Things that could be: Epcot and Innoventions for science education

Somehow I have turned into a person who runs long distance races. I hauled my sorry collegiate butt into first the gym and then the streets in December of 2012, amid the stress of thesis (completed) and graduate school (got in) and my impending graduation (BA in hand). At the time, I couldn’t run a mile. I could run about double the width of a tennis court so I could get two wide shots in a point, but then I’d probably not make it back for a third.

Then Zombies Run (the best app in the history of apps, this is what smartphones were made for) happened. Then Run Disney happened.(Aha! And you were wondering why in the hell I was talking about running in a post supposedly about Disney.) And now I get to go to Disney a couple times a year for the low, low price of running 19.3 miles in 2 days. (I do not particularly think of myself as an athlete, and I strongly recommend the Run Disney races for a novice and/or nerd runner.)

This all means I, a science educator and nerd, have a lot of free mental energy spent on training and races where I am thinking about going to Disney parks. And I am not an especially fast runner, so I have a truly inordinate number of hours staring at pavement and wishing I was running somewhere more exciting than around Green Lake for the fourth consecutive loop.

I have come to the conclusion that the former Innoventions in Disneyland CA, and entire Future World section of Epcot in FL, is a massive wasted opportunity for science education. Not only is it a missed opportunity, both Disneyland Innoventions and Epcot Future World are generally considered among the weakest sections of their respective parks, in desperate need of an innovative upgrade. Why not restore Walt Disney’s forward thinking, educational vision?

I’m proposing to redo The Land, Imagination, and Energy at Epcot, and Innoventions at both coasts, to incorporate modern science education strategies and bring the exhibits from dead space back to must-see. I’d like to ditch the Innoventions brand entirely (sorry, purists) in favor of tying the entire Future World into the much-respected Imagineering wing, and teaching very simple science messages through lifting the hood on Disney science and technology operations.

First I’ll discuss what we currently have there, then why these venues are the ideal setting for a science education-oriented design, and finally I’ll propose some designs of my own.

What do we currently have?

Currently, the building that used to be Innoventions in Disneyland is partially used for the Star Wars Launch Bay and partly vacant. Before that, it was Superhero HQ, and before that… I think it was totally vacant. Once the new Star Wars land opens, Launch Bay is scheduled to be closed and the building will quite possibly be vacant again. The building has never been even a C ticket attraction. Seriously underused real estate in a seriously cramped park.

On the Florida side, Innoventions has some super cool and massively overlooked stuff (specifically the Sum of All Thrills), and Test Track/Mission Space/Soarin are definitely E-ticket quality. But the Imagination, Energy, and Innoventions are in desperate need of an overhaul, and ideally a couple of new rides, to engage visitors and help disperse crowds off the limited set of really top-shelf attractions the park has now. Innovention’s main draw – Sum of All Thrills – was announced to be closing while I was working on this post. Even though it was quickly spared for now, I worry its precarious position is the final nail in Innoventions’s coffin.

Future World was even built specifically with education in mind! It was meant to be a half thrilling, half educational World’s Fair replica, for both culture (World Showcase) and science/technology (Future World). It’s retained a remarkably strong proportion of its original educational intent, but its ability to hold the attention of a modern audience has sagged. It still looks and feels painfully 80s. Let’s put it back to the themes it was meant to carry with a modern outlook and more importantly, modern quality.

Why will science education succeed in this venue?

1. Those attractions are badly in need of an update anyway. Might as well put in something the park doesn’t already have. Walt Disney wanted the parks to be constantly upgrading and offering the newest and best. I’m not proposing to tear out anything that’s already the best the park has to offer, though I am treading on a few sentimental sacred cows (that deserve to go). These pavilions are already derided as well below Disney’s standards and out of date. In order to go back to being interesting, exciting, and (hi executives!) money-makers, they need more than facelifts. Your audience is smart and savvy, and they will not flock to anything less than the truly new. STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) is, by definition, new. By my estimate, 11 of the top 20 movies last year were either science fiction (Star Wars, Avengers) or heavily depended on science and engineering (The Martian, Furious 7). STEMM sells! And you could sell it so much better if the science is how Disney parks work!

2. Kids love Disney and will give literally anything Disney a chance.

Need I say more?

3. You have opportunities to reach all ages. I’m not looking to teach the intricacies of science and engineering. This isn’t a museum, and it shouldn’t try to be. But we have the chance to touch entire families with simple, memorable messages about science that are accessible to all ages. Intentionally or not, this is already somewhat present in Test Track (cars require lots of engineering to make them cool and safe) Mission: Space (space is difficult to get to and requires teamwork), and even the kind of crum

4. They’re already primed to be open to new experiences.

Disney properties are specifically designed to draw a line between “the world of today… [to] enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” The architecture of the park, and people’s cultural expectations, lowers the normal barriers of skepticism and habituation. People will hop on rides that in any other setting (e.g. a fair, a standard un-themed amusement park) they’d pass up as too weird or childish. The lines for half the Fantasyland rides are crammed with adults sans children (myself included). Original Epcot, before it started getting depopulated and people decided that dioramas and shows weren’t cutting it anymore, was crammed with education and people ate it up. Why? Because when you’re hanging out under a giant golf ball, anything goes.

5. Future World and Innoventions are essentially giant science museums on steroids with rides already.

Hell, at this point some science museums are installing rides, mostly motion simulators – why not install some science museum in your theme park?

6. Science succeeded already.

Test Track and Mission: Space are already wrapped in at least vaguely educational narratives. The Test Track queue even includes interactives on car design – mostly focused on making them cool, but still they’re at least commenting on the fact that cars need extensive engineering and testing. Mission: Space highlights real challenges of space launches (including the very real puke problem). The Finding Nemo-fied Seas is shiny and educational and full of real fish and lessons about the ocean. The problem is there’s no reason to go there if you don’t have a kid under ten in tow, and there’s not much to engage older kids and adults at their level.

So what do I want to build?

In my designs, I want to restore the immersive narrative engineering of Walt’s original designs. Lands (or sections of lands) tie together on a single place, storyline, or other conceit. I have two layers: Future World as the present and future of Disney science and engineering, and specific subsets of that in each pavilion. People love knowing about the behind the scenes stuff (and we’re not trying to base a whole park off of that – sorry, Hollywood Studios, we made that mistake once)

1. Instead of Imagination, Imagineering. Imagineering (and its little brother, Imagineering’s Innoventions) are the new headliners of Future World.

The educational idea here is to show all of the engineering that goes into each attraction, and what it takes to design and build them. The narrative and theme is thinking like an engineer – specifically, a Disney engineer.

Sum of All Thrills has to go from Innoventions anyway, due to (probably) loss of sponsorship and the technology being used exclusively at Universal. Either bring back the old roller coaster simulator from Disney Quest or develop something similar and move it to the disused section of Imagination. Re-skin the (sadly mediocre) Journey into Imagination ride to bring back Figment and have him designing a new ride with the Imagineers. They can talk about the process from concept to design to test to build, and then spit riders out into the DIY roller coaster line. The roller coaster design process (or its line show) should show what happens when a design fails because of safety or terrain or just changing plans and how to think like an engineer.The existing ImageWorks What If Labs can be thoroughly tied into this narrative with little modification, which it actually matches with better than the current theme. Pop some rotating displays about recently built rides and their designs into the lines for bored waiters, add an “imagineer’s office” photo spot. Boom, two attractive rides, a coherently themed pavilion, and a happy crowd.

2. Instead of Innoventions (at both coasts), Disney’s Imagineering Innoventions + Super Science HQ

Both Innoventions buildings are divided into two sections, so I’m doing two identical pairs of concepts. One part of each building will be spillover from the newly remodeled Imagination building, now Imagineering. That building was about the Imagineering process and learning to think like an engineer. Here we’ve got interactive designs of real exhibits both recent and upcoming, and recent work by Disney R&D (which is a separate division from Imagineering and does far more weird, experimental work. The best of it eventually gets applied and sent into parks by imagineering). This is the most overtly educational of my four design concepts, but it’s small and doubles as the sneak peek room for upcoming construction, so it’s unlikely to bore excitable kids and sun-baked parents, especially because there will definitely be robots.

The other half will be fictional scientists, especially Marvel’s super scientists. Both Innoventions buildings currently have some space devoted to character meetings, so this isn’t much construction cost or bother (and it’s fast to put in). Poor Marvel has been completely left out of the parks, despite two movies a year nearly on the scale of Star Wars. This side can be Tony Stark’s lab, with places to play with the robots and the Iron Man suits and computers and whatever. The key here is that EVERYTHING needs to be interactive – static exhibits are boring and have no place in museums, let alone a Disney park. This is a blow-off-steam play zone that happens to demonstrate how science is fun and interactive.

Once again, we have two separate draws, coherently themed, able to accommodate a crowd of many ages, and best of all, brings in a lucrative and underrepresented franchise for very little capital investment.

3. Instead of The Land, Our Planet.

I’ve never loved The Land – it’s always struck me as not dynamic enough to really reflect the planet as a whole. The addition of Soarin to this area further undermined the original agricultural theme. So I’m tearing out all the theming to make this The Planet, with a new narrative to go with the existing attraction spaces. The narrative and theme is the resource demands of modern life and getting around the world – tying into World Showcase, the new Soarin film, and the new Energy (up next). I’ll keep the Living with the Land and Soarin – not much choice there, really, they’re massive and Soarin is incredibly popular – and focus on retheming, displays and interactives, and the show. The current show is Lion King themed and has absolutely appalling reviews (I’ve never seen it, thanks to that warning), largely as a result of dropping its message on you like an anvil rather than integrating it thematically into the show and rest of the pavilion. Most of the animal-related characters and content has been bumped to Animal Kingdom as well. I’m replacing this film with a Wall-E movie – a movie explicitly about conservation, that isn’t patronizing or painfully obvious! – that is more appropriate for a conservation-related pavilion. Adorable robots known to be from the future are also more appropriate for Future World than timeless animals.

This is a quick and easy redo. No major rides or structures to rebuild, just taking out a show that not many people like anyway, replacing it with a (see a theme here?) beloved and underrepresented franchise (Pixar generally is underrepresented in Florida, in my opinion), and plugging in a new narrative that suits the existing features better. (There’s barely a theme there now, so it’s not like I could make it worse.)

4. Instead of Energy, Our Modern World

Poor Energy hasn’t gotten much love lately. Ellen’s Energy Adventure has been in place since the 90s and the show is loooooong – nearly 45 minutes, far too much for a vacation in the sun. I’m overhauling the theme to Our Modern World, with the theme of technology and communications in the new century. The key here is going to be keeping it fresh. I’m trying to work with a realistic budget here so I’m stuck with the show format, but it can be much, much shorter, and the rooms made smaller so it rotates more times. The narrative of the show, and the display areas outside of it, are the information economy and communications as told by communicating between the (currently) six Disney resorts on three continents. We’ve got long-distance and local communication, translation, designs, and more. The show is short and snappy, it integrates with both the globalization theme of Our Planet and the Imagineering behind-the-scenes-at-Disney theme, and it can be designed to be cheaply updated as technology inevitably progresses.

That all said, what I really want to build here is a roller coaster or motion simulator where you’re a message being bounced around the different parks. You get sucked into a wire where your ride car represents the message being sent (please, not an email, email already is starting to feel cliche) and you bounce around at high speed traveling distance, and then you get a sudden slow-down and turnaround as someone responds to you and you bounce off again. The novel element here is bouncing between fast and slow movement, which Disney doesn’t have much of – rides are either very slow or very fast (and slow down only for necessary things like chain lifts).

No matter what budget you give me, I’m tearing out as much as I can here. Don’t get me wrong, energy is still increasingly important in the modern world (scientists remind you: renewable energy sources are ready to go, you know, now). But the pavilion has such a rep for being boring and neglected by updates that it needs to start fresh. (Which is a shame, Ellen’s reliably great. Maybe we can just make Living Seas suck a little less for adults while we’re at it and add more Dory over there?)

And so…

Epcot is in desperate need of an overhaul – not many, not even Disney, would disagree with me on that. I’m proposing a cohesive plan that would restore the overall theme of Future World to its formerly forward-thinking, education-oriented self. It would boost coherence within individual pavilions and restore the broader arc that tied all of Future World together, much like the lands in Magic Kingdom are all anchored by a robust theme. It brings in existing concerns like integrating underused franchises (I get it, we gotta make money) and keeping costs reasonable (but pleeeeease let me build a new roller coaster!). Best of all, it makes Epcot a back into park with things to do other than eating. And it does all this while sending people home with just a tiny bit more appreciation for all that science does for them, without feeling oppressively teachy on vacation. This is the bright future that Epcot deserves.

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