Epcot: Exceptional, Acceptable, and Regrettable

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Epcot, Features, Samland

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Published on June 20, 2013 at 3:00 am with 36 Comments

Epcot has long been a favorite of mine. As you can imagine, I have been somewhat obsessed with Walt’s original vision, if you know what I mean (I did write the book Walt and the Promise of Progress City). I also enjoy the permanent World’s Fair that took that project’s place.

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This was the first time in a long time that I have been to the park without some special event going on. No Food and Wine, no Flower and Garden, and no holiday celebrations.  I had forgotten what the place felt like just on its own. It was an odd sensation.

Using my scale of exceptional/acceptable/regrettable, I will walk through my most recent experience. Let me know if you agree or disagree.

REGRETTABLE: WDW MAPS

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As an urban planner, I have always been fascinated by maps. You can tell so many stories with one. A good map can guide the guest through unfamiliar surroundings using representations of iconic landmarks. The best seem to also understand the guests point of view.

Recently, WDW updated their maps so that they look like the ones found on the internet. This means they have placed North at the top. Now, on a typical map, this is just fine. For the Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, this is no big deal. That is how the park’s are organized. The story for the other parks is a different matter completely.

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The Epcot map places the entrance and Spaceship Earth at the top. The map does not tell you where to go; it tells you where you have been. I watched as guests turned their maps upside down so it made sense. The Epcot map actually is somewhat close in scale when it comes to the attractions and land mass. The result is a rather sparse map suggesting there is a lot of open space between the pavilions of the World Showcase. I don’t think this is what Disney intended.

For Disney’s Hollywood Studios, a goofy place to begin with (no pun intended), the map makes no sense. If you ever felt the park’s layout was just an afterthought, the map will only reinforce the feeling. In some ways, you can make out the giant hidden Mickey, however, in this version he is sporting a cone shaped nose much like Jack of Jack in the Box. This is a case of where the maps were not broken and did not need to be fixed.

ACCEPTABLE: PLAY IT SAFE GAME IN INNOVENTIONS


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Whether you like Innoventions or wish Communicore was back or just think these big barns could be used for a more creative purpose, the attractions inside represent the state-of-the-art of Corporate interactive public communication. I spent a little time checking things out, wishing they still had the Innoventions road maps. Those seem to be a thing of the past.

The Play It Safe game is intended to teach families about fire hazards in their home. The premise is pretty simple. You can play as an individual (as I did) or in a small group. A handful of groups are clustered into either the red team or blue team and the competition begins. Each group will be sent to a room inside of a house with a special flashlight. Shine the lit on a display and it will illuminate either hazards or regular household items. If it is a hazard, you push a button and score points. Hit the button on the wrong item and you lose points. There is a clock to put the pressure on and every few minutes you move into another room to start all over.

It works. Each team member must place their light on the object for the scoring to happen. This forces the little ones to understand what their parents may have found or visa versa. There is that second of shared knowledge acknowledged that reinforces the message.

ACCEPTABLE: INNOVENTIONS REST AREA

It seems when the weather gets really hot & muggy or it is raining, Innoventions does not seem like such a bad idea. I am not sure they meant this, but there is one spot that rises above the rest. The Test The Limits game is very popular with children because it gives them a chance to make a lot of noise, feel like they are destroying things, and gives them a chance to create a lot of havoc without bothering anyone. What better way to keep the young ones occupied while the parents take a seat near by one of the curved benches near the exit. There is a tremendous lack of seating within Innoventions and this is an example of doing it right. As an example of doing it wrong….

REGRETTABLE: THE INNOVENTIONS GAME WALL

So your parents pony up almost $100 to get you through the front gate in Epcot. What do you do? Race to Innoventions and start playing video games that are already on the market. Even though each station had a guest playing games, you would think they could find a better use of thier time while on vacation. Plus, the seating for adults is just awful. A couple of benches tucked to the sides and that is all. Maybe it is just me, but this is like watching kids wearing headphones and listening to an iPod while touring the parks. You have to ask yourself, are they not stimulated enough already?

ACCEPTABLE: THE SMOKING AREA
IN EPCOT’S FUTURE WORLD           

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Over the years, Disney has tried to cover up the 1970s modernist design sensibilities from Epcot’s Future World. Thankfully, they have not been completely successful. My favorite bathroom in all of Walt Disney World can still be used at the Odyssey at Epcot. Another spot I discovered can be found if you go to the left side of Future World (Mission Space, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, and Test Track) on your way toward Mission Space. Turn left and you can see an outdoor space designed in the Brutalist tradition. What appears to be a canyon carved into the ground is now a smoking area with shade. This style of public space was very popular at the time. It is as if the Earth shifted in sharp angles to create a sunken garden. Kind of. In general, I have noticed that many of the smoking areas within Walt Disney World tend to have wonderful views and this is no exception. Next time you have to light up, step back in time.

EXCEPTIONAL: MISSION SPACE PAVILION PLAZA

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This is not a ranking for what is inside. Instead, it is a look at the actual building. Most guests either go to the left to enter or the right to walk up the slight ramp toward the FastPass machines. In between in a plaza that I have rarely seen anybody go. Sure there are a lot of people standing on the rocks toward the front for a photo opportunity but few venture into the actual plaza. What a wonderful space. The soaring wings of the building seem to wrap around you. You also get an understanding that these structures really are wings with flush rivets. There is a sense that you are apart from the rest of Epcot, and have entered an outdoor room. It is not the most people friendly space. No where to sit, no shade. But go for a few minutes while Test Track is down. Another Disney zen moment.

EXCEPTIONAL: NEW ENTRY PROCEDURES

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I stopped off at Guest Relations to have my annual pass processed so that I could use the electronic kiosks to enter the park. Some 25 minutes later, the very nice lady was able to accommodate my request. As many of you already know, you can enter any WDW resort using a paper ticket, a plastic ticket, or getting your ticket scanned. Those poor slobs in the other lines that are so long. But the scan lines were quick. It only takes one Cast Member to watch over 4 people tapping their cards or wristbands and placing a finger on the scanner. The system was efficient and quick. Not sure about the whole Disney NextGen thing, but this is an improvement.

THE LIGHTNING ROUND

EXCEPTIONAL: THE CREW AT ELLEN’S ENERGY ADVENTURE
My trip was during the time that Hurricane Andrea was rolling through Florida. I am from California. I have never seen that much rain. Wow. But I digress. I was in Ellen’s Energy Adventure when lightning hit and the power went out. I was in the final room at the time and the film was very close to the end. The CMs did as they trained, made all the right announcements, so nobody was concerned. Then the film recycled. This time the audio was off. So two very entertaining CMs reenacted the audio portion of what we had just seen. Yes, they have seen the film a few too many times. People were rolling and most of us really did not want to leave. Brilliant.

REGRETTABLE: SPACESHIP EARTH

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Not going to talk about it right now. Just going to remember to bring an iPod with Jeremy Irons or Walter Cronkite next time.

REGRETTABLE: THE SEAS WITH NEMO & FRIENDS

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Let’s see. The submarine ride without the water. The cartoon fish at the end are so brightly colored compared to all of the grey fish in the water, the contrast is remarkable. Big empty fish tanks.

ACCEPTABLE: LIVING WITH THE LAND
For some reason, I just love this ride. My first visit to Epcot was in 1996, so I missed the golden era of edutainment. I would like to think that this is the one glimpse into the past. I am not sure why they raise baby alligators. Could somebody answer that?

EXCEPTIONAL: CLUB COOL

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Free cold beverages and Beverly for the inexperienced. What could be better?

 

EXCEPTIONAL: MY FAVORITE ONE-TWO PUNCH
On every visit to WDW, I make a special effort to catch The Voices of Liberty in the rotunda of the American Pavilion and take in The American Adventure. This may be my favorite way to spend one hour in all four parks.

REGRETTABLE: CONSTRUCTION AT MOROCCO
So sad. I can see a future where the only way to have a good seat to see Illuminations (or its successor) is to pay an upcharge for it. Does this mean the restaurant out back goes away? Who is going to make that trek when the new kid opens out front? And do they have to cut down the trees on the little island in the lagoon to improve the view of the fireworks show?

EXCEPTIONAL: IMPRESSION DE FRANCE
My favorite travelog film at Epcot. Canada is funny (I like addition of Martin Short). China is beautiful and exotic. But France is just perfect. Incredible music, a new crisp, clean digital print, and wonderful scenery. The movie seems to be timeless. Bill Zanetti suggested to me that you rarely see a car and that helps. Mostly, it is the combination of music and ageless vistas that makes for one of the most pleasant experiences in Epcot.

As you exit, the shop has been expanded to include a much bigger bakery with a much larger selection. Now you can buy sandwiches and other items and sit indoors. There is a new ice cream shop with one of the worst policies. After you pay for your ice cream, you must choose your flavor, which is fine. However, you cannot sample one of the exotic flavors before buying it. And even after you have paid for some, you cannot sample any of the others. The ice cream shop was empty virtually every time I passed by.

That is my story. What is yours?

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About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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36 Comments

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  1. I have to say I love Epcot, but as an urban planner, I thought you might have mentioned this… When I am in future world, the different pavilions feel too far apart. I feel like I walk a great distance to get the next one. Since most of the real entertainment is going on in the inside of each Future World pavilion, I think they could have placed them closer together. Conversely, the World Showcase pavilions are so close to each other that one themed country feels like it “bleeds” into the next one. It is nice for the feet, however, in that one does not have to walk that far to get to the next one.

    These are just subtle observations, but when I was at Epcot the first time, I really got annoyed that II had to walk so far just to get to the next pavilion in Future World.

    Thanks for the great observations.

    • Well those great spaces you mention are World Showcase expansion pads for additional countries that were never built.

    • I remember reading that John Hench wanted Future World to feel spacious as a counter point to the pavilions. Because the experience inside the pavilions was going to be fairly heavy with information and entertainment, he felt that guests would need time in the beautifully landscape grounds to find their balance again before entering the next pavilion. I find this to be an interesting approach to planning a theme park. It’s ironic that they eventually tried to “enliven” these respite areas with what is now considered to be “clutter”.

      Future World was also designed with additional “pads” for future pavilions in-between the original ones. Wonders of Life was built on one of these. The Great Movie Ride was once considered for one of these pads. I assume that once these were built then Future World would feel more filled-in.

  2. E.P.C.O.T.

    Exceptional

    The jumping fountains at Imagination! Always a delight. Also have to second the combo of Voices of Liberty & the American Journey.

    Acceptable

    O Canada!
    Three Caballeros meet-n-greet.
    Katsura Grill near Japanese pagota

    Regrettable

    No workable transport system! Walt showed them how with Disneyland (wheel and spokes), but they didn’t learn. The monorail just breezes through without a stop, and the future has no other transit but some boats across the lake. No wonder cast members say EPCOT stands for Every Person Comes Out Tired.

  3. I agree highly with the idea of a transport system. Epcot is our favorite park, there is just so much to see and do (and eat!)… on our last trip we spent more time there than anywhere else.. and I would love a monorail stop at the world showcase which is where we spend most of our time. Even a tram would be wonderful. That walk in and out from the front gates is a killer.

    Living with the land is a must do for us, we usually wind up riding more than once since it’s hard to catch the details on one trip. It’s always different too, with new things going on and projects in different states of growth. I imagine the alligators are part of the “sustainable resources” thing they have going on, they are a source of both meat and leather. We also adore Chip and Dale’s Garden Grill, another must do every trip. So unique with the rotating scenes, good food and lots of it, and the characters are always wonderful and you get a lot of time with them.

    I guess the biggest issue I have with Epcot is the feeling that there is so much more they could be doing with the space they have.. and the issues with viewing illuminations. It’s so hard to get a decent spot, so crowded once you do.. and it’s at the very end of the night during normal operating hours so there is a huge crush of people exiting right after and the resulting lines at the monorail or bus. They need an hour or two of cushion after to allow the crowd to find another attraction, grab a bite to eat, etc and leave in a more organic fashion.

    • The gator part of Living with the Land can get sad I’d you ride enough times. Eventually, the Gators disappear, and new miniature gators take their place. Recommendation: no emotional attachment.

      As far as Illuminations goes, one trick I’ve started using lately is to walk the opposite direction of the major crowd flow after the show. If I’m watching from Mexico (my favorite spot) I exit World Showcase through Canada. It’s fun to see the park emptied out, plus, the dimmed, colorful lighting and soundtrack sticks around for quite a while after the show. There’s no real rush to get folks out of the park. I remember being scheduled till 1130 when I was a greeter, granted that was quite a few years ago. Epcot takes reservations pretty late, so, unless you have shopping or pressing matters at the hotel to take care of, meander and casually make your way to the entrance. The crowds will thin out, and you’ll get a really neat unique impression of a beautiful place.

  4. Who else misses the Double Decker busses? I know I do.

  5. I’ll take this in reverse order:

    Regrettable: The concept of Epcot as a theme park with a unified and carefully coordinated message is no longer a priority for Disney. It has now become a collection of disparate attractions that don’t attempt to become anything more than the sum of their parts. It could be argued that the original shows had little to do with each other but at least there was an attempt to create a sense of cohesiveness. I think that approach to presenting Epcot as something collectively huge and inspiring is what created the “vibe” that is referred to so often. Disney seems to have given up on us as sophisticated guests who can appreciate something that attempts to be more than just a theme park.

    Acceptable: Despite some of the poor results, there at least has been an attempt to keep adding to Epcot and updating the attractions. It would feel much more sad if it had been allowed to become stagnant. But then again if nothing had been done we could still be enjoying, World of Motion, Horizons, Communicore, and Imagination!, so it’s a wash.

    Exceptional: The original design of the park is so strong, the genius of it still shines through all the subsequent alterations. It really wouldn’t take much to make Epcot relevant again — just a design team with with vision and an understanding for what Epcot was supposed to be. It would be a fantastic opportunity.

  6. As 5 time visitor, Epcot is cool. If you are a card wearing pass holder I would guess it is not. HP mission is cool because they keep telling you that you are going to die on the full featured experience. The test track is boring. The world pavilions are cool, and out dated.
    Disneyworld is so big, where do they invest in????

    The park needs to keep up, so does the MK, Hollywood, and DAK. The parks are a package. Probably to much for the current team to handle.

    East coast VS West coast. follow the Disneyland model. Sharp up keep, and well this in not true new rides.

  7. Here is my personal take on Epcot. I’ve been there about 10 times from 1995-2012 (and again in 2014!). I was very young my first couple of times, so I can only really critique the more recent Epcot.

    Acceptable- Spaceship Earth: I’m not crazy about all of the new parts added in the most recent refurb. I would agree that the ending needed to be changed as the future part didn’t seem so futuristic anymore. I also like that they added the 70s science part (although I know that addition is highly controversial in the web community). I don’t like that they replaced a lot of the ending part of the ride with the interactive story rather than more scenes. I still love the original scenes though and so I will still ride it whenever I go to Epcot and give it an acceptable rating.

    Regrettable- Journey Into Your Imagination with Figment: I was small the first time I went on the Figment ride and absolutely fell in love. The little purple dragon won my heart. I remember being in tears when we went to Epcot again and it was closed for refurbishment. However, the refurb is TERRIBLE. I never truly realized how much I disliked the new version (which I know there was another one in-between that didn’t have Figment in it at all, but I didn’t ride it and I know I wouldn’t have liked it because Figment wasn’t in it) until I rode it again in 2012 and then watched the old version on YouTube. The new ride is so much less involved and I’ve always marveled at the intricacies of Disney Imagineering. Plus, the old ride used to be 2 levels and the new ride only uses the ground level.

    Exceptional- Mission:SPACE This has to be one of the coolest theme park attractions I have ever experienced. It is so realistic and intense.

    Acceptable- Soarin’: I would enjoy Soarin’ a lot more if it wasn’t California landscapes. I understand copying attractions between the two properties, but I wish they could have made a different video for the Florida version.

    Acceptable- The Seas with Nemo & Friends: I thought it was cute and honestly I think it’s good to have something geared towards the younger age group in Epcot since it usually gets tagged as a park geared more towards adults.

    Regrettable- Captain EO: Captain EO was retired and should have stayed that way. If you go see it, you will agree. Nuff said.

    Exceptional- World Showcase: The entire concept and execution is spectacular. Bravo. I love the World Showcase.

  8. My two cents: Epcot/Regrettable? Ellen’s Energy Adventure. The overlay is cheap, and it’s way outdated at this point! Alex Trebek still has a mustache for gawd’s sakes!