Written by Scott Smith
By now everyone has heard the news (at least everyone who reads WDWNT) — Universe of Energy, a pavilion that has long stood in Epcot, is going to be replaced. Guardians of the Galaxy is moving in to what I feel was one of the integral pillars of what Epcot was. The admittedly-aging attraction, home to Ellen Degeneres and Bill Nye, is to be replaced by an E-Ticket attraction starring Groot and Rocket. What are we to make of this? Are we going to praise Disney for giving us (and Epcot) a sorely-needed new ride, or are we going to be upset that some random IP-du-jour is taking up residence in a pavilion wherein the new attraction will have no relation to the pavilion’s original intent? Well…it’s a complicated issue. And honestly, I don’t know how to feel.
I’m not going to laugh at anyone who’s upset. I fully understand their thinking. Nor am I going to say anyone who’s excited is “stupid” or “a problem”, but this is a big deal. It’s a fundamental shift from what Epcot is, was, and has been. Not simply because it’s an Intellectual Property of the Walt Disney Company does it represent a fundamental shift. That’s because the IP in the form of Finding Nemo over at the Seas, or The Lion King at The Land, were changes that fit the mold of the pavilions and preserved their original conceptual spirit. Guardians, on the other hand, is a property that has nothing to do with Energy, will not have anything to do with Energy, and will completely encompass and erase everything was there before (with the exception, possibly, of the show building itself – but this is likely for cost reasons and nothing else).
Let’s start at the beginning. What WAS Epcot? What is it NOW? Back in the day, young Scott was a small, bullied nerd. Being very timid, he didn’t love thrill rides, but loved the immersion and escapism that Walt Disney World offered. Epcot was an amazing place. The attractions were perfect for me. They were creative, imaginative, and immersive, and the thrill was in the design and theme, not in speed or drops (I have since learned to love roller coasters and other rides of the sort, I’m just recounting my history here). I quickly fell in love with Epcot, as many others did. What I may not have realized at the time, was that there was something underneath it all, a whole other level, that made Epcot greater than just its collection of attractions and pavilions. What Epcot was, at its core, was a bold statement about a future, a really-for-real future, that we actually could achieve, for the betterment of society. Transportation, energy, the land, the sea, the power of our own imaginations — all of this would be harnessed to make an optimistic future become reality. As I said before, I was extremely timid and scared as a young boy, and even to this day I suffer from anxiety and depression. While I was there, Epcot had an amazing effect on me: it made me not afraid. It made me feel like tomorrow was going to be ok, that the future would be great, and that I didn’t need to be afraid of what was to come. Whether it was Figment, or Horizons, or “Tomorrow’s Child,” Epcot allowed me to escape the anxiety and depression of my everyday existence and for once I could be happy, and not afraid.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, it didn’t stay that way. As the future was born each day, Epcot had trouble keeping up. There are plenty of places to lay the blame, but that’s not what this article is about. As time went on, missteps happened, some larger than others, and Epcot fell behind. Wonders of Life became not so wonderful after it was essentially abandoned, Mission Space never landed (pardon the pun), and Imagination was one disaster after another. Innovations had dozens of changes of various quality, like a rudderless ship trying to find its way. The amazing layout of the park made it ideal for various seasonal festivals, and thus the Food & Wine Festival in the fall and the Flower & Garden Festival in the spring became the main driving force of the park (and a huge cash cow for the Parks and Resorts division), so much so that they’ve been replicated in DCA and extended to additional seasons at Epcot. The culmination of all of this was an Epcot that struggled to stay relevant, as questionable management decisions and changing tides of society came and went.
In the beginning, Epcot was an amazing achievement that inspired almost all who visited, but as Epcot approaches its 35th birthday, what is it now? In my opinion, it’s merely just a theme park with several fun experiences, no longer inspiring guests, but more likely disappointing them, due to the lack of spirit resulting from the lack of a cohesive vision for the park. So, what’s the solution?
I wanted a return to the optimism, a return to the time when Epcot made me feel better, and brave enough to look forward to tomorrow. As Imagineering has shown us in some of its greatest creations, whether it be Pirates 50 years ago or Soarin’ more recently, IPs are not a pre-requisite for an attraction to be “fun” and well-liked by guests. And let’s not lie, “fun” is first and foremost what the “average” park visitor seeks. It wouldn’t have been difficult for the company to keep Epcot updated and relevant, while keeping each pavilion alive in spirit and continuing to make people feel good about the future. If IPs were a mandate, Disney could have followed the example of The Seas and The Land with tie-ins that made sense. We could have had Hiro and Baymax teach people about energy (Big Hero 6 was a wonderful supporter of science). The emotions of Inside Out had the perfect seat from which to teach us about the body in Wonders of Life. Figment and Imagination had literally endless possibilities.
But Disney decided not to go this route. I’m not going to argue the fact that the Guardians of the Galaxy have become very popular. No question, they sell merchandise, but instead of holding true to Epcot’s ideals, the bean-counters are only concerned with what sells. You cannot tell me it “fits” or whatever line Bob Chapek is feeding us. A fake Polaroid of some kid posing as Peter Quill, who supposedly visited Epcot, is ludicrous. This attraction will have nothing to do with energy, so the pavilion is completely sacked. It certainly doesn’t fit with any sort of optimistic future, since it has nothing to do with Earth or our everyday lives at all. Yes, they’re relatable characters, but so what? Epcot was about improving our OWN lives, making OUR future better. This is science fantasy, something that would be awesome in the Studios but something never done in Epcot. Every single attraction in Future World — even something as detached as Soarin’ — had to do with OUR lives and OUR world. Guardians of the Galaxy is nothing of the sort. By putting this in Future World, management and the bean counters are opening a Pandora’s box, heading full steam ahead down a slippery slope of removing something and putting literally anything in it’s place. Who needs a transportation pavilion? Just put in Cars and sell toys. Animals live on “The Land” so just put some live-action Lion King characters in the boat ride. I might be exaggerating here, but those make as much sense if not more that what Disney is planning. With this addition, there is no more optimistic future; it is gone, given away to the bean counters. Chapek can give whatever lip service he wants, but Guardians does NOT fit with Epcot’s founding ideals, and anyone who says it does is simply feeding us a line of bull. No more will Epcot entertain us while teaching us we can be better. It may entertain us, but certainly not the way it did before. Future World will not be a beacon of hope for a better society. Sure, some of that will remain, but the resulting disjointedness from this random placement will stick out like a sore thumb, and only pave the way for each part of Epcot to be replaced with whatever movie is popular. Epcot, as so many of us knew it and loved it, is gone. It sucks.
Not to leave everyone depressed, let’s look at what we are getting in exchange for our beloved Epcot. We’re getting a brand new, multi-layered, E-Ticket experience. Let’s also not forget that the Guardians of the Galaxy are some awesome characters, and both movies were excellent. They brought back the fun of the rag-tag science fantasy movie, something that was lost in the Star Wars prequels. The characters, no matter what “species” they are, were human in their emotions and experiences. Frankly, I love them. As a theme park fan, how can I be upset about this? Just think about this: Disney took Avatar, a really overrated, boring movie, and created an attraction worthy of praise. Imagine what they could do with GOOD movies! They did their best overlaying Tower of Terror in DCA, and the results are fun. So think about combining those characters with a BRAND NEW ride — it’s exciting! With a new project of this caliber being added to Epcot, it very well could bring in a whole new generation of children, who will then about Epcot as I did as a child. What if this project remains a one-off, and with the increased popularity and concomitant attendance increase, Disney decides to fork over the money for a high-tech Figment ride? Unlikely, but possible.
Like I said, the Epcot of our nostalgic memories won’t be coming back. It’s easy to be upset by this news. It is inevitable that something new will take its place. Personally, I don’t think Disney is gave even a shred of consideration to Epcot’s theme or optimistic message about the future when they decided to put Marvel in the park. The best we can do at this point is hope that it has a positive effect on the rest of the park. If the Seas pavilion stays on-message (as it is currently doing, even with Nemo there), the kids who come to ride Guardians might also visit that pavilion and discover more about our oceans. If Spaceship Earth continues to champion communication (and hopefully get a bit of love to make its message even more clear), perhaps those who stop to ride it on their way to Guardians next door will be inspired, just as the Irons version did for me. I’m not trying to sound like an apologist, and am certainly not making excuses for Disney’s attempts to make it fit, but… as a theme park fan, a lover of rides that take me out of the real world… how can I be mad at this? What if instead decided to keep the theme of Energy, but simply removed all the dinosaur animatronics and replaced them with screens? That would be far worse the scrapping the whole thing for a new E-Ticke. There could be dozens of Imagineers working hard to take those children with Groot lunch boxes, and fans who follow the comic books, and even those who’ve never seen the Guardians films, out of the real world and on a fantastic journey. That’s… well, that’s pretty darn exciting.
What’s my point? I guess, writing it out like this, my point is that there are both upsides and downsides, that those who are mad and those who are excited are both right, and there’s not really much we can do at this point anyway. This marks an end of an era for Epcot, full stop. A lot of us are losing something we treasured. New stuff is coming though, and hopefully it will be really fantastic. As opinions flare, whether on social media or face to face, the situation is more complicated than one side being right or wrong. Don’t laugh at people that are upset, because you don’t know what Epcot meant to them. If you’re happy that this brand new attraction is coming, just remember this changes a huge dynamic that has been in place for 35 years — even when Epcot wasn’t that great. New stuff is awesome but there is often a trade-off, and that can hurt. Likewise, if you’re feeling sad about what has been lost, please understand that unfortunately these things must happen. While we’d all love an Epcot museum, Epcot the theme park can’t be it. In the end, if these rides are well done, they’ll make lots of magic for a new generation, and thatt could inspire them to do great things. New projects are exciting, but just because someone’s cheering doesn’t mean that they’re happy at the demise of old Epcot. It’s a complicated scenario, but we’re all on this Spaceship Earth together.