Earlier this week I visited EPCOT. I happened to be within a hundred miles of my second-favorite Disney theme park, and whenever that happens I pay and I play; that’s really all there is to it. I got a fever, and the only cure is more EPCOT.
(Disclaimer: EPCOT ranks second in parks I’ve actually visited. Haven’t been to the parks in Tokyo, Paris, or Hong Kong. For what it’s worth: 1. Disneyland; 2. EPCOT; 3. Disney Animal Kingdom; 4. The Magic Kingdom; 5. Disney California Adventure (before the remake); 6. VMK; 7. Disney Hollywood Studios. Challenges to this list are cheerfully welcomed.)
I’m happy to report that I had a wonderful day. Though my recently-retired parents and I explored the park at a relative saunter, we managed to take in nearly all our attractions, or at least what’s left of them. The best attractions at EPCOT remain Impressions de France, Spaceship Earth, the Gran Fiesta Tour, the Listen to the Land boat ride, and Test Track. Reflections of China, The Seas avec Nemo, and Maelstrom (which I did not see, sadly) are bubbling under the top five.
We did get on Soarin’, but I don’t count it among my EPCOT favorites because I consider it a Disney California Adventure attraction that wandered by mistake. And we had to skip Mission: Space, but I’m okay with that; I’m at best indifferent to it. To my mind, it’s not a true space pavilion: You learn nothing about the cosmos, and you’re even told right up front, by no less august a personage than actor Gary Sinise, that you won’t really be going on a trip to Mars; it’s all a simulation designed to test your ability to press a button when you’re told to press a button. It should be renamed Mission: Space Simulator, and it may well be, once I’ve sent a note to the Better Business Bureau.
Speaking of consumer fraud: O Canada, the CircleVision 360 movie now showing in the Canada pavilion, needs to be redone. It’s kind of awful. It has too many aerial establishing shots and too many instances of Martin Short clowning in front of a bluescreen. Generally speaking, it’s a bad thing when you come out of a travelogue wanting to visit somewhere less than you did when you went in.
Not to say that Short isn’t a good choice for a host. He’s genuinely funny, and let’s face it, we can’t help but like him. (His old SCTV “Monday Night Curling” routine, glimpsed briefly in the film, lays me right out.) But his tone in O Canada is too broad, too goofball—shortcomings I’m inclined to ascribe to the script and direction rather than the actor/comedian, who really works hard in the film. If nothing else, his whole closing schtick—”How do I get out of here? I need help”—should have been red-penciled early in the process; it lands hard and flat and diminishes all the pretty views that came before. The misuse of Short points to Disney’s recent attempts to paste over EPCOT’s big themes with feeble comedy: Journey into Imagination has been reduced to a fart joke, Universe of Energy screwed into the equivalent of Ellen DeGeneres jiggling her keys at a toddler.
In fact, both of the Circle-Vision 360° travelogues of World Showcase—ní hǎo, Reflections of China—have enough problems to warrant do-overs. For example, both of them end with the narrator saying something to the effect of “The best part of our country is our people,” followed by a montage of faces. Well, yeah. I would suggest that those people be moved into the heart of the film itself, seiing as countries are, in fact, made up of people doing fascinating shit. I can view Niagara Falls from the air via Google Maps Putting real human persons in front of that vista, taking photos or getting married or whatever, is what makes it impressive.
In any case, EPCOT remains as eye-popping an experience as it was when I first visited the park in 1983. Obviously I’m older now, and I no longer believe that Disney has built the future and united the world, but the pop science still goes down smooth, and the shops, travelogues and restaurants continue to charm. You can say what you will about Disney’s Florida theme parks — the budget-bursting expense of visiting them, the cultural and intellectual stasis some say they’re trapped in, the “declining by degrees”—but those parks continue to prove Disney’s ability to build and maintain a themed environment. Even its closest competitor was designed and built by ex-Disney Imagineers, which only goes to my point … and the monstrously expensive and admittedly awesome Harry Potter attractions aside, Universal’s parks don’t have that Imagineering shimmer and sheen. They don’t inflate the wrinkles out of your brain.
Since 1955, Disney has owned the theme park thing lock, stock and gondola … and EPCOT, with its high-minded concept, nakedly corporate lineage and awkward name, is proof positive of that. There’s no good reason this park should have worked and continue to work. It’s not “EPCOT Princessland” or “EPCOT of Adventure.” It’s the same permanent world’s fair it has always been, still stumping for big oil, room-sized computers and globalization — and remarkably, the kids Still Want to Go To There. They don’t care if the message is several years out of date. It’s the environment that’s winning them over; the ideas have become purely secondary to the wow.
Whatever you’re doing now, I want you to bow in the direction of WED in Burbank, circa 1975. Those original themepunks knew their shit.
- The Disney Dining Plan is a stupid idea. But I’m mostly saying that because it tends to jam up Le Cellier at lunchtime, and I’ve been jonesing for their beer cheese soup since 2007.
- I really, truly love Gran Fiesta Tour. The excellent Passport to Dreams Old and New blog does a note-perfect job in describing why I love the revamped boat ride, and I strongly suggest you follow the above link and read FoxxFur’s piece.
- Using low-resolution video images and ancient stock footage in 70MM Showscan films is unacceptable. If Disney truly feels that Symbiosis is what closes on Saturday night, they oughtn’t have dumped footage from that heartstoppingly gorgeous EPCOT original into Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable, where it only serves to make the aforementioned junk footage and Saturday morning cartoon-quality animation look even worse than it is. That said, the opening of Circle of Life—in which the titular song is used over recycled footage from Symbiosis—is so affecting that I’m willing to watch the film again, relishing its opening and closing sequences, and whistling through the artlessness that’s gunking up the works.