Original Sponsor: United Technologies
Original Message: Teaching respect for the ocean's resources, one supposes
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: Tough to say, but there are fish!
Comments: The Living Seas was one of those attractions that had been planned since the start, and as such was designed more around the standards and protocols of a Disney theme park experience than it was the corporate message of any one particular sponsor. This may have as much to do with the fact that its projected theme - deep undersea research laboratories - still have not come to pass, as much as any practical factors. The company they finally got to underwrite the show - United Technologies - is a massive defense contractor, and through the 80s and 90s was perhaps best known for providing things like water heaters to suburban homes. They also happen to own Otis elevators, a company Disney has used since the early 60s, which is probably why the original plan for Neptune to appear and "pushing back" the sea so we can explore it eventually gave way to a elevator ride to the ocean floor.
The Living Seas was, let's be clear here, not great. It did, however, have one of the most potent single things in Future World, which was a the progression of its show. Entering through a space designed to resemble a museum and allowing its audience to settle into a theater very much like the other Future World pavilions, the wall carpeted expanse suddenly gave way to a dreamscape. At the suggestion of the narrator, an animated grid suddenly became a real filmed space, and the theater opened into exactly what was just seen on screen. Although accomplished with the simplest of means, as a theatrical frisson it was extremely impressive.
The rest of the pavilion never quite lived up to the force of that idea, but rather relied on an accumulation of details to make its environment seem convincing. It was very easy to forget that in Central Florida you were nowhere near an ocean, especially not one like the coral reef depicted in Sea Base Alpha. The hydrator trip and "Sea Cab" ride to get into the pavilion set an expectation, and the hydrator trip to be allowed to leave fulfilled it. Some guests even thought the hydrators actually brought them somewhere!
In its day, in an era where popular thought was still dominated by memories of the space program and Star Trek, The Living Seas had an appealingly low-rent sci fi vibe and just enough of a presentational effort to seem reasonably convincing. Yet as time passed and Future World attractions began to change, demanding less thought from an audience that was no longer expected to consist primarily of adults, demand for the attraction and its particular brand of Next Generation-era sci-fi diminished. The Sea Cabs got a new spiel making announcements about Illuminations and all but begging visitors to stay and see the exhibits after disembarking, and then were shuttered in the economic downturn after the Millennium. The addition of Turtle Talk With Crush a few years later sealed the fate of the pavilion, and the whole thing was done over with a Finding Nemo theme in 2005. The pre-show, the hydrators, and everything else from the old theme was stripped out.
What Needs To Change: The basic problem with The Living Seas has always been that the entire pavilion is built around an aquarium from 1986, and it's an aquarium that really has not ever been updated. But even when it was brand new, the sci-fi presentation of the material far outweighed the actual value of the aquarium; the impact had to do more with how it was presented than what it was. As time has passed, the scale and detail of that aquarium isn't quite as amazing as it once was. Many large cities now have much more ambitious aquariums as regional tourist attractions, and those aquariums now have Disney-style rides and 3D shows in them.
All of this makes it hard to know what to do with The Seas. Much of the educational and informational value of the attraction was a little abstract to begin with, being less rooted in any particular vision than it was more generally advocating for undersea research. Today, James Cameron can knock together a more compelling case for the mysteries of undersea life than Disney can.
New Sponsor Suggestion: This is a pavilion in need of a reason to exist. Disney is going to have to be involved somehow, and frankly I don't think there's a compelling reason to jettison the Nemo dark ride -- but there still needs to be a larger context for the still impressive features of the pavilion to have real value. There are government agencies that do undersea research, like NOAA and NASA, and perhaps forming an advisory committee of such research centers could pave the way for a re-introduction of the science angle which made the original pavilion credible - and striking.
EPCOT Outreach, 1984
Original Sponsor: --
Original Message: --
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: It's worth remembering that through the 60s, 70s and 80s, one of Disney's most profitable divisions was as a supplier of quality educational films to schools. An outgrowth of the World War II educational film division, in the days when teachers had to haul out projectors and thread up films, the best products came from Disney. EPCOT Outreach was a physical embodiment of this side of the company - in fact, it's possible to argue that the entire of EPCOT Center was built on the back of Disney's two most successful divisions in the late 70s - outdoor recreation and educational films. In its heyday, besides a general purpose question and answer desk, it had a teacher's lounge complete with attraction previews and even lesson plans built around the attractions.
The trouble is, with the opening of the much more exciting Disney-MGM Studios in 1989 - where seemingly every attraction had an explosion - combined with a bad economy, attendance at EPCOT Center plummeted. To take up the slack, WDW heavily marketed EPCOT Center to area schools as an affordable field trip option, and it worked. Practically the whole place became a sea of visiting Florida schools. This led directly to the efforts to court a younger audience with flashier, more exciting attractions which has given us the uneasy mix we have today. EPCOT Outreach ate EPCOT Center alive.
I think this is still a terrific idea for a feature of EPCOT, but for it to mean anything, practically every Future World pavilion has to be updated. Universe of Energy cannot be soft-pedaling info from the 90s. Living With the Land cannot be presenting 80s-era pest control solutions as cutting edge. The Living Seas needs to have an actual point of view.
Incidentally, EPCOT Outreach eventually turned into a sort of catch-all WDW on-site archive, which eventually became the Walt Disney World Research Library. The Library was disbanded in 2014, and
some of the materials shipped out to California - an appropriately sad end to a final scrap of EPCOT.
Listen to the Land, 1982
Original Sponsor: Kraft
Original Message: Industrial food growing methods are the darnedest things
Current Sponsor: Chiquita
Current Message: Industrial food growing methods from 20 years ago are the darnedest things
Comments: Here's where the dissonance between what EPCOT is preaching and reality really starts to set in, and The Land is currently one of the most popular and throughly refreshed of all the Future World pavilions!
Since 1982, concepts such as natural foods, pesticide-free, GMOs, sustainable seafood and farm raised fish have become hot button issues of our time, and Farmer's Markets and produce Co-Ops have become crucial community centers for many - yet nowhere in The Land can one even find an explanation of what Organic food is. Instead, Listen/Living With the Land has been passing on the same outdated information about pest control and farming since 1994. This message made sense for Kraft, whose name has become synonymous with processed foods. But this is one of the few attractions where the entire cultural discussion of its core concept has pivoted away from where it was in the 1980s. The "open a can" school of cooking of the 60s and 70s is a cultural memory. As a reflection of reality, The Land doesn't made sense for the vibrant current American food culture at all.
What Needs To Change: The basic concept of this attraction is surprisingly resilient - you wouldn't think that a boat ride through a greenhouse would be a crowd pleaser, but people still respond to this. And still, scientific trappings aside, the notion of growing crops to be used onsite could be argued to be "Farm-to-Table" before the words even existed as they do today. Urban farms and rooftop gardens around the country are producing organic crops using methods like hydroponics, and the results look very much like what The Land has had since the 80s. This is an attraction that needs not so much wholesale change as a redirected emphasis on where the food discussion will be in 2020.
New Sponsor Suggestion: This will result in eye rolling, but what Living With the Land needs is a sponsor with an actual commitment to modern ethical food cultivation.... and it may as well be Whole Foods Market.
Whole Foods has ridden the tide of the local and organic foods movements to corporate heights, and many Whole Foods have become education and community centers. If there's a single company that has the resources and commitment to redirect Epcot's The Land in the modern direction, it's them. Oh, and bring back the "Listen to the Land" name and theme song, please!
Original Sponsor: Kraft
Original Message: Man's relationship with nature has always been fraught and complex.
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: See below
Comments: Symbiosis was one of the original EPCOT attractions most noteworthy for its refusal to let its audience off the hook. Designed as something of a corrective to the test-pattern TV eyes corporate angle of Listen to the Land, Symbiosis was beautifully shot and edited - but didn't even seem to arrive at a coherent point. If anything, it seemed to be suggesting that it wanted to arrive at the same point as Godfrey Reggino's "Koyaanisqatsi" without the avant grade trappings.
1994's Circle of Life is chipper and direct where Symbiosis was artful and kind of dull, but again Disney's refusal to update anything at Epcot means it's now as much of an byproduct of a time twenty years past as Ellen's Energy Adventure is. A 90s take on environmental awareness, using Lion King characters and the concept of the "Circle of Life" isn't a bad one, but in execution it doesn't say anything that Fern Gully didn't do about as well (and let's be clear here, Fern Gully didn't do anything well). The 90s in general were a hotbed of "activism" for rainforests and other endangered areas, even if this awareness most often manifested itself in, say, watching Captain Planet and dropping pennies in tin cups, feeling good about doing very little. A somewhat embarrassing reminder of this era, Circle of Life is fine, but there isn't a single point made in the film that isn't done in a much more compelling way at Animal Kingdom.
What Needs to Change: Disney has used the Symbiosis theater off and on to promote "Disney Nature" films, but I think the real question that needs to be addressed is why The Land needs a film at all. As it is, the themes of utopian agriculture, health and fitness, and food preparation were already weirdly spliced across Horizons, Wonders of Life, and The Land. If The Land is going to specifically be about farming - and let's just wave off the relevance of Soarin' here, because it doesn't fit and never will - then the film shown here needs to be on message with the boat ride to really work. If not, Disney should get rid of the theater and use the space for something new.
Kitchen Kabaret, 1982
Original Sponsor: Kraft
Original Message: Creating meals with balanced nutrition
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: If you were a fan of the kind of entertainment Disney had produced through the 60s and 70s, then EPCOT Center sometimes seemed amazingly thin on the old school Walt Disney charm. I personally think this opinion was wildly overstated - and there's even less there now than when it opened in 1982 - but Kitchen Kabaret, Journey Into Imagination and El Rio del Tiempo were classic WED rides in a park basically devoted to serious themes.
WED saw this problem coming, and it's nice that they did create Kitchen Kabaret as a call-out to the kind of theater shows that were Disney's bread and butter for a long time. Like the Tiki Room, Country Bears, and America Sings, Kitchen Kabaret was whimsical, lightweight, and kind of insane. Ostensibly devoted to furthering awareness of what was then the USDA's four major food groups, education was a distant second to Kitchen Kabaret's mandate to entertain. Patterned very heavily on the presentation of Country Bear Jamboree, Kabaret was perhaps not as pokey as Mickey Mouse Revue but fairly sedate compared to Davis and Bertino's truly madcap shows. For those of us who were able to visit EPCOT Center before it was torn out, this show as well as Listen to the Land were a sure bet and usually mostly empty. It wasn't until I was an adult that I appreciated the throwback vibe of the Kabaret, but it hardly mattered: the singing food characters were funny and kind of freaky, and the show barely took up ten minutes of your day. It is well remembered for good reason.
The replacement, Food Rocks, was motivated both by the comparatively empty state of most showings of Kitchen Kabaret, and the publication of USDA's convoluted Food Pyramid in 1992. Like most of Disney's 90s output, the "Hip n Edgy" Food Rocks sometimes seemed more like a compendium of "Dad Jokes" than a real show. Besides updating the roster of musical talent from the 40s to the 90s, and the creation of the truly memorably bizarre "Füd Rapper", neither show was really all that comparable nor really all that much about actual food education. Kitchen Kabaret's true advantage was its startling oversized kitchen set and intricately sculpted, very amusing food based stars.
I'm not sure we need the singing food show back at Epcot. Kabaret fulfilled its role of warming up the sometimes inhuman dimensions of Future World, but both shows pointed towards something shaky in conception about Future World. Was The Land about food and nutrition, or the growing and managing of food? Thanks to the Kabaret and Symbiosis, in 1982 it was both - but then why was Wonders of Life necessary?
The original version of The Land as developed in the 70s was entirely about natural environments, a sort of above ground Living Seas, a concept still present in the pavilion today as the "biomes" on the boat ride. With the removal of Wonders of Life, The Land has an opportunity to consolidate its themes under one roof, and even if the concept of how to use and cook food isn't conveyed by singing foodstuffs, the discussion still has a place at the table at The Land.
Journey Into Imagination, 1983
Original Sponsor: Kodak
Original Message: Inspiration is at the source of creation
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: The five senses impact our imaginations
Comments: If EPCOT Center had a beating heart, it was this ride and Horizons. Neither ride was perfect - the final third of Journey Into Imagination was far less interesting than its first two thirds, and the climax was more of an anti-climax, built around the concept of film technology, because Kodak was the sponsor. But unlike the case of Horizons where we have to hem and haw and allow for "well, if this were updated...", Journey Into Imagination requires no excuses.
The same, sadly, cannot be said for its two replacements, but thankfully conveying a sense of the history of this pavilion is beyond the scope of this article. What can be said is that the current salvage version was a fine attempt to brush up an attraction that almost nobody liked. But, by its very nature of being a salvage of an attraction almost nobody liked, the interim version still has a legacy in the current attraction. The conceit of the "Imagination Institute" was never especially obvious to begin with - being as it was a justification for the placement of Honey, I Shrunk the Audience - but nobody designing an attraction about creative activity from scratch would choose to base it around the five senses. The most resonant attractions have a streamlined conception of content and form - Soarin' delivers exactly what it promises on its marquee. The name Journey Into Imagination promises an epic scale that does not logically segue to screens and office doors. This should be one of Walt Disney World's signature attractions. We deserve better.
What Needs To Change: like Horizons, this is one of those attractions where I believe a revival is in order, at least in part. When you speak about Journey Into Imagination with people, what you discover is that people remember and are talking about the first half of the attraction - the Flight to Imagination, Dream Port, Art Room, and Thriller Room. There certainly is no reason to do a full-scale revival of the ending, where the cars go chugging down a hill while blurry photos of the riders are displayed.
If a full-scale version of the Flight to Imagination cannot be recreated, then this section could be relegated to a pre-show room and have the riders board in the Dream Port. Following the Thriller room, what a new version needs to emphasize is that there are today more ways to be creative than the 80s slate of painting, writing, etc. Music can be written and orchestrated at home. Traditional media art has largely given way to digital art. Films can be made on devices that fit in your pocket. I see no reason a modern version of Journey Into Imagination can't be as good, if not better, than the 1983 original.
Status: Badly Needed
New Sponsor Suggestion: Avid? Google? Apple? Microsoft?
Magic Eye Theater, 1982
Original Sponsor: Kodak
Original Message: We Made A 3D Movie
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: Oh, how 3D has fallen - then risen - then fallen again. In the early 80s, back when the cycle of the 3D revival was just starting to wear out its welcome, EPCOT Center opened with Magic Journeys, a 3D film in development for years by Murray Lerner. A world apart from the excesses of something like Jaws 3D, Magic Journeys was something of a hallucinatory art film supposedly devoted to the imagination of a child but frankly more about being strange, sleepy and kind of freaky. Magic Journeys was shortly replaced by the supposedly more exciting Captain EO, a pure slice of 80s cheese, then by the aggressive spectator punishment vehicle Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.
In our own era, 3D has tread an equally strange path. No modern film has managed to rival the success of James Cameron's Avatar, and the domestic market for 3D has continued to shrink. Disney has continued to offer its animated films in 3D for no apparent reason other than that some people apparently prefer it. The much-ballyhooed home 3D blu ray players and televisions have even gone out of production.
It's time for Disney to divest itself of their 3D theaters, not so much because of the home 3D discs or the 3D revival, but because of the state of the theme park industry. Many smaller scale attractions like World of Coke in Atlanta, most major city aquariums, and many moderate size amusement parks offer 3D films. The showing of 3D - and indeed similar novelty film formats like Circle-Vision - is a tradition Disney began in 1955, at the height of the first wave of Hollywood novelty exhibition circuit. It's lasted through two more revivals, three company administrations, and nearly four generations. The Magic Eye Theater has trouble drawing in a crowd, and Disney has trouble coming up with things to fill it with. The theater should be gutted and used as additional space for a new version of the Journey Into Imagination attraction.
The Image Works, 1983
Original Sponsor: Kodak
Original Message: --
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: This is another big one. Of everything that was stolen, appropriated, recycled, and absorbed into the popular culture at EPCOT Center, Image Works was plundered most fully by outside forces. Within a few years of the opening of EPCOT, Image Works' unique hands on whimsy had been copied by nearly every Children's Museum in the country.
What's ironic is that Image Works, along with Magic Journeys, was one of the few EPCOT installations to come with no built-in Message - nothing but a quiet reminder that even the most average day to day activities come with an oft unspoken imaginative construct. A dark, cool, and fun retreat from the heat and bustle of the park, Image Works was one of those rare attractions where everything about the experience on a physical register was innately satisfying. The approach to the pavilion raised questions about those glass pyramids, questions satisfied by the ascent up the spiral staircase (by unanimous agreement the best kind) and the view of the attraction boarding area below. Once upstairs, the view of the park through those glass pyramids was another kind of reward, followed by the movement into the theatrically darkened Image Works space. Even the contrast between the brightness of the Rainbow Tunnel and the darkened Stepping Tones and optical illusion mazes beyond was innately satisfying.
While the current Image Works offers somewhat similar experiences, there are two crucial distinctions which make it less satisfying than its predecessor. The first is obvious: located in a plain room, the ritualistic aspect of the ascent to Image Works is removed. It's the same reason Tom Sawyer Island wouldn't work as well if you could just get there on a bridge instead of a raft. The second is that the "lab" theming steps on the wonder of the original presentation. While the late-90s music conductor game is undoubtably more technologically complex than its 1983 original, showing guests the computers running the operation simply turns the entire operation into an effects demonstration. The original Image Works positioned its effects as theatrical magic, not digital magic, and the appreciation of its audience was palpable.
What Needs to Change: besides moving back upstairs, Image Works needs to be given over entirely to WDI's Illusioneering department and filled with the kind of prototype special effects they regularly develop but rarely get to actually use. Image Works is also an area which would be ideal for an exhibit about the history of EPCOT, from Walt Disney's city to the present day.
Status: More, Please
Lessons From 1982
In our memories, EPCOT Center often seems to be a greater accomplishment than maybe it was. As I hope I've demonstrated here by going through every aspect of it's message content piece by piece, in terms of actively looking towards the future, the park presented ideas which ranged from fantastical (Horizons) to retrograde (Universe of Energy) to incoherent (Travelport?).
Despite this, in my opinion EPCOT Center was the highest, furthest, most effective summit the entire category of themed design has ever scaled since the opening of Disneyland. Despite its questionable corporates messaging and nonsensical product plugging, EPCOT Center was no less scattershot than it is today, yet something for those first twelve years held the center together in a way it does not now. And here at last we will try to pinpoint it.
I. Embrace Warmth and Human Scale
EPCOT Center was massive and monumental. The size of the walk around World Showcase is still enough to make adults cry. The architectural statements of each Future World pavilion were huge and impressive, but never leaned towards brutalism - instead falling into the Henchman abstraction that I like to call "theme architecture". Yet these gigantic blocks were dropped with symmetrical precision into a landscape which perhaps more than anything suggested a bucolic college campus - with ponds, fountains, rolling lawns and spreading trees.
Through the 90s, the scale of these interiors, once criss crossed with walls, plants and natural dividers, ballooned until most of EPCOT today resembles a cross between an industrial trade show and a Wal-Mart Super Center. Tarps, canopies, and unrelated nonsense clutter the sightlines of those monumental pavilions. Carts, pop-up stands, and pin carts dot every walkway. Of all of the parks, Epcot's aesthetics respond the least well to these sorts of theme park mainstays, and they really should be elimiated. You need to give people a reason to get inside and sit down, to get away from the crowded tarmac.
EPCOT Center's walkways may have been stark and simple, but once you actually got into each pavilion, you could spend an hour or more in air-conditioned comfort without ever stepping outside. To me this comes down to respecting your audience as well as having respect for the human scale. Disney needs to accept what tens of thousands of locals and fans already know: Epcot is the ultimate hang out park. Each pavilion should be honeycombed with small exhibits, fun diversions, little places to relax and maybe get a drink, in a classy, clean atmosphere. If you give people places they like to be, you'll be surprised what they'll reward you with.
II. Maintain the Ecosystem of Aesthetics
This is a big one, and it's a place where Future World needs to entirely start from scratch. As these articles have pointed out, EPCOT was a hive of competing ideas, companies, and ideologies, yet it seemed to speak with a single voice. That single voice is so strong that today is still reverberates in the public mind, twenty years long gone. How many still know it as EPCOT Center, and how many still associate it with some kind of learning experience?
That's power. That's power than usually only public figures usually attain, never mind a dorky theme park peddling corporate messages and sentimental songs in equal measure. And one reason the voice of EPCOT Center still speaks through time to us is because its message was scrupulously, carefully aesthetically organized and unified.
This is something that got stripped out of EPCOT piece by piece in such a way that it was gone without anybody really noticing it was leaving yet. The demise of Horizons and Journey Into Imagination was only the final piece that fell into place, but just as important to reducing the overall impression of a unified whole was touches like replacing the original wooden railings and carpeted walls in The Land with metal railings and painted walls. Yes, the current look of The Land is, on a micro scale, more modern, but it's less human on a macro scale. The paving of Communicore Central and the removal of all of Hench's softening trees, bushes and ponds is another. Bit by bit, piece by piece, Epcot of today is a far bleaker, harsher place than it was even 15 years ago.
All of this is a result of different design agendas within the company. EPCOT Center was unified in 1985 because it was all built at the same time. The Epcot of today is the result of hundreds of different design teams with different project leaders, budgets, expectations and goals. While an organic environment like Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom presents areas where one design tough or another is unambiguously out of place or not, there's no generally agreed upon single system barometer for what EPCOT should look like. It's really easy to, say, replace one railing in one place and bump that single pavilion out of line with the rest. This is how you end up with signs that look like they come from the cover of Dreamcast games or random wavy descending walls, a sure sign of a lost and bored designer.
Disney needs to write this barometer, then. Every sign in Future World must have specific size, color, and font approved choices. Every pavilion must have a dedicated color palette, approved patterns, approved typefaces, and so on. This is why the Future World pavilion icons worked so well as an organizing principle: pictures require no language translation, and sleek icons are even better. There should be no need for flashing LED billboards to help guests find their way to attractions if there's a streamlined, iconographic wayfinding system.
III. Don't Let Them Off the Hook
Disney is really good at talking down to their audience, and their audience really loves it. There will always be a contingent of Disney fans who love toothless pablum like Wishes, but in Future World and EPCOT in general are going to ever coalesce into what it is in the minds of the public, Disney really needs to commit to taking Epcot, and the Epcot audience, seriously.
Taking an audience seriously does not per se mean being humorless or dry. The 1982 version of Spaceship Earth was exactly that, which is why it was reworked to more closely resemble Horizons only a few short years after it opened. Horizons was, despite its eye popping visuals and reassuring message, astonishingly hokey, H.G. Wells by way of Father Knows Best. World of Motion was very funny, Kitchen Kabaret was weird. These attractions offered hopeful apology for their sloganeering, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
Symbiosis, The American Adventure, Spaceship Earth '94 and to a lesser extent The Living Seas all put it to their audience to be ready to make the world a better place - they didn't let them off the hook. And despite all of that, EPCOT Center did have a profound effect on a generation of a certain age. Yes, it was kids who dreamed of piloting the Enterprise instead of kids who fantasized about having tea with Belle, but isn't that still an accomplishment?
Even the lightweight Journey Into Imagination packed an ideological punch. For this five year old child, who didn't much care for science and technology trappings, I walked away floored by that attraction's insistence that I could and should use my creativity to "start making new things". Returning to my ranch house in Connecticut, I scrawled out the lyrics to the Sherman Brothers' Imagination song in black crayon on a piece of construction paper and stared at it for days. That attraction instilled in me at age five the awareness that only I was responsible for getting the ideas in my head out into the real world, and on that wave of inspiration I began drawing volumes. The blog you read now is a direct result of that experience. I may be a castle park kind of person, but Journey Into Imagination changed my life for the better.
These two articles have been intentionally limited in their scope - I haven't attempted to re-concieve what Future World should be for 2020 audiences from scratch, for example, but then again that never was the point. The point was to become clearer and reach conclusions on what Future World was really saying, and how it said them. And the conclusion I've reached is that EPCOT Center came pre-packed with a sort of aesthetic toolkit, and it's a toolkit that nobody has used since the 80s.
But those tools still work. They can still make muddled messages sing and send the next generation home with the sort of elevating experience I had.
Kids need to see a place that doesn't just tell, but show them that science and technology make our lives better - they needed it in the 80s, and they need it today. It's never going to be perfect, but the next generation deserves a demonstration of mankind's better nature. "If you can dream it, you can do it" may not have been said by Walt Disney, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth saying.