September 7, 2010

Disney Park Countdown #2 - Epcot

Were this 1989, this would be my number one ranked Disney park. However, it is almost two and a half decades later, and Epcot is no longer what it was at opening. Yet, I still love the place, and when I long for a trip to Walt Disney World, Epcot is the reason why!

The creators of EPCOT Center had a vision and plans for explaining how we can work together to better human life and enhance community. In my opinion, EPCOT Center most displays Walt Disney's heart for the American people and his desire to improve their lives. It was more than a money making project; it was a true labor of love. Even the entrance music created an atmosphere of hope and discovery.

Changes in recent years signify the transition from a noble and visionary company to one that seems solely profit minded, especially where the parks are concerned. The cynic in me says this grand hope for improving the future has given way to the goal of extracting as much cash from each person possible. The transition from informing and helping people to sheer profitability lends itself to a challenging thought: Has the Walt Disney Company become more interested in taking advantage of people than remembering they are also part of the community of people?

Outright dazzled by my first visit in 1983! Taking the monorail from the Transportation and Ticket Center to the park near closing time created an excitement in me I will never forget. Made it hard to sleep that night! We spend a minimum of two full days at Epcot whenever we have an extended vacation at Walt Disney World. On shorter trips, this is the one park we never miss, but I have passed up visiting the Magic Kingdom and the Studios before, (and next trip, probably Animal Kingdom.)

Recent changes to World Showcase have downplayed the dignity of the nations represented. The beautiful but much shorter than originally planned El Rio del Tiempo was replaced by the character adventure Gran Fiesta Tour, stripping the Mexico attraction of its charm and mystery and rich culture. In it's place, just another living advertisement for Disney characters and films. This makes me sad, as to me, El Rio always captured the beauty and essence of World Showcase. To sit by the indoor lagoon, eat Queso Fundido, have a sublime margarita, and follow it with a voyage into Aztec and Maya history- that was what set EPCOT Center apart from any other Disney world. Now, the differences between it and the Magic Kingdom are sliding away before my eyes.

There is still much beauty and charm to be found in World Showcase, with beautiful gardens and hidden places to explore. A stroll through the countries after the official closing time makes for a truly magical way to end the evening. Walking out from a showing of Impressions of France right into the alleys of a recreated Monmarte, ah! Even without a stop at the bakery, just for a moment I could easily fool myself into thinking I was there.
Despite its charms, there is a definite need for well done refreshing of attractions and additions of new ones- and without characters. Much like California Adventure 1.0, this Worlds Fair portion of Epcot relies too heavily on films while missing a healthy balance of other types of attractions.

There is also minimal kinetic energy. Aside from the boats transversing World Showcase Lagoon, all that moves are the tourists. The canals of Venice need their gondolas. I miss the double deck bus rides that used to recall those of London and Victoria. Rickshaw rides through China would add atmosphere, even a camel in Morocco, but nothing is happening in the realm of transportation. The lack of movement does give this side of the park a tranquility that is absent in the other properties, but it also lends a certain "deadness" when crowds are very low. (See this article for photos from my trip a few years ago in August. Any city morgue was more lively!)

Future World has its own strengths and weaknesses both in design and in the attractions. In design, Epcot's Future World's dated architecture mirrors the concrete world of Disneyland's Tomorrowland. It's time for something new. Innoventions and the surrounding area offends the worst in this aspect, but it is the tombstone like entrance to the park that is the obvious sign the park is losing its focus. Obviously, the historically tinged and somewhat accurate buildings of World Showcase seem charming by contrast, and that side of the park has aged better because of it.

Attractions in Future World now run the gamut of good to bad, with Ellen's Energy Adventure running a close second to the more than awful Imagination complex. In Epcot's early years, there were many Audio-Animatronic adventures to be found in Future World. I loved a ride through the World of Motion and its futuristic cityscape ending. Horizons was a must- the large theater and mesmerising music drew me in. Yes, the robotics became stiff and dated and needed to be changed, but the attraction was a gem in a park of many. Who could resist Spaceship Earth? Not me- and a ride into the sphere was a must-do both at the beginning and the end of the day.

These marvelous pavilions were designed for the entire family, and they were balanced out by smaller exhibits that invited guests to linger and discover what was happening in the worlds of transportation, energy, and communication. Now, Future World has its share of thrill rides but less of a sense of awe and wonder. The newer attractions have created some new fans and lost others. I'm not a fan of Mission:Space, but I love Test Track. The problem is these attractions are not friendly for older guests nor are there engaging smaller exhibits for those of us not of the gaming generation.

On the plus end, the recent changes to The Land have been an overall positive update, not as much with The Seas, although I really enjoy both the Nemo themed dark ride and absolutely love Turtle Talk with Crush. Unfortunately, the actual marine life is now secondary to the character related experiences.

Restaurants used to be top notch across the board, full of authentic dishes not necessarily geared toward American tastes. The Disney Dining Plan has turned a meal at World Showcase into something very difficult, stealing the spontaneity and joy of the touring process. The meals themselves have become ordinary in too many circumstances. It is well known that the chefs at the beautiful San Angel Restaurante have turned its food into something pedestrian. The once stellar Chefs de France is now good but not terrific. Eating in China and Japan is now for the atmosphere versus the meal. Only Canada's Le Cellier seems to be the delight it once was. 

Lastly, why is the United States only represented by hamburgers and hot dogs? Our country is filled with culinary delights from many regions, with tastes specifically ours. In Future World, dining is a wash. The Land Grille Room was much better in its earlier incarnation, The Good Turn, and it was a family tradition to start our Epcot day there for breakfast, following by a boat ride through the growing gardens.

Shopping is pretty fun here, however, with a wide variety of country specific merchandise and even theme park specific items for purchase. This includes some great retro stuff. That creates a mixed reaction in me, as it reminds me of the greatness of EPCOT Center versus Epcot.

With no question, this park has the widest range of engaging entertainment. International performers are scattered throughout World Showcase, adding to the festive atmosphere. The evening spectacular Illuminations remains the definitive Disney nighttime show. Every performance brings a tear to my eye as I see each country lit up as part of the show.

With its abundance of charms but challenging deficiencies, Epcot Center is still a pretty great place to spend the day- but it helps immensely if you only know it from its current form. When compared to its past, it is a fairly pale shadow of its former greatness.

(Gee, I may need to begin a whole series of articles on this park- similar to my True Life Adventure on Animal Kingdom... but in the meantime, search my blog for dozens of Epcot related articles and rare concept art.)
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company. Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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