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LIVE ACTIVE CULTURES

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Hey kids, rehab isn’t just for cracked-out pop stars anymore – it’s the thing to do for attractions, too! After years of saying “No, no, no” to anything but the most basic maintenance, the Mouse powers have opened the purse strings for significant renovations of signature rides. But a recent update didn’t just involve high-tech effects; it also transformed themes that had endured since opening day. The question: Will anyone notice? Or care?

Last October, I had the pleasure of attending Celebration 25, a fan-driven event to mark the silver anniversary of the original EPCOT Center (later renamed just Epcot). The day featured a moving rededication ceremony overseen by Disney legend Marty Sklar (one of the last Imagineers with a direct connection to Walt); history walks around the park with Mouse mavens like industry-watcher Jim Hill and Ron “Dreamfinder” Schneider; and a fireworks finale that surpassed in bombast any New Year’s Eve that I’ve attended. But the big buzz that day was about Siemens and how their new corporate sponsorship would revive Spaceship Earth (SSE), the anchor attraction inside the enormous silver sphere.

Since opening day, “God’s golf ball” has served as the architectural icon of Epcot and as a thematic intro to the park’s educational mission. An elaborately detailed dark ride in the tradition of Disney’s World’s Fair wonders, SSE spiraled through an Audio-Animatronics history of human communication, originally brought to you by your monopolistic friends at AT&T. SSE received minor updates over the years: Obscure original narrator Vic Perrin was rapidly replaced by Walter Cronkite and the ’80s-tastic “Tomorrow’s Child” theme song; they in turn were evicted by Jeremy Irons in 1994. But by and large, SSE was the last holdout against the wholesale transformation of Epcot’s Future World, starting with 1996’s shuttering of the charming World of Motion in favor of the shallow thrills of Test Track. While classic rides like Horizons, Wonders of Life, Journey Into Imagination and the Living Seas vanished or were revised beyond recognition, SSE held its edutainment ground, despite being saddled with an offensively ugly “wand” appendage in 1999 (recently removed, hallelujah).

Now, SSE has received its long-expected renovation, leaving the France Pavilion film (Impressions de France) as the park’s last untouched original attraction. The results are a mixed bag, best summarized thusly: going up, big thumbs up; going down, a letdown. The slow ascent to the top of the big ball is essentially intact, but with new narration by Dame Judi Dench that focuses more broadly on “How the past invents the future,” employing a more grandmotherly tone than prior versions: the classic “Like a grand and miraculous spaceship” line remains, but cutesy queries like “Remember how easy it was to learn your ABCs?” give things a dumbed-down feel. Thankfully, most of the rehab efforts appear to have gone into restoring and upgrading numerous effects, especially the animatronics actors – the new Greek mathematics tutor is one of the most fluid figures Disney has ever designed. Also delightful are a couple of new scenes depicting the computer revolution of the 1970s, featuring a scruffy hacker who looks suspiciously like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

The stunning midride starfield (code-named “180 Top”) remains intact, but as the ride returns to earth things go downhill. The spectacular (if slightly dated) fiber-optic scenery has been scrapped and replaced with boring black curtains and cheap triangular tiles, all the better to focus your attention on the newly installed in-car video touch screens. First, you’ll be asked to answer a few superficial survey questions about what kind of future you’re looking forward to: city home or country living? Self-driving car or hover train? Your answers are used to generate a short JibJab-esque animation featuring your photo (taken at the beginning of the ride using new facial-capture software; for best results, don’t wave at the camera). I won’t deny chuckling at the sight of my head stuck on a stick figure, zooming through a retro-styled sci-fi cartoon, and guests around me seemed to get a kick out of it. But goofy novelty is a poor substitute for the inspirational humanistic uplift that the old finale imparted. Perhaps in our interactive age, the passive is passé, but I predict I’ll tire of finger-poking Flash foolishness in far fewer rides than the former fantastical city of the future was able to hold my focus.

PS: The Internet has transformed theme-park fandom forever, but if you still seek a source for amusement insight that you can read sans web, I highly recommend the new bimonthly Orlando Attractions Magazine (www.attractionsmagazine.com). Filled with attractive photos and in-depth articles, it’s earned a place in my bathroom magazine rack.

skubersky@orlandoweekly.com

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