The Living Seas vs. The Seas with Nemo

The Living Seas. In some of the DisNerd community, this is a major rallying point for people against the "toonification" of Epcot.  This term is being used as a derogatory term against bringing characters into Epcot.  It seems like this would be something that I would be right there rallying against, yet in theory, I am not.  How this is done in Epcot today is a different beast all together.  I was originally going to talk about Toonification in this post, but I think I’ll save it for a full post for a deeper exploration.  Let’s stick to The Living Seas of yesterday and today.

For background, The Living Seas as a pavilion when it opened in 1986 consisted of the following:
You would walk in, past the existing rock-work water feature with the crashing waves. No seagulls screeching “Mine – Mine” obviously, just the occasional crashing waves, the sound and sight setting up a quiet trip to a rocky seaside.  The story starts here.

The sound of crashing waves welcomed you, not squawking birds

The sound of crashing waves welcomed you, not squawking birds

The queue wound through the queue fairly similarly to what exists now, but as you walked, you were taken past historical pictures and examples of human kind's exploration under the water. Graphics showing the design of early snorkles, diving bells, actual early dive suits.  This pavilion was not about the ocean, it was about oceanic exploration.  Our quest to understand the mysteries of the seas.

Look!  History!

Look!  History!

I’ll likely include a supplemental post again with more detailed information, but think about this.  The Homo Sapien has been on this Earth for estimates that go well over a million years.  Until the late 1800s, it was thought that ocean life could not physically exist under 1800 feet due to the pressure.   It wasn’t until the 1930s that the first successful trips down below 500 feet.  Less than 100 years in an existence that stretches back millennia.   The invention of the Bathyspehere in the early 1900s is the first time we were able to explore oceans at any real depth.

The queue brought you to section that served as a waiting area for a preshow film. You were then taken into a small theater to watch a short film, which I'll once again admit a deep and undying love for and bias towards. The film, entitled “The Sea”, in 8 minutes covered the creation of Earth, the creation of the oceans, the importance of the oceans to life, and the fact that we know next to nothing about them and that we are still discovering new things in them. 

Pausing for a brief moment, as a child (I would have been 10 in 1986), this is the first time that any of this had ever even come into consideration for me. I had never thought about how the Earth was created. I had never thought about how the oceans came from rain. RAIN! There are so many lines that stuck in my head during this film, but the one that always had it's intended effect on me is "...waiting in a world where we've spent less time than on the surface of the moon." It was meant to convey the idea that there is so much there yet to be discovered, and it worked like gangbusters on me. I have an audio version of this film, and I honestly listen to it in my car when driving, and it still excites me every single time.

Once you left the film, you were ushered into another room to await boarding your hydrolator.

Going down?

Going down?

Now, that is an odd word. Hydrolator. I'm guessing they made it up for Epcot, but I have never researched it. Anyway, you boarded what amounted to a fake elevator. This was going to "take you down to Seabase Alpha". The floor shook, bubbles went up, an effect was made to look like the we were scrolling past rocks on our way down deep under the sea, and a minute later, the other door opened up and you were under the ocean. The effect was simple. You know what, as a kid, it worked like gangbusters to me (to show how well it works, just look at Universal in their brand new Gringott’s ride, that elevator is just a spruced up Hydrolator). I don't remember how many years I truly believed that those things really did move, even if it was just taking me down one floor or something. My disbelief was suspended enough to really buy into the fact that we were on a seabase under the ocean, even if I knew it not to be true. You boarded a clam shell vehicle which took you on a quick ride into the Seabase itself, and it was kind of useless as a ride honestly.

Once you arrived in the area that now makes up the post-ride pavilion, it was themed to be an actual seabase.  Do you see how the story is continuing.  We arrive at the seaside.  We are talked to about oceanic exploration.  We get a sense of the importance and mystery of the ocean.  We then go to a “seabase” that is being used for undersea exploration and scientific study.

A working seabase

A working seabase

The huge aquarium was not just an aquarium, but it was part of the show. These were windows from the seabase out into the ocean.  This is a point I cannot make strongly enough.  The entire idea of the aquarium was that it was the ocean, the scientists (and us by our luck in being able to visit a working scientific research station) used these windows out into the ocean for their research.  Again, this is not something that had to be beat over our heads.  It was not overly explained.  It just was.

The ocean

The ocean

The little side alcoves had different things to see and do. I remember a little cartoon film in one that I used to love, with Atlas explaining plate tectonics. Again, it was the first I learned of Pangea, the super-continent.

A lot of the rest of the pavilion is very similar to what exists now. Things to see, learn, do. Touchscreen computers, a section about undersea exploration robots and suits where kids could get in a suit and try and manipulate the pincer hands. The main room had the big water tube, and divers would constantly be coming and going from there into the main aquarium space.  The research station with the manatees all lived within the seabase theme.

All together, it added up to one pavilion, one purpose. You were arriving at a seabase, which was being used to explore the world under the ocean. It taught and entertained.

So, we look at the pavilion as it stands now. We have the Nemo ride itself. The queue in my opinion is well done and fun as it relates to the current attraction. I enjoy the idea of walking down the beach and under the water. For what it is, I'm ok. I obviously prefer the previous version, but I accept that the queue is well done for it's designed intent.

So far so good

So far so good

The ride itself feels like an odd bird. It is telling some weird version of the original film story, with Nemo missing again, taking us through a "greatest hits" of characters. The video technology is cool, but the ride just feels slapped together, ending in that Blue World song that they used from the Nemo musical. It's an odd mix between a Fantasyland "book report" style dark ride, but it’s a different story, but a story that is a rehash of the film, but not the film... It just looks like they said "Well, what if Nemo got lost again and we asked all his friends to find him, but the little guy is just playing hide and seek so there is no actual drama in the ride, since the only people who think Nemo are lost are his family."



The pavilion itself is ok, standard aquarium fare.  The Shedd Aquarium here in Chicago is better. 

Just look at the excitement here

Just look at the excitement here

I enjoy Turtle Talk with the kids. I have no problems there aside from the fact that it really doesn't tie into the story of the pavilion more than it's related to Nemo, and it could have easily (If this were still a seabase, having a window which we can speak to Crush is part of the story!!).

The biggest problem is that the huge aquarium here feels like an afterthought, not the focus. Here you have a 5.7 million gallon aquarium that does not feel like the star attraction. I'll bet there are plenty of people that don't even walk out to the observation area, they ride the ride, look at a couple tanks, and walk out the door.  There is a massive aquarium that was perfectly themed to look like the ocean floor, with the sparse nature of the underwater habitat meant to look like an ocean disappearing out into the distance.  Since we’ve lost the seabase story, we’re now looking at an aquarium that looks like a second-rate city aquarium.

Where does that leave us?  I can pinpoint what I think that the faults are in the existing attraction. The ride has such a poor story, it looks cheaply made, and it has no tie-in to the rest of the pavilion.  I wish that undersea exploration were still the focus of the pavilion. I wish that it tried to inspire people to want to think about how we explore and use our oceans in the future. I wish that this pavilion is where they had chosen to partner with James Cameron, as his love for undersea exploration is well known. Cameron could have knocked it out of the park in his sleep.  Even I have some ideas for what could be done which I’ll explore later, the main one (GASP) includes keeping Nemo associated! 

Mainly, I think what is missing is that sense of purpose. The previous version was meant to teach you about the ocean, while making you think "Why don't we know more about something that makes up 70% of our planet?  Will we know more in my lifetime?  How cool is would it be to go in a submersible?"

The new one feels, to me, more like "come ride our ride, maybe look at some fish, and buy some Nemo merchandise on your way out".  That to me is a massive waste of a beautiful and important pavilion.  

My problems with the Epcot Festivals

Let me start this off by trying to assuage some of the hostility that might start coming my way from those whose favorite time of the year is Epcot’s Food and Wine or Flower and Garden festivals.

I do not have complaints against the festivals themselves.  They are well run.  They fit nicely with the world’s fair theme of World Showcase.  They draw people to WDW.  My parents make a trip down to Florida each year in the spring to take in Flower and Garden.  It’s a very well done festival.  The festivals are fun!

Last year, I met up with a group of DisNerds for a big day at Epcot, the day after the Tower of Terror 10 miler, I limped around World Showcase and had a great time.  We happened to be there on the last day of Maelstrom, so we were able to get one last ride.  We poked around the kiosks and tried new foods, tried new drinks.  I met new friends, I had a great time.  We ate, drank, ate, drank, watched the American Adventure, shopped a touch, and then hit Via Napoli to eat some more, ending in time to catch Illuminations and then slowly wander out, past the crowds of people gathered to watch the final boats filled with Cast Members riding Maelstrom after the doors had closed.  It was a great time.  It really was.


If anyone has read any of my ramblings before, you should recognize that this is where the “but” comes in.

Taking the above day as an example, here’s the one thing that I didn’t mention.  In that entire day, we spent a total of maybe 30 minutes in Future World.  We rode Soarin’, we filled a full boat on Living with the Land.  Then we moved along into World Showcase.  We visited 2 things in Future World in total.  The same goes for my last few family trips to Epcot.  The split is somewhere around 80/20%, 80% of time spent in World Showcase, 20% in Future World.

This is probably the exact opposite of the time I spent in Epcot for the first 14 or so years of it’s existence.  Sure, some of that is I’m sure due to the old (invalid) thought that “World Showcase is boring for kids”.  I’ll give that some credibility.  But not much.  I don’t remember a time when I didn’t like visiting World Showcase.  The thing is, Future World was just better!  It was the highlight of the park, bar none.  I could spend untold days in Future World.  I cannot say the same now.  In fact, in a completely unscientific study (meaning I occasionally look at social media posts related to Epcot), nearly all comments I see regarding the love for Epcot boils down to this:

“I love Epcot.  I love eating all the different things!  And they have ALCOHOL!”

I understand that as well


There is a big part of me that doesn’t like that Epcot has turned into a place where people pay around $100 to go into a park, ride 1 to 2 rides, and then pay theme park prices to eat and drink.  It’s become a glorified Pleasure Island, without the smaller cover charge and Adventurer’s Club.  That hurts.  In my more bitter moods, I’ll refer to Epcot as a very well themed food court with an exorbitant cover charge.

That leads me to the larger issue.

The festivals are hiding the major problems with Epcot.  Epcot is still the 2nd most attended park in WDW.  This year, 2015, Flower and Garden is running for 75 days.  Food and Wine runs for 63 days.  Holidays around the World (if you count this) runs for 34 days.  That is 172 days in which Epcot is operating a “special event”.  That is over 47% of the year in which Epcot’s attendance is propped up by a special event.  I wonder how long until it is more likely to be at Epcot when there is no event going than when there is.  Next year?

Let’s pretend for a moment that Epcot decided for a year not to run either festival.  How far do you think that the attendance would fall?!?  Would Sea World beat it?  Maybe that is going a BIT too far, I mean you have all the folks who will not leave the Disney Bubble™, so those multi-day tickets would be used somewhere.  Still, even with 60% of the park closed at Hollywood Studios, I’d bet that it would give Epcot a run for it’s money.  How badly do you think Melissa Valiquette, VP of Epcot, is shaking in her proverbial boots for 2017 and beyond, as Avatar/Rivers of Light/Nighttime safari open up at Animal Kingdom?  As Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land start to take shape at Hollywood Studios?  I'd be hoping beyond hope that Disney plays Executive Musical Chairs again by that time if I were her.

If we look at attendance numbers (and there are huge caveats here with these which I’ll likely spend an entire post discussing, let’s just use them as ballpark figures), you can see that the festivals have helped attendance.   Barring for the massive drop after 9/11, which had a massive impact on travel, the festivals are growing attendance.


What this is doing however is helping Disney mask the problems with the park, because why would they need to invest in a park which is still drawing in huge numbers?  It doesn’t matter that Future World is such an afterthought that an entire pavilion is shuttered to serve as festival space (more on this later as well).  Epcot’s upgrades in the past few decades are more than questionable, they’re almost all terrible across the board.  The unfinished descent in Spaceship Earth, leaving us with the terrible screen clipped pictures which my child’s Leappad tablet can do a better job at.  The horrible Nemo overlay.  The completely lazy clone of Soarin’ from DCA which does not thematically match it’s location.  The travesty that is the Imagination pavilion.  Frozen Norway.

All of this is supported by the fact that the festivals still draw in the crowds, so major investments are unneeded. 

I’ve been told by people I trust (I do not know anyone inside Disney, but I do know people that know people, so take this as the hearsay that it is) that Epcot would operate at a loss without the festivals.  This means that the underlying theme park is not good enough to operate on it’s own.  It needs a festival which finds as many ways as possible to get extra money out of the pockets of it’s visitors.  Free seminars have turned into paid experiences.  The original prices of the tastings offered at the kiosks has moved from $1-3 to their current price (hovering between $5 and over $10). 

So that is my beef.  Epcot has turned away from being an important theme park and is now a middling theme park with some great (and increasingly expensive) festivals.

Anyone who is spending time eating and drinking their way around World Showcase this fall, take a look over into Future World as you walk past.  Look at the people streaming into World Showcase, paying no attention to Future World.  Remember, Disney is doing the same.

Cheers.  Enjoy the $7.50 Lobster Roll paired with the suggested $4.25 La Crema Chardonnay.

The Land supplemental material

After writing Monday's post on The Land and touching on the use of water in agriculture, I coincidentally stumbled into some information that I thought tied in very closely to my post.

First, I linked to this on Twitter, but would be remiss if I didn't mention the phenomenal work done at The Epcot Legacy on their Future World Soundtrack Series (specifically The Land for this post).  Download and donate, you'll be happy you did.  Now, on to the supplemental material.

I'm a massive podcast listener, I listen through my commute every day, while I work out, and pretty much any time I feel I can concentrate on the material being presented.  The TED Radio Hour is one I've subscribed to, but haven't listened to much, mainly because I had other podcasts I was catching up on.  Yesterday morning, while on the train, I randomly picked one episode of the TED Radio Hour ("Finite") and part of it dealt with water use in agriculture.  It fits in very well as a companion piece, and honestly should be a point of focus on Living with the Land, as we tour the greenhouse, so that more people understand the issue.  If anyone is interested, here is the full TED talk from Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota.

Also, while I'm here, there is a good episode of NPR's Planet Money on the subject as well.  This one about the water usage in California agriculture, especially timely because of the drought.  It covers farmer's usage of water to grow water-needy crops like Almonds and the pros/cons of draining their existing aquifers to grow these crops that are in high demand.

To continue along the podcast trail, there is a 2 part StarTalk Radio (live) with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, where he speaks about water and the current/upcoming problems with a cast including Robert F Kennedy Jr.  who works with the Waterkeeper Alliance.

If you are into this kind of thing, and know of more interesting stories, articles, podcasts, videos, etc, please feel free to drop them to me in the comments or via email/facebook/twitter.  I'd love to continue to explore this.


The Land (and the elephant)

Let’s start out the exploration of EPCOT Center with a pavilion that houses my current favorite attraction, once housed an attraction which I have an unexplainable love affair with, and one that currently contains an attraction which I have a big problem with.

The Land

The Land

I’ll often refer back to Walt Disney’s Epcot, as in my mind, being a promotional piece, really struck at the heart of what Disney was trying to do with EPCOT Center, it’s ideals, and it’s intent.  Speaking about talking to the designers of the pavilion, it says:

“They get excited, the members of the team that put together The Land pavilion, when they talk about it.  Their enthusiasm, bordering on the passionate, stems from a belief that it is the most vital, significant, entertaining, and challenging pavilion in all of Epcot Center.  The story of the land and its potential partnership with man, comes closest to the philosophy, purpose, and image of Epcot, according to the designers of the project.”

The Land is a pavilion with a bit of an identity crisis in it’s current incarnation.  Thinking back to The Land as it opened in the original park, had its focus on agriculture and living in harmony with the Earth.  The attraction lineup, headlined by Listen to the Land, complemented by Symbiosis, Kitchen Kabaret, and two dining establishments (A Good Turn and The Farmer’s Market), all complemented each other and all spoke to human’s use of the Earth to provide nourishment.  Humans living in harmony with our Earth.  From Symbiosis:

“Yes, we have come a long way but we still have a long way to go.  For although chemicals and pesticides are vital tools in fighting world hunger, will we employ adequate foresight to ensure that some do not again turn up in the food chain or environment?  How much longer will more than one-fourth of the world's food supply rot on the ground or be ruined by pests simply because of a lack of proper storage or delivery systems?  How much more of the world's precious arable land will be made useless by poor planning or uncontrolled  development?  And how much more of the world's rain will fall bearing pollutants that poison our lakes, rivers and streams?   For many of these problems, solutions already exist.  For others, they can be found.  It is within our power to address these issues.  It is within our power to use or to abuse.  To ruin or restore.  To marshal, or to waste.  What is needed, is the will.  For every drop of water, every human being, all creatures in the web of life, nothing in the universe exists alone.”

Let’s take Listen to the Land.  Aside from the phenomenal theme song, the ride is one of the two attractions in Future World left mostly in tact from it’s original version.  Though the live narrator has been lost (which in itself is a shame), the ride through the greenhouses is still one of those that shows EPCOT in its original intent.   It presented the material well during the dark ride portion, but once the door to the greenhouse opened, that is when the real magic happened.  

The growing techniques were so far ahead of their time they truly looked like science fiction.  Sure, some of them may have varying degrees of realistic commercial use, but the techniques themselves are not the important part.   For example, let’s play a game of Did You Know for a moment as we pause.

Did you know that on a planet 75-ish% covered in water, less than 1% of it is freshwater that is reachable for use by humans.  Of this, 70% is used for irrigation, 22% for industry, and 8% for domestic use)*.  Of the water used for irrigation, up to 60% never reaches the crop it is meant to irrigate (and is “wasted”)**.

Growing food in new and more environmentally sound ways is still just as (or more, looking at you California) important now than it was in the 80s.  If you notice as well, over the years the different techniques have changed/evolved within the greenhouses.   New crops, new techniques seem to be displayed each time I visit.   This shows a commitment to the ever-changing nature originally envisioned for Epcot Center.  And that just covers more water efficient farming techniques.  The number of different things that they do in the Land greenhouse is amazing.

Moving on, I may be one of the few people who have such deep affection for Kitchen Kabaret.  Let’s chalk this up to a mix of music, nostalgia, and a lifelong love of musical animatronic attractions (Tiki Room, Country Bears…).   I could likely go on and on about this attraction because of my memories for it, and you should see the T-shirt I made for a trip last year.  There's nothing I don't love about Kitchen Kabaret aside from the fact that it is gone.  I love it deeply.  I will spare you further gushing however and just link to this video. 


The big open centerpiece / fountain in The Land was really spectacular, a great deal better than today’s food-court chic.  It left the place less crowded with people, less noisy, more calming.  Just look at this:

Much more peaceful than today's overcrowded zoo

Much more peaceful than today's overcrowded zoo

So now to move on to the elephant in the room.

I don't like Soarin'.

No, it's not because it took the place of Kitchen Kabaret.  My reason is something more esoteric.  No, that's not right, petty.  That's the word I'm looking for.

It’s twofold.  I cannot get past the "Over California" piece, and even with the upcoming update to Soarin’ over The World, I still have thematic issues with the attraction.   

And here's the thing. I really enjoyed the ride when I rode it first in DCA. The difference is simply one of theme and intent.  I can't get past the idea that the film is one designed and intended for a park who's point was to display the wonders of California, in California. It's a "Come see the rest of California while you are here!" tourism film. The only thing is, in DCA, it makes thematic sense. That was what all of DCA was intended to be.

In Epcot, specifically in The Land, it makes almost no sense. Sure, by very nature of the attraction, there is "land" featured. Very pretty land. But, The Land was not about promoting tourism. The Land was about living with nature. The importance of agriculture, the importance of living in harmony with the Earth. Listen to the Land, Kitchen Kabaret/Food Rocks, Symbiosis, the Farmers Market. They all had themes specific to working with the Earth to provide food for our future and harmony with the Earth. Not look at how well we turned this beautiful landscape into a freaking golf course!

Now, will I like it more as Soarin' Over The World?

I will give it another try. Again, my issue is a little more than just "California". I don't feel that The Land pavilion was about showing off beautiful landscapes. But the California part will likely bother me less, that is for sure. It will make a little more sense to focus on the Earth as a whole and not just one state in one country.

This gets into a little bit of one way I’d fix Epcot if I could, which I will be tackling in much more detail in the future.  This will play a small part in a much larger plan.

I really feel that the film should use the Star Tours technology to display an always changing array of wonders of the world. The world is too large, too beautiful, too unknown to a vast majority of the population (of the US and the world!) to be limited to one 5 minute film.

Also, I don't think it belongs in The Land. I think it belongs in World Showcase. Updated, this is a film about the world, which, I believe, is represented in World Showcase at Epcot!

Currently, the queue that they had to build to connect The Land to the Soarin' show-building is long (see yellow below). Now that they are doing construction, adding a 3rd theater (which is a discussion for a different day), they should take this opportunity to place it in its rightful place. If we're going to have to stand in a line a country mile long, let's move it so it's at least theme appropriate.
Here are two potential paths:


Two potential paths

Two potential paths

Now I know why I bookmarked "Walt Disney World" on Google Maps.

Either of those would be just slightly longer of a queue than current. It could lead out to a spot inside World Showcase. I like the idea of having it at the entrance to WS honestly, as it's about the entire world, but I also wouldn't want to cut out any of Canada's beautiful gardens to get it, so I'd accept it on the other side. There would have to be work in that case though in how to get supply trucks and equipment into Canada, but again, I'm sure this could be done. Go over, go under, it ain't rocket surgery.

Once Soarin' is moved, well, I'll get to that later. There would be a worry on my part that The Land would waste away and die, so there should be something added to The Land to make sure that we keep the crowd drawn in.

The Epcot Manifesto mission statement.

Welcome to the Epcot Manifesto.

Manifesto?  That doesn't sound very "magical"!  Isn't Epcot in Disney World?  Isn't Disney World one of the happiest places on Earth?  How could one relate the word manifesto with a theme park?

The mission of this website is simple.  To explore the mission of EPCOT Center, the park as it existed in the 1980s and 1990s.  The park before it lost some capitalization and the word "Center" from it's name.  To look at the park that was, the park that is now, and to perhaps suggest some ways that the park could be brought back to it's former glory.  

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