“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
― Winston Churchill
Tuesday November 12, 2013
Epcot was still something of a mystery to us, and I woke up the morning of our third day eager to change that.
Amy and I had vacationed at Walt Disney World twice before, in 2007 and 2009. These trips cultivated a burgeoning love for the amazing East Coast property, but were also barnstorming affairs. We had thundered right past masses of experiences in each of the four theme parks* on our way to the high-profile attractions. We also knew that these lesser luminaries – the things you “discover” – were the battleground. Either you found them, loved them, and it crystallized your fan heart forever, or you spent the rest of your life complaining about the price of ice cream bars and the line for Winnie the Pooh. There was no middle ground. Not for fans like us, anyway.
(*To say nothing of the two water parks and twenty-plus resorts.)
We had visited Epcot on each of our previous trips, of course, but not to the extent we felt it deserved. Our 2007 experience had comprised a single day and sleeping in thanks to dueling head colds had shortened our 2009 time. The park was an underexplored mystery.
We had vowed to right that wrong on this grand tour. We would give Epcot its due, and explore the park as we had failed to do before. Then, perhaps, we might finally know whether WDW had a place alongside Disneyland in our family lore.
Our group was comprised of Amy and I, our friends Rich and Hydee (brother and sister), and their mom, JaNae. We were leisurely tourists rather than lively ones, and enjoyed lingering in the parks until close instead of arriving at the open. But that morning, with the teeming potential of our first day in Epcot stretched ahead of us, I was bouncing between our adjoined rooms and rallying our troops.
It was just after 9:00 when our group stepped out of our rooms and into the woofing humidity. We walked to the main building of the Art of Animation resort and found the bus queue for Epcot. Our first two days had been busy, but we anticipated the crowds would decrease with Veterans Day behind us.
Our first order of business was a FastPass+ reservation for Soarin’. We had anticipated our unhurried mornings and had scheduled accordingly. Even still, we were a bit more than halfway through our FastPass+ window. At Disney California Adventure (DCA) that would not have been a problem. Here, we started at a stroll, which became a stride, and then a trot. The walking paths were either longer than we had remembered or stretching under our feet. At last, we lurched into The Land building and went straight to the ride entrance with just a few minutes left.
We are very familiar with Soarin’ Over California, which is one of the two or three transcendent rides in DCA. The ride mechanism and film are identical to its predecessor in California, although the queue and overall experience has notable differences. Soarin’ – in all of its permutations – is in great need of a refurbished video. The pleasant illusion of hang-gliding over scenic California paired with Jerry Goldsmith’s outstanding score is marred by the fuzzy, hairy picture quality. The Disney fan rumor mill has it that a new 4K video is in the works, possibly a “Soarin’ over America” or “Soarin’ over the World” with variable ride experience, which are both intriguing. The score might be problematic, though, as the famous Mr. Goldsmith – who was so passionate about the Soarin’ project that he is said to have walked off his first ride in tears – passed away in 2004.
We walked off Soarin’ and I was puzzled by a small twinge of disappointment to not emerge into Condor Flats in Disney California Adventure. What had happened to my bouncing zeal? It seemed to recover as we crossed the pavilion to the entrance of Living with the Land, but remained a puzzle. With no line to speak of, we skipped into our own boat.
Living with the Land, as an attraction, is evocative of the 60’s-era Walt Disney, at the point where he had turned his considerable imagination to the future*. Our ship glided through several dark ride sets with forests and video screens, and past tanks loaded with small alligators. These inspired a chorus of awwws, even though they were little nippers who would rip out our throats if given half a chance.
(*Like Alexander the Great, he had crushed all his enemies under his heel and there was nothing left for him to accomplish in the present.)
Through the rest of the ride was a drift through several immaculate greenhouses, and we did the same inane thing that I suspect almost everyone does: read the names of the plants out loud. It would be one thing to comment on what we were seeing, like: “I didn’t know that’s how star anise grows,” or “Huh, a nine pound lemon; I wonder how much those weigh?” But instead we just sat and read the names as we saw them, like a group of obsolete robots.
Living with the Land also included a few gentle calls to action throughout the ride, the sort of broad, “protect the world” advice that is designed to make people happy about throwing their paper trash in the recycle bin. Nonetheless, it inspired a small blip of annoyance from Rich, who is a devout industrialist. That turned into a few desultory lines of debate with me, as I am closer to the environmentalist end of the continuum. Neither of us took it seriously, and if there was any lingering irritation, it came from the others in our group, who found their vacation invaded by a meaningless political dispute.
Lunch was next, and we stayed in The Land to try Sunshine Seasons, a food court that is often mentioned as an underappreciated favorite by many fans. Amy ordered the Spicy Cashew Chicken and Noodles, which had a nice mix of vegetables with good flavor and a solid kick. I went with the Turkey and Monterey Jack on Ciabatta and regretted the choice almost at once. The turkey and cheese were fine and the bread was passable, but the mayonnaise on the sandwich and the potato salad suffered from foodie pretentiousness. I also ordered a Crème brûlée – speaking of pretentions – which was above average enough to be the best part of my meal.
We settled our trays near the entrance to Living with the Land, and before long, two women and approximately 27 children sat nearby, intent on obliterating any peaceful silences that may have been lingering in the area. Don’t get me wrong – everyone in our group likes kids. Not only was one of us a mother, but also we were all aunts and uncles to dearly loved little ones. We also knew that coming to WDW, of all places, was not the place for a group of adults to get away from excited and boisterous children. This was not our first rodeo.
All the same, Amy and I took the opportunity to teach our friends the “Children or Aviary?” game. To play, one simply listens while imagining he or she is in an aviary. The squawks and screeches now belong to exotic birds instead of engrossed/enraged children. It is deceptively fun, and we ended up listening for the next screeeeeeeeep! or blaaaaaaaaa!, and snickering into our hands like people with the giggles at a funeral.
A bit later, as we were finishing, I noticed a wall lined with environmental quotes nearby and pointed one out to Rich the Industrialist. “Look there: ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,’” I said in mock outrage. “Those are the ideals we should be living by, not ‘drill, baby, drill’.”
Rich made sure the ladies were not looking and then replied with an intricate, but juvenile gesture. We both started snickering into our hands again, and it was clear that not all the unruly children in the room were sitting a couple of tables away.
After lunch we walked from The Land over to The Seas with Nemo and Friends. We enjoyed the quick trip following Marlin and Nemo through the ride, and then we were let off in the aquariums to continue staring at the bizarre and gross creatures that live in the water. Contrary to the advice of a certain animated crab, life under the sea is repulsive*. Take the seahorse for example: in animated form, they seem like a great synthesis of cute fish and charismatic giant mammal. But in reality, they are misshapen, drifting blobs that have brains the size of a grain of sand. Even great white sharks – the supervillains of the seas – are just mindless, drifting torpedoes that lack even the ability to discern between a seal and a guy on a surfboard. Fish are horrible. I do hear some are good for food, although I never eat the miserable things.
(*Exhibit #1: Every single benefit Sebastian lists in “Under the Sea” is a fabrication.)
We moved on to Spaceship Earth, which is housed in the 18-story geodesic sphere that is the unavoidable icon of Epcot. The great Ray Bradbury, who rubbed shoulders with Uncle Walt in Los Angeles society from time to time, helped in both the sphere design and the original storyline. Spaceship Earth is one of my favorite attractions in all of WDW, mostly because I am a history nut and I enjoy the vignettes. The linear story of human communication starts with cave paintings, climbs up the dome past the smoldering ruins of Alexandra, and eventually ends up at Steve Wozniak’s garage. The ride then descends back toward the loading area while trying to tie in the modern Internet.
Even though Spaceship Earth has been overhauled multiple times since opening in 1982, it suffers from the same problem that many of Disney’s other educational/historical attractions have also faced: the fact that the world marches on. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress in Magic Kingdom, which starts in the 1900s, then moves to the 1920s, and then the 1940s. The final scene was originally set in the 1960s for its debut at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. But now, instead of tidy 20-year markers, the last scene of the Carousel of Progress suddenly leaps 60 years to something closer to the modern day. It is both a little jarring and still looks laughably outdated.
This is a problem without an obvious solution. It must be tempting for Disney to remove the current attractions and replace them with something more updated or evergreen. But, cost considerations notwithstanding, every ride is someone’s favorite. The Carousel of Progress, for example, was allegedly Walt Disney’s, and one of the few at WDW that he actually touched. There are platoons of fans that are enraged every time something changes at Disneyland or WDW, and they have a valid point. Nostalgia and sentiment are vital to Disney’s empire – the parks would be empty of guests without it.
All the same, the famous edict that Disneyland would never be finished is important to the future. If the current properties were exactly the same as when they opened (1955 and 1971, respectively), and maintained like museums, then nobody would care to spend two-week vacations there.
We used FastPass+ for Test Track, which had recently been overhauled with some entertaining new interactive elements. For our vehicle, we designed a giant orange truck with huge wheels and jet boosters, which did not score well in the “green” phase, but destroyed all comers in power and handling. Amy, who gets motion sick easily, elected to wait for us outside, where she watched guests feeding birds handful after handful of bread crumbs every time a nearby cast member had his backs turned.
Leaving Test Track and on the way to the heart of Future World, we saw a young, skinny guy dressed in white shorts, bright yellow shoes, and a blue shirt. There was something very familiar about his outfit, and it took me a moment, but I finally realized he was dressed like Donald Duck. It was not a costume, as Disney only allows adults to wear costumes in the parks during special-ticket Halloween events. Instead, he was wearing clothes like Donald’s. I realized that I had heard of this trend, and it was called DisneyBounding.
I had first become aware of DisneyBounding just prior to our trip through a post on BuzzFeed, although it originated at the DisneyBound site on Tumblr with an imaginative designer named Leslie Kay. The concept is simple: creating character costumes with everyday clothes. The typical DisneyBound post assembles an outfit for a specific character, including everything from clothes, to shoes, to accessories. Fans also post their own compilations and images in the wild.
As we continued walking, I shared my limited understanding of DisneyBounding with our group. It seemed, in person, like a young person’s thing to do; a conclusion that was reinforced by a quick check of the Internet. Our group’s opinions leaned neutral, in that we seemed to find it interesting, but not compelling. I nodded in agreement as I felt I should, but in truth, it wouldn’t take much encouragement to push me into DisneyBounding. Just weeks prior to our vacation I had dressed up like Gaston for Halloween, after all, and I am almost 40 years old. A Scrooge McDuck concept on DisneyBounding would likely send me scrambling for the closet.
Speaking of the World’s Richest Duck (and my very favorite Disney character), our next stop was the MouseGear store, which has the only permanent in-park Scrooge representation, of which I am aware, in either WDW or the Disneyland Resort*. The display in question is a silhouette of Scrooge holding a stack of papers and facing Daisy Duck, who is perched on the edge of a desk. Gyro Gearloose fiddles with a floating robot-typewriter-thingamajig directly behind him. At various interludes, the ambient music quiets and Scrooge can be heard dictating a letter to Daisy. I had waited to hear it on each of our last trips, which had been something of an accomplishment given the brief amounts of time we spent in Epcot.
(*I do know about McDuck’s Department Store in Tokyo DisneySea, and it is on my bucket list, near the top, right after “Make enough money to travel the world for the rest of my natural life.”)
We walked in and I found the display on the wall opposite the jewelry counter. Scrooge was finishing his lines just as we approached, so I picked an unobtrusive spot to wait through the cycle while the rest of our group browsed. MouseGear is a massive store, comparatively, and it took a good 20 minutes of casual browsing before everyone else was ready to move on. I had heard nothing but elevator-style Disney soundtrack music. In hindsight, I should have used the time to comb the store for a Scrooge Quest* item, but it was on my to-do list for the trip, so I waited.
Twenty minutes is a surprisingly long time to lurk around the same hats and accessories while trying to not get in the way of other shoppers. I was debating whether to wait just a few more minutes when Hydee asked a passing cast member how often the dialog played, in case it was just around the corner. The cast member, a strange, irritated older woman, shot us a poisonous glance, as if she had been cursed by a vengeful Roman god to only answer one single question for the rest of her life, and of course, Hydee had just asked it. “Once an hour,” she barked. “That’s it.” We gaped at her. It was her right to be crabby whenever she wanted, of course, but it was also unusual from a Disney cast member. We hustled out before anything else unusual could happen.
(*The Scrooge Quest is basically a treasure hunt I do every Disney park trip for a new piece of merchandise with Scrooge McDuck on it.)
Across the Future World plaza was Club Cool, where we went to taste test sodas from around the world. The line up at that time was: Beverly from Italy, Fanta Pineapple from Greece, Fanta Melon Frosty from Thailand, VegitaBeta from Japan, Bibo from South Africa, Sparberry from Zimbabwe, Inca Kola from Peru, and Guarana Kuat from Brazil. The infamous Beverly had a sharp, bitter bite with a touch of sweetness; kind of like a sugary Alka-Seltzer. Bibo from South Africa was the other end of the spectrum, with a mild and fruity flavor, and sweet without being cloying. After several rounds of tests, our consolidated rankings became clear:
3. Fanta Pineapple
4. Guarana Kuat
6. Fanta Melon Frosty
7. Inca Kola
Thus energized, we headed over to Journey into Imagination. Amy and I had skipped this attraction on both of our previous trips. I knew that a previous version had featured a different host – the mystical Dreamfinder – although it still had dragon/thingy Figment, and the same Sherman Brothers music. Eric Idle from Monty Python was the current host, and he was appropriately zany, but I had a hard time getting past the fact that it was “Eric Idle from Monty Python.” He was so recognizable that I could not think of him as Professor Fromunda, or whoever he was. Ultimately, my takeaway was that I would ride it again, and by that I mean that I would not put Journey into Imagination on my small (but significant) No-Ride List. It is fine for a short break from walking the extensive paths of Epcot, if we were in the area, and there was not much of a wait.
With our boxes ticked for Future World, we crossed over, at last, to World Showcase. The east path took us past the Mexico pavilion to Norway, where we had FastPass+ reservations for Maelstrom. Although the Maelstrom is a confusing blurb on Norse mythology that ends at the pillars of an oil rig, I am still very fond of it. Not only is the boat ride mechanism always fun, but the scenery is also engaging for those who are familiar with the mythology (me) or have Scandinavian heritage (Rich, Hydee, JaNae, me again). The exit queue dumped us into a retail area, which is standard procedure in WDW. We were anxious to have a look around, but instead left, reminding ourselves that we had more days slated for touring the pavilions in fine detail later in the vacation.
The evening lights were twinkling to life all around the park as we made our way to the south end of the World Showcase. The transition from afternoon to evening is a lovely interlude in any Disney park, and we strolled along, enjoying the water and the lights. At last, we reached the Japan pavilion and checked in for an Advanced Dining Reservation at Teppan Edo.
Located upstairs from the extensive Mitsukoshi department store, the Teppan Edo restaurant is a teppanyaki experience, meaning we would sit around a large griddle while our chef cooked the food before our very eyes. It was also one of Amy’s favorite styles of dining, and she had strongly advocated this spot during our planning stage. The rest of us had enthusiastically agreed.
We were seated at an eight-person table in a room of muted, grown-up colors. The opening service began as our wait staff emerged, introduced themselves, told us their hometown in Japan, and laid out utensils, plates and water. There was a lot of bowing. The presentation had an air of ceremony – it could have been a thousand years old, or it could have been an invention of the restaurant management – I had no idea. The servers worked with a fastidious attention to detail.
Our chef emerged, and the main server passed off the table with a formal introduction. His name was Chef Naoki, and he was tall, with gray hair, and of impressive bearing. He looked like I would expect a master of some stereotypically Japanese art to look, thanks to the influence of movies and television. From his dour expression, I also expected a man of precision, and who would harbor no horseplay from the staff or guests. Then, to our surprise, Chef Naoki introduced himself as the “only Japanese redneck” from “Pensacola… Japan.” I suspect he had told that joke 5,000 times before, but we still burst out laughing.
Amy and I both ordered the steak and chicken, and the food was excellent. We were offered three dipping sauces, which is a common teppanyaki offering. The ginger sauce was supposed to be for the vegetables, but I ate it with the steak. The chicken was fantastic with the mustard sauce, which makes no sense on paper. Chef Naoki described the white seafood sauce as “Japanese ranch dressing,” and it tasted like it, so I left it alone. The meal included udon noodles with zucchini and onions, which were great. Mushrooms were also part of the meal, which I tried according to the Universal Law of Food, but did not like, or eat. Amy was the beneficiary.
More than just the food, though, the experience was one of my favorites of the vacation. The staff was patient and helpful, and Chef Naoki was outstanding. Not only was he expert at the food-cooking part of his job, but also he was entertaining and engaging. It is hard to overstate how much we enjoyed our meal.
On top of that, Amy made some friends from New Jersey, who were the other three guests rounding out our eight-top table. She was sitting closest to them and visited through most of the post-cooking meal, while Rich, Hydee, and JaNae were chatting with each other, and I was catching up on notes. I overheard them discussing the Art of Animation resort, Disneyland, firefighting in New Jersey, backyard sheds, and their daughter’s birthday. I got briefly pulled in to supply the elevation of Salt Lake City (approximately 4,400 feet), and did not ask why. They covered some conversational ground.
The end of our Teppan Edo experience meant our structure for the day was behind us. We had no more FastPass+ or dining reservations to direct that day’s touring, so we were open to go wherever we wanted. With that in mind, we walked over to the Germany pavilion to buy some treats. It seemed like the right thing to do.
The Karamell-Küche candy shop is a popular stop in the Germany pavilion, where they make a broad array of caramel based treats. The corporate sponsor is Werther’s® Original Caramels, which can also be found in abundance. The staff at Karamell-Küche are full of frightening German efficiency, and accomplish all of that “harboring no horseplay” I was expecting from the friendly Chef Naoki in Japan. “What do you want?,” they snap, as you approach the counter. You place your order, which, upon quick execution, is followed by a brisk: “Is that it?” You shuffle down the line where you pay, and your change and/or receipt is handed back with a minimum of words spoken. You bag your own purchases. I resisted – and it was not without struggle – making a wildly inappropriate Seinfeld joke about a certain purveyor of soups.
The cast members might be accused of rudeness in an American environment, but because these are fetching young German women, we give them a cultural pass. Plus, they are also dressed in uniforms designed to look like their traditional national costumes, which may be appealing in an anachronistic fashion, must make them feel like idiots. However, the cast members in the Norway pavilion are every bit as fetching, in equally absurd costumes, and they don’t give out extra attitude. So, perhaps we all are just a little intimidated by Germany.
Our last event of the day before the long shuffle out to the busses was to watch IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. This is a lights, fireworks, water, and laser show that takes place in the World Showcase Lagoon every night just before closing. It has been around for 15 years or so, and 4 out of 5 members of our group were quite excited to see it. We started looking around to find a spot roughly 25 minutes before it started, and were surprised to find a bench right away. It seemed that the crowds had finally thinned out from previous trips.
As the 1 out of 5 in our group who is on record as not being a big fan of the shows in Disney parks, I found IllumiNations to be about like I expected; meaning it was fine. IllumiNations had some exciting technology and entertaining music, and it was clearly produced by people who are experts at their craft. I think 4/5ths of our group were enchanted. I did not hate it, which is more of an endorsement than I give a lot of similar shows, but I would not make a special trip just to see it.
With our day concluded, we made our way to the bus stops to wait in a long queue for our ride. It had been a good day and a good reintroduction to what we remembered before about Epcot, but there much I still wanted to see. Fortunately, there were days in the World Showcase yet to come.