Category Archives: Hits-Misses

Mission: Space– Hit

Mission: Space has welcomed guests at Epcot since 2003. The attraction sits on the site that used to house Horizons, a beloved ride showing optimistic visions of “the future.” When Disney announced the closure of Horizons, fans felt a collective pang. (Horizons had been relegated to being open only during the busiest of times before it closed for good.) When Horizons began to be torn down, it seemed as though many Epcot visitors had lost a dear friend. The fact that the building was to be demolished made it especially hard for some, but WDI determined it would not try to retrofit a building like it did with World of Motion. Lessons were learned and applied.

With so many loyal enthusiasts upset at the demise of Horizons, WDI was under pressure to create a fitting replacement. No “C ticket” attraction would do. This was going to require a full-bore E ticket experience.

Outer space has long captured the imagination of people, and Disney has capitalized on that over the years. From the Moonliner during Disneyland’s earliest days, to Mission to Mars and Space Mountain, Disney theme park guests could get a taste of what they could only dream about.

Well, not really. None of these attractions really came close to simulated space flight. Indeed, only the infamous “Vomit Comet” jet used to create zero-G could come close–and there is no way that experience would find its way into a Disney theme park. The cost of fuel on a daily basis would require admission prices out of this world.

With Mission: Space, though, Disney Imagineers have given guests a sampling of one experience known to every astronaut: G forces. Using a large centrifuge, WDI allows us to feel the weight as we are “placed” on our backs for lift off. We feel the large G forces during liftoff and encounters with the Moon and Mars. And, some even claim to feel a bit of weightlessness at times during the ride.

For some, the attraction is just another thrill ride. On the other hand, WDI has brought its trademark storytelling to this show. As an astronaut trainee, you play a specific role in the mission, depending on which seat you end up in. No more passive I’m-just-an-audience-member experiences, WDI’s Imagineers are going to make you work. Okay, so your work is managing to reach up and press a button at the right time, but this still brings the kind of active engagement that we typically don’t see in attraction design. (In some instances, such as the new Spaceship Earth, it is better left out.)

Epcot’s original purpose, to inspire ideas about the future, was probably better represented by Horizons. Nevertheless, this hit from WDI is exciting enough to inspire kids of all ages to look more into space exploration.

Miss: Tarzan’s Treehouse

Before being revised and renamed as Tarzan’s Treehouse, this Disneyland attraction was known for decades as the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. Why do I call this attraction a miss? In a nutshell, it is based on a forgettable Disney animated film. I know, I know–people don’t remember Swiss Family Robinson, either. But the original attraction perhaps inspired guests to look into some classic Disney history and learn a bit more about the film. With “Tarzan’s Treehouse,” well, most people will remember that it was a film from the late 1990s. It’s doubtful the attraction will inspire anyone to go look up more about the film.

It’s unfortunate Disney took the easy way out and used its animated film to inspire the revision to the attraction. If Disney felt that Swiss Family Robinson was no longer relevant, why not create something completely new? Come up with an original story and draw guests in. If you have to use a film, pick one of the beloved ones, not the latest “hit” that will be a second-tier film in Disney animation history.

Anyone want to defend Tarzan’s Treehouse and persuade me that I’m wrong? 🙂

The Seas With Nemo and Friends–Hit and Miss

Epcot’s The Seas With Nemo and Friends is a split decision. There’s so much about it to like, yet it lacks completeness, that we have to give it a Hit and a Miss.

On the hit side of things, WDI has done an amazing (no–really–an AMAZING) job in the queue area. Entering the building (after being greeted by the noisy gulls from Finding Nemo!) you find yourself in a cool, tranquil beach setting. Before you know it, you’re underwater. The ripples of waves play on the ceiling above you, and the rails that keep guests in line look and feel like they were just pulled out of a shipwreck (with a little cleaning up before installation).

It is at this point, however, that the show begins to go downhill a bit. If you think back to the original EPCOT Center that opened in 1982, everything in Future World seemed to inspire wonder and curiosity. The Living Seas (which opened a few years later) fit that mold. Guests learned about the unexplored world in our oceans. Even today, in 2010, we know more about outer space than we do about our own oceans. As visitors, we were able to tour Seabase Alpha. After a quick hydrolator ride down to the visitors level, we were able to marvel at the life contained in the huge aquarium. We saw research with dolphins and manatees. We watched divers in the tank feed its inhabitants and then tell us about the experience.

Today, we have a Fantasyland dark ride. (Don’t get me wrong–the Fantasyland dark rides like Peter Pan’s Flight and Snow White’s Scary Adventure are great attractions. But they belong in the world of fantasy.) Rather than learning about the seas, we are treated to the retelling of the Finding Nemo story. There is no question that the story-telling technique and technology are top notch. The problem is, we’re not learning anything along the way. Epcot’s pavilions should entertain and teach, not simply entertain.

After riding in our clam shell vehicle, we end up in the remnants of Seabase Alpha. The place looks tired, and it feels incomplete, like parts are unused. Fortunately, we do have Turtle Talk With Crush to entertain–and to teach. Overall, however, the perceptive guest is left with the impression that the show isn’t quite ready for an audience yet.

The Haunted Mansion–Hit

The Haunted Mansion is the first attraction featured in our series on WDI’s hits and misses. What makes the attraction a hit? There are so many things, it is hard to know where to begin.

Unlike the haunted houses that spring up like mushrooms each year in October, The Haunted Mansion is not designed to simply scare the heck out of you. No strobe lights, no blood scenes, no amateur hour here. The Haunted Mansion is designed to entertain you, using the ghostly world in a slightly sinister, slightly humorous way. The entire “999 happy haunts, but there’s room for one more” theme subtly tells you that you are merely a visitor, and that no harm will come to you. You can relax and enjoy the show.

And what a show it is! The tone is set in the queue where you see tombstones with humorous, pun-ny epitaphs. The stretching rooms are usually the first time we can hear our Ghost Host clearly (his opening lines in the foyer are usually drowned out by talking guests). The voice of Paul Frees, a legendary voice actor, is perfect for the role. The humor continues as the portraits stretch to reveal the way that some of the guests met their fate.

From there, you board your Doombuggy and head out on the tour. Ghost stories fill the library alongside terrific busts that follow you as you go through. Things try to escape: coffins, doors, all accompanied by creepy wallpaper.

One of the best visual illusions ever is featured: a head in a crystal ball. Yes, Madame Leota conducts her seance, followed by a view into the ballroom with dancing ghosts. A trip to the attic followed by a visit to the graveyard leads to a close encounter with a ghost who will “follow you home.”

Ghosts and the supernatural have been themes in literature and storytelling for centuries. People like to be scared a bit. Macbeth dealt with the ghost of his murdered father (or was it?). Edgar Allen Poe masterfully told tales of terror. Even Mickey Mouse had to take on ghosts in one of his shorts. All of those experiences, however, are two-dimensional. Even when viewing Macbeth on stage, there is typically a “wall” between the audience and the players.

The Haunted Mansion breaks through that wall and takes us into the world of ghosts, and you can’t help but chuckle along the way. What’s not to like?

Spaceship Earth–Miss

Epcot’s Spaceship Earth is the first attraction to earn a Miss in our series. Is this possible? Have we lost our minds?

Actually, Spaceship Earth in its current form, after the 2007-2008 revision, is what earns a Miss. Heck, it earns a Dud. I hate to say it, but WDI took a solid Hit and wrecked it.

In its original form, and even after the 1986 and 1994 revisions, Spaceship Earth told the story of human communications throughout our history on this planet. It avoided cringe-worthy lines in the script, such as referring to the roads that went out from Rome as the “first world wide web.” The earlier versions ended with a suggestion that human communications would improve, bring us closer together as a species, remind us that we all share a common home: Spaceship Earth.

The current iteration of the ride ends not with inspiration and hope, but in a campy Jetsons-like look at possible future living arrangements and life styles. What the heck does this have to do with communication? Adding in the faces of guests (which are frequently out of frame) does nothing to personalize the experience. Rather, it reinforces the feeling that WDI was trying to produce a video game rather than tell a story. Where is the reminder that we share a common (and single) planet? Where is the hope for a better tomorrow?

Regrettably, this attraction is a mere shadow of what it once was. Not too many years ago, when a revision to another Epcot attraction brought universally bad reviews, Disney made an effort to fix it. Hopefully, they will do the same for Spaceship Earth.

Imagineering hits and misses

One of the features we will run from time to time here is a series of articles on WDI’s “hits and misses.” Some attractions are hits, and some are, well, misses. The popularity of an attraction doesn’t play into the determination. Some shows are clearly hits: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean fall into this category. Other shows are misses–American Idol Experience, for example.

Part of what will make this series fun is that the articles will undoubtedly spark debate. “What do you mean Tomorrowland Transit Authority is a miss?” “The Seas With Nemo and Friends is a hit, are you kiddin’ me?” With any luck, though, the articles will help us dissect and analyze the work of the Imagineers and promote a deeper understanding of their art.

Stay tuned!