Monday Morning Imagineer

Monday Morning Imagineer – Reshaping the Future: Journey into Imagination

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On March 5th, 1983, Epcot Center opened a masterpiece.

Journey into Imagination opened several months after the park itself, but in the eyes of many Disney fans it was worth the wait. Instead of creating an attraction using one of the multitude of familiar Disney characters, the Imagineers created two new stars who would quickly find a place in the hearts of park goers: Dreamfinder and Figment. With an incredibly well designed attraction, an incredibly catchy theme song and a lovable character who would go on to arguably serve as the park’s unofficial mascot, Journey into Imagination should have taken its place alongside Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion as an iconic fixture of Future World.

Instead, in 1998 Journey into Imagination closed, and reopened a year later as Journey into YOUR Imagination. Rebranding the ride as a tour of the Imagination Institute in a tie-in with the Honey I Shrunk the Audience film that look over the 3-D theater, Eric Idle played Dr. Nigel Channing in both, and in this new version tried to introduce the audience to the concept of imagination. Figment only made a few small, barely noticeable cameos, and Dreamfinder was nowhere to be found.

It was arguably the worst reviewed attraction in Disney history.

It would take only two years for the ride to be shut down and put through a second refurbishment, to add Figment back into the attraction. Even with these changes, many fans feel the attraction is still only a shadow of its former self, and rumors of a complete refurbishment with other characters are frequent.

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I almost ran over to these when I first saw them. Seriously.

I’ve made no secret of how important the original Journey into Imagination is to me. It ranked ahead of even Pirates of the Caribbean as my favorite attraction as a child1, and I walked out of the pavilion wearing a Figment character hat that I desperately wish I still owned. I couldn’t take the smile off my face when I saw the familiar double pyramids and saw the jumping fountains once again on our honeymoon, and even though the attraction had changed so much, I still got a little choked up as we stood in the queue.

Look, I even worked lines from “One Little Spark” into my wedding vows.

So let me invite you to step into the Wayback Machine with me once again as we set the dials for 1982 and I share with you a little information about how Journey into Imagination came about, and then I’ll take my familiar seat at the MMI desk and walk you through how I’d update the Imagination Pavilion, taking cues from both the fantastic Jim Zub authored Figment comic book, and those architects of imagination who give this column its name… the Imagineers.

A Brief History of Imagination

As design work began in earnest on Epcot Center in the late 1970s and early 80s, many of the Pavilions in Future World were sponsored by various companies to help offset the park’s cost. In some cases, the sponsors dictated a great deal of the design of their pavilions, sometimes completing changing the original concept of the building or attractions. When Kodak decided to step in and sponsor a pavilion of their own, they only requested it to be imaginative. It must’ve been music to the ears of Tony Baxter.

You might not know his name, but if you’ve set foot in a Disney park, you know the world of this Disney legend. From humble beginnings as an ice cream scooper in Disneyland at seventeen years of age, he would go on to become a protege of fellow Disney Legend Claude Coats, Baxter’s first project at WED Enterprises(which would later becoming Imagineering) was Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the “wildest ride in the wilderness” was only the beginning. Splash Mountain, Stars Tours, and the Indiana Jones Adventure are just three of the projects he was involved with, and on November 1st, 2013 he was honored with a window on Main Street USA in Disneyland.2

As Epcot came together, Baxter was originally tasked with creating a completely different pavilion, what would eventually become The Land. His concept changed when the original sponsor backed out, and the new one wanted a completely different concept. So Baxter turned to the Kodak pavilion. However, the problem of how to create an attraction around an abstract concept like imagination proved daunting at first.

The team eventually settled on a concept that the process of imagination consisted of gathering, storing and recombining ideas. As the idea moved forward, the design team realized a problem. While you could argue everyone followed these three steps, everyone applied the process in a different way. What they needed were guides through the process, and they eventually happened on the idea of presenting the process through a duo, inspired by classic comedy teams of the past.

For his first character, Baxter took cues from a project that never came to fruition. In the 70s, WED began work on a project called Discovery Bay, which would have been build on the shores of the Rivers of America in Disneyland. Essentially an update of Frontierland, Discovery Bay would have boasted a slew of new attractions. One of these would have been Professor Marvel’s Gallery of Wonders, a revolving theater attraction similar to the legendary Carousel of Progress. The aforementioned Professor would have introduced the audience of a variety of amazing discoveries and inventions, accompanied by a pet dragon.

Professor Marvel would travel from west coast to east, and morph into the host of Journey into Imagination, and as fate would have it the dragon idea was revisited as well, and combined with a sculpture by design team member Steve Kirk.3 The ideas coalesced when Baxter was watching an episode of Magnum P.I. one evening, and heard one of the characters exclaim “Figments don’t eat grass!” As Baxter points out in the introduction to the Figment graphic novel, the creation of these characters illustrated the very concept they’d outlined, as well as the classic Imagineering mantra that a good idea never dies.

Guests would travel through the Dreamport and learn about the power of imagination in subsections about Art, Literature, the Performing Arts and Science. The ride utilized the venerable Omnimover system, made famous by the Haunted Mansion, in addition to an innovative carousel-style track used as audiences met Dreamfinder and Figment. The attraction’s song, “One Little Spark”, was written by the Sherman Brothers, the legendary team behind Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to name only a few. In the memorable finale, the music plays as Figment uses the power of imagination to create all kinds of new realities for himself.

Once guests left the attraction, they could enter the ImageWorks, an interactive area described by Dreamfinder as “the creative playground of the future.” Containing such amazing technology(for the 1980s) as coloring on a computer screen and the Electronic Philharmonic, ImageWorks was a worthy way to follow up the Journey into Imagination. The final component of the pavilion was a 3-D theater that would begin by playing a film called Magic Journeys but would eventually host the Michael Jackson starring film, Captain EO.

In 1994, the 3-D film changed again, this time to a “4-D” movie based on the popular Disney film, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Though no one knew it at the time, it was the first, small step to the changes in Journey into Imagination.

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The current sign for the Imagination Pavilion, or Imagination! as it’s now known.

By the time the new attraction opened, the ImageWorks had closed and the original track was cut to less than half its original length, including the removal of the famous carousel piece. Though fan outcry led to the return of Figment in less than two years, the character changed from a wide-eyed dreamer to a mean spirited prankster who would spray skunk scent on the unsuspecting riders.4 At least Figment escaped the fate of his friend and former ride host, who was declared “dead” as a character by Disney.

In the past few years, however, the tide has started to shift. At the Legends ceremony at D23 honoring Tony Baxter in 2013, Dreamfinder and Figment made a surprise appearance, marking the first time he had appeared since the original Journey into Imagination closed. Even more exciting, in 2014 the pair appeared in the first Disney Kingdoms comic book series by Marvel, Figment. The miniseries was a runaway success, with comic book stores unable to keep copies in stock, and led to a sequel in 2015.

But what does the future hold for this venerable pavilion now? I’ve got a few sparks of my own, and while they’re very much blue sky5, I’d like to share them with you. We walk back into Epcot on the pavilion’s reopening day, past Innoventions and The Land, where the construction walls have finally come down and those two familiar pyramids are still standing. But we’re no longer entering the Imagination Pavilion. We’ve arrived at the Florida campus of the Academy Scientifica-Lucidus… and the newly christened Imagineering Pavilion.

A New Journey Begins

The differences in the Imagineering Pavilion are minimal.6 Outside of the updated signage out front, the building hasn’t changed. The first major change long time guests will notice is that the signs directing guests to the 3-D theater are gone. Instead, the signage leads visitors to the new home of Sum of All Fears, transplanted from Innoventions. Guests who visit the area now will also be treated to an exhibit in the lobby that details the history of Disney Imagineering and the department’s philosophy.

There will be few changes to the actual Sum of All Thrills attraction, though guests can now have both a ride through video of their coaster, as well as a Magic Shot that simulates the guests riding their creation. Coupling the attraction with MyMagic+, guests will be able to save their rides via Magic Band, and even design their rides via app or home computer before arriving.

The main draw of the refurbished pavilion, however, will be the new Journey into Imagination with Figment and Dreamfinder. Cast members, dressed in period garb from the turn of the 19th century, greet guests and welcome them to the Academy Scientifica-Lucidus and usher them into the ride’s new queue. There, guests see a video featuring Chairman Illocrant, who explains the history of the Academy and its many innovations. Today, we have been invited to a demonstration from a promising young student at the Academy.

“…if it works, of course,” Illocrant adds under his breath.

A gentle, relaxing orchestral piece plays on the overhead speakers, and savvy listeners will recognize it as an adaptation of “One Little Spark”. Cast members distribute safety goggles to all the riders, since this is an untested machine and accidents have been known to happen. The visitors then board the touring trams, steampunk inspired ride vehicles that whisk guests into the Academy’s interior.

Once inside, we see a tall young man with red hair and a neatly trimmed goatee, wearing a top hat. He’s tending to a large, spherical machine a moment set in front of an array of lab equipment, until he stops and turns to face the audience.

“Oh, hello there! So glad you could come. I am Blarion Mercurial, and this is my Integrated Mesmonic Converter. It can convert pure thoughts into energy.”

Mercurial explains a little further, then puts on the helmet and activates the machine. The room darkens, and images flash in the background as he works, of various technological and artistic achievements, then with a flash everything goes dark. Then, on the pitch black wall, we see a stick figure drawn with a purple crayon. Softly, we hear barely audible singing, as though playing from a distant speaker.

“Two tiny wings, eyes big and yellow. Horns of a steer, but a lovable fellow! From head to tail, he’s royal purple pigment. And there, voila! You’ve got a Figment!”

As the last word is sung, the drawing springs to life from the wall and crashes to the ground. The lights come back up, and Mercurial shakes his head, taking off the helmet as he tries to learn what went wrong. Figment appears behind him, fluttering in the air and mimicking him movements, until Mercurial turns around and finally notices him.

Figment starts to explore the room, fascinated by what he finds. “Wow, wow, wow! Numbers, letters, papers for writing! Costumes, make-up, stages for lighting!”

Before the debate can go much further, however, an ominous black portal appears in the distance. Papers and other loose items fly toward it, and the ride vehicle itself begins to shake. Mercurial and Figment are eventually pulled in, and the vehicle spins and follows them backwards, but not before we see an ominous, clawed metallic hand emerge from the portal beside us and crash into the lab.

The pitch darkness of the tunnel persists only a moment, as we find ourselves in a colorful, lush valley unlike anything on Earth. Before we can appreciate it for long, a small patrol of blue sound sprites land beside the vehicle, and speak in a song-like melody.

“Poor propriety prompts prison punishment!”

They throw a net over the vehicle, and lead it into a small prison ahead, where Figment and Mercurial sit. While Mercurial tries to figure a way out, Figment invites the passengers to join him in a game of tic-tac-toe. A panel on the ride vehicle lights up, and the passengers select where to place their X. Figment places a O first, then a triangle.

“You’re playing the game wrong,” Mercurial says.

“But when you have the power of imagination, the rules are whatever you want them to be!”

Figment’s comment lets Mercurial realize that, using the power of imagination in this realm, he can conjure anything he wants, so he creates a key. The bars in front of the ride vehicle lift up, and it proceeds forward. Sound sprites give chase a moment, then back away suddenly.

The reason becomes obvious, as ominous smoke billows in front of the ride vehicle, and Mercurial and Figment disappear into it, followed by our ride vehicle. We have entered the Nightmare Nation.

Glowing eyes and barely visible forms dance in the background as we find ourselves again beside Mercurial. As he moves forward, images appear around us of everyone telling him that we will fail and cannot achieve his dreams. Barely audible at first over the doubting voices, but slowly gaining in volume and drowning them out, is a familiar song, but as he moves forward, we lose sight of Mercurial in the shadows.

“We all have sparks, imaginations, that’s how our minds create creations! Right at the start of everything that’s new!”

And now, Figment’s voice calls out to both Mercurial and us.

“Find the dream you’ve been seeking!”

The next line of the song follows…

“One little spark… lights up for you!”

The lights come on all at once, and Mercurial has changed into a more familiar form, which Figment introduces to us as he flutters in.

“Become the Dreamfinder!”

As the music swells, Dreamfinder turns back to the audience. “Now, we should be getting you folks home. But never fear! The Dreamport is never far away, when you use your imagination!”

He points and another portal opens in front of us, but as we move forward, there is the smell of smoke and an eerie red glow as we return to the Academy. In the distance, we see the massive form of the Singular just ahead,

“Here there are no dreams,” it says in a metallic monotone. “No imagination. Only rules.”

The ride vehicle swings to the side as a massive claw flies at it. The Singular is blocking our exit, and at first it seems all is lost. However, Dreamfinder opens another portal, and through it emerges a newly designed Dream Machine, which hitches onto the vehicle and pulls it forward, past the Singular. It gives chase briefly, but Dreamfinder is able to open another portal, and all we can see at first is the Dream Machine and the Singular. A second portal, into a pure white room, opens ahead of us. The Dream Machine and our vehicle speed through, and the portal closes, just in time to keep the Singular’s arm from passing through.

“We made it, Dreamfinder!” Figment looks around the empty room. “But… what do we do now?”

“We can visit worlds that were, that could be, and those of fantasy and reality! Why, imagination can take us over the rainbow and to worlds beyond!”

“I bet I can use imagination to discover all kinds of new things!”

“Of course. It’s your key to unlock the hidden wonders of our world.”

And with that, we emerge into the final scene, which is of course an homage to the original ending of Journey into Imagination, though now we see Figment in the worlds of famous Disney properties. He’s sailing alongside Captain Jack Sparrow, flying through the halls of the Haunted Mansion, and swinging through the streets like a certain webbed crime fighter, while “One Little Spark” plays in the background. At the end, we again see Dreamfinder behind an old time camera, except this time as the image appears on the screen, we see Figment sitting beside us in the ride vehicle, similar to the end of the revised Haunted Mansion, and which will be send to your Disney PhotoPass via the Magic Bands.

“Figment and I have enjoyed our Journey into Imagination with you! And in just a few moments, you’ll get a chance to use those sparks of imagination in the Imagineering Works, the new creative playground of the future! Or create your own journey at Sum of All Thrills. The future is full of possibilities, as long as you use your imagination!”

As we disembark, we are invited to go into the newly renovated Imagineering Works, full of new kiosks and games that let guests of all ages do things like create their own imaginary friend, put themselves into famous Disney movies in an updated version of Dreamfinder’s School of Drama, and several other new attractions. Toward the back is a small amphitheater, where Imagineers and Disney legends will visit to give talks.

And if you venture out into the courtyard of the Imagination Pavilion, you will find an outdoor meet and greet where Dreamfinder and Figment once again venture outside to meet their fans.

Behind the Scenes

The new attraction would attempt to blend the world created in the Figment comic book with elements of the original Journey into Imagination attraction. The end result would hopefully be an attraction that would appeal to fans of the original while creating an exciting attraction that might appeal to a larger audience than a traditional dark ride. Though as much as I love the new characters introduced in the book, it’s a little difficult to fit them all into the attraction I envisioned.7

As you might guess from the “safety goggles” riders are asked to wear at the beginning, the new Journey into Imagination with Figment and Dreamfinder would be a 3-D attraction. However, this would not be a simple simulator ride. Instead, Mercurial and Figment would be modern animatronics with projection technology, with scenes being augmented by the 3-D and other features. The backgrounds would be screens that could have the 3-D scenes on them.

The design would attempt to copy the philosophy behind the latest Star Wars film… practical effects through animatronics whenever possible. The new ride vehicle would have an overhand that would deliver both scents and gusts of wind to give the scenes a 4-D experience. The 3-D would also render the more action packed scenes, like the nets of the sound sprites and chase with the Dream Machine and the Singular. And of course, using 3-D in the attraction would be a sort of homage to the now-gone 3-D theater.

While the attraction would utilize the entire original track layout of Journey into Imagination, it would instead take advantage of a trackless system, to better manipulate the ride vehicles, and allow for some of the more elaborate aspects of the ride, like the speeding up and slowing down. It would even utilize the original’s carousel effect for the opening scene.

Reopening the upstairs as the Imagineering Works would once again utilize one of Disney World’ most spectacular spaces to full advantage, and allow for a longer ride experience in the attraction itself. With so many technological advances since the original ImageWorks was created, this would be a great area to both let Imagineering run wild on small projects, or have space for smaller, sponsored exhibits.

While the 3-D theater in the pavilion is iconic, the abundance of 3-D theaters outside of Disney makes this space that could be used more efficiently. If you’ll recall last week I suggested my retheming of Innoventions would require a new home for Sum of All Thrills, and even without the Imagineering theme it fits the theme of the Imagination Pavilion almost perfectly.

As for why I’d want to rename the pavilion? Simply put, Imagineering needs a home in the Magic Kingdom. Story and imagination are such integral parts of everything on property, it feels like the perfect place to pay tribute to it. Letting kids and even young adults know how the magic is created might inspire them to embrace and utilize their creativity in their own lives, and who knows? Maybe this would inspire the next generation of Imagineers.

So many people have suggested that the Imagination Pavilion is a relic of the past, and should either be retrofit with other Disney characters or removed entirely to make way for something new. But with so many pavilions that focus on science, technology and innovation, it’s easy to forget that imagination is vital for it to move forward. Tony Baxter created a masterpiece, and I don’t think that’s up for debate. Jim Zub wrote a story that understood its message and paid tribute while expanding its world. If anyone belongs beneath those two pyramids, it’s Dreamfinder and Figment. Tony Baxter and Jim Zub have given Disney a road map. I hope they’ll follow it.

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.

If you’ve never seen the original version of Journey into Imagination, then I invite you to check out this ride video and see why it’s so special to fans who were able to see it. And while you’re at it, you can get both the first Figment collected graphic novel, and order Figment 2: Legacy of Imagination just in time for its release tomorrow! (Believe it or not, this MMI wasn’t planned to coincide with its release!)

What’s to Come

Of course, Wednesday I’ll be continuing with the Disneymoon Trip Report, chronicling our first day in the Magic Kingdom. Seven Dwarves Mine Train, meeting Anna and Elsa and a very special way of taking in the Haunted Mansion are on tap. Plus, will my plan to surprise my wife with a fireworks cruise go awry?

And next week, I’ll step back from the parks for a week to talk a little more about Imagineering in general. This week’s column used a lot of history and terminology that the casual fan might not know. Using terms like WED, blue sky and omnimover might be second nature to me, but if you’re feeling lost, fear not! Next week you can pull up your desks and look at the white board(remember when we still had chalkboards?) as you’re enrolled in Imagineering 101!

Not So Hidden Mickeys(AKA footnotes)

1. I went into Walt Disney World convinced that the Haunted Mansion would be my favorite, as I devoured everything I could find about the attraction. Naturally, it was down for refurb when we were there. I wouldn’t ride any version of the Haunted Mansion until we went to Disneyland in 2009, and it would be thirty two years until I’d finally ride the Magic Kingdom version. And of course, we rode it twice.

2. Getting a window on Main Street USA is sort of like getting your number retired in professional sports, though I’d argue this is even more of an elite honor. It probably goes without saying that I have every intention of making it out ot California to see Tony Baxter’s window at some point.

3. There was one minor problem, in that Steve Kirk’s model was green. Kodak was horrified, as green was the color of Fuji, one of their chief rivals. It probably worked out for the best, as Figment’s purple color made him immediately recognizable.

4. I’m not trying to insult anyone who enjoys the current version of the attraction. I think it’s cute, but when you put it up next to the original attraction, there’s no comparison. Believe me, I wouldn’t say removing a member of Monty Python(not to mention Wreck-Gar) would be an improvement unless I thought it was really the case.

5. Blue sky is the phase of attraction design where imaginations are allowed to run wild before the design team has to figure out how to make all this incredible stuff happen. I have a few ideas, but I don’t have to make them work.

6. Speaking of not having to make them work… I really have no idea how well all of this would actually fit together. Sum of All Thrills might not fit into the space I’m suggesting, and the ride track might not be long enough for everything I envision. Again, this is the benefit of me just playing pretend and not having to make any of this make sense.

7. I really questioned as I thought about the design of the attraction whether or not the sound sprites or the Singular would fit into the design, but I think they’re important to making it flow. And it might not flow at all anyway. Can you tell I’m kind of nervous about how well this turns out, based on how important the attraction and the comic are to me?

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