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Last week, Epcot quietly unveiled their newest attraction, an exhibit inside Innoventions East called Storm Struck: A Tale of Two Homes. The show is only in beta-testing, and may not be considered fully opening for another two-three weeks.

Before we get too far with an analysis, let's look at a press release from State Farm for some details of the experience and the intention:

In late summer, visitors to INNOVENTIONS at Epcot at the Walt Disney World Resort will be able to experience Storm Struck A Tale of Two Homes. This exhibit, presented by the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, Inc. FLASH with its partners Renaissance Reinsurance, Simpson Strong-Tie and legacy partner, State Farm Insurance Companies, will allow participants to endure the ultimate virtual storm and watch it from the comfort of their "home." Storm Struck is aimed at raising awareness about safer, stronger, more weather-resistant homes. For 10 years, State Farm has been a legacy partner of FLASH, which is dedicated to promoting disaster safety and property loss mitigation, and we are proud to be a sponsor in this experience.

Representatives from State Farm were at INNOVENTIONS at Epcot last week as Leslie Henderson Chapman, President of FLASH, invited VIPs and Mickey Mouse unveiled the creative concept for the experience. "State Farm has been committed to educating the public about safety and loss prevention," said Underwriting Vice President Rod Matthews. "Our involvement in this exhibit aligns well with our mission of helping our customers manage the risks of everyday life, recover from the unexpected and realize their dreams."

As they first enter the Storm Struck venue, guests will watch a variety of weather videos and reports on an upcoming storm. They will then enter a theater designed to make the participants feel that they are sitting in their own house they can even see out into the backyard. This sets the scene for the participants to watch a storm that is coming. Through interactive technology and special effects, guests will experience the sensation of the storm getting stronger and be able to watch and feel as the storm passes by "their house."

After the storm, participants will go through a series of interactive experiences that will educate them on building safe, strong homes as they rebuild their "virtual home" and see how it would withstand another major weather event. Viewers will see messages and information from all of the sponsors, including State Farm, throughout the experience. The exhibit draws on information that was presented in the State Farm-produced FLASH video A Tale of Two Houses. This video tells the story of two Florida homes side-by-side during Hurricane Charley in 2004. One home, built in the 60s, did not survive, while the other, constructed using building codes post-Hurricane Andrew, did.

While Floridians may be used to strong storms, only a small percentage of the visitors to INNOVENTIONS at Epcot are from the state. The majority of guests are from other areas around the nation and worldwide, which means for many, this would be the first time that they are experiencing such severe weather. This makes the exhibit an opportunity to educate and inform them about severe weather mitigation. "This exhibit will allow people who have not experienced these types of storms to understand what other people go through and recognize what they can do to make their homes safer and stronger through construction practices," said Jamie France, P&C Underwriting Manager. "We try a number of different ways to educate people, but getting them to take action is always the hardest part," he added. "An educational venue with an entertainment aspect will hopefully draw attention and interest to the issue and ultimately motivate folks to take action."

At the end of the experience, visitors will leave the theatre but will have the chance to learn even more. Interactive displays and devices will allow guests to understand the weather perils that affect their local areas. This information will be accompanied with mitigation messages. "This exhibit allows people to experience strong weather without actually going through the devastation of a storm," Matthews said. "It's safe, educational and fun."

The press release is fair in describing most of the details, though the details about "our house" are somewhat garbled. We watched the storm from inside a dwelling - our windows get shattered - but the house we "fix up" between storms is off to the left and outside the windows, so the question of ownership is a little weird. But that's a minor detail. What's it like in broad strokes?

Slightly cartoony architecture, in my opinion.

In broad strokes, I like it. It's a loud, in-your-face kind of attraction, and it certainly is a lot more fresh and relevant than the forest of trees that used to sit here, forlorn and empty of any audience, in this corner of Innoventions. But the show is not perfect. It may have done the job of making me think about hurricane safety in MY OWN home, but I'm a Florida local (who therefore cares more about hurricanes) and a weekly visitor to Epcot (who therefore cares more about having constantly new things in Innoventions). I'm not convinced this show will be nearly as relevant for the out-of-state folks, and I'm not sure infrequent visitors would care to dedicate as much time to this show as was necessary for the queue, the long sales pitch in the middle, and the post-show. In short, it will be a winner for certain visitors, but not all.

The queue area is deceptively small, and you might think the wait would be pretty minimal. But like the "Don't Waste It!" garbage display just up the road, the line takes longer to sit through than you're imagining based on appearances. Even a short line actually means you'll have to wait through two intervals, each lasting 12 minutes. The folks in the front half of the switchback are in the corral for the next show, and since each show takes 12 minutes, their wait is 12 minutes by that point. If you're behind the nylon TensaBarrier cut off point, you've got an additional 12 minutes to wait.

Our experience on a Sunday afternoon was a 24 minute wait (more or less), a 12-minute experience, and another 10-15 minutes in the post-show. That's almost an hour out of the day. As locals and weekly visitors, we didn't mind. In fact, we were thrilled with the fact that it was something new and lasted so long. But part of me does wonder if a visitor who comes less often will be just as thrilled to take up an hour of the day at Epcot with this attraction. It's a pretty minor experience, all told, and nothing at all like the physical thrills of Test Track or Soarin'. Certainly if I were a once-a-year tourist, I'd rather spend 100 minutes in the Standby line for Soarin' than 50 minutes at this corporate exhibit.

The press release mentions videos in the queue warning of a coming storm. This wasn't operational last week, but will presumably be ready in time for the grand opening.

The Cast Members were quick to point out they were in "test and adjust" mode (they even used the in-house term "test and adjust"), and that things might break. We didn't notice any particular failures, though our host joked that his spiel was in test and adjust mode too, and amusingly, he really did flub something in the middle of the show (he thought the screen behind him was displaying a video about doors, so he went on and on about doors, but the screen was showing something about windows). He passed it off well enough, though.

Just a logo, for now.

At present, the queue is somewhat boring. A Storm Struck logo bounces around one video monitor, and otherwise, you just look around you at the somewhat stark architecture. You are issued the standard polarized 3D glasses you've seen elsewhere at Disney, though they didn't give one to our two year old. Apparently they strongly prefer that small children not receive the glasses, since the show is not only loud (we got multiple warnings on that one), it also simulates flying glass coming right at your eyes, and the thinking is that young children would be better off seeing it all blurry.

The warnings about loud noises and intensity came pretty often. I could only think of Dinosaur and Mission:Space as other Disney examples where warnings have to come so often. Disney's built such a reputation for child-safe family entertainment that when they deviate from the formula, they have to be extra vigilant about warning families, and they were indeed so.

In case you didn't know, it's a simulator.

Finally, you get ushered inside to a stationary movie theater. It's a 3D movie and a "simulator" of sorts, but there's no motion. Banks of hard metal benches face a V-shaped pair of oversized screens. There was something unfriendly about the hard edges and the hard angles in the room (and, I suppose, those hard metal benches). Perhaps the design was intentional, to deny comfort in the face of the coming storm?

Your CM host comes in the room with you, and stands off to the side. We nervously took up space at the far end of a bench, ready to bolt out the exit doors if the younger child needed escape, but it turned out not to be necessary. He sees fireworks all the time, so maybe he's not typical of almost-two-year-olds, but he was not scared by the loud noises and sudden attacks toward us (more on that in a second).

Two screens.

We're told to put on our glasses, and with only a perfunctory introduction, the movie was turned on. We have an unmoving view out of the screens, which apparently are meant to symbolize large windows of a house in a suburban neighborhood. To our left is a smaller house, with most of our view dominated by its garage. Off to the right are some other houses, especially a two-story one. The movie is narrator-free, and just shows a storm bearing down quickly. It goes from blustery and rainy to hurricane forces in just a couple of minutes, so it's accelerated beyond actual speed for the approach.

As the hurricane grows in strength, items fly around, trees are uprooted (one crushes a car), roofs buckle, cave, and fly away, and windows break, including the ones we are "looking" out of. Each time a major event occurs on screen, it's communicated very loudly, and with crashing sound effects, in our theater. Several of the events are punctuated with water misters fired, with some velocity, into our faces (it's not clear why a tree falling down would mean the theater has to "sneeze" in our faces, but there you have it). You can even see a tornado form off in the distance to the left and approach.

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2008 Kevin Yee

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