What happened to Epcot’s Imagination?
Recently, Martin Smith has released his “Complete Ultimate Tribute” to what many (and myself) consider one of Disney’s most maligned attractions, Epcot’s “Journey Into YOUR Imagination”. The attraction was only open a scant two years and this is easily the most comprehensive look, with multiple angles, a full recording of the queue videos, source audio and a tour of the repurposed ImageWorks. As usual, it’s the usual fantastic work from Martin, even if it honestly doesn’t deserve it.
In 1998, Disney made good on their agreement with Kodak to update the pavilion after a 15-year period, and shuttered the otherwise timeless “Journey Into Imagination” attraction. The replacement, which would open slightly less than a year later, was a vastly different attraction with the only similarities being: it’s about imagination, and it uses a shortened version of the original ride track. The title, “Journey Into Your Imagination” conjures thoughts of an interactive, bold attraction where the guests contribute to the ride experience.
Instead it’s an extension of the nearby, at the time popular “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” attraction, wherein the Imagination Institute is holding an open house and you’re invited, lucky you! Eric Idle reprises his role as Dr. Nigel Channing and greets guests via video screens, with a small appearance by a CGI Figment. He explains that as part of the open house, you will be scanned through the Imagination Scanner before and after touring a series of perception experiments. After boarding the vehicles from the old ride, now colored bright red, guests are scanned and in a stunningly out-of-touch move, insults guests by telling them they essentially have no imagination. (images of cobwebs, vacancy signs and meters reading zero to really sell that you’re a brainless tourist devoid of creativity, hilarious!)
What follows is rooms full of cheap optical illusions and gags, such as a pitch-black room filled with speakers that make it sound as if guests are being ran over by an incoming freight train, a star-filled room that turns into dozens of constellations and an upside-down house. In-between we would pass through hallways in the institute, apparently a dark and creepy place bathed in green and purple lights with offices, dozens of computer banks and scattered shelving. Afterward, the Imagination Scanner bursts from the apparently-now overfilled imaginative tourists, creating a cacophony of bizarre imagery including a dog morphing into a baby, and a child with the body of a guitar. Make of that as you will.
The difference between the original and this version was stunning in how stripped of imagination (the very thing it’s about) it was. Constructed on a barebones budget, bizarre and off-putting, even Michael Eisner was furious after departing the attraction on the first day, allegedly immediately ordering a third go-around. Research surveys at the time indicated that guests were similarly baffled, wondering what happened to the beloved mascot Figment who was barely in the ride. Merch sales were at rock bottom and it was instantly the most unpopular attraction in the park. Even walking around the area was unpleasant, as the music composed for both the ride and the background area seemed to be an unsettling avant-garde remix of both Bruce Broughton’s work for the “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” and the iconic “One Little Spark”, as well as just random sounds and notes. It was truly up to your imagination on what to make of it, but whatever it was no one wanted anything to do with it.
Only eight days after its second anniversary, the attraction closed permanently to be transformed yet again. Now, to understand what happens next, we have to go a bit back. The reason why Journey Into Your Imagination was such a disaster was due to in-fighting between Disney and Kodak. Disney was concerned with a myriad of issues: a non-existent line due to the inflating popularity of “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience”, heavy maintenance costs for the troubled turntable section and the impending deadline for the contracted update, for which Kodak was to be mostly responsible for. Unfortunately, Kodak was nervous to throw in their share as their financial woes were just beginning. The rise of digital was threatening their business platform and it would be in poor taste to dole out funds to give Imagination a lavish redo while in the process of laying off employees. Yet Eisner still demanded they pay for the bulk share of the costs. A few imagineers proposed a solution: a cost-effective attraction which both groups would be responsible for, and a Kodak-branded new Image Works showing off their products. Disney and Kodak would share equal costs, while the new version would have an IP attached (a tenuous one), and Kodak executives, woefully out-of-touch, demanded that Figment be semi-retired as they assumed nobody liked him anymore.
They couldn’t be anymore wrong. However, Kodak refused to pony up more funds for a redo leaving Disney to front the cash. This was still Michael Eisner in his cost-effective stage, and offered Imagineers a meager budget to essentially overlay the attraction to insert more Figment per guest’s requests, now fittingly called “Journey Into Imagination With Figment”. Tom Fitzgerald went into the archives, dug up as many Figment animatronics and figures from the original as possible and went to work. The decision was made to keep the Institute theme, complete with Eric Idle, returning once again. (not surprisingly, this was before Spamalot) This time, however, Figment is an annoyance who grinds against Dr. Channing’s insistence that imagination can be captured, and once again sends guests into the institute. However, instead of bizarre scientific experiments, these are now simple labs based on the five scents: sound, sight, smell, taste and touch. This time, however, Figment would be there to mess with the presentation, and derails the tour to visit his own house, conveniently upside-down. The attraction also brings back the famous song “One Little Spark”, with new lyrics. At the end, Dr. Channing learns his lesson that imagination can be anything you can make it, and that can never be captured. In a finale, Figment takes guests to his imaginative world, which is very reminiscent of scenes from the beloved old attraction. Unfortunately, that’s where this ride decides to end.
Although the attraction was vastly more popular than the previous, most still are not in its favor as it stands today. It stands as a mediocre and shaky repurposing of a low-quality dark ride, which turns Figment from a wide-eyed creator to an irritating annoyance. Moreover, the scenes did not improve much from version to version. Almost shockingly, some were a step down. A scene from Journey Into Your Imagination which transported guests into a starfield that turns into constellations (including Figment) is actually a simple, but effective concept. However, it was jilted from the attraction due to it not fitting the new storyline. Two scenes are widely mocked, one an eye experiment who’s only gag is that a chart is a screen and a slot machine that gives out a skunk scent. There seemed to be no middle ground on making any of this work, and a compromise is almost implausible. (the absence of Dreamfinder also chafes fans’ hopes)
The problem with “Journey Into Imagination with Figment” is that it doesn’t strive to get what makes the original attraction so beloved. It wasn’t just Figment, but instead the whimsical nature, absurd nature and grand setpieces. The hokey Imagination Institute setting comes across as stoic and boring, which Figment doesn’t exactly liven up as he’s portrayed as more of a menace and a jerk. This is a far cry from the hopeful calling of Dreamfinder, flying in the clouds and setting off for the Dreamport. It’s only at the very end that the attraction embraces whimsy (essential to imagination), which feels like a cheat. Even Figment’s upside-down house is clearly a desperate repainting of the segment from the 1999 version. A much better version of the attraction would be to trash the whole idea of going into the Institute immediately, and instead being derailed into Figment’s version of Imagination with Dr. Channing chasing him along the way. This could have Imagineers including such scenes like the constellations, and being able to keep whimsy the entire ride-thru.
Sadly, we are stuck with the version nowadays with almost no signs of movement. Once slated to be turned into a new ride based on Pixar’s “Inside Out”, these plans have stalled indefinitely, let alone a remake into a new Figment attraction complete with Dreamfinder. However, we’re fortunate that we have something like Martin Smith’s video, to truly showcase how things vastly went off-course, and that not even a simple re-insertion of a character can put imagination back into Imagination. We are doomed to relive the past if we forget it, so let’s hope those who work for WDI don’t as well.
(photos/framegrabs courtesy of TheMickeyWiki, Nathan and Martin Smith)