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Disneyland Ex Machina

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Saving Private EPCOT

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the Mars movie Disney should have made. It’s kind of remarkable, considering how much deep and important thought Disney once gave to Mars, that they didn’t get it first. Given all the legwork Werner Von Braun and his ilk did for the studio back in the 1950s, there’s no good reason that Disney’s two recent Martian expeditions should have been such expensive, baffling and generally unsatisfying projects. Disney has made films like The Martian before: what are the National Treasure films, if not a tribute to Boy Scout training and Yankee ingenuity?  Just make a National Treasure, but set it on Mars. Drop Nicolas Cage in the Cerberus Province with a years’ worth of beef jerky and send his ride home without him. It’s actually a plan that the film industry is working on right now, though they might forget to film it.

This brings us, naturally, to EPCOT. It’s the weird uncle of Disney’s Florida holdings, a park modeled on world expositions—the last one of which to open stateside did so more than 30 years ago. For a quarter-century or more, Walt Disney World has received visitors who crowd into EPCOT without fully understanding what in the hell it’s supposed to be. Flummoxed by Walt Disney’s untimely death, his people delicately set aside his plans for a future Waltopia and went back to what they knew and understood: They rebuilt the 1964 New York World’s Fair, right down to the big metal ball.

That’s probably why Disney has no earthly idea what to do with EPCOT now. How do you get people excited for a cultural touchstone that hasn’t been seen in this country since 1984? And how to you appeal to out-of-country guests who’ve maybe been to recent Expos in Shanghai, Milan or Yeosu, and who aren’t impressed with Ellen DeGeneres’ fumbling attempts to understand sustainable energy? It’s a real goddamn problem, and Disney apparently still doesn’t know how to remedy it. Walt Disney World’s other three parks are all receiving huge, game-changing capital improvements: Magic Kingdom has its plus-sized Fantasyland, Hollywood Studios is getting Lucas’d, Animal Kingdom Avatar‘d. By comparison, EPCOT’s 2016 resolutions are to re-skin the Norway pavilion’s Maelstrom boat ride with a story that has only a desultory connection to Norway, and to make the popular Soarin’ ride, y’know, bigger-er.

Technology isn’t the problem. Nifty though the ride mechanisms of Universal’s big-deal Harry Potter rides may be, Disney has already arguably matched them with the giant slot cars of Test Track and Radiator Springs Racers, the RFID-guided vehicles of Mystic Manor and Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters, and the relatively simple mechanism of Soarin’. (That’s saying nothing of the other ride mechanics Disney has pioneered or successfully adapted to new mediums, including those behind Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest and, hell, the Haunted Mansion. The humble Omnimover, turning people into moving cameras since 1967.)  The problem isn’t that the hang-time shenanigans of Soarin’ are passé, or that we can duplicate the Circle-Vision 360° experience with an app we can download free to our phones. The problems are in theme, story and cultural relevance, three things Imagineering is supposed to be good at.

For an example, I’ll skip over the two most obvious choices—Universe of Energy and the despairing wreck that is Journey Into Imagination—and consider the case of Reflections of China, the Circle-Vision 360° travelogue that replaced Wonders of China in 2003. Wonders needed badly to be replaced; I mean, gosh, China’s changed just a little bit since 1982. But given an opportunity to make something truly new and different, Disney acted clumsily: They paid just enough for a few minutes of new footage and, inexplicably, kept the Li Bai storyline from 1982, replacing the original actor—the great Keye Luke—with a double who doesn’t resemble Luke even in long shots. (Gone, too, is Luke’s splendid voiceover, replaced by a scab who doesn’t possess a tenth of Luke’s avuncular charm.)

Look, I’m just going to say it: There are at least a dozen Chinese actors recognizable to American audiences, from Michelle Yeoh to Steven Chow to Jackie Chan. Any one of these would make a suitable narrator for a 21st Century China, for a country that’s rapidly moving beyond our perceptions both good and bad. (And about the technology: I’d be willing to bet that somebody has already rigged up a drone-mounted, lightweight digital Circle-Vision 360° rig in their garage, something with greater maneuverability than a chopper. Just as long as we’re committed to the 360-degree thing.) The sequel to Wonders of China could have been entertaining, visually-dazzling and, y’know, informative.

(Though to be fair, I don’t suppose I should have expected quality filmmaking from last-gasp Eisner regime Disney; Reflections of China is imbued with just as much quality and sense as the Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion and Disney California Adventure 1.0.  That Disney did only as much for China as necessary to get Hong Kong Disneyand open, and to  keep the film distribution pipes clear.)

EPCOT’s biggest current failings are in theme, story and cultural relevance, three things Imagineering is supposed to be good at.

Moving around the lagoon: Tromsø, Norway has an influential electronic music scene. The renewable energy sector of Germany is among the world’s most successful. Italy has a truly rich legacy of cinema, without which the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino probably wouldn’t exist as we know them now. And the United Kingdom is so very united that Scotland recently considered leaving it. EPCOT’s view of the world has always been sanitized and small, but now, in an age of Googling Up Stuff, its tiny planet schtick is at best embarrassing, at worst xenophobic. And when you take the extra step of replacing a country’s entire culture with an animated landscape and population created in Burbank … well, there’s really no point to having a World Showcase at all, if your idea of travel is getting people to take your cruise lines to man-made beaches, or simply to drive across town to see Frozen on Ice.

And it’s not as if the restaurants and retail of World Showcase are picking up the slack:

The World Showcase – A lot has changed in my opinion from what it used to be. I remember when I was a kid I bought a little Mercedes model car, kind of like a HotWheels car but German. … I thought it was so neat, even (had) Made In Germany (written) on it. Nowadays, apart from the Japanese market (Mitsukoshi) every one of the stores in the countries have a bunch of crap. Want a keychain with Downton Abbey on it? They’ve got that in England. Do you need Maple syrup that’s available at Publix? They’ve got that in Canada. It’s pretty sad that every country just sells t-shirts with what the country is known for, not actual products from the country.

We ate at Via Napoli in Italy & were pretty disappointed with the food/price/service. We told the hostess we were celebrating a birthday & she made note of it but nothing was done. We had some pastries from Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie, they weren’t thing to get excited over. Maybe the food is better during Food & Wine time (which we missed by a few days, unfortunately).

That was TripAdvisor reviewer Billy H, a visitor from Nashville, Tennessee, in a review titled “EPCOT needs to go back to its original mission statement.” It’s not just the Disnerds blog who’ve noticed EPCOT sliding into irrelevance; the marketplace is beginning to catch on.

Back to The Martian. One of the things I liked best about it was the easygoing, unfussy way in which Ridley Scott presented the future. In a way, it’s the bright flipside to what he did with Blade Runner in 1982; he identified which present-day trends were likely to expand, and turned up their volume while leaving everything else untouched. Meaning: Rick Deckard hunts down advanced artificial intelligence in a heavily globalized Los Angeles while still eating modern-day street food and drinking brown liquor from regular glasses, and the crew of Ares III listens to seventies disco and maintains a treadmill regimen. The future isn’t about a whole-scale change to the way we live; it’s all about incremental change. And incremental change is easy to portray and maintain, if you do it right the first time.

EPCOT 1.0 embodied this principle much better than its present-day iteration does. One of the first things to wow me when I first visited in 1983, aside from the sheer scale of the place, was its interactive features. The WorldKey information kiosks were the first touchscreens I had ever seen, and now that technology is on a device I carry with me (and probably look at too often). Ditto the voice-to-text technology of AT&T (in CommuniCore West, RIP) and the social media-style instant polling of Future Choice Theater (CommuniCore East, gone too soon). A new EPCOT doesn’t need to be conceptualized from the top down, beginning with the multimillion-dollar ride vehicle and a new warehouse-sized dodecahedron or whatever; it can begin with something as basic as showing off what’s new in UI, or sacrificing some of Germany’s retail space so the country can talk up its Energiewende. Or by simply committing to improving the quality of EPCOT’s dining and imported goods to a level slightly above Cost Plus.

It doesn’t need to be a billion-dollar improvement initiative, and it doesn’t need to wait for an EPCOT-themed movie to help visitors to understand the place. (This seems a good time to say that I was in tune with Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland until its dreary, exposition-heavy final third. The film’s showpiece “Pin-Ultimate Experience” sequence, buoyed by a Future World loop-ready Michael Giacchino score, reminds me of how I felt when I saw EPCOT for the first time. ) The future, and the world we live in, are concepts that are already familiar to every one of us; Disney only needs to make them personal again. Walt Disney’s original EPCOT was intensely personal, arguably being the world he wanted to live in. Disney’s current, cynical approach to EPCOT is worse than impersonal; it is personality-free, an empty vessel. And with the Frozen boat ride, the company is making it plain that EPCOT is about championing Disney’s own aspirations, not our own.

“If (kids) go to bed dreaming about science, they wake up with ideas,” a character says in Eric Stephenson’s graphic novel series Nowhere Men. Whenever Disney gets around to noticing EPCOT again, they should consider the dreams that EPCOT once hoped to inspire … even if some of those dreams were Made In Germany.

From Here to Pandorlando

Okay, just this once. On the occasion of James “King of the Assholes” Cameron selling Avatar’s theme park rights to Disney, we’ll allow the WalDisCo to be nakedly reactive. This isn’t the first time Disney has parried a perceived threat to its theme parks (see every other article Jim Hill has written from 1998 onward), but it’s got to be the first time that they’ve telegraphed their counterstrike. It must have taken real restraint for Disney’s social media wonks not to send a message like this one to the usual influencers:

Yes, the Avatar attractions we’re now planning for Disney Animal Kingdom are a response to the runaway success of Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As you’ve long suspected, we profit from our theme parks; they’re not a public trust.

No, we couldn’t come up with our own franchise to compete with Potter. Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars already have a presence in the parks, and we can’t build around them without screwing up already-themed areas at great risk; we don’t dare rip up that much Walt. Also, Tron has too narrow an appeal, Prince of Persia was a stupid idea from the word go, and you know what we’re doing with Cars.

Yes, you’re absolutely right: The reason we didn’t announce this at the D23 convention was because contracts weren’t yet in place. Good investigative work, o savvy observer of our business.

No, it doesn’t bother us that James Cameron is kind of an epic asshole. Why? Because’s an asshole who gets your money, again and again, despite his flat storytelling and crotch-grabbing award acceptance speeches.

No, we can’t put it in Disney Hollywood Studios. That’s not the park that so desperately needs paid admissions. And Avatar kinda fits into Animal Kingdom better, anyway, because it has trees and animals and stuff.

Yes, it would be nice to have those KUKA Robocoaster usage rights about now.

Yes, we expect Geoff Carter will show up, despite the fact that he’s never seen Avatar and he never, ever wants to see Avatar.

EDIT, SEPTEMBER 21, 9:30 A.M. PACIFIC TIME: Less than a day after I posted this entry, Disney released a statement that more or less approximates it in tone. You’re welcome, Mr. Staggs. I’ll invoice you shortly.

Things We Lost In the Tiki Room Fire

Ah, Orlando when it sizzled. Forgive the drive-by entry, but this news is too wonderful not to share with you immediately: Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is losing its substandard Tiki Room and going old-school. Yes, fellow themepunks, the tyrannical reign of The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management is finally over, and we don’t even have Seal Team 6 to thank for it—just an electrical fire that destroyed one of the offending Iago robots. And people say there’s no Walt watching over us. Ha! Infidels! Anyhoo, follow the above link to Disney’s official blog and weep joyous tears into your Sunday morning Mai Tai. Next up: Stitch, meet water damage.

“The Hall of Inaccurate Presidents”

Via Wonkette. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed this hard on a Tuesday; I must check the logs to confirm. “Jimmy Goose.”

EPCOT 2.0: Welcome, New Corporate Overlords

This is a special message for Your Souvenir Guide’s many CEO readers. Word up, robber barons! Thanks for taking a break from your daily regimen of amalgamating and capitalizing to read—or, more likely, to order an unpaid intern to read and summarize—this special presentation. Today, I’d like to suggest to you a promotional opportunity that will galvanize your company’s customer base and transform its brand message. Today, savage capitalist, we’re going to talk about EPCOT.

We Disney theme park geeks—hereafter known as “themepunks,” because it makes us sound cooler—talk about EPCOT often, because it’s a sad place. The World’s Fair-style Walt Disney World theme park, the last living vestige of Walt Disney’s desire to build a true city of the future, opened to great promise in the 1980s, sustained with good grace the “let’s add B-list celebrities to every one of our attractions” craze of the 1990s, and is currently languishing in a state of practical neglect. The Future World section of EPCOT has received only four new attractions (one of them now closed and boarded up) and five renovations of existing attractions in nearly thirty years of operation … and it’s the lucky half of the park. World Showcase has gotten just one whole-cloth new attraction since opening day, and a series of halfhearted upgrades in the form of restaurants and shops.

It’s trendy for us themepunks to wring our kissably-soft hands and wonder how EPCOT came to this pass. The short answer is this: Disney can’t deal with EPCOT right now because there’s no clear-cut way for them to make more money from it by dumping Pixar characters into it. The themes are too difficult to sell to modern audiences, who care little about the future or the world at large, and difficult for modern-day Disney to work with, because Imagineering isn’t the think tank it once was and upper management hasn’t had a stake in the future since Uncle Walt bought the freezer. The future? Look at our Blu-Ray release schedule. The world? Um, “Tangled” just opened in Bali.

Now listen up, CEO. Normally, this is the point in the article where I would appeal to Disney to fix EPCOT by dumping the kind of money into the park that they’re currently pouring on Disney’s California Adventure to fix its b-list celebrity shortcomings. But I won’t do that. Several other Disney blogs—most notably Progress City, USA, highly recommended—have already done so, and better than I could ever hope to do. Also, I’m fairly sure that Disney knows all this stuff and doesn’t care. There’s no money to fix EPCOT and no compelling reason to spend the money they don’t have; it’s not like a bunch of egghead science crap is going to repel the magicks emanating from Universal Orlando.

This means an open field for you, benevolent corporate overlord. You may not know this, but EPCOT Center was built on corporate sponsorships—Kraft, General Motors, American Express, Kodak and others—and your investment can rebuild EPCOT as a 21st Century entertainment/branded marketing force, a true 2.0 model. Disney wants EPCOT to move forward (to “win the future,” right?), and you want to sell your products in a world that’s growing increasingly suspicious of corporate hegemony. Tell me how this couldn’t work for both of you.

I’ve taken the liberty of drawing up partnership blueprints for you and EPCOT. Please read through them, and feel free to email me if you have any questions. Don’t worry about catching me on the clock; I’m currently working as a freelancer, partially due to your inability to create large amounts of jobs. No offense; nothing personal.

Disney wants EPCOT to move forward, and you want to sell your products in a world that’s growing increasingly suspicious of corporate hegemony. Tell me how this couldn’t work out for both of you.

Google.  A few years ago I wouldn’t have thought your brand needed a dash of EPCOT, but you’re neck-deep in the iPhone vs. Android firefight and your advertising revenues are this close to getting pinched by Facebook. This calls for some trick maneuvering because Friend of Disney Steve Jobs haaaaaates you, but he’s currently on medical leave and there’s a mostly dead pavilion at EPCOT that I think would be a good fit for your company—one that was formerly devoted to the intangible realms of the human imagination.

Your company is a cloud of mostly nerd, but when it sets its mind to creating an educational tool — a real-time map of the night sky, an instantaneous translator, a visually-based search engine — it absolutely shines. I’d guess that a lot of people don’t even know half the cool things you do; they know your company solely as the maker of a search engine. An attraction that explores the creation and consumption of art, music and literature, and the many ways in which those things can be better enjoyed through the judicious use of technology, seems like it would be right up Google’s alley. Your entire company is a searching mind, every bit as inventive and curious as your rivals at Apple, and it’s time your customers discovered that for themselves by way of a nice hi-tech dark ride and a post-show area full of interactive hoo-hah.

General Electric. Ding. You’ve had terrific successes with Disney attractions in the past: Carousel of Progress is closing in on its fiftieth birthday, and the late, great Horizons is so beloved that one enterprising Disney geek is rebuilding it as a kind of first-person swooner. Now it’s time to come back to the party — not as a producer of consumer electronics, but as driving force in renewable energy technologies. You’re second in wind power market share, with nearly 14,000 wind turbine installations set up around the world — wouldn’t you like people to know that? You’ve just introduced a consumer-side electric car charger—don’t you want to flaunt it? And for that matter, wouldn’t you like to assert your windpower dominance over fellow EPCOT sponsor Siemens, which is currently ninth in total market share and gainin’ on ya?

The sponsorless Universe of Energy attraction is located inside an enormous wedge topped with solar cells. It rivals the old Horizons building in volume. And if you were to rip out everything inside—the movie theaters, the pointless primeval diorama, Bill Nye and the rest of the dinosaurs—you could make one hell of a dark ride in there, one that imagines the future of renewable energy and its many possible applications. I say again: The building is there, and the love is there. All you need to do is sign a third check to Disney and reap the benefits.

Inditex. You’re one of the largest fashion distributors in the world, with dozens of subsidiary brands and 48 stores in America (Zara, they’re called). More importantly, you’re based in A Coruña, Spain. EPCOT needs you because Disney has been trying to get a Spanish pavilion into its World Showcase since the Reagan Administration. And you need EPCOT because, until five minutes ago, I had no idea your company existed.

SAS (Scandinavian Airlines). Please allow me to make introductions. You’re the flagship airline of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, with daily flights out of Newark, Dulles and O’Hare. You carry 25 million passengers a year, many of them to Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim. You provide a conduit to the last of the red-hot beds of tourism; nearly everyone I know has recently become interested in visiting Norway, drawn by the fjords, the aquavit, the black metal bands, and the what-have-you. Norway is teh sex and SAS is teh sexay.

This shrinking lutefisk behind me is EPCOT’s Norway pavilion. Now, I think I’ve learned a few things about the Norwegians living in Ballard, a Norwegian-founded Seattle neighborhood that’s home to the largest Syttende Mai parade in the United States. If I want a helmet with horns on it, I can walk to the end of the block and get one. And this EPCOT attraction, whose ostensible purpose is to promote tourism to your homeland, doesn’t even fill me with the desire to visit my own neighborhood. The queue leading to the pavilion’s centerpiece attraction Maelstrom is a simple blue wall cheaply bedecked with tiny flags; the attraction itself has precisely one interesting scene and a bunch of terrible ones. I know that yours are a people not naturally predisposed to showing off, but c’mon. Norway has left 1979; your amazing techno scene proves it. The chorus of Röyksopp’s “The Girl and The Robot” is sick.

A relatively small outlay of sponsor cash—$10 million, $20—could make EPCOT’s Norway pavilion into one hell of a tourism office. It could pay for an update of the dated and borderline frightening movie that plays at the end of the boat ride; it could pay for badly-needed scenery and technical improvements to the ride itself; and it could enable Disney to do something, anything, with that boring queue. In exchange, Disney will slap your name on every flat surface and probably give you some shop space if you want it.

Sony. Oh boy, do you ever need this. Look: Samsung is spanking you in LCD TV sales, Microsoft and Nintendo are taking turns pwning you in gaming console sales, and you never came up with a satisfactory answer to the iPod, iPhone or iPad. However, your company does make some great products — your TVs, in particular, are terrific—and you’re one of the few multinationals that’s at least trying to reduce its greenhouse gases. If you were to sponsor a thrill ride at EPCOT’s Japan pavilion, it might help you to regain a foothold in the consumer consciousness—take us back to the time when we thought of Sony when we thought of electronic anything.

Starbucks. I’m kinda surprised we’re having this conversation. Walt Disney World is open territory, you latte-pulling Queequegs—perhaps the last place in the world without a Starbucks on every corner. Disney is still pouring Nescafe even though Nestle has left the building. People can’t believe Starbucks is not already a presence at Disney World; even Dave Hickey noticed your absence. Call Disney—odds are they’ve got a dedicated hotline assigned to you, just like Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air”—and tell them that you might like to put cafes in EPCOT and every other damn part of Walt Disney World, if it’s not too much trouble.

While you’re at it, tell Disney you’d like to “sponsor The Land pavilion.” They’ll know what you mean. They will mention a badly-dated 70mm educational film and a few other places you might be able to insert your brand, then they’ll quote you a multimillion-dollar figure. Tell Howard Schultz to dig around in the tip jar and pay it.

Congratulations! This transaction makes you the new Coca-Cola. Enjoy the buzz until the FDA starts gunning for you.

Wired/Conde Nast. I think I’ve found a venue suited to the resurrection of NextFest, your World’s Fair-style showcase of emerging ideas and technologies. EPCOT’s Communicore pavilions—mammoth parenthesis enclosing the center courtyard of Future World—are currently occupied by “Innoventions,” a kind of low-rent Consumer Electronics Show clone that promotes dated technologies and makes exceedingly poor use of the Communicore space. (Floor-to-ceiling windows are meant to be used.)

Have your Conde Nasty bosses make a deal with Disney to clean out that crap and install NextFest for at least a year. After that, encourage Disney to create a kind of tech incubator, which you’ll sponsor through print and web advertising trade. Disney gets a shot of your credibility, and you’ll increase circulation of your magazine, website and mobile app.

I know that EPCOT seems like an old-fashioned idea, corporate overlord, but the timeworn ideals on which it was founded will always ring true. Ideas remain as contagious as ever. The future remains full of promise. The world continues to be vast and amazing, and it deserves to be saved. And people still want to be amazed by technologies indistinguishable from magic. This is your Sputnik moment.You can make an investment in a new EPCOT and be a part of the march of ideas that will save the world, or you can continue to make commercials like this one.

Line dancing. Heh, heh. Call Disney right now and say “help us.”

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