Mr Pict has this nostalgic thing for Epcot. Our second day at Disney could have been spent at any of the parks but, between his halcyon hued memories of trips past and his rose-tinted persuasion of the kids, it was clear we were going to be spending our second and last Disney day at Epcot. It is actually the only Disney Florida park I had been to before this trip as we had visited sixteen years before, almost to the day. I did not have such fond memories of it. Actually I have very few memories of it at all. What I did remember was that it seemed dull and dated. We set off on our visit wondering which one of us would be proved correct.
Because Mr Pict is into astronomy and space exploration, he determined that our first port of call would be Mission Space. The line was divided into intense and less intense versions of the ride. We all opted for the less intense option. They needed to have a line for weenies because the easy version was still too much for me. First of all there was the claustrophobia. The simulators contained four of us and once the doors were closed the screens and controls moved towards and over us so that I felt completely trapped. The ride is themed around astronaut training so we were given a spiel about each of us undertaking a different role in the mission and having to hit certain buttons at the right time. Then we had lift off. There was pressure and vibration, jolting movement, waves of nausea, closed eyes. There was something about an asteroid field and landing on Mars but quite honestly I was paying very little attention to anything other than stopping myself from vomiting. I was very glad when it ended. Mr Pict and our oldest son enjoyed it so much, however, that they decided to go off and do the intense version of the ride. I later read that two people had died doing the intense ride. The centrifugal force was apparently incredibly powerful. They both emerged from the ride looking terribly pale, overcome with surges of nausea that lasted for hours and feeling very wobbly.
Clearly we all needed to do something much more sedate. Universe of Energy it was. This was a bizarre ride, essentially an extended educational film starring Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy delivering information about fossil fuels – all sponsored by an oil company, of course – coupled with animatronic dinosaurs. Don’t bother trying to analyse that. It really makes no sense. The dinosaurs, which I think are prehistoric enough to have been created in the 1980s, have held up pretty well for show in dark rooms. The whole primeval swamp element was engaging in a way that the film skits were not. The best thing about the ride, however, was that we got to sit down for its entire duration with the rows of seats moving between theatres. After the boking movement of Mission Space, being seated for a length of time was very welcome indeed.
Journey into your Imagination was an exploration of the connection between the senses, imagination and invention. It was narrated by a live action Eric Idle portraying some sort of inventor and a squeaky-voiced animated dragon named Figment. The wagons we were sitting in moved between rooms that each explored a different sense with Figment gradually unleashing increasing levels of chaos all culminating in him singing a song about “one little spark”. The message is clear: the best thing is to set your imagination free. We were then disgorged into a room where the kids could play with different interactive experiments, things like light and sound. Because they are screen junkies, the boys were all quite taken with consoles where they could construct an animated dragon of their own and name it. The hypocritical thing, however, was that they were given a very narrow set of parameters to choose from. Their imaginations might be capable of coming up with any number of colour combinations for their dragons but they had to choose from just the same six colours every time. Their creativity was being limited. So much for setting your imagination free.
Having never been a Michael Jackson fan, the existence of the 3D movie ‘Captain Eo’ had entirely passed me by. Partly because our 7 year old is a Michael Jackson fan, partly because the timing made sense and partly out of curiosity, we entered the theatre to find out what it was all about. We were given our 3D spectacles and settled into our theatre seats before being told that we were about to view a vintage classic. I got the same feeling from that phrasing as I do from reading real estate listings. Oh dear. We were then told we were going to be taken back to 1986. An even bigger Oh dear. On the upside, Jackson was no slouch when it came to performance and production values, Angelica Huston was the antagonist and it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. There was potential for it not to be dire. But it was. No words are adequately going to describe the movie or convey how bizarre it was. It was a completely bonkers confection of choreography, camp and kitsch. It was essentially an extended music video starring Michael Jackson and some ropey special effects. Along with his alien and robot crew mates, Jackson undertakes a mission to deliver a gift to Angelica Huston’s alien queen. Said gift turns out to be a compliment and a song and dance routine in which some members of the crew turn into musical instruments and the alien queen’s underlings turn into leotard clad dancers. It certainly was an experience, there was no denying that.
After a break to eat our packed lunches and watch mesmerising fountains of jumping water, we went to see Circle of Life: An Animated Fable, a short film presented by the winning duo of Timon and Pumbaa. The best thing I can say about this experience was that we got to sit in comfortable seats. The cockle-warming message of ‘The Lion King’ – that all living things and their habitats are interconnected and impact on each other – had been churned into a horribly unsubtle, incredibly didactic lecture about humans destroying the planet. The message is one that I support but the medium of that message felt like being drilled by a dry but barking lecturer. It was snoresome and the recycling of vintage footage which was interspersed with the animation made it reminiscent of those terrible 1970s educational films I was forced to watch at school to fill gaps in the lesson planning.
The dull, didactic drivel continued at Living with the Land. This is billed as a ride but all that really means is that you queue for a good while (mercifully we used Fast Pass to avoid that) to then get contained in a small plastic boat that does nothing but get dragged along in a pool that looks like the CDC should take an interest in it. It is not a ride at all; it is a slowly moving lesson on farming. Supposedly it is about the history of cultivating the land from past to future but there was a lack of cohesive structure underpinning that. There were a couple of vague dioramas showing farming, principally a Dustbowl era farm fallen from the pages of a Steinbeck novel, and then we were jolted without any discernible segue into contemporary, scientific models of agriculture such as hydroponics and aquaculture. Essentially, therefore, it is a slow moving tour of a greenhouse laboratory. The only excitement came from trying to identify the plants without reading the labels. Seriously. It was that dull. I am all for promoting ecology and more efficient use of land and other natural resources but I would suggest that if one wants to get people to engage with and buy into such production processes it might be a good idea to keep them awake.
That was the essence of Epcot’s problem: the whole place was tired and wearisome. It was entirely lacking in the magic and charm one expects of Disney. However cloying, commercial and insipid the atmosphere of Disney can be, it’s loud and bright migraine-inducing world is far preferable from feeling trapped in a stuffy, dust-caked library of irrelevant textbooks. The plus side of a day at Epcot was that fewer visitors meant shorter queues but for me at least that did not balance out the negatives. The whole place badly needs an update. A theme park founded on the idea of technology, the future, pioneering science and education needs to work hard at and invest in maintaining relevance. That means keeping things fresh and continually modifying and updating. While many of the rides may have been tinkered with a bit since their inception – audio guides rather than human drones, for instance – there was too much in the park that felt old and crusty. It is hard to sell classic in a park that is about the future.
Another problem was that some of the new installations just smacked of desperation. The middle of the park contained an Innoventions building. The people it contained seemed to be mainly there for the purpose of obtaining Fast Pass tickets. There were screens set up with video consoles where kids (and some adults) could play Disney themed video games. That sucked in three of my kids. There were also some interactive experiences directed at pre-schoolers. Our 5 year old went off to do one about economics that involved carrying around a piggy bank and making decisions about spending, saving and investing. He had fun and the idea of the game was a sound one but the play experience was at odds with the level of understanding required. It was as if the game was directed at preschool age kids but the lesson to be gleaned could only be absorbed by an older child. The whole section was incoherent and felt like mere filler. As soon as I could drag the kids away from the Toy Story game, we left in pursuit of something more diverting.
The Finding Nemo ride was sweet and probably a better fit for the Magic Kingdom than for Epcot. Sitting in moving clam shells, we were taken through representations of different scenes of the movies. My favourites were travelling through jellyfish, being surrounded by animated turtles and animated characters being projected into tanks filled with actual fish. When we disembarked from our shells, we exited past a large tank that contained a dolphin. We all watched the dolphin swimming around, completely mesmerised. Then we walked past a shallow tank that contained a manatee. I have a bit of a thing for manatees. I think it is because they are so weird looking, so ugly they are cute, so peculiar. I also enjoy the fact that there is a theory that sailors once mistook these tubby, grey, cows of the sea as mermaids. The kids had never seen a manatee before so we spent quite a bit of time watching it moving around and chowing down on a few head of lettuce.
One of the few things I did remember from my previous visit to Epcot was the World Showcase. This is a series of areas dedicated to depicting individual countries. Inspired, I believe, by the World’s Fair, it was probably initially sold as some sort of educational tool, teaching people about other countries and cultures, but really it seems to be a bit of a kooky promotional tool, publicity by tourist boards of the countries concerned. It is completely bonkers, the stereotyping and broad brush representations of countries are twee, odd and amusing, but there is that meticulous attention to detail that is somehow winning despite all of that.
The first fake country we entered was Canada. There was a version of Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac declaring it to be Canada. It was certainly striking. We actually went in to see Canada’s show, a 360 film. It was presented by Martin Short, not exactly an A list ambassador for his nation, and was a series of shots of Canadian landscapes, cityscapes, animals and Mounties. It was effective and well done but was a transparent advert for visiting Canada. It worked though. I definitely came out of that movie thinking that we definitely needing to think about returning to Canada some time in the near future.
Next up was Britain. Except it wasn’t Britain, it was just England. If there was any nod to Scotland, Ireland or Wales then I must have blinked and missed it. There was a folk trio performing on the fake street who sounded vaguely Scottish but that was it. It was all very cutesy and crazy. A Tudor castle stood cheek by jowl next to Georgian mansions and Victorian cottages. There were red postboxes and red phoneboxes, the latter pretty much extinct in Britain, and that very British institution of the village pub. We went into one of the shops which happened to be selling food. The boys’ bellies were instantly homesick for the sweeties and chocolate on the shelves, all those tastes of home they have missed for 14 months. The price tags, however, precluded any purchases being made. I thought the $13 for a jar of mango chutney was ludicrous enough but then Mr Pict spotted a jar of clotted cream for a mere $16. Clotted cream is the ambrosia of the gods. Although I am lactose intolerant, I am more than prepared to suffer for the sake of consuming clotted cream. What I was not prepared to do, however, was find the black market area of Fake Britain in order to hawk my left kidney to pay for a jar of clotted cream.
France was, of course, all about the Eiffel Tower, café culture and crepes; Morocco was all intricately decorated tiles and Moorish arches; Italy was ponts, piazzas and pizzas – though wandering through it enabled the boys to enjoy an ice cream; Germany was all timberframe houses, beer and pretzels; China was architecture, including gates, and traditional music; Japan was centred around an imposing pagoda; Norway was all about the Vikings and ‘Frozen’; And Mexico was Aztec pyramids and mariachi music. The one thing that united all of these disparate country sections was extortionate food. Each section had at least one dedicated eatery and looking at the price tags on the menus made me even more grateful we had brought packed lunches.
Our last event of the day was to Spaceship Earth, housed inside Epcot’s iconic geodesic sphere. Mr Pict was really looking forward to that ride since he had such fond memories of it. Back when I had visited Epcot in 1998 it had certainly seen better days. If memory serves – and really it made little impression on me – it was a moth-bitten collection of creepy mannequins and brown and orange polyester. It was an archaic vision of the future imagined by someone who could not get their brain to think beyond the twentieth century. It was so ropey it could have been based on some production notes from ‘Lost in Space’. I am glad to report that it had been given a makeover and had been much improved since my last visit.
Two by two, we were seated in moving chairs which ascended through the sphere in spirals. This route took us past little vignettes telling the story of the history of human communication – Greek scholars, the Guttenberg press, early humans painting on cave walls, Egyptian scribes, a monk sleeping at his desk instead of working on a manuscript, a telephone exchange – and now comes right up to date with mention of contemporary communication technology such as the internet. We then passed into a room filled with stars which was very attractive before beginning our descent out of the sphere.
At the very beginning of the ride, we had all had our photos taken by an overhead camera. Reckoning it was just another one of those opportunities to try and flog a commemorative photo, I made a silly face at the camera, protruding tongue and jazz hand ears and all. It turned out that the purpose of those photos was quite different. Our portraits were built into an animation, played on the screen in front of us, about how future communication and information technology might develop. So my oldest son and I watched a short film where my ridiculous facial expression was tacked on top of a simple cartoon body. The pair of us laughed so hard throughout the animation that whatever information was being conveyed was utterly lost on us.
So, at the end of the day, neither Mr Pict nor I were correct in our assessment of Epcot. He admitted that his nostalgia had papered over the cracks of the park. It is not that it was shabby – it was all very clean and well-maintained – but it was very dated and dry. The park’s focus on science and technology makes it imperative that it evolves in response to advances in those fields. While this was happening, the makeovers were not being done at the pace required. The whole place just seemed out of step and out of touch. Furthermore, the more didactic rides just need to be scrapped. Nobody visits a theme park to be lectured at. It is also hard to swallow messages about ecology and environmental responsibility coming from a company that must suck up resources at a natural rate and which sells brightly coloured plastic at every opportunity. On the other hand, Epcot was not quite as dreadful as I had remembered. Although it made me feel like I wanted to spew like a volcano, the Mission Space ride was actually pretty effective in suggesting the challenges of training as an astronaut and Spaceship Earth was actually an excellent ride. However, I think if Disney wants to maintain Epcot as a viable theme park in its collection, it really needs to invest some imagination and thought into how to make it engaging and relevant.