Few topics can rouse up a Disney World fan as much as how to fix Epcot. Most agree that something needs to happen, but the actual changes they propose vary drastically. Some want more thrills or familiar characters that connect to Disney films. Others would be fine if Star Wars replaced Future World. I’m not one of those people. Instead, I’m part of a vocal group that loved the original EPCOT Center. While I understand that those days are long gone, I can’t help but wish for at least a connection between the place I loved and updates to the current park.
At this year’s Destination D event, Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek spoke about a “major transformation” that’s coming to Epcot. While this sounds promising in theory, there were a few warning signs from this comments. I’m not an alarmist and will wait until real announcements happen, but I’m a little pessimistic. Here’s a longer quote from Chapek from a November 21 article in the Orlando Sentinel:
“It will be more Disney. It will be even more relevant than it is today. … And, at the same time, it will stay true to our original vision. Stay tuned, there’s a lot more to come on Epcot.”
I’m happy with an Epcot that’s more relevant and still fits the park’s original vision. That’s great news! The warning sirens appear with the comment “more Disney”. This concerns me because it follows the trend of pushing the “Disney Parks” model on every spot. Disney World deserves to have four unique parks that aren’t just replaceable commodities. I can live with more Disney characters in Epcot, but shifting it even further towards The Magic Kingdom would be a mistake.
Continuing my “Seven Wishes” series of posts on Disney World, it’s time to dive into a park that’s been my favorite since I was eight years old. We’ve covered the Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios; those were easy. In this case, I’ve tried not to include fantastical ideas like bringing back Horizons or removing Nemo from the Living Seas. I’d love to see them occur, but there’s no chance we’ll see that happen. I’m trying to work in reality, even if my wishes are a little too optimistic. Epcot deserves to be a shining star at Disney World once again!
1. Find a Good Use for Innoventions Buildings (Not DVC Lounges!)
This may seem like a vague wish, but I’m keeping it more open because the park’s overall theme is uncertain. If Disney tries to upgrade Future World in an interesting way, the Innoventions buildings should be a key part of that process. Right now, it’s sad to see so much valuable real estate go unused. Putting exhibits or rides that draw guest interest would also help with crowd flow and remove the burden from the headliners.
As a kid in the ‘80s, I loved exploring the CommuniCore buildings and learning about remarkable technologies of the future. I never felt we had enough time to really take in all the different parts. I wasn’t as big a fan of Innoventions, which felt more corporate and less original. Even so, I’d rather have an imperfect set-up than nothing. There is so much potential for the massive spaces, so I’m hopeful that Disney will start revamping them very soon.
2. Add Physical Sets and Enhance the Spaceship Earth Descent
Spaceship Earth is part of a small group of attractions at Epcot that maintain the atmosphere of the park’s early days. It’s received multiple upgrades yet still is a slow-moving Omnimover ride through history. The one aspect of the latest version that doesn’t click is the descent. It’s fun to see our faces dropped into the animated look at the future, but it’s a limited joke. The rest of the attraction is grand and miraculous, and the ending doesn’t match that feeling.
I wrote about ways to enhance Spaceship Earth back in October, and the descent was a main focus. I’ve heard the sets from the Jeremy Irons version remain, and there may be a way to use those as a foundation for something better. That update happened in 1994, and technologies have improved in the past 22 years. Spaceship Earth remains one of Epcot’s greatest attractions, and the final act should maintain that high quality. Staring at a small screen is not enough.
3. Update the Energy and Imagination Pavilions with Exciting Attractions That Fit the Theme
The most frequent rumor of 2016 for Epcot involved a replacement for Ellen’s Energy Adventure. Sites angling to be first claimed that a Guardians of the Galaxy thrill ride would overtake that space with an entirely new building. There’s still a decent chance that prospect will come to pass, though questions remain about the Marvel contract with Universal. I don’t have a problem with Guardians and liked the film, but Future World doesn’t seem right for it. The Hollywood Studios would be the best place, assuming it doesn’t replace the Tower of Terror.
I agree that Energy needs a change and would even be okay with a change of topic. What I’d prefer is something that fits the Future World idea. Even Tron would have more connections than Guardians! I suspect that we’ll learn of Disney’s plans for this location sometime this year. Going by their calendar, it would still be another three years at minimum before the attraction opened (barring a weird overlay).
Imagination also needs an update, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear nothing in 2017 about it. The Disney & Pixar Short Film Festival also needs to go, so changing both parts of the pavilion makes sense. Dreamfinder and Figment are still popular, so it isn’t just nostalgia for me to want them in a new version. I’d prefer a ride (and show) that pays tribute to the original but isn’t just a rehash. Disney should also expand the running time and make better use of the full pavilion. Without Kodak as a sponsor, the post-show area isn’t as essential today. The upstairs area is now a DVC lounge, so I’m not holding my breath for a return of the real ImageWorks. There’s so much potential for something amazing to happen in this spot once again.
4. Make the Wonders of Life Pavilion and Odyssey Restaurant Spots for Daily Guests
It’s no secret that Epcot thrives largely because of its annual festivals. Locals flock to them and are willing to fork over serious money for small plates of food and special drinks. I’m not criticizing the people that love the festivals. If I was a local, I’d certainly visit often during these events. The downside is that they’ve distracted management from creating new attractions to draw guests. Frozen Ever After draws crowds, but a main reason for its long lines is the ride’s limited capacity. Adding capacity and more things to do will benefit the park on the whole.
The major space that’s become just a festival location is the Wonders of Life pavilion. I know that Disney won’t re-instate that theme. What I’d love to see is a complete redo of this huge space to reflect an exciting topic. The Odyssey Restaurant hasn’t been open for a long time, and Future World could also use another dining location. It’s situated perfectly near Test Track and on the way to Norway. It’s a missed opportunity for Disney to simply use it for special events.
5. Upgrade Mission: Space to Offer Customized Journeys
When Disney opens a ride with screens as a major component, it’s easy to dream about the different variations that are possible. They can swap it out every year! This rarely happens, though. Disney has found great success with the Star Tours revamp and has made small changes to Toy Story Mania. Even so, there is a lot more they could do in this realm. A prime example is Mission: Space, which hasn’t been the headliner Disney expected when it opened in 2003.
I offered a modest proposal to fix Mission: Space back in September, and a key part was a custom experience. Guests may like the attraction, but they don’t ride it over and over. We admire the technology, but there’s no emotional connection. The chance to visit different planets or at least have surprising moments would make a difference. Disney invested too much to give up, so they need to improve Mission: Space.
6. Expand World Showcase with a New Country Pavilion
World Showcase hasn’t changed much since 1982, and that’s a good thing. It still works as designed and offers glimpses of other cultures through food, shops, and attractions. Even so, there are still opportunities for Disney to expand its scope. Norway and Morocco opened in the ‘80s, and we’ve heard rumors about other possibilities along the way. It’s stunning that none have come to fruition in the past few decades.
One challenge for adding a country would be cultural sensitivity; Disney probably doesn’t want the headaches. On the other hand, there are ways to present a country or even a larger region without falling into those traps. Disney could work alongside historians and experts to ensure that any new pavilion is respectful to its source nation. It also would make sense from a business perspective. Guests are hungry (pun intended) for new experiences at World Showcase.
7. Develop a Coherent Theme That Keeps Epcot Unique
My final wish is the most important one. While the others focused on specific changes within Epcot, this goal is essential for the park’s future. Imagineers must be the gatekeepers that guard against guys like Chapek and Bob Iger. Epcot needs to make sense as an individual park and not just as a cog in the wheel. Management is always looking for a way to sell the brand in every inch of theme park space. That is a danger to creativity and harms the guest experience more than most visitors realize.
One selling point for Epcot is simple – it isn’t The Magic Kingdom! Both can be amazing places without telling identical stories. There are ways for Epcot to include characters without becoming just another park. The name “Future World” signifies a place of incredible possibilities. Disney promotional clips and movie tie-ins fall well short of that expectation. Epcot also should be just a little strange. There’s a reason so many people in their 30s and 40s remain so committed to the parks. I loved how mysterious and odd they were; you never knew what was around the corner!
A classic example is the original Journey Into Imagination. Fans didn’t love it just because of Figment and Dreamfinder. That attraction was a perfect example of how creative the Imagineers could be without much corporate interference. There’s no clear story; it works because it subverts expectations. Epcot needs to go beyond what we expect and offer something that surprises us. That astonishing feeling will make the park a true gem once again.