While Buckminster Fuller was not the first to create the structure he would go on to dub the geodesic dome, he patented and popularized the design in the 1950s. A true renaissance man, Fuller dabbled in a variety of subjects, including the utilization and limits of our planet’s resources. In 1968, Fuller would publish a book on the subject, compare our home world to a vehicle hurtling through space. He titled the work Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. For those reasons, Fuller is indelibly linked to Epcot, and its magnificent park icon also dubbed Spaceship Earth1.
There’s no grand reveal of Spaceship Earth like you’ll find with other park icons. Its size simply won’t allow it. You can see the top of the structure on your approach to the parking lot, and as you walk toward the entrance to Epcot, it becomes more and more visible. As soon as you reach the entrance to the park, it dominates the landscape. There’s something almost unreal about it, with the triangular panels on its surface almost giving the look of an early computer graphics rendering brought to life.
You draw close, and the structure compels you to pull our your camera and shoot it from different angles, with different lenses. As you draw even closer, you stop and stare upward. There’s nothing like this anywhere else in the Disney parks, maybe even nowhere else in the world. It’s arguably only a little less recognizable than the castles and the mouse ears, and odds are people who’ve never even set foot in a Disney park will know it’s tied to Disney.
I got choked up from the second I saw it, as Epcot left an indelible impression on me during our first visit. While I could remember things like riding on Pirates of the Caribbean or having a Dolewhip in the Magic Kingdom, my most vivid memories involved the futuristic wonders that this park promised all those years ago. Epcot gave me a glimpse of a future with amazing technology like video telephones, touch screens and machines capable of responding to my voice. I walked back into the park where a device capable of all those things could fit in your pocket.
In those decades between visits, I’d changed and so had Epcot. But more than perhaps any park we’d visit on our Disneymoon, it felt the most familiar, the most inviting. Here more than anywhere else, the years melted away and I felt like a child again, ready to experience all this park had to offer.
Farewell French Quarter, Hello Epcot!
Our morning started on a bittersweet note. Due to a late decision to extend our stay in Disney World, we were unable to secure French Quarter for the rest of our stay. We ultimately settled on All Star Movies, one of the value resorts on Disney property. We got up early, packed our bags and took them to the front desk, where helpful Cast Members would have them waiting in our new room that evening.
We gathered for our last breakfast in the Floatworks, and took it all in one last time. We’d seen a few other resorts, and while they were impressive and we’d certainly enjoy a stay in any of them, we agreed in an instant that French Quarter would probably be our “home resort” for any future visits. There’s something captivating and romantic about it, and of course it will now always be linked to our first Disney trip together.
For today’s trip, we’d arranged our Future World FastPasses in the morning and early afternoon, with the plan to move on to World Showcase after we were finished. We’d secured places on Soarin’, Mission Space and, of course, Journey into Imagination with Figment. I was nervous about the latter, as I’d heard some less than glowing reviews of the new attraction. But my love for the ride and for Figment has been pretty well chronicled on my site, and I couldn’t miss out on the chance to visit there once again. We made no dinner reservations, as we’d come up with the brilliant/horrifying plan of getting small things from each country in World Showcase or, as some people like to put it, eating around the world2.
After making our way past the security checkpoint outside and the mandatory gawking at Spaceship Earth, we started our journey by peeking in a few of the different gift shops toward the front, including the impressive Art of Disney shop. We quickly learned that most of the pieces on display were well outside our price range, but they were still fun to look at.
With plenty of time to kill before our first FastPass of the day, we decided to head over to The Seas with Nemo and Friends. I remembered reading about this pavilion’s precursor, The Living Seas, in my dad’s Disney magazines and being obsessed with seeing it one day3. While I’ll always regret not being able to visit Seabase Alpha or riding on the Hydrolators, I was still excited to see what the pavilion had to offer.
The exterior of the pavilion is a treat to anyone who loves Finding Nemo. The walls have cutouts of all the familiar characters, with larger displays where Marlin, Nemo, Dory and the others can be seen, prompting me to make the eye rolling comment of “I found them!” which I’m sure has only been said there about a billion times already. But the real highlight are the animatronic seagulls, who every so often come to life with their signature “Mine! Mine!”
With the hydrolators no more, you proceed directly onto ride vehicles, which send you past some of the aquariums, complete with characters from the movie making appearances. It’s an impressive sight, and really sets you up to explore the many exhibits that surround the building. While the pavilion might now bear Nemo’s name, the real stars of the show are the pavilion’s dolphins. We watched a quick display of some of the sight recognition studies the cast members were working on with the dolphins, where they were tasked with identifying different kinds of fish by sight.
The other large residents of The Seas are the manatees, the gentle giants who can be found right off the Florida coast. Sadly, the passive creatures are frequent victims of boat propellers, and the residents we saw during our visit were rescues who’d suffered permanent damage from these accidents. We listened to the cast members who worked with them explain a little about their history, then visited the other aquarium exhibits. We actually passed on seeing the Turtle Talk with Crush, as we lingered long enough that our first FastPasses were drawing close, and so I prepared myself to visit another old friend.
I stopped dead in my tracks as I caught my first clear glimpse of the two dual pyramids in the distance, a structure almost as impressive to me as Spaceship Earth. To the side I saw the fountains that I remembered as though it was yesterday, and I almost broke into a sprint to go stand in front of the jumping fountains once again.
I have no idea how long we stood in front of those fountains during our 1984 trip, where I watched the water jump from one side ot another and I tried to catch the water or predict where it would jump next. I imagine it wasn’t long, but in my mind it felt like hours. Among the photos I’d looked at prior to our trip were several taken there, and they’d changed very little in the interim. The reverse waterfall likewise looked just like I remembered it. I even snapped a picture of my wife in front of one of the fountains, a wonderful connection to those memories of years gone by.
And then I looked to the entrance, and I started to feel butterflies.
There must have been a thousand thoughts dancing through my head all at once, some of them with the subtlety of the hippos from Fantasia. I knew all too well of the reputation the updated Journey into Imagination had among Disney fans, particularly those who remembered the days of Dreamfinder. But of all the memories of that first visit with my family, none resonated quite like our time on this trip. The memory had been drawn into sharper focus by watching videos, both the one my dad shot of the original ride, as well as several other ride videos I’d found online.
With a deep breath, I took my wife’s hand and walked inside.
The queue for the attraction now covers part of the original attraction, and as I stood in that line I found it hard to fight back a few tears. It looked different, felt different, and even the new laughing, trouble making Figment was far removed from the version I remembered. But that lovable fellow with two tiny wings and eyes big and yellow looked the same, and seeing him again couldn’t help but make me smile. In no time at all, we found ourselves on the ride vehicle, ready to tour the Imagination Institute.
Sadly, there’s not a lot to say about the current iteration other than it’s not quite as bad as people make it out to be. It’s certainly cute, and Eric Idle is almost always entertaining. Still, there’s no comparison to the original version. I much prefer the version of Figment that’s a wide eyed, excitable innocent, with “all the restraint of a six year old’s birthday party” as Dreamfinder once described him, to the current prankster. All that being said, the second I heard “One Little Spark” I could feel the original spirit of the ride once again.
We killed a little time in the ImageWorks then meandered through the gift shop, where I saw one of the stairways that led to the original ImageWorks, the one I remembered as a child. There was a part of me that strangely didn’t want to leave. As much as everything had changed, I still felt a powerful connection to that pavilion. But we still had other things to see, and so much of the day still ahead of us, with new memories to follow.
Of course, before we left I made a stop by the register, and a giant stuffed Figment and a coffee mug would be waiting for me at merchandise pickup at the end of the night. I also got a smaller Figment “clinger”, which remained on my camera’s neck strap for the rest of the trip. I only regret they no longer sold the Figment hats I’d loved as a child.
Soarin’, Mission Space and Spaceship Earth
Our next stop was The Land. Sadly, the boat ride Living with the Land was down for refurbishment when we visited, but another attraction called to us, perhaps the most popular in all of Epcot: Soarin’. We’d planned to get a quick bite to eat at Sunshine Seasons, the massive food court in the center of the pavilion, before we’d venture over to the popular attraction for our aerial tour of California.
Each of the shops at Sunshine Seasons offered healthy choices, in another example of Disney’s counter service meal options. It didn’t take us long to pick out our choices, as one of the areas offered their take on fish tacos. Having lived in California for a decade, I’d eaten at Rubio’s more times than I could remember and got hooked on them. The Sunshine Seasons version didn’t disappoint either, and we took our time with the meals, waiting patiently for our FastPass time to Soarin’.
Easily the most popular attraction in Epcot, Soarin’ is a relatively simple concept. You’re riding in a hang glider across a variety of terrain in California. To leave it at that would be like calling Pirates of the Caribbean a boat ride. The memorable experience starts with the queue, where the gentle, triumphant music selections prepare you for what’s to come. The pre-ride videos, which offer a list of the sights you’ll see presented in a sequence that recalls Superman, are a perfect touch.
If you’ve ever dreamed of effortlessly flying through the air, Soarin’ will probably be your favorite attraction. Your hang glider dips and dives, coasting across orange groves where the scent drifts upward, over the busy freeways of Los Angeles and the down ski slopes. The feeling is so real that, when the glider dips down towards a river, most people lift up their legs to keep from getting wet! This was one of those attractions where every so often I’d give a quick glance to Christie just to see the smile on her face. Soarin’ is the only attraction I can remember in Disney that ended with applause from the guests, and it was well deserved.
Our feet weren’t destined to stay on the ground for long, however, as we immediately made our way to the next attraction, and final FastPass of the day. I could remember this area quite well, even though we never set foot on the attraction that once stood there. Horizons had just been opened, and I can remember the massive lines that stretched out in front of it, leading us to pass on waiting for it. Before I could come back and experience it, the whole pavilion was torn down and replaced with Mission: Space
If Soarin’ represented the gentle illusion of flight, Mission: Space would be its counterpart, designed to recreate the harsh realities of space flight. It’s telling that not only did Disney create a less intense version of the attraction, but also puts air sickness bags in the vehicle. We entered the FastPass line, and had one of our favorite cast member experiences of the entire trip.
We were greeted by a young man who I believe came from South Africa, but both looked and sounded a bit like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Steven Adams, pre-‘Stache Brothers4. He immediately started chatting up Christie, and hassling me about how I’d been treating her during the honeymoon. When he asked if I’d done anything special for her, she told him I’d taken her on a private Wishes cruise.
“Okay, I’ve got to give it up for that,” he said, and shook my hand.
Mission: Space itself was equally memorable, as even though we opted for the less intense version of the attraction, still does a good job of simulating what it would be like to be stuffed into a capsule and sent rocketing to Mars. The answer: Not very much fun, largely due to the cramped quarters. Still, the attraction is a fun experience, particularly with the team responsibilities. While we both enjoyed it, we ultimately agreed it suffered a little bit for following so soon after Soarin’. We checked out the Advanced Training Lab, and stopped long enough to send a quick video postcard to Christie’s parents.
With our FastPasses done, we decided to visit the gift shop and exit area of Test Track, though many of the vehicles we hoped to see had since been removed5. We also walked through the remaining Innoventions building, which was sadly just a shell of what it had once been as Communicore. From there, we decided to go ahead and check out Spaceship Earth.
The attraction housed within Epcot’s iconic structure had been through a number of changes since my visit in 1984, including several different narrators. The truth was I remembered very little about it, other than the big reveal of the planet at the attraction’s end. While we enjoyed the attraction, I also felt like at different points it showed its age. In fact, we’d planned on riding it earlier, but it was down due to a malfunction, which apparently is a frequent problem. Again, this might have also been influenced by riding it so soon after both Soarin’ and Mission: Space, but I’ve also got to be honest when I say it showed its age more than any other attraction I can think of in all of Walt Disney World.
Once we finished at Spaceship Earth, we made a quick stop by Coca Cola’s Club Cool. When my mom lived in Atlanta, my brother and I visited her a few times, and I could remember the expansive World of Coca Cola there. While Club Cool is quite a bit smaller, it still has a small area to sample different kinds of soda from around the world. A few were good, and a few not so good, but it felt like a logical prelude to our next step, venturing into World Showcase.
World Showcase and the Donald Duck Incident
The only thing I remembered about World Showcase as a child was being really, really bored by it. I hate to admit that now, but it’s the truth. I was still really young at the time, and after venturing through the realms of imagination with an adorable purple dragon, learning about other countries wasn’t high on my priority list. However, with age comes wisdom and great appreciation of other countries and other cultures, and World Showcase is incredibly popular with adults.
It might have something to do with all the booze, but I’m sure that’s neither here nor there.
Our journey started with the Mexico pavilion, which is designed to look like a Mesoamerican pyramid. It’s one of the most striking buildings in World Showcase, but what’s really striking is what happens when you walk inside. The Plaza de los Amigos is one of the most simple yet striking effects in all of Walt Disney World. It really does feel like you’ve stepped into an actual outdoor market in the early evening hours, and it’s just a joy to walk around. The Gran Fiesta Tour inside is a simple yet fun attraction, and there’s just so many wonderful things to see in the market.
But the longest lines during our visit were reserved for La Cava del Tequila6. With an impressive collection of tequila and enough margaritas to keep Jimmy Buffett happy for a whole weekend, it’s a great place to stop and cool off during the warm Orlando days. We decided to try one of the offerings, a pineapple tequilla served on the rocks with a chili powder rim. I’d never ventured beyond salt, but we both found it was a nice contrast to the sweet taste of the margarita, and it would be our first stop on our around the world food and drink tour. I’d soon be grateful for the alcohol for another reason, which awaited us just outside.
Look, I don’t like standing on soap boxes when I write about our honeymoon, nor do I want to cause trouble for anyone. But after what I experienced just outside the pyramid, I feel I really need to talk about it, and actually use this forum to write an open letter to someone.
Daisy, or Ms. Duck, I’m a huge fan of your work, in particular how you let Donald’s nephews take part in your career as a reporter. I also admire your patience with Donald, but… well, that’s why we’re here. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Donald is causing quite a few scenes in the Mexico pavilion, particularly with how he acts towards women. He seems particularly interested in women who are wearing honeymoon buttons, and made a point of shoving their new husbands out of pictures while shamelessly flirting with women who were just married.
Christie was no exception to this rule, and while Donald was fairly well behaved during our photo shoot, he brazenly blew a kiss to my wife. To my horror, she blew a kiss back. I walked to Norway with my head hung low, unsure of how to respond to what just happened.
Thankfully Norway offered solace in the form of the Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe, because delicious pastries are a perfectly acceptable solution. We patched things up over a cup of rice cream, though at this point we were already starting to wear down, and the late afternoon and early evening crowds were starting to fill in.
We stopped by China and shared an egg roll and a mango green tea slush from the Joy of Tea kiosk, but the heat and the past four days of running around theme parks, combined with Epcot’s massive size, started to wear us down. We knew we wanted to check out the Japan pavilion, so we abandoned our plan and decided to quickly move past Germany, Italy and the American Experience to the Japan Pavilion.
An Important Lesson from Japan
Of all the pavilions in World Showcase, Japan might be the most visually stunning. Between the beautiful architecture, the landscaping and the amazing view of Spaceship Earth across World Showcase Lagoon. It’s also home to the Mitsukoshi Department Store, which might be one of the most impressive shopping areas in all of World Showcase. There’s something both cool and surreal about seeing merchandise from Sword Art Online and Attack on Titan, as well as Gundam models, on sale in the middle of a Disney park. In addition, the impressive array of Japanese food is amazing, and worth a look.
Even though we were wearing down pretty badly, we still pressed on to the nearby Bijutsu-kan Gallery. The exhibit on display during our visit was “Spirited Beasts from Ancient Stories to Anime Stars”, and showed a wide range of animals from Japanese myth and legend, and their impact on modern Japanese story telling like anime. As interesting as the exhibit was, we were completely worn out, and we decided to find a place to sit down and eat, and from there we’d decide our next move. Out of sheer proximity(and the presence of udon on the menu), we decided on Katsura Grill.
It ended up being one of the best decisions of our entire trip.
Christie decided to order us two bowls of beef udon, and stood in line while I tried desperately to find an open table. I finally found a small one, nestled against the back of the outdoor seating area. A few small children were running around, making a lot of noise, and I admit, I was a little concerned. After four days of fighting crowds, walking several miles and standing in multiple lines, it was probably the most stressed and tired I’d felt on the entire trip.
When Christie arrived with the udon, things changed. I’d never had udon before, outside of the little bit my wife let me try during our visit to The Wave. The second I tried my first bite, I fell in love instantly. The flavor was fantastic, and I took the time to eat slowly and savor the meal. But even as good as the food was, it paled in comparison to what happened next.
The outdoor dining of the Katsura Grill overlooks a garden area, with waterfalls and paper lanterns strung above you. In the distance, you can see the torii gate welcoming you to the Japan Pavilion, the World Showcase lagoon and Spaceship Earth. As we sat and relaxed, the sun started to set, and the entire area went through an amazing transformation. The paper lanterns slowly came to life, and the lights further down the pavilion sparked on. The lights on Spaceship Earth also sparked on, bathing it in a soft blue light which reflected off the water.
Disney vacations typically involve a lot of planning, with FastPass and ADRs demanding a tight schedule that must be adhered to. That kind of planning can make certain you fit in favorite attractions and get to eat in the best restaurants, but as we sat in the outdoor gardens of Katsura Grill, we learned a valuable lesson. Some of the best moments in a Disney park are the ones you don’t plan, and don’t always involve a trip on the Seven Dwarves Mine Train.
They’re the moments when you step outside a pavilion and see a character you weren’t planning to meet. It’s when you take a chance on an attraction you’ve never thought about riding before, or spend a few extra minutes to look for the details other guests pass by as they run from one place to another. In our case, it came when we had two bowls of udon and enjoyed each other’s company while the sun went down and the view in front of us was painted in a rainbow of colors. It took our breath in a way even Soarin’ couldn’t manage.
We decided pretty quickly to just walk back to the entrance, skipping the rest of World Showcase and heading back to our resort to relax. It would be almost impossible for anything else in World Showcase to top that moment, and we didn’t worry about the pavilions we missed. We had park hoppers on our ticket, and had the option of visiting Epcot again once we finished our final day in the Magic Kingdom.
And even if we didn’t make it on this trip, it was okay. We’d be back, and it would be more moments we could look forward to sharing.
Not So Hidden Mickeys(AKA Footnotes)
4 – Adams(who is probably one of the best interviews in all of sports right now) decided to parody the popular Splash Brothers duo of the Golden State Warriors with fellow Thunder big man Enes Kanter, with both growing facial hair and dubbing themselves, you guessed it, the ‘Stache Brothers. Have I mentioned how much I love this team and the players on it?
5 – Specifically, we’d hoped to see the Corvette Stingray concept that was used for Sideswipe in the Michael Bay Transformers movies, which had once been on display. Regardless of your feelings on that film, you’ve got to admit that’s a beautiful vehicle.