Epcot Forever is Walt Disney World’s newest nighttime spectacular, temporarily bridging the gap between IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, and HarmonioUS, which will debut in 2020. This review of the new show will take a long and rambling path that discusses the past, present, and my personal ruminations on EPCOT Center.
It’s always interesting to look at social media reactions to changes at Walt Disney World. What’s most fascinating here is that the Epcot Forever reviews I’ve seen have been mostly negative, but for very different reasons. Among the people I follow on Twitter, there’s near unanimous agreement that ending with “A Whole New World” is not only a mistake and unforced error, but a slap in the face to EPCOT Center fans.
On Facebook and Instagram, there seems to be a general sense of bewilderment about literally everything before the “A Whole New World” finale. What are those songs? What do they have to do with Disney? Why are they in this show? Beyond the technical side, there doesn’t seem to be consensus or much love for Epcot Forever.
It’s easy to forget the reality that there is no singular “Disney fan community.” That’s like saying there’s a single “politics community.” Rather, there are a bunch of distinct fandoms, each having very different interests and perspectives that are often quite insular.
Running this site, I see a range of planning-related issues and concerns, many of which would never otherwise cross my mind as they don’t personally interest me. On Twitter, I follow and engage with accounts that mostly pertain to history or the bygone era of Walt Disney World. Fellow enthusiasts of Country Bear Jamboree, EPCOT Center, and fellow members of the Demo-Pooh-blican Party who hold steadfast to the belief that Pooh was robbed of the presidency. You know, cool and totally normal stuff.
To illustrate the chasms between sub-communities, I never once saw conversation on Twitter about the recent ECV and stroller rule changes that generated over 200 comments on this blog post, and a flurry of outrage on Facebook. (I did, however, observe week 187 of the fierce debate over which Disney Springs parking structure is superior. Even the airport has weighed in.)
The point is that there is no specific archetype for the “Walt Disney World fan.” There are a lot of varied Disney interests, and quite often, those are at odds with one another.
The team behind Epcot Forever had an unenviable task–creating a show that would somehow work for new and longtime Epcot fans. We’re not just talking first-timers and frequent visitors; the divide here is more like those who had their first trip before or after the Millennium Celebration.
For me, this divide and the finale of Epcot Forever solidify an important lesson: you can’t go home again. We’ve discussed in previous posts why fans can’t let EPCOT Center go, and this is something with which I’ve grappled for the last several years. There was a point when I voraciously consumed Epcot rumors, holding out a flicker of hope that the park’s original vision would be restored.
It has taken me a while to come to terms with the reality that this will not be happening. When rumors emerged prior to the D23 Expo that Journey into Imagination would be reimagined in the spirit of the original, I had what you could call a momentary lapse of reason. I became foolishly optimistic and excited, only to be deflated when nothing was announced.
I’ve long wanted to believe that with more visionary leadership, Imagineers that strongly advocated for the park, or other variables, EPCOT’s original spirit and ambition could be recaptured.
However, so much has changed since the 1980s. Everything from our society’s view of theme parks to American corporate messaging to Disney’s leadership and vision are very different now than they were four decades ago. Even Walt Disney World’s visitor demographics have radically changed–to the point that some of the original park’s messaging would be difficult to pull off. Holding out hope of a return to EPCOT Center is a fool’s errand.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that and have mostly come to terms with the future of Epcot. It is never going to be the inspiring place that stirred a sense of inquisitiveness and imagination, making an indelible impact on me as a kid and young adult. That doesn’t mean tomorrow’s Epcot can’t be a quality theme park for entertainment and lighthearted fun. I’ll always have the memories, and soon, new ones of a totally different park.
My most vivid (and recent) memories of ‘old EPCOT’ are via IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. Even though I know I’ve seen it for the last time, I still haven’t totally come to terms with it ending. Part of that is undoubtedly because, as long as World Showcase exists, I can still put in my headphones and travel back in time for 68 minutes.
This is why I haven’t written an IllumiNations tribute post and…I don’t think I will. As much as the show deserves it, sitting down to write a long-winded eulogy sounds nauseating. It would make IllumiNations being gone “real.” Sorry, but that’s not really something I want to do right now. Along with Impressions de France, IllumiNations is the most meaningful present-day Epcot experience for me, and I don’t want to say goodbye completely.
All of this is a long-winded preface for what I guess is ostensibly an Epcot Forever Review.
Epcot Forever’s closest counterpart is “Remember… Dreams Come True” at Disneyland, an equally self-referential show that pays tribute to that park’s storied legacy. Aside from vastly different audiences, the key distinction between the two is that much of Epcot’s greatest music is gone from the park. Most of what isn’t gone is buried in unpopular attractions that are shadows of their former selves that newer visitors are likely to skip.
While original songs can absolutely work in a nighttime spectacular, I don’t see the potential for that with Epcot Forever’s potential source music, even if the show were executed flawlessly.
In an ironic twist, these songs are more like “theme park IP,” being used as a crutch for their baked-in nostalgia (among some guests). Divorced from their original context, they don’t have nearly (or any?) resonance for guests hearing these songs for the first time.
With that in mind, Walt Disney World had a couple options with the show. The first would be phoning it in and going heavy on EPCOT Center fan service. This could’ve been accomplished by simply mixing together an extinct attraction medley. Given the 25th and 30th Anniversary tags, we know this is possible.
However, the downsides to this are two-fold: leading EPCOT Center fans on with a false sense of optimism and eliciting a bewildered “HUH?” reaction from anyone who didn’t visit the park prior to around 2000 (perhaps earlier). It’d alienate newer guests, but the diehards would love it.
The next approach would be to take a mix of old and new, the latter including things like Test Track, Mission: Space, and music from intellectual property already in Epcot–basically, more than just Soarin. This is the middle ground route, and I’m not sure anyone would’ve loved it, but the show itself probably doesn’t alienate anyone either.
In fact, end it with ‘We Go On’ or ‘Tomorrow’s Child’ and it probably is a mostly feel-good show for the old-timers, while perhaps confusing newer guests. (Or, end it with ‘Let it Go’ to appeal to first-timers while trolling the longtime fans, who’d be even more irate than with the current Epcot Forever.)
The approach Walt Disney World took is an interesting but bold one. The first 8 or 9 minutes of Epcot Forever’s 11-minute runtime deliver an ambitious form of fan service.
It’s surprisingly not phoned in. I don’t agree with a lot of the creative choices, but more effort was put in than simply mixing theme songs.
I’m not sure why the decision was made to feature the voices of children, both in song and pre-show announcements, so prominently. There’s a certain dignity a show about EPCOT Center’s history could have, and that choice demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the park. (It’s like the IllumiNations Farewell merchandise all over again.) Perhaps this was a conscious decision, an effort to tug at the heartstrings of parents who have no attachment to the music? The same move did work for Wishes, after all.
There’s also arguably a pacing issue with the flow of the music. This probably reads as quite the ironic complaint coming from someone who loves IllumiNations, but I think Epcot Forever could benefit from being faster-paced and snappier. Transitioning between so many songs of different styles could be challenging, but fan-made EPCOT mixes have handled this well using dialogue and other techniques.
My biggest disappointment, of all things, is the pre- and post-show music. This is supposedly an original loop for Epcot Forever, but you wouldn’t know by listening. It’s upbeat and fun–but also dreadfully generic. I don’t think anyone listening to this will say, “oh yeah, this is very Epcot.”
There are parts that sound a lot like the background music used at Disney Springs. I guess maybe Walt Disney World management wants to get people out of the park as quickly as possible rather than lingering to enjoy the ambiance and a delightful music loop. (That’s a joke–late dining reservations make Epcot a park that will never clear quickly.)
On the plus side, the visuals of Epcot Forever work pretty well. There are a lot of lasers and spotlights, which are used to varying degrees of success depending upon the cloud cover and smoke (same with IllumiNations). There’s also a greater variety of pyro (and it’s more vibrant) than in IllumiNations, which makes for a more photogenic show.
Then there are the kites. I’ve seen daytime harbor shows with jet skis and kites before, but these are a whole different level of mesmerizing. There’s nothing else happening on the lagoon during these two segments, but that’s just fine. These kites carry Epcot Forever and provide a nice change of pace from the pyro. I hope these are ‘proof of concept’ for HarmonioUS, because it’d be unfortunate if they’re only ever used for a temporary show.
With all of that said, I mostly love the first 8 minutes of Epcot Forever. When it comes to this park’s music, I’m an easy mark. I joked when the show was announced that I was really looking forward to listening to the music I hear daily on my phone’s playlists–but once again inside the park and set to pyro. That was only half in jest; there’s a lot of baked-in nostalgia for me with these songs, and the bulk of the show felt like a delightful stroll down memory lane.
Then the finale happens, which snaps me and most other EPCOT Center fans back to reality. Even though the altered lyrics of “One Little Spark” provide an apt transition, it feels abrupt and jarring, and is absolutely not what most long-time EPCOT Center fans first expected from a nostalgia-heavy show.
Ultimately, we should’ve seen this coming. Watching the full 12-minute projection-mapping show in the Epcot Experience serves as a “nice” appetizer for Epcot Forever, as offers a similarly blunt presentation about the park’s future. Neither are the feel-good offerings of faux-optimism about the park’s direction that EPCOT Center fans would like.
Personally, I would’ve loved to bask in the comfort of nostalgia and what once was for just a few more months as a way to ease out of IllumiNations. Yet, the finale of Epcot Forever is more honest. It bridges the gap between the past and what the future actually holds, rather than romanticized daydreams of fans still yearning for a promising or cohesive vision. Epcot Forever leaves no room for ambiguity and underscores exactly where the park is going. It may not be the message many of us want to hear, but maybe it’s what we need to hear…for the times they are a-changin’.
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