Epcot Center . Orlando
In recent years I’ve been traveling to Florida a few times annually for the purpose of visiting an elderly relative. Sometimes I go solo, other times my Mom from flies down from Michigan and we’d meet in Tampa or Orlando. We visit the assisted living center, take her to lunch, and socialize with the folks at the home. At times it’s anguishing to see the lifestyle of those who reside in an assisted care center, even a well run one with kind and caring staff. But I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend than to visit and be with someone who has been there for me and my family in years past, and it gives me appreciation for those who choose a career of helping those in their later years.
In addition to visiting the home we’ll spend a day doing something fun – like seeing the Kennedy Space Center or exploring Tampa and Clearwater. While the area isn’t a cultural hotbed I enjoy seeing new places and have found some unique spots one may not find on the tourist maps.
Sadly though our final visit was in January. Driving to the airport I said to my Mom, “Well I guess this is the last time we’ll be in Orlando.”
Surprise on me, I was invited to Florida again, this time by my other side of the family who was using their RCI time share for a week at Disney World and surrounding parks. I questioned the sanity of wanting to visit theme parks in July (for seven days no less) and informed them that here in Denver I had access to many searing hot asphalt parking lots that I could stand on for hours if I chose to. But since I love going places and know the city of course I joined in and arranged everybody’s flights as well.
I stayed for four days and they made all the plans – a nice change from my standard travel templates. They chose Epcot as a place we’d go together for two days, relaxing the other two and taking in some shows at night.
I don’t know what to say about Epcot that hasn’t been summed up by The Simpsons: “Epcot is what the people in 1965 thought the world would be like in 1987.”
Epcot was designed by Disney to be a community and residence for employees of Disney World. Life would be self contained and simple thanks to a well designed organized space and the benefit of public transportation. That never happened, and instead it became a theme park based on the idea of a “City of the future.” That future, and style of living that Epcot predicted however is more seen in science fiction movies than real life.
I got a real kick out of the swooping concrete structures, monorails and heavy looking white round and boxy buildings. In a world where all modern design is now glass and aluminum it’s, well, it’s a gas to see such retro stuff. Make no mistake I do like glass and the ability to see through it, but many of these fortress style structures (like Denver’s Convention Center or Detroit’s Renaissance Center) have been demolished or remodeled in the past 15 years, so it’s a trip to see such architecture celebrated and loved – even if it’s the faux architecture housed inside of an amusement park.
Coincidentally we met a lady from Brasilia, Brazil at dinner a few nights later. Anyone who’s researched urban design and planning knows Brasilia wasn’t much different than Epcot’s original ideas and design. Brasilia is a fascinating city to read about.
The first day we toured Future World, which encompasses the front half of the park. Now I initially thought I’d be burning up on the hot pavement, but a pleasant feature is that Epcot has existed for over 20 years now and the trees have matured nicely since my last visit during a school trip in 1992. Another plus, most of the exhibits are indoors and air conditioned. Of course I was hot and sticky, but it’s no different than biking in the rain: Once you’re wet you’re wet. And once you’re drenched in a syrupy mess of sweat and sunscreen it doesn’t become wetter or sticker. Everybody else is in the same sauna with you, so best to forget it and have fun.
During our first stop at the “Journey into Imagination” with Figment I was taught to use my imagination, so in my mind I conjured up a new exhibit at Future World based on the human and machine hybrid technology I witnessed at Epcot. It’s called the “Future of Human Mobility.” Now I don’t mean the monorail or those little pods that will whiz around cities in an alternative 1997 universe, rather the idea stems from the hundreds upon hundreds of scooters that people (with both legs) were using to escape the arduous obligation of walking. Much like the showcase automobiles in the GM sponsored “Test Track” these scooters were extreme! Some had umbrellas attached, others battery powered fans and cell phone holders. Even the rentals were top notch with head and tail lights as I discovered the night we stayed for fireworks. Late in the first day I commented “I definitely don’t remember this many scooters when I was here in high school” and the always wise Caleb informed me that the lasting battery power had not been invented in the early 90s. In this case Epcot was the future and The Future IS Now.
Some of the exhibits have movie tie ins. For example “The Living Seas,” threw in a bunch of Finding Nemo photos and merchandise to piggyback itself on the popular movie. By the way you can actually scuba dive with dolphins here, which I would have done had I researched it in advance.
The one movie I didn’t see, but would fit in perfectly with the mobility assisted world of Epcot was Wall-E. This is one of my favorite Disney/Pixar movie and nowhere in the park is it represented. Like the guests, many of the employees weren’t required to walk either. Segways were used to transport their physical bodies, allowing them to someday graduate to the ubiquitous scooters. I’ll bet those poor schmucks who have to stand and direct traffic at Copper Mountain are jealous of these guys.
In addition to the land where nobody walks (all of Epcot) we visited “Mission Space,” where CSI’s Gary Sinise trains you on a Deep Space Mission. They offer a “green” and a more intense “orange” ride. I love roller coasters however the g-forces of the orange ride didn’t leave my stomach too settled after.
To cool off mid day we visited the “Universe of Energy” where Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Nye and Alex Trebek teach you energy history at a kindergarten science level. Favorite quote:
Ellen: “But what about global warming?”
Bill: “That’s a hot topic and there are MANY opinions on it!”
Yup that was it. I suppose if I catered to thousands of people a day from all walks of life I wouldn’t risk mad statements or the spouting of any fancy sciency opinions either. Cue then our mobile auditorium entering the “underseas oil” section, where videos and scenes of rugged men on oil platforms and helicopters were shown. The BP leak having yet to have been plugged I could tell everyone was thinking the exact same thing.
We got a fast pass for the GM Test Track, a ride that sounds like a roller coaster from the outside but is simulation of an automobile test right down to the whiplash, cone swerves and speed braking. Expecting thrills, I handed my manpurse to the operator and asked if he should watch it. When he replied “No you’re fine with it” I adjusted my expectations and was not the least bit disappointed.
The second day we slept in and headed back to Epcot to see the World Showcase. I made sure to print out all the State Department warnings for the countries we’d be visiting.
Aware of the recent drug related violence we cautiously started in Mexico, wandering into an enchanted Mayan village and market with lots of trinkets and jewelry for sale. There is a restaurant indoors under “Chichen Itza” but there must have been a high level Mexican dignitary dining there because it was pitch black. This didn’t help in finding the pharmacy either to stock up on generic Mexican Propecia.
Then it was off to Norway, where we boarded the “Maelstrom,” a log ride cum Viking ship through the animatronic history of Norway – from Vikings to fjords and wind farms. Upon exciting the Maelstrom ride you watch the 15 minute “Spirit of Norway” movie, which celebrates the quality of life and the vision and drive of Norwegians. Towards the end of the video one lady in a lab doing techy stuff with a clipboard actually turned to the audience from a Commodore 64 – no joke. Then I realized everyones’ hairstyles looked like Dynasty and dated the video at about 1986. I wanted to inform my fellow moviegoers that the reason Norwegians are so content is because they tolerate high taxes and free health care, but we were late for Germany.
In Germany I leafed through a few German cookbooks at one of the many gift shops, and while taking a breather read via my iPhone this xenophobic Tripadvisor review about the German beer garden:
I was not told that I had to share my table with others. When I asked to leave I was forced to pay the bill despite eating a few bites. Management is very unbending and not customer friendly. Save your marks! I reported this in a two page letter to Disney.
LOUGATZ – Aug 10 2008
Wait! That’s really how they do it in Germany and it’s fun! I dined at the touristy Hofbräuhaus in Munich and we sat at a table as long as an oak tree, and our table mates were a fun group of friends on a weekend getaway from Hamburg. It was great – what’s so bad about sharing a table? Anyway Germany also had a big model train set I enjoyed watching.
We skipped China because I was expecting an email from my dogsitter and I didn’t want the internet blocked.
Next: Italy, where we watched a street mime before having lunch at the Tuttu Italia restaurant – located, well in Italy. While the endless marketing and merchandising at Epcot deserves to be ridiculed, the restaurants are known for being superb, and many Disney experts recommend reservations weeks before arriving to guarantee a table. Or a table to themselves. We had shells and Gnocchi in a rich cream sauce, and I the espresso was exactly to my strength and liking.
Great news! I am headed to Spain later this fall, however Epcot does not include Spain in their World Showcase. However I am considering a side trip to Morroco. So of course I visited Epcot’s “Morroco” to dive into my research. I wound up in the center of the “medina” (I learned by my Rick Steves books and Epcot that means market) and we found some real spices, just like they sell in Morocco.
And real Moroccans!
Granted Epcot’s Morocco is just another giant gift shop like the rest of Epcot there is one quality that’s worth mentioning if you’re there. Many of the employees staffing the world showcase are actual residents of the country represented. We had a great time chatting with a young guy from Wales, who was working for the summer and planning a road trip to California with his buddy. (Skip L.A. was our advice.) Past the keychains, bland rides, dumbed down political histories and promotional films, the people actual do make it a tiny bit authentic. I chatted up some real guys from Morocco and told them I was thinking of three to four days there but had no idea whether to fly to Tangiers, Casablanca or Marrakech. They all responded without doubt Marrakech.
Yes I’m actually planning a trip based on an experience at Epcot. Hey they were a local bunch that lived there. Is Frommer’s any better? Back to Tripadvisor: This reviewer from Toronto made me laugh a few nights later when reading posts about Epcot:
Canada doesn’t have Totem Poles all over the country, and I couldn’t tell you where the nearest Cattle Ranch is..for God sake it is the 21st century, I’m pretty sure we’ve had more recent cultural developments. Sadly , the only thing each pavilion had to offer were overpriced souvenirs and knickknacks and that you’ll never use, wear, or look at again once you get home. Moroccan hats for 20 bucks. Who in the US of A, or anywhere else besides Morocco, wears a Moroccan hat? -Balula Oct 2009
Our day wound down in England where we watched the fireworks show from the patio of the Rose and Crown Pub. During the two hours spent stalling at our table waiting for the fireworks to start I did some math in my head. A plane ticket to Florida is $350 (from Denver). An adult Epcot pass is $75. Parking is $14. Rental car (two days) about $80. That’s $519 dollars to visit a replica of an English tavern. In recent weeks on Kayak I’ve found London tickets for $700. So – $700 to London, and I’d guess 10 Euros from Heathrow to the door of any true pub in the city. To be in the actual country of England would only cost about $200 more than the fake country in Epcot. I’m not saying it’s a suitable alternative for all, but it’s a fun comparison.
Logistics aside, the absolute best Epcot people watching moment was in “England,” when a Beatles tribute band performed under a gazebo in the “town square.” All the older parents and grandparents parked their scooters and danced and danced, and got really into the music and moment, while all the while their kids just stared at them, or played games on their phone wondering why the adults were acting so loopy.
The fireworks show was spectacular. I’ve heard Disney is better, but since I rarely bother watching fireworks at home it was a treat. I also thought about the people who operate the fireworks show somewhere deep in the park’s phalanxes, and having a job where at the end of their day, even if they didn’t do it to perfection, that they made thousands upon thousands of people visitors happy. That’s a pretty cool job to have.
I was left asking “Why in the world (or future world) doesn’t Disney update this place?” But watching the hour long river of people streaming out after the fireworks I realized that as long as people were pouring in “doing” Epcot Center there was really no reason to to so.
The park left as a 1980s era time capsule is still a spectacle as it stands. Lord knows what lessons another civilization will learn from it long after we’re gone.