Last week, Disney finally brought down the hammer and announced that Captain EO would close on December 6. Fans were upset by this news though probably not surprised. After enjoying the 1986 Michael Jackson attraction in a nearly empty theater in 2011, I was stunned that it lasted another four years. It returned in 2009 following Jackson’s death and felt like a cool reminder of childhood visits to EPCOT Center. Even so, the writing was on the wall for this 3D film. The Orlando version was the last one still running, so it was just a matter of time.
What made the Captain EO news frustrating was the learning about its replacement. Instead of creating a new 3D film or something entirely different, Disney will use the Magic Eye Theater as a promotional vehicle. The choice makes sense from a business perspective; it sells the brand and buys them time to create something new. On the other hand, placing Pixar and Disney animated short films into Future World feels short-sighted. This move sells the cynical narrative that Disney cares little for Epcot beyond its use as a marketing tool.
EPCOT fans that were already upset by Frozen Ever After were not happy with this news, and I don’t blame them. Future World needs serious work, and Imagination is the perfect spot to start. The jokes write themselves about the limited thinking in showing the short films. Captain EO was dated, but there was something unique about it. We saw Jackson at the height of his power, and its earnest silliness remains infectious.
The Murky Middle
Unlike the Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, EPCOT Center began its existence as a complete park. Disney went far beyond its original budget and was still working out the kinks in 1982. The park received frequent updates during its first decade including two new countries in World Showcase, several large Future World pavilions, and popular rides like Maelstrom and Body Wars. Solid growth continued during the ‘90s and early ‘00s with Test Track and Soarin’ joining the fold. The park was evolving but still felt important to Disney management.
Soarin’ opened in 2005, and it represents the last significant addition to the park. We’ve seen updates to Spaceship Earth and Test Track, and Nemo took over the once-grand Living Seas. Even so, there’s a real sense that EPCOT has grown stagnant. Disney has relied on annual festivals and the strength of World Showcase to keep guests happy. We’re in a strange murky middle between EPCOT Center’s glory days and whatever is on the horizon. Management can’t ignore Epcot forever, and bringing in Anna and Elsa isn’t enough.
Captain EO anger may feel strange to Disney fans that joined the fold more recently. If you didn’t visit Epcot in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you may not notice the differences in Future World. You might buy the idea that it was changed because the first version was too dull. Captain EO would feel out of place compared to modern attractions. Without the history, it might seem like Disney is just swapping out nonessential shows in a theater. In a certain sense, this assumption is true. Guests were avoiding Captain EO, and the short films won’t be a major draw. Disney’s move is sad because it reflects an unfortunate trend toward mediocrity.
Where’s the Fun?
The real loss for me with Captain EO is an underrated aspect of theme park attractions. It’s fun! This simple concept should always be a priority but often falls behind corporate synergy. We can talk about immersive environments and high-tech attractions, but they’re always second to pure enjoyment. I’m not talking about thrills either. What made Captain EO fun were the upbeat songs, his goofy companions, and a lot of silly dance moves. It’s kitschy and odd and never takes itself seriously. The Supreme Leader may have scared me as a kid, but there’s little menace there. Plus, you get to watch it all on a big screen with 3D glasses and cool effects!
When Epcot’s fans look back on the early days, there’s a commonality to their favorite rides. They’re all dorky and cheesy and were created by some eccentric people. There’s no way that a money guy came up with Kitchen Kabaret or the Astuter Computer Revue. A ride like Horizons made the future look like fun. On the other hand, Mission: Space sells a grand and cold future. I should be clear that I’m not talking about cheap gags. Journey to Imagination with Figment is the perfect example of how that approach can go off the rails. Figment did not create a stink bomb in ‘80s EPCOT Center.
Future World should be easy to fix. The theme is so broad and offers infinite possibilities. It once had Michael Jackson in a pavilion next to a show with singing vegetables. The original Test Track even retained some goofiness through the greatness of John Michael Higgins. It’s possible to make something unique without losing the crowds. Captain EO only reminded us of what’s missing from too much of Future World. There’s no need to take these attractions so seriously. It doesn’t take a $300 million budget to make something cool.
What’s Next for Epcot?
Frozen Ever After and the new Soarin’ film are coming in 2016, so it’s hardly a dead zone for Epcot. Even so, it still feels like the park is stuck in neutral. Replacing Captain EO would signal a move forward if the new attraction was notable. I have to believe this a temporary change and won’t last very long. Inside Out’s popularity made it a perfect candidate for the Imagination pavilion. It wouldn’t be my first choice but could work in the right hands. Instead, we may be in store for little change while Star Wars takes center stage.
I don’t expect any other major updates at Epcot for several years with the attention focused on the Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. That said, I believe Disney recognizes that Future World needs help. Will they make the right choices? I’m trying to stay optimistic until I learn more down the road. Even so, there seems to be a lack of creative direction surrounding Epcot. Captain EO needed to go, but its replacement should be an actual upgrade. Will Disney take a chance and try to change the world?
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