Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Epcot |
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Postcard from Epcot

A technological fun-fair made possible by the microprocessor and mankind’s allegedly unflagging responsiveness to the cuddly warmth of Mickey Mouse, Epcot is the Walt Disney organisation’s latest and most awe-inspiring addition to the large part of central Florida known as the Vacation Kingdom. From the moment I first heard about Epcot I knew I would do almost anything to get out of going there, but duty called.

Epcot sounds like an anagram but isn’t, unless Cotpe and Pocet are scatological words in the language of the Aztecs. Mexico is just around the gulf from Florida so perhaps that’s the connection. I was thinking this while reading the Epcot brochure on the way across the Atlantic by British Caledonian DC-10. The prose helped set the mood. ‘Epcot Center represents the ultimate in Disney-Imagineered entertainment … a celebration of ingenuity and innovation … the incredible visions of Walt Disney … the Epcot Experience.’

If the late Walt Disney’s visionary capacity had indeed remained operational beyond the tomb, then the word ‘incredible’ seemed hardly sufficient to fit the case, but that was a quibble. The British Caledonian Experience included some reassuringly larky hostesses in plaid skirts. Had they been heading straight back to Gatwick, instead of stopping over in Atlanta, I would probably have begged to go with them.

Atlanta airport gives you your first taste of the Epcot Experience. A computerised min-train with a flat voice takes you to the passenger processing centre. ‘This is Concourse A. The next stop is Concourse B. The colour-coded maps and signs in the vehicle match the colours in the Concourse.’ The paging system has a real human voice calling out real human names (‘Would Gloria Raspberry, Slope Middleton and John Lurching please go to a white pay phone and dial zero for a message?’), but in all other respects the machines are in control, running a complex whose sheer size reminds you that the South is the new wealth centre of the USA.

After a quick Eastern Airlines interstate flight to Orlando in Florida, you get an even stronger reminder. Eastern is billed as the Official Walt Disney World Airline and Orlando’s airport is just as thoroughly automated as Atlanta’s. Thanks to the Vacation Kingdom, tourism is the Number One industry in the area, with the traditional citrus and cattle running second and third. But coming up fast in fourth place is technology. Just as Florida’s Walt Disney Magic Kingdom copies the Californian Disneyland but gives itself more room, so the Florida equivalent of Silicon Valley turns out the same chips but at a lower overhead. With Kennedy Space Center only an hour down the tollway, not even the sky is the limit.

The Mickey Mouse touch-telephones in my hotel room were a token of how Epcot marries advanced electronics to the hallowed Disney ideal of anthropomorphised model animals who insist on being your friend. A special television channel with a Slim Pickens-type Southern Fried voice-over described Epcart as a noo world of wonder and a leading Florida traction — traction being the opposite of repulsion. So I was already well prepared for Epcot’s initial impact by the time I became a statistic at the turnstile.

The turnstiles are overshadowed by the eighteen-storey geodesic globe housing Spaceship Earth, a ride sponsored by the Bell System. Bell’s big ball stands for both main themes of Epcot: Future World, which is composed of the high-tech display structures contributed by the respective industrial sponsors, and World Showcase, a series of lakeshore pavilions non-controversially encapsulating the way of life in various countries. The big ball, in short, symbolises the international cultural unity which must inevitably accrue as our planet, singing in harmony like the Mickey Mouse Club choir, spins confidently into the future.

The big ball also symbolises another of Epcot’s recurring themes, the balls-up. On my first day’s visit Spaceship Earth had conked out and didn’t get started until after nightfall, by which time the intestinally convoluted queue of waiting customers would, if straightened out, have stretched to the Magic Kingdom, two-and-a-half miles away by monorail. So I left that one for later and queued up for the Universe of Energy, sponsored by Exxon. Many of the people in the queue were very fat, so that if you wanted to see what was happening at the turnstile you had to take a few steps to one side. Epcot is indeed tracting ‘guests’ from all over the world, but most of the guests it tracts are Americans; of those, most are Southerners; and of those, an impressive proportion are of enormous girth, a fact emphasised by their special vacation clothes.

As one who must watch his weight lest it double overnight, I was chastened to be in the presence of a whole population whose idea of weight-watching is to watch other people’s weight while adding to their own. Imperfectly circular men and women clad in T-shirts and running shorts snacked their way through one-pound bags of peanut brittle. They all wore training shoes. Training for what? A heart attack? That the rides should keep breaking down no longer seemed quite such a mystery.

Inside the pavilion there was a hundred-piece multi-screen movie plus stereo song. ‘Ener-gee! Bringing our world new graces!’ Then we went through into an environment of rhubarb lurex drapes with blocks of seats looking like cut-down buses minus wheels. ‘You are seated in an Epcot innovation, the Travelling Theater,’ said a tape proudly. ‘Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times.’ Another wrap-around movie told us about energy in the past. Then the screen rolled up and we rumbled forward to see what the past looked like.

‘Come with us’, boomed a doomy tape, ‘into the Mesozoic age.’ ‘Where we goin’?’ asked the large lady filling the row of seats beside me. ‘Oh my! Whoo-ee! Lookit that!’ The Mesozoic turned out to be a block-long diorama with dinosaurs looming out of dry-ice fumes. Chips and solenoids gave the embattled beasts a more subtle repertoire of movement than the standard Disneyland animated dummies with which we have long been familiar. Instead of moving their heads from side to side and their arms up and down, they moved their heads up and down as well as from side to side, while moving their arms from side to side as well a up and down. More interesting was that all-powerful Epcot master computer had failed to close the automatic doors in my section of the Travelling Theater, so there was a chance that if my companion breathed out suddenly I might be propelled into the Mesozoic, there to be engulfed by primeval steam.

On through the hologram-haunted and diode-decorated darkness grumbled the solar-powered, computer-guided Travelling Theater, with the sound system thundering a continuous testament to ‘the genius of the human mind’. But as the Travelling Theater headed out of the prehistoric jungle and back into the era of the rhubarb lurex drapes, suddenly the whole show ground to a halt. ‘Mmwah mmwha!’ said the Travelling Theater, going nowhere. ‘Please remain seated,’ said a human voice. ‘We are experiencing operating difficulties.’

The tape moved on to its next cue, which was now out of sequence with events. ‘Welcome back, folks! We hope … click.’ The computer must have forgotten to tell the cassette-player to hit the pause key. An Imagineer appeared out of the mist, lifted up a panel in the Travelling Theater, and doctored the hardware. ‘Mmwah!’ Still no action. ‘We are unable’, said the human voice, ‘to continue with our presentation.’ The brochure told us what we had missed. ‘The forces of energy and the part they play in our lives is powerfully depicted in the show’s final act.’ It sounded good.

Resolving to give the powerful depiction another chance later, I tried the World of Motion, sponsored by General Motors. This one looked like another airline terminal but the ride was fun, even after you had finished being told how much fun it was going to be. ‘When it comes to transportay-shun,’ sang the hidden stereo, ‘it’s always fun to be FREE.’ From GM’s viewpoint, you couldn’t help suspecting, it would be even more fun to be free from Japanese competition, but be that as it may, the dioramas were witty, with caveman automotive engineers inventing triangular wheels, etc.

There was a bit less than usual of Mickey Mouse’s deadly optimism. I always preferred Donald Duck, and even him I could stand only when he was in an evil mood. His nephews were good value, especially when they were setting booby-traps for the Beagle Boys or jockeying fanatically for promotion in the Junior Woodchucks, an organisation which combined all the most pious elements of the Boy Scouts, Rotary and, dare one say it, the Mickey Mouse Club. You felt that in some neglected department of the Walt Disney empire the genius of the human mind was being allowed a measure of scepticism.

So it was here, when the open vehicle in which several colossal ladies and I were bumping through the darkness was abruptly transformed into a hologram of the Automobile of Tomorrow. There was a bubble of light around us through which we all stuck our hands, and in the mirrored walls of the tunnel we could see ourselves travelling in a teardrop. It was an enchanting moment which not even the portentously intoning tape could spoil. ‘What challenges await us on the road to the future?’ it asked. ‘Mmwah!’ replied the vehicle. ‘Attention in the world of Motion,’ said an amplified voice. ‘The ride has temporarily come to a halt and could re-zoom at any moment.’

Journey Into Imagination, sponsored by Kodak, was closed for most of the morning because of an open-air Dedication Ceremony. Hundreds of Walt Disney and Kodak dignitaries sat in a roped-off area while the rest of us rubbernecked across the water terraces and ornamental ponds. ‘Imaginay-shern!’ bellowed an amplified kick-line of dancing singers in white cat-suits. The President of Walt Disney Productions welcomed Kodak. ‘In 1966 I was a rookie for the L.A. Rams. My father-in-law Walt Disney said…’ The Kodak senior executive rose to reply. ‘It’s great to be here. And I would also like to say how great it is to have the Kodak All-American football team here with us … all of you who share in that dream.’

Sharing in that dream helped offset the awkward fact that Journey Into Imagination’s actual journey, heralded as being more complicated than all the other Epcot rides put together, still hasn’t been made to work, despite the full-time efforts of an army of Imagineers. But the 3-D movie in the same pavilion does something to compensate for the continuing no-ride mode. Wearing special glasses to watch a squad of differently coloured nauseating children pointing their toys at you might not sound promising, but the results are truly sensational. You reach out to touch things that aren’t there.

Lunch in the World Showcase entailed a mad sprint to Italy. People who can’t get into Italy turn and leg it towards France, further round the lake. Thus it is revealed why the fat ladies wear running shorts. A scaled-down and cleaned-up Piazza San Marco, Italy is the most popular eating place because of the presence of Alfredo’s. Photographs on the wall show the original Alfredo, long ago in the other Italy, stuffing handfuls of spaghetti into Tyrone Power. The Epcot Italy Alfredo’s is run by the maestro’s grandson and everybody rates the fettucini as a Gourmay Meal. But my plateful was like flex melted by an electrical fire and doused with cheese foam. The helping was big enough to choke a shark, as indeed were the helping of everything else, thus to cater for local expectations. The Gourmay Meal and the gargantuan plateful aren’t two things you can have at the same time, but most Americans don’t know that. The real Alfredo, who did know it, is no doubt spinning in his grave, but his grave is somewhere back there in the alternative Italy and nobody can hear his rattling casket.

Spaceship Earth was still on the blink so I took the monorail down to the Magic Kingdom, where Tomorrowland, though now outpaced by Epcot’s Future World, would, one assumed, at least offer a reliable ride. The monorail tape proclaimed the virtues of ‘always being in a state of becoming’, but Tomorrowland seemed to be largely in a state of becoming old hat. Mission to Mars had multi-screens and vibrating plastic seats but where were the lasers and the holograms? Space Mountain, a famously vertiginous rollercoaster whose twin brother I had ridden in the California Disneyland, was at a standstill. ‘Attention, space travellers. All space flights have been put in a holding pattern. All travellers in space rockets please remain seated.’ Some of the space travellers stuck on the curves looked too heavy to remain seated without the aid of centrifugal force.

Back went the monorail across the dusk-shrouded boondocks to Epcot, now a city of candy-coloured lights with the big ball shining pale blue. Spaceship Earth was at last functioning. The facility was go. Into the car and upward we cranked into the whispering darkness, I alone in the front seat and a married couple the size of the Kodak All-American football team crammed into the back. Holograms of cave-dwellers showed Man discovering his Genius. ‘Who are squawk?’ asked the tape in my headrest. ‘Where squawk we come from?’ ‘Squawk are we going?’ A marionette representing Leonardo underwent the Renaissance Experience. Up in the roof of the dome there was a very convincing illusion of being in outer space. The car turned around and went backwards down into the laser-lacerated and diode-dotted Future. We were lying on our backs with the sound coming in at each ear. ‘Tomorrow’s world approaches. Let us explore and question and understand. Let us squawk. Squawk us squawk squawk.’

After a night spent dreaming about a talking plateful of acrylic fettucini I was back out at Epcot again, all set to give Spaceship Earth another try. ‘Having relived our past and eyed our future,’ said the brochure, ‘we time-passengers are now ready to become captains, to chart our Earth’s course toward tomorrow and determine our own destinies.’ The tape was probably meant to deliver the same message, but once again the all-wise central computer was either failing to monitor the interference or else was actually causing it.

I heard something of how ‘glorious Rome’ had been ‘consoomed by the flames of excess’ and of how the Renaissance had been ‘a beacon through the mists of time’, but after the turnaround in the starry roof — a manoeuvre aided, I now noticed, by a real live Imagineer crouching in the darkness — it was all downhill in every sense. ‘We have changed ourselves … changed our world … from the edge of space to the depths of the sea … we have squawk ourselves together with an electronic squawk.’

The Land, courtesy of Kraft, is a superficially less glamorous but ultimately more satisfying adventure, if only because the little boat you ride in is graced with the presence of a living guide. ‘Hi! I’m Thad and I’m gonna take you on a cruise through the Land with which we have a partnership. Let’s listen to it. Let’s listen to the Land.’ Brrt. Brrt. Taped insects sent messages of fertility. There weren’t just sounds, there were odours and hot winds. Mechanical chickens smelled real. It was Disneyland with chips, but the second half of the ride took you through real crops being grown by noo methods, such as a sky-hook conveyor belt which enables the roots of the plant to be sprayed with water in mid-air. Giant melons and squashes were greeted with approval by the giant people in the boats. ‘Lookit them squorshes! So big. Biggee biggee! Oh mah! Whoo-ee!’

I lunched quite well in the United Kingdom, at a pub called the Rose and Crown. Authentic except for its cleanliness, the UK was staffed by genuine young Britons, of whom about half were over there on J-1 visas as part of a World Showcase Fellowship Program embracing countless different Learning Experiences, including Future Studies. As with the other participating countries, the UK Fellowship-holders tend to be rather upmarket. A nice young man from a public school gave his present address as Seven Dwarfs Lane, Snow White Campgrounds. He could see the joke but thought that the Learning Experiences would help him in his business studies upon returning home.

It looked like hard work just replacing the merchandise on the shelves. The Americans can’t get enough of it. English hand-painted metal chess-sets at $4,000 a box are selling like cookies — no empty phrase when you see how the cookies are selling. Those guests eat all the time. In France the queue at the boulangerie looked like the early stages of a marathon for Sumo wrestlers.

China hasn’t yet opened a restaurant but features a marvellous 360-degree movie, although you might wonder why Tibet gets such a fleeting mention. Only one of the Chinese girls, De Zhen, is actually from China. The others are from Hong Kong and Taiwan. You can’t imagine old Deng letting too many of his people out to study ‘the Art and Management of the Disney Experience’. Germany has a beer cellar with Hans Sachs-type waiters in Lederhosen. There is no marionette of Hitler but you can’t have everything. Indeed as far as politics is concerned you can’t have anything. The blandness is total.

Back among the Future World pavilions, I entered Communicore for my final encounter with tomorrow, the Astuter Computer Revue. (‘Astuter’ is pronounced ‘astooter’ but ‘computer’ is pronounced ‘computer’, according to some linguistic rule beyond my competence.) A hologram extravaganza, the phantom show is projected on to the actual brain centre of Epcot, a Sperry Univac number-cruncher which fills a glassed-in area the size of a Space Center firing-room.

While the computer’s human attendants search the software to uncover why the Universe of Energy’s Travelling Theater keeps crapping out, a hundred guests at a time look through a glass wall and think they see the machine all lit up with polychromatic laser-trace lattices. The star of the show, for unfathomable reasons, is a sub-Tommy Steele gold-suited cockney entertainer appearing in a miniaturised hologram form that does nothing to make his accent or vocabulary more credible. Dancing eerily among the machine’s cabinets, he sings a hymn to its astootness. ‘That’s why I’m a rooter/For me computer.’ The groundlings are open-mouthed, which makes it easier for them to put in the peanut brittle, but only a churl would not be open-mouthed along with them. The ingenuity really is impressive. Nor is there any reason to crow about things going wrong. A constant, public reminder of technology’s fallibility is probably just what the real world needs.

What the Walt Disney World needs is a sense of humour, which can’t be had without facing facts. Despite Epcot’s much-vaunted educational value, it teaches very little worth learning, because it empties the significance from any subject before beginning to expound it. The World Showcase is not a model of tomorrow’s harmonious international society. It is a model of nothing except itself. Real countries aren’t like that. They have conflicts of interest within themselves and between each other, and always will have. The most they can hope for is to resolve their differences. The message that they should choose peace is not a message. It is empty talk.

So is the message that we can choose our future. The choice is not up to us — not because there is no choice but because there is no us. In its confident assumption that there can be such a thing as a collective will, the Walt Disney World provides democracy’s version of totalitarianism — miniaturised instead of monolithic, kindly instead of cruel, but equally drained of all nuance. For real laughter to happen, reality must break through. Most of the laughter I have ever heard in the various branches of the Walt Disney World has been hollow, even from the children. A vast organisation which tells you how to have fun is not the same as an individual being funny.

Walt Disney was funny. If you didn’t think him that, at least you couldn’t deny that he was creative. Critics who said that his creations were in bad taste missed the point. Genius is often in bad taste. They should have said that he was, at his frequent worst, tasteless — in the sense that a Gormay Meal is all presentation but tastes of nothing. (‘A generous portion of tender minute-sized shrimp,’ said the menu from which I chose my last Gormay Meal in the Vacation Kingdom, ‘doing the backstroke on a sea of lettuce, lemon crown, tomato, olives and egg quarters.’) But at least Disney’s creatures, no matter how excruciatingly adorable, were to some extent the expression of a single human mind.

On the DC-10 from Atlanta back to London they were showing Star Wars. Having seen it too many times, I left my earphones off, but every few minutes my eyelids rolled open and there they were — R2-D2 and C-3PO, the new Mickey and the new Goofy. The future, to the limited extent in which it can be foreseen, belongs to Darth Vader, the Muppets and ET. Porky the Pig doesn’t make it into space. Miss Piggy does, on the starship Swine Trek. The computer-generated graphics of the Walt Disney production TRON can do little to redress the balance. Trumped by alien creatures, the Walt Disney World has been left characterless.

It had to happen. When the genius of Walt Disney’s human mind winked out, it left only his philosophy, which was never anything except business enterprise dressed up with rhetoric. You should see Epcot if you are ever in the Vacation Kingdom, but the best reason for ever being in the Vacation Kingdom is Sea World, whose dolphins and whales remind you that man’s creative genius is by no means the greatest thing in creation. The Walt Disney World without Walt Disney is a vision without imagination — the very quality it congratulates itself on possessing in abundance. It is the echo of a lost voice, a message from the past that welcomes an empty future. ‘The challenge of tomorrow … to reach out and fulfil our squawk.’ Dreams.

— December 19, 1982