Oh, EPCOT Center, where are you?!

It’s not the first time this opinion has been voiced, and it surely won’t be the last. It’s been said so much by now that it’s become a cliche… the 30-something EPCOT fan, pining away for the lost attractions of yesteryear. The Sci-Fi kid who grew up with NASA pennants and Star Trek episodes on tape may be one of the few types unaccomodated by theme parks, an area so often dominated by nostalgia and fantasy.

That may be part of the mystique,  but more than anything, EPCOT Center was the right product at the right time, the theme park about science and technology that opened during a pivotal era for science and technology. Home computers, video game systems, cable TV and VCRs became creature comforts used the world over, and special effects began their slow encroachment on the rest of movies. EPCOT Center was there, reflecting ourselves back at us, perhaps not flatteringly but basically correctly.

Recently I was reading through Fjellman’s Vinyl Leaves and was struck by his coverage of Future World. Fjellman seemed rather enchanted by much of WDW, but in Future World, he came down hard on the corporate sponsors and their (rather naive) messages inside the attractions. And while it’s true that a cultural critic, as Fjellman is, is always going to gravitate towards areas of greater thematic gravity simply because those areas actually have something to discuss, it’s sort of remarkable from the 21st century to re-read his late 20th century concerns.

For example, in General Motors Transcenter, he sees the Bird and Robot Show as an effort to portray the computerized factory “workers” – then already replacing flesh and blood workers – as positive, helpful, unthreatening servants. Fjellman makes the connection to Michael Moore’s then-recent documentary Roger & Me, depicting the economic devastation in and around Flint, Michigan, by GM’s abandonment of the area. Well, Flint MI isn’t any better off today than it was in 1990, and for basically the same reasons.

But in other cases he seems to be wide of the mark. In EPCOT Computer Central, people play computer games to humanize and put a friendly face on new, threatening technology, and Fjellman sees this as another effort to indoctrinate the public to their new mechanical masters. It’s not Fjellman’s fault that he didn’t see the internet age and dot com bubble coming, but it’s interesting in hindsight to see an area of human activity that de-corporatized as it developed, to the point that fighting for digital freedoms is a very real issue in Washington today, an issue that CommuniCore never hinted at.

Yet more than anything, it’s truly strange today to read Fjellman going apoplectic over these attractions which today, if not universally beloved, are considered to be classics of the first degree, standard bearers to beat. Most of them were with us for less than the life span of many house pets, yet their legend was grown outsize, torpid. There are fans of Horizons who never saw it in person. And if these classics really weren’t so idiotically vapid as they seemed in the 80s, perhaps they weren’t all they’re cooked up to be today, either. Ideologically, if not technologically, a lot of Future World was very often suspect.

So let’s take a leisurely tour of Future World, taking a look at the message of those original shows, their new message (if relevant), original sponsor, and assessing whether these subjects are still relevant, and how the message of Future World could change. After all, a lot can change in thirty years!

Spaceship Earth, 1982
Original Sponsor: Bell Systems
Original Message: The evolution of communication technology will lead mankind into the future.
Current Sponsor: Siemens
Current Message: The evolution of communication technology has led mankind into the future, where you are also a cartoon.

Comments: Of all of the major corporate pavilions at Future World, this one has aged the most gracefully, which is good, because it’s inside a structure so complex it can’t really be easily removed. Of all of the visions of the future presented at EPCOT Center, Spaceship Earth’s came the nearest to actually coming true – even the families of Horizons were doing things like playing dorky transparent organs instead of staring at glowing screens the way everybody actually is today. This also means it’s the easiest to update, which means it’s gotten the most updates. But that itself is the problem.

The original version of the show, scripted with an assist from Ray Bradbury, had a tone that was dry and vaguely spooky, like many of the original Future World shows. The Walter Cronkite narration and insertion of “Tomorrow’s Child” into the finale had the effect of softening the attraction somewhat, and to me the Cronkite version is still the champion for “best overall” version – it had show scenes almost all the way through, with animatronics and compelling visuals from bottom to top to bottom. The 1994 Irons version was simultaneously an improvement and a downgrade – it had an even better script, a stronger message, and an excellent soundtrack. The trouble came shortly before the “180 top” segment, where the sections dealing with an actual communications technology future, still relevant in the 90s, became an extended advertisement for AT&T’s new videophone technology, which looked then like the sort of tech gadget that Screech would mock on Saved By The Bell. Worse still, the entire segment was accomplished with static figures in cheap sets which had no resemblance to the rest of the attraction, and were rendered in UV-sensitive paint which didn’t always do a good job hiding the fact that most of what you were looking at was just black curtains.

True to tradition, the 2007 reboot both improved things and made them worse. Screens were added to each car and an Innoventions-style quiz game with animated cartoon became the new finale. A new score by Bruce Broughton doesn’t have remotely the same impact as the 1994 score, and Judy Dench’s narration is the first truly eye-rolling one for this attraction, although the contrast was heightened by coming immediately after Irons’ excellent script and delivery. However, the refresh did manage to extend the good segment of the ride – complete with scenery and animatronics – a good 30 feet nearer to the 180 top, resulting in the strongest version of the front half of the ride since before the 1994 edition.

What Needs to Change: The focus of the next refurbishment needs to be extending the quality scenery at least part of the way down the descent portion of the ride. The original version included astronauts floating in space on the 180 top repairing satellites, then as the cars descended they coasted through the center of a space station where a woman directed the operation from a control tower. It was one of the most impressive things in EPCOT. The same effect can be achieved today, even with limited function figures, and Spaceship Earth really deserves that ending, more than it deserves a grid of dots or watching the news on TV. Once through that section, the original Spaceship Earth show converted to the “Tomorrow’s Child” segment, right about where the 1994 show was giving you the famous “lightning in space”. The final diorama and tunnel has never been attractive, and WDI really needs to commit to putting something cool here.

I suggest bringing back the 1994 score and dialing back on the patronizing quality of the narration for the next version. The in-car screens were prescient for 2007, and debuted mere months after the first iPhones went on sale, but are embarrassingly behind the curve now, and really need to show something worthwhile or be removed.

Status: Still truckin’
New Sponsor Suggestion: As the iconic visual of EPCOT Center, I think it’s time for Disney to commit to this one themselves. The trouble with the sponsorship game is that sponsors are always going to want to tell a specific narrative, and inside an already constructed attraction like Spaceship Earth, it isn’t an easy thing to do. As the last remaining Future World Classic, this one should be owned and funded entirely by Disney, and it needs to speak for the rest of Future World in a way that the other pavilions no longer do.

Earth Station, 1982
Original Sponsor:
Original Message:
Current Sponsor: Siemens, “Project Tomorrow”
Current Message: Thanks for riding!
Comments: I still think this is the most logical spot in Future World for Guest Relations. The original Earth Station included a detail everybody remembers: the computerized reservation central, where you could talk to another person through a video screen! Literally everything about Earth Station, and the WorldKey system, has been replaced by an average smartphone device, and that’s fine. But I still think Guest Relations should be moved back to here. It doesn’t need to be anything flashy, but this spot was designed for it.

Status: A less technologically advanced Face Time

CommuniCore Futurecom, 1982
Original Sponsor: AT&T
Original Message: A hands-on look at the complexities of relaying information across the country, including the Age of Information diorama, the Information Fountain, Network Control game, Packet Phraser, and Microchip Maze.
Current Sponsor:
Current Message:
Comments: the true “post show” of Spaceship Earth was one of Communicore’s nicest areas, using human-scaled activities and warm, inviting earth tones. On a basic level, kinetic pieces of art like the Information Fountain and Age of Information were fun to look at even if you didn’t bother to stick around to figure out what it was all about. Exhibits like this were Future World’s equivalent of Magic Kingdom’s charming architectural facades, and the lack of them is one reason why Future World currently feels so sterile. If Future World is going to draw people back in to its monumental architecture, it needs socialization hubs like this – with appealing colors, natural light, and actual fun things to look at that don’t mean much.

Status: Not quite as relevant, but still cool.

Universe of Energy, 1982
Original Sponsor: Exxon
Original Message: Fossil fuels, despite the extraordinary difficulty of obtaining them, are still the best energy source available, although if something better comes along, Exxon intends to own that, too.
Current Sponsor:
Current Message: We’re running out of fossil fuels, but don’t worry, we’ll think of something.
Comments: The most ideologically weighted of the original Future World shows, let’s be honest – Universe of Energy was never especially progressive or prescient. Much of the original show was devoted to explaining, at excruciating length, where fossil fuels come from and how they are harvested. Don’t worry, there’s also dinosaurs! The 1996 reboot of the show, Ellen’s Energy Crisis, put a warm face on the proceedings but pretty much wrote off alternate energy sources as impractical. In some ways, the 1982 show was more honest – we are running out of options with fossil fuels, and the search for fossil fuels has led us, politically, to some pretty ugly places.

What Needs To Change: Universe of Energy is a problem. The basic design of the pavilion is based on a pitch created by production designer John DeCuir and bought by Disney in the 1970s. Technologically, the “moving theater” is probably the most outdated thing at Walt Disney World, running on an absurd jury rigged system that is as crude as it feels. But the pavilion is also an opportunity to create a real classic; after all, those dinosaurs are still pretty awesome.

If the moving theater concept is going to be retained, then at the bare minimum Disney needs to invest in new theater cars and a trackless ride system. With the ability to quickly and precisely move into place instead of waiting for the equivalent of two Commodore 2s to move you into place, it should be possible to present a dramatically reduced version of the original Universe of Energy show – complete with dorky theme songs – in about 15 minutes. The question is, should we really be doing that, even if the film in Theater 2 is entirely new? Because it’s still then a show ideologically dominated by a fossil fuels company.

I think running an omnimover through the building is a better choice. This would allow you to retain the dinos and build new scenes around the experience, as well as present a different point of view, perhaps showing how far we’ve come since 1982 – and how much farther we have to go. Omnimovers are popular and efficient, and a family-friendly, not too long experience could do well today sitting next to two major thrill rides. To do that we need a sponsor with a real vision for a world without fossil fuels.

Status: Still Relevant
New Sponsor Suggestion: Tesla

CommuniCore Energy Exchange, 1982
Original Sponsor: Exxon
Original Message: Fossil Fuels are still the best!
Current Sponsor:
Current Message:
Comments: This was the place where, freed from the confines of a moving theater, Exxon really hit home their point, offering guests opportunities to turn bicycles and wheels to light up lightbulbs, before offering the news that we would have to keep turning that crank for hours to generate one dollar of electricity! It wasn’t terribly exciting and was usually empty, but it was memorable and did a lot better job doing the ideological heavy lifting than Universe of Energy ever has. If you’ve got to make a point, that’s how to do it.

Status: Effective but Questionable

CommuniCore Epcot Computer Central, 1982
Original Sponsor: Sperry Univac
Original Message: Computers are not scary at all, and in fact even you can use them.
Current Sponsor: —
Current Message: —
Comments: A wide-ranging overview of the various ways computers can improve and automate our lives, Sperry-Univac’s keystone exhibit – The Astuter Computer Revue – closed shortly and reopened as the blandly cute Backstage Magic within just two years, but that was not the only problem. The exhibit overall focused heavily on the institutional and business aspects of computers – after all, this was years before even simple graphical interfaces became common, and nearly a decade and a half before Windows 95. As a result, a lot of Computer Central felt impersonal and utilitarian, where we could see computers doing things like calculating census data. Other computer abilities highlighted by Sperry included things that almost nobody does on a computer these days, like assembling an American flag. The most memorable thing in Computer Central, SMRT-1, was less of a demonstration of computer technology as a traditional theme park interaction exhibit dressed up as a robot.

One component amidst this sea of number crunching and automation did ring true as to where we were going with computers: the Rollercoaster game. Anybody who played this goofy thing in the 80s may not immediately think it as their introduction to CAD, but that is what it was. Computer Central wasn’t much interested in the home and entertainment sectors of computing – the sectors which would explode in about a decade – and there wasn’t even a single mention of “e-mail” anywhere in it, but I’d wager that between WorldKey, Rollercoaster, and the other games here, more Americans touched a computer inside EPCOT Center than anywhere else in the country during the 80s.

Status: Fossilized

Wonders of Life, 1989
Original Sponsor: MetLife
Original Message: It’s a real battle to stay healthy (???)
Current Sponsor:
Current Message:
Comments: Instead of breaking up each attraction here, I’m going to treat the entire pavilion as a piece, which is frankly really difficult. Of all of the Future World pavilions, Wonders of Life presented the most diffuse message, and had the shortest life span. Most guests simply treated the individual attractions as Magic Kingdom-style experiences, void of ideological ramifications, which was good, because they largely were.

Throughout, the visual theme of an indoor fun fair gave way to militaristic themes in the major attractions. A rather naked imitation of the 1987 film Innerspace, Body Wars was a ride-thru B movie complete with bad acting and sickening special effects. The charming Cranium Command was, in its day, one of the funniest, smartest things at WDW, but it had no more of a message than the Tiki Room – not freaking out seemed to be its main suggestion for dealing with daily life. Elsewhere, Wonders of Life offered a film about human conception and birth, and sold late 80s idea of healthy foods, like frozen yogurt and waffles.

It’s probably better to think of Wonders of Life as a reflection of Michael Eisner’s ideas about theme parks than any kind of coherent addition to the Future World lexicon. Here garish, Michael Graves-ian colors combine in a circus atmosphere complete with a spinning overhead mobile. Faceless, industrial institutions like the Miniaturized Exploration Technologies and the eponymous Cranium Command invite tourists to do highly unlikely things. Celebrities appear for no apparent reason – hey kids, is that Charles Grodin? What whimsy!

More than anything, Wonders of Life can be paired with The Living Seas as pavilion ideas that Disney created back in the 70s that never really found a great reason to exist. As an outgrowth of some truly strange ideas created for a Life & Health pavilion by Rolly Crump, Wonders of Life was more of its time and less interesting. It was also never quite able to justify how a discourse on healthy eating and exercise wasn’t folded into the message of The Land, across the park.

Status: Goofy Gestalt
New Sponsor Suggestion: It’s probably better to allow Wonders of Life to exist in its native habitat – the 1990s. This spot should be used as an expansion pad.

CommuniCore American Express TravelPort, 1982
Original Sponsor: American Express
Original Message: —
Current Sponsor: —
Current Message: —
Comments: Basically a laserdisc assisted version of a travel agent, minus the ability the actually book a flight, TravelPort is hardly remembered aspect of Communicore, and for mostly good reasons, because it neither predicted nor rode any particular futuristic wave. It did, however, have a big red sphere, and those will always be cool.

Status: Replaced by Airfare Watchdog, Expedia, UrbanSpoon…

Horizons, 1983
Original Sponsor: General Electric
Original Message: If We Can Dream It, We Can Do It
Current Sponsor:
Current Message:
Comments: This is the big one, and it’s the big one for good reason. While the other Future World pavilions were marked by corporate elisions or made ideological hash of their messages, Horizons made the case that the rest of Future World couldn’t – that the future was going to be really goddamned awesome, and you were going to float upside down. That message doesn’t date, even if all of the other trappings of the show did. And as an index of the rest of Future World, showing us undersea colonies (The Living Seas), cool space stations (Spaceship Earth), and desert cultivation (The Land), Horizons was enormously effective and Future World will never be complete without it.

Here’s why Horizons is still relevant today, and it’s the reason why every kid who ever rode it, and most adults, have never forgotten it, regardless of how simplified and schematic is was. Kids deserve to be shown a version of the future that isn’t a totalitarian society, or an ecological disaster, or a zombie apocalypse, and our society is not and never has been forthcoming with these options. Horizons delivered and made dimensional, tactile, a version of the future which was friendly and reassuring, and people, especially at a young age, deserve to know that positive change is possible too, even if it’s wrapped up in a package which is somewhat of a fantasy. Because if you can’t be cheerfully optimistic at Disney World, then what the hell is left?

Now, let’s be clear: there will never again be an attraction as elaborate as Horizons. Disney was really the only place that ever built things like this, and they’re not in that business anymore. Split into four segments – Looking Back at Tomorrow, the two omnisphere theaters, Tomorrow’s Windows and Choose Your Own Future – Horizons was a staggering multi sensory epic. But when you get down to it, the key sections were Looking Back at Tomorrow and Tomorrow’s Windows, and both of them were built on the fountain of stuff that Disney still does well – dimensional figures and scenery. These segments also have basically solid designs. What wasn’t crucial in Horizons was not the specific designs of the clothes, accessories, even music or narration, all of which were pedestrian. What made Horizons work was the astonishing way the omnimovers creeps through and around those pod-like sets, sliding past space stations, and down below undersea cities. This can still be replicated, and given a new look with modern modern conceptions of shapes, colors, clothes, music, and dialogue – basically the same things which keep Spaceship Earth plugging along.

Therefore, even if the full version in all its glory can never be replicated, there is simply no excuse for Disney not to rebuild at least part of Horizons as their prestige family friendly omnimover attraction at Epcot. It’s Epcot’s Pirates of the Caribbean, and it really needs to be there, if only in part. I suggest putting up a new, condensed version where Wonders of Life is now.

Status: Integral, badly needed.
New Sponsor Suggestion: Horizons was the most Disney thing in Future World, so this is another one that Disney needs to really build and market as their own. Amongst the Disney faithful, a new version of Horizons would be one of the marketing and public relations success stories of the decade, and truly send the message that Disney was committing to Epcot again.

CommuniCore Electronic Forum, 1982
Original Sponsor:
Original Message: The upcoming computer age will open new doors of communication, maybe
Current Sponsor:
Current Message:
Comments: Of anything in EPCOT, Electronic Forum probably got nearest to where we would be in three decades. Televisions in the lobby, ostensibly intended to be used to access news casts from around the world, were most often used by EPCOT visitors to dial up college football games. As Richard Beard memorably puts it in his iconic Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center, the Future choice Theater “offer(s) a rare opportunity to get a number of things off your chest and into a computer“. The resulting demographic breakdowns displayed onscreen, and indeed the entire concept of electronically voicing opinions, was probably not what visitors carried away from this experience. Since the demographic breakdowns of 170 people were self-reported, Future Choice Theater was likely the first experience many people had with that most modern of internet activities, misrepresenting yourself.

In later years, the emphasis on current social issues gave way to the more benign “Person of the Century Poll”, of which the winner was usually Michael Jackson. Because the attractions in Electronic Forum required the cheerful compliance of audiences to remain on message, here already was evidence of the true directions technology would take – subverted for amusement, redirected to watch college football on Sundays, turned into popular culture popularity contests. Anybody who thinks human mischief in the age of the internet is anything but an inevitabile could take a long look at Electronic Forum for a more persuasive alternate view.

Status: Replaced by Social Media

World of Motion, 1982
Original Sponsor: General Motors
Original Message: Private automobiles are more efficient, more useful, and less dangerous than any form of transportation yet invented.
Current Sponsor: General Motors, Test Track
Current Message: Thanks to rigorous testing, private automobiles are safer than ever before.
Comments: Designed at a time when the American automobile industry was imploding due to overseas competition and embroiled in expensive and publicity damaging scandals concerning chemical dumping and labor, World of Motion had next to nothing to say about the future, and spent most of its time concentrating on the past. That past, as designed by Marc Davis, was supremely goofy and fantastical, as various hazards and inconveniences – irate mules, sea serpents, flying carpets, airborne pigs, and traffic cops – impede the frivoulsly liberated human population’s desire to go for a drive in the country. This wasn’t so much a history of the automobile as a history of getting from place to place, ending in a vision of the future where paved multi-lane highways run every which way into the horizon – a future where no invention will ever replace the family sedan. Exxon, over at the Universe of Energy, would likely have approved.

What Needs to Change: The current version of Test Track, although less of my kind of ride than World of Motion was, is one of the few Future World pavilions to really feel like it has a place in Epcot. It has a corporate sponsor, a unified aesthetic, and is pushing an agenda, and doing a pretty good job doing it. Although I really miss all those those Marc Davis animatronics and huge sets – remember how massive the oak tree in the bicycling scene was? – Test Track is still on message. In a world where EPCOT Center is re-concieved from the ground up for 2016 audiences, an entire pavilion touting the personal car would not, I feel, make the cut, but for the popular and effective ride, this one should stay for now.

Status: Unkillable

TransCenter, 1982
Original Sponsor: General Motors
Original Message: Cars and combustion engines are great!
Current Sponsor: General Motors
Current Message: Buy some stuff, even a car!
Comments: Much like Energy Exchange over at CommuniCore, TransCenter does the ideological heavy lifting for General Motors. While Exxon let you turn a crank and see how insignificant your personal body power was compared to the merest blip of electricity, GM took a comic approach. The Water Engine took place in a darkened room where screens appeared behind the lowering cylinders of a combustion engine. While a laconic cowboy – the absolute embodiment of 80s American patriarchy – insists that he’ll stick with the combustion engine till something better comes along, various crazy cartoon characters demonstrate their engines until a Mad Scientist-type turns on a “Water Engine” that explodes and wrecks comic havoc. Funny, charmingly animated, Water Engine still played directly into the prejudices of Americans and General Motors.

Steven Fjellman saw much that was ominous in The Bird and Robot Show, and given that his book was written in the immediate aftermath of Roger and Me, it’s not too surprising. It’s perhaps better, and more accurate, to see Bird and Robot as an outgrowth of traditional Disney theater shows like Country Bear Jamboree and Tiki Room, similar to the way that Kitchen Kabaret sought to add some old school Disney charm to to sleek, corporate EPCOT programme. WED basically treated the robotic assembly arm as the most advanced audio-animatronic possible, and paired it with a model of one of their earliest animated figures – a Tiki Room bird – to show off how fluidly it could move, lift objects, perform tricks, etc. Three decades on, the automation of labor has only increased, and is rapidly cresting the horizon where social change is going to need to happen to keep pace with the displaced population of laborers. Much like over at Expo Robotics, the robots are now the whole show.

The cleverest idea in TransCenter, and the one that really stuck, was the notion to require riders to exit through an automobile show room. Everyone remembers the Aero 2000, a machine designed to reduce wind resistance, but the Aero was a fantasy car and acted as the lure to keep people walking through the exhibit. Further along came more practical, potentially salable items such as the GM Lean Machine and, most importantly, next year’s GM models.

What Needs to Change: The 1998 reboot into Test Track retained a few of the post-show elements. There was a simulator type attraction called Time Chasers, and a new gift shop which absorbed the back part of the automobile show room. The cars were instead moved forward into the exhibit area; guests still walk past the areas where Bird and Robot and Water Engine played. Given the fact that Test Track has a height restriction where World of Motion had none, I find it impossible to believe that films and exhibits in this are wouldn’t be more popular with waiting families than the original menu of attractions were. In this case it’s a matter of relocating or condensing the shop to make room for some informational activities that supplement the on-ride messages of safety and reliability.

Status: More memorable than you’d expect from a car company.

Do you enjoy long, carefully written essays on the ideas behind theme parks, like this one? Hop on over to the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Theory Hub Page for even more!

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