On August 13th, two long-time Disney World attractions rode into the sunset. Ellen’s Energy Adventure and The Great Movie Ride weren’t the most popular attractions at their parks, but both hearkened back to an era of rapid expansion for Disney. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s introduced many key pieces to making Disney World succeed. The loss of these attractions is another step in the movement away from the Eisner era. Many podcasters and bloggers have created excellent tributes to both experiences. I’m taking a slightly different road and looking further into the past. Let’s take a ride on the original Universe of Energy.
Before Ellen DeGeneres took over in 1996, guests learned about the origins of fossil fuels in a less zany presentation. The Universe of Energy was an opening-day attraction at EPCOT Center and incorporated a moving-theater ride system into its 45-minute ride time. Sponsored by Exxon, it found an inventive way to present energy’s origins on this planet. The audio-animatronic dinosaurs were the highlight and retained for the revamped version. Less inspiring to some was the slow-paced film documenting present-day energy. The scale was impressive, but it lacked the punch Disney was looking for in the ’90s.
Beyond the dinosaurs, the other standout was the music, particularly the title song and “Energy (You Make the World Go Round)”. Despite the corporate sponsorship, the Universe of Energy retained the optimistic view of our future of the original EPCOT Center. The upbeat finale sent us back into the park excited about the world. Let’s journey back to the original attraction that started it all back in 1982. In the classic book Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, Richard R. Beard introduces the pavilion in this way:
“The building, shaped like an enormous triangle with the apex tipped the ground, seems to rise out of the earth in a great swoop of silver and gray. With its unique architectural shapes and clean lines, it makes a dynamic statement, as well as it should: it houses the Universe of Energy.”
Initially considered as a solar energy pavilion, the Universe of Energy ended up taking a broader look at the topic. I suspect that Exxon had a lot do with the change, but it did expand the possibilities. The massive structure offered Disney a chance to deliver a surprisingly long show, even for the time period. There were elements of Circle-vision 360 films, 1964 World’s Fair attractions like the Magic Skyway, and Disneyland’s Primeval World Diorama all wrapped up into a single package.
An Expansive Presentation
Before entering the vehicles, guests walked into a large room for a standing pre-show. There was nothing small within this pavilion; it felt epic from the start. It’s easy to forget how different the original presentation was from seeing Ellen on the large screens. Filmmaker Emil Radok’s complex rotating blocks help The Kinetic Mosaic remain stunning even on grainy YouTube videos. In lieu of a large queue, this room kept guests engaged while waiting to enter the first theater. I do remember large crowds for this pavilion during our trips in the ‘80s, but the capacity of nearly 2,000 guests per hour limited the wait times.
Unlike some pre-shows, The Kinetic Mosaic was hardly just a way to pass the time. Radok’s film was a key part of the attraction. It has more in common with art installations than theme park attractions. My memories of this film are slim, so it was eye-opening to revisit it. It makes me wish that I’d spent more time there during our later family trips in the ‘90s. The inventive look at the different kinds of energy is stunning thanks to the mix of film, rotating screens, and music. It’s a straightforward presentation and educational while staying general enough for most audiences.
Watching this eight-minute film today, it’s sad that Disney shelved it for Ellen. The serious tone was the likely culprit, but that reasoning dismisses its artistic value. The eight-minute film closes with Robert Moline’s warm song “Energy (You Make the World Go Round)”, which plays over shots of flowers, butterflies, and other parts of nature. It reminds us that energy is a lot more than the artificial sources that bring power to our homes. Images of oceans, energy waves, and people standing across the large screens reinforce the themes of EPCOT Center. This isn’t a dry look at science; we’re all a part of this universe of energy.
Where Life Began
It’s time to venture into Theater I for the main presentation. Who knows what lurks behind the grand curtains? It’s something massive; that’s for sure. The ride vehicles rest on a turntable that allows for a smooth turn facing a different side of the room. The curtains pull back to reveal large screens and a brief look at the origins of life. The animated film again takes a straightforward look at the material and doesn’t strive for cheap entertainment. I’m on board with this approach, though I’d probably enjoy it more today as an adult.
This four-minute film includes shots of early life forms and the origins of coal and oil. It is pretty remarkable that a brief history of fossil fuels was seen regularly at Disney World. This was the genius of EPCOT Center. Why give its visitors the obvious entertainment? The Imagineers built something unique, and glimpses back at the original attractions remind us of how revolutionary they were. The slower pace helps to build the theme and doesn’t rush into the next thrill. Instead, this show creates the mood and then brings the stars into the mix.
The introduction sets the stage and builds our anticipation for meeting the dinosaurs in the primeval era. The narrator says, “Come with us now and experience a few moments from that dark and mysterious past.” It’s a clever transition as the vehicles turn once again while the screens present shots of the place we’re about to enter. A thunderstorm builds the ominous feeling that we’re moving far away from the comfortable Disney universe. It’s a striking way to transition into the physical space and encounter the animatronic dinosaurs in their world.
The Primeval Diorama
As the curtain rises, we immediately see the long necks of the dinosaurs far into the distance. This perspective makes them seem even larger than they actually are when we move closer. This section was largely kept intact for Ellen’s Energy Adventure, and that’s why it’s more familiar in my memories. The lighting is quite low when the vehicles enter this scene, and that adds to the mystery of what’s around the corner. The saddest part of the loss of this pavilion is the removal of these animatronics. I hope that Disney can find a way to use them in another way.
There’s also impressive technology on display with the vehicles as the individual cars split into six separates ones. They move single file through the diorama and give us a closer look at the dinosaurs. The storm effects also remain, which connects this setting directly to the film. It’s wise to begin with the Brontosaurus, which is easy to see from the back. The sequence’s most iconic moment involves an Allosaurus battling a Stegosaurus on a cliff, and there’s plenty to see throughout the seven-minute scene. Imagineers even included a “smellitzer” with sulfurous odors that made the scene feel more authentic.
It’s difficult for online videos to capture the scope of this immersive section. The setting is too dark to stand out, especially with old-school video cameras. What’s evident is the attention to detail, which goes beyond the dinosaurs themselves. There are water and fire effects that stand up well more than 30 years after they were created. The smells added to the feeling you weren’t inside a typical show building. As the music changes and we travel into the second theater, it’s a little sad to leave the dinosaurs behind. There’s still a lot to see on this attraction, though.
The Modern Energy Landscape
We’ve reached Theater II for the longest portion of the journey — a 12-minute, large-screen film about energy in the early ‘80s. The opening shot of solar cells is exciting but also a little sad; we’re still working to get solar energy for everyday use today. The narrator does say that it will happen “sometime in the next century”, so we’re still in the ballpark at least. Exxon is the sponsor, so we quickly head to the Middle East to learn about petroleum. This film likely received more input from the corporate overlords than other parts of the attraction.
Looking beyond its limited message, the three-screen film works because of its epic scope. Long shots from beneath the sea, out in the desert, and above the Earth are quite impressive. We even fly over the snowy peaks in a moment reminiscent of Soarin’. The Universe of Energy fit comfortably within EPCOT Center and still has connections to the current park. While the specifics about oil aren’t that exciting to me, it helps when they’re on a large screen.
A striking point-of-view shot takes us inside a coal mine, and moments like that occur throughout this movie. They energize a pretty dry look at energy sources. I can imagine Michael Eisner sitting in this theater and marveling at the lack of jokes in this presentation. It’s easy to see why Ellen was brought in to lighten up the tone. I also like that version, which splits the difference and retains some serious parts while adding madcap energy to it. Speaking of excitement, we’re heading into the grand finale — my favorite part as a kid in the ‘80s.
Here We Go, Here We Go…
Let’s do this! After learning how the Energy pavilion uses renewable energy (and watching the required space shuttle launch), we’re heading back to Theater I. The first notes of Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s song “Universe of Energy” kick into gear as we move into our final destination. Mirrors now appear on the walls, and computer animated shots reveal the possibilities of our energy world. It’s rudimentary animation, but it still clicks thanks to the upbeat song. Images of people playing sports, living their lives, and exploring the world present the pavilion’s thematic statement. We take energy for granted, but it’s all around us. Beard sums up the feeling so well as we exit:
“And as we leave, although we know the challenges are great, our spirits are lifted at the potentials and options that have been set before us in the Universe of Energy.”
This brief finale closes the presentation, and some funky ‘80s music plays while we head for the exits. It holds up surprisingly well for an attraction that opened 35 years ago. The considerable time out of the Florida sun is also a relief. I suspect that Peter Quill won’t keep us entertained that long, unless you count the time in line. There’s one more step in our journey, thankfully. We can visit the Energy Exchange at CommuniCore and learn even more! I loved these high-tech playgrounds as a kid, but we didn’t spend much time in this area. What’s great is how themes were spread across multiple pavilions in EPCOT Center. It all fit together so well.
A Changing EPCOT Center
The Universe of Energy springs from a different era for Disney World and EPCOT Center in particular. It hearkens back to a time when education apart from branding was just fine in the park. The middle ground was Ellen’s Energy Adventure, which still educated but injected zaniness into the mix. That attraction fits comfortably in Epcot’s second era alongside Cranium Command, Body Wars, and even Test Track. They connected to the original mission yet changed it into something a bit lighter.
We’re currently in a new phase where intellectual property is king over other concerns. We’ll eventually move into a fourth iteration, and I’m hopeful it will be more inspiring. Each park should have its own identity, and that was the case at EPCOT Center when the original Universe of Energy opened. It’s been wonderful to revisit it in the digital realm, though it feels bittersweet with the attraction closed for good.
We won’t see anything quite like this attraction in the future, but its themes are still relevant. EPCOT Center’s energy can still make the world go round, even if it happens apart from the park. The optimistic themes and focus on education still connect with me, particularly given our current divisive climate. It’s the reason I connected so strongly with EPCOT Center as a kid, and that feeling remains today. The park’s 35th anniversary is just around the corner, and there’s so much potential for a renaissance. Here we go?
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