attraction

Why Everyone Should Believe In Epcot

As you are no doubt aware, friends, 2014 has been something of a tumultuous year for fans of Disney theme parks. Please bear with me as I briefly summarize two cases where the wounds are still fresh.

In Anaheim, an expansion of Club 33 made significant and controversial changes to Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. We saw the original entrance door fall into disuse and the original lobby stripped bare and converted into a merchandise storage room. We saw the French lift (custom-built by WED after Walt saw an antique one during a trip to Paris) get taken out of service and converted into a depressing table-for-one. We saw the original logo replaced with a (largely unpopular) new logo. We saw the trophy room get demolished to make way for a larger kitchen. We saw the beloved Court of Angels courtyard get closed off to the paying public, walled off behind “stained glass” gates to serve 33 members only. We saw significant changes to the exteriors in New Orleans Square, too, from noticeably off-centered, clumsy and out-of-scale windows to Art Nouveau flourishes that make no thematic or historical sense.

In the understandable effort to double capacity (and increase profits) with Club 33 members, unfortunately the new space is now largely unrecognizable, wiped clean of its history, charm and personal touches by Walt Disney. All these changes combined, not to mention the loss of the Disney Gallery space above Pirates a few years ago for a posh and largely unused Dream Suite, it’s a very tough pill to swallow for this Disney fan. It’s a sad situation when profit and capacity come at the expense of what made the club special in the first place. I fear this is a sign of more history-cleansing to come.

Then, over in Orlando, fans exploded when Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs confirmed rumors that Maelstrom, the quirky 80s-era boat ride in the Norway pavilion at Epcot, would soon close to make way for a Frozen attraction (an announcement delivered in a rather smug and ballsy way, I might add, with Staggs citing a tired Walt quote “Disneyland will never be completed” in an apparent effort to justify the decision and silence dissent). The hashtag #savemaelstrom has been shared on social media thousands of times.

Fan reactions vary wildly, of course, but the most often recurring comment I’ve seen is that we as fans are not against a Frozen attraction – quite the contrary actually – but rather we fail to understand why Frozen must replace Maelstrom, or, indeed, why Frozen belongs in Epcot at all. Although its buildings are sparkling clean and almost fantasy-like in their perfection, World Showcase displays the cultures of real people and real countries of the world. Surely Frozen’s fictitious Arendelle setting would work far better thematically in the fantasy-friendly Magic Kingdom, or the Walt Disney World park that desperately needs more movie-based headliner attractions, Disney’s Hollywood Studios?

I would even argue that Maelstrom, a fairly short boat ride, isn’t big enough and won’t do the Frozen movie franchise justice. Not to mention its small-ish hourly capacity will create nightmarish lines when it opens sometime in early 2016 (apparently after the initial Frozen frenzy, already ebbing, will have died down).

With the full understanding that petitions, letters, emails, phone calls, hashtags, etc. are useless and Disney does what Disney wants, your opinions bedamnned, I began to wonder if people are losing faith in Epcot. Indeed, I have yet to read a satisfying argument why Frozen should replace Maelstrom. It’s become very clear (and maddening) that Disney is unwilling to expand Epcot, despite having several large expansion pads at the ready. In fact, the Norway pavilion itself, which opened over 25 years ago, is the most recent expansion to World Showcase, if you can believe that, and Maelstrom is one of only TWO rides in that very large half of Epcot.

Brand advocates (who insist again and again that every decision Disney makes is the right decision) insist that replacing Maelstrom with Frozen is a great decision because 1) Frozen is popular/profitable (goes without saying, duh) and, somewhat in self-defeat, 2) Epcot as a concept is dead anyway. A point I strongly disagree with. This is Disney, after all, the company that set the golden standard for themed design and set a high bar for what a theme park can and should be.

The question remained, however: Does anyone still believe in EPCOT? I decided to put it to the test on Twitter with a hashtag #BelieveInEpcot. Here are my first two tweets, posted Friday evening, September 19:

What followed greatly surpassed my expectations as the tweets started flooding in, each with a thoughtful take on how EPCOT has created meaning to people over the last 32-ish years. Please take the time to scroll down and read some of them, as together they form a truly remarkable and powerful statement.

Thank you so, so much to everyone who participated. It’s clear that many, many people still beleve in EPCOT.

Do you believe in EPCOT? I want to hear what you have to say! Leave a comment in the space below, or tweet a message with the hashtag #BelieveInEpcot.

And thanks for reading! 🙂 -Matt @DLthings

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“it’s (still) a small world” – As Catchy and Relevant As Ever 50 Years Later

It’s pretty astounding when you consider that what is undoubtedly the most hastily put together Disney attraction in history has endured for 50 years.

“it’s a small world” – which originally opened as an exhibit for Pepsi-Cola at the New York World’s Fair on April 22, 1964 – was thrown together at the last minute while WED Enterprises was hard at work building three other exhibits – Illinois state’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Ford’s Magic Skyway, and General Electric’s Progressland (now known as the “Carousel of Progress”).

After the fair, “it’s a small world” (with the exception of Rolly Crump’s whimsical Tower of the Four Winds) would later find a permanent home at Disneyland with a gorgeous new white-and-gold-leaf facade, and today it stands as a masterpiece of showmanship, a beautiful work of art, and as the attraction poster proudly announces, it is “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.”

But how has it lasted this long? If we boil it down to its basic elements, “small world” is just a series of dolls dressed in costume, placed among painted flats inside a large show building. Before examining more closely, we might say that description also fits Superstar Limo, the infamous dark ride that opened at California Adventure in 2001 only to close permanently in less than a year. Why did Superstar Limo fail so hard, whereas “small world” is still going strong and has had newer versions introduced in every single Disney “Magic Kingdom”-style park across the globe?

Well, for one, there is the song. And oh, what a song it is. Rather than playing each country’s national anthem, which would’ve been a cacophony of sound, the Sherman Brothers wrote one song that could be easily sung in so many languages it would later become one of the most widely played songs ever written. They originally played it as a ballad – only later was it sped up to the upbeat version we’re familiar with.

Yes, the song is catchy – the verse melody and chorus melody intertwine so perfectly it can get lodged into your head for weeks. Many people say they hate the song for this reason (maybe you do too!) however the same criticism might be said for just about any popular song currently playing on the radio, only “small world” has a much more positive message (more on that in a minute). Not only does the song play at all 5 of Disney’s theme park locations – it also plays on radio, TV, film, video games, apps, even ice cream trucks. Indeed, the song’s “annoying” qualities, along with the many languages, may have helped it become as widely known as it is today.

Another reason “small world” has endured is because it is beautiful – a work of art you can float right through. I consider it to be Mary Blair’s greatest artistic achievement (in addition to the work of many talented people including Marc and Alice Davis, Rolly Crump and others), and it still shines brightly today, in spite of several dozen irrelevant Disney characters which were added in 2009 (along with a self-indulgent “Up with America!” room with embarrassing Woody and Jessie toy figures). I wish I could convert some “small world” haters if I could only show them what a brilliant artistic statement the attraction is. It is peaceful and comforting, yet surrounds you with patterns and color and visual excitement as your boat floats smoothly past scenes that represent different countries and regions of the world.

“Small world” is a favorite among children, of course, but I always felt it is an attraction adults can enjoy as well, with or without kids. It just takes a certain level of maturity and being in touch with your inner child to rise above the people on the “it’s so annoying” bandwagon. I can’t make people see what is right in front of them. I’m sure many misunderstood artists feel the same way.

A third reason I think the attraction continues to succeed is its universally positive message. Conceived in the mid-60s in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, the song’s message of equality and world brotherhood might be perceived today as dated and obvious. However, I think the message is as relevant today as it has ever been. It can’t hurt to remind ourselves that we share the world with 7 billion people and we should try to foster understanding by seeing things from a different point of view. We should try to have compassion for people of all walks of life, not just the people most like ourselves.

This world understanding has improved somewhat in recent years by the Internet and the widespread adoption of social media. (I work in social media, so all my posts inevitably discuss social media at some point.) Our world is more connected today than it was even 10 years ago, thanks to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter which can help us create a better understanding of the goings-on in world cultures besides our own.

It’s a small, small world, and with technology, we can make it even smaller. In fact, Richard Sherman is doing a Google+ Hangout later today – such a thing would not have even been possible until very recently. With the Internet we can become better informed about other people of the world and hopefully come to realize that we are more the same than we are different.

Cheers to you, “it’s a small world,” and here’s to 50 more years of laughter, tears, hopes, and fears.

What are your “small world” memories? Share them in the comment section below. Thanks for reading! – Matt @DLthings