The Internet amplifies the passions of those who express their opinions through it. A case in point is those who’ve taken it upon themselves to write online reviews of the Test Track attraction at Epcot. Test Track seems a controversial ride: though most love it’s fast action, others find its thrill-ride origins an intrusion in an otherwise peaceful park. (Travel expert Arthur Frommer actually referred to it as “an insult to intelligence, quite beneath contempt.”) I have to admit that the Test Track haters completely mystify me: not only is Test Track the best thing at Epcot, it in fact points the way toward what Epcot should have been, and still could be.
I should admit as well that the success of Epcot has puzzled me for years. The ambiguous name (I suspect that even Walt Disney would have seen the name he originated as wildly inappropriate for the park that exists today), the stodgy subject matter, and the existence of several attractions that are really no fun at all should have turned people away in droves. Yet people seem to like it—I think because of its ambitions more than its execution—and they come back time and again.
This isn’t to say that Epcot hasn’t had its charms: Universe of Energy has always been entertaining for both its dinosaurs and incredible ride vehicles. The boat ride through the Land ‘s greenhouses is enjoyable, though I have yet to hear of any of the pavilion’s plant-growing techniques employed in a real-life setting. The Maelstrom is fun, especially the spectacular sight of the oil rig that you float past at the end of the ride. I even like Mexico’s El Rio del Tiempo, though I’d be the first to acknowledge that I’m in the minority on that one. (I think I enjoy it because of the fond memories it conjures up of the Magic Kingdom’s old If You Had Wings attraction.)
For each success at Epcot, however, there has been at least as many misfires. A lot of people find the American Adventure stirring, but I don’t count myself among them. The stilted dialog between the historical figures never rings true: much of it sounds like one of those elementary-school dramatizations of the birth of our nation where Abraham Lincoln and George Washington get together to discuss what a great country they created. (I will say, however, that many of the audio-animatronic humans in this attraction are as convincing as have ever been produced.) I also shudder to think of how many people became instantly turned off to Epcot through their interaction with its signature attraction, Spaceship Earth. As a Disney fan, it’s fun for me to go on attractions like Spaceship Earth : I enjoy feeling the atmosphere it creates, and I love the technology behind it. But when you look at this attraction, ask yourself: is this the best thing that Disney could be doing with its technology? Apart from the beautiful presentation, its content really isn’t very strong. For those who aren’t quite as enamored with the attractions as I am—a sizeable portion of the population—it’s downright boring. As the first thing that park guests encounter, this attraction raises the specter of the worst Nova episode they’ve ever seen, and one that they’ve paid forty dollars a person to experience no less. An upgrade a few years back improved Spaceship Earth, but still, it can be a little hard to take for those looking to be entertained.
I never really got into Horizons, and that shocks me because I was such a fan of all of Disney’s futuristic visions, most notably Space Mountain ‘s Home of Future Living back when Space Mountain was sponsored by RCA. It may have been because Horizons presented what I thought to be a less appealing vision: living in space or underwater seemed like a pain; watching football on an 8-foot television screen sounded amazing. It also could have been that I was older when I first saw Horizons (I was about fourteen) and I didn’t view Disney as the official arbiter of America’s future directions like I did when I was eight. (Looking at both objectively today, I have to say that the Home of Future Living got a lot more right than did Horizons : consumer electronics play a much more important part in our lives than do cities in outer space.)
Of the two major areas of Epcot—Future World and World Showcase—Future World has the more serious problems. Like the 1939 World’s Fair it emulates, Future World has a vertical orientation. By that, I mean that the topics presented—energy, communications, ocean, land, health, and transportation—live in a vacuum, with little relation to each other. But few people in the world deal with these topics in a vertical way. For instance, how many people interact with the topic of “energy” exclusively, all day long, versus those who deal with it as only a part of their job? Energy is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not a deeply interesting topic in its own right. It only becomes interesting when applied to broader problems.
It seems like these topics could be handled more effectively by designing pavilions with a different perspective: a horizontal perspective. Take some piece of technology—a nuclear submarine, for instance—and create an attraction around it and all of its component technologies. By necessity, it would have to deal with the ocean, communications, energy, aerodynamics, health, transportation; virtually all of the topics that Epcot currently touches on, but viewed in an applied way, integrating all of them together. This, I think, would be tremendously more engaging—and educational—than looking at each of these topics one-by-one. There would be plenty of opportunity for learning, and also some opportunity for fun, especially in this instance since Disney has a track record of building attractions around submarines. The attraction could open with a simulated submarine ride, and when that was done, take a turn toward the scientific. (“That was a submarine ride of fantasy; here’s how science makes a real nuclear submarine possible…,” a narrator might say.) Other attractions, focused on a space vehicle, a computer, a car (hence Test Track…), a particle accelerator, or many other possibilities, could provide the same sort of experience.
Corporate sponsorships are handled poorly in Future World. What should be the strength of the park—real companies offering their technology and foresight to provide a glimpse into our future lifestyles—is squandered as a simple advertising opportunity. Sponsors are brought in to endorse what Disney wants to teach, not present their own lessons. Think back to the old World of Motion pavilion and its “whimsical” retelling of the story of transportation: does anyone believe that General Motors, and not Disney, came up with that idea?
What GM would have come up with was something a lot more like Test Track, which is precisely why I like it so much. By giving its riders a glimpse into the real world of building and testing cars, both in its queuing area and in the ride itself, Test Track does a significantly better job of teaching Epcot guests than World of Motion ever did. Test Track is still a little too sanitized for my tastes—I’d like it to feel and look even more like the process that a vehicle platform goes through, and it should teach more than it does—but compared to other Epcot attractions, it feels authentic. I don’t really trust GM or Disney to present the history of transportation as they did in World of Motion, not because they can’t, but just because it’s not what either company is really an expert at. GM is, however, an authority on building cars, and when they talk about that experience, I believe them.
The authenticity that Test Track brings to Epcot points to the way that all of Epcot could be leveraging the corporate world: as its source material rather than its patron. There’s so much to learn from corporate America in the areas of science, technology, culture, and commerce, and Epcot could be that conduit. Thus far, Epcot has wasted the opportunity.
Of course, if all the attractions were like Test Track, the “Future World” designation would have to go. But that’s okay, because the name didn’t make much sense the day that Epcot opened, either. Can anyone give a good explanation of why half of Epcot is named “Future World?” (And the reason should be better than “the buildings look futuristic!”) The Living Seas, Life & Health, Universe of Energy, and Journey Into Imagination don’t even try to teach us about the future, they teach us about our past and present. Plainly, Future World’s about learning, and naming it correctly would clarify Disney’s thinking about what to do with the area. Better naming would help the park in other ways: the fact that the park is named Epcot—a name that means nothing—speaks volumes about the problems Disney’s had in figuring out what it’s supposed to be building.
For a park that’s supposed to be educational, Epcot is remarkably afraid of being educational. The pavilions, save for a few of the Innoventions exhibits (another relatively new addition with some nice potential), are too dumbed-down to really teach anything. Disney is so wary of being didactic that it won’t let itself take the time to teach anything useful to its audience. It’s not a difficult problem to solve: ironically, forgetting the entertainment and being merely educational could be sufficient. Many people find learning itself entertaining, and that’s who Epcot should be tailoring itself to. For the many who don’t, well, there are three other parks on the Walt Disney World property designed to keep them happy.