Attractions with squelching and projected media also have high walls around the ride vehicles to frame the image. Cosmic Rewindws vehicles do not have a way to focus the guests to see one thing, just the rotating. This causes issues when characters warp wildly as the squelching overcompensates for the projection setup. Thankfully segments like this are infrequent.


The good news is the controlled rotating does add a lot of fun to the ride experience. The highlight of the ride is immediately after the launch, where an oddly shaped turn then transitions into a block break segment. Normally on a coaster, this segment would lead to high lateral g-forces, which would be completely uncomfortable. But instead, Cosmic Rewind uses this point to rotate the vehicles to the front with us facing toward the ride's roof. Disney put up here projections of a solar system and nebulas, making it feel like we are floating in a newly hatched space.

Overall the ride experience is a lot of fun, and if Disney can figure out what is making people motion sick and reduce its effects, they have a winner of a ride system. 

But you might have noticed, that I haven't talked about Zandar, Peter Quill, Rocket, Groot, Drax, Gamora, and allllllllll that entails. For good reason, I wanted to touch on the actual ride experience first before diving into Disney fandom's hot-button topic. THE question, THAT question, still remains: Does Cosmic Rewind fit in Epcot?

Walt Disney Imagineering, particularly Zach Riddley the Creative Portfolio Executive for Epcot, has stated that Epcot is now focused on human stories. Future World, a name that never quite described that section of the park well, is split into new "communities": World Celebration, World Nature, and World Discovery. The naming convention now is based on World Showcase but with 1982 Future World fonts and icons. Each land aims to explore humanity's relationships to various aspects of nature, culture, technology, and each other.

The confusion continues with Cosmic Rewind, where Disney uses the same font and branding to create the "Other World Showcase" pavilion, which isn't located in World Showcase. Instead, because the pavilion is future spaced themed, it's in World Discovery. While the ride is about going back in time to the big bang, the pavilion "theme" is of a fake alien civilization. This sort of vibes forward theming Disney is leaning into recently (I'll touch on this later).

Wonders of Xandu, as the pavilion is named, attempts to bring the Marvel IP to life within the boundaries of traditional Epcot. Inside the old UoE building is a large, spiraling room with an overhead video explaining humanity's various ways of establishing contact with intelligent life. Once on the second floor of the attraction, there are three rooms with various dioramas and exhibits about Xandar and the Nova Corps, a sort of Peace Corps the way of the Pinkertons. Here is where some of the first cracks start to form in terms of being an "Epcot attraction". There are attempts to link Xandairan culture or technology to humans but it falls flat without actual examples. Why aren't Nova Corp and Peace Corp intertwined? What about Actual technology examples? Instead, we get a video of Starlord making jokes about old Epcot shows. It feels lazy, which is a disappointment.

The next set of preshows is very Epcot-y: a set of three preshows! Woohoo! First is the merge room, where stand-by and Lighting Lane/FastPass/whatever-it's-called-now combine into a single group. Soon the doors open and we're onto the second room, a futuristic room with large wrap-around screens above us. Here we see Glenn Close and Terry Crews set up our plot: we are transported off our planet to a Nova Corp station in space, where we will see a demonstration of a power source McGuffin. 

Glenn mentions we will be beamed up and we get a big setup for expectations for the next room. After some safety talk by Terry, we head into the third room with a typical lightweight, high-speed wall mechanism that lifts up to reveal our new view of Earth from the vessel. It's a nifty effect but nearly all the drama or release is deflated by constantly reminding us about teleportation. This effect, moment, and the story would all do much better if Glenn's character simply says Terry's character will give us the details of how we will get up to the station, or something. Terry forgets to mention it, we enter the kinda weird and creepy holding area, with lots of sounds and lights, and boom we're on the space station. Highlights the dysfunction that could lead to the next plot point and be more fun, ya know.

Anyway, the power plant McGuffin is stolen, the Guardians show up, we are enlisted into some sort of ploy to distract this bad guy, we win, etc. We leave in a transit area behind the scenes of the pavilion as if we entered a Cast Member-only area.

Each major pavilion at Epcot has something to say about humanity or technology. It might not be deep, it might not be correct, it might not be even good, but it has something to say. I struggle to find out what Wonders of Xandar/Cosmic Rewind says. It's not that IP is a problem or such, it's what is it trying to say about the theme of the park. Nothing sticks with you on this attraction beyond which song you got, maybe it's a ride about music? After all, they do denote the golden vinyl we sent into space. What about found families and our stories? 

This is ultimately the biggest Achilles heel for the attraction, the lack of something to say in a park that is all about saying something. Maybe it needs to be about the music we play together? Maybe it's about becoming our better selves, going from a para-military org to a peacing keeping operation. I just want it to say something.

4 out of 5 stars

Harmonious

Harmonious has one of the largest boots to fill in Disney entertainment. Illuminations: Reflections of Earth was a fan favorite, running nightly for 20 years. The music is iconic, the show beats are burned into our memories, and many WOW moments. But it was not perfect and suffered from some pacing issues, so many guests started looking forward to what the next nighttime show could be.

Some first hints appeared in 2010 with World of Color's success in DCA. From here on out nearly all Disney nighttime shows will use dancing fountains of some sort. The next was the failure of Rivers of Light at Animal Kingdom. Executive leadership was no longer interested in character-less nighttime shows. We knew the direction and mission, yet, it just feels so so off.

The Harmonious infrastructure is now around five main pieces, a central ring and four LED screens and several ancillary fireworks barges. The central ring's main feature is a large water screen in the middle where lasers and projections can be shown. The four LED barges are shaped like a half tear-drop with rotating metal arms. All the barges feature numerous fountain effects, from simple nozzles to World of Color-like ones with color and motion. 

Our story is a loose thread of coming together to sing songs of our cultures. Ok, cool, sounds good. There is an attempt at some connective tissue between cultures, both a musical and narrative theme. Unfortunately, some last-minute snips to the show released all those connections and leave a show that is Disney song after Disney song.

The song choices are good, and the arrangements are sometimes puzzling. Instead of choosing arrangements that complement a fireworks nighttime show, instead, the choices are from a live concert angle. The show feels more restrained than it could have been. Harmonious Live showed this as focusing on the live performers improved the show, as does focusing less on the actual show itself (minus the fireworks). 

The show suffers from three major issues:

  • Odd Musical Choices - Music is ONLY Disney music, eschewing some obvious ties to local cultures. Of the Disney music chosen, there are some odd choices made with how the songs are arranged. Everything feels more choral than Disney's normal nighttime shows. 
  • Poor Gimmick Placement - Guests see nearly everything the show can offer within the first five minutes of the show. The arms, the fountains, the ring, the laser, fireworks, etc. Additionally, the fireworks feel poorly placed, with a huge finally trying to make up for a lack of pyro during the rest of the show. Holding off on some gimmicks and spreading some fireworks around would help this show a lot.
  • Show Doesn't Feel A Part of World Showcase - From the placement of the ring during the show to the barges sticking out during the day, the show feels designed outside of the World Showcase. 
A show can survive one of those above, but all three? Ooooof. The show has a certain amount of "wow" when seeing the show, but it lacks any staying power. The show wants to be a fine steak but ends up being an unfulfilling Taco Bell taco.

Is the show salvageable? Maybe? The infrastructure is a mess, it looks terrible no matter how much Disney wants to admit it. Harmonious feels like a dead show walking with an uncertain future.

3 out of 5 stars

Remey's Ratatouille Adventure


Imported from Walt Disney Studios Paris, Remey is a cute little trackless dark ride through the plot points of the movie. There isn't too much more to add beyond what has already been written about the attraction when it opened in Paris. It's fun, it's cute, it's nice.

Friend Jeff pointed out that the ride is odd because the attraction is in split French and English, while the movie is in all English. He pointed this out as an odd disparity and a negative. I don't agree necessarily, instead, I think the split French and English is the sort of thing to make a light, fluffy attraction fit Epcot. 

The added foot space, food capacity, and restroom space are also a huge boon for what has been historically one of Epcot's most popular pavilions.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Other Stuff - Connections, Creations, Music, and Etcetera


Let's start with the home run. Connections, the counter service location for the front left of the park, is big, bright, and open. Instead of dark paneling and carpet, there are now floor-to-ceiling windows and bright wood. The former Electric Umbrella ordering area is now a Starbucks and the former Innoventions exhibits in the back are the cafe. The food is very good, I had a tikka masala pizza with greek salad (salad was lightly dressed and fresh, a rarity for a theme park) plus the famous dessert waffle. The location also has a good beer selection, making this the go-to spot for any Guardians or Play Pavilion beers.

5 out of 5


Which is why it's so baffling why Creations sucks. Here the same large, open area just makes the shopping feel generic and cheap. This isn't helped by a rather uncreative merchandise selection. Sure I get every park will need a Star Wars, Marvel, and Fab Five selection to account for any last-minute purchases. It's the same ratio as any non-parks Disney Store for these items. I feel Creations should have more Epcot-forward choices. We walked through it once and then never visited again.

This also highlights an issue with Connections and Creations: confusing names. It's hard to figure out which is which, even an in-tune theme park nerd like myself can get them confused. 

2.5 out of 5


Music has always been a stand-out for Epcot, from original songs like It's Fun to be Free to the music of the Millennium Celebration. For this new phase of Epcot, WDI has refreshed loads of background loops. The new loops channel the "low-fi beats to study to" trend just as the 90s loops chased the new wave trend of its era.

Also tied into this are Epcot Beacons of Lights, the new LED installations on Spaceship Earth. At first, the idea sounded odd and a little loopy, with over 1800 "points" of light, an LED array with many lights, with full RGB controls. This allows for crazy cool animations and musical sequences to be staged on the sphere, more impressive and cool than any projection mapping. 

5 out of 5

New Mission: Space and Space 220 are solid upgrades to an under-loved pavilion. What I would love to see is an expanded post-show area that could tie into Play! Pavilion to expand the space theme. Space 220 is fun, but ultimately Rainforest Cafe in space.

3.5 out of 5

The Future - Announced Projects, Rumors, and The Soul of Epcot

Despite being announced five years ago the Epcot redevelopment project is not done. The major culprit is a Disney mistake and a worldwide crisis. Shortly after the Guardians attraction announcement a right-wing attack against director James Gunn occurred, leading to James' firing by Disney. A year later he was hired on again, but this threw a wrench into the plans to film content for Cosmic Rewind during Guardians 3, which would be delayed several years. This likely pushed Guardians opening to 2022 at the earliest very early in construction.


The other issue is COVID-19. Epcot's redevelopment was already scaled back significantly once final plans were announced in 2018. The sprawling redevelopment project would be scaled back to flattening and rebuilding the Innoventions plaza and Innoventions West (aka the one by The Land). But after COVID threw the world's entertainment industry into a tailspin. Any project not under active construction was cut permanently. Play! Pavilion was paused. And who knew about Harmonious.


In 2022 the following projects remain to be completed:
  • Play! Pavilion - Paused exterior work, no word on an opening date.
  • Moana Journey of Water - Construction resumed in late 2021 for a likely early 2023 opening date.
  • Dreamers Point - New central spine where the former Innoventions Plaza fountains used to be.
The following projects were announced for Epcot but were either removed or never spoken about again:
  • Spaceship Earth re-do: upgrades to the ride system and story would switch the story from innovation and technology to "storytelling". Other rumored changes include some references to Disney properties and the removal of the touchscreens.
  • Two Story Entertainment Pavilion: The much-touted three-story building and viewing area for Harmonious. It would have been also used for events, food, merchandise, and more between its three stories.
  • Marry Poppings attraction. Rumored to be an indoor carousel with projection mapping.
  • New China movies to complement the new Canada (good), Land pavilion (bad), and France (bad) movies.

I stalled out writing this article for the longest time under different topics because Epcot just didn't feel "done" yet. And well, with its largest new attraction since 2005 open and many projects seemingly stalled or canceled, I guess this might be the time to put a fork in it, this is as "done" as Epcot might be. 

Everything WDI did in terms of look, feel, and the atmosphere is great, but they need to keep going. Thankfully it appears the same careful work done for Creations and the new entrance is being applied to the remainder of the new construction. But like with my take away from Guardians, I wonder what the finalized Epcot will add to its message. Rumor has it Moana will touch on some educational topics, what about Play! Pavilion? What about Dreamer's point? Not everything needs to be Living with the Land, but it needs to work together in representing the park's mission statement.


Once these announced projects open the question then comes up: what's next. Epcot was rotting away, these updates brought the foundation back to the park, but there are still major issues. From older issues: Imagination remains a low-rated ride with a slap dash 3D film in the theater. A complete reworking of the ride, post-show areas, and theater would go a long way in completing Epcot.

One big mistake was Disney choosing to build a carousel and put it inside a ride building. Carousels add so much to the atmosphere of an area, I wish this Marry Poppins carousel idea is refreshed as an outdoor attraction like the Fantasyland carousel. The horses would be straight from the animated segments of the movies and classic music will play on the organ. This Epcot "plusing" could continue to add smaller flat rides or smaller scale attractions to existing pavilions. Maybe a flat ride around Imagination and Test Track? New walkthrough exhibits in Mexico, China, Japan, and Morocco?

There are two attractions that need help quick: Spaceship Earth and Test Track. SSE was scheduled for redevelopment but those plans were canceled due to COVID. No matter what happens, this ride will need a lot of work to the ride system to prevent downtimes and delays. Test Track faces a similar problem with an older presentation of projection mapping and a very complex ride system.


So, where does that leave us? Has Epcot been reborn anew? A disappointing mess? Somewhere in between?

The good news is the aesthetic and mood are right. The open, bright, and airy entrance plaza, Connections/Creations, and other additions are great. Music is a wonderful upgrade and the font work and iconography are timeless. Details are rich, like the Epcot layout for the Starbucks floor or the new use of color. Even when it goes a little awry, like with Creations, it still feels inviting and modern. The new focus on humanity and our shared stories make sense in a world of technological progress and isolation.

Yet it also feels off. Guardians, while it tries to fit in using the aesthetics and tropes of vintage Epcot, don't really have anything to say about humanity. Harmonious tries to touch upon it but comes up short with no connections to their native countries. Play! Pavilion and Moana still have yet to show what they can offer. But many of the smaller new addition, such as Rat ride and Canada's new movie, are solid additions to Epcot that are very Epcot!

I've heard that internally at Imagineering Guardians was the advertising magnet for the park, the web banner or I-4 billboard headliner for the park. The rest of the additions, from Spaceship Earth to Harmonious, was a tribute to classic Epcot. Things changed, of course, with COVID cutting many of the "cool" things while Harmonious was shifted to a Disney concert.

In the end, Epcot is still not Epcot, just in a new way. For me, the lack of message and vision with this new direction doesn't make it Epcot for me. But someone who prefers the 1980s aesthetic first might enjoy the return to a cool, clean design language. Here is how I view it: If a company says their product is better and deserving of the higher cost, is the attention to theme and story, then I will hold the product to that standard. While Cosmic Rewind is of high quality it doesn't really live up to the promises of a theme. "Nobody can touch us," as they claim. And I feel that this should be called out for being a miss when Disney says to hold them to a higher standard.

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