Friday, May 06, 2005

The Left Coast Comes to Florida

Recently, a bit of the Left Coast (a.k.a. California) opened at Epcot in Disney World. Although it's still officially in the "soft opening" stage, Soaring is running pretty steadily in the Land pavillion.

This new simulator attraction took over the space formerly occupied by "Food Rocks" (I'm sure that had its fans, but for me it's no big loss). The pavillion also houses the corny but ever-popular "Living With The Land" boat ride and the environmentally-correct Lion King-themed "Circle of Life" movie.

I enjoy both of those attractions, particularly the boat trip. After passing through the requisite Audioanimatronic scenes, you float through the experimental greenhouse, with its cool Mickey-shaped pumpkins, the fish farming tanks, and the hydroponic racks. For the insatiably curious, you can take a foot tour of those areas too (that is an extra-cost item, totally separate from the ride). The Lion King movie is cute, although it ends with a Disney optimism that is far removed from the reality of our polluted, globally warming world.

Even though we've lived in Celebration since January, I've only been to the theme parks a handful of times. My poor annual pass was actually getting dusty. But today I headed over to Epcot with a friend; although we were technically going for lunch, we left early so we'd have time to slip in a ride or two.

The park was amazingly crowded for a May morning; I think there was some sort of press event going on. Even though the big celebration this year is Disneyland's 50th Anniversary, the Mouse's synergy machine has made certain to include Florida in the crowd-generating hoopla.

Soaring has a singles line, but unfortunately it was closed. Oh well, that's what Fast Passes are for. For the uninitiated, I should probably explain: a Fast Pass is sort of like a "ride reservation." You can only hold one at a time, and once you use one, you can get another. You go to the ride you are interested in, insert your ticket, and it spits out a pass bearing your return time. That time can be anywhere from half an hour to several hours later (in the summer, Fast Passes for popular attractions often run out). When you come back at the appointed time, you enter through an "express" line, incurring the withering death-stares of the poor souls stuck in the Standby Line.

When we reached the Land pavillion, it was early enough to get Fast Passes for half an hour in the future. Unfortunately, even though my friend and I got passes one right after the others, hers was for the five-minute span after mine (11:10 and 11:15). Oh well, in the worst case scenario, I could simply use mine five minutes later, since you have an hour from your start time to use the pass.

We killed the time until our California adventure by doing the boat ride and wandering around the pavillion, marveling at the changes that were made in conjunction with the installation of the new ride. The most interesting change was the upgrade of the food court. I was drooling at several of the new offerings, including a roasted beet and goat cheese salad (I'm not much of a beet fan, but I'll eat just about anything if you smear enough goat cheese on it).

Eventually, the appointed time arrived, and we heading in to experience "Soaring." Actually, it was something of a deja vu experience for me, since I had seen the original at Disney's California (Mis)Adventure. Many people pan DCA, but personally I enjoyed it. Granted, it was more of an "adult" park, even more so than Epcot. In today's ADHD society, kids (and often parents) don't have the patience to watching tortillas and bread being made, especially since no one gets decapitated or blown up in the process.

Actually, two people used to get blown up in the movie about the history of California, but Disney apparently deemed that too depressing and removed the sequence. Now, it's just a 30 minute upbeat, educational film that probably has the kids fidgeting and kicking seats within the first five minutes. There was another non-Disney-like scene of a Chinese mail order bride getting pelted with tomatoes, but I'm not sure whether that one has managed to escape the cutting room of political correctness.

I'm sure that a lot of things have changed at DCA since I've been there, as I visited shortly after it opened. They did perform one mercy killing that made the world a much better place, by removing the tediously horrible dark ride known as "Superstar Limo." The hideous limo ride was a monument to Eisner Economics. All it basically consisted of was riding through several rooms of bad cutout scenery and spooky pseudo-celebrity likenesses. From what I've heard, I wasn't alone in my opinion, and that ride was euthanized quite rapidly.

Another really bizarre attraction that died a quick death was "Steps In Time," the original show in the Hyperion Theater (I think it houses an Aladdin show now). If you've ever seen the "Disney Dreams" show on Disney Cruise Line's ships, picture it being rewritten by people who have been dropping acid for 48 hous straight. It featured contemporary (but hideous) versions of Disney songs centered around a ridiculous plot about a "hip" fairy godmother who teaches two siblings about brotherly love. Although I'm not sure, I think that one might have closed even before "Superstar Limo" did.

But there were lots of good things too (the Paradise Pier section, featuring traditional amusement park ride ala-Coney Island, is a treat), and "Soaring" was among the DCA jewels. It is a simulator that aims to make you feel like you're hang gliding over California. The motion and visuals are enhanced by various smells, such as pine when you are over the forests and orange when you are over the citrus groves.

The Florida version is a clone of its Left Coast sibling, which I actually find to be a disapointment. What relevance does an arial tour of California have to do with the Sunshine State? Sure, the visuals are stunning, and this ride is definitely a repeater (unlike the abysmal current incarnation of "Journey Into Imagination," which I am forbidden to ride by my psychiatrist because it incites me to slit my wrists). But the fact that it is an identical transplant speaks of a larger issue: The creative drain at the Disney company. Instead of coming up with unique attractions for each park, their latest money-saving ploy is to recycle the same attractions in different locations.

Oh well, that's another whole issue, and it doesn't lessen the enjoyment of the overall "Soaring" experience. I am a big fan of "Test Track" (I do not do "Mission Space," as I've seen too many people toss their cookies while waiting at the exit for my husband), but "Soaring" is now my favorite ride at Epcot.

After our pseudo-hang gliding, my friend and I decided to head upstairs to check out the menu at the rotating restaurant (Garden Grill). Oddly, the escalators weren't working, so the six million people who were all apparently trying to get to a different floor at the same time were required to squeeze onto the narrow, static stairways. That's probably the only time in my life that I've ever waited in line to go upstairs. Unfortunately, someone in close proximity had apparently unleased a "Silent But Deadly." The odor of organic intestinal gas quickly spread and destroyed the nasal linings of everyone within 20 feet. I wanted to run for the hills, but since I was in a cattle-car situation, I could only pass out from the stench in silence. Fortunately, the momentum of the crowd kept my prone body upright and moving in the correct direction.

We ended up having a nice lunch at England (fish & chips and vegetable curry) before heading back to Celebration. Taking a morning off means that I'll be putting in extra work hours this weekend, but it was well worth the penalty. At least my annual pass isn't dusty anymore, and I'm not going to let it get a new coat before I go to the theme parks again.

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