October 2, 2012

Epcot at 30: First Time is the Charm

There's an old saying that there's nothing like your first time. It happens to be true when I speak about our first visit to EPCOT Center. In an unexpected twist, it almost instantly became our favorite Disney park. 

Back then, World Showcase opened the same time as Future World, so we entered the park and almost walked right past Spaceship Earth and directly to the Mexico Showcase. Of course, we were not immune to the charms of the future as portrayed by Disney. In fact, I remember clearly just staring at the huge silver sphere. Couldn't take my eyes off it, but I had to get to the World Key Information Stations inside Earth Station to book meal reservations. 

We had to wait a bit, but we made ourselves busy by watching a terrific kaleidoscope of images previewing the wonders we'd soon encounter.  Just the presentation and the surrounding area felt fresh, optimistic, and inspiring. We made our way to the front of the line and to the screen. 

This truly was a touch of the future. In fact, in 1982 touch sensitive computer screens were something of a rarity. The Bell System (at  divestiture the attraction would then be officially sponsored by AT&T, the company I worked for at the time) and its branch Bell Laboratories really were bringing us the future of communication. Moments after a young woman came too the screen to help us with our meals choices, we were on our way. 

Deciding to bypass Future World for the time being, we strolled into Mexico.  It and China next door just seemed to beckon us compared to Canada and the United Kingdom. The lone pyramid and the small cantina gave us no hint to what we about to see.

Until the changeover from El Rio del Tiempo to the Gran Fiesta, the sights, sounds, and feel of Mexico made it our favorite place in all of World Showcase. I won't bore you with the details of El Rio del Tiempo, but I will tell you, we were enchanted by it and wished it had lasted even longer than it did. (If you want to see lots of art and images plus links to video etc, just search on the site for "Cinco de Mayo" or go here for one of many posts.) Having been to Baja California, Mazatlan, and Acapulco, I have aways had a soft spot for the country. The old boat ride gave the pavilion a touch of glamour and mystery that the new version replaces with cheap marketing. It's too bad. We wandered around inside the moonlight, so glad we were returning for lunch.

Naturally, we followed along the promenade and continued on to China. For younger readers, it's important to remember that at the time, few people were given the ability to travel to this country, thereby making a visit to a fairly accurate representation of the landmarks of the country all the more alluring. This was only enhanced by the nationals who were privileged to work there. And there were no Disney themed items to be found in the shops of World Showcase, only authentic goods right from the countries represented. It was as close as an authentic experience a traveler could get without hopping on an airplane. Needless to say, we were again stunned by the beauty of the landscaping and architecture, thrilled by the 360 movie, Wonders of China.

Making our way around, we stopped at Germany and Italy, winding up at the American Adventure. We very impressed by the show, (Disney always makes you proud to be an American) but disappointed there was nothing else to represent our country. The view back to Future World and Spaceship Earth- wow, the park was huge.

We chose to head back toward Mexico for lunch as we had waterside dining reservations at the San Angel Restaurante.  It was dark, cozy, romantic- and we so enjoyed the margarita, queso fundido, and our main course. It was my first taste of Mole Poblano and not my last. We ended our lunch with another cruise on the river, then headed back into Future World.  

By this point in time, the crowds were heavy back in the other end of the park, and it was fairly easy to get to the big ticket attractions of Future World.  First stop, Journey Into Imagination. My father-in-law worked for Kodak at the time and for his entire career, so we had heard great things about what Disney came up with. In a word, magical! Figment and Dreamfinder were delightful and will always be the "hosts" of the park.  (I cannot tell you what a bastardization of the original attraction this new version is. You'd have to experience it to know.)  before I became a collector of sorts of Disney park memorabilia, I purchased a Figment of my own. I have him to this day. Magic Journeys in 3D (a new thing!) was a great second attraction to the pavilion, and the Image Works was just plain fun. We stayed almost two hours- something you could not pay me to do now.

"Just make believe you're a tiny little seed..." The Land is our favorite of the original Future World attractions that are still in the park. Up until the point Horizons debuted a few years later, this is where the future was in Future World. The Listen to the Land boat tour was the perfect way to share the latest in farming technologies to the public. "Edutainment" at its best. The film Symbiosis was preachy at times, but the cruise through the greenhouses made learning fun. Kitchen Cabaret brought it home for the kids. The silly presentation about nutrition, while enjoyable, was not on par with the much better Audio-Animatronic musicals found in the Magic Kingdom. However, it wasn't meant to be a headline attraction either.

Starting with the following morning when we would return for a second full day at EPCOT Center, breakfast at The Good Turn would become a tradition until it became too expensive or too difficult to book. We always enjoyed the warm Florida sun streaming through the greenhouse dome, and intentionally stretched our meal time long enough to rotate into the darker showroom of the boat cruise. It's in the hidden places such as this that Future World has its own unique charms. The future should be warm and hopeful, and it always was in the way Disney chose to present it upon the park's opening.

The Living Seas wouldn't come until later, so we stumbled through Communicore (now Innoventions). We passed through both East and West, and decided to make that area part of the next day. We were among those to vote for The Person of the Century poll. Kind of a fun thing to throw in there. My bet was Disney didn't like the results, and the show- and announcement of the winner- soon disappeared.

A journey on Spaceship Earth was a perfect way to continue our trip. It was very impressive, and I was pleased to see my employer was represented by such a fine attraction. The changes over the years have not taken away from the grandeur. After all, what can compete with a trip through the globe? 

In quick time, we went into the Universe of Energy. It's inherent surprises did the trick they were designed to do, but it was next door's World of Motion that we loved. 

Let me be clear- I love old school Audio-Animatronic adventures like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. They rely on story to bring the thrills and surprises. World of Motion easily held its own with these classics. From the train being held up (in a nod to the never built Western River Expedition) to the policeman on motorcycle behind the billboard, the attraction built to a grand finale- a ride through the city of the future. Humorous, informative and repeatable. (Gary Owen's narration was incredible in his signature style.) Motion became a three ride attraction for us, and we did it again several hours later after nightfall.  

Upon exiting and knowing the song "It's Fun to Be Free" by heart, we stepped into the Transcenter for the Bird and Robot / The Water Engine show followed by the automotive displays, a nice nod to the sponsor. 

I'm all for thrill rides-  and I love Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad- but there is something about these older lengthy and leisurely attractions like those mentioned above that really take you out of present day reality and into another realm. This is something Disney does better than just about anyone, but this fact about immersion is almost lost on the current batch of Imagineers... and park guests trained to run from ride to ride! Without the balance of all kinds of attractions, the audience is limited. This is why parks like California Adventure 1.0 and Animal Kingdom are not as popular as they could have been. 

Evening meant a return to World Showcase starting with Canada. The signature attraction, "Oh, Canada!" had nothing on its Chinese counterpart. This was not the case when we viewed "Impressions of France".  Superlatives are not enough, so Imagineers and Budgeteers, isn't it time to update the film and give it a technology upgrade as well? It's a masterpiece. So is the pavilion it is built around. A late night stroll through "France" and then around the promenade basking in the glory of a beautiful Florida evening was the perfect way to end our first visit to EPCOT Center

We'd do it again the next day by starting in Future World and then working our way through World Showcase, starting with Canada this time. From here on out, Epcot would always be a two day visit. The changes over the years would not always please us, but this one single theme park is the reason I return to Walt Disney World.   More tomorrow...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company. Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

No comments: