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The Active Future World Experience

January 12, 2013
Future World

A Monorail circles Spaceship Earth.

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.

Horizons Building circa 1994.

General Electric presents Horizons (Wikipedia)

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.

World of Motion

General Motors presents World of Motion

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?

From → Future World

  1. I’d never thought of active vs. passive viewer/participant experience before… at least not regarding WDW attractions. I must step back and ask if it’s part of an overall trend in society where we are less and less likely to seek out experiences and information for ourselves. Are we becoming a passive society? Is EPCOT mirroring that, or is it leading that? Many, many questions.

    • Good thoughts! I’d say it’s most certainly been a societal trend. I do feel there’s some movement back toward free form active experience in everyday life. We choose our own television, radio, and Internet experiences. The difference being in those instances, the viewer starts without a construct.

  2. Interesting insights, as always. Fans of EPCOT Center all agree on the objections to the changing/dumbing down of the experience since the mid-1990’s. As I often point out there was a poor effort on Disney’s part to match or exceed the “thrill” aspect of their competition at Universal Studios. EPCOT got the reputation for being “boring” when compared to a giant Kong swiping at your tram car or Jaws attacking your boat.

    The shift at EPCOT away from an active, thought provoking, semi-educational experience mirrors the society in which it lives. We have a space program that doesn’t go to space anymore. High school has been dumbed down so kids are graduating with barely the skills they need to be competent let alone get into college, which has been dumbed down so “every kid can go to college”, even if they shouldn’t.

    The criticisms from those of us who loved EPCOT as it was notwithstanding, Disney has for the last thirty years been focused on guest feedback and tailoring experiences based on a mountain of consumer research. So, research says you hate lines, DIsney does away with them (Fastpass, Fastpass+). Research says you think EPCOT is boring, Disney adds passive thrills instead of active learning experiences.

    Attention spans are shorter (hence shorter Tiki Birds, Country Bears, etc.) and a lot of guests just want to sit back and enjoy unique experiences, not be “taught”. It means a lesser experience for those of us who loved edutainment. Ron Schneider’s book From Dreamer to Dreamfinder really spends a lot of time addressing how both Disney and Universal have taken the room for thought away from the guests in all aspects of theme park entertainment.

    Here’s hoping for a more intelligent tomorrow.

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