Friday, October 07, 2016

Nine Essential Disney Theme Park Books

You know what everyone loves? Disney books. There's entire websites dedicated to them. It's not an uncommon activity on social media to post photos of your growing library. Every year, new and desirable Disney books are released - independently, and also through official channels.

But - you know what a lot of people are getting rid of? Books. Whether you want to blame the e-reader revolution or larger cultural changes, many people are divesting themselves of large collections of things.

On top of that, changes in online commerce have led to the creation of huge, vertically integrated book resellers on sites like Amazon who take in massive collections of used books and make their money back on shipping and volume. Today, you can buy practically any older book you can think of online for less than the price of a good lunch.

So it's a great time for collectors like me, because it means that books are available online from huge companies for basically nothing. No more waiting for something to list on eBay, no more hoping you land the winning bid, no more waiting for the seller to ship it - the way I got most of my Disney library ten years ago.

But I've been buying Disney books online for long enough now that it's easy for me to forget that not everyone knows what these things are. And, judging by social media, it seems as if somebody discovers one of these great old Disney books every few months that they never knew existed. Perhaps this humble blog can fill in a gap, raising awareness of these great books as well as providing some background on what they are and what to expect - and how not to be ripped off!

So I put together a list of what I consider to be (roughly) nine essential, affordable vintage theme park books. These aren't books that were published with informational purposes in mind - they were sold as keepsakes, and their pleasures are largely aesthetic ones. Please keep in mind that I'm limiting my discussion here to widely available books - Disneyland: The Nickel Tour is amazing, and badly in need of a reprint, but also costs $400. The books I feature here won't break the bank.

But, you know, you should get these while they're affordable. They're also books that have been out of print for decades, so there is a finite number of them floating around. I've got a lot of Disney books, and I've looked through many more - these are ten that always bring me pleasure, no matter how often I pop them open.

The Story of Walt Disney World

Also known as the "Big D" book - because the front cover looks like a big black "D" with the center a cut-out window showing the castle. The interior of the book is a class act - a behind the scenes look at the construction of the Vacation Kingdom, presented with the most charming late-60s promotional writing and typefaces possible. Some of the photos in this book are commonly seen, but just as many are still likely to be new to you was they were in 1971.

So here's the thing to know about the D Book. This book was in print through the entirety of the 1970s - it was sold alongside the "Pictorial Souvenirs" as the main keepsake book available in the Vacation Kingdom through at least 1980. As a result, the book is very common. It's far easier to come across than the original Pictorial Souvenir, and far easier to obtain than any of the GAF guides or ticket books. It's the most easily accessible piece of early Walt Disney World to purchase, because it was in print for so long.

The interior of the book hardly changed that whole time - at some point in the mid-70s, a few of the photos inside were changed, and the resort map on page 14 was changed from the Paul Hartley original map (the one that hung in hotel rooms) to an updated, and less interesting, "fun map" showing the Golf Resort and various tourists cavorting around the property. The text of the book is the same, but the photos chosen for the early 70s edition are a bit more idiosyncratic - fewer shots of sailboats on the Seven Seas Lagoon.

One thing that never changed was the banner reading "Commemorative Edition" on the front, which has led hundreds of eBay sellers who think they've got a real find on their hands and to ask absurd prices for this thing. Every single one of these things says "Commemorative Edition". Very few of them are from 1971. Every one of them has a printing run listed on the inside front cover. I've seen dates ranging from 1972 to 1979.

Even if I feel that the print quality and the photo selection make the pre-1976 version slightly more desirable, this is a terrific book, and well worth something in the neighborhood of $15. Beware of scalpers, but well worth the effort.

Walt Disney World: The First Decade

Printed in 1980 ostensibly as a counterpart to Disneyland: The First Quarter Century, if I had to choose a single object to put into somebody's hands which explains what the company was hoping to do in Florida and how sophisticated the place was for its first few decades, it would be this handsome book. Nearly forty years on, I'm still not sure there's been a better Walt Disney World book.

Printed on thick, glossy paper, with durable binding and filled with uniformly beautiful, evocative photographs, Disney intended this book to last, and it has. Much of the spine of the book later became the basis for the hardback souvenir guides in the back half of the 80s, but the text is denser and more serious in The First Decade.

It stops not only to discuss the attractions, but their design and how they fit into the park itself. It devotes four pages to a smart discussion and beautiful photos of the Magic Kingdom's hub. Following the park tour, the book touts the backstage operations, communications and waste disposal systems, and other innovations. It bothers to print photos of the Utilidors, and makes a better case for their importance than most enthusiastic fans can. It's probably the best Walt Disney world book ever printed, and perfectly preserves the spirit of that distant, early decade in amber.

This book is widely available, and hasn't seen the jumps in price that others on this list have in the past ten years. It's so well printed that any copy you buy will probably have held up very well. Although it's not tough to find copies below $20, I can't see anybody who loves theme parks, public spaces, urban planning or just plain beautiful books being unhappy with this book after paying as much as $30. It's an essential volume.

Steve Birnbaum Brings You The Best Of Disneyland

Steve Birnbaum Brings You The Best Of Walt Disney World

Oh, Birnbaum. I grew up as an Unofficial Guide loyalist, partially because by the 90s the Birnbaum guides had become generic and corporate in their text and message. But if you can get your hands on one of the early Birnbaum guides - red for Walt Disney World or blue for Disneyland - you will find one of the best books ever written about these places. These books are so good that Steven Fjellman interrupts himself in Vinyl Leaves to gush about them.

You know you're in for something special when you open up these early guides and the first page reprints a memo from Dick Nunis approving of Steve's efforts. Things get stranger when, in his introduction, Steve describes his wife jumping up and down and screaming at the prospect of "riding all the rides". Throughout, these early guides have real character as Birnbaum guides you through the parks with wit, a little bit of sarcasm, and an obvious love for a stiff drink.

The amount and variety of information Birnbaum has gathered up from all corners of the company and presented in this guide is staggering. While later day Birnbaum guides present some tidbits of information ensconced in some fairly bland discussion of each ride, Birnbaum's admiration for Disney fairly leaps off these pages. He doesn't just give you an overview of each area of the park, he goes into the architecture, landscape, and atmosphere of each in detail. He doesn't just summarize what's available at each restaurant, he tries to create a sense of its design and offers some smart remarks about how stand-out dishes actually taste.

Some caveats. Birnbaum's 1983 guide, which advertises EPCOT Center on its cover (above), was completed in a rush to get the book to print and so the information on EPCOT is brief and incomplete. EPCOT Center fans will want to pick up his 1984 guide for a much better overview of that park. Also, around the time The Disney-MGM Studios was getting ready to open, the text was already starting to become compressed to fit in the new offerings. While the late-80s guides are still enjoyable, it's those red and blue covered guides that are truly remarkable.

You can see why Dick Nunis approved. These things were written to be ephemeral little books, used for one trip and then discarded, but they're so well done they've survived as both souvenirs and historical records. Not bad for a travel book.

It's always been kind of tough to find old editions of these books exactly for the reasons I described, but if you see a red or blue cover Birnbaum, grab it!

Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow

Here it is, probably in the running with The Nickel Tour for the greatest theme park book ever published. This was written by Richard Beard, who worked directly for Disney and to be sure, this is definitely a promotional publication. Disney did their best to disguise this - publishing the book through Harry Abrams in New York - but that is what it is.

But what a book, and what a park.

Even die-hard EPCOT experts will be staggered by what's inside this book. Huge, colorful photographs accompanied by an intelligent text, this book makes the best possible case for what Disney hoped EPCOT Center could be. The print quality is excellent, and there's even fold-out pages for large format art and photos. The book traces the design and construction of the park - there's no real attempt to make excuses for the failure of Walt's future city to materialize. But this is an unusually compelling text, has excellent and abundant photos, and is a quality publication - Disney was making the case for why and how they built EPCOT through this book.

It speaks for a park that no longer exists. For kids to whom EPCOT was love at first sight, looking through this book can be emotional. It's much more like going to EPCOT than going to Epcot is. And there it can sit on your shelf forever.

This is the book that is seemingly re-discovered on social media every few months, and combined with a perhaps bland title, word has clearly not gotten out that this book is essential. Prices were high for a few years around the 25th Anniversary of Epcot, but have seemingly come down. So here's what you need to know when you go shopping:

First, there are three editions of the book, and they are all distinct. The first edition is simply called "Walt Disney's EPCOT", and pre-dates the opening of the park. The second is called "Walt Disney's EPCOT Center", and was published after the park opened. Both of these editions are large-format hardbound books - measuring 9.5 inches wide and 12 inches tall. They're both 240 pages long and have basically the same text and layout. The 1981 version consists entirely of models and artwork, while the 1982 version has replaced some of these with photos of the finished park.

The third edition is designated below its ISBN on the interior front page as "Special Edition", but it's easy to distinguish from the first two on sight. It's a smaller, thinner book, with a simple board hardcover front instead of the full dust jacket the 1981 and 1982 editions have. It's just 8.75 inches across and 11 inches tall, and has about 125 pages. The front cover includes the EPCOT Center "flower" emblem, and uses the actual park logo (right). This is a slimmed down version of the 1982 edition, and was published to be sold inside the park as a souvenir.

Some people, of course, will want to have all three. I suggest picking up the slim "Special Edition" first, which is the most common and a darn great book on its own, no excuses needed. From there, I think the 1982 version of the big book has a slight advantage for its mix of photos and art. It's not too tough to find the larger versions as library cast-offs.

However you find them, these books are wonderful and there's simply no good reason for ownership of them to be as confined to EPCOT super fans as it is. Seek them out, and the rewards will be well worth the effort.

Disneyland: The First Thirty Years

Yeah, I know. So far this list has been very East Coast-centric, but what can be done when you've got heavyweight hitters like Walt Disney World: The First Decade all lined up? The early 80s were just a darn good time for theme park books.

One of these excellent books was Disneyland: The First Quarter Century. That book is something of an outgrowth of a souvenir publication available at Disneyland through the late 60s and early 70s, usually simply called Walt Disney's Disneyland. Written by Marty Sklar and published in a hardbound edition, it was an early attempt to give a historical overview of the park. Disneyland: The First Quarter Century revised that book, re-organized the text, added better photographs and a few bells and whistles, like card stock section dividers. I think The First Quarter Century is a terrific book, but I'm going to direct you to its updated version from five years later as being slightly better.

To begin with, it includes New Fantasyland, which is for this author a crucial component of Disneyland's appeal. The card stock section dividers have become plain decorative pages, which is not a deal breaker. And the rest of the text is absolutely intact and unchanged.

Disneyland: The First Thirty Years is really more of a photo book of memories, especially when compared to its superb counterpart Walt Disney World: The First Decade. It includes historical photos of Disneyland laid out chronologically, with special attention given to celebrity and world leader visits. The last section is devoted simply to beautiful photos of the park from another time. In many ways, these books set the template for the kind of Disneyland book that still gets published today.

Disney did update the book one last time in 1990, now called Disneyland: The First Thirty-Five Years. I find this version to be by far the least compelling of the three, with few changes besides an even more compressed text and a few new photos. Additionally, the 1990 edition is often significantly more expensive than the 1980 or 1985 versions. So much of all 3 of these books are identical that you really only need one, and to me The First Thirty Years is the best compromise.

A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney's Disneyland

I knew I had to include at least one of these books, which were a staple of the theme parks until around 1990. But which one? The late-70s Walt Disney World version, with the globe cover, came close to iconic, but I knew this list would lean too heavily towards Walt Disney World publications. Of the rest, I liked this mid-80s Disneyland book the best, in futuristic silver!

There isn't much that these books need to do besides contain lots of photos and be beautiful, but this particular edition has a dense, elaborate interior which is especially pleasing, with classy calligraphy lettering and some truly unusual photos.

On top of that, this book represents Disneyland at a specific moment in time worth remembering. Back when Bear Country was still Bear Country, before Captain EO and Star Wars invaded Tomorrowland and America Sings was still spinning, and Cascade Peak was still standing. It was a park on the razor edge between eras - with promotional pages in the back trumpeting EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland - before the real changes began.

Disneyland: Inside Story

You know those websites that cover the history of Disneyland? They all originate with this book.

Now, if the Richard Beard EPCOT book is somewhat under-rated, then this book is somewhat over-rated. This is a book which is so influential that practically its entire spine has been disseminated online in the form of trivia posts, "do you know?" articles, tweets and other digital noise. This is not a book you're going to want to because it contains amazing information; there are more compelling books about the creation of Disneyland which have been built on the back of this one. This is a book that's worth owning because it's a beautifully created object.

Just like with EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, Disney produced Inside Story as a prestige product, intended to glorify their park. Once again published by Abrams in an oversize glossy edition, this is a park book which just plain looks beautiful. It's easy to imagine an entire generation of Disneyland kids pouring over it repeatedly (the way I was doing with my edition of the Imagineering book ten years later) before logging onto Usenet to talk Disneyland history. It's arguable that Disneyland: Inside Story, with its embrace of the parenthetical and adulation of Walt Disney, is the foundation of the online community.

Taking a step back, it's easy to see how Randy Bright combined aspects of Marty Sklar's Walt Disney's Disneyland book with aspects of Disneyland: The First Quarter Century to build a better mousetrap. Many of the stories from Sklar's book crop up again here, the same ones you've heard over and over again about cars parked in Frontierland and color blind tractor drivers. What Bright did was he added interviews with the designers who built the place and an extra layer of journalistic integrity. Most Disneyland books report briefly on the doubt and challenges related to creating the park in the 50s, but Bright takes the time to bring them to life in a way which makes them into genuine concerns instead of the quickly disproven complaints of negative nellies.

But it's also worth remembering that Bright was writing this book at an opportune moment in history. In 1987, Walt Disney had been dead a mere twenty years. Indeed, the sections of his book break down into Design, Construction, Very Early Disneyland, Pre-1966 Disneyland, and Post-Disney Disneyland. He even stops to describe the corporate takeover attempts of the early 80s with surprising candor.

The importance of this book means it's often sold for vastly inflated prices by those who primarily sell to Disney fans, but thankfully thrift stores, second hand book retailers, and used library copies are becoming more common. Unless price is no object, there's no reason to pay $60 for this book. It may take some hunting around, but I can't imagine than any theme park fan wouldn't find the effort worthwhile.

Walt Disney World (Souvenir Hardcover)

Here we go. This is the book that began my fascination with Walt Disney World. It's also still the most handsome souvenir book I've ever seen. These are truly obsession-worthy books.

I'm speaking, of course, of the hardcover souvenir books produced at Walt Disney World between 1987 and 1992. They don't really have a title, but their covers are instantly recognizable: embossed art around a central photograph of Cinderella Castle; pages and pages of remarkably classy photographs of the park; big Walt Disney painting in the front pages.

There's a couple of them. The forest green version was the original, published in 1987. The second edition has a cream cover and has been updated to include the Disney-MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, Pleasure Island and the Grand Floridian. After that came the "20 Magical Years" edition, with a cover in blue and silver embossed art.

Here's the good news: all of these books are practically identical in layout and content. The book was expanded over time without sacrificing content. The deep basis for the book is Walt Disney World: The First Decade, of which this is something of an updated, slimmed down version. It's definitely more of a mass market souvenir than The First Decade, with less text and more pictures. But what pictures!

As an extension of the exemplary First Decade, these books really generate a feeling of what Walt Disney World was like before the booming 90s added too many things that were too poorly thought out. Visitors must have thought so too, because there's a lot if these out there, for relatively little money. As far as pictorial souvenirs go, this is amongst the most evocative to lose yourself in, and well worth the minor investment.

Since the World Began

If three of the previous books help to tell the story of Disneyland in all of its variance, then Jeff Kurtti's Since the World Began tries to do the same for Walt Disney World, and more or less it's still the best attempt at delivering the full package.

Walt Disney World is so contradictory and complex that in reality each of the parks could fill its own massive book, and such a collection of books would likely still gloss on the resort infrastructure, the dozens of hotels, Lake Buena Vista, Bonnet Creek, the golf courses, the water parks, and all of the rest of it. As a one-stop shop, Kurtti's book is limited in terms of what it can include, but in terms of giving a complete overview, it's still.... still the best effort available.

There are parts of the book where simply the same old facts and trivia about the parks are repeated, which is where the links between this book and, say, the souvenir hardcover are most apparent - I'm sure Disney provided the same packets and lists of information I looked through as a Cast Member. Since the World Began is not a research project, it's a very well done souvenir book.

Although published in 1996, the book is basically still pretty up to date. It includes sections on Animal Kingdom, the sports complex, and Coronado Springs, and since then (setting aside the expansion of DVC) the changes have not been as extensive as they were in the first 25 years of the resort. Since the World Began could be easily updated for, say, the resort's 50th and be fairly similar.

Somebody still needs to write the Walt Disney World history book extravaganza. I've done my best to fill in gaps in the early years, and much of the rest is a matter of public record. Since the World Began is not the telephone directory-size history book that Walt Disney World probably demands, but it's a really superb overview.

This book is also unique amongst souvenir books in that it's more text than images, by a huge margin.  Not even Disneyland: Inside Story seems so committedly... verbal. The book could probably benefit from a slightly more expansive layout and larger photos, and a slightly more in depth text, but this is the one and only place to start for anyone who wants to start learning about Walt Disney World, for two decades and counting.


Love the Disney World of old? Drop by our Walt Disney World History portal to see all of this site's history articles gathered in one easy to access place.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Fun House: A Dark Ride Documentary

There aren't really too many really terrific theme park documentaries out there - at least ones written and produced with an eye towards objectivity and education. There's always been making-of television specials and the kind of "documentaries" Disney regularly commissions from the History and Travel Channels, but these are as much promotional tools as anything else. But a well-researched theme park documentary that has a point of view and a variety of subjects across a broad spectrum of the industry?

Well, I know of one. It was a large influence on my way of thinking about theme parks, and we're going to take a look at it today.

In the 1990s growing up out in the country, I did not have access to a lot of information about theme parks. I had grown up with our regional amusement center, Riverside Park - now known as Six Flags New England - every few years may be able to make a trip down to Disney. There was no such thing as streaming video, and a dial-up connection to a 56k modem was still years away for me. Amazon did not yet exist, never mind of the sort of information resource I've worked to make this site into. I wanted to learn more about theme parks, but my options were very limited.

Thankfully I was at the time a VHS hoarder and was able to capture this Discovery Channel documentary in 1997. When I watched it some time later, it really took my head off and changed the way I thought about my occasional trips to the orlando mega parks. Suddenly, the two worlds of amusement parks I had known - the regional parks like Lake Compounce and the Orlando extravaganzas - were contextualized as being two different expressions of a shared heritage. It was a revelation. The show was called "Fun House", and there seemingly is very little information available about it.

One could argue with certain points that the documentary makes. Its' two examples of cutting edge attractions are Indiana Jones Adventure and Terminator 2: 3D, and most theme park fans would not lump T2 in with all of the dark rides. At the end, it takes a dive into the world of IMAX films. Yet it's very easy to imagine an updated version of this documentary then moving on to discuss Universal's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man or Disney's Soarin' as examples of rides which build on the boom in themed projection technology from the 90s. The current champion for most cutting edge attraction operating is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which frankly isn't all that different than Spider-Man.

And on the other hand, this hour long show preserves a number of things which are now lost. The Old Mill and Le Cachot at Kenywood are gone, and Bushkill Park's historic Haunted Pretzel was destroyed in the Pennsylvania flooding in 2005. The lights-on tour of the Haunted Pretzel is a high point of this documentary, and worth watching to see exactly what the Pretzel Amusement Company was building in the late 1920s.

Oh, and thankfully the me of 1997 had enough foresight to include all of the commercials. Hop on board the Fun House and let's learn something!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Day at the Columbia Harbour House

When you think about it, visitors to theme parks really never stop moving. We walk from place to place in order to board attractions that whirl us through scenery. Trams, monorails, boats  and buses whisk us where we want to go. Even the theme park parade is whisked past us, efficiently entertaining tens of thousands at once without having to stop. One of the few places this restless forward motion finally ceases is the food court.

Most theme park guests probably spend longer staring at the walls of a food court than they do riding that multi-million dollar roller coaster or zipping through that highly profitable gift shop. And if you have an audience that's going to need to stop and stare for a while at something you built, then you have a choice. You can either present them with something that's totally perfunctory like the Captain America Diner at Islands of Adventure, or you can drop them off in something like Disneyland's Plaza Inn.

Disneyland seems to have created the idea of the fully themed food court. Much of what Disneyland opened with in 1955 could today best be described as a "snack stand", with the noteworthy exception of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship in Fantasyland. But, starting with the plans for New Orleans Square and New Tomorrowland, Disneyland food courts would become increasingly elaborate, a progression which climaxed with Magic Kingdom's 1971 slate of indoor food courts. As has been shown on this site before, I have a special interest in the Adventureland Veranda, but really it's hard to top the Columbia Harbour House.

Indeed, among a certain subset of the historically oriented, the Harbour House is almost one of the secret handshakes. It's the dark retreat from the Florida sun where sea shanties echo through mahogany chambers. What makes the Harbour House so special?

Based on atmospheric sketches by Dorothea Redmond, The Harbour House didn't open until Summer 1972, alongside most of the rest of the facilities in Liberty Square - Olde World Antiques, the Perfume shop, the Heritage House, etc. On early Magic Kingdom guide maps, it's called the Nantucket Harbour House, but by the time it opened, it's location had switched to "Columbia Harbour". Why?

To be clear, there is no such place as Columbia Harbour. I'm fairly certain that it was named in anticipation of the arrival of a new vessel to ply the Rivers of America - a copy of the Columbia at Disneyland.

Years back, Mike Lee identified a three-masted sailing vessel on a 1969 model of the Magic Kingdom, just above Thunder Mesa. What's most interesting about this is that everything on the north side of Liberty Square is designed to suggest a seaside atmosphere - the sailing ship weathervane, widow's walks, and turning beacon atop the Riverboat Landing, the harbour House itself, the Cape Cod-style shingles around the Yankee Trader, and then the seaside horror mansion of the long-dead captain nearby. The rock wall that bounds the river along Liberty Square is referred to in old park manuals as the "Sea Wall".

The Columbia had been canceled and replaced by a second riverboat in 1973, due to the two major concerns facing park operations in this first years - shade and capacity. A Columbia vessel, with an exposed single deck holding around 300 persons, didn't make sense compared to a three-deck Riverboat holding 450 persons. It's a shame, because the Columbia would have complemented Liberty Square and made sense of a lot of the theming on the north side of the land.

That secret history is just one of the fascinations of the Harbour House. Did you know that all of the rooms inside are named? I've had the diagram posted on this site for about eight years, but it's always worth re-posting:

Did you know there used to be a separate serving area upstairs at the Harbour House? It's true. There's still a kitchen back there, and food items and whisked between floors for service downstairs. By the 90s, the upstairs counter was dispensing entirely deserts and soup, and by the mid-90s, the menu has shrunk to only offering clam chowder in those huge bread bowls you can still get at Disneyland. By the late 90s it was walled up, although you can still see the spot where it was - with the telltale tile floor - at the top of the main stairs.

In the years since moving to Central Florida, Harbour House has become my personal respite, favorite food court, and a place I take time to rest in every time I'm at Magic Kingdom. And so after nearly decades of faithful service and reliable atmosphere, I decided it was time to give the Columbia Harbour House her due as one of those things that makes The Magic Kingdom what it is.

Step through those familiar cream double doors and let's spend A Day at the Columbia Harbour House.


I've posted a few of these elaborate edited videos before, and I try to regularly update my YouTube account with new theme park "viewpoints", static views of the park from a fixed perspective. It occurred to me that I've never made clear exactly why I continue this project, or how the "viewpoints" fit into the larger notion of the more elaborate edited sequences.

I got the basic idea from Mike Lee, who spent part of the early 90s plopping down his camcorder in various places around Walt Disney World and just letting it roll. So part of it, yes, is documentation. but there's something else here too.

When you work at Walt Disney World, it re-orients your way of thinking about the place. Visitors rush about constantly; Cast Members stand in one spot, day in and day out. After a while, if you're willing to look to see it, a secret, alternate Walt Disney World opens up to you: one where shifting light, weather, and crowds become as beautiful and memorable as the place they're in. Eventually, you learn to take pleasure more in the way the afternoon summer light bounces off the river onto the riverboat as much as you do the river itself.

This is why Mike Lee's vintage viewpoint videos struck me as worthy of emulation; they seemed to capture what it's really actually like to be there. My "Theme Park Viewpoints" are as much an effort to explain why I like these parks as they are an effort to document. That's why they go on, and on, and on; they're designed to encourage you to start admiring the way light plays off a structure, or the way the crowd ebbs and flows through a space, or the cyclical rhythm inherent to all theme parks.

This video, A Day at the Columbia Harbour House, is so far my fullest attempt to express this aspect of theme parks. I went back, again and again, at all times of day, to record life in the Harbour House for a five month span. I knew if I kept showing up and being willing to stop and look, I could just maybe be there to film that elusive magic the parks sometimes have when the light is just right. Out of about two hours of raw footage, I pulled out this 17 minute meditation of one of Magic Kingdom's holy places.

Stop, look, and listen inside theme parks, as often as possible, for as long as it takes. The secret life of the park is there for you if you're willing to see it.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Ideology of Future World, Part 2

The Living Seas, 1986
Original Sponsor: United Technologies
Original Message: Teaching respect for the ocean's resources, one supposes
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: Tough to say, but there are fish!
Comments: The Living Seas was one of those attractions that had been planned since the start, and as such was designed more around the standards and protocols of a Disney theme park experience than it was the corporate message of any one particular sponsor. This may have as much to do with the fact that its projected theme - deep undersea research laboratories - still have not come to pass, as much as any practical factors. The company they finally got to underwrite the show - United Technologies - is a massive defense contractor, and through the 80s and 90s was perhaps best known for providing things like water heaters to suburban homes. They also happen to own Otis elevators, a company Disney has used since the early 60s, which is probably why the original plan for Neptune to appear and "pushing back" the sea so we can explore it eventually gave way to a elevator ride to the ocean floor.

The Living Seas was, let's be clear here, not great. It did, however, have one of the most potent single things in Future World, which was a the progression of its show. Entering through a space designed to resemble a museum and allowing its audience to settle into a theater very much like the other Future World pavilions, the wall carpeted expanse suddenly gave way to a dreamscape. At the suggestion of the narrator, an animated grid suddenly became a real filmed space, and the theater opened into exactly what was just seen on screen. Although accomplished with the simplest of means, as a theatrical frisson it was extremely impressive.

The rest of the pavilion never quite lived up to the force of that idea, but rather relied on an accumulation of details to make its environment seem convincing. It was very easy to forget that in Central Florida you were nowhere near an ocean, especially not one like the coral reef depicted in Sea Base Alpha. The hydrator trip and "Sea Cab" ride to get into the pavilion set an expectation, and the hydrator trip to be allowed to leave fulfilled it. Some guests even thought the hydrators actually brought them somewhere!

In its day, in an era where popular thought was still dominated by memories of the space program and Star Trek, The Living Seas had an appealingly low-rent sci fi vibe and just enough of a presentational effort to seem reasonably convincing. Yet as time passed and Future World attractions began to change, demanding less thought from an audience that was no longer expected to consist primarily of adults, demand for the attraction and its particular brand of Next Generation-era sci-fi diminished. The Sea Cabs got a new spiel making announcements about Illuminations and all but begging visitors to stay and see the exhibits after disembarking, and then were shuttered in the economic downturn after the Millennium. The addition of Turtle Talk With Crush a few years later sealed the fate of the pavilion, and the whole thing was done over with a Finding Nemo theme in 2005. The pre-show, the hydrators, and everything else from the old theme was stripped out.

What Needs To Change: The basic problem with The Living Seas has always been that the entire pavilion is built around an aquarium from 1986, and it's an aquarium that really has not ever been updated. But even when it was brand new, the sci-fi presentation of the material far outweighed the actual value of the aquarium; the impact had to do more with how it was presented than what it was. As time has passed, the scale and detail of that aquarium isn't quite as amazing as it once was. Many large cities now have much more ambitious aquariums as regional tourist attractions, and those aquariums now have Disney-style rides and 3D shows in them.

All of this makes it hard to know what to do with The Seas. Much of the educational and informational value of the attraction was a little abstract to begin with, being less rooted in any particular vision than it was more generally advocating for undersea research. Today, James Cameron can knock together a more compelling case for the mysteries of undersea life than Disney can.

Status: Questionable
New Sponsor Suggestion: This is a pavilion in need of a reason to exist. Disney is going to have to be involved somehow, and frankly I don't think there's a compelling reason to jettison the Nemo dark ride -- but there still needs to be a larger context for the still impressive features of the pavilion to have real value. There are government agencies that do undersea research, like NOAA and NASA, and perhaps forming an advisory committee of such research centers could pave the way for a re-introduction of the science angle which made the original pavilion credible - and striking.

EPCOT Outreach, 1984
Original Sponsor: --
Original Message: --
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: It's worth remembering that through the 60s, 70s and 80s, one of Disney's most profitable divisions was as a supplier of quality educational films to schools. An outgrowth of the World War II educational film division, in the days when teachers had to haul out projectors and thread up films, the best products came from Disney. EPCOT Outreach was a physical embodiment of this side of the company - in fact, it's possible to argue that the entire of EPCOT Center was built on the back of Disney's two most successful divisions in the late 70s - outdoor recreation and educational films. In its heyday, besides a general purpose question and answer desk, it had a teacher's lounge complete with attraction previews and even lesson plans built around the attractions.

The trouble is, with the opening of the much more exciting Disney-MGM Studios in 1989 - where seemingly every attraction had an explosion - combined with a bad economy, attendance at EPCOT Center plummeted. To take up the slack, WDW heavily marketed EPCOT Center to area schools as an affordable field trip option, and it worked. Practically the whole place became a sea of visiting Florida schools. This led directly to the efforts to court a younger audience with flashier, more exciting attractions which has given us the uneasy mix we have today. EPCOT Outreach ate EPCOT Center alive.

I think this is still a terrific idea for a feature of EPCOT, but for it to mean anything, practically every Future World pavilion has to be updated. Universe of Energy cannot be soft-pedaling info from the 90s. Living With the Land cannot be presenting 80s-era pest control solutions as cutting edge. The Living Seas needs to have an actual point of view.

Incidentally, EPCOT Outreach eventually turned into a sort of catch-all WDW on-site archive, which eventually became the Walt Disney World Research Library. The Library was disbanded in 2014, and
some of the materials shipped out to California - an appropriately sad end to a final scrap of EPCOT.

Status: Disbanded

Listen to the Land, 1982
Original Sponsor: Kraft
Original Message: Industrial food growing methods are the darnedest things
Current Sponsor: Chiquita
Current Message: Industrial food growing methods from 20 years ago are the darnedest things
Comments: Here's where the dissonance between what EPCOT is preaching and reality really starts to set in, and The Land is currently one of the most popular and throughly refreshed of all the Future World pavilions!

Since 1982, concepts such as natural foods, pesticide-free, GMOs, sustainable seafood and farm raised fish have become hot button issues of our time, and Farmer's Markets and produce Co-Ops have become crucial community centers for many - yet nowhere in The Land can one even find an explanation of what Organic food is. Instead, Listen/Living With the Land has been passing on the same outdated information about pest control and farming since 1994. This message made sense for Kraft, whose name has become synonymous with processed foods. But this is one of the few attractions where the entire cultural discussion of its core concept has pivoted away from where it was in the 1980s. The "open a can" school of cooking of the 60s and 70s is a cultural memory. As a reflection of reality, The Land doesn't made sense for the vibrant current American food culture at all.

What Needs To Change: The basic concept of this attraction is surprisingly resilient - you wouldn't think that a boat ride through a greenhouse would be a crowd pleaser, but people still respond to this. And still, scientific trappings aside, the notion of growing crops to be used onsite could be argued to be "Farm-to-Table" before the words even existed as they do today. Urban farms and rooftop gardens around the country are producing organic crops using methods like hydroponics, and the results look very much like what The Land has had since the 80s. This is an attraction that needs not so much wholesale change as a redirected emphasis on where the food discussion will be in 2020.

Status: Relevant
New Sponsor Suggestion: This will result in eye rolling, but what Living With the Land needs is a sponsor with an actual commitment to modern ethical food cultivation.... and it may as well be Whole Foods Market.

Whole Foods has ridden the tide of the local and organic foods movements to corporate heights, and many Whole Foods have become education and community centers. If there's a single company that has the resources and commitment to redirect Epcot's The Land in the modern direction, it's them. Oh, and bring back the "Listen to the Land" name and theme song, please!

Symbiosis, 1982
Original Sponsor: Kraft
Original Message: Man's relationship with nature has always been fraught and complex.
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: See below
Comments: Symbiosis was one of the original EPCOT attractions most noteworthy for its refusal to let its audience off the hook. Designed as something of a corrective to the test-pattern TV eyes corporate angle of Listen to the Land, Symbiosis was beautifully shot and edited - but didn't even seem to arrive at a coherent point. If anything, it seemed to be suggesting that it wanted to arrive at the same point as Godfrey Reggino's "Koyaanisqatsi" without the avant grade trappings.

1994's Circle of Life is chipper and direct where Symbiosis was artful and kind of dull, but again Disney's refusal to update anything at Epcot means it's now as much of an byproduct of a time twenty years past as Ellen's Energy Adventure is. A 90s take on environmental awareness, using Lion King characters and the concept of the "Circle of Life" isn't a bad one, but in execution it doesn't say anything that Fern Gully didn't do about as well (and let's be clear here, Fern Gully didn't do anything well). The 90s in general were a hotbed of "activism" for rainforests and other endangered areas, even if this awareness most often manifested itself in, say, watching Captain Planet and dropping pennies in tin cups, feeling good about doing very little. A somewhat embarrassing reminder of this era, Circle of Life is fine, but there isn't a single point made in the film that isn't done in a much more compelling way at Animal Kingdom.

What Needs to Change: Disney has used the Symbiosis theater off and on to promote "Disney Nature" films, but I think the real question that needs to be addressed is why The Land needs a film at all. As it is, the themes of utopian agriculture, health and fitness, and food preparation were already weirdly spliced across Horizons, Wonders of Life, and The Land. If The Land is going to specifically be about farming - and let's just wave off the relevance of Soarin' here, because it doesn't fit and never will - then the film shown here needs to be on message with the boat ride to really work. If not, Disney should get rid of the theater and use the space for something new.

Status: Questionable

Kitchen Kabaret, 1982
Original Sponsor: Kraft
Original Message: Creating meals with balanced nutrition
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: If you were a fan of the kind of entertainment Disney had produced through the 60s and 70s, then EPCOT Center sometimes seemed amazingly thin on the old school Walt Disney charm. I personally think this opinion was wildly overstated - and there's even less there now than when it opened in 1982 - but Kitchen Kabaret, Journey Into Imagination and El Rio del Tiempo were classic WED rides in a park basically devoted to serious themes.

WED saw this problem coming, and it's nice that they did create Kitchen Kabaret as a call-out to the kind of theater shows that were Disney's bread and butter for a long time. Like the Tiki Room, Country Bears, and America Sings, Kitchen Kabaret was whimsical, lightweight, and kind of insane. Ostensibly devoted to furthering awareness of what was then the USDA's four major food groups, education was a distant second to Kitchen Kabaret's mandate to entertain. Patterned very heavily on the presentation of Country Bear Jamboree, Kabaret was perhaps not as pokey as Mickey Mouse Revue but fairly sedate compared to Davis and Bertino's truly madcap shows. For those of us who were able to visit EPCOT Center before it was torn out, this show as well as Listen to the Land were a sure bet and usually mostly empty. It wasn't until I was an adult that I appreciated the throwback vibe of the Kabaret, but it hardly mattered: the singing food characters were funny and kind of freaky, and the show barely took up ten minutes of your day. It is well remembered for good reason.

The replacement, Food Rocks, was motivated both by the comparatively empty state of most showings of Kitchen Kabaret, and the publication of USDA's convoluted Food Pyramid in 1992. Like most of Disney's 90s output, the "Hip n Edgy" Food Rocks sometimes seemed more like a compendium of "Dad Jokes" than a real show. Besides updating the roster of musical talent from the 40s to the 90s, and the creation of the truly memorably bizarre "Füd Rapper", neither show was really all that comparable nor really all that much about actual food education. Kitchen Kabaret's true advantage was its startling oversized kitchen set and intricately sculpted, very amusing food based stars.

I'm not sure we need the singing food show back at Epcot. Kabaret fulfilled its role of warming up the sometimes inhuman dimensions of Future World, but both shows pointed towards something shaky in conception about Future World. Was The Land about food and nutrition, or the growing and managing of food? Thanks to the Kabaret and Symbiosis, in 1982 it was both - but then why was Wonders of Life necessary?

The original version of The Land as developed in the 70s was entirely about natural environments, a sort of above ground Living Seas, a concept still present in the pavilion today as the "biomes" on the boat ride. With the removal of Wonders of Life, The Land has an opportunity to consolidate its themes under one roof, and even if the concept of how to use and cook food isn't conveyed by singing foodstuffs, the discussion still has a place at the table at The Land.

Status: Questionable

Journey Into Imagination, 1983
Original Sponsor: Kodak
Original Message: Inspiration is at the source of creation
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: The five senses impact our imaginations
Comments: If EPCOT Center had a beating heart, it was this ride and Horizons. Neither ride was perfect - the final third of Journey Into Imagination was far less interesting than its first two thirds, and the climax was more of an anti-climax, built around the concept of film technology, because Kodak was the sponsor.  But unlike the case of Horizons where we have to hem and haw and allow for "well, if this were updated...", Journey Into Imagination requires no excuses.

The same, sadly, cannot be said for its two replacements, but thankfully conveying a sense of the history of this pavilion is beyond the scope of this article. What can be said is that the current salvage version was a fine attempt to brush up an attraction that almost nobody liked. But, by its very nature of being a salvage of an attraction almost nobody liked, the interim version still has a legacy in the current attraction. The conceit of the "Imagination Institute" was never especially obvious to begin with - being as it was a justification for the placement of Honey, I Shrunk the Audience - but nobody designing an attraction about creative activity from scratch would choose to base it around the five senses. The most resonant attractions have a streamlined conception of content and form - Soarin' delivers exactly what it promises on its marquee. The name Journey Into Imagination promises an epic scale that does not logically segue to screens and office doors. This should be one of Walt Disney World's signature attractions. We deserve better.

What Needs To Change: like Horizons, this is one of those attractions where I believe a revival is in order, at least in part. When you speak about Journey Into Imagination with people, what you discover is that people remember and are talking about the first half of the attraction - the Flight to Imagination, Dream Port, Art Room, and Thriller Room. There certainly is no reason to do a full-scale revival of the ending, where the cars go chugging down a hill while blurry photos of the riders are displayed.

If a full-scale version of the Flight to Imagination cannot be recreated, then this section could be relegated to a pre-show room and have the riders board in the Dream Port. Following the Thriller room, what a new version needs to emphasize is that there are today more ways to be creative than the 80s slate of painting, writing, etc. Music can be written and orchestrated at home. Traditional media art has largely given way to digital art. Films can be made on devices that fit in your pocket. I see no reason a modern version of Journey Into Imagination can't be as good, if not better, than the 1983 original.

Status: Badly Needed
New Sponsor Suggestion: Avid? Google? Apple? Microsoft?

Magic Eye Theater, 1982
Original Sponsor: Kodak
Original Message: We Made A 3D Movie
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: Oh, how 3D has fallen - then risen - then fallen again. In the early 80s, back when the cycle of the 3D revival was just starting to wear out its welcome, EPCOT Center opened with Magic Journeys, a 3D film in development for years by Murray Lerner. A world apart from the excesses of something like Jaws 3D, Magic Journeys was something of a hallucinatory art film supposedly devoted to the imagination of a child but frankly more about being strange, sleepy and kind of freaky. Magic Journeys was shortly replaced by the supposedly more exciting Captain EO, a pure slice of 80s cheese, then by the aggressive spectator punishment vehicle Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.

In our own era, 3D has tread an equally strange path. No modern film has managed to rival the success of James Cameron's Avatar, and the domestic market for 3D has continued to shrink. Disney has continued to offer its animated films in 3D for no apparent reason other than that some people apparently prefer it. The much-ballyhooed home 3D blu ray players and televisions have even gone out of production.

It's time for Disney to divest itself of their 3D theaters, not so much because of the home 3D discs or the 3D revival, but because of the state of the theme park industry. Many smaller scale attractions like World of Coke in Atlanta, most major city aquariums, and many moderate size amusement parks offer 3D films. The showing of 3D - and indeed similar novelty film formats like Circle-Vision - is a tradition Disney began in 1955, at the height of the first wave of Hollywood novelty exhibition circuit. It's lasted through two more revivals, three company administrations, and nearly four generations. The Magic Eye Theater has trouble drawing in a crowd, and Disney has trouble coming up with things to fill it with. The theater should be gutted and used as additional space for a new version of the Journey Into Imagination attraction.

Status: Obsolete

The Image Works, 1983
Original Sponsor: Kodak
Original Message: --
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: This is another big one. Of everything that was stolen, appropriated, recycled, and absorbed into the popular culture at EPCOT Center, Image Works was plundered most fully by outside forces. Within a few years of the opening of EPCOT, Image Works' unique hands on whimsy had been copied by nearly every Children's Museum in the country.

What's ironic is that Image Works, along with Magic Journeys, was one of the few EPCOT installations to come with no built-in Message - nothing but a quiet reminder that even the most average day to day activities come with an oft unspoken imaginative construct. A dark, cool, and fun retreat from the heat and bustle of the park, Image Works was one of those rare attractions where everything about the experience on a physical register was innately satisfying. The approach to the pavilion raised questions about those glass pyramids, questions satisfied by the ascent up the spiral staircase (by unanimous agreement the best kind) and the view of the attraction boarding area below. Once upstairs, the view of the park through those glass pyramids was another kind of reward, followed by the movement into the theatrically darkened Image Works space. Even the contrast between the brightness of the Rainbow Tunnel and the darkened Stepping Tones and optical illusion mazes beyond was innately satisfying.

While the current Image Works offers somewhat similar experiences, there are two crucial distinctions which make it less satisfying than its predecessor. The first is obvious: located in a plain room, the ritualistic aspect of the ascent to Image Works is removed. It's the same reason Tom Sawyer Island wouldn't work as well if you could just get there on a bridge instead of a raft. The second is that the "lab" theming steps on the wonder of the original presentation. While the late-90s music conductor game is undoubtably more technologically complex than its 1983 original, showing guests the computers running the operation simply turns the entire operation into an effects demonstration. The original Image Works positioned its effects as theatrical magic, not digital magic, and the appreciation of its audience was palpable.

What Needs to Change: besides moving back upstairs, Image Works needs to be given over entirely to WDI's Illusioneering department and filled with the kind of prototype special effects they regularly develop but rarely get to actually use. Image Works is also an area which would be ideal for an exhibit about the history of EPCOT, from Walt Disney's city to the present day.

Status: More, Please

Lessons From 1982

In our memories, EPCOT Center often seems to be a greater accomplishment than maybe it was. As I hope I've demonstrated here by going through every aspect of it's message content piece by piece, in terms of actively looking towards the future, the park presented ideas which ranged from fantastical (Horizons) to retrograde (Universe of Energy) to incoherent (Travelport?).

Despite this, in my opinion EPCOT Center was the highest, furthest, most effective summit the entire category of themed design has ever scaled since the opening of Disneyland. Despite its questionable corporates messaging and nonsensical product plugging, EPCOT Center was no less scattershot than it is today, yet something for those first twelve years held the center together in a way it does not now. And here at last we will try to pinpoint it.

I. Embrace Warmth and Human Scale

EPCOT Center was massive and monumental. The size of the walk around World Showcase is still enough to make adults cry. The architectural statements of each Future World pavilion were huge and impressive, but never leaned towards brutalism - instead falling into the Henchman abstraction that I like to call "theme architecture". Yet these gigantic blocks were dropped with symmetrical precision into a landscape which perhaps more than anything suggested a bucolic college campus - with ponds, fountains, rolling lawns and spreading trees.

But inside each pavilion, everything suddenly became warm and intimate. CommuniCore offered its visitors handmade art objects like the Population Counter and Fountain of Information, simply there to be enjoyed. Natural daylight, terraced seating areas, varnished wood and wall carpet offered a pleasing sense of tranquility. Subdued lighting and peaceful music complemented the uncluttered, enticing atmosphere. Everything about EPCOT Center's gathering spaces - The Land interior, Communicore, the Fountain of Nations, the Imagination lobby, the World Showcase courtyards - contrasted textures, tactile pleasures, and colors to create environments which invited you to linger.

Through the 90s, the scale of these interiors, once criss crossed with walls, plants and natural dividers, ballooned until most of EPCOT today resembles a cross between an industrial trade show and a Wal-Mart Super Center. Tarps, canopies, and unrelated nonsense clutter the sightlines of those monumental pavilions. Carts, pop-up stands, and pin carts dot every walkway. Of all of the parks, Epcot's aesthetics respond the least well to these sorts of theme park mainstays, and they really should be elimiated. You need to give people a reason to get inside and sit down, to get away from the crowded tarmac.

EPCOT Center's walkways may have been stark and simple, but once you actually got into each pavilion, you could spend an hour or more in air-conditioned comfort without ever stepping outside. To me this comes down to respecting your audience as well as having respect for the human scale. Disney needs to accept what tens of thousands of locals and fans already know: Epcot is the ultimate hang out park. Each pavilion should be honeycombed with small exhibits, fun diversions, little places to relax and maybe get a drink, in a classy, clean atmosphere. If you give people places they like to be, you'll be surprised what they'll reward you with.

II. Maintain the Ecosystem of Aesthetics

This is a big one, and it's a place where Future World needs to entirely start from scratch. As these articles have pointed out, EPCOT was a hive of competing ideas, companies, and ideologies, yet it seemed to speak with a single voice. That single voice is so strong that today is still reverberates in the public mind, twenty years long gone. How many still know it as EPCOT Center, and how many still associate it with some kind of learning experience?

That's power. That's power than usually only public figures usually attain, never mind a dorky theme park peddling corporate messages and sentimental songs in equal measure. And one reason the voice of EPCOT Center still speaks through time to us is because its message was scrupulously, carefully aesthetically organized and unified.

This is something that got stripped out of EPCOT piece by piece in such a way that it was gone without anybody really noticing it was leaving yet. The demise of Horizons and Journey Into Imagination was only the final piece that fell into place, but just as important to reducing the overall impression of a unified whole was touches like replacing the original wooden railings and carpeted walls in The Land with metal railings and painted walls. Yes, the current look of The Land is, on a micro scale, more modern, but it's less human on a macro scale. The paving of Communicore Central and the removal of all of Hench's softening trees, bushes and ponds is another. Bit by bit, piece by piece, Epcot of today is a far bleaker, harsher place than it was even 15 years ago.

All of this is a result of different design agendas within the company. EPCOT Center was unified in 1985 because it was all built at the same time. The Epcot of today is the result of hundreds of different design teams with different project leaders, budgets, expectations and goals. While an organic environment like Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom presents areas where one design tough or another is unambiguously out of place or not, there's no generally agreed upon single system barometer for what EPCOT should look like. It's really easy to, say, replace one railing in one place and bump that single pavilion out of line with the rest. This is how you end up with signs that look like they come from the cover of Dreamcast games or random wavy descending walls, a sure sign of a lost and bored designer.

Disney needs to write this barometer, then. Every sign in Future World must have specific size, color, and font approved choices. Every pavilion must have a dedicated color palette, approved patterns, approved typefaces, and so on. This is why the Future World pavilion icons worked so well as an organizing principle: pictures require no language translation, and sleek icons are even better. There should be no need for flashing LED billboards to help guests find their way to attractions if there's a streamlined, iconographic wayfinding system.
Writing such a manual will inevitably limit the creative freedom of the individual designers creating facilities for Future World, but I cannot see how this would in any way be worse than the garish mishmash we ended up with. The way forward on Future World can be as simple as a start with a strict design standards document, and spread through the rest of the park.

III. Don't Let Them Off the Hook

Disney is really good at talking down to their audience, and their audience really loves it. There will always be a contingent of Disney fans who love toothless pablum like Wishes, but in Future World and EPCOT in general are going to ever coalesce into what it is in the minds of the public, Disney really needs to commit to taking Epcot, and the Epcot audience, seriously.

Taking an audience seriously does not per se mean being humorless or dry. The 1982 version of Spaceship Earth was exactly that, which is why it was reworked to more closely resemble Horizons only a few short years after it opened. Horizons was, despite its eye popping visuals and reassuring message, astonishingly hokey, H.G. Wells by way of Father Knows Best. World of Motion was very funny, Kitchen Kabaret was weird. These attractions offered hopeful apology for their sloganeering, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Symbiosis, The American Adventure, Spaceship Earth '94 and to a lesser extent The Living Seas all put it to their audience to be ready to make the world a better place - they didn't let them off the hook. And despite all of that, EPCOT Center did have a profound effect on a generation of a certain age. Yes, it was kids who dreamed of piloting the Enterprise instead of kids who fantasized about having tea with Belle, but isn't that still an accomplishment?

Even the lightweight Journey Into Imagination packed an ideological punch. For this five year old child, who didn't much care for science and technology trappings, I walked away floored by that attraction's insistence that I could and should use my creativity to "start making new things". Returning to my ranch house in Connecticut, I scrawled out the lyrics to the Sherman Brothers' Imagination song in black crayon on a piece of construction paper and stared at it for days. That attraction instilled in me at age five the awareness that only I was responsible for getting the ideas in my head out into the real world, and on that wave of inspiration I began drawing volumes. The blog you read now is a direct result of that experience. I may be a castle park kind of person, but Journey Into Imagination changed my life for the better.

Thing is, I am in no way alone. You can't swing a cat in the Disney online community without hitting somebody of a certain age who will readily and loudly tell you that EPCOT Center rewired something inside them. This more than anything is the proof in the pudding that Michael Eisner was dead wrong, that EPCOT Center was relevant, and did matter.

These two articles have been intentionally limited in their scope - I haven't attempted to re-concieve what Future World should be for 2020 audiences from scratch, for example, but then again that never was the point. The point was to become clearer and reach conclusions on what Future World was really saying, and how it said them. And the conclusion I've reached is that EPCOT Center came pre-packed with a sort of aesthetic toolkit, and it's a toolkit that nobody has used since the 80s.

But those tools still work. They can still make muddled messages sing and send the next generation home with the sort of elevating experience I had.

Kids need to see a place that doesn't just tell, but show them that science and technology make our lives better - they needed it in the 80s, and they need it today. It's never going to be perfect, but the next generation deserves a demonstration of mankind's better nature. "If you can dream it, you can do it" may not have been said by Walt Disney, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth saying.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Ideology of Future World, Part 1

Oh, EPCOT Center, where are you?!

It's not the first time this opinion has been voiced, and it surely won't be the last. It's been said so much by now that it's become a cliche... the 30-something EPCOT fan, pining away for the lost attractions of yesteryear. The Sci-Fi kid who grew up with NASA pennants and Star Trek episodes on tape may be one of the few types unaccomodated by theme parks, an area so often dominated by nostalgia and fantasy.

That may be part of the mystique,  but more than anything, EPCOT Center was the right product at the right time, the theme park about science and technology that opened during a pivotal era for science and technology. Home computers, video game systems, cable TV and VCRs became creature comforts used the world over, and special effects began their slow encroachment on the rest of movies. EPCOT Center was there, reflecting ourselves back at us, perhaps not flatteringly but basically correctly.

Recently I was reading through Fjellman's Vinyl Leaves and was struck by his coverage of Future World. Fjellman seemed rather enchanted by much of WDW, but in Future World, he came down hard on the corporate sponsors and their (rather naive) messages inside the attractions. And while it's true that a cultural critic, as Fjellman is, is always going to gravitate towards areas of greater thematic gravity simply because those areas actually have something to discuss, it's sort of remarkable from the 21st century to re-read his late 20th century concerns.

For example, in General Motors Transcenter, he sees the Bird and Robot Show as an effort to portray the computerized factory "workers" - then already replacing flesh and blood workers - as positive, helpful, unthreatening servants. Fjellman makes the connection to Michael Moore's then-recent documentary Roger & Me, depicting the economic devastation in and around Flint, Michigan, by GM's abandonment of the area. Well, Flint MI isn't any better off today than it was in 1990, and for basically the same reasons.

But in other cases he seems to be wide of the mark. In EPCOT Computer Central, people play computer games to humanize and put a friendly face on new, threatening technology, and Fjellman sees this as another effort to indoctrinate the public to their new mechanical masters. It's not Fjellman's fault that he didn't see the internet age and dot com bubble coming, but it's interesting in hindsight to see an area of human activity that de-corporatized as it developed, to the point that fighting for digital freedoms is a very real issue in Washington today, an issue that CommuniCore never hinted at.

Yet more than anything, it's truly strange today to read Fjellman going apoplectic over these attractions which today, if not universally beloved, are considered to be classics of the first degree, standard bearers to beat. Most of them were with us for less than the life span of many house pets, yet their legend was grown outsize, torpid. There are fans of Horizons who never saw it in person. And if these classics really weren't so idiotically vapid as they seemed in the 80s, perhaps they weren't all they're cooked up to be today, either. Ideologically, if not technologically, a lot of Future World was very often suspect.

So let's take a leisurely tour of Future World, taking a look at the message of those original shows, their new message (if relevant), original sponsor, and assessing whether these subjects are still relevant, and how the message of Future World could change. After all, a lot can change in thirty years!

Spaceship Earth, 1982
Original Sponsor: Bell Systems
Original Message: The evolution of communication technology will lead mankind into the future.
Current Sponsor: Siemens
Current Message: The evolution of communication technology has led mankind into the future, where you are also a cartoon.

Comments: Of all of the major corporate pavilions at Future World, this one has aged the most gracefully, which is good, because it's inside a structure so complex it can't really be easily removed. Of all of the visions of the future presented at EPCOT Center, Spaceship Earth's came the nearest to actually coming true - even the families of Horizons were doing things like playing dorky transparent organs instead of staring at glowing screens the way everybody actually is today. This also means it's the easiest to update, which means it's gotten the most updates. But that itself is the problem.

The original version of the show, scripted with an assist from Ray Bradbury, had a tone that was dry and vaguely spooky, like many of the original Future World shows. The Walter Cronkite narration and insertion of "Tomorrow's Child" into the finale had the effect of softening the attraction somewhat, and to me the Cronkite version is still the champion for "best overall" version - it had show scenes almost all the way through, with animatronics and compelling visuals from bottom to top to bottom. The 1994 Irons version was simultaneously an improvement and a downgrade - it had an even better script, a stronger message, and an excellent soundtrack. The trouble came shortly before the "180 top" segment, where the sections dealing with an actual communications technology future, still relevant in the 90s, became an extended advertisement for AT&T's new videophone technology, which looked then like the sort of tech gadget that Screech would mock on Saved By The Bell. Worse still, the entire segment was accomplished with static figures in cheap sets which had no resemblance to the rest of the attraction, and were rendered in UV-sensitive paint which didn't always do a good job hiding the fact that most of what you were looking at was just black curtains.

True to tradition, the 2007 reboot both improved things and made them worse. Screens were added to each car and an Innoventions-style quiz game with animated cartoon became the new finale. A new score by Bruce Broughton doesn't have remotely the same impact as the 1994 score, and Judy Dench's narration is the first truly eye-rolling one for this attraction, although the contrast was heightened by coming immediately after Irons' excellent script and delivery. However, the refresh did manage to extend the good segment of the ride - complete with scenery and animatronics - a good 30 feet nearer to the 180 top, resulting in the strongest version of the front half of the ride since before the 1994 edition.

What Needs to Change: The focus of the next refurbishment needs to be extending the quality scenery at least part of the way down the descent portion of the ride. The original version included astronauts floating in space on the 180 top repairing satellites, then as the cars descended they coasted through the center of a space station where a woman directed the operation from a control tower. It was one of the most impressive things in EPCOT. The same effect can be achieved today, even with limited function figures, and Spaceship Earth really deserves that ending, more than it deserves a grid of dots or watching the news on TV. Once through that section, the original Spaceship Earth show converted to the "Tomorrow's Child" segment, right about where the 1994 show was giving you the famous "lightning in space". The final diorama and tunnel has never been attractive, and WDI really needs to commit to putting something cool here.

I suggest bringing back the 1994 score and dialing back on the patronizing quality of the narration for the next version. The in-car screens were prescient for 2007, and debuted mere months after the first iPhones went on sale, but are embarrassingly behind the curve now, and really need to show something worthwhile or be removed.

Status: Still truckin'
New Sponsor Suggestion: As the iconic visual of EPCOT Center, I think it's time for Disney to commit to this one themselves. The trouble with the sponsorship game is that sponsors are always going to want to tell a specific narrative, and inside an already constructed attraction like Spaceship Earth, it isn't an easy thing to do. As the last remaining Future World Classic, this one should be owned and funded entirely by Disney, and it needs to speak for the rest of Future World in a way that the other pavilions no longer do.

Earth Station, 1982
Original Sponsor: --
Original Message: --
Current Sponsor: Siemens, "Project Tomorrow"
Current Message: Thanks for riding!
Comments: I still think this is the most logical spot in Future World for Guest Relations. The original Earth Station included a detail everybody remembers: the computerized reservation central, where you could talk to another person through a video screen! Literally everything about Earth Station, and the WorldKey system, has been replaced by an average smartphone device, and that's fine. But I still think Guest Relations should be moved back to here. It doesn't need to be anything flashy, but this spot was designed for it.

Status: A less technologically advanced Face Time

CommuniCore Futurecom, 1982
Original Sponsor: AT&T
Original Message: A hands-on look at the complexities of relaying information across the country, including the Age of Information diorama, the Information Fountain, Network Control game, Packet Phraser, and Microchip Maze.
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: the true "post show" of Spaceship Earth was one of Communicore's nicest areas, using human-scaled activities and warm, inviting earth tones. On a basic level, kinetic pieces of art like the Information Fountain and Age of Information were fun to look at even if you didn't bother to stick around to figure out what it was all about. Exhibits like this were Future World's equivalent of Magic Kingdom's charming architectural facades, and the lack of them is one reason why Future World currently feels so sterile. If Future World is going to draw people back in to its monumental architecture, it needs socialization hubs like this - with appealing colors, natural light, and actual fun things to look at that don't mean much.

Status: Not quite as relevant, but still cool.

Universe of Energy, 1982
Original Sponsor: Exxon
Original Message: Fossil fuels, despite the extraordinary difficulty of obtaining them, are still the best energy source available, although if something better comes along, Exxon intends to own that, too.
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: We're running out of fossil fuels, but don't worry, we'll think of something.
Comments: The most ideologically weighted of the original Future World shows, let's be honest - Universe of Energy was never especially progressive or prescient. Much of the original show was devoted to explaining, at excruciating length, where fossil fuels come from and how they are harvested. Don't worry, there's also dinosaurs! The 1996 reboot of the show, Ellen's Energy Crisis, put a warm face on the proceedings but pretty much wrote off alternate energy sources as impractical. In some ways, the 1982 show was more honest - we are running out of options with fossil fuels, and the search for fossil fuels has led us, politically, to some pretty ugly places.

What Needs To Change: Universe of Energy is a problem. The basic design of the pavilion is based on a pitch created by production designer John DeCuir and bought by Disney in the 1970s. Technologically, the "moving theater" is probably the most outdated thing at Walt Disney World, running on an absurd jury rigged system that is as crude as it feels. But the pavilion is also an opportunity to create a real classic; after all, those dinosaurs are still pretty awesome.

If the moving theater concept is going to be retained, then at the bare minimum Disney needs to invest in new theater cars and a trackless ride system. With the ability to quickly and precisely move into place instead of waiting for the equivalent of two Commodore 2s to move you into place, it should be possible to present a dramatically reduced version of the original Universe of Energy show - complete with dorky theme songs - in about 15 minutes. The question is, should we really be doing that, even if the film in Theater 2 is entirely new? Because it's still then a show ideologically dominated by a fossil fuels company.

I think running an omnimover through the building is a better choice. This would allow you to retain the dinos and build new scenes around the experience, as well as present a different point of view, perhaps showing how far we've come since 1982 - and how much farther we have to go. Omnimovers are popular and efficient, and a family-friendly, not too long experience could do well today sitting next to two major thrill rides. To do that we need a sponsor with a real vision for a world without fossil fuels.

Status: Still Relevant
New Sponsor Suggestion: Tesla

CommuniCore Energy Exchange, 1982
Original Sponsor: Exxon
Original Message: Fossil Fuels are still the best!
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: This was the place where, freed from the confines of a moving theater, Exxon really hit home their point, offering guests opportunities to turn bicycles and wheels to light up lightbulbs, before offering the news that we would have to keep turning that crank for hours to generate one dollar of electricity! It wasn't terribly exciting and was usually empty, but it was memorable and did a lot better job doing the ideological heavy lifting than Universe of Energy ever has. If you've got to make a point, that's how to do it.

Status: Effective but Questionable

CommuniCore Epcot Computer Central, 1982
Original Sponsor: Sperry Univac
Original Message: Computers are not scary at all, and in fact even you can use them.
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: A wide-ranging overview of the various ways computers can improve and automate our lives, Sperry-Univac's keystone exhibit - The Astuter Computer Revue - closed shortly and reopened as the blandly cute Backstage Magic within just two years, but that was not the only problem. The exhibit overall focused heavily on the institutional and business aspects of computers - after all, this was years before even simple graphical interfaces became common, and nearly a decade and a half before Windows 95. As a result, a lot of Computer Central felt impersonal and utilitarian, where we could see computers doing things like calculating census data. Other computer abilities highlighted by Sperry included things that almost nobody does on a computer these days, like assembling an American flag. The most memorable thing in Computer Central, SMRT-1, was less of a demonstration of computer technology as a traditional theme park interaction exhibit dressed up as a robot.

One component amidst this sea of number crunching and automation did ring true as to where we were going with computers: the Rollercoaster game. Anybody who played this goofy thing in the 80s may not immediately think it as their introduction to CAD, but that is what it was. Computer Central wasn't much interested in the home and entertainment sectors of computing - the sectors which would explode in about a decade - and there wasn't even a single mention of "e-mail" anywhere in it, but I'd wager that between WorldKey, Rollercoaster, and the other games here, more Americans touched a computer inside EPCOT Center than anywhere else in the country during the 80s.

Status: Fossilized

Wonders of Life, 1989
Original Sponsor: MetLife
Original Message: It's a real battle to stay healthy (???)
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: Instead of breaking up each attraction here, I'm going to treat the entire pavilion as a piece, which is frankly really difficult. Of all of the Future World pavilions, Wonders of Life presented the most diffuse message, and had the shortest life span. Most guests simply treated the individual attractions as Magic Kingdom-style experiences, void of ideological ramifications, which was good, because they largely were.

Throughout, the visual theme of an indoor fun fair gave way to militaristic themes in the major attractions. A rather naked imitation of the 1987 film Innerspace, Body Wars was a ride-thru B movie complete with bad acting and sickening special effects. The charming Cranium Command was, in its day, one of the funniest, smartest things at WDW, but it had no more of a message than the Tiki Room - not freaking out seemed to be its main suggestion for dealing with daily life. Elsewhere, Wonders of Life offered a film about human conception and birth, and sold late 80s idea of healthy foods, like frozen yogurt and waffles.

It's probably better to think of Wonders of Life as a reflection of Michael Eisner's ideas about theme parks than any kind of coherent addition to the Future World lexicon. Here garish, Michael Graves-ian colors combine in a circus atmosphere complete with a spinning overhead mobile. Faceless, industrial institutions like the Miniaturized Exploration Technologies and the eponymous Cranium Command invite tourists to do highly unlikely things. Celebrities appear for no apparent reason - hey kids, is that Charles Grodin? What whimsy!

More than anything, Wonders of Life can be paired with The Living Seas as pavilion ideas that Disney created back in the 70s that never really found a great reason to exist. As an outgrowth of some truly strange ideas created for a Life & Health pavilion by Rolly Crump, Wonders of Life was more of its time and less interesting. It was also never quite able to justify how a discourse on healthy eating and exercise wasn't folded into the message of The Land, across the park.

Status: Goofy Gestalt
New Sponsor Suggestion: It's probably better to allow Wonders of Life to exist in its native habitat - the 1990s. This spot should be used as an expansion pad.

CommuniCore American Express TravelPort, 1982
Original Sponsor: American Express
Original Message: --
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: Basically a laserdisc assisted version of a travel agent, minus the ability the actually book a flight, TravelPort is hardly remembered aspect of Communicore, and for mostly good reasons, because it neither predicted nor rode any particular futuristic wave. It did, however, have a big red sphere, and those will always be cool.

Status: Replaced by Airfare Watchdog, Expedia, UrbanSpoon...

Horizons, 1983
Original Sponsor: General Electric
Original Message: If We Can Dream It, We Can Do It
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: This is the big one, and it's the big one for good reason. While the other Future World pavilions were marked by corporate elisions or made ideological hash of their messages, Horizons made the case that the rest of Future World couldn't - that the future was going to be really goddamned awesome, and you were going to float upside down. That message doesn't date, even if all of the other trappings of the show did. And as an index of the rest of Future World, showing us undersea colonies (The Living Seas), cool space stations (Spaceship Earth), and desert cultivation (The Land), Horizons was enormously effective and Future World will never be complete without it.

Here's why Horizons is still relevant today, and it's the reason why every kid who ever rode it, and most adults, have never forgotten it, regardless of how simplified and schematic is was. Kids deserve to be shown a version of the future that isn't a totalitarian society, or an ecological disaster, or a zombie apocalypse, and our society is not and never has been forthcoming with these options. Horizons delivered and made dimensional, tactile, a version of the future which was friendly and reassuring, and people, especially at a young age, deserve to know that positive change is possible too, even if it's wrapped up in a package which is somewhat of a fantasy. Because if you can't be cheerfully optimistic at Disney World, then what the hell is left?

Now, let's be clear: there will never again be an attraction as elaborate as Horizons. Disney was really the only place that ever built things like this, and they're not in that business anymore. Split into four segments - Looking Back at Tomorrow, the two omnisphere theaters, Tomorrow's Windows and Choose Your Own Future - Horizons was a staggering multi sensory epic. But when you get down to it, the key sections were Looking Back at Tomorrow and Tomorrow's Windows, and both of them were built on the fountain of stuff that Disney still does well - dimensional figures and scenery. These segments also have basically solid designs. What wasn't crucial in Horizons was not the specific designs of the clothes, accessories, even music or narration, all of which were pedestrian. What made Horizons work was the astonishing way the omnimovers creeps through and around those pod-like sets, sliding past space stations, and down below undersea cities. This can still be replicated, and given a new look with modern modern conceptions of shapes, colors, clothes, music, and dialogue - basically the same things which keep Spaceship Earth plugging along.

Therefore, even if the full version in all its glory can never be replicated, there is simply no excuse for Disney not to rebuild at least part of Horizons as their prestige family friendly omnimover attraction at Epcot. It's Epcot's Pirates of the Caribbean, and it really needs to be there, if only in part. I suggest putting up a new, condensed version where Wonders of Life is now.

Status: Integral, badly needed.
New Sponsor Suggestion: Horizons was the most Disney thing in Future World, so this is another one that Disney needs to really build and market as their own. Amongst the Disney faithful, a new version of Horizons would be one of the marketing and public relations success stories of the decade, and truly send the message that Disney was committing to Epcot again.

CommuniCore Electronic Forum, 1982
Original Sponsor: --
Original Message: The upcoming computer age will open new doors of communication, maybe
Current Sponsor: --
Current Message: --
Comments: Of anything in EPCOT, Electronic Forum probably got nearest to where we would be in three decades. Televisions in the lobby, ostensibly intended to be used to access news casts from around the world, were most often used by EPCOT visitors to dial up college football games. As Richard Beard memorably puts it in his iconic Walt Disney's EPCOT Center, the Future choice Theater "offer(s) a rare opportunity to get a number of things off your chest and into a computer". The resulting demographic breakdowns displayed onscreen, and indeed the entire concept of electronically voicing opinions, was probably not what visitors carried away from this experience. Since the demographic breakdowns of 170 people were self-reported, Future Choice Theater was likely the first experience many people had with that most modern of internet activities, misrepresenting yourself.

In later years, the emphasis on current social issues gave way to the more benign "Person of the Century Poll", of which the winner was usually Michael Jackson. Because the attractions in Electronic Forum required the cheerful compliance of audiences to remain on message, here already was evidence of the true directions technology would take - subverted for amusement, redirected to watch college football on Sundays, turned into popular culture popularity contests. Anybody who thinks human mischief in the age of the internet is anything but an inevitabile could take a long look at Electronic Forum for a more persuasive alternate view.

Status: Replaced by Social Media

World of Motion, 1982
Original Sponsor: General Motors
Original Message: Private automobiles are more efficient, more useful, and less dangerous than any form of transportation yet invented.
Current Sponsor: General Motors, Test Track
Current Message: Thanks to rigorous testing, private automobiles are safer than ever before.
Comments: Designed at a time when the American automobile industry was imploding due to overseas competition and embroiled in expensive and publicity damaging scandals concerning chemical dumping and labor, World of Motion had next to nothing to say about the future, and spent most of its time concentrating on the past. That past, as designed by Marc Davis, was supremely goofy and fantastical, as various hazards and inconveniences - irate mules, sea serpents, flying carpets, airborne pigs, and traffic cops - impede the frivoulsly liberated human population's desire to go for a drive in the country. This wasn't so much a history of the automobile as a history of getting from place to place, ending in a vision of the future where paved multi-lane highways run every which way into the horizon - a future where no invention will ever replace the family sedan. Exxon, over at the Universe of Energy, would likely have approved.

What Needs to Change: The current version of Test Track, although less of my kind of ride than World of Motion was, is one of the few Future World pavilions to really feel like it has a place in Epcot. It has a corporate sponsor, a unified aesthetic, and is pushing an agenda, and doing a pretty good job doing it. Although I really miss all those those Marc Davis animatronics and huge sets - remember how massive the oak tree in the bicycling scene was? - Test Track is still on message. In a world where EPCOT Center is re-concieved from the ground up for 2016 audiences, an entire pavilion touting the personal car would not, I feel, make the cut, but for the popular and effective ride, this one should stay for now.

Status: Unkillable

TransCenter, 1982
Original Sponsor: General Motors
Original Message: Cars and combustion engines are great!
Current Sponsor: General Motors
Current Message: Buy some stuff, even a car!
Comments: Much like Energy Exchange over at CommuniCore, TransCenter does the ideological heavy lifting for General Motors. While Exxon let you turn a crank and see how insignificant your personal body power was compared to the merest blip of electricity, GM took a comic approach. The Water Engine took place in a darkened room where screens appeared behind the lowering cylinders of a combustion engine. While a laconic cowboy - the absolute embodiment of 80s American patriarchy - insists that he'll stick with the combustion engine till something better comes along, various crazy cartoon characters demonstrate their engines until a Mad Scientist-type turns on a "Water Engine" that explodes and wrecks comic havoc. Funny, charmingly animated, Water Engine still played directly into the prejudices of Americans and General Motors.

Steven Fjellman saw much that was ominous in The Bird and Robot Show, and given that his book was written in the immediate aftermath of Roger and Me, it's not too surprising. It's perhaps better, and more accurate, to see Bird and Robot as an outgrowth of traditional Disney theater shows like Country Bear Jamboree and Tiki Room, similar to the way that Kitchen Kabaret sought to add some old school Disney charm to to sleek, corporate EPCOT programme. WED basically treated the robotic assembly arm as the most advanced audio-animatronic possible, and paired it with a model of one of their earliest animated figures - a Tiki Room bird - to show off how fluidly it could move, lift objects, perform tricks, etc. Three decades on, the automation of labor has only increased, and is rapidly cresting the horizon where social change is going to need to happen to keep pace with the displaced population of laborers. Much like over at Expo Robotics, the robots are now the whole show.

The cleverest idea in TransCenter, and the one that really stuck, was the notion to require riders to exit through an automobile show room. Everyone remembers the Aero 2000, a machine designed to reduce wind resistance, but the Aero was a fantasy car and acted as the lure to keep people walking through the exhibit. Further along came more practical, potentially salable items such as the GM Lean Machine and, most importantly, next year's GM models.

What Needs to Change: The 1998 reboot into Test Track retained a few of the post-show elements. There was a simulator type attraction called Time Chasers, and a new gift shop which absorbed the back part of the automobile show room. The cars were instead moved forward into the exhibit area; guests still walk past the areas where Bird and Robot and Water Engine played. Given the fact that Test Track has a height restriction where World of Motion had none, I find it impossible to believe that films and exhibits in this are wouldn't be more popular with waiting families than the original menu of attractions were. In this case it's a matter of relocating or condensing the shop to make room for some informational activities that supplement the on-ride messages of safety and reliability.

Status: More memorable than you'd expect from a car company.

Come back next time for the rest of Future World!