June 23, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Day Two- Epcot

Epcot needs work. There, I've said it and gotten if off my chest. I love EPCOT Center, and I love or used to love Epcot. After not seeing the park for almost ten years, I couldn't wait. Normally, this is the park which begins and ends our vacation to Walt Disney World. Not this time. That's all due to Fast Pass and difficult to get rides where I wouldn't wait 200 plus minutes without a reservation. One disclaimer here: This might be the lengthiest trip report post in the series. EPCOT Center transformed my idea of what a Disney park experience could be, and it has remained my favorite Florida park since its opening. Be forewarned, or just sit back and enjoy it.

After a very satisfying day at Animal Kingdom (aside from not being able to ride Expedition: Everest), I was just itching to get to the second Florida Disney park. As my long time favorite, this one probably has the most blog posts I've ever written about any park save perhaps the original kingdom, Disneyland. I just love Epcot. Have I already mentioned that?

I have this image as a Mac wallpaper.

In the early years of the park, Future World was home to some of my favorite attractions in any Disney theme park: the playful Journey into Imagination, the elegant Horizons, and the warmly humorous World of Motion. Many critics from newer generations of guests mistakenly thought they all felt alike. 

Each one was a lengthy, robot filled experience, but the similarities ended there. Successfully standing on their own, each one had a unique perspective, catchy theme song, and differently flavored presentation.  No wonder Future World just mesmerized me. These were amazing attractions! Disney Imagineers succeeded in hitting each one out of the park. Was there anything the Imagineers couldn't do? It's a different situation these days.  

Our first Epcot day didn't start out as I hoped. We missed the resort bus, not once but twice. When the second time came around, the bus arrived three minutes earlier than scheduled- and we were still getting breakfast snacks at Saratoga's bright and airy quick service snack location. Missed by mere seconds. Thankfully, the next one also came early, and we were right there. 

The lines for security and the park entrance were very long. Efficiency reigned at the gates, and the line moved quickly. As I was first one through, I waited and took the photo at the top of this article. Yet, standing there in front of the park, something just felt different. I could be wrong, but in hindsight, all I can attribute it to was the lack of the original epic and majestic soundtrack playing in the background. Those symphonic medleys signaled you were about to enter an incredible place. This visit, I couldn't even tell you what was playing, if anything at all. 

I knew was we had to get going. That darn Fast Pass reservation for Frozen Ever After was looming. So, finally our entire party came through the security check, and off we went. 

An old favorite!

Spaceship Earth looked terrific, but the arcs of Innoventions / Communicore and the ghastly colors they painted them loudly spoke one thing: No one had a clue of what to do with the future. My suspicions were confirmed as we approached the Energy (closed) / Wonders (closed) / Test Track / Space plaza. The lush flowers and various greenery couldn't hide a sense of disjointedness. Perhaps it was partially the fact the open attractions were only on the right side, making the area feel unfinished. Walking down the avenue, the small splash pad seemed out of place as well, giving a local mall feel to a once great theme park.

New found love for this ride- with some conditions.

Better, much better! It's nice to have two options.

Our initial Fast Pass was for Mission: Space (Green). Definitely not our first choice, but it was all that was available for the early morning time frame. After riding the original (Orange) attraction long ago, I couldn't stand it. One and done. Not only did it make me sick, I found it to be unfulfilling. Expensive simulator and nothing more. 

Grandma and her traveling buddy.

First timers.

Ten years later and with two little ones in tow, the magic revealed itself. Our grandson loved it. The concept of flying a space shuttle around the earth and all the in-house effects made it a winner in his eyes. In fact, it was the sole attraction in Epcot that he requested returning to multiple times...until he rode Test Track and Soarin', then it seemed to be a three way tie... at least for this park! Lesson to be learned: It's best not to assume because we don't enjoy an attraction that someone else will not as well. 

A darker pyramid outside,
but a lighter less cultural experience inside.

Time for the sisters. While heading toward Norway, we came upon Mexico.  Seeing we had 20 minutes to go, we once again played our game of "Could we fit in _________ attraction before we have to get on our Fast Pass ride?" We went for it.

Gorgeous orchids all over Mexico.

Walking inside the pyramid (which seemed painted a different exterior color, more darker than in the past- and a new sign for idiots reminding them not to climb up the pyramid), it was clear there was no line at all for the Gran Fiesta Tour. Had to do it. In less than one minute, we were onboard. The little guys were happily watching Donald Duck's adventures. I enjoyed seeing the Audio-Animatronic trio. It was still a screen for the finale during my last trip to the World. A very big and unexpected improvement when I first read about it. Even better live. In person, this addition completes the story. These three dimensional characters were just what the attraction needed. 

Ah, El Rio del Tiempo! How I miss it!

The conclusion of our happy cartoon voyage brought about very pleasant and bittersweet memories of the Mickey Mouse Revue but more importantly El Rio del Tiempo. More innocent times for sure! Admittedly, the nerd I am, I found myself singing along with the old theme song in my head, wishing for the cultural splendor that used to be the focus of each World Showcase ride. I could see the direction the park was going. Could I live with it or would I ruin what should be a great day by fighting it all?

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Time for Frozen Ever After. I'd seen the videos, heard the rumors, and been informed about the lengthy queues. The attraction itself left us a family divided, but the new interior village area (the line) was something all of us found to be quite nice. Of course, the little guys loved the attraction! (How can you not love Olaf?) The splash down was a nice touch in the Florida heat, but I found myself highly critical of the work that was done to transform Maelstrom into the home of Anna and Elsa. 

The opening two scenes were fairly strong, nicely staged, and instantly engaging. The story seemed well set, but when it came time to ascend to the ice palace, from there on out, the attraction's weaknesses became glaringly apparent. 

Could Disney not afford at least a crop of fake pine trees for the ascent to the mountain top ice palace? Guests should never be able to so clearly see the interior walls of an attraction when they are so close to the ride vehicle. There was nothing to hide them- just a small attempt to do so by painting them black. Once at the summit, an ice skating Olaf and tongue tied Sven were sweet (and it was good to see Kristof), but these scenes just felt incomplete and barren. So much was lacking! Honestly, it was clear these had been given so little money and an equal amount of attention. 

Finally, it was Elsa's big moment. Up close she looked pretty good and moved effortlessly, but in the reverse descent, bad use of screens and poor film quality made for a much cheapened experience. Couldn't they have been more creative here? I'm not quite sure how I feel about those animated faces. Altogether, the experience was fun, shorter than I hoped, and less than the property deserved. (I know, I should just let it go, but I hoped for more.) 

Snowgies for Bita!

The highlight of it all for us was a view at the charming little "snowgies" (my cute little granddaughter's favorites) and a look at big old Marshmallow before a forward swoop down to Arendelle and the grand finish to our new Norway adventure. 

The attraction earned a hearty thumbs up from everyone but the slightly disappointed grandpa who (quietly) ranked it much lower than everyone else. Still cute and enjoyable but so much less than it should have been. Beyond the cultural faux pas of a mismatched location to story, if you're going to shove another character invasion into World Showcase, doesn't Disney's biggest animated hit in decades deserve a full-scale, epic "E Ticket" attraction- and one with much better capacity? I believe so. 

How the suits handled this decision concerns me when regarding the plans for future attractions. With Ratatouille coming to France, the iconic  Mary Poppins to the U.K. pavilion, and the rest of the coming World Showcase attractions, I wasn't hopeful. The new standard seems to be "good enough". 

Holdovers from the Flower and Garden Festival.

What will be this park's standout? It's Pirates of the Caribbean? It's Great Movie Ride? It's Kilimanjaro Safaris? Is Epcot now doomed to second rate attractions, tired films, and 2-3 minute thrill rides? 

The still powerful American Adventure aside, currently there is not one single ride in the park that is consistently well crafted beginning to end which displays what great work the Imagineers can do when given the opportunity. The closest is Spaceship Earth and that level of excellence is compromised by a less than great descent back to the boarding station.

Back to the trip report. By this point in time, we hadn't yet eaten. Where to go? Holding reservations for the Mexican restaurant on the lagoon, we wanted something different- and fairly cheap. After thinking through what was nearby, we opted for The Land food court. Would have been great to sit inside Odyssey and enjoy a meal, but like some of the park's attractions, this restaurant was shuttered long ago.

This sign has changed multiple times over the decades.

I was again reminded how big this park was, as it took us a bit longer to get there than I expected in my head. I'm fairly certain the distance from Mission: Space to The Land is about as long as from the Haunted Mansion to Space Mountain at Disneyland. Anyone care to check the facts and report back?

Unexpected magic.

A blast of air conditioning hit us from one of the open doors in the breezeway. Seeing it came from a character greeting spot- with Baymax no less, I was intrigued. My grandson and I love Big Hero 6, for the record, so we popped in. God smiled on us once again, as it seemed He did most of the trip, and I caught a nice photo. This quick glimpse was enough to please us and satisfy a desire we once had for this meet and greet (the only one we seriously considered). However, an almost hour long wait was not worth it.

Reading these blog posts, you may be tempted to think I only saw the negative changes in the parks and didn't have a great time. Nothing could be further from the truth! It was in many ways it was a Grandparent's Dream Trip, and there is still much to love about the Vacation Kingdom of the World. In fact, we'd return in a minute if we could. As a Disney theme park lover, I am highly critical of what the suits do to their parks, particularly Epcot. In the new Disney era where profits sometimes overrule thematic consistency or providing guests with the best experience possible, I still expect the best. And I'm a detail guy. Enough said for now on this topic... until I share insights I realized in the next Future World pavilion.

Love these!

Always someplace I look forward to visiting, The Land didn't disappoint. Even with its changes, and there certainly are several here, there's much to see for just about everyone. Walking to the railing inside the pavilion, I was once again hit by that wide open expanse and those terrific balloons. With so few visits to the world in the last couple of decades, one benefit is that many things feel fresh to me. 

The scale and scope of Epcot and actually of all Walt Disney World is just impressive. There's no way around it. It can make for some difficult touring in the hot and humid Florida weather, but that uncomfortable reality aside, it's pretty mesmerizing. Many Disney park fans love to argue which resort is better, Florida or Southern California. They're both just very different- and each lovely in their own ways, with their own set of pros and cons. I will admit the only time I have felt the same sense of grandeur at the Disneyland resort as I have in Florida comes when I view the Cadillac mountain range in Cars Land. It's no small feat of extremely creative Imagineering to make a place seem so vast in such little space. In my mind, it is the new crown jewel of the Company's parks in California. Will Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge be as good? That's yet to be seen.

Well done, Disney.

Let me get my one negative observation about this pavilion over with. The Land Grill Room is now a character meal location. I began to realize that many places we used to enjoying dining at in the past had now become a premier guest experience. In every park. This may come at the cost of offering dining experiences that impress for the average, cash strapped visitor. Perhaps it is a shrewd and financially lucrative decision on the part of the suits, but it lowers the over all experience and creates a caste system among guests. We were not going to pay $35 per person for lunch, even if it was with the Company mascot and his chipmunk friends. 

With crowds being thick, you would expect Disney would construct another indoor counter service location at the other side of Future World to help serve the crowds, keeping them happily full, rested and refreshed by the air conditioning, and ready to reengage. At least for the issue of health and helping guests avoid heat stroke or dehydration. Oh, they did build it. It's just closed like too much of the park. 

Passing by the location of our family's traditional first meal at EPCOT Center, we traveled down stairs to the large and very busy food court. I didn't expect much.

Surprisingly, our fast food meal was in reality pretty darn good. (In fact, we didn't have a bad meal or snack anywhere on the property.) Fast, fresh, and hot when it needed to be. Expecting mall court blandness, I was very pleasantly surprised by the high quality and seasoning of my Chinese entree. The crowd flow seemed well managed, and the staff was pleasant and helpful. The bright and airy space remained very clean thanks to the hard work of the crew. A very positive experience.

A simple bus ride can be memorable.

Grabbing a quick Fast Pass for Living With The Land boat ride, we found ourselves cruising the waterway in a matter of minutes. I still appreciated the educational aspect of the attraction. It's something that made EPCOT Center unique and entertaining in its own distinct, still magical way. The slow and steady removal of that focus leads to a downgrade of the park experience. It's one of a few reasons I bemoan the changing of Universe of Energy to something lesser.

Adding any legally usable Marvel character attraction levels the playing field with Disney's competitors. At some point as a consumer you have to ask yourself, "Ultimately, what is the Disney Difference compared to Universal?" Sadly, it's certainly not as much as it used to be as time goes by. By the early evening, I even found myself here at my favorite park with a case of "screen fatigue"- a common complaint with fans visiting Universal, meaning too many attractions rely on film and its effects, 3-D or otherwise, as the main delivery vehicle of the attraction storyline. This was not something I expected at Disney and particularly Epcot!

The Seas with Nemo was just a depressing experience, aside from a great cast member playing Crush to a clever and engaging young audience- including him answering my sweet little granddaughter's question. I won't say more about the once stunning pavilion with its unexpected hydrolators and great exhibits. It's yet another downgrade from what once was.

A Figment fail.

Next up was Imagination, an even a worse, more discouraging, experience. In its current state, it is a breathtaking- and not in a good way- reminder of how Disney management has left Epcot to rot for close to 20 years. The ride- a disaster which turned the once charming purple dragon full of childish delight into a snarky prankster. The lackluster Image Works made things worse, and why would I sit inside a theater to watch Pixar animation that I own on DVD? 

Due to a surprise that Test Track had only a 30 minute wait (via the app), we cruised over for an all family thrill ride. It's certainly still a rush! I found I preferred the original version that was more like a testing facility and less like Tron. By a large margin actually. The test crash ending that leads to the high speed portion of the ride was an excellent and clever touch. 

More variety like this please.
The world is much more than Europe.

It was time to remove ourselves from Future World and go into my favorite half of the park. World Showcase beckoned, and we began in Canada this time, passing by another splash pad.

The first thing I noticed was the new DVC kiosk. Yes, nothing like Disney pushing even more product on you to remind you that you're in a theme park. I so appreciated that reminder on my around the world journey. Victoria Gardens looked as beautiful as I had remembered, but I don't recall it being accessible only to guests of Le Cellier. Or did I misunderstand? It wouldn't surprise me at all to see that this had changed. The kids explored the hedge maze in the U.K., and we caught a small glimpse of Alice before moving on. Unexpectedly, we walked right by France and headed straight for Morocco as my son in law had wanted to see it last trip but they'd run out of time. 

Perhaps the most richly detailed in all of World Showcase.

Don't get me wrong. I love the recreations of the European nations. Yet, we need something more and different in the park. Morocco and its richly detailed buildings were a solid reminder of this need. Exploring its courtyards and market stalls seemed to remind me of what was planned for Star Wars, but the contrast was refreshing after the previous locations. The Spice Road Table was basically empty. Could it be the prices? Probably, as the Tangierine Cafe seemed full of eager diners. 

A trio of photos from the Japan Showcase,
one of my favorites.

Just love the Japan showcase. There's still quiet nooks to explore and layers of experience awaiting if you take the time to find it. Was there really a need for a new restaurant? Perhaps, but the necessity of a people-eating attraction is even greater. We love hiding back by the tea house late after Illuminations. It's a whole new world after dark. Couldn't wait to return to the Land of the Rising Sun, but it never happened. Next trip.

Alfredos no longer.

Walking all the way down into Germany, we stopped in Italy after bypassing the American Adventure. We decided to view a later show. Italy seemed hot, so hot, much like what we had experienced in Venice years ago. Little shade, few trees, no grass. A perfect recreation minus overpriced gondola rides and the very unique stench of the water. (But we still loved it the real location!) Sticking our head in Via Napoli, we discovered the place was just packed, and to our surprise, it seemed it was with visitors from international locations. Pizza is a universal food!

By this point, it was almost time for dinner. Our reservations were for La Hacienda de San Angel, and it was late afternoon, so a good time for a break and a meal. Winding our way back to Mexico, we stopped at the entrance, gave them our names, and began a meal marked by incredibly gracious and attentive service. It felt very old school Disney from thirty years ago. My wife and I were very, very impressed.

Lovely lighting was the highlight of the bland atmosphere.

Frankly, from a visual perspective, the new waterside restaurant was nothing special to look at. There are many excellent environments to be found in our restaurants in Denver that surpass the surroundings of this new eatery, but only one back home has food as delicious as what we discovered here. From the queso fundido to the corn soup to the melt in your mouth main entrees, we delighted in each course. The drinks weren't bad either!

Three beautiful ladies- not one a Disney princess.

Our early evening dinner at La Hacienda de San Angel was a definitely a mixed bag experience. The food? Incredible. So was the price, though. The atmosphere? Pedestrian. We might return again, although I hear the waterside restaurant in the pyramid may have rebounded from awful food to decent. I hope so. The atmosphere is enchanting.

The ending of our evening at Epcot came about in a manner we didn't expect. Post-dinner, our timing was perfect for The American Adventure. The show is still an incredible and inspiring one. My son-in-law had never seen it, missing it during his initial visit. His take? Very, very good! 

My grandson sat next to me, and at the ripe age of six, he had some great questions and observations. One example of what he quietly whispered in my ear: "You mean two brothers fought on different sides of the war? And only one came home? The other died?"  Of course, he also recognized one of the characters walked up the steps. Pretty observant kid! I believe even the most "adult" focused attractions can be enjoyed by kids if they are prepared for it. Or they can be taught to sit quietly and use "indoor voices" if they must speak. Walt never aimed just for kids- or teens needing thrills- and I wish the suits would remember that when planning new additions to the parks, especially this one. 

Burned out bulbs and all but still a beautiful sight to behold.

Even though I'm quick to say Epcot needs something more than 2 minute thrill rides and lengthy travelogues, our follow up attraction was Impressions de France, the most beloved of the three World Showcase films. (China's is Number Two, leaving Canada at the bottom by quite a distance.) The music still tears me up at times. The quality of the film seemed fresher than I remembered. The Eiffel Tower ending needs a reshoot however to highlight the twinkling effect now in place. 

Due to the Touring Plans app, we discovered Soarin' Over the World had a twenty minute wait. Without a Fast Pass for it on either day, off we went- but not before I snapped a couple of photos. I'd intended to return to the countries after seeing Illuminations. Major mistake on my part. I had misread some information, believing it started later than it did. 

After our flight, including a view of a badly bent Eiffel Tower, we realized our mistake as we were exiting The Land. Cast members were also closing down the pavilion. That's Disney's mistake and shows how things have changed since the first few years at the park. Back then, everything opened and closed at the same time- a sign of giving guests their best. No longer.

Goodnight Spaceship Earth- until tomorrow.

Everyone was tired by this point in time, so we took advantage of an early and empty bus, returning home via a quiet and quick drive. Our next day was also an Epcot visit, one which included Grandparents' date night with the kids while Mom and Dad had their own. That one, too, had an unexpected ending, but more about that next post as well as my final verdict on the state of Epcot.

One last note before signing off. Upon returning home to Saratoga Springs, we received an email survey asking us what we thought of our dinner experience and what we thought was needed to round out the park offerings. Interestingly, one of the main options was a Brazilian Steakhouse. Prepping guests for a new country, I'd say.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)


Len Yokoyama said...

Fantastic post Mark! I've read a third way so far, so not completely finished, but loving the details, insights, and photos!

Mark Taft said...

Thanks, Len!