We had breakfast in the main sustenance & merchandise distribution center; it was surprisingly good. Big black birds watched our table with keen interest, looking for pancakes. I had an omelette the size of a folded-over LP record; Gnat had chocolate-chip pancakes, which seemed needlessly sweet – but it was vacation, after all, and you give in. More nectar for the chocolate chips! Dip it in high-fructose corn syrup! Eat the fork – it’s made of brickle! I would have been content to spend the morning at the beach, frankly; it was a nice day, and I hadn’t spent a moment basking in the sun, reading and relaxing. Just as well – I relax poorly. It turns out to be motionless brooding. Better to do something, move around, see new things. I kept waiting for the Black Dog to show up, grinning, reminding me that all back home was sundered and busted – but honestly, I had no cares. I wasn’t here to escape anything; this was the start of the new life, somehow. I’d always remember this trip as the dividing line between the Days of Print and the Bold New Future. After all, if you can imagine the future, then you’re halfway to making it come true. Right?
I should note that this was the day we went to Epcot.
Gnat called it Aprcot. Might as well; it doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s a Disney Park for when you’re sick of all that “Princess” crap, I guess. Not that Gnat got sick of it, of course. Not that I got sick of it. Maybe “Take a Break from the Magic” would be more like it. Epcot used to mean something: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was conceived as a grand experiment in a new form of living, and the original idea contained the usual utopian notions, including a lack of private property. Walt Disney died before it could be built, and the inheritors changed the vision so EPCOT would actually make money as well as spend it.
Here’s what I wrote in my notebook about 11 minutes after entering:
"It’s the Good For You Disney World. If life is high school, then the Magic Kingdom was designed by theater majors, and Epcot was designed by AV geeks with taped glasses and well-thumbed copies of sci-fi novels in their briefcases. This is a compliment, sort of. It tries like hell not to look like a 1968 vision of The Future, but the previous incarnation as a big Object Lesson still makes up the bones. When you see a monorail crossing in front of a building that could have come from the ’64 NY World’s Fair, you have a direct line into the way Walt (see, I’m calling him by his first name now) saw the Future. It’s odd – the man so instrumental in nailing down for All Time a certain way in which we see the Past was also a visionary, to use the tired word. But his descendents had to slather the Future with au courant accoutrements to keep the attention of the present."
Ah, I love the smell of half-baked ruminations in the morning! Smells like . . . pretention. But I'll stick by that first impression. Here’s the building mentioned above:
And here’s the fantastical version of the future, from the Magic Kingdom:
It looks right, but only because that’s what the movies have trained us to anticipate. Epcot has dressed up everything, and done it well; compared to the endlessly fascinating details of the Magic Kingdom, it has a certain coherent serenity. But the bones stick out, and remind us that nothing ages faster than yesterday's tomorrow.
In the future, plants will be grown in circular pods made of tinted aggregate!
In the future, everything will resemble a 1972 college campus!
In the future, trees will grow through roofs! Eventually!
The music is different; the quaint Main Street melodies or attraction-specific themes are replaced with an oddly endearing mix of early 70s Larry-Fast / Jean-Michel Jarre synth music, alternating with vaguely troubled orchestral moments that quote classic American themes then pull them apart.
Compared to the Kingdom, Epcot lacks focus – the Castle is replaced with the big shiny sphere shown at the top of the page. It's a big thing. But it has presence without meaning; if you found it on a deserted planet, the last artifact of a bygone species, you wouldn't know what it meant. If Europeans invaded America, they could turn it into a giant soccer ball, I suppose. It makes you realize the genius of the '39-'40 World's Fair designers: the perisphere was not enough. It needed a Trylon.
In a sense, the Epcot ball has a Trylon:
The hand of Mickey was grafted on the side a few years ago, reassuring you that Mickeyness still informs the place. But it's not a comfortable fit. You can almost imagine Walt's disappointment, as well as his acceptance.
So what did we do? There was an automotive ride, with an exhibit of a GM assembly line – with that one perfect touch that makes your visit complete, videotaped testimonials from proud GM workers. We visited Minnie’s Butterfly Garden – Minnie is nowhere in sight, which reduces the overall Mouse quotient. It’s like the characters have entered Krusty the Klown mode: they heartily endorse this product and / or event, without bothering to show. The butterflies were lovely, and you got to see the Circle of Life: note the sturdy caterpillar who left the compound, and gets squashed by a child’s sneaker.
I enjoyed the Cokes From Around the World pavilion – a place where you could sample beverages produced by the Coca-Cola Sugar-Water Concern, free of charge. I got to sample Krest, a Mozambique fluid
It was ginger ale, more or less. But ginger ale from Mozambique! Of course, I had to take their word for it. Could have been Root Beer from Bongo Congo for all I knew. They also had something called “Beverly,” an Italian drink with a nasty bitter anise taste, and a Spanish fluid as sweet as the Pope’s tears. The drinks were free. You were gently encouraged to peruse the Coke-themed merch, but to my regret the items for sale lacked any foreign soda logos. Opportunity lost.
Then we rode the Nemo Undersea Something or Other, which, like Pirates, provided an excellent study in crowd management. It’s fascinating, really – the science of the shuffle-chute has been applied to slaughterhouses; designers of the kindler / gentler abbatoirs have sought ways to keep the Cows happy, and the sloping floor with curving walls seems to calm them down. The trick for humans is equally simple: keep the exit to the next staging area visible. You always know where you are. There might be sixteen rooms through which you pass, but each room gives you a sense of accomplishment, and you can always see where you’re bound. Crowd anxiety: nil.
Afterwards we toured a room with real fish from the Nemoverse, and visited an interactive animated chat with Crush, the surfer-turtle from the movie. As with the Monsters Inc attraction, there was a fellow behind the scenes wired to motion-capture machinery, looking at a monitor that showed the audience; he could answer the kid’s questions in character while the onscreen face of Crush matched his speech. It took about 17.5 seconds to buy it completely, and the kids were charmed. The fellow who did the voice was superb: one of the kids asked the difference between girl turtles and boy turtles, and Crush (see, I’m thinking of the character, not the fellow behind it) brought the house down with a stunned expression, a few furtive glances, a gulp and a grimace. It was just delightful.
Future presidents should explore this technology for press conferences.
Mission: Space was out of order for a while, alas. But “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” was up; it was another 3d movie with Eric Idle. (“Hello, I’m Eric Idle, trading on my apparently limitless amount of residual goodwill from my Python days.” ) It’s an old attraction, but new to me – like the Philharmagic, stuff comes at you; you’re bounced around, horrified by the sensation of a thousand mice going up your legs, and spat upon by an illusionary dog. It occurs to you that you’ve paid for this, too. But it’s fun. It’s all fun. Even when it’s lame it’s fun.
Oh, there’s more. I don’t think we saw ten percent of Epcot. I expect to go back; I want to go back. It’ll always be a third-day trip, a place to decompress and bleed off the whimsy. We never made it to the international area - we’d intended to head home, rest, then come back for dinner and the light show. But dang: we’d had enough. We hit the gift shop for one more plush, because Gnat wanted a Mickey to go with her Minnie.
She found one. I caught sight of her picking him out, smiling, giving him a hug, then turning to me with hope: can I? Of course.
Oh, the relief upon leaving. Oh, the joy. The bus dropped us off at the stop by our rooms, and a fresh crew clambered aboard. There’s no shortage of reinforcements.
Back to the room. Since this was the last night, I swung into Super Organized Mode, which alarms and dismays my domestic associates. I’m the sort of fellow who tucks the chambermaid’s tip under the ice bucket the night before we leave. I arranged transportation to the airport and secured an appointment with the bellperson. Ah, but what of the airline check-in? How can I sleep without pre-printed boarding passes? The resort has no wi-fi. They have Ethernet cables, ten bucks for a contiguous 24 hours, which is wrong. And based on my tour of the time-shares, they don’t have wi-fi in the new units, either. Walt Weeps. So I’d have to go down to the check-in building. This meant sitting in the bus stop, waiting for the internal shuttle.
There are worse things to do on warm spring Florida night. I brought a newspaper, stretched out, and waited, calm and content.
The bus came in due time. A short and immensely fat driver beamed hello when the door opened, and he turned out to be the merriest driver of them all, calling off the stops like they were destinations of endless fascination. MARtin-eek. Port Royale, the food court, yum! He drove me to the check-in building, where a nice tall pale gentleman who looked like he would burst into flames if he stepped into the noonday sun checked me in to the airlines and printed off my boarding passes. Booyah. I sat outside reading Terry Teachout in a two-day old Wall Street Journal, wishing I could write for the weekend edition. (Hint, Hint.) It was hot. It was May. It was Disneyland. Grand, simply grand.
Everyone else waiting for the bus was a new arrival; they were studying maps and looking at their check-in material. N00bs, I thought. Hah! Passing judgment on the first-timers – I was one of the elect, now.
The same driver took me back, calling off the stops with jocular remarks, and I thought: the fellow driving the bus is a better performer than the guy who ran the Safari Adventure boat. On the way out I told him “I’ve been four days in the World and you’re the best driver I’ve had.”
He grinned, tickled.
On the way back to the room I thought: “In the World.” Where did that come from? Why am I speaking in Vietnam-era soldier lingo? If this is “The World,” that means that reality back home is “The Sh*t,” and we know that’s not the proper terminology. Then again, maybe it is; you could go all meta-contextual dorm-stoner deep about this place – the unreality beneath the reality, man! No, wait, the other way around. No – well, you know what I mean.
Or you could just take it for what it is, and say: nice work. Well done. Thanks, Mickey; it was fun.
And it was. In the evening Wife and Gnat went down to the town center for some sort of hair adornment; I joined them for a snack and one last gift shop tour. Gnat wanted a scrapbook. There were many, including a few with Tinkerbell; when did she get a hotness upgrade? Whew. We sat outside and had our last snack allotments, then I walked back to the room as the fireworks went off. You turn, you stop, you gawk, you grin. Even if you’ve seen them three times before you still wonder if this is the end; you still expect one more burst. But no; it’s over. The searchlights poke the smoke, waving it away. The fog fades, the lights dim. The night settles back down, and the Disney day is done.
Or not; you could head back and have a drink. You could swim. You could hit the arcade. You could do anything, really – a bus will take you to Downtown Disney, and it’s open for three more hours. But you stop, sit on a rock, pull out a small evil cigar, and take stock. The best family vacation at the absolute best possible time. You wish you were writing all this for your paper, but then you remember:
Off we go, then. Time to go home, and start work on the rest of my life.