The Descent into the Maelstrom

Maelstrom Ride Entrance sign. Edited from original photo by Kjersti Holmang via Wikipedia.

Maelstrom Ride Entrance sign. Edited from original photo by Kjersti Holmang via Wikipedia.

I was in middle school in 1988 when the Maelstrom ride opened in EPCOT at Walt Disney World. My family and I were probably some of the first people to ride it. There had been a lot of hype surrounding its opening and in typical fashion the lines were long and tiresome that first year. My mother and I were not thrill seekers so it was up to my dad and brother to “try it out” to make sure the waterfall wasn’t too insane for a couple of lightweights. I’m forty now and the pace of the Haunted Mansion is still about as thrilling as I like things to get. Needless to say, however, the ride was not all that exciting and we rode it many times over the following years. So as we prepare to see the Maelstrom wind down this month I thought I’d share my thoughts on the latest fan “controversy” surrounding its closing.

Vintage EPCOT Space Suit Mickey 1990

My family and me at EPCOT in 1990 with the Space Age Mickey. (That’s me sporting the plaid on the left.)

When I think of the Maelstrom one word comes to mind – meh. Yes. Yes, I know. It’s hard for some people to believe it now in the middle of passionate public debate but it was always sort of a letdown; and if we’re being entirely honest, it was rather boring.  And that’s always been the thing about Epcot (to use the modern spelling) – it can be a little boring. I know at least ten people just disintegrated into dark matter but allow me to clarify…

I’ve often marveled at the idea of Epcot. As an adult I adore it. It’s probably one of my favorite parks in the world. You can’t really call it a theme park because it’s not, and this is perhaps where some of the outrage is coming from regarding the addition of a fantasy element to what, for all intents and purposes, is a grandiose Social Studies presentation. But it’s important to keep in mind what Epcot was, what it is, and what it may or may not be in the future.

Spaceship Earth at Night, Epcot, Walt Disney World, Orlando. Photo by Benjamin D. Esham courtesy Wikipedia.

Spaceship Earth at Night, Epcot, Walt Disney World, Orlando. Photo by Benjamin D. Esham courtesy Wikipedia.

When the original EPCOT Center opened in 1982 it was at the tail end of the old style World’s Fairs. Remember those? Walt Disney had already been dead for over 16 years. The concept was already slightly outdated and EPCOT was, for the most part, an enormous, costly, permanent exposition dedicated to technology, the future, and world cultures.  And frankly, to the average thirteen year old in the 1980s that all sounded an awful lot like school and not a Disney vacation.  Say what you will but I’m not alone in this opinion. In 2013, Epcot had just over 11,000,000 visitors (a lot of people, I know!) while the Magic Kingdom had nearly 19,000,000, nearly double. Looking at things that way you can come to the conclusion that Mickey and Cinderella are a lot more interesting to the average person than films about foreign countries and boat rides featuring the wonders of hydroponics.

So that all brings me to the elephant in the room. I’ve yet to mention it because I think the content is irrelevant to the debate but we can’t talk about what’s happening to the Maelstrom ride without discussing what’s going to replace it. I speak, of course, of Frozen. There. I said it. No matter where you stand on the decision it’s a bold move on the part of Disney to introduce the theme to the Norway pavilion in Epcot. I don’t need to talk about the hoo-ha it’s caused. You can Google it at your leisure if you’ve been out of the loop, but now that I myself have had a few days to think about it I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s much ado about nothing.

Herb Ryman concept art for EPCOT Center. © Disney. EPCOT was truly experimental. The Disney archives are filled with concepts and ideas for the park that never came to fruition.

Herb Ryman concept art for EPCOT Center. © Disney. EPCOT was truly experimental. The Disney archives are filled with concepts and ideas for the park that never came to fruition.

Epcot had been open six years in 1988. Even by then Disney Imagineering was wondering what it could do to draw more people into the park. Many people thought it was just too cerebral and  geared to adults. To the millions of people who visited annually from abroad it was sort of insulting and cartoonish. Imagine for a moment what a pavilion dedicated to American culture would look like as dreamt up by most Europeans. Scary, isn’t it? And so, in reality, the Maelstrom was the Frozen ride of its day. At least my family was savvy enough to see it that way back in 1988. Disney was scrambling to make the park more interesting to younger audiences and adults who just wanted to have fun and not be lectured to. The Maelstrom was the answer. And sadly, despite all of the hand wringing and clothes rending that’s going on this week, the ride never really lived up to expectations. It was a small attempt at adding fantasy and a bit of thrills to what was otherwise an intellectual conversation about world cultures. It was quaint. The trolls were sort of neat and a dark boat ride is always popular but it still was what it was – a herring salad with a cherry on top.

If Epcot is to survive it needs to change. The internet denizens that fancy themselves the full-time residents and custodians of Epcot frequently say it but rarely mean it. Reading the hundreds of Epcot fan blogs one quickly comes to the conclusion that the “change” these fans desire is a resurrection of park elements that have been gone for decades. I’m the first to say that for a company whose entire existence is built on imagination, the Imagination pavilion at Epcot falls flat on its face and should be shelved in the file marked “Dated and Tired”. With all of the new technology available to the Imagineering team, that ride should be the most spectacular in the world. But suggesting that Epcot should be a museum or a park that is hemmed in by stringent criteria regarding what is and is not “real” flies directly in the face of everything Disney parks strive to be.

Anna from Frozen © Disney

Anna from Disney’s Frozen. The animated film is the highest grossing of all time and its characters and themes have become some of the most popular in Disney’s history. © Disney

Frozen is a popular choice and that upsets a lot of people. The arguments have already ranged from the sublime to the truly ridiculous, but the train has left the station.  Epcot is part of Walt Disney World. That means that nothing is forever and there’s always room for a bit of magic. I, for one, will be the first in line to see what the new Frozen ride is all about. Why not? I truly do love Epcot but my first love is Disney. If there’s room in the Magic Kingdom for the Hall of Presidents, there’s room in the World Showcase for a mythical world perpetually cloaked in winter.

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