There’s a light on in the attic.
Thought the house is dark and shuttered,
I can see a flickerin’ flutter,
And I know what it’s about.
There’s a light on in the attic.
I can see it from the outside.
And I know you’re on the inside… lookin’ out.
- Sheldon Allan Silverstein
Each of the original sponsored pavilions in EPCOT Center’s Future World included a lounge for executives and employees of the sponsor company to meet and relax while visiting the park. Most guests would never notice these private spaces since they were often hidden behind unassuming doors or in less than noticeable spaces, often on the second floor up above the guests. This tradition continued through the years to include later additions like the Red Planet Room inside HP’s Mission: SPACE and Test Track’s VIP area which lets visitors look down on guests as they enjoy the ride. Over the years, as pavilions lost their sponsors, many of the lounges closed their doors and became storage or event space. Often, park management transformed these rooms into offices for operations.
The corporate lounges for United Technologies (Living Seas), MetLife (Wonders of Life), Kodak (Journey Into Imagination), and Kraft (The Land) are still largely unused by any guest. The only original attraction that still includes an operating VIP area is Spaceship Earth. Situated above Project Tomorrow, Spaceship Earth’s post-show, is the Siemens VIP Center, originally called Base21. The entrance is just beyond the exterior door on Project Tomorrow’s west side and might as well be any other “Cast Members Only” door. Once inside, the contrast to the rest of Epcot becomes obvious. The small room is clean and bright and has obviously not been exposed to the wear and tear of millions of guests. Inside the door is a wall mounted information screen with a numeric keypad. A PIN code, generated by a Siemens employee, allows access to the VIP Center. Directly across from the entrance is a frosted glass door etched with the Siemens corporate logo. Once the guest keys in the PIN, the room lighting changes from white to a deep red, and the frosted glass door becomes transparent. Seconds later, the formerly opaque door sides open automatically. Guests then pass into a room with a decorative corporate displays, a couch, and beyond a spiral staircase leading up next to an elevator. Visitors to the VIP Center barely have enough time to take in this scene and process what just happened, before the elevator opens its doors and live voice invites the guest on board.
After a short ride up, the elevator opens into a reception area. To the left is a concierge desk where guests have their VIP status confirmed by a Siemens host and are given a short tour of the space before being given free run of the lounge. Beyond the front desk, a small beverage and snack area sits beyond a ring of lounge seats. Moving further, inset into an interactive wall of screens explaining what Siemens does, are, in this writer’s opinion, the nicest restrooms Epcot has to offer. A wireless cell phone charging station is another perk of access, and the Siemens host provides an adapter to anyone who asks. A short hallway curves toward the lounge. On the interior arced wall is another display using more electrochromic glass. A guest accessible touch panel controls some of the interior lighting, including an illuminated glass block floor that curves around from the entrance, back into the areas set aside for conference meetings and presentations. The conference room includes retractable projectors that deploy down from the ceiling and a videoconferencing system. Once in the main room, a large, curved wall of picture windows overlooks Innoventions plaza, providing an excellent view of the tarps above and pin trading station below. How many fans of EPCOT Center would love to see that view from 1982? Thought so. By far the best reason to find a way to visit the Siemens VIP Center is the exclusive access to Spaceship Earth. Behind the concierge desk is a door that leads to a small set of stairs. This is where it starts to feel like Epcot controlled territory again. At the bottom of the stairs, a sign greets guests informing them that they “are now entering the attraction area”. Beyond the door, guests find themselves in the unload area of Spaceship Earth where a Cast Member is waiting to direct visitors into their time machine vehicle for a wait-free ride.
While it is completely appropriate for paying sponsors to have these private rooms inside the park, it’s unfortunate that the lounges in the pavilions that lack sponsors haven’t been used in much of any way. Even the Siemens lounge sits empty and quiet much of the time. Underused space inside some of the most expensive real estate in Orlando just doesn’t make good sense. Original EPCOT Center fans would love to visit these hidden spaces. Just seeing the park from a different vantage point would be a huge thrill, and opening these rooms up and using the space for attractions for all guests would create a new draw in Future World, one that it needs badly. The second floor of Journey Into Imagination, once home to Image Works, an interactive playground of color, sight, and sound, is the most glaring example of empty attic space in Epcot. The cordoned stairwell in Imagination’s gift shop taunts guests who remember the glory days of the Rainbow Corridor as it seems to cry out for a new reason to exist. A re-imagined Image Works could even leverage some of same technology Siemens has already brought into the park, albeit currently only for it’s private guests. Additionally, the Siemens lounge includes technology that is current, but feels more futuristic than the rest of Future World! That’s a problem. These empty spaces provide a great opportunity to create complete pavilions, as opposed to just rides, opening more exhibits and areas where guests can wonder at their own pace. Visitors to Epcot want new experiences in new spaces and opportunity to be inspired by their surroundings. If only Future World could attract the attention of the one additional corporate sponsor it really needs, the Walt Disney Company.
For years after its opening in 1982, Future World existed as EPCOT Center’s corporate sponsored, idealized look at the world that was always right around the corner. Educational and entertaining, Future World included major pavilions dedicated to the sciences, each with its own ride attraction. The Bell Systems sponsored Spaceship Earth, a massive geodesic sphere devoted to communication, stood as the park’s icon. Spaceship Earth housed a slow-moving ride through the sphere’s interior, where animatronic figures played out the story of human history from the stone age to the information age. Exxon presented the Universe of Energy, which made use of a massive bank of rotating projection screens and animatronic dinosaurs. General Motors showcased their automobiles at World of Motion and Kodak sponsored a pavilion encouraging guests to use their imagination, and take lots of pictures. Kraft Food’s Listen to the Land ride included a tour of agricultural techniques inside a domed greenhouse, while General Electric’s Horizons merged all the other pavilion’s themes into one with a look at life and human relationships in the future.
Without exception, these rides followed the model established by the classic WED designed dark rides of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. A guest climbs aboard a vehicle, and is slowly moved through scenes set with a mixture of three-dimensional animatronic figures and props, as well as screen projections and matte paintings. The guest experience on one of these classic rides was like moving in and out of a stage performance. Viewers meandered in and around the life-size dioramas without fear of distracting the performers or obstructing their neighbors view. Each ride created a slightly different experience based on wherever the viewer decided to focus his attention at any given point in the journey. The amount of content included in each attraction was more than a guest could ever take in before being shuttled off to the next scene. In addition, the viewer defined transitions between these observed details changed each time, further altering the linear memory of the observer. These attractions created an “Active Viewer Experience”. The choices the viewer made about what to see, when, and in what order, modified the experience each time. The result was attractions that could be visited again and again, without them becoming stale or repetitive.
Future World’s pinnacle Active Viewer attraction was Horizons, opening a year after the rest of EPCOT Center, it relied heavily on animatronic and diorama elements, but set them in a rich, realized environment, as opposed to the exhibit style of attraction threaded together with narration that earlier Future World attractions had used. Matte paintings of the fantastical Brava Centauri and Mesa Verde filled in the dark spaces that Spaceship Earth and World of Motion left blank. The rider saw the same scenes from multiple viewpoints with repeated back-and-forth conversational dialog. Instead of gaps between vignettes, the designers created overlaps. Horizons added another viewer controlled element, the choice of visiting one of three future world destinations in the form of a point-of-view film displayed for each ride vehicle. In hindsight, it was this projection screen technology that would become the go to form for future attractions in EPCOT Center and later Epcot. Horizons, ironically, may have sown the seeds of demise for the Active Viewer experience.
In 1996, World of Motion closed and in 1999, Test Track, a thrill ride that simulated riding along in a car being put through a series of safety and performance tests, replaced it. Horizons closed in 1999 and Mission: SPACE, a thrill ride that simulates a launch and journey to Mars on a spacecraft, took its place in Future World. Both Test Track and Mission: SPACE are, for the most part, a “Passive Viewer Experience”. Upon opening, Test Track relied heavily on movement of the vehicle to entertain the rider. It included some sparse set design, but lacked a detailed environment. Test Track recently underwent a refurbishment and reopened at Epcot late last year. The aesthetics of the ride changed, but the ride experience itself is still fairly passive. Interactive elements added to the pre-show engage the guest, but thrill is still the point. Mission:SPACE relies entirely on a ride mechanism that generates g-forces and the intense physical effect of a motion simulator. Although an argument could be made for the Living Seas attraction, no Future World ride since Horizons has managed to create a true Active Viewer Experience.
The shift to Passive Viewer Experiences (Mission:SPACE and to a lesser degree Test Track) create a similar ride experience every time. The the viewer doesn’t need to decide what details to focus on. The ride decides for you, and it’s the same experience on each subsequent ride. Apart from the motion, Mission: SPACE is entirely a film. Each ride is exactly the same as the last. Test Track allows the rider to choose what to look at, but because speed is the main element, details are few. Is the redesigned Test Track is a true design pivot in Future World? A return to more rich, Active Viewer content, or is it just a bump in the road of the Passive Viewer Future World?