Monday Morning Imagineer

Monday Morning Imagineer – Reshaping the Future: Innoventions

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In 1982, the future came to Walt Disney World. Specifically, it came in the form of Future World, one of the two section of the newly opened Epcot Center, the first non-kingdom themed park in the Disney family. With its glimpses of a high tech future, innovative attractions and the unmistakable form of Spaceship Earth dominating the park’s landscape, children who visited during that era retain a fondness for this truly unique theme park.

However, a quick look at the Disney community today and you’ll see many people suggest that Future World is in desperate need of attention from Imagineering. It’s hard to deny, as Future World feels undeniably dated. What to do with the park remains a hotly debated subject, with some Disney enthusiasts wanting the park to stay closer to its character free routes, while others suggest even more character driven entertainment. A few even suggest the whole park should face the bulldozer, to be replaced with something new.

Perhaps no set of buildings represent the changes in Epcot more than Innoventions. The former Communicore buildings were once a shining example of what made the park unique, but are now a shell of their former selves, with Innoventions West closed and possibly being overhauled into a full character meet and greet area. Innoventions East only has three major exhibits remaining. During our last Walt Disney World trip, the benches near the exit were the most popular spot, with families using it as a spot for naps.

As your Monday Morning Imagineer, I have an idea for revamping Innoventions that would incorporate a specific set of characters while retaining the attraction’s original focus on technology and innovation, and would even bring back an idea that ties in with some of the earliest ideas for Epcot, some of which go back to Walt Disney himself.

So before we look to the future, we’ll take a step into the past, and talk a little bit about Walt’s original ideas for Epcot, and how it evolved into the Epcot Center that opened in 1982.

A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

As he sat in his office at the Disney Studios in Burbank, Walt Disney worried about the future. Not the future of his company, which continued to silence the skeptics who decried each of his ambitious plans. Instead, Walt’s attention centered on the world just outside the California studios, where automobiles already started to clog the Los Angeles freeway system. Walt predicted, correctly by the way, the situation would only get worse over time. It was only one symptom of modern cities, which Walt felt were far too hectic and without a sense of community.

“I don’t believe there’s a challenge more important than finding solutions to the problems in our cities,” Walt would later say in explaining his motivations behind what would become Epcot.

When Walt began work on what was first known as The Florida Project, he actually less attention to the east coast version of Disneyland, which would eventually become the Magic Kingdom we all know and love. Instead, a great deal of focus went into the planning of a new type of city, one which would eliminate what he saw as the major problems of modern metropolises. Indeed, the Experimental Prototype Community(or City) of Tomorrow was not initially conceived as the theme park that opened in 1982, but a municipality of its own.

The last video of Walt Disney before his untimely passing was created for the Florida legislature and showcased his ideas for the Florida Project and Epcot(it can be seen on YouTube in its entirety here).  The ambitious project would create a community where families could easily live and work. Traffic, one of Walt’s primary concerns, was managed using his monorails and people movers,  with cars restricted to underground tunnels.

A major part of Walt’s vision for Epcot involved technology, and it wasn’t limited to the company’s own innovations. He intended many of the job in the city to be centered around the development of bold new technologies. Leaders in various fields would be invited to set up shop in Epcot’s industrial park, shuttled to and from the city proper via monorail. Visitors could see these latest technological innovations on display, to get a glimpse into the future.

It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems.

– Walt Disney, on his vision for Epcot

Sadly, with Walt’s passing two months after the creation of the Florida Project film, the concept of Epcot as a city became too complex to pursue without its chief designer and proponent. However, his brother Roy and other senior members of management didn’t want to see Walt’s vision become nothing more than a forgotten dream. Thus was born Epcot Center, a theme park that tried to encapsulate Walt’s dreams of an optimistic future. In many ways, the final version of Epcot Center felt like a permanent World’s Fair, with both the international shopping and focus on technology that Walt envisioned in his original plans for his City of Tomorrow.

The Core of the Community

The difference between entering Epcot Center and the two “kingdom” parks was as obvious in 1982 as it is today. With Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, you enter past the train station and circle around onto Main Street USA, with the reveal of the park’s castles a major part of the design. The massive form of Spaceship Earth is obvious from the parking lot, so it’s the first thing you see when walking into the park past the entrance plaza. Behind Spaceship Earth and to either side are what was once Communicore.

To all who come to this place of joy, hope and friendship, welcome. Epcot is inspired by Walt Disney’s creative vision. Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, wonders of enterprise and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all. May Epcot Center entertain, inform and inspire and, above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man’s ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.

– Disney CEO E. Cardon Walker at the dedication of Epcot Center

While the buildings housed exhibits based on communication, the name actually stands for Community Core, and the twin buildings were originally conceived as Epcot’s answer to Main Street USA. Inside, visitors could find rotating exhibits that dealt with the latest in technology. With exhibits like SMRT-1 and Backstage Magic,

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Me on the phone, talking to SMRT-1 in an image that’s pure 80s.

Communicore also introduced visitors to futuristic technology they assured us would one day be common place. Given this included things like touch screens and voice recognition, it’s clear the early Communicore lived up to its billing, and is fondly remembered by children who visited Epcot during the early days, myself included.

Over time, however, the Communicore concept felt dated, and in 1994 was replaced by Innoventions. This new attraction focused on the practical applications of technology, and also showcased new video games by Sega. In the eyes of many Disney fans, Innoventions wasn’t as successful as the original Communicore(though you can’t discount the Nostalgia Goggles Effect). What’s undeniable is that the attraction lost various exhibits over time, to the point that Innoventions West closed completely, and only three major exhibits remain in Innoventions East: Colortopia, StormStruck and the popular Sum of All Thrills, a virtual “create your own coaster” attraction.

Now that we’ve seen the history that informs Innoventions, I’d like you to take a walk through of how I’d rebrand the attraction. It involves a popular set of characters, a nod to the idea of Epcot’s industrial park and, believe it or not, another city that doesn’t exist.

Welcome to the Nerd Lab

As you enter Epcot Center, at first you can hardly tell anything has changed. Spaceship Earth stands as sentinel at the front of the park, but once you pass under it, the latest attraction in Future World beacons to you on the left. The facade now has an undeniable oriental flare, with banners hung on the side showcasing its latest exhibits. And, at certain points during the day, a strange, three eyed creature can be seen out front, flipping a sign and inviting you to enter the building.

It is no longer Innoventions. It has become the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology’s Science Fair.

Upon entering the Fair, guests are greeted by instructors from the Institute, who explain that the Fair was set up to find the best and brightest young minds to join the upcoming freshman class. To that end, students from around the country have been invited to showcase their latest projects and most cutting edge inventions.

Guests are then free to explore the Fair, which is set up much like the layout seen in Big Hero 6. The exhibits themselves are not creations of Imagineering for the most part, but actual rotating exhibits from companies as well as colleges across the country. What’s more, a handful of these exhibits are staffed by familiar faces from the Big Hero 6 film: GoGo, Honey Lemon and Wasabi, with additional characters inspired by the new show or created just for the attraction. And at various points throughout the walk through exhibit, guests will also see some fanciful examples of future technology, like the rocket boots being tested “by” Mochi, the cat from the film and a small exhibit featuring Hiro’s microbots.

A small stage would stand at the middle of the attraction, and would host occasional presentations from leading technologists and innovators, as well as stage shows in which the cast from Big Hero 6 would present technology that, well, doesn’t quite work as planned, with both humorous and action packed results.

Toward the end of the exhibit, guests will see a plaque dedicated to the memory of Tadashi Hamada(sorry to hurt you again, Tadashi fans, but I think he has to be represented here to make the story feel right), just before they are invited to meet his greatest legacy. That’s right, the Baymax Meet and Greet would also be a part of the new Science Fair, and would occasionally be joined by Hiro and the other members of the Big Hero 6 team.

The final area of the attraction would invite younger inventors to share their ideas for future technology via a kiosk. Once they’re finished, their application is reviewed and accepted by the staff, and they are given a letter welcoming them to the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology freshman class. Of course, parents could go to a section in Mousegears where they could get an ID card for their child, along with the inevitable SFIT merchandise to take home.

Behind the Scenes

Of all of the characters Disney might consider putting in Future World, none fit as seemlessly as the cast of Big Hero 6. It’s such a natural choice I wouldn’t be shocked if Disney eventually went this route, though I doubt their presence would be anything quite so ambitious. If nothing else, they’d be a great fit as an overall face for the park, not unlike Judy and Nick from Zootopia would fit perfectly at Animal Kingdom.

The Science Fair would be a good concept for the Innoventions building, because it wouldn’t take much space and would harken back not only to the original Communicore but also incorporate some elements from Walt’s own industrial park model. The exhibits from around the country wouldn’t just be a part of the storyline, but would be actual submissions from universities and R&D departments of major companies. And rather than the practical application concepts of Innoventions, this would be technology that might be years or even decades away from practical implementation, but might one day be as ubiquitous as those touch screens from Communicore.

Big Hero 6 also fostered an interest in science for many children, and what better way to foster that love then let them see amazing inventions in person? What’s more, by incorporating the Big Hero 6 cast to give the exhibits more of a cohesive story, it would make the presentations even more memorable, and would prevent the Science Fair from feeling like a dry educational exhibit. And with the occasional scripted stage show and the Meet and Greet, there would certainly be an entertainment draw to the attraction as well.

The science fair set up would also make changing out exhibits far easier than the older Communicore and Innoventions designs. This might create a lower investment on the exhibitor’s part and encourage schools and smaller companies to get involved. Even the small, storyline driven exhibits, like Mochi, would be fairly simple animatronics. The microbots exhibit could be a simple pre-programmed display, or could use 3D projection technology to allow guests to make the microbots change into one of a small number of predetermined shapes a guest chose.

Is it feasible? I think so. The biggest challenge would be finding the right Cast Members to play the characters, and then finding intriguing technologies to add to the Fair. Innoventions is arguably one of the areas in Future World that’s in most need of attention, and while some traditionalists don’t like the idea of characters in Epcot, it’s hard to imagine a group that fit not only the park, but an attraction almost perfectly.

Now, if you’ve made it this far you might have noticed one major omission, and are screaming at your monitors, “But you forgot Sum of All Thrills!” I haven’t, it’s just that the attraction doesn’t feel like a great fit for the science and technology theme that Communicore and now the Science Fair represent. While you could argue you need to be inventive to create a roller coaster, I think it requires another quality that begins with the letter “I”.

That quality actually already has a pavilion in Epcot, and it seems to me that Sum of All Thrills would be an even better fit in a certain pair of glass pyramids on the other side of the park. But that’s just one small portion of what I’d do to revitalize my all time favorite pavilion in Epcot. And next week, I invite you all to walk across the park to Future World West, where I’ll share my take on how the Imagination Pavilion could be improved. I’ll even leave you with two hints: It involves a name change, and the return of a beloved character in a major way.

In the meantime, I’ll go on dreaming.

A Daily Dose of Disney

Like most Disney fans, I like to find ways to feel closer to the parks when I’m half a country away from them. Each week, I’ll highlight little ways you can bring a little Disney magic into your lives.

The Imagineering Workout – If you’ve learned one thing about my Disney fandom so far, it’s that Figment is near and dear to my heart. So when I saw this book on the shelves at Walt Disney World, I had to pick it up, and I’m glad I did. With tips and tricks from so many legendary Imagineers(yes, including Tony Baxter) and how you can apply them to your daily life, this is a must for any Disney fan. The best part is, they have suggestions for applying creativity to not only projects like writing, drawing or photography, but to things like decorating your house or planning a party.

What’s To Come

Wednesday begins the actual story of the Disneymoon, with a little bit of the planning(or lack thereof) that went into our trip, along with our first day in Walt Disney World, including a review of Trader Sam’s!

And as promised earlier, next Monday we’ll continue the Reshaping the Future series, with my thoughts on how to revitalize the Imagination Pavilion!

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